Amid Brexit distraction, the DWP sneaked out a huge Universal Credit cut

From 15 May, couples with one pensioner could lose around £7,000 a year.

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“A good day to bury bad news” has become a cliché amid times of national crisis – and the Department for Work and Pensions has continued in this dishonourable tradition by sneaking out a massive benefits cut on the eve of the Brexit vote.

While Westminster is distracted by what is shaping up to be a historic government defeat on the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, the DWP quietly announced a date last night for implementing a cut that could leave couples claiming Universal Credit £7,000 a year worse off.

It’s a cut that impacts mixed-age couples – in which one partner is pension age and the other is younger.

Currently, couples can claim pension credit if one half of the couple is pension age (65, and gradually going up), even if the other is younger. While other pension-aged benefits are based on the individual, your eligibility for means-tested benefits is determined by the oldest person in the couple.

But 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 was no set date for it – until yesterday afternoon. On the eve of the government’s meaningful vote on the Brexit deal, the DWP announced the date in a written ministerial statement for when this change will come in as 15 May.

The charity Age UK has calculated that this change could leave some pensioners £7,000 worse off each year – based on the number of mixed age couples who would be worse off under Universal Credit than if the pensioner continued to claim pension credits. From April 2019, the rates will be £255.25 per week of pension credit for a couple, and approximately £115 a week under Universal Credit.

“It’s a substantial stealth cut,” commented Age UK’s charity director Caroline Abrahams. “A couple claiming in the future could receive £140 less per week than an older mixed couple claiming before the change comes in.”

From 15 May, all mixed-aged couples who apply for benefits will be affected, as well as existing couples who claim pensioner credit who have a change of circumstances that stops their benefits temporarily for whatever reason.

Last October, I reported on this upcoming cut, hearing from a working-age woman called Jen (aged 47) whose husband is a pensioner (aged 66), who calculated that they would end up £190 worse off a week from losing their pension credit and pension-age housing benefit. She told me she would struggle financially to care for her husband, who is ill.

“The way they’re treating the working poor and obviously sick and disabled people, well it’s just downright disgusting,” she said. “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.”

Couples could lose out not only on pension credit, but pension-age housing benefit, no longer being exempted from the bedroom tax, and missing out on pension-age council tax help. Analysis by Age UK finds that some pensioners would be better off leaving their partner and living alone.

What can you do if you are in a couple like this? The Entitled To website advises “all couples where one person is over 65 should check their benefit entitlement before 15 May” and “if they are entitled to Pension Credit and claim it before 15 May they won’t be affected by the change” – so try and claim before the deadline.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.