Life as an unpaid carer is hard enough. Welfare should make it easier, not harder

Questions are being asked about carers who are ending up having to repay years and years of payments.

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For many carers the words “over-payment” and “Carer’s Allowance” just don’t belong in the same sentence. The allowance is the social security payment for people who care at least 35 hours a week for someone who needs support because of a serious illness or disability. It’s just £64.60 per week.

To qualify carers must meet a number of conditions including restrictions on earnings and study. The payment is subject to tax, and there are a number of other benefits that can’t be received in part or in full alongside Carer’s Allowance.

But the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to collect the estimated £160m a year of Carer’s Allowance wrongly paid to a claimants have rightly come under scrutiny in recent weeks, from both journalists and the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee.

Questions are being asked about how so many carers are being incorrectly paid the benefit, and how carers are ending up having to repay years and years of payments. In some cases these repayments have been as much as £48,000, although the average is around £1,400.

This would be a terrifying debt for most of us to take on – but for carers who have limited ability to increase their income whilst they are caring, receiving a demand to repay thousands of pounds is absolutely devastating.

Research published by Carers UK today for Carers Rights Day shows the enormous impact that caring can have on people’s finances. People caring for over 15 years are twice as likely to have been in debt as a result of their caring role compared with those in their first year of caring.

Being faced with any kind of request for repayment on top of their daily financial struggles is understandably a cause of huge anxiety and stress.

This isn’t a new problem. The rules around claiming Carer’s Allowance are complex and it is the carer themselves who must report any change of circumstance that might affect their claim. The restrictions on how much you can earn alongside caring leave no room for flexibility – they’re often referred to as a cliff-edge.

Where earnings take someone over the £120 per week earnings threshold, even by £1, this means they lose their whole entitlement to the benefit. For the many unpaid carers who juggle caring with employment in low paid shift work, a change in hours or an increase to the National Living Wage can push people off the benefit.

The DWP does tell carers that if earnings change they need to notify the Department, repeating this message in annual correspondence. But carers say that they don’t always realise or remember their change in earnings or that it constitutes a change in circumstance. Letters from the DWP are long and full of complex but important information, so earnings can easily be missed.  Carers are not always sure how to work out monthly income, or the best way of spreading out uneven earnings.  There are no tools to help them do this and decision-making can be complicated. 

The unpaid care that the UK’s carers provide is worth in excess of £132bn each year – not far off the entire spend on the NHS. Staying in work, managing finances, looking after your own health and relationships at the same time as supporting others is extremely tough, and millions of carers leave work or experience poor mental or physical health themselves.

After having made such a huge contribution, often at a high personal cost, being fined or even prosecuted is understandably a cause of huge distress to carers.

So it’s vital that as a society we do all we can to support people to care if they wish to, without taking a long-term financial hit. This means ensuring people understand what they are entitled to, and how they can access information and support. It’s also about designing systems that help carers and don’t put up further barriers. Life as an unpaid carer is hard enough. Let’s make it easier, not harder.

Emily Holzhausen is director of policy at Carers UK, the national membership charity for unpaid carers.