A newly married couple who went to a job centre for advice on benefits were told by a civil servant they would be better off if they split up.
Jennet and Mark Fensome were shocked. The advice was deeply upsetting to the couple, and in particular to Mrs Fensome, 41, who had just completed a course on mentoring with the marriage guidance service Relate, and is training to become a relationship counsellor.
The Fensomes, who have six children between them from previous relationships, had gone to Dunstable job centre to inquire about the benefits they would be entitled to as a married couple. They were married in the town in September and are described by those who know them as "very much in love".
"We were told by a lad there we would be better off if we split up," Mrs Fensome said. "I was with my husband and was very upset. I just didn't believe it. I was gobsmacked. I was crying. Mark is my man for life. I knew when I met Mark I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him."
The Fensomes were so amazed by the advice that they went straight to the surgery of their local MP, Andrew Selous. Mr Selous, a Conservative Work and Pensions spokesman, said government advisers had no right to comment on people's private lives and that the intervention flew in the face of government efforts to encourage family life.
He raised the issue in the Commons with John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, demanding to know "what guidance his department issues to Jobcentre Plus staff about advising couples they would be better off financially if they separated".
A reply from Lesley Strathie, the chief executive of Jobcentre Plus, which gives benefits and employment advice, said its official guidance does not include telling couples they should separate.
Mr Selous said: "It is absolutely no good for John Hutton to stress the importance of the family when Department for Work and Pensions staff tell couples in healthy relationships who come to them for benefits advice they should split up. The irony is that Mr and Mrs Fensome believe particularly in the importance of strong families and happy, healthy marriages. They are involved in helping set up a trust to support family life in the constituency."
The Fensomes have been a couple for three and a half years but did not live together until their marriage. Mr Fensome was on incapacity benefit until recently and they also get child benefits. Technically, they could be better off if they split because Mrs Fensome would be entitled to lone parent benefits and a higher level of income support.
A couple get £90.10 a week in income support and single people £57.45. The latter also get a higher rate of child support and dependent children and young person's benefit. They could be entitled, too, to a slightly higher rate of job seeker's allowance and council tax benefit.
"I assume if I was a single parent you would get extra money on your child benefits and you get lone parents benefit," Mrs Fensome said. "But I don't want to split up. I wanted to spend my life with him. I have never met anyone like Mark and to be told you would be better off splitting up is upsetting."
The DWP said it was not the policy of staff to advise couples on their relationships, or tell them to split up so they could take home more cash.
A spokeswoman said: "It is true there are good reasons why single people may get a higher total benefit than a couple, and our advisers may be communicating that, but there is no question of Jobcentre Plus policy encouraging people to split up. The rate of benefits for couples reflects the lower costs of sharing living expenses."Reuse content