The price of equality

Getting it Right is the title of a new leaflet from the Department for Work and Pensions that explains the consequences of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. It’s important that we get it right when we explain to gay and lesbian couples what might be happening to their benefits over the next few weeks and months.

The first fact to understand is that the benefit implications of the act do not just extend to same-sex couples who register their relationships. Couples who choose not to register could still lose out, as same-sex relationships are placed on the same basis as opposite-sex relationships as far as means-tested benefits are concerned.

First, though, the good news. Same-sex couples who do go through the civil registration procedure will, for benefit purposes, be treated in the same way as married couples. For example, Sarah, 58, and Lisa, 57, register their relationship. When Sarah retires, she can receive a retirement pension based on either her own national insurance record or as a dependent of Lisa, whichever is higher: this is the same option that married women have always had.

Michael and Daniel, both 47, also register their relationship. From the date they register, they will be able to claim a 2,000 bereavement payment and a weekly bereavement pension if one of them died. The bereavement pension only lasts 52 weeks. But if they had dependent children the surviving partner would receive a widowed parent’s allowance instead, for as long as the child attracts child benefit.

Consider a scenario, however, where Daniel has died and Michael is collecting bereavement or a widowed parent’s allowance (WPA). Michael then takes on a new partner (same sex or not – what matters at this point is that they are living together as a couple). Michael’s bereavement allowance or WPA would stop because he is no longer “single”, whether he registers that new relationship or not.

Again, this is what widows and widowers have always had to cope with but those rules are now extended to same-sex couples. People receiving means-tested benefits are particularly affected.

Luis and Trevor are a gay couple who live together. Luis works full time. Trevor is unemployed and is on income-based jobseekers allowance. They are in a two-bedroom rented flat as joint tenants and Trevor receives housing benefit for his half of the rent.

From 5 December, Trevor will be no longer entitled to any of his benefits, as he would be seen as dependent on Luis. He is being overpaid for each week that he fails to declare that they are a couple, whether they register their relationship or not. It is possible that he could be asked to repay that benefit if the Jobcentre or housing benefit section decides that it was “reasonable” for him to know he was being overpaid.

If Luis were on a low income, he could claim working tax credit and include Trevor on his claim as a dependent. They could also claim housing benefit as a couple, based on Trevor’s low wage. But it is likely that they will be told that that benefit will be restricted to the level for a one-bed flat because, as a couple, they do not need two bedrooms.

Yes, it is equality, but there is a price to pay.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council. He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a question to be answered please write to him c/o Community Care

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