Carer’s Allowance — [Julie Elliott in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall am ar 22 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee on 6 March 2024, on Carer’s Allowance, HC 591.]

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Annibynnol, Castell-nedd 4:30, 22 Ebrill 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 640062 relating to Carer’s Allowance.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chair-personship, Ms Elliott. The petition was started by Alasdair Adam and has 13,914 signatures. It asks the Government to increase carer’s allowance to 35 hours a week at the minimum wage, and specifically to increase the amount of carer’s allowance to match pay for a full-time job. Unpaid carers eligible for carer’s allowance receive £76.75 a week to provide at least 35 hours of care to people in receipt of certain benefits, which is almost £300 less than what someone earning the national living wage would be entitled to. Many unpaid carers must give up work to provide care, and being a carer can also have a significant impact on wellbeing and lifestyle.

The Government responded:

“Carer’s Allowance is a benefit that provides some financial recognition that a carer may not be able to work full-time. It is part of a range of support based on individual needs, rather than a wage. The Government fully recognises the invaluable contribution that unpaid and family carers make in providing significant care and continuity of support to their loved ones. Unpaid carers play a vital role in the lives of their family and friends—and since 2010 we have increased Carer’s Allowance by almost £1200 a year.”

It is my honour to present this petition to highlight a grave concern that weighs heavily on the hearts of many across our nation. The inadequacy of carer’s allowance in the UK is a concern that affects the very fabric of our society. In a society that prides itself on compassion and support for those in need, it is disheartening to witness the struggles endured by countless caregivers who selflessly dedicate their lives to caring for loved ones. The carer’s allowance, intended to provide financial assistance to those unsung heroes, falls drastically short of meeting their needs.

First and foremost, let us acknowledge the monumental contributions of caregivers. They are the backbone of our communities, often sacrificing their livelihoods and personal aspirations to ensure the wellbeing of others. Their existence saves the taxpayer billions of pounds every year, yet despite their invaluable role, many caregivers find themselves living on the brink of poverty due to the inadequacy of carer’s allowance. One would be forgiven for thinking that carer’s allowance is some extra money for someone who pops in to check on an elderly neighbour. In the vast majority of cases, it is paid to someone who cares round the clock for a close relative.

During my research for this speech, I heard testimony from the petitioner Alasdair, as well as from carers Jacky and Katy from the We Care Campaign, which specifically advocates for unpaid carers. All three cared for close relatives—parents, a child and a partner respectively.

Alasdair spoke about the challenges of making ends meet in circumstances that are far from black and white. His carer’s allowance often needed to go on household items and supporting his father. Living month to month means that there is no money for unexpected outgoings.

Jacky told me about caring for her 28-year-old daughter. The role is 24/7. Although she is reluctant to use external carers, she is also prevented from drawing down direct payments to top up her carer’s allowance. Jacky’s money does not match that of her daughter’s personal independence payment, so she is often left without enough money for both of them to do things such as social activities and hobbies.

Katy cares for her husband who has motor neurone disease, plus her mother and mother-in-law who both have caring needs. Katy spoke of the challenge of making ends meet, surviving only because of her husband’s PIP and a small ill health-related pension. Despite caring for three people, Katy is allowed only one carer’s allowance payment as per the rules. The current allowance barely covers the basic cost of living, let alone the additional expenses incurred during the unpredictable challenges of caring for someone with disabilities or chronic illnesses.

From medical bills to specialised equipment and everyday essentials, the financial burden on caregivers is overwhelming. Many are forced to make impossible choices between putting food on the table and accessing services. Furthermore, the eligibility criteria for carer’s allowance are unduly restrictive, leaving out a significant proportion of caregivers who are equally deserving of support. The requirement for caregivers to provide at least 35 hours of care a week effectively excludes those who juggle caregiving responsibilities with part-time employment or other commitments. That arbitrary threshold denies assistance to individuals who are in dire need of financial relief. Perhaps the Minister will explain how the 35 hours of care criteria was arrived at.

The narrative surrounding carer’s allowance is often toxic, with carers being treated as undeserving at best and criminals at worst. The recent news coverage of people being fined or charged with benefit fraud because of accidental overpayments or honest mistakes, sometimes concerning as little as a few hundred pounds, throws a spotlight on it. Such action is neither fair nor proportional. Carer’s allowance is the lowest paid benefit of its kind. Those examples say something about the value put on carers and speak of a society and its Government that simply do not value care.

Support for carers should go well beyond carer’s allowance. Stakeholders such as care charities and think-tanks have told me of diminishing support for carers during recent years, citing the lack of availability of respite care and training opportunities as examples of a crumbling support network. It is suggested that any reform should centre on providing support for carers to remain in work where possible. That would involve financial support and flexibility in how carer’s allowance is paid to avoid a threshold cliff edge. In addition, the threshold needs to be raised and tied to the periodic uprating of any minimum or living wage.

Across the UK, 600 carers a day give up work without having a choice. In December 2022, Carers UK highlighted that the earnings limit for carer’s allowance is not keeping pace with the national living wage. It stated:

“Over the last four years, the number of hours carers have been able to work alongside receiving Carer’s Allowance has shrunk from just under 15 hours a week in 2019 to roughly 13 hours and 20 minutes from…April 2023. This represents a loss of 1 hour 40 minutes a week. Over a year this amounts to a loss of 12 days of paid work.”

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee

I congratulate my Petitions Committee colleague on presenting the petition so clearly. She talked about the carer’s allowance not meeting the costs. Is she aware, as I am from my constituents, that the cost of living crisis and things such as food prices going up are actually making that acutely difficult, perhaps more difficult now than it was a few years ago?

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Annibynnol, Castell-nedd

My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I completely agree. This debate can only highlight the plight of unpaid carers.

Although carers can work any amount of hours, they must not exceed the earnings limit, which effectively limits the hours that they can work. It is important to understand that the problem of in-work support is one of implementation, not legislation. Laws exist that provide the framework for support for carers in employment, but all too often we see examples where that support is simply not implemented properly at an employer level. That said, the policy for carer’s allowance needs to be far more inclusive; caring is not just about older people. The 21-hour rule on study is arbitrary and discriminatory. Financial support should be stronger, clearer and less at the discretion of grant decision makers. There is also no clarity on who is responsible for any policy failure at a civil service or a ministerial level; it is everyone and no one.

Work must be done to end the postcode lottery and level up the services available in poorer areas. There are stark inequalities across the different regions in how the carer’s assessment for young carers is delivered. There are huge disparities in whether or not a GP surgery provides information on support for carers, and there is a significant gap between the number of people who identify as carers and those registered as a carer with their GP.

We need to answer the question: what is carer’s allowance for? A recent survey reported that 48% of those in receipt of it say that it does not make the difference that it should. Any reforms must examine the level of carer’s allowance so that it better reflects the level of financial impact of caring responsibilities, increase the earnings limit and tie it to national living wage increases, and review the 21-hour study rule. We need to aggregate the total number of caring hours if someone is caring for more than one person, so that their allowance reflects accurately their caring responsibilities, and explore the option of a sliding scale of payments depending on the level of caring responsibilities, supporting those who wish to stay in work. The reforms must also modernise carer’s allowance processes to guard against accidental overpayments and treat honest mistakes compassionately, fairly and proportionately, and provide an additional payment for carers of state pension age. Such reforms would help to bridge the gap between the current state of things and how we might wish them to be.

Carer’s allowance fails to adequately address the long-term implications of caregiving for the mental and physical wellbeing of caregivers. The emotional toll of caring for a loved one can be profound, leading to increased stress, anxiety and burnout. Without sufficient support, caregivers risk their own health and wellbeing, perpetuating a cycle of hardship and suffering. We cannot turn a blind eye to the injustices faced by caregivers across our nation. It is incumbent on us as a society to rectify those inadequacies and provide meaningful support to those who dedicate their lives to caring for others.

