The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of using “threatening and cruel” tactics against unpaid carers, with the threat of even higher fines if they challenge any penalties.

The department has been criticised for chasing thousands of carers, who look after disabled or sick individuals, for large repayments due to “honest mistakes” that should have been spotted much sooner. Carers are reportedly feeling cornered and powerless in the face of these harsh fines, which can run into the thousands, especially when the fault may not be theirs.

According to The Guardian, the DWP is warning carers that contesting a repayment could result in increased fines following an appeal. A letter in June 2023 from the DWP warned one unpaid carer that disputing their case might trigger a comprehensive review of their entire claim history, potentially uncovering further periods where earnings exceeded the allowed threshold, leading to a larger overpayment.

Cristina Odone, head of family policy at the centre-right thinktank the Centre for Social Justice, described the DWP tactic as “threatening and incredibly cruel”.

She said: “Again and again, if you talk to ordinary people, the DWP raises their hackles and their fears because it is the state possibly coming to claw back benefits.

“It is the most hostile bit of the state for so many people. This just confirms their wariness of the DWP as the bit of government that is the least sympathetic, most faceless and most heartless.”

People who make more than the £151 weekly limit, even as little as 1p more, must pay back the entire week’s carer’s allowance for the whole period in which they were in breach of the rules, in what has been described as a “cliff edge” approach.

Tens of thousands of carers have unwittingly fallen foul of this rule and have not been alerted by the DWP until years later, even though the government has real-time technology that means it can spot and stop these infractions much sooner.

Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, a campaign group supporting unpaid carers, said the DWP’s attempt to dissuade people against appealing was “quite troubling and quite unsavoury”.

Maugham said: “Parliament has set up an appellant system to enable appeals against demands that people repay carer’s allowance. For the DWP to take steps to discourage people from using this very important safeguard is itself quite troubling.”