Carer’s allowance report a vivid insight into failings of an unfit system

There are plenty of reasons why welfare ministers were reluctant to publish the study they commissioned into unpaid carers’ experiences of carer’s allowance five years ago, and which has finally emerged under duress.

In 2019 they had undoubtedly been chastened by criticism from MPs and auditors that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) did not understand how a relatively little known benefit was causing oceans of misery and hardship for carers.

But they had also promised MPs everything was under control, that the widespread problems the work and pensions select committee had uncovered would be solved and carer’s allowance overpayments would soon be pretty much a thing of the past.

The study – based on interviews with, and surveys of, carers in 2020 – effectively shows the extent of the technical and cultural challenges the DWP faced with the carer’s allowance, as well as the political and financial investment needed to fix things.

It prefigures, through the lived experience of carers, many of the design and operational problems with the allowance that have emerged though a recent series of Guardian articles, to widespread shock and outrage.

For example, carers told researchers how trying to stay within a strict £151-a-week earnings limit made it difficult to hold down a part-time job. Trying to keep earnings within carer’s allowance limits led to friction between carers and employers because it forced the former to turn down overtime and to reduce working hours as wage rates increased.

One carer said this forced her to quit a job: “In the end [my employers] said: ‘I don’t think it’s worth you working [here]’. So I left that job, it was stressful having to do that and embarrassing as well.”


Although many carers said they liked the apparent simplicity of the allowance – primarily because they rarely felt they had to engage with it – researchers found there were low levels of understanding of eligibility rules, or of the risks of breaching those rules.

When things did go wrong – for example, when officials suddenly informed them they had breached earnings rules and must now repay huge sums – it left carers in shock. It was often not entirely clear to them why officials – who in theory should have known about the breach – failed to contact them earlier to warn them.

Interviewees highlighted the “cold” and “dismissive” treatment of them by DWP officials – “as though they had intentionally committed fraud” – when the carers believed the overpayments had arisen through genuine mistakes.

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Some claimants said they had previously phoned the DWP to inform them of changes in circumstances, which ought to have prevented an overpayment occurring. Officials had not acted on this information, but there was no paper trail to prove it and the debt was chased down regardless.

One female carer told researchers: “I felt it was a real victimisation. They don’t think … It’s like you’re dealing with a computer not a person. I ended up with a big overpayment, but it totally wasn’t my fault. It’s like they don’t believe you.”

Another noted the glacially insensitive corporate culture that underpinned the DWP’s handling of overpayments. “I think it’s ticking boxes as opposed to really empathising or communicating with people as individuals,” she told researchers.

Perhaps the main takeaway from the study is that unpaid carers, who it noted spent most of their waking lives looking after loved ones and were mostly living in poverty and ill health, had lots of excellent ideas about how to fix things, not least redesigning the allowance to remove the rigid rules that cause overpayments.

Though largely couched in the bland Whitehall-ese of official research reports, it acts as a vivid marker not just of how unfit for purpose the system was in 2020, but how little ministers appear to have done to change things in the meantime.


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