Although I appreciate the difficulties and dangers of paying carers a minimum wage, we must demand a carer’s allowance that reflects the true value of caregiving. We need a fair and dignified allowance that alleviates financial hardship and recognises the invaluable contributions of caregivers to our society. Let us stand in solidarity with caregivers and advocate for meaningful change. I urge the Government and policymakers to reform carer’s allowance and reinvigorate all support to ensure that it serves its intended purpose of providing genuine help for those who need it most. Together we can build a more compassionate and inclusive society where caregivers are valued, respected and adequately supported.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Leader of the Liberal Democrats 4:45, 22 Ebrill 2024

I congratulate Christina Rees on bringing the e-petition to the House and on her excellent speech. I agree with everything she said.

We should begin by looking at the big-picture issues that the carer’s allowance helps us to address—currently very inadequately. The first is the issue of social justice. Carers often work long hours in very difficult, trying circumstances, and they receive the lowest benefit of the lot. They are treated as if they do not matter. That has to change. We must change the value that we place on care in order to end income inequality.

Supporting care properly through the carer’s allowance would make a big difference as part of a proper social justice agenda, but it is about much more than that. It is about the link between care and the NHS. Carers do such a fantastic job. Their work helps the NHS and the taxpayer, saving them billions of pounds. Were it not for unpaid family carers or carers who receive the very limited allowance, the NHS would literally fall over. We must consider this debate about carer’s allowance in the context of social justice and the future of the NHS.

Another issue that I hope the Minister will look at is the link with the economic problems we are facing. We are told that the Department for Work and Pensions is looking at the need to help people to get back into work; well, there are a lot of people who cannot get back into work because they are caring. They would like to work more, but if they work more, they get penalised. This is clearly the issue of the day, and I know that the Chair of the Select Committee, Sir Stephen Timms, will address it. If the Government are worried about work incentives and making sure there are people to do the jobs we need, they should look at the level of the carer’s allowance and all the conditions and criteria around it. It is way overdue for reform.

I wanted to start by raising those general issues, before getting down into the basics, which the hon. Member for Neath rightly took us through. We need a complete review of the carer’s allowance, including the rate it is paid at, the conditions around it and how it relates to other benefits and issues. Let me give one or two examples.

One issue is age. As the hon. Lady said, people who are in education and are affected by the 21-hour rule cannot receive carer’s allowance. That discriminates against young people. Young carers arguably need support more than any other kind of carer. We need to look at the interaction with education, and I would even consider those below the age of 16, because some young carers are basically doing a full-time job as well as their GCSEs and studies.

We also need to look at carer’s allowance for people who are over the pension age. To give them credit, the Labour Government began to do that, but we need to take that further, because some pensioners work incredibly hard and do really stressful jobs but are ineligible for carer’s allowance. We urgently need a full-scale review of carer’s allowance.

On the overpayment issue, which is really worrying, there are two aspects that we have to address. One is the legacy: all the carer’s allowance that has apparently been overpaid and that the Government are looking to claw back. That is a big legacy issue that we need to look at, and I would like to ask the Minister some questions about it. It is clearly an issue that we all have to face up to and try to tackle.

There is then the issue of trying to stop the overpayments happening in the first place. I have seen a number of reports and parliamentary answers on this issue, but I have never quite nailed it down to satisfaction, so I let me ask the Minister some questions. How much money does the DWP believe has been overpaid in carer’s allowance and is yet to be clawed back from people? What is the figure and what is the debt? We have seen different amounts, but what is the cumulative total, going back however many years that the DWP is worried about? In other words, how big is this problem? Give us the size of it so that we can try to get a feel for it. How much is owed?

By how much were people being overpaid? I have seen figures from Carers UK and some parliamentary answers that suggests the vast bulk relates to people who were overpaid just a little bit—£2 a week—and because of the cliff edge they have to pay back the whole amount. If they have been overpaid by an average of £2 a week for a year, they are having to pay back the whole lot. The cliff-edge problem is creating a total injustice and everyone can see that on all sides. Let us have some more figures and transparency from the Government so that we can understand.

I hope the Minister can go into more detail—for example, in how many cases was the DWP aware that people were being overpaid and still did not alert them? We read in the press that the DWP is sometimes aware and, for whatever reason, does not notify people. There is something really wrong with trying to claim back money from someone who has been overpaid when the DWP was aware and they were not, and that only compounds the errors. We really need to understand some of this information—which I hope the Minister has at her fingertips—if we are to come to a view on dealing with the huge problem of the overpayments legacy. I do not think there is a single Member of this House or the other place who thinks it is right to pursue some of these overpayments with some of these people. It really beggars belief in many cases.

Finally, overpayments are still happening on a regular, systemic basis. Because of the cliff-edge problem that the hon. Member for Neath rightly touched on, it is happening by accident every single day. As the hon. Member mentioned, the Government were warned about this—after a National Audit Office report in 2019, they admitted it was a problem and said they were going to fix it—but here we are, and it has not been fixed and it has got worse. We need to understand how the Government are going to address this issue to ensure that the problem does not just get worse and keep reoccurring. We read that it is a terribly big IT system that will cost millions to fix, but why should carers be penalised because the Government cannot get their systems right? That does not seem right to me. The Government have to sort it out and, in the meantime, treat carers fairly.

I am keen to hear the contributions of others, and hope that we can come together on this issue and realise that carers are getting a raw deal, which is bad for inequality, bad for the NHS and bad for our economy. We urgently need not only a fix to deal with the problems we have at the moment but a long-term fix so that this is sorted out once and for all.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 4:53, 22 Ebrill 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Christina Rees on the good way in which she opened this important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Elliot.

The Work and Pensions Committee is taking a close interest in the discussions around carers, and I am delighted to see my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams here; she has taken a lot of interest in this issue. I have a particular personal interest in the debate because my constituency accounts for the largest number of signatures on the petition—73—so I thought it was particularly important for me to be here.

As others have said, for the best part of two decades now the Work and Pensions Committee and its predecessors have been calling on the Government to reform carer’s allowance, including the rate at which it is paid. A 2008 Select Committee report, “Valuing and Supporting Carers”, concluded that carer’s allowance was “outdated” and

“should be radically overhauled at the earliest opportunity to recognise the contribution carers make”.

Well, that “earliest opportunity” still has not arrived. Challenges raised in that report remain unaddressed 16 years later.

We know that the Department has conducted research to support policy development on carer’s allowance. In the response to a 2019 Select Committee report, it promised to publish that research. It has never been published—we still have not seen it. The Select Committee is very much looking forward to hearing from the Minister about carer’s allowance on Wednesday. Will she tell us when the policy development will conclude and whether the research will finally be published, as promised in 2019?

As we have heard, carer’s allowance is paid at a weekly rate of £81.90, which is less than other income-replacement benefits—jobseekers’ allowance is nearly £10 a week more. In my Committee’s recent inquiry on benefit levels in the UK, we heard that carer’s allowance was paid at too low a rate and that as a result carers often had to cut back on food and were struggling to make ends meet.

Last month, in a one-off evidence session on carer’s allowance, we heard from Terry Kirton, a full-time carer for his father. He said, of caring and of receiving carer’s allowance:

“I am tired of struggling. I want to be able to look after my father. I want to make sure he does not have to go without things, and I would like to be able to have bit of a life myself without having to fight with my finances every day.”

I know the Minister has substantial experience of caring; does she recognise that the rate of carer’s allowance today is just not enough?

Terry is a registered nurse by profession. To retain his registration he would have to work a certain number of hours a week, but that would take him over the carer’s allowance earnings limit. It is impossible for him to maintain his registration and continue to receive carer’s allowance. To balance his caring role and his finances, he has had to leave the profession—to give up work altogether—and care for his father. He now just about survives on carer’s allowance.

That brings me to the second challenge: the earnings limit for carer’s allowance. In the same session of our Committee, we heard how the carer’s allowance earnings limit acts as a disincentive for carers who would like to work, either because they would be worse off financially should they lose carer’s allowance because of their work, or—this is the really big problem—due to fears that they would accidentally slip over the limit for carer’s allowance, giving rise to the overpayments we have just heard about. The earnings limit effectively traps carers only in low-paid work, whatever their skills or training.

