HC Deb 13 March 1913 vol 50 cc573-80

I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."


I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer a question with reference to the rights of married women who are themselves insured for maternity benefit under the Insurance Act. The reply which I received seemed somewhat complicated, and the reply given to a supplementary question seemed even more complicated. The question is a very simple one; it concerns the right of a woman who is insured and has paid twenty-six contributions to receive maternity benefit of 30s. and, in addition, sickness benefit of 7s. 6d. a week during her illness. In the case of an insured woman whose husband is not himself insured, no question whatever of any kind arises, and she is entitled to double benefit, but when we come to the case of the insured women whose husband is also insured, but is in arrear, then we come to a strange anomaly. Although that woman is fully insured in her own right, and although she has paid twenty-six contributions, nevertheless, if her husband has not paid his twenty-six contributions she may be deprived of maternity benefit. That seems to be a very striking and a very extraordinary anomaly. It is not a mere theoretical case, because it has actually arisen. I have here a letter from an insured man whose wife is also insured. He states:— My wife and myself are both insured in the same society, and on my wife's confinement two weeks ago she claimed maternity benefit as she had twenty-seven stamps to her credit. I could not take it because I had not the required number of stamps, and the society say she is not entitled to benefit because I am in arrear and I cannot get it through being in arrear. I had some doubt whether that was a correct interpretation, and the reply I received is that that is the correct legal interpretation of the Act. I want to put another difficulty that might arise under this interpretation, and it is a very serious disability. Take the case of a married man who fell ill, or had an accident before July last and who is invalided perhaps for several years. His wife has to go out to work to keep the home together, and by means of the woman's earnings, and with the assistance he gets from compensation, the home is kept together for a year, or two years, or even for three years. Before the Act came into operation, if that woman had been confined, she was in a desperate position. She had to give up her employment for the time being, and she incurred serious expense for her illness. That probably meant the breaking up of the home and the whole family going to the workhouse. One of the most beneficial effects of this Act when it came into operation was that such a case was provided for. That woman, whose husband is ill, and who is working and keeping the home together, is entitled not only to maternity benefit of 30s. per week, but to sickness benefit of 7s. 6d. a week as well. There is one danger under the interpretation given to the Act, and that is that her husband should recover sufficiently to undertake light employment. If he goes back to work he is not earning a full wage and there is a risk of a relapse. So the woman has to continue working to keep the home together. If during the first six months after he returned to work, she has a confinement, she is deprived of maternity benefit.


Under what Section?


Under Section 18. That is an anomaly so striking, so irrational, and so indefensible that it could never have been intended by the Act, and could only have been due to some fault or omission or oversight in drafting. Such an interpretation of the Act ought not to be allowed without the very closest scrutiny to see if there is any loophole or means of escape from it, and, if there is, then undoubtedly the Commissioners ought to take advantage of it. How does this interpretation arise? It arises from Clause 18, which says that where the husband of the woman is insured then the maternity benefit shall be considered to be the husband's benefit, and shall be paid by his society in respect of his insurance. I ventured in my question to express a doubt whether a husband who had not paid twenty-six contributions was an insured person within the meaning of this Section, which applies only to maternity benefit, but my hon. Friend tells me his legal advisers advise him there is no doubt the husband is the insured person. I venture to suggest an alternative to what I think the right hon. Gentleman is bound to give his most willing consideration. Why should not the Commissioners avail themselves of the option left to them by Clause 78, which says:—

"If any difficulty arises with respect to the constitution of insurance committees, or the advisory committees, or otherwise, in bringing into operation this part of this Act, the Insurance Commissioners, with the consent of the Treasury, may by order make any appointment; and do anything which appears to them necessary or expedient for the establishment of such committees, or for bringing this part of this Act into operation."

That is a very wide and extensive power which is left to the Commissioners for two years. It may be used and exercised up to 1st January, 1914, I suggest that the Commissioners, under the powers conferred upon them by that Section, should make an order somewhat to this effect, "For the purpose of this Section"—that is, Section 18–"the husband of the insured woman shall not be considered an insured person unless he is entitled to maternity benefit on the confinement of his wife." That would obviously carry out the intention of the Act and the plain intention of those who framed the Act and the Members who voted for it. The purpose of Section 18 is to prevent the payment of double maternity benefit when a man and his wife are both insured; to prevent both drawing 30s. in respect of one confinement in addition to sickness benefit. That prevention would be achieved if this course is adopted, and I venture to recommend its adoption or the consideration of whether some other course cannot be adopted by my right hon. Friend.


The hon. and learned Gentleman has put his point, if I may say so, clearly and well, but it is not a question which is under the control of the Commissioners in any way, nor is it a point which was overlooked or was the result of a lack of discussion when the Clause was passed. The maternity Clause was fully discussed, not under the closure in the August of the year when the Act was passed. The law in its present form is the result of an act of generosity—if I may call it so—on the part of the House to a certain class of women. Now, the hon. and learned Member says there is an anomaly in the Act because some other woman has not had that generosity extended to her. That may be so.


Does not the right hon. Gentleman remember that I pointed out the defect in the drafting, when this particular Clause was under discussion. I pointed out that it gave a double benefit to the insured woman whose husband was not insured, and it refused the double benefit to the woman who was not married and was confined of a child.


