Cohabiting couples unfairly treated, Ombudsman says

Thu, Oct 23, 2008, 01:00

OMBUDSMAN EMILY O'Reilly has expressed concern that tax and social welfare laws are unfairly discriminating against tens of thousands of cohabiting couples.

In a report on complaints referred to her office by public representatives, Ms O'Reilly said the law was unsatisfactory and that anomalies between different codes were an ongoing source of resentment among cohabiting couples.

Under current tax legislation, married couples can transfer their tax credits between one another or make joint claims for tax relief. No such option is available for cohabiting couples.

However, social welfare laws treat cohabiting couples as if they were married, accepting a cohabiting partner as a dependent and taking joint incomes into account for the assessment of means for welfare payments.

"Where public bodies are acting within the law, I am limited to drawing attention to the apparent anomalies that may exist between different codes and the clarification of public policy in this area. Any legislative changes are a matter for the Oireachtas to pursue," Ms O'Reilly said in her report.

Latest census figures indicate that cohabiting couples now comprise almost 12 per cent of all families in Ireland. The Government has pledged to introduce laws to extend many marriage-like benefits to cohabiting couples, and yesterday Seán Aylward, secretary general of the Department of Justice, said drafting of the relevant Bill was well advanced.

Speaking at the launch of the annual report of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, Mr Aylward said the Bill would confer rights and obligations on couples in relation to their property, shared homes, pensions and succession. "Social welfare and tax entitlements on a par with those of spouses will be provided through the finance and social welfare Bills," he said.

Separately, Ms O'Reilly said public representatives were increasingly turning to her office for answers to complaints from constituents in areas such as health and housing services.

Her report, published yesterday, includes a list of 12 complaints referred to her, ranging from grievances over issues such as old-age pensions and nursing home subvention payments to disabled persons' grants and farm grants.

Unlike TDs and other representatives, Ms O'Reilly's office has significant powers to demand from public bodies any information, document or file and to demand any official to provide her office with information. She also moved to clarify the Ombudsman's powers in relation to patients and healthcare, pointing out that her office also had powers in this area.

"While we cannot deal with complaints involving clinical judgment, we can deal with complaints on the delivery of care to patients, involving all public hospitals and other service providers," she said.

The office also can investigate administrative errors, such as missing files of patients, delays in passing on critical test results to consultants, and failure of communication between medical staff.