The carer’s allowance earnings limit is not increased in line with the national minimum wage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Neath rightly told us, Carers UK has pointed out that the number of hours that a carer has been able to work at the national living wage while also receiving carer’s allowance has decreased over the last few years. Our report called on the Government to commit to uprating the earnings threshold for carer’s allowance annually. There should be a commitment to increase it every year.

A similar point was made in the 2019 report. In their response, the Government said:

“We will look at the findings from the research”— to which I have referred—

“with an open mind, and would consider any changes to the earnings limit to be a priority.”

However, since then, nothing has happened. Will the Minister tell us today whether there are plans to review an increase on the earnings limit on the carer’s allowance, such as by linking increases each year with rises in the national living wage?

We have also heard that the earnings limit is just one of several eligibility restrictions. Another is the 21-hour rule, which prevents carers in full-time education— those attending 21 or more hours a week—from claiming carer’s allowance. Last month, Carers UK made the point to our Committee that a young adult carer has to

“choose between getting an education and qualifications and getting some financial support”.

They added:

“That is not right. It will affect people for the rest of their lives”.

Has the Department looked at the effect of that rule specifically on young and young adult carers, including on their opportunities later in life? The restriction on learning and caring is, we understand, being lifted in Scotland, with obvious advantages for young carers.

My final concern is overpayments, which we have touched on, and which have featured in recent news reports. It is not a new issue; our predecessor Committee published a report specifically on this issue in 2019. Data from the Department shows that in the year 2022-23, the Department was pursuing more than 30,000 overpayments of up to £2,000, and more than 7,000 payments of over £2,000, including 36 overpayments of over £20,000.

How has the Department allowed overpayments which, in some cases, clearly cover quite a few years, to accumulate? From real-time information from His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Department knows what people are earning, and it can stop payment of carer’s allowance to those who are no longer eligible. Indeed, the Government’s response to the 2019 report confirmed that there is an automatic notification when weekly net pay exceeds the carer’s allowance earnings limit, yet the Department does nothing, instead allowing people to build up these huge overpayments, and then prosecuting them. Carrying on in that way is not right. I recognise that the Minister may not have the detailed data for 2023-24, as we have been given for ’22-23, but it would be helpful if she asked her officials to provide that to the Committee in the coming weeks. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response, and to her appearance before the Committee on Wednesday, when we will have an opportunity to explore these issues in further detail.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Llafur, Wirral West 5:02, 22 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Elliott. I congratulate my hon. Friend Christina Rees on leading this important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I thank my constituents who have signed the petition that we are debating today, which calls on the Government to increase the amount of carer’s allowance to match pay for a full-time job.

Unpaid carers provide vital support to those they care for, whether a family member, friend or neighbour, and they make a huge contribution to our society in general. It is therefore important that they are valued properly. The petition points out:

“Many unpaid carers have to give up work to provide care, and being a carer can also have a significant impact on carers’ wellbeing and lifestyle.”

Census data suggests there are around 5.7 million unpaid carers across the UK, but research from Carers UK in 2022 estimated that the true number of unpaid carers could be as high as 10.6 million. It is thought that one in seven people in the workplace in the UK are juggling work and care.

We know that many unpaid carers have faced enormous pressure on their personal finances as a result of the cost of living crisis, which has caused stress and anxiety for them, and many have been forced to cut back on essentials such as food and heating. Some have suffered extremely severe financial hardship. According to the Carers UK website, 44% of working-age adults who are providing care for 35 or more hours a week are living in poverty. Carers UK has highlighted research from Petrillo and Bennett that shows that unpaid carers in England and Wales contribute a staggering £445 million to the economy every day, or £162 billion per year. That is a huge amount of money, and as things stand unpaid carers can get £81.90 a week if they care for someone for at least 35 hours a week and that person receives certain benefits.

It is unsurprising that there are calls right across the country for a significant increase in the money that carers receive. The Carer Poverty Coalition, which was set up by Carers UK and is made up of over 130 national and local organisations who have come together to campaign to end poverty among carers, has said:

“The next Government must commission a full review into Carer’s Allowance and its eligibility rules to ensure that it adequately values and supports carers.”

The coalition says that such a review should include, among other things:

“Increasing the level of Carer’s Allowance, so that it better reflects the level of financial penalty carers incur...Exploring different payments for people providing 20, 35, 50+ hours of care, to take account of the intensity of caring…Provide an additional payment for carers of State Pension Age...Scrapping the 21 hour study rule”.

The 21-hour study rule prevents anyone who is studying for more than that amount of time a week from claiming carer’s allowance. Those are all very reasonable and important measures, and they should be part of any such review.

In particular, I call for an end to the cliff-edge situation that faces carers who are in paid employment. At the moment, someone can only receive carer’s allowance if they earn £151 a week or less after tax, national insurance and expenses. If they go over that amount, even by one penny, they lose their entire benefit entitlement. That is leading to a situation whereby there are carers who are unwittingly going over the limit and thus becoming ineligible to continue claiming the benefit. That is particularly the case right now, as the national minimum wage has gone up this month, so I urge carers to check their entitlement as a matter of urgency. I also ask the Minister to say what the Government are doing to ensure that all carers in paid employment are aware of this situation.

Written parliamentary questions that I tabled last week revealed that currently the Government are seeking to recover a total of 156,300 carer’s allowance overpayments. That is over 10,000 more than at roughly the same point last year when I asked for this information. The vast majority of those cases—more than 58%—are for amounts up to £1,000. Three hundred cases are for amounts over £20,000.

It is shameful that the Government have failed to get a grip on this situation over the last year. They are leaving increasing numbers of carers to face mounting debts without taking the necessary action to stop that. It was revealed in the press earlier this month that

“tens of thousands of unpaid carers who look after disabled, frail or ill relatives are being forced to repay huge sums of money to the Government and being threatened with criminal prosecution after they had unwittingly breached earnings rules by just a few pounds a week.”

Of course, there may be some cases of fraud, which always have to be investigated, but many, many of those cases will undoubtedly be the result of human error. Lots of people struggle to navigate the claims system, and many carers are under considerable pressure caring for someone they love. Some carers may also have their own medical issues to manage on top of their caring responsibilities, which adds pressure, causes stress and makes them vulnerable. I also remind the Minister that there are 7 million functionally illiterate adults in this country; for them, to navigate the system is nigh-on impossible.

The Government have said to me that they seek to recover money without causing excessive hardship, but the experience of many carers clearly shows that the opposite is true. There have been reports that the DWP has warned carers that they could face greater penalties if they appeal against fines, and Government officials have been accused of using “threatening and cruel” tactics in this regard. That is truly shameful, and I hope that the Minister will look into those allegations. There have also been reports of carers becoming

“severely depressed, suicidal and self-harming”, due to the Government’s “abhorrent” approach, after they were ordered to pay back money after mistakenly breaching the earnings allowance. That is a completely unacceptable state of affairs. The social security system should be there to support people, not to cause them stress and push some to suicide.

It is also true that the sheer complexity of the claims system can lead carers into making honest mistakes. The judge in the case of a woman who was being prosecuted after being overpaid carer’s allowance when she took a part-time job on the minimum wage said that she had

“limited understanding of the offence…committed.”

The cliff edge of £151 can have the effect of providing a disincentive for carers to be in work or stay in work. That is in absolutely nobody’s interest at all. Aside from the financial support that such work provides, it gives people a sense of agency within their local community and a sense of identity, and it can be vital for people’s mental health and wellbeing. It is also important for people who are caring for people who might be approaching the end of their life, because when the person who they care for passes away they may want to re-engage with full-time employment, and it is much easier for someone to get work when they are already in work and when their skill level has been maintained.

Clearly, that is something that needs to be included in any review, as do the long waits that carers have reported experiencing when they contact the carer’s allowance unit by telephone for information about the benefit and how to make a claim. Labour has committed to reviewing the system of carer’s allowance, and we need this Government to make the same commitment as a matter of urgency. Along with that, they need to review the level of carer’s allowance. As things stand, too many carers are not getting the support that they need.