That was done deliberately; there was no defect in the drafting. The House decided, and pressed it upon the Government. This particular Amendment, giving both sickness and maternity benefits to wives of uninsured persons, was not in the Bill as we originally drafted it. It was under pressure from the House that we gave both benefits to wives of uninsured persons. The House afterwards decided to give maternity benefit to unmarried women, and that is how the distinction arose between the two—between the wives of uninsured persons and those who receive maternity benefit and sick pay, and mothers who were not married and who would receive only maternity benefit. The hon. and learned Member tries to give the House reason to believe that women are being deprived of maternity benefit to which they are entitled owing to some action, or lack of action, in respect of their husbands. I think I was perfectly right in my statement which provoked laughter in the House this afternoon that the hon. Gentleman was confusing maternity benefit for the father and maternity benefit for the wife. What is the ordinary normal system that the House laid down in connection with a man who is insured and a woman who is insured, both of whom are in societies? To make it quite clear let us assume that they are in different societies; that the man is a member of a trade union and the woman is a member of a friendly society. The man is insured for maternity benefit, and the trade union pays that benefit to the man in respect to his contribution. The woman is not insured for maternity benefit in the friendly society, but she is insured for 7s. 6d. a week sick pay. Although they are insured separately in separate societies and drawing from separate funds, they both come under the regulation as to the necessity of having paid contributions for twenty-six weeks before any benefit can be drawn. The man cannot draw maternity benefit from his society until he has made twenty-six weeks' contributions, and the woman cannot draw the sick pay from her society, which was given to her as an equivalent for maternity benefit, unless she has also made twenty-six weeks' contributions. The maternity benefit paid to the man is distinctly in respect to the man's contributions, though largely, of course, for the wife and child. In the case of a wife who is the wife of an uninsured person, but who is insured herself, there is no husband to obtain the maternity benefit, and originally the woman would get nothing at all but maternity benefit from her own society. It was represented to the House and to the Government that the woman who was the wife of an uninsured person was generally a woman whose husband was uninsured for some specific reason, such as disablement; and, consequently, the class of woman above all others who needed sickness maternity benefit. Therefore the House decided while giving 30s. out of the woman's society, not the man's society, she should in addition have sick pay. That is the only reason why the anomaly arises. If the House wishes to be logical and to have no anomaly it would not be by giving the woman maternity benefit as well as the man in the case of married persons who were both insured, but it would be done by striking off the 30s. the man's society now has to pay in addition to sickness pay.


It seems clear, but wrong.


That may be so, but it ought to have been decided in the Debates. The House decided to be exceptionally generous to the wives of uninsured persons; in fact, the House was so moved by arguments that it decided that maternity benefit should be given not only when there was a confinement of a married woman, when any child came into the world, but the House finally decided to give 30s. whenever any child appeared, whatever its origin. The hon. Member pointed out why at the beginning of the Act there may appear to be a somewhat conspicuous contrast. If a man has not paid up 26 weeks he cannot draw on his maternity benefit.


The woman has been paying for two years.


No, the woman does not pay anything for maternity benefit. Her insurance subscription does not cover maternity benefit.


If the man has not been insured under the Act her insurance does cover maternity benefit, and she is entitled to it until he returns to work, and then she ceases to be entitled to it.


That is a different point. The man's insurance in his society covers maternity benefit if twenty-six weeks have been paid. The woman's insurance covers the equivalent of maternity benefit—that is, 7s. 6d. a week; it does not cover the additional 30s. If the House wishes to give the additional 30s. they will have to readjust the financial scheme of the Act. The case the hon. Gentleman mentions vanishes immediately the twenty-six weeks are paid, and we have no power, I am sorry to say, under the Act, even if it were the intention of the House, to make societies under section 78 or any other Section pay maternity benefit to women before the time when maternity benefit or any other benefit can be obtained. The suggestion which has been advanced that the powers under Section 78 are a sort of reason why the Commissioners can do anything they desire in the interests of insured persons, vanishes wholly when we consult the legal authorities. We find there is no kind of power under Section 78 for wholly varying the conditions definitely laid down by Parliament. If the House wishes to give maternity benefit to all married women, or if the House can devise a Clause which, without making any large financial rearrangement, would meet the very small case of anomaly that the hon. Member suggests, the opportunity will arise on the Insurance Bill which we shall produce this Session, and I shall be very pleased to listen to any suggestions, but I must in defence of the societies themselves state that without large financial readjustments I shall have to resist any claim to give 30s. maternity benefit to every married woman who has insured, and I think in the interest of the women who are married to uninsured persons I shall also resist any claim to remove the anomaly by knocking off from them the 30s. which the House has given in addition to sick pay.


My right hon. Friend recognises the anomaly which he has admitted at the Table. Will he not say definitely now that he will deal with this in the Bill which he will bring in to amend the Insurance Act?


Will the right hon. Gentleman, in taking that suggestion into consideration, be careful not to remove the anomaly by taking away any benefits that the Act at present gives, because I can quite see why the House was so generous in dealing with practically what amounts to other people's money.

It being half-past eleven of the clock,. Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Mr. SPEAKER has, in pursuance of Standing Order No. 1, nominated the Right Hon. Charles Beilby Stuart-Wortley, the Right Hon. Charles Fenwick, the Right Hon. John William Wilson, Mr. Charles Henry Lyell, and Mr. Thomas Power O'Connor to act during this Session as temporary Chairman of Committees when requested by the Chairman of Ways and Means.