‘No one would accept blame’: Carers highlight DWP failures over debt crisis

<span>Ministers apologised and repaid Rose Chitseko after the Guardian reported on her case.</span><span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian</span>
Ministers apologised and repaid Rose Chitseko after the Guardian reported on her case.Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Carers put through the wringer of carer’s allowance overpayments raise the same question time and again: they weren’t aware they had infringed benefit rules but welfare officials were. Why were they not told, rather than overpayments being allowed to run on for months, landing them with debts of thousands of pounds?

For thousands of carers who unwittingly breached carer’s allowance earnings rules and are repaying sums as high as £20,000, this may have happened because officials failed to check earnings alerts. Had they done so, the problem may have been nipped in the bud, and the debt and misery of overpayments largely avoided.

There’s also another category of overpayments, involving carers who reasonably expected that because they reported benefit eligibility information about their own claim to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), it would be shared with other parts of the DWP handling linked claims involving the person they cared for.

Related: Ministers clawing back £251m from carers hit by DWP’s allowance failures

As the Guardian has reported, this information-sharing is not automatic. In the case of Rose Chitseko, her successful carer’s allowance claim in theory meant a separate linked benefit should no longer have been paid to her mother, who was then 88 and unable to manage her own affairs.

Chitseko’s claim could have been cross-checked and her mother’s payment stopped. This didn’t happen. Because her mother was too ill to inform the DWP of her daughter’s claim (even had she known to), she was allowed to run up £8,000 in overpayments (this was later waived by ministers after the Guardian wrote about the case).

Social security rules say the claimant is ultimately responsible for informing the DWP of changes in their circumstances that may affect eligibility for a benefit. Too often, say critics, the DWP relies on these rules to excuse its own errors, poor decision-making and shortcomings in information sharing.

John Ferguson, a former insurance executive and unpaid carer, found out the hard way that though it was the DWP’s fault that information he provided regarding his mother’s circumstances was not acted upon or shared – it was he who would be held responsible, and asked to repay money it claimed had been paid in error.

Ferguson, who received carer’s allowance when he cared for his mother, who had dementia, said he felt he had been penalised for administrative failures caused by “the DWP’s left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing”.

In his case, an error by the DWP office looking after attendance allowance (a benefit to help severely disabled people with extra support costs, which his mother claimed) meant it did not amend or reclaim her award when she spent time in hospital, despite Ferguson informing it of her change in circumstances.

More than a year later, Ferguson was contacted out of the blue by the carer’s allowance unit asking him to repay £405 (plus £50 civil penalty). He should not have been paid the benefit for several weeks when his mother was in hospital, it told him (though he was still caring for her every day), and it was his fault for not reporting her extended stay.

Ferguson was baffled: on his mother’s behalf, he had told the DWP about her hospital stay at the time, and (luckily) he had a letter from attendance allowance that confirmed her claim would be unchanged. The carer’s allowance unit was unmoved: as far as it was concerned, he hadn’t told them, so he had to repay the money.

He pointed out the two benefits were linked – he qualified for carer’s allowance only because his mother received attendance allowance. Was it not reasonable to expect the two DWP offices to share information – or even admit their own blunder had caused the overpayment?

“I realised they were basically asking me to compensate for their own systematic errors,” said Ferguson. “It was like the Post Office scandal. No one was willing to accept the blame for what was their mistake; it had to be the claimant who was at fault. I would end up being thrown under the bus as a fall guy.”


Ferguson challenged the overpayment at a Glasgow social security tribunal in March, and won. “It should never have got to a tribunal but the DWP was determined not to concede they were wrong. I thought they would have backed off well before they were made to look foolish in front of a judge,” he said.