In summary, it is evident that there needs to be a large-scale review of carer’s allowance, and that the level of payments that unpaid carers receive needs to be increased. Work must be done to tackle the issue of overpayments. The Government should provide more staff to help clear the backlog, looking into possible overpayment cases, and to use those automated systems that are available. We need to see an end to the cliff edge that renders someone ineligible to qualify as soon as they go a penny over. Unpaid carers need to be recognised for the vitally important and selfless work that they do. They need to be supported and not punished for looking after their loved ones.

Photo of Beth Winter Beth Winter Llafur, Cwm Cynon 5:10, 22 Ebrill 2024

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank my hon. Friend Christina Rees for leading this important debate. It really is an important debate, which provides an opportunity to recognise the invaluable contribution that millions of unpaid carers provide to their loved ones, to our society and to our economy. It is also an opportunity to note the continued failure of the carer’s allowance system to provide recompense for that.

I speak in support of some of the policy demands of the representatives of unpaid carers, including those set out by Carers UK, and to ask the Minister whether the Government will now commit to meeting those demands. If it is the case that they cannot do so, the country and the carer community will be looking to the Labour Front Bench come the next election.

Carers UK says that across the UK there are over 10.6 million people providing unpaid care. They are increasingly vulnerable to falling into poverty and financial difficulties. We have already heard that at least a third of carers are living in poverty. Those doing the longest hours are more likely to be struggling to make ends meet. Forty- four per cent of working-age adults who are providing unpaid care for more than 35 hours a week are in poverty, according to Carers UK. It is estimated that the value of unpaid care provided by carers, as my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood indicated, is £162 billion per year in England and Wales. The ONS estimated that in my constituency there are over 10,000 carers providing 19 hours or less unpaid care—

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Llafur, Sunderland Central 5:37, 22 Ebrill 2024

Order. The debate may now continue until 7.55 pm, although that depends on there being no more votes, of course. I call Beth Winter to continue.

Photo of Beth Winter Beth Winter Llafur, Cwm Cynon

Like many other Members here, I have lots of constituents who are carers and come to me for assistance. One constituent has been a carer for his wife for more than 40 years following her diagnosis of schizophrenia. He is now a pensioner with a low income, but that impacts significantly on his entitlement to carer’s allowance. Another constituent who cares for her grandfather had her carer’s allowance revoked, before we intervened, for exceeding the income threshold during a period of financial difficulty and mental health impact. The DWP confirmed that a payment should not have stopped and she received over £1,000 back. There is the issue of overpayment, but I also worry about how many carers may be being underpaid significantly without accessing support or advice. There is also a large proportion of people who do not claim the benefits that they are entitled to.

Only 71% of carer’s allowance claimants in 2023 were receiving a payment, and the remaining approximately 400,000 claimants met the conditions set out above but were not receiving the benefit due to the overlapping benefits rule—including nearly all pensioner carers, which hon. Members spoke about earlier. The e-petition asks that carer’s allowance be raised to the rate of 35 hours per week at the level of the national minimum wage. That would equate to £400 per week. The Government’s response says that carer’s allowance is

“a benefit that provides some financial recognition that a carer may not be able to work full-time.”

But should someone earn more than £151 per week, they lose all access to carer’s allowance; that is the cliff edge situation that others have mentioned today. That £151 is only around 13 hours of work at the adult national minimum wage, and the number of minimum wage hours that can be worked before hitting the threshold has declined in recent years. That is completely inadequate and unacceptable, and it is in need of urgent reform. That is why the Government must commit to improving the carer’s allowance.

I have previously spoken in the House about the Work and Pensions Committee’s call for an increased earnings limit and the introduction of a taper. Here today is the Chair of that Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms, who has spoken about the issue in much more detail. I have also said that the uprating of the carer’s allowance needs to be synchronised with the real living wage.

Carers UK has set out a number of demands ahead of the election. It calls for an increase in the earnings limit for carer’s allowance to the value of 21 hours per week at the national living wage rate and for that link to be defined in law, so that the ability of carers to earn is not eroded over time. That would take the earnings threshold to £240 from the current £151. It also calls for reform to the eligibility rules for the carer’s allowance, including ending the cliff edge, giving access to a tapered rate for those working more hours each week, enabling more than one person to receive the benefit if multiple people care for the same person, and extending the run-on payments for bereaved carers from eight to 12 weeks. Most importantly, Carers UK urges the Government to carry out a full review of the link between caring and poverty across the UK and to commission an independent inquiry to explore longer-term solutions to bringing more unpaid carers out of poverty.

The Carer Poverty Coalition says the carer’s allowance itself should be increased and I think that is vital, having spoken to many carers in my constituency. The current rate is undoubtedly a poverty payment, and the earnings threshold cliff edge makes a mockery of social justice. The reality is that many carers work full time as a carer and the state refuses to recognise that financial benefit to society, as well as the invaluable contribution that carers make. The idea of earning a minimum wage for a full-time job has long been accepted, and we should do the same for those people caring.

I want to comment more generally on the demonisation of people who receive social security benefits, which are an entitlement and a right. More recently, that demonisation was demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s comments about a “sick note culture”, which were dangerous and absolutely disgraceful and will do nothing except exacerbate the hardship that people experience. The demonisation and stigmatisation of claimants, including millions of carers, must stop. As an example, in my constituency of Cynon Valley, we have high rates of social security claimants, including people in receipt of carer’s allowance. [Interruption.]

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Llafur, Sunderland Central

Order. There is another Division. We will suspend for 15 minutes.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

[Judith Cummins in the Chair]

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Llafur, Bradford South 6:08, 22 Ebrill 2024

The sitting is resumed, and the debate can now continue until 8.20 pm. I call Beth Winter to continue.

Photo of Beth Winter Beth Winter Llafur, Cwm Cynon

I have spoken about carer’s allowance being a poverty payment in need of fundamental reform. I want to conclude with a few general comments about social security and carers’ benefits and assistance. First, the demonisation of people in receipt of social security benefits, which are an entitlement, should stop. Only last week, we had Sunak talking about a “sick note culture”—language that is inflammatory, disgraceful and very dangerous. It will only exacerbate people’s hardship.

In Cynon Valley, high numbers of people are on social security benefits, including carer’s allowance. That is due to our industrial legacy—dirty work, with people inheriting significant ill health associated with the industry that they worked in. With the decimation of the industries, we have high rates of unemployment. Again, that has been compounded by the cost of living crisis, which is a political choice.

We need structural and transformational change when it comes to carers. We must ensure that everybody, regardless of their circumstances, is treated with respect and dignity, and that they receive the support they are entitled to. That should include a new national carers’ strategy. Apparently, we have not had a new one for 16 years, which I find quite shocking. Also, we could include being a carer as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, enhance flexible working and introduce a statutory right to breaks for people with caring responsibilities. In addition, we should ensure that social care receives sustainable and adequate funding, and that there is a joined-up approach between health and social care so that social care stops being seen as the weak relation in many regards.

Sustainable funding would ensure that people—both the carer themselves and the person receiving the care—could receive respite care and other support services. We should also explore things such as the minimum income guarantee and universal basic income. Without a doubt, however, the overwhelming evidence shows that, as a starting-point, carer’s allowance is in need of fundamental reform. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 6:11, 22 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate with you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Christina Rees on leading it.

For years, many charities, campaigners and carers have called for wide-ranging reform of carer’s allowance. The petition that we are debating focuses specifically on how much carer’s allowance should offer carers, so I will begin my contribution by addressing the financial pressures that carers face.

Carers UK estimates that over a quarter of carers live in poverty, which rises to nearly half of those who care for someone for more than 35 hours a week. Often, people in receipt of carer’s allowance face particularly difficult financial situations. The poverty rate for people in receipt of carer’s allowance has doubled in the last decade and a survey by Carers UK shows that 45% of people receiving carer’s allowance struggle to make ends meet, which is a significant increase on the previous year.

The causes of financial difficulty for carers are frequently linked to their caring responsibilities. Of course, carers face additional costs, which are unavoidable, to keep the person whom they care for safe. Such costs can include vital but high-energy equipment, the costs of additional laundry and bathing needs, and transport costs for visits to medical appointments.

