It’s a rotten system that puts unpaid carers in the dock

<span>‘Unpaid carers should be thanked and supported, not fined, for the selfless work they do every day.’</span><span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
‘Unpaid carers should be thanked and supported, not fined, for the selfless work they do every day.’Photograph: Alamy

I have worked in benefits for more years than I care to admit, although for local authorities rather than the Department for Work and Pensions. The news about the persecution of carer’s allowance claimants is not surprising (Calls to end ‘persecution’ of carers over UK benefits rule breaches, 9 April).

The benefit regulations are complex and, all too often, claimants facing recovery action or prosecution by the DWP are unable to either afford or access proper legal advice.

The first stage of any overpayment action should be for the claimant to seek a mandatory review of the DWP’s decision. However, and I speak from personal experience, these are often of poor quality and the DWP has set targets for the percentage of these that should be refused.

If the mandatory review is refused, the claimants should then go to the first-tier tribunal, where a judge will then look at the DWP’s case. At this point, it is all too common for the DWP case to collapse.

Instead, what is happening is that the DWP is taking claimants to court with alleged overpayments that have not been subject to proper scrutiny, and ignoring requests from judges to quantify the amount overpaid, as your report points out (‘DWP are the real criminals’: carer in tatters after ‘brutal’ fraud prosecution, 7 April).

The obvious safeguard is for the DWP to not be allowed to bring a criminal prosecution until the alleged benefit overpayment has been taken to the first-tier tribunal. May I suggest that DWP prosecutions may well turn out to be the next Post Office scandal.
Name and address supplied

• As a social security tribunal judge, I can confirm that there are many cases of honest, diligent carers claiming carer’s allowance at £81.90 per week as is their right, who are caught out by the complex and punitive rules about how much you can earn while claiming (Carers threatened with prosecution over minor breaches of UK benefit rules, 7 April).

You only have to earn a few pence above the £151 weekly earnings limit to forfeit that whole week’s carer’s allowance. Complex rules decide what counts as earnings and what does not. Equally complex rules determine how your earnings are averaged out when they fluctuate. Even a very diligent claimant can get caught out and made to face a bill, sometimes years later, sometimes of thousands of pounds. It’s been the same for decades.

Luckily, tribunals can often correct the situation where the DWP has misapplied rules about averaging wages, or what counts as earnings. In a recent case, one carer had a £3 meal allowance included in his earnings – barely enough to buy a cup of coffee – which appeared to take him over the earnings limit. Fortunately, he was rescued from a four-figure overpayment debt by a rule that disregards such a meal allowance when calculating earnings. The DWP had not spotted this. But for that rule, he could have been asked to pay back several thousand pounds.

Carers unquestioningly perform vital and unremunerated work to enable others who live with illness or disability. The rules on working while on carer’s allowance need an overhaul to create a respectful and rewarding benefit regime and remove this punitive hostile environment.
Name and address supplied

• The treatment of unpaid carers by the DWP is cruel and inexcusable. By running social care into the ground through underinvestment, the government has created conditions that force so many carers into poverty. Many have had to give up their jobs to look after loved ones, plugging the gaps left by social care.

Carer’s allowance is already insultingly low. What’s more, to claim it you need to be caring for a minimum of 35 hours and earning less than £151 a week. That leaves very little opportunity for paid employment, essentially locking claimants out of work or, as in the cases you highlight, penalising them when they do.

Meanwhile, the government is treating unpaid carers like a vast pool of cheap labour, expecting them to perform the work that the government doesn’t want to pay for. To then pursue through the courts those who have been overpaid relatively small amounts, often because of an honest mistake, is staggering in its heartlessness.

Unpaid carers should be thanked and supported, not fined, for the selfless work they do every day. Instead of prosecuting carers, the government should be spending its time overhauling carer’s allowance by changing its archaic rules on earnings and working hours. Millions of hard-pressed carers deserve nothing less.
Dominic Carter
Director of policy and public affairs, Carers Trust

• The situation of carers being taken to court sounds frighteningly similar to the Post Office scandal. I hope the shameful case of Vivienne Groom will be the turning point, with the DWP declared dysfunctional and morally bankrupt.

Ten years ago, I spent three months trying to find out why my 93-year-old mother’s attendance allowance (at the time in 2013 that state pensions and allowances were decoupled) had been stopped. After seven phone calls speaking to seven different people, all promising to respond (but didn’t), it was only resolved when someone in the pensions section followed it up. I then received a call from the benefits team – a nasty call that is seared on my soul. The caller was aggressive and rude, made it clear she was only ringing to check we were real people, not fraudsters, and only at the end grudgingly admitted a mistake. The £900 arrears were repaid the next month, and a letter of apology sent to my mother. I, however, was left indelibly bruised.

There is a rot in the benefits system. Not just incompetence, but a punitive and uncaring system. It’s more than ironic that they are punishing carers themselves.
Susan Treagus

• I was shocked to read of the persecution that unpaid carers are suffering at the hands of the DWP for honest breaches of the benefits rules. Unpaid carers are saving the NHS care system billions of pounds. It is not in dispute that the vast majority of carer’s allowance mistakes are not fraudulent. Instead of prosecuting carers for minor infractions, which have been allowed to accumulate into huge “debts”, is there not a case for allowing long-term carers to claim their state pension entitlements ahead of retirement age as part of a radical overhaul of this punitive system?
Nick Fleischmann

• Someone has to care for at least 35 hours per week in order to qualify for the carer’s allowance of £81.90 per week. That is £2.34 per hour. What does this say about the value we as a society place on the hard work of carers?
Jan Pahl

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