DWP must spare carers it’s hounding for debts from years ago, watchdog declares

Britain's audit chief today urged the DWP to write off years-old debts it has been hounding from unpaid carers.

Sir Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, called for a "more relaxed" approach to huge Carer's Allowance arrears that are taking carers up to 34 years to pay off.

And he blasted a "tin-eared" approach by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), adding: "They should have been moving on this earlier."

The scandal erupted after the DWP gave Carer's Allowance to tens of thousands of carers that did not qualify for it.

Now the DWP is clawing back huge sums of money from hard-pressed carers – many of them elderly and vulnerable – after it failed to spot the problem for years.

Some built up debts of more than £20,000 by the time 93,000 overpayments were detected in 2018/19.

While many overpayments were for just one week, in some cases they went on for more than a decade before they were discovered.

Today Sir Amyas – whose office produced a scathing report on the scandal – advised the DWP to be “a little bit more relaxed about collection and possibly also enforcement”.

And he suggested the DWP apply a "de minimis" approach to decide certain debts are no longer value for money to chase down.

He told MPs: "Taking that approach there seem to be quite  large population of people where it doesn’t make sense to pursue them for what will be a very long tail of pursuit.

"I would have thought at the very least, that was not an unreasonable thing to suggest."

He admitted a total write-off of all debts – which total £150million – "might create quite awkward precedents".

But he suggested the DWP use its discretion, adding: "What I think they could think about… is looking at this from an administrative point of view.

"And saying where there are relatively low amounts to be recovered over a very long period of time from people with quite low incomes, they might take a view that it’s really not good use of administrative resource to do that.

"So rather than saying we’re going to write a ticket here which might quite complicate things in the future I would ask them to consider something along those lines."

The £66.15-a-week benefit is given to people who spend 35 unpaid hours a week caring – usually for a spouse or loved one.

But carers who also earn more than £120 a week from a job are not allowed to claim the benefit.

That left a "cliff-edge" for people who didn't realise they were suddenly ineligible thanks to a few extra pounds in their wallet, Sir Amyas said.

He told MPs it was "not alright" for the DWP to spot the problems belatedly "then expect people to pay up."

He told the Commons Work and Pensions Committee: "It’s not good for these variations to have to be absorbed by people who are on these allowances.

"It’s not a desirable state of affairs."

Sir Amyas said the DWP “never took enough action to get ahead of the problem" and warned criticism “can lead to the department being not very receptive” to feedback.

"There are lessons there about listening being receptive, not having a tin ear when you’re getting told things are going wrong," he added.

"You can't let things resolve themselves into an ‘us and them’ environment."

DWP Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield, who was also grilled by MPs, admitted the DWP could have done more.

"I think there were opportunities to have done that in the case of Carers Allowance earlier on," he said. “We should have got ahead of the curve."

He added: “Do I think we need to respond more quickly to some of this? Yes I think we can.”

But he insisted it was not "fair" to suggest the DWP took several years to act.

And he refused calls to apologise for "hardship" caused, saying: "I’m pushing back on the point about hardship.

"It is a genuine conversation about how much people can afford to pay back.

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