As we have already heard in the debate, carers also have a limited ability to earn an income. If they are in receipt of carer’s allowance, they can earn only £151 before losing that benefit. This month, the earnings threshold for claiming carer’s allowance increased below the national living wage, which means that carers on the lowest wages will have to cut back their hours to just over 13 hours a week or risk losing the benefit. For some, this will be the equivalent of losing 13 days of work a year, which is a substantial loss. In addition, as we have already heard but it bears repeating, there is an issue for carers in full-time education—young carers—because they lose eligibility for carer’s allowance when they study for more than 21 hours a week. Therefore, many young people are excluded from support.

Those eligibility requirements and others limit the support that carers can receive through carer’s allowance. Most importantly, however, around 34% of carers in receipt of carer’s allowance are still in poverty. Clearly, carer’s allowance is failing to give enough financial support to the people who provide unpaid care to others. It is ridiculous for the Government to claim in response to the petition that they

“recognise the invaluable contribution that unpaid and family carers make”, given that so many carers clearly do not receive the support they need.

The petition that we are debating today focuses on the amount available for carers through carer’s allowance, but there are other issues that warrant our concern. A particularly worrying problem that we have already heard about is the recent reporting of overpayments of carer’s allowance and the subsequent repayment penalties. As we have heard, poor systems or poor processes at the Department of Work and Pensions have resulted in 145,000 current cases of overpayments to unpaid carers, with 12,000 of those being for sums greater than £5,000. As has been reported in the press recently, that has resulted in thousands of carers running up huge debts, being given criminal records, and being forced to sell their own homes when chased by the DWP over small mistakes that officials could have spotted years earlier. For example, George Henderson, the carer of his adult son John, who has a learning disability, was overpaid £110 and ended up being prosecuted for benefit fraud by the Department for Work and Pensions, despite the Department admitting that his was an innocent mistake. He was forced to sell his house and threatened monthly with jail. Then he tried to take his own life. Mr Henderson told The Mirror:

“One night I’d had a drink and I put a noose up in the loft…My girlfriend rang the Crisis team and I was under them for four months. They wouldn’t let me live alone. I lost four stone as I couldn’t eat, I look at photos from that time and you can see my ribcage.”

The repercussions of that time continue to affect Mr Henderson, and he is now waiting to undergo therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Sadly, there are many other carers like Mr Henderson. One carer told Carers UK:

“The whole process had my wife so stressed out that she at several points contemplated suicide. She couldn’t see an end to it and as it turned out we didn’t end up owing the DWP anything.”

Carers have described suffering an avalanche of utter stress due to the Government’s claiming back of these benefits. This is not about mistakes or misunderstandings by carers, as we have heard; this is about administrative failures at the DWP and harsh penalties for people whom the Government should be trying to support. There must be a change to the processing around carer’s allowance to alleviate the acute distress and financial hardship that overpayments can cause; otherwise, we will see many more serious headlines. It is reported that one in three unpaid carers has thought about killing themselves due to the emotional and financial strain they are under. That is disturbing. It is also disturbing that it is not known how many carers have already been driven to suicide, because caring status is not part of the data collected after such a death.

It is unacceptable, in my view, that the Government have let this mismanagement of carer’s allowance processes go on for so long. Both the Work and Pensions Committee and the National Audit Office warned of this situation five years ago, yet the number of overpayments today remains just as high. I am glad that Labour has committed to reviewing the system of carer’s allowance and would look to reform DWP policy on carer’s allowance but now that these issues are really being exposed, carers should not have to wait for a general election to see action. The Government must sort out the mess urgently so that unpaid carers are no longer penalised for the vital care they offer.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Llafur, Oldham East and Saddleworth 6:17, 22 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. I will start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on bringing this debate to the Chamber, and on her excellent speech. I agree with her that carers are not only the backbone of society, but represent the best of us in the selflessness that they display. We should be championing them, and we know that is not happening.

Last week, many Members will have seen Oxfam’s report on carers, which was called “Valued”—a little bit of a contradiction, because it gives case study after case study where people are not valued, and shows how little people, and society as a whole, value carers. My hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood shared the costs that carers save society—it would cost £162 billion a year if we were actually able to pay carers. That is the cost they save.

I want to make a few points, many of which have already been made, on the lack of adequacy of carer’s allowance —as we have already heard, a quarter of those caring for loved ones are living in poverty—and on the issue of the rules: the cliff edge, the earnings limit, and the administration of those rules and the lack of common sense and compassion. I find that unforgivable, quite frankly.

I worked very closely with young carers in my public health days. As we have heard, given the Prime Minister’s statement in his speech last week about the mental health impact on so many young people, we might also have expected a message about the impact on young carers. Many of those caring for their parents or siblings are as young as eight or nine. It really is appalling.

I had a glimpse of being a carer: my mother had Alzheimer’s disease for 10 years, and I provided support to my stepfather, who cared for her during that time. We were not reliant on carer’s allowance, but we felt the strain, day in, day out, 24/7. This is a really significant gift that people are giving to their loved ones and society as a whole. We have heard how inadequate carer’s allowance is, at £81.90 a week—its lowest level, even compared with jobseeker’s allowance. Again, I refer Members the Select Committee’s report on benefits in the UK. We have the lowest level of out-of-work support since, I think, 1911, so carer’s allowance is even less than that in real terms. It is just appalling. We have been doing a mini-inquiry, and we have a follow-up session on Wednesday, which the Minister is attending. If she wants to hear about the experience of those caring for loved ones now, she should reflect on the evidence they gave a couple of weeks ago.

We have also heard about the Department for Work and Pensions’ appalling, draconian treatment of people—the utter lack of compassion shown to those who make, often, innocent mistakes and are then criminalised by the DWP. I feel quite ashamed, to be honest, that that is happening. As we have heard, the problem with overpayment is exacerbated by the unfair cliff edge and the administration of these ridiculous rules, which really need to be reformed.

I was contacted by a medical adviser, a retired GP who is providing medical advice to first-tier tribunals for PIP appeals, who also happens to be in receipt of carer’s allowance. This retired GP contacted me because she was concerned by the statement from the Department included in her bundle over the past six months, which said:

“Although (Ms X) has identified a high-level of personal restriction he/she is entitled to Carer’s Allowance. To be entitled to Carer’s Allowance a person must provide at least 35 hours of care to another disabled person each week. The tribunal may wish to explore this further.”

Although that might not look particularly threatening on its own, given the context of the other arguments that the Department is looking to put forward, it is basically saying: “How can you be caring for somebody if you’re also disabled?” That is what it is saying, and unfortunately that was also the gist of the Prime Minister’s speech last week—“If you’re genuinely in receipt of social security, of course we’ll support you. But there’s a question mark over how many and what proportion of people in receipt of social security are genuine.” That really gets to the core of this, and it makes me quite angry. Most people have worked and are doing the right thing. To imply that they are not genuine is an absolute disgrace.

In her response, I hope the Minister or her officials can explain why those sorts of statements would be included in a bundle to a medical adviser on the first-tier tribunal, which are questioning somebody who is caring for somebody else, and who also happens to be in receipt of disability benefits?

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows Scottish National Party, Motherwell and Wishaw 6:24, 22 Ebrill 2024

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I congratulate Christina Rees on the way she introduced this important petitions debate, in which I am grateful to be able to speak as the SNP spokesperson for disabilities and the SNP carers champion.

I have had the pleasure of engaging with disabled people, their carers and carers organisations over the last number of years, and it really has been a privilege. My engagement with them stunned me at first, as I concentrated on the disabilities aspect of my role. I then went to a drop-in in Parliament and spent an hour and a half listening to carers, and became more involved on that side of things. Carers play such an invaluable role, and the impact they have on the lives of those they care for is almost unquantifiable. They show the best of humanity and are truly altruistic people who devote much or all of their time to others, but they are not properly recompensed by this Government.

