Who are unpaid carers, and why have some had to repay large sums to UK government?

<span>There are an estimated 5.7 million carers in the UK with the majority of unpaid carers women.</span><span>Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images</span>
There are an estimated 5.7 million carers in the UK with the majority of unpaid carers women.Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images

Who are unpaid carers?

Unpaid carers provide support for loved ones – normally parents or children, who are disabled, frail or ill. There are an estimated 5.7 million carers in the UK. The majority of unpaid carers are women. The 46 to 65 age group is the biggest unpaid carer cohort. Four in 10 unpaid carers are in poverty. According to Carers UK, unpaid carers save the UK £162bn a year.

What is carer’s allowance?

Carer’s allowance is the main UK carer’s benefit and is currently worth £81.90 a week. It is not means tested. To be eligible carers must provide at least 35 hours of unpaid care a week. Almost 1 million UK carers are estimated to receive the benefit.

Can you do paid work and still receive carer’s allowance?

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Yes, although there is an earnings limit (currently £151 a week after tax, national insurance and allowable expenses). In practice, this restricts carers to a limited amount of paid work each week (currently about 13 hours at the national minimum wage).

What is a carer’s allowance overpayment?

An earnings overpayment is deemed to have occurred when a carer breaches the £151-a-week limit. This triggers a “cliff edge” penalty whereby even a £1 breach triggers the loss of the entire benefit. Overpayments are typically between £500 and £5,000, but in extreme cases have reached more than £40,000.

Why are the overpayments so large?

Carers say they are often unaware they have breached earnings limit, while the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) does not necessarily investigate when its systems alert it to individual earnings breaches when they happen. As a result overpayments can be overlooked and left to accrue (at £81.90 a week) for months and in some cases years.

Is it easy to avoid overpayments?

Carers say the rules around earnings limits are complex and confusing. They have busy, stressful lives and often are unaware when they breach the limit by tiny amounts (for example, if their hours don’t change but their pay increases, or they receive a one-off bonus from employers).

Whose fault is it when this happens?

MPs who investigated the issue in 2019 concluded administrative failures on the part of the DWP were largely responsible for the size and volume of overpayments. They urged large overpayments caused by DWP negligence should be waived. The DWP disagrees. It insists carers are legally responsible for alerting it to changes in their circumstances, such as increased income.

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So the carers end up repaying the overpayment?

Yes, in the vast majority of cases. The DWP mostly arranges repayment in instalments over, in some cases, many years. In 2019, the National Audit Office found a carer on benefits having to repay a £20,000 overpayment would spend 34 years paying off the debt.

Should earnings breaches be regarded as fraud?

The DWP effectively treats almost all breaches as potential fraud. It normally demands carers repay the overpayment in full. In some cases it prosecutes them for fraud as well. The MP inquiry concluded only a tiny fraction of overpayments were fraudulent with most the result of “honest mistakes” by claimants.

Overpayments are clearly a problem. Can it be fixed?

In 2019, the DWP said its new data-matching technology, which tracked carers allowance payments against real-time earnings data, would massively reduce numbers of overpayments. Five years on, overpayment levels are still very high. Critics say more fundamental reforms are needed.