Thousands of unpaid carers forced to pay up to £48,000 each to the government
Almost 70,000 unpaid carers are being forced to repay thousands in benefits after a "despicable failure" by the government.
People who care for vulnerable loved ones have been hit with bills of up to £48,000 each - with some facing prosecution.
Campaigners say many of those hit are being penalised for claiming £64.60-a-week Carers' Allowance while also having a job.
But carers who earn more than £120 a week after tax and expenses are not allowed to claim the benefit.
MPs and charities say guidance was unclear and claimants didn't know they were in the wrong.
The chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee called for the overpayments to be written off and referred the case to the National Audit Office.
Branding the situation a "gross failure", Frank Field said: "No carer should have to suffer as result of such shocking ineptitude."
It comes after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) admitted the number of carers it is clawing back money from has soared thanks to a new earnings information system.
The number of referrals shot up from 38,000, 33,000 and 35,000 in three years to 50,000 in 2016/17, 49,000 in 2017/18, and 39,000 since April this year.
The total number of outstanding overpayments is currently 69,609.
And the average amount owed has risen to more than £1,400.
In the worst single case, a carer owes £48,560. The lowest single amount owed is £67.
Emily Holzhausen of Carers UK warned the rules were "complicated" and the penalty for getting them wrong was "the harshest in the benefit system".
Victims included people caring for partners, parents and disabled children, she said - with people losing their whole allowance if they tip £1 over the limit.
And she warned people with fluctuating incomes, including the self-employed and people on zero-hour contracts, were being caught in the system.
She told MPs: "The one thing that comes back through very clearly is the distress this causes. Most people say 'I just didn't realise', for whatever reason.
"The support people provide is worth £132billion a year. It's something we simply can't do without".
Labour MP Ruth George, who sits on the DWP committee, said: "The government’s treatment of carers, who save this country a fortune by their dedication to the one they care for, is despicable.
"They have admitted their advice on the earnings limit for Carers Allowance is unclear.
"Yet they are prosecuting carers for thousands of pounds, often for earning just a few pounds over the limit.
"The government has had access to all information on their pay for years but hadn’t checked it.
"They are at fault here and need to stop prosecuting carers who claimed unwittingly, and have enough on their plates already.”
In a letter to the committee, DWP Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield said it was an "obligation on the claimant" to say when their circumstances change.
He confirmed that in some cases, "further enquiries or investigation with a view to prosecution is warranted" - and people are taken to court if "it is in the public interest to do so".
Even before prosecution, those paid too much can receive a £50 "civil penalty" or an "administrative penalty" of up to £5,000.
He said the number of overpayments should be viewed in the context of there being 850,000 claimants overall.
"Our published statistics for 2016/17 estimate that claimant error will lead to an overpayment in 1% of cases," he wrote.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We work extremely hard to make claimants aware of their responsibility to provide correct information when making a benefit claim and to report any change in their circumstances.
"This includes informing customers of the consequences of incorrect or late reporting of information, including prosecution, financial penalty and debt implications.
"We are also introducing new technology to make it easier to identify and prevent overpayments and improve debt recovery.
"But it is right that we take the appropriate action – we have a duty to the taxpayer to recover outstanding money in all cases of fraud or error."Dan Bloom, Daily Mirror