Before I get into the cold numbers and economic arguments for increasing carer’s allowance, on a human level I want to pay tribute to carers right across the UK and thank them for all they do. Carers ought to finally get the recognition they deserve, as for too long they have been unsupported, exploited and taken for granted. The work of unpaid carers is what holds society together. According to Carers UK, there are an estimated 5.7 million people in the UK who provide unpaid care, accounting for 9% of the population. I want to say a special thanks to North Lanarkshire Carers Together, Lanarkshire Carers and NL Young Carers for all the help and support they give unpaid carers in Motherwell and Wishaw, and to all the other local organisations across the UK.

Each and every one of us can, and potentially will, become a carer or be cared for by someone at some point in our lives. None of us can predict the future. Circumstances change: before we know it, we may be caring for or receiving care from a loved one. Each year, around 4.3 million people become unpaid carers. That is 12,000 people a day. Unpaid carers’ support is worth a staggering £162 billion a year in the UK. Let me repeat that: £162 billion a year. According to the Carers Trust, the value of unpaid care is £12.8 billion per year in Scotland alone. The figures are huge, and the importance of unpaid carers in our economy is enormous, yet carers feel unsupported. Three in five are worried about living costs, 600 have to give up work every single day, and a quarter of carers have either “bad” or “very bad” mental health.

The enormous contribution of unpaid carers to the economy makes it all the more shocking that carers are under-supported in the UK. That was reflected in evidence given to the Work and Pensions Committee in March in a session on carer’s allowance. Representatives from Carers UK, Carers Scotland and the Centre for Social Justice all agreed that carer’s allowance is inadequate and each of the organisations took issue with the earnings limit. It was noted unanimously by those organisations that the UK lags behind comparable jurisdictions, most of which link the earnings limit to hours worked and not how much a person earns, thereby not confining people to low-wage work.

Ahead of today’s debate, a number of organisations were in touch with me to highlight the dire situation in which carers find themselves in much of the United Kingdom. The MND Association said that 90% of those who care for people with MND feel that the welfare benefits they receive do not meet their needs as carers. Meanwhile, in 2022, the MS Society, which is part of the Carer Poverty Coalition—this week is MS Awareness Week—conducted a report on the friends and family of those with MS and found that only 17% of respondents were in receipt of carer’s allowance.

The restrictive access to carer’s allowance, including the 21-hour study rule south of the border, is arbitrary and means that those who need support are missing out. The UK Government should follow Scotland’s lead by removing the 21-hour study rule and enacting measures like the Scottish young carer grant.

It is nonsensical that those who care for more than one person often miss out on carer’s allowance because the eligibility rules do not allow for caring hours to be combined cumulatively. Many carers who spend the equivalent of a full-time job caring cannot access carer’s allowance, which shows how broken the system is. The MS Society has outlined the horrendously low rate of carer’s allowance and the financial impact that that has on carers. Spread over 35 hours per week, the value of carer’s allowance equates to just £2.34 per hour, a whole £9 below the national minimum wage. That is horrendous. The current rate of carer’s allowance is totally exploitative.

The UK Government take advantage of the love that carers have for those they care for; they exploit their altruism and offer totally inadequate compensation in return. There is absolutely no recognition of how integral carers are to the functioning of society and the UK economy. It is essential that the UK Government increase the level of carer’s allowance to at least the minimum wage so that it better reflects the financial impact of caring responsibilities. I therefore support this important petition.

Coupled with the Carer’s Leave Act 2023, which I supported and recently came into force, a move to increase carer’s allowance to the minimum wage would demonstrate that the invaluable work of carers is finally receiving some of the recognition it deserves from the UK Government, but more should be done. The Government must increase the earnings limit to ensure that carers can work and earn if they are able to and wish to. The rhetoric from this Government always focuses on getting people back into work and reducing economic inactivity, but they do not follow up their hollow talk by putting support mechanisms in place. Whether it is for disabled people or, as in this case, carers, there is workforce potential that is not being tapped into because of the lack of adequate support.

With the current levels of support, unpaid carers are particularly vulnerable to falling into poverty, not just because of the devastatingly inadequate rate of carer’s allowance but because of carers’ limited ability to earn an income and the additional costs they face, which they cannot cut back on without affecting the safety of the person they care for. Those include the costs of taking the person they care for to hospital, keeping their home at a safe minimum temperature, charging essential medical equipment for their loved one and doing extra laundry.

A perfect storm of lack of recognition, lack of proper financial support and risk of poverty while caring for a loved one leads to high levels of stress and can have a significant impact on the mental and physical health of the carer, seriously impinging on their own quality of life. In turn, that increases the carer’s own need for treatment, support and services in order to help them cope.

The SNP Scottish Government took action to mitigate the substandard level of carer’s allowance by introducing the carer’s allowance supplement in 2018. It is paid half-yearly and is £288.60 in 2024. Some might think that is a trifling amount, but for some carers it makes a huge difference. There is also a young carers package offering discounts and opportunities for all young carers aged 11 to 18. The Scottish Government fund Carers Trust Scotland to run the Scottish young carers festival to allow young carers to take a break.

Since launching the carer’s allowance supplement, the Scottish Government have made 920,000 payments, totalling around £255 million. In Scotland we would like to do more, but we are limited by the strict confines of budgetary constraints following cuts to the block grant. In an independent Scotland, more could be done to improve the lives of carers.

Despite that, the Scottish Government continue to recognise the huge contributions that carers make to society. In November 2023, we launched the carer support payment, the main Scottish social security benefit, which will replace carer’s allowance in Scotland. Scottish social security treats all claimants with dignity, fairness and respect. The carer support payment has been developed to deliver an improved service, designed with carer and support organisations to meet the needs of those who use it, and to provide links to wider services to help carers access the support to which they are entitled.

Working within a fixed “pocket money” budget, the Scottish Government have continuously tried to mitigate cruel Westminster policies in order to treat carers with the respect they deserve. The Scottish Government are totally committed to carers. They are investing £88.4 million a year in local carer support through local authority funding under the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016, and have provided £8 million a year for voluntary sector short breaks since 2022-23, enabling more people, including young carers, to take a break from caring.

Carer Positive, which works with employers in Scotland, was founded 10 years ago, and I am one of its members. I believe that MPs and MSPs should do all we can to promote that excellent scheme, which helps employers to do their bit for the carers they employ and gives good advice. It is time that the UK Government followed suit with some of these initiatives and showed carers the recognition they deserve, as well as giving them the financial support they need.

We have heard this afternoon of carers being harassed and penalised for overpayments made by DWP, adding insult to injury. Will the Minister look at that? Will she also commit to responding positively to the Work and Pensions Committee reports in a timely manner, and to stopping the cliff-edge situation that carers face with benefits?

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 6:37, 22 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond on behalf of the shadow Work and Pensions team. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Christina Rees on securing this afternoon’s debate, and by thanking the thousands of people who signed the petition that triggered it. It does not surprise me that my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms has the largest number of constituents in support of the petition, given the work he does as Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee.

As shadow Minister for Disabled People, I come into contact with a lot of unpaid carers. As a society, we should be incredibly grateful for everything they do. I pay tribute to them, and to the many organisations such as Carers UK and the Carers Trust that support them and stand up for their rights. As my hon. Friend the Member for Neath said, carers are unsung heroes, providing care around the clock and saving the taxpayer quite literally billions of pounds, as many Members have pointed out. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham so eloquently put it—I know his Select Committee has been working on this—carers simply do not get enough money to survive.

As we have already heard, there are around 5.7 million unpaid carers in the UK. As my hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood pointed out, 72% are women, and 44% of those of working age who provide full-time care live in poverty. Carers should not be living—surviving—in poverty.

To be eligible for carer’s allowance, an individual must provide at least 35 hours of unpaid care per week, and the person they care for must be in receipt of certain benefits. However, as my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley pointed out, young carers in full-time education are not eligible for carer’s allowance. The main route to qualifying is now via personal independence payment—three words that strike fear into the hearts of many. I am sure everyone here will have heard PIP horror stories from their constituency casework. I could talk all afternoon and into the late evening about the problems with PIP, but I will leave that for another time. We have had many debates on it.

