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A Stormont Department has ‘big questions to answer’ over millions of pounds of benefit overpayments that unpaid carers in Northern Ireland have been asked to pay back during the last three years, a charity has said.

New figures show that over £9 million of Carer’s Allowance overpayments have been referred to the Department for Communities’ Debt Management unit since 2021 due to local carers breaching weekly earnings rules.

Those providing unpaid care for sick or disabled loved ones can bring in a small amount of additional income each week and still keep their Carer’s Allowance payment, which is currently worth £81.90 per week. Advocacy group Carers NI said the ‘opaque’ earnings rules can be difficult to understand and called on the Department to identify overpayments earlier so that locals don’t run up such significant debts.

Craig Harrison, Public Affairs Manager at Carers NI, said:

People who are juggling employment with caring for sick or disabled loved ones lead hectic lives and will usually have very little time or energy left at the end of the day to get to grips with complex and opaque benefit rules. If a carer has fluctuating earnings or just doesn’t understand the Carer’s Allowance system properly, it can be easy to foul fall of the earning rules. There are big questions to answer as to why the Department isn’t spotting overpayments earlier and intervening to stop local carers accumulating such severe levels of debt. Last year the average Carer’s Allowance overpayment was worth over £1,600, which will represent a significant amount of money for many unpaid carers. Does the Department have a system in place to automatically intervene when a carer earns more than they’re allowed? That is surely a no-brainer, and the fact we don’t know the answer to such a basic question is just another reason why a major root-and-branch review of the Carer’s Allowance system is desperately needed.”

Between 2021/22 and 2023/24, over 6,500 Carer’s Allowance overpayments were referred to the Department’s Debt Management unit.

The value of overpayments grew by 15% between 2021/22 and 2023/24, from £2.9 million to £3.3 million.

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