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Couples (Benefits)

Volume 164: debated on Monday 8 January 1990

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To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what assessment he has made of the financial effect on couples who live apart for employment or educational reasons, of their treatment under the income support, family credit or housing benefit regulations as if they were living together.

The financial effect on individual couples will vary according to individual circumstances. As a general rule, as long as both partners normally live in the household, temporary absences are ignored for the purposes of entitlement to income-related benefits.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in a small minority of cases the rule that he has just outlined may lead to one family having two sets of living expenses that often have to be paid for out of one set of benefits? A reduction in a particular benefit can bring that family way below the poverty line, purely because one member of the family has decided to seek training or education as a means of bettering himself or herself.

I am not sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right about training and education. There are special housing benefit arrangements for couples who have to live apart because one of the partners is a student or is on a training course. In those circumstances, housing benefit can be paid for an unlimited period for both homes.

Does not the Secretary of State accept that there are some anomalies? If one of the partners has to undergo education or training in order to try to return to employment, on many occasions the couple loses money. Will he undertake to examine the anomalies and ensure that that deterrent to either party returning to education or training is ended and that they do not lose money?

I have already referred to one aspect of the way in which the system seeks to take account of that kind of problem. The hon. Gentleman has made his point fairly and reasonably. I accept that this is a difficult area. These cases are relatively rare and the circumstances can be quite complicated. If there is a particular case that the hon. Gentleman would like to draw to my attention, I shall certainly have a look at it.