As others have said, this debate is especially timely given the recent stories we have seen in the press about carer’s allowance overpayment. Those in receipt of the benefit are allowed to have a second income from a job, but there is a strict limit on how much they can earn; currently it is £151 a week. If a carer’s income rises above that, by working a few extra hours, for instance, they forfeit the entire benefit. That results in overpayment, which the DWP then seeks to recover. Repayments can build up an incredible amount, because even if the weekly earnings limit is exceeded by as little as £1, claimants automatically become ineligible for the entire allowance. The Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham has rightly asked whether the Government can raise the earning limit. I hope the Minister will inform us of the Government’s thinking.

We have all seen recent examples in the press of people who have been forced to repay thousands after breaching the income threshold by as little as a few pounds a week. Just as disabled people and those with long-term illnesses often describe feeling demonised and humiliated by the benefits system, sadly so too do their carers. The Government need to urgently investigate the overpayment issue and outline what steps they are taking to ensure this does not happen in future, including by publishing their report in full. As my hon. Friend Beth Winter pointed out, some people are not receiving the benefits they are entitled to.

In order to ensure that unpaid carers are getting the support and recognition they deserve, we must look beyond the issue of carer’s allowance. My hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams aptly pointed that out and shared her experiences of the strain put on families to provide essential support to their loved ones.

A Labour Government will transform social care for older people, children and disabled people. Alongside our 10-year plan for change and modernisation of the NHS, Labour will deliver a long-term plan for the reform of adult social care that will lead to a world-class national care service. Our fair deal for carers will ensure that both paid and unpaid carers are valued and supported. As set out in our new deal for working people, our priority will be care workers receiving the pay, conditions and training they need to provide great care and stay working in the sector. We will establish a new partnership with families who care for their loved ones to ensure that they do not put themselves at risk simply by looking after the people they love.

We will also support unpaid carers by introducing the right to flexible working and providing time away from work for caring responsibilities. We will join up services and support so that families do not have to battle their way around the system. We will give people in care homes a new legal right to see their loved ones.

I want to finish on something my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley tried a few times to say: we need to stop the dehumanisation of benefit claimants, such as those who access carer’s allowance who we all know add so much to this country.

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions 6:45, 22 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. It is a pleasure to respond to what has been a slightly protracted, wide-ranging e-petition debate. I thank Christina Rees for introducing it with a characteristically thoughtful and wide-ranging speech, and I welcome Alasdair’s raising the issue.

This debate is welcome. It comes at a challenging time for our carers looking after their loved ones: we are post-covid and we face cost of living pressures due to the invasion of Ukraine. It is a challenging time for all of us, but most particularly our carers. I want, like many, to begin by paying tribute to the millions of unpaid carers across this country. Very thoughtful and personal contributions have been made by hon. Members, and I duly note the queries and challenges they have raised. I have much to say in response.

First, I know that people are concerned that the Government do not recognise and value the contributions made by carers every day in providing this significant care and continuity of support to family and friends, including pensioners and those with disabilities, but it is really important to put on record that that is not my perception. That is not how I want people to see this Government. I will do my best to make that clear to those watching.

The 2021 census indicates that around 5 million people in England and Wales may be doing some unpaid care, with many of us taking on that role at some point in our lives. Like other hon. Members, I see much of the work that is done by carers in my postbag, at events in my constituency, at carer’s rights days, or through engaging with my constituents in Mid Sussex. None of us is immune to the challenges of caring. Colleagues will know that this is of particular interest to me as a former carer and as part of a caring family. I pay tribute to all who do this daily. It is a difficult job—one that is the best and the worst in the world, in some ways. You will always be grateful that you have been there. It is precious and hard going in equal measure and I pay tribute to all those doing that.

Carers are fortunate enough to have some wonderful advocates. We have seen that both in the contributions of MPs to this debate and in organisations such as Carers UK, Carers Trust and the Learning and Work Institute, to name but three. Some of those have been mentioned already. I meet Carers UK regularly, and will be doing so again shortly. I was delighted that my officials were able to meet recently with a wonderful delegation of inspirational young carers who were part of Young Carers Action Day in March.

I also pay tribute to the hundreds of DWP staff, largely based in the north-west, who provide financial support to a million unpaid carers through the carer’s allowance, day in and day out. I want to make sure that our approach is one of always being happy to look at to mistakes or other issues and of always treating each case on its merits.

It would be misleading the House if I was not completely clear that this is a policy area that I have been hugely interested in, both as a Back Bencher through the work of the all-party parliamentary group and now as a Minister. I have been acutely interested in these matters, and I can be clear with the House that, since coming to this role, this is a matter that I have been examining. I genuinely welcome this debate.

I want to support those unpaid carers to do some of the paid work that they love, want to do and continue to do, something that they can balance alongside their commitments to their loved ones—the people who they are looking after. We have of course legislated to ensure that employees will be entitled to five days of unpaid care leave per year and will be supported through more flexible working in the workplace. I encourage employers listening to consider job design, have supportive conversations and be part of acknowledging this invaluable role. This is a community, employee and Government partnership.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Leader of the Liberal Democrats

When the Minister talks about legislating for five days’ leave for carers, will she mention my hon. Friend Wendy Chamberlain, who piloted that legislation with cross-party support?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Yes, indeed. I was supportive of that myself, attending where possible to support that legislation going through. The Government absolutely welcome the cross-party work Wendy Chamberlain did piloting that, and congratulations to her.

On the specific subject of the debate, we are spending record amounts to support unpaid carers. Real-terms expenditure for carer’s allowance is forecast to be £4.1 billion in 2024-25 and by 2028-29 the Government are forecast to spend over £4.5 billion a year on carer’s allowance. We spend another £685 million to support carers receiving universal credit through the carer element.

As mentioned today, patterns of care have changed significantly over the past decade. People are providing vital unpaid care to relatives and friends in a whole range of circumstances that work for all concerned, but I also recognise that none of this is easy. Nearly one million people now receive carer’s allowance, and the weekly rate increased this month to £81.90. That means that since 2010 it has increased from £53.90 to £81.90 a week, providing an additional £1,500 a year to carers through the carer’s allowance compared with 2010. Of course, there are additional amounts for carers in universal credit and other ways forward, and it is important that those watching and those who maybe have not had this conversation are aware of those and come forward to get the support they need. That also can be through the household support fund. We know that unexpected outgoings happen, and people should reach out through their local authority and through Barnett consequentials. I know that that has been an important support mechanism for carers.

The crux of the petition we have been debating is that we should turn carer’s allowance into a carer’s wage. It is important to emphasise that the carer’s allowance is not intended to be a replacement for a wage or a payment for services of caring, hence some of the issues rightly raised today. It is therefore not directly comparable to either the national minimum wage or the national living wage. The principal purpose of the carer’s allowance as it stands, and under successive Governments since 1976, is to provide a measure of financial support and recognition for people who are not able to work full time because of their caring responsibilities. I reiterate that I welcome the debate and the opportunity to review and understand these issues. Successive Governments have supported carers through allowances and benefits, as well as wider cross-Government actions, rather than paying people directly for the tasks they undertake in the way that an employer would.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I want to raise something that has not been raised in the debate and ask the Minister a question. She refuted the point that the Government do not recognise the contribution of carers, but many carers believe that the Government should have, and are missing, a national carers strategy. Such a strategy was launched by the Labour Government, with the backing of our former Prime Ministers, and was ditched by the coalition Government after 2010. Much of what we have covered is about a range of issues that would be better solved with a cross-party ministerial commitment, going up to prime ministerial level, on a national carers strategy. An excellent campaigner, Katy Styles, who has been mentioned in this debate, runs the We Care Campaign for that very thing. It is a real black hole in the Government’s support for carers that there is no national carers strategy. Will the Minister address that?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. Sir Stephen Timms took us back nearly two decades to 2008, the year that he was Minister of State in the Department holding the welfare reform portfolio. This is not new; this is challenging. The hon. Lady makes an important point, to which I will try to reply in my wider remarks. When we discuss this issue at the Select Committee, I am keen to get to the crux of all the challenges, but that is too wide a subject for this debate.

Vicky Foxcroft talked about benefit delays and the challenge of the long-standing principle that the carer’s allowance can being awarded only once a decision has been made to trigger a disability benefit to the person being cared for. Carer’s allowance can be backdated, however, to the date from which the disability is payable. I believe about 100,000 people are on PIP and the carer’s allowance. I hope that goes some way to answering her questions.

