DWP boss admits more carers will be chased for overpayments with 67,000 in debt

Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) minister Mel Stride faced a grilling from MPs today (May 22) over the continuing issues with a key benefit that provides support to more 1.3 million people. During a committee meeting, the DWP boss and top civil servant defended their record on Carer's Allowance, but admitted that the rules around earning were "complex".

Work and Pensions Committee Chair Stephen Timms revealed during his questioning that more than 1400 carers in the UK were chased for massive sums of more than £5000 last year. This reflects some of the worst tales of carers who have been chased through the courts and faced financial ruin, for a mistake they were never told about at the time.

Carers claiming the benefit are allowed to take up part-time work, but if they earn more than £151 per week, they are required by the DWP to let them know so that their payments can stop. However, even the DWP admitted that this threshold is "complex" and that carers are often unaware they have earned too much until months or years later.

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It also emerged that the DWP's latest figures for incorrect payments are that 5.2 per cent of claims need to be returned, which with 1.3 million Carer's Allowance claimants, means that the department is chasing more than 67,000 people to pay back their benefits.

Part of the confusion with the earnings threshold are around what can be counted as earnings, as well as what can be deducted to reach the £151 limit. According to the DWP bosses, some pension or National Insurance contributions can be counted against this limit, leaving it to "algorithms" to decide if someone is receiving too much money.

Mel Stride MP and DWP Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield went to lengths to express their appreciation for the unpaid work that carers do across the UK, and admitted that it would cost the government significantly more if that care was not being provided. But, Stride rebuffed assertions that the benefit's hard limit could be replaced with a taper.

The DWP minister said: "Elements of that problem hinges upon the threshold, which is currently an earnings threshold of £151 per week as a kind of proxy for establishing whether somebody is in gainful employment or not, because of course, the benefit is there for those that are caring for 35 hours per week."

The minister stressed that Carer's Allowance claimants were reminded of the rules around earnings repeatedly, before they'd even been paid the benefit. Despite this, payment errors in the almost 50-year-old benefit are much higher than other benefits, most of which rely on a financial taper, rather than a hard limit on earnings.

Stride went on to say: "I think we should just be clear that this isn't one of those simple things where you just flick a switch and solve the problem. It's quite complex. Part of the problem, of course, has arisen over this issue of notification and whether sufficient notification has been provided to people who may have found themselves in excess of that threshold, for whatever reason."