Watch as distraught South Tyneside father and carer explains how he is having to go without meals to feed his children after being landed with unexpected benefits bill from the Department for Work and Pensions
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Colin Mackenzie, 37, from Jarrow, is a full-time carer for his friend and former partner Rebecca Hanks, 32, and is currently in receipt of Universal Credit (UC), Child Allowance and Carers Allowance.
Rebecca has Alport syndrome, which effects her kidney function, as well as Antiphospholipid syndrome, a disorder of the immune system which results in blood clots and has resulted in Rebecca having three heart attacks since the age of 25.
Despite no longer being a couple, they have a daughter from their previous relationship, Elissa Hanks, four, and as Rebecca’s health continued to deteriorate, in May 2021 Colin officially moved in with Rebecca as her full-time carer where he now lives along with his son Jacob, 11, and Rebecca’s son from a previous relationship, Wyatt, 10.
Last month (September) Colin was left shocked when he received an email from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) notifying him of the need to pay back £1316. 18 for an overpayment which took place between May 23rd 2021 and January 22nd 2022.
The overpayment is stipulated in correspondence with DWP as due to “late notification” that he was in receipt of Carers Allowance, which would have resulted in a deduction from his UC payment.
With a monthly income of less than £800 per month for himself and his children, it has left Colin distraught, with the situation having a “detrimental impact” on his mental health and feeling in a state of panic as to how he is going to care for Rebecca and support his children.
But the DWP is standing by its assertion that notification was late, and as such, Colin will need to repay the calculated overpayment.
He said: “I’m already missing out on meals to feed my kids and I’m going to have to do this more to ensure they can eat. I’m really worried about being able to heat the house this winter and ultimately at times we are going to have to go without food, electricity and gas.
"We’ve already stopped tumble drying clothes which makes it really difficult to get uniforms dry for the kids going to school. Rebecca has hospital appointments and at the moment we can’t even put fuel in our car.
"We can’t afford much anyway, but with further deductions it’s going to be impossible to get the children any birthday or Christmas presents.”
While Colin said he won’t know the extent of the monthly deductions until his next UC payment at the end of October, his situation is compounded by a build-up of debt incurred as he tries to make ends meet.
He added: “I’m already getting money taken out of my UC for an advance payment I had to use to buy a cooker after our old one broke and I’m also trying to pay money back to my mother who at the moment is lending me around £100 a month to ensure we can put enough money in the electric meter.”
Colin officially started receiving his Carer Allowance on May 23rd 2021. While he accepts and claims he was “three weeks late” in notifying DWP of this – and has cited a note in his UC log indicating this was done on June 14 2021 - he believed from this point he was on the correct benefit rate.
He was notified of the overpayment - which covered an eight month period – on September 28 2022, and can’t understand why it has taken so long for him to be contacted and for the payment to be adjusted, which he claims has resulted in the size of the overpayment he is now being asked to pay.
Colin said: “I could understand if I was being charged for the gap before I notified them. But I informed them on June 14 last year and so I don’t understand why it has taken so long for DWP to contact me about this overpayment. From that point I assumed I was on the correct payment.”
As a last resort, Colin contacted the Gazette to see if we could help, and following us contacting DWP, they have been in touch with Colin to “signpost him towards help on an affordable payment plan”.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Mr Mackenzie incurred an overpayment as he didn’t tell us that he was in receipt of Carer’s Allowance and that meant it wasn’t deducted from his Universal Credit entitlement following the addition of the carer’s element at the time.
“Safeguards are in place to ensure benefit deductions are manageable and claimants can contact DWP to discuss their benefit debt repayments if they are experiencing financial hardship. We have provided Mr Mackenzie with information on how to do that and have contacted Mr Mackenzie to further explain the benefit overpayment.”
However Colin feels this has left him in an “impossible situation”.
He said: “With the cost of living crisis at the moment and everything going up, the bottom line is I just can’t afford to pay this. I’m looking at the possibility of going back to work but then there will be no one to look after Rebecca. The last work I did was at Morrisons supermarket. It was during this time she was having to do too much and ended up having her third heart attack.”