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18 October 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 12:32pm

“Having a younger partner is like a crime”: Universal Credit “couple penalty” punishes pensioners

Couples where one partner is below pension age stand to lose out, some by over £100 a week, under the welfare change.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Jen and her husband got married in 2011, and have been together 16 years. They live in Lincoln.

Jen, who volunteers, is unable to work as she cares full-time for her husband, who has lung conditions that can make him unconscious, and relies on a mobility car to get around after suffering a stroke a few years ago.

They therefore have a low income, and rely on pension benefits to afford their living and medical costs.

Jen – who prefers not to give her full name – is 47, and her husband is of pension age at 66. They receive Pension Credit to top up her husband’s state pension and his small workplace pension, as well as receiving the help with rent and council tax available to pensioners. Jen receives Carer’s Allowance, and her husband also claims the disability benefit Personal Independence Payments.

But with the new welfare system Universal Credit on its way, Jen calculates that they will end up £190 worse off a week, leaving them to live on about £100 a week.

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“If we’ve got insufficient funds to put in the vehicle for my husband to go anywhere, basically he’ll be more-or-less housebound,” she tells me over the phone. “He’ll also struggle to get to medical appointments.”

Jen is the younger half of what’s known as a “mixed-age couple” – when one is above the pension age, and the other below it.

Under the old benefits rules – which are still currently in practice – if you are in this kind of couple, your eligibility for means-tested benefits is determined by the oldest person in the couple.

Universal Credit will reverse this – meaning a mixed-age couple will be defined by the working-age person, not the pensioner. This came into law in 2012, outlined in the Welfare Reform Act, but there is so far no set date for when this change will come in.

All we know is that once the change is introduced, future mixed age couples will no longer be able to claim pension-age benefits. They will need to claim Universal Credit – which will class them both as a working-age couple – instead.

Mixed-age couples like Jen and her husband fear a future of poverty once the new system is rolled out completely, and the “migration” (actively changing existing claimants over to Universal Credit) begins. This is now not expected until 2023, after documents leaked to the BBC this week revealed a rollout delay.

Jen’s prediction of her income loss is from the prospect of losing not only Pension Credit, but other benefits available to pensioners, such as help with their rent via pension-age Housing Benefit.

Mixed-age couples already entitled to Pension Credit or pension-age Housing Benefit will not be affected by the change brought in by Universal Credit – but only as long as they remain continuously entitled to either benefit.

This means any couple that has a temporary break in their Pension Credit or other pension-age benefits – if, say, an increase in income or a sum of money puts them over the entitlement threshold – would go without it if they try and claim after the Universal Credit change comes in.

Jen fears this will happen to her and her husband. While they currently rent with Housing Benefit help, they own their previous place of residence – a park home they were moved out of with the assistance of social services, because a fire there would have endangered Jen’s husband due to his mobility problems.

Now they must sell this home, and the capital from its sale will temporarily wipe out their claim to Pension Credit. Once their capital from the sale runs down to below a certain threshold, they will be entitled to Pension Credit again. But depending on when Universal Credit comes in for mixed-age couples, this could no longer be available to them.

“I feel disappointed, and angry too,” says Jen. “The way they’re treating the working poor and obviously sick and disabled people, well it’s just downright disgusting… To start attacking older people makes it as if it’s sort of a crime to have a younger partner. It feels like a punishment.”

When the legislation was passed in 2012, the charity Age UK wrote a briefing in October that year titled “Universal Credit and couples if one is over Pension Credit age”, which calculated that mixed age couples could lose £100 or more a week under Universal Credit compared to the current system if neither work. This chimes with Jen’s own calculations for her household.

“The older partner could be financially better off living alone,” Age UK’s research found.

At the time, the Labour peer Baroness Jeannie Drake called it a “a peculiar form of couples penalty”, and the crossbencher Baroness Sally Greengross argued that when neither in the couple can work, they will receive lower income than a mixed-age couple on the old Pension Credit system.

Greengross proposed an amendment to the legislation to recognise this:

“When neither partner is able to work or, if able, is unsuccessful in finding work – we know it is rather difficult for people who are near retirement age – the basic level of benefit should reflect the fact that one of the partners is older.”

The government did not accept the amendment.

As the change means mixed-age couples would no longer be able to claim pension-age benefits, older people with a younger partner receiving Universal Credit would lose other support linked to Pension Credit, like Cold Weather Payments, the Warm Home Discount, as well as face reductions in Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit (intended under Universal Credit not to affect pensioners).

By being classed as a working-age couple, they could also face the Bedroom Tax, which does not apply to pensioners.

In its October 2012 briefing, Age UK warned that, “the changes could affect the health and wellbeing of some older people, will increase pensioner poverty, force people to use their retirement savings to support a younger partner, and put pressure on family relationships”.

The DWP’s own Universal Credit Impact Assessment in October 2011 stated: “Some of the larger notional losses for couples without children are in cases where one member is of working age and one is currently eligible for Pension Credit.”

Without a date for the change, it’s difficult to tell how many people this income drop will impact. But last year, the Pension Credit caseload for under-65s averaged over 57,000. Of course, not all those in mixed age couples would suffer from Universal Credit, as many will be working or able to find work – but as it stands, couples like this who are unable to work (even with disability and carers’ benefits under Universal Credit) will be worse off.

“They’re making us suffer,” says Jen.

“As soon as next year, low income pensioners with a younger partner could receive much lower financial support than those claiming benefits now,” says Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK. “The government should look again at this change and make sure that low income pensioners do not face a heavy penalty simply because they have a younger partner.”

A DWP spokesperson said:

“The legislation for the changes to pension credit for mixed age couples was made in 2012.

“We are currently considering how best to implement these changes, whilst ensuring people continue to get the support they need.”

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