Hounding carers years after their loved one has died is wrong. The Department for Work and Pensions needs to rethink its heavy-handed approach to overpayment reassessments.
It’s no secret that we have a care crisis in the UK.
Debates around how we look after people who need support – and how we pay for it – have been heightened over the last couple of years, not least during the last election campaign when the Conservatives raised the idea of what became known as the ‘dementia tax’.
But it’s perhaps overlooked just what a key role ordinary people play when it comes to care.
According to the Carers Trust, around seven million people across the nation act as carers for loved ones.
In order to support them, the Government does offer some financial support in the form of the Carer’s Allowance.
But, as my family have seen first hand, its attitude towards reclaiming some of the cash it pays out can be distressing.
What is Carer’s Allowance?
At this point, it’s a good idea to review exactly what Carer’s Allowance is and who is entitled to it.
If you look after someone who is in receipt of certain benefits – such as the disability living allowance or the personal independent payment – for at least 35 hours a week, then you may qualify for the allowance.
It’s currently worth £66.15 a week, while for each week that you receive it you’ll also benefit from National Insurance credits, boosting the size of the eventual State Pension that you receive.
My father gave up work a few years ago, in part to play a greater role in caring for my grandparents.
As a result, he applied for – and received – the Carer’s Allowance, a Government benefit designed to provide financial support for those who act as carers for loved ones.
In December 2017, my grandfather was rushed into hospital for an operation. While the operation itself was a success, his condition gradually deteriorated, leading to him being moved to a care facility where he died in March 2018.
The DWP were notified of the change in my grandfather’s situation after he went into hospital, and then when he moved into care.
They conducted an assessment after he passed away and declared that my father had been entitled to the allowance while he was receiving medical treatment.
Which is why it was a bit of a shock when last week a letter arrived from the DWP declaring that “we have looked again at the facts and evidence”, and demanding more than £600 in ‘overpayments’ be returned.
Reviewing the case
My father is far from alone in receiving demands for money back from the DWP. A recent investigation from the National Audit Office revealed that in 2018/19 it had “detected” 93,000 overpayments, compared to an annual average of 41,000 cases over the last five years.
In total, it is trying to reclaim around £150m from almost 80,000 carers where it reckons the overpayment was the fault of the carer.
The sums it’s looking to get back can vary hugely in size – while some carers were found to have been overpaid by a week or two, for others it went on for decades.
The NAO noted there are some cases where the DWP is trying to get back more than £20,000 from individual carers.
There are plenty of methods for getting that money back too.
While some, like my father, immediately pay the sum demanded, many other carers are not in such a fortunate position and so see their benefits docked, or the money reclaimed through reductions in their salaries.
Unsurprisingly, this has provoked huge amounts of criticism for the DWP. Sir Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, warned that the approach so far had been “tin-eared”, and urged the department to be “more relaxed” about the way it reclaims the money.
And Frank Field MP, chair of the work and pensions select committee, blasted the “incompetence” at the department.
He added: "Not for the first time, we see DWP squeezing those least able to afford it. It will chase down carers who provide such an immense service to our society, potentially cutting their income for decades – when it knows that a large part of the responsibility lies squarely at its own door.”
What does the DWP say?
The department is looking into my father’s case.
But, on the subject of overpayments more generally, a spokesperson had the following to say: “We are committed to preventing fraud and error in the benefit system and the NAO recently recognised the significant progress we have made addressing Carer’s Allowance overpayments.
"The amount overpaid represents just 0.5% of total benefit expenditure.
“We have introduced new technology to prevent overpayments and improve debt recovery. And we continue to make people fully aware of their responsibility to correctly report earnings and changes of circumstances. `
“We have a duty to the taxpayer to recover money in cases of fraud or error but safeguards are in place to ensure deductions are reasonable.”
Caring doesn’t end when a loved one is in hospital
One thing that has struck me over this experience has been the somewhat bizarre way that the Government handles the role of a carer.
Unfortunately, three of my grandparents have had extended spells in hospital and care over the last few years.
And while it’s true that the medical staff do an incredible job, taking on a large chunk of the actual role of providing care, they don’t do all of it.
I have seen first hand the loved ones who go into the hospital or care home every day, to feed their partners or parents, because the staff simply do not have the time to do it for everyone under their care.
The idea that the job of being a carer – and therefore entitlement to this benefit – ends once a loved one is moved out of their home is laughable.
DWP must get its house in order
My family are the lucky ones. They can pay back the money the DWP has so belatedly suggested they owe.
As the NAO has made clear, there are thousands of other people in a much less fortunate position who now face the prospect of the DWP helping itself to a chunk of their salary.
But there is more to this than just the financial side. Caring for a sick loved one is an incredibly traumatic experience.
By demanding money back, in some cases years after the fact, the Government is causing those old wounds to reopen, exposing carers to emotional distress – never mind the financial worry as well.
Our creaking health system relies on people taking on the role of carer for their loved ones.
The last thing we need to do is then hound them for the relatively small sums they received from the Government, often through no fault of their own, years later.
Have you or anyone you know been contacted about carer overpayments? Share your experiences in the comments section below.
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