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By Jemma Crew & Tim Johns
BBC News

Unpaid carers who have been told to repay thousands of pounds of benefits after accidentally earning too much money years ago say it is wrong and unfair.

Two former Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers have told the BBC they are calling for the government to pause its demands for repayments of large sums of money.

Gina Price had been looking after her dad for a decade before she realised she could apply for Carer’s Allowance in 2013.

By this time she was working part-time at a petrol station as well as caring for her father, who had a series of conditions including a hip replacement that did not go to plan. She says she received Carer’s Allowance for about five years.

She says she would sometimes agree to work an extra shift, but would do fewer other weeks. This way, she believed she would remain under the earnings threshold to qualify for the benefit.

But in 2019, she received a letter saying she owed the DWP about £7,600, to cover overpayments for periods over three-and-a-half years to February 2018.

The 59-year-old says she was “astounded” by the amount, and has been repaying £100 a month since.

“It’s always grieved me,” she says. “I think it’s so unfair.”

Ms Price is one of dozens of listeners who shared their stories with the BBC after the issue was covered on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show.

Full-time carers can claim £81.90 a week, but they become ineligible for the whole amount if they earn just a pound over £151 a week, after tax and expenses. Carers told the BBC they were unaware they had exceeded the threshold until being informed years later, when the sums had run into the thousands.

Gina Price has described the debt as a “big, big weight on top of everything else”

Ms Price, from Carmarthenshire in south-west Wales, says: “I’m sorry to my heart I ever [claimed it], because it was an absolute nightmare amount to owe.”

It added to her grief after her father died in 2019, she says, describing the debt as a “big, big weight on me on top of everything else”.

“I was so browbeaten after everything with my father, he was dying by the time they’d approached me, and I just wanted to pay them, keep them off my back, and I needed to get on with my life,” she said.

The DWP has faced criticism for failing to prevent overpayments, despite having the ability to do so, and allowing some recipients to end up in legal trouble.

Benefit staff get automatic alerts from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) if a Carer’s Allowance claimant is earning too much.

Claimants have a responsibility to ensure they are entitled to benefits they claim, the DWP says.

Five years ago, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee accused the DWP of “bullying and harassing” those who had been overpaid.

In a report it published in 2019, it also said problems with the DWP’s systems, and staff shortages, had led to “substantial backlogs” in checking flagged cases of potential overpayments.

As of February 2023, the DWP said it was seeking to recover 145,567 overpayments of Carer’s Allowance, which is given to people who provide at least 35 hours a week of care. That includes almost 12,000 cases concerning overpayments of between £5,001 and £20,000.

‘I was so shocked, I could have fallen through the floor’

Andrea Hawley, from Battle in East Sussex, believes she will be repaying money for the next decade.

The 50-year-old left her job in 2009 to care for her son, who has a genetic disorder, autism, a learning delay, and skeletal and heart problems.

She started working part-time in her family business for about two hours a day, while claiming Carer’s Allowance.

In 2019, Mrs Hawley says she received a letter telling her she owed the DWP just over £14,000 – later reduced to about £12,700 – in overpayments made between May 2013 and December 2017.

“I can remember being so shocked I could have fallen through the floor,” she told BBC News.

The DWP arranged to deduct £80 a month from her Carer’s Allowance to cover the overpayments. Mrs Hawley says she stopped receiving the benefit in 2022, and now pays £50 monthly from her wages.

She says she did not realise she was above the earnings threshold, adding: “It’s just so wrong. Why don’t they let you know sooner?

“Why do they let it go for years and years and years, and then say ‘you owe us all this money’?”.

‘Penalised for being honest’

Cristina Odone, head of the family policy unit at the Centre for Social Justice, told the BBC the “so-called debts should be forgiven”.

She added: “One of the causes for this scandalous miscarriage of justice is that the DWP’s own IT system was able to flag when the earnings threshold was breached, but they failed to alert the carers themselves that they were now in a perilous situation and could end up owing thousands of pounds.”

Lesley Whitehouse, 53, from Coventry, spent years as the primary carer for her sister who has severe mental and physical disabilities.

A social worker told her she was eligible for Carer’s Allowance and helped her fill in the forms. She started a part-time job in a pub and sent a P60 to the DWP every year.

About four years ago, she moved to a full-time position to support her two children.

Lesley Whitehouse says she wishes she had never claimed Carers Allowance

“I rang the DWP and told them to stop the carer’s allowance,” she said.

“They asked me some questions. Then they came back and told me I shouldn’t have been receiving it and sent me a bill of £18,000.

“I just broke down in tears. I said ‘what do you mean?’ I didn’t understand because they’d had my P60 each year. I felt like I was being penalised for being honest.

“I wasn’t even earning enough to support my family. I didn’t have any savings. I was living month to month.”

She says she has taken on extra hours to repay £50 a month, adding: “I’ll be paying it off for the rest of my life. I wish I’d never claimed it in the first place”.

‘Scandalous miscarriage of justice’

Former Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary Sir Iain Duncan Smith is calling for the government to review what has been going on with large overpayments.

The ex-Tory party leader said: “The best thing is for the DWP now to pause any of these demands, review carefully what was behind all of this to make sure this was not mistakes by DWP but is genuinely about individuals failing to notify the department.”

Sir Steve Webb, a Liberal Democrat pensions minister in the coalition government who now works at a pensions consultancy, agrees a pause is “probably the right answer”.

“But simply saying ‘we won’t reclaim any overpayments’ is too difficult. You can’t readily draw a line in law between the inadvertent and deliberate overclaiming of payments,” he told the BBC.

Sir Steve also says the earnings limit should be scrapped, telling the Jeremy Vine show: “These are people who are absolutely at their wits’ end and to then come along and say ‘oh, you went a pound or two over the limit, you know, here’s a court case or a fine’ or whatever. It’s just outrageous.”

Carers UK chief executive Helen Walker told the BBC: “We are calling for a clear threshold for debt incurred – a maximum limit which triggers an examination to address cases of overpayment promptly, avoiding further financial difficulties and heartache for families.

“Any overpayments over six weeks should be written off.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “We are committed to fairness in the welfare system, with safeguards in place for managing repayments while protecting the public purse.

“Claimants have a responsibility to inform DWP of any changes in their circumstances that could impact their award, and it is right that we recover taxpayers’ money when this has not occurred.”

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4 April
2 August 2019