Older gay and lesbian couples and people living in rural areas will be treated with compassion in their dealings with Centrelink, federal Minister for Housing and Community Services Jenny Macklin has written to a coalition of community groups.

Macklin again ruled out introducing a grandfather clause, but said people’s fears about discrimination should be taken into account when determining debt accrued over the past six months.

If couples can show they withheld registering their relationship out of a “legitimate fear” of being discriminated against, Centrelink may be able to waive the debt.

Questions to Macklin’s office, about how people would be able to prove they had withheld their information out of fear of discrimination, went unanswered. She did not comment on the reason for the Government’s concession.

A department spokeswoman reiterated the need for couples to register their relationship.

“It is important that same-sex couples receiving Centrelink payments declare their relationship, as these relationships are now legally recognised,” she said.

“We are continuing to take an understanding and compassionate approach to bringing equality under social security.”

Welfare Rights Network president Maree O’Halloran told Sydney Star Observer that the letter from the minister’s office would be a useful tool for gay and lesbian couples who want to go before the social security appeals tribunal.

“It will be a document that we can provide to indicate that the minister and Centrelink are taking a particular approach,” O’Halloran explained. “Without it, we wouldn’t have anything we could take to Centrelink to say, you need to treat this person properly. You need to recognise their unique circumstances, you need to recognise that in certain ways their life has been different from an opposite-sex couple’s.

“What I’m fearful of though is that, despite this letter, if you are someone who is concerned about discrimination, then you’re unlikely to come forward and try that process.

“I think there are a lot of people laying low and afraid because they have debts over their head or they’re scared of discrimination.”

Only an estimated 6300 people have declared their same-sex relationships with Centrelink — well short of the anticipated 11,000.

“It is disappointing that the minister did not provide any transitional arrangements, but it’s encouraging to see that there is compassionate language in this letter,” spokesman for the Coalition for Equality Corey Irlam said.

“Couples who have questioned whether they are a member of a couple, as defined by Centrelink rules, should feel encouraged that this provides an opportunity for them to discuss their situation with Welfare Rights, and act accordingly.”

info: For more information or to contact Welfare Rights, visit www.welfarerights.org.au or call 1800 226 028.

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