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Carer’s allowance: let’s end this scandal now!

Elderly man helping woman with shopping

Carer’s allowance: let’s end this scandal now!

The Guardian’s recent reporting on Carer’s Allowance (published on April 8th and 9th 2024) draws wider attention to a troubling aspect of this benefit – the fact that, each year, thousands of carers – mostly inadvertently, and often unaware this has happened, fall foul of its arcane and outdated rules. As a result, they are ‘overpaid’ this benefit (administered by the Department for Work and Pensions). This has devastating and shocking consequences for those involved, especially in cases where  DWP fails to inform them promptly of the situation, allowing months’ (and sometimes years) of overpayment to accrue.

How does overpayment happen?

Overpayment arises when a carer previously assessed as eligible to receive Carer’s Allowance (at present over  a million people are in this category) becomes ineligible through breaching one of its many rules. This can arise for several reasons, including because the carer gets a small pay rise (for example following the annual uprating of the National Minimum Wage) or starts an educational course that occupies them for more than 16 hours a week. Once the rule in question is breached, in however minor a way, their Carer’s Allowance is not payable. Indeed for every week it is ‘overpaid’, its entire value (currently £81.90 p.w.) becomes a debt that the carer owes the DWP.

Over 3 months a carer can thus accrue a debt of over £1,000; over a year, of well over £4,000. In most cases, the carer’s total income has barely changed during this time. Some carers will have breached the ‘weekly earnings limit’ by only a few pence or a few pounds; yet it is not this they must repay – it is the whole of their Carer’s Allowance. If a carer has earned £1 above the earnings limit for 6 months, they cannot address this problem by repaying £1 x 26; rather, (figures for 2024) they must repay £81.90 x 26, or £2,129.40.

What does this mean for the carer?

The carer – let’s call her Sara – finds it hard to believe she has earned only £1 a week more but is punished by having to repay £81.90. What’s more, she has no idea how she will find the money. She is caring, unpaid, for 35 hours a week, probably more (only carers providing 35+ hours of care for a disabled or frail person are eligible for CA). She can’t earn her way out of this problem, even if she could find a nearby job. She has no savings left (these were spent long ago on essentials, which rose considerably when her caring role increased). She is caught.

Already tired, stressed and worried about her caring situation and her future, she is now in debt and liable to be taken to court if she does not repay what she ‘owes’.  She panics. She does what so many do when severe financial troubles hit. She hopes the problem that she has no idea how to solve will go away. She stuffs the letters from DWP in a drawer, promising herself she’ll deal with this when she feels stronger. That time never comes.

Eventually she is prosecuted, has to appear in court, but cannot get legal aid so has to represent herself. She has no idea how to do this. Her one small stroke of luck is that the magistrate, noting her good character and the devoted care she gives unpaid, chooses a non-custodial sentence. She nevertheless loses any assets she has, to the full value of her debt. She is humiliated, shocked and shaken.

Sara once thought the welfare state was on the side of people like her, to help them if times got hard. She now knows it is a cruel welfare state, that punishes those it could support. This is despite ministers and officials knowing full well, not just for a little while, but actually since 1990(!), that the small Carer’s Allowance she received has the inexcusably dangerous features she has fallen foul of.

Beyond high time for reform

Academics, parliamentarians, campaigners for carers and older people, MPs, and many others have repeatedly called for change, yet the changes needed have never come. Just like the Post Office scandal, it turns out it’s a situation ministers and officials have failed to address for years, despite the misery, hardship and prosecutions they know have been inflicted on many really good and caring people.

Financial help for carers who give up full-time work to care for others is vital. We desperately need a Carer’s Allowance that compensates carers properly for the income they forego when giving up full-time work to provide unpaid care. We need a benefit for carers designed to fit their circumstances, and we need it to be set well above the current level, which is -to most people – little more than a pittance. The ‘cliff-edge’ problem and its dire consequences were first identified in 1990 in a report commissioned by the then DHSS. In 2008, a parliamentary committee that I advised (the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee) called for Carer’s Allowance to be ‘radically overhauled at the earliest opportunity’, saying its earnings rules ‘increased the risk of overpayments’. The issue was subsequently highlighted in a report I was responsible for, commissioned by the DWP, in 2011.  The Guardian did a major feature on Carers Allowance overpayments in 2018; MPs and campaign groups have repeatedly called for action.

It’s beyond high time for reform. It’s a public outrage deserving immediate attention. Government and Opposition parties must all now commit to ending this scandal and to giving carers the fair deal they so richly deserve. 

About the author

Sue Yeandle, BA (Hons), PhD, FAcSS, is based in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield, where she is Professor of Sociology and the Director and Principal Investigator of the ESRC Centre for Care. 

Sue is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, founding Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Care and Caring, and was formerly Director (2006-2023) of the Centre for International Research on Care, Labour & Equalities (CIRCLE). 

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