Labour plans review of carer’s allowance after thousands forced to repay

<span>McGovern, the acting shadow work and pensions secretary, said pressure should be put on ministers over the DWP’s failure to stop the overpayments.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
McGovern, the acting shadow work and pensions secretary, said pressure should be put on ministers over the DWP’s failure to stop the overpayments.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Labour will review the system of carer’s allowance if it wins the general election, the party has confirmed, after the Guardian revealed that scores of unpaid carers were being forced to pay back thousands of pounds for minor breaches of benefit rules.

Thousands of carers have run up huge debts, been given criminal records and been forced to sell their homes when chased by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over “honest mistakes” that officials could have spotted years earlier.

Alison McGovern, the acting shadow work and pensions secretary, on Tuesday said her party would seek to reform the UK-wide policy if it won power. She told ITV’s This Morning: “We want to review the system … We’ve got to look at the system because … [of] how complex it is.”

The DWP is under growing pressure over the way it penalises people who care for seriously ill, disabled or elderly loved ones for often minor breaches of its strict earnings rules.

Three former work and pensions secretaries have urged the government to pause its investigations into unpaid carers as its approach was called a “scandalous miscarriage of justice”.

Unpaid carers are entitled to carer’s allowance of £81.90 a week – the smallest benefit of its kind – providing they care for someone for at least 35 hours a week. They are allowed to work but must not make more than £151 a week after tax and expenses.

People who make more than the £151 a week limit, even as little as 50p more, must pay back the entire week’s carer’s allowance for the whole period they were in breach of the rules – the DWP’s “cliff edge” approach.

Tens of thousands of carers have unwittingly fallen foul of this rule and have not been alerted by the DWP until years later, even though the government has real-time technology that means it can stop these infractions much sooner.

The Guardian has revealed how carers have been plunged into debt, forced to sell their homes, and given criminal records over what they say were “honest mistakes” that should have been spotted years earlier by the DWP.

Karina Moon, an unpaid carer to her 22-year-old disabled daughter, is being forced to pay back £11,000 after an earnings breach that amounted to about £3 a week, after the DWP deemed that travelling to work was not an allowable expense.

Moon, 62, told This Morning on Tuesday that she was “absolutely gobsmacked” at being handed the huge penalty. She said the system needed to be made “fairer and less complicated” without the need for “masses of forms”.

McGovern said Britain would “grind to a halt” without unpaid carers, who save the UK £160bn a year, and said Labour would look to reform the DWP policy.

She said ministers should be asked in the House of Commons why the DWP was failing to stop such overpayments five years after a parliamentary investigation shone a light on the issue in 2019.

McGovern added: “The government’s had five years where they knew this was a problem. I think in the House of Commons we need to be pressuring them and saying: why haven’t you sorted it out and get on with it now.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Carers across the UK are unsung heroes who make a huge difference to someone else’s life and we have increased carer’s allowance by almost £1,500 since 2010.

“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.”