‘No one would accept blame’: Carers highlight DWP failures over debt crisis | Society

Caregivers put through the wringer of carer’s allowance overpayments echo the same query repeatedly: they were unaware they had breached benefit regulations while welfare officials were. Why were they not informed, rather than overpayments being allowed to continue for months, saddling them with debts amounting to thousands of pounds?For countless caregivers who unknowingly violated carer’s allowance earnings rules and are repaying amounts as high as £20,000, this may have occurred because officials neglected to check earnings alerts. Had they done so, the issue could have been nipped in the bud, and the debt and distress of overpayments largely avoided.There’s also another category of overpayments, involving carers who reasonably expected that because they reported benefit eligibility information about their own claim to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), it would be shared with other parts of the DWP handling linked claims involving the individual they cared for.

As the Guardian has reported, this information-sharing is not automatic. In the case of Rose Chitseko, her successful carer’s allowance claim theoretically meant a separate linked benefit should no longer have been paid to her mother, who was then 88 and unable to manage her own affairs.Chitseko’s claim could have been cross-checked and her mother’s payment stopped. This didn’t occur. Because her mother was too ill to inform the DWP of her daughter’s claim (even had she known to), she was allowed to accumulate £8,000 in overpayments (this was later waived by ministers after the Guardian wrote about the case).Social security rules state the claimant is ultimately responsible for notifying the DWP of changes in their circumstances that may affect eligibility for a benefit. Too often, critics say, the DWP relies on these rules to excuse its own errors, poor decision-making, and lapses in information sharing.John Ferguson, a former insurance executive and unpaid carer, discovered the hard way that although it was the DWP’s mistake that information he provided regarding his mother’s circumstances was not acted upon or shared – it was he who would be held accountable, and asked to repay money it claimed had been disbursed in error.Ferguson, who received carer’s allowance when he cared for his mother, who had dementia, said he felt he had been penalised for administrative failures caused by “the DWP’s left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.”In his case, an error by the DWP office overseeing attendance allowance (a benefit to assist severely disabled individuals with extra support costs, which his mother claimed) meant it did not amend or reclaim her award when she was hospitalized, despite Ferguson informing them of her change in circumstances.More than a year later, Ferguson was contacted out of the blue by the carer’s allowance unit asking him to repay £405 (plus £50 civil penalty). He should not have been paid the benefit for several weeks when his mother was hospitalized, he was told (though he was still caring for her every day), and it was his fault for not reporting her extended stay.Ferguson was bewildered: on his mother’s behalf, he had informed the DWP about her hospital stay at the time, and (fortunately) he had a letter from attendance allowance confirming her claim would be unchanged. The carer’s allowance unit was unmoved: as far as it was concerned, he hadn’t told them, so he had to repay the money.He pointed out the two benefits were linked – he qualified for carer’s allowance solely because his mother received attendance allowance. Was it not reasonable to expect the two DWP offices to share information – or even admit their own error had caused the overpayment?“I realized they were essentially asking me to compensate for their own systemic errors,” said Ferguson. “It was like the Post Office scandal. No one was willing to accept the blame for what was their mistake; it had to be the claimant who was at fault. I would end up being thrown under the bus as a scapegoat.”

Share your experienceShare your experienceInform us if you’ve been investigated by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for claiming carer’s allowance, and how this has impacted you. Your responses, which can be anonymous, are secure as the form is encrypted and only the Guardian has access to your submissions. We will solely use the data you provide us for the purpose of the feature and we will delete any personal data when we no longer require it for this purpose. For true anonymity please use our SecureDrop service instead.If you are a carer and live in the UK, inform us if you’ve been investigated for benefit fraud, and what the result of the investigation was Please include as much detail as possibleIf you have been investigated by the DWP for alleged benefit fraud, share how this has affected you and your family OptionalPlease include as much detail as possibleDo you have concerns? OptionalPlease include as much detail as possibleIf you are happy to, you can upload a photo of yourself here OptionalPlease note, the maximum file size is 5.7 MB.Choose fileCan we publish your response? You can add more information here OptionalIf you include other people’s names please ask them first.Would you be interested in speaking to our audio and/or video teams? By submitting your response, you are agreeing to share your details with us for this feature.SubmitShow more

Ferguson contested the overpayment at a Glasgow social security tribunal in March, and prevailed. “It should never have reached a tribunal but the DWP was determined not to concede they were wrong. I thought they would have backed off well before they were made to look foolish in front of a judge,” he said.

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