The National Audit Office (NAO) has accused the DWP of pursuing carers for overpayments that it should have discovered over a decade ago in some cases. As a result of the DWP’s poor practices some carers will face repayments of over £20,000 for innocent mistakes on their part.
According to the NAO the Department detected 93,000 overpayments of carer’s allowance in 2018-19, compared with an average of 41,000 a year it detected in the previous five years.
Most detected overpayments arose because carers failed, as soon as ‘reasonably practicable’, to notify the Department with correct information about their earnings.
Misunderstanding the rules around earnings and expenses can lead to carers accidentally being overpaid. This is especially the case because eligibility rules create a cliff edge: carers are either entitled to the whole allowance or none of it.
The DWP admits that it needs to improve its communications with carers to raise their understanding of their obligations. It is reviewing its initial and annual letters to carers, as well as the online guidance, to ensure carers’ obligations are clear.
It is also clear that many of the overpayments would have been detected much more quickly if the DWP had not been grossly understaffed in this area.
In November 2018 there were 104,000 unprocessed changes in circumstances, leading to overpayment that were not identified until long after they should have been. The DWP has now put in place more staff and better systems for identifying overpayments.
Nonetheless, the DWP is now aiming to recover £150 million from just under 80,000 carers. In some cases it will take carers 34 years to repay the whole of the amount they owe.
Commenting on the scale of the overpayment, Frank Field, chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee said:
“Once again, the NAO has devastatingly laid bare the incompetence at DWP, and its stark human cost. 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. Worse still, the NAO shows that DWP hasn’t bothered to find out what clawing back these sums will cost carers and the people they care for, in every sense.
“There was already plenty wrong with the way we recognise carers’ invaluable contribution. Rather than making things worse, why doesn’t the Department just spare us all: end this massive scandal, focus on the real fraudsters and write off the overpayments it has allowed to build up unchecked.”