Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell calls on the Chancellor to provide “transitional relief” in today’s Pre-Budget Report to gay couples who are not in a civil partnership.

Thousands of low income same-sex couples have been plunged into poverty as a result of benefit rule changes introduced when the Civil Partnership Act became law on 5 December last year.

On the first anniversary of civil partnerships, the gay human rights group OutRage! is urging Chancellor Gordon Brown to provide “transitional relief” for the many gay partners who have suffered severe financial hardship as a result of the sudden, overnight changes in social security regulations.

These changes have reclassified all cohabiting same-sex lovers as the equivalent of civil partners; ending individual assessment of their benefit entitlements and replacing it with joint assessment. This change applies to lesbian and gay couples who are not civil partners and who do not want to be civil partners. Their free choice has been

removed.

Against their wishes, these lovers have been lumbered with the financial responsibilities that go with civil partnerships, but they get none of the rights and advantages.

The changes affect all couples where one partner is on means-tested benefits and the other has an income. Previously, gay relationships were not acknowledged or recognised in law. Each partner was assessed for benefits individually and separately.

Because they are now jointly assessed, the partner claiming social security is losing most or all of their means-tested benefits, including benefits such as income support, housing benefit, pension credit, job seekers allowance, council tax benefit and free prescriptions and dental treatment. This loss of benefits is pushing some people into debt, bankruptcy and serious financial strain and worry.

The benefit change was sneaked through by the government with no parliamentary debate or vote – and with no adequate awareness campaign to alert same-sex cohabitees of the changes.

It has hit hard thousands of elderly, sick, unemployed, disabled and low income same-sex partners in receipt of means-tested benefits or tax credits. Many have lost social security payments totalling £6,000 a year; destroying their financial independence and putting their relationships under strain as they struggle to cope with the big financial losses.

Joint assessment and cuts in benefits have forced a partner on benefits to become financially dependent on their income-earning partner. It also means that if they took out a tenancy or a mortgage based on their pre-December 2005 benefits, the loss of income may force them to sell their home or move to cheaper, less suitable rented accommodation; causing huge and stressful disruption to the lives of vulnerable elderly, sick and disabled gays and lesbians.

We all plan our lives based on our expected income. Ten or more years ago, long before civil partnerships were ever thought possible, older and disabled gay people may have bought or rented a house with their partner, on the basis of their then existing mortgage and housing benefit entitlements, which they assumed would not change. They made a

long-term financial commitment based on their existing benefits at the time. For these couples, the new rule changes are causing severe financial difficulties.

Civil partnerships are undoubtedly financially beneficial to rich same-sex couples, in terms of inheritance tax and transferable pension rights. They are, however, causing major economic hardship to many low income and benefit-dependent gay partners.

The government argues that the changes merely bring cohabiting same-sex couples into line with the benefit rules affecting cohabiting heterosexual couples. This is true. Of course there should be parity. But it needs to be phased in and properly publicised in advance.

The lack of publicity means that many cohabiting same-sex couples are unaware of the rule changes. If they are discovered by the benefits agency, they will have to pay back all the benefits they have received. An uninformed gay claimant who suddenly gets caught in 2010, could be stung by a repayment bill of nearly £30,000.

In the past, when benefit regulations have changed, existing claimants have been allowed to continue receiving benefits under the old rules. The new rules were only applied to new claimants.

The same transitional protection should now be made available to cohabiting same-sex partners who were claiming benefits prior to 5 December 2005. They should be assessed under the old rules and only subsequent claimants should be assessed under the new rules.

Alternatively, pre-5 December 2005 claimants should be allowed to continue to claim under the old benefit rules for a period of five to 10 years, to give them time to financially adjust to the new regulations.

The Department of Work and Pensions has turned down requests to provide transitional protection to same-sex partners, even though it admits transitional protection has been granted on “numerous occasions” in the past when benefit rules have changed. Why are

same-sex partners being singled out and denied transitional protection?

The absence of transitional relief for same-sex partners smacks of homophobic discrimination.

This article first appeared on The Guardian’s Comment is Free page