Marion Fellows, with her characteristic approach, raised the work being done in Scotland. We will look fully and with interest at the evaluation of the changes that the Scottish Government make. At the DWP, we are supporting those changes, so we will engage on them. That also goes to the earlier point about looking and learning, which is exactly what we should do.

Many hon. Members spoke about young adult carers and the impact of study. We are engaging with the Department for Education and the cross-Government working group is meeting again soon. It is important that carers maintain links with the education system, so that they can receive part-time education and a carer’s allowance. We rightly recognise the aspirations of young carers to not only complete their studies and build a successful career, but be there for their loved one.

That is true not just for young carers: we need to ensure that carers understand that, while caring, they have developed amazing skills that an employer will find invaluable, such as managing finances, the resilience that has been spoken about today, dealing with crisis, organisation and planning, and that level of interpersonal skills. We need to ensure that our young people in particular get the financial support that they need while studying, so they can rightly progress into the career that they want.

On the latest data on overpayments, our most recent statistics are that carer’s allowance overpayments relating to earnings and employment represent about 2.1% of our £3.3 billion of carer’s allowance expenditure, which is approximately £70 million. I welcome the opportunity to discuss that further with the Select Committee later this week.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

Will the Minister respond specifically to my point about the Government’s response to the Select Committee report five years ago? Paragraph 20 says:

“The VEP Service receives the same information Universal Credit…receives from HMRC…A notification is automatically received by VEP when the weekly net pay exceeds the CA”— carer’s allowance—

“earnings limit…The VEP Service then applies a series of…rules…to determine if a VEP Alert should be sent on to the CA Unit to action.”

It is puzzling that the Department knows when that is being overpaid, but seems not to be doing anything. Why is that?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I was just coming on to overpayments and what has been in the press. I am not the Minister leading on the fraud side of the policy, but we will discuss that on Wednesday. I am keenly looking at it in the round and working with the right hon. Gentleman. There is a lot of interest, but there is always more to matters and more to discuss, although we should refrain from discussing individual cases.

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I will try to answer the point of the right hon. Member for East Ham. There is a need to balance the duty to recover overpayments with safeguards to manage repayments suitably. Claimants have a responsibility to ensure that they are entitled to benefits and to inform us about changes. We have improved customer communications to remind them of the importance of telling us about any earnings, including through the annual uprating letter.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford mentioned doing a couple of extra hours here and there. Where it can be balanced out using the process that the right hon. Member for East Ham mentioned, and where we can show a pattern, of course we will always respond to that. The right hon. Gentleman is talking about getting upstream of that, but the issue is the expenses that can be incurred; I am sure we will get into the weeds of that on Wednesday. He is right to say that there is a way of understanding that people may be in that situation, but there may be expenses too. I hope that gives him a partial answer.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Llafur, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Could the Minister respond to my query about medical advisers to first-tier tribunals, and the statements that are included in their bundles?

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I will take that point away. I am keen to explain more about the National Audit Office and the wider reports on Wednesday; it is quite complicated for this particular arena.

Beth Winter made a point about the overlap of the carer’s allowance and the state pension—they are both paid as an income replacement benefit. The carer’s allowance replaces an income where the carer is not able to work full time due to their caring responsibilities, while the state pension replaces income in retirement. For that reason, they cannot be paid together to avoid duplicating the provision for the same need. However, if a carer’s state pension is less than the carer’s allowance, the state pension is paid and topped up with the carer’s allowance to the basic weekly rate.

Where a carer’s allowance cannot be paid, the person will keep an underlying entitlement to the benefit. That gives access to an additional amount for carers in pension credit of £45.60 a week, which is just under £2,400 a year. Around 100,000 carers receive that as part of their pension credit award. It is paid to recognise the additional contribution and the associated responsibilities, and means that lower-income pensioners with caring responsibilities can receive more than the lower-income receipts of pension credit. If a pensioner’s income is above the limit for pension credit, they may still be entitled to housing benefit. I would point them to the household support fund and the DWP’s help to claim service.

Ed Davey raised a point about young carers. It is challenging to meet the objectives in this wide-ranging area, particularly for young carers and, as we have discussed, there are many objectives that we are trying to meet in different and individual circumstances. The hon. Member for Cynon Valley also mentioned the support from wonderful organisations such as Carers UK, and indeed our constituency offices, to help people to claim. There is now an easy-to-use online claims service for carer’s allowance. Some 90% of people claim that way, and nine out of 10 people are happy with the claims service.

Margaret Greenwood spoke about earnings limits. I appreciate that carers are busy and there is a lot going on, but they are told about the earnings limit when they claim. They also get an annual uprating letter reminding them of any changes, and we use a text reminder. I would always ask carers to engage with us if there are any changes in circumstances. We have supported hundreds of thousands of unpaid carers receiving means-tested benefits through the cost of living support, as well as through support for their fuel bills. As I have said, it has been a difficult time.

The hon. Member for Neath rightly raised the 35-hour care threshold and asked how that was decided on. It dates back to 1976, when the carer’s allowance was introduced. At the time, 35 hours was the length of the average working week, and the view was that someone who was caring for 35 hours therefore could not be working full time. That was the basis on which the carer’s allowance support was introduced. She also rightly raised the delivery of carer’s assessments. I will ensure that Ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are aware of her concerns.

The carers strategy was mentioned. The Government rightly support unpaid carers, and some of that was covered in the social care plan, “People at the Heart of Care”. Hopefully, I have spelt out today that there is a lot to look at.

The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham, mentioned the research. I have been looking specifically at that research, as well as the wider policy, in preparation for this debate. We are carefully considering the right time to publish that. I found it extremely helpful and enlightening; it is genuinely helping policy thought and development.

Before I close—I am certain I am over my time—I remind Members that for many carers doing work who receive universal credit, the 55% taper rate and any applicable work allowance will help ensure that people are better off in work. Ninety per cent of those receiving the UC carer element who are declaring earnings have a work allowance. Those with a disability or, indeed, a child might be in that situation.

I note the Opposition’s commitment to the reform of carer’s allowance. It is the first time that I had seen that, so it is pretty recent. Prior to that, there had been a focus around earnings rules. I will look at what others are promising, because as I said, some of this dates back to 1976, and some of it back more than 20 years. We have spoken about a mixed and challenging picture.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am really glad that the Minister has been re-promoted, which we forgot to mention. I am happy to send her all the stuff that the Opposition are looking to do. Of course, we are more than happy if the Conservatives want to pinch some more of our policies in the future.

Photo of Mims Davies Mims Davies The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

That was characteristically put; I thank the hon. Lady very much. The Work and Pensions Committee Chair made the point about having an open mind about this policy, and hopefully I have shown today that I very much have an open mind.

The Government appreciate that society relies on unpaid carers. It is the most challenging, fulfilling and difficult job, and we recognise the challenges that they face. We are helping carers to stay in paid work, but there is more to do, as I have spelt out. The opportunity to work with employers in a flexible labour market is appealing, and there is more to build on. We are spending record amounts on carer’s allowance and providing unpaid carers with the help and support they need and deserve. If they are not getting that, please do come and talk to us—our team are there to support them. We will keep carer’s allowance under review, as we do all benefits.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Annibynnol, Castell-nedd 7:09, 22 Ebrill 2024

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. There is agreement among all speakers in this debate, including the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Stephen Timms; the Opposition spokesperson, my hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft; and the SNP spokesperson, Marion Fellows. I thank them all for their valuable contributions.

I hope that the Minister, who is very magnanimous, will urge her Government to review and reform all aspects of carer’s allowance, as has been called for by the petitioner, Alasdair, and all speakers today. I say again how much I admire and respect all unpaid carers in the UK, and I thank them all from the bottom of my heart for what they do. I also thank the charities that support them. Carers are truly wonderful people and they deserve to be recognised, valued and better supported by this Government. I hope that this Government have listened today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered e-petition 640062 relating to Carer’s Allowance.

Sitting adjourned.