HC Deb 13 December 1954 vol 535 cc1513-38

(1) On the appointed day regulations made before the passing of this Act in exercise of the power conferred by subsection (2) of section sixty-five of the National Insurance Act, 1946, to prescribe modifications of, and additions and exceptions to, the foregoing provisions of that Act, in relation to existing contributors and existing beneficiaries, shall cease to have effect in relation to widows.

(2) On the appointed day (which shall not be later than the thirty-first day of March, nineteen hundred and fifty-five) the Minister shall make regulations (hereinafter called "new regulations") in exercise of the said last-mentioned power and in relation to widows so as to increase the widow's basic pension payable under regulations made before the passing of this Act and to make such other increases of pensions or other benefits payable to widows as may seem to the Minister proper to be made in exercise of the said power:

Provided that such new regulations shall not be made unless a draft thereof has been laid before Parliament and has been approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.

(3) Nothing in this section shall affect the validity or continuance of regulations made before the passing of this Act, save in so far as such regulations relate to widows, and nothing in this section shall restrict or affect what may be included in new regulations in relation to persons, other than widows.—[Mr. Houghton.]

Brought up and read the First time.

Mr. Houghton

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Behind the rather formidable terms of this new Clause lies our concern for what we know as the 10s. widows. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has skilfully drafted this new Clause to give us a certain latitude in debate and to avoid mentioning the amount by which we desire the 10s. benefit to be increased. It may be undesirable to get involved in a discussion of whether the 10s. benefit should be raised to 15s. or 20s. or some other amount. Our main concern is that we should invite the Minister to give us reassurances about his intention to do something for this diminishing but still deserving group of widows who still draw the original 10s. benefit under the old scheme.

We were encouraged in doing this by a remark which the Minister made in his statement during the Second Reading of the Bill. He referred to certain benefits not in the Bill which were being considered by the National Insurance Advisory Committee, and among them, he said, were the provisions for widows. He added: May I say, in passing, that that review includes the question of the 10s. widow about whom so many hon. Members have from time to time put questions to me."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th December, 1954; Vol. 535, c. 963] I am not going into the history of the people known as the 10s. widows. We know that, in general, these widows are those who were either beneficiaries before the 1946 Act came into operation or have become widowed since and had certain rights from the early scheme, but who do not qualify for the new benefits under the new approach to widowhood which was embodied in the 1946 Act. Table 11 on page 20 of the Report by the Government Actuary on the review shows the number of these widowed pensioners in this year at about 170,000.

This is not by any means the first time that the invidious and unhappy position of these 10s. widow pensioners has been brought to the notice of the Committee or the House. When we were considering the Family Allowances and National Insurance Bill in Standing Committee upstairs on 15th May, 1952, there was a long debate on an Amendment which I moved to improve the 10s. basic pension of these widows.

I was, perhaps, unwise on that occasion to propose the amount by which I thought the 10s. pension should be increased, and, as a result, there was much discussion on whether my figure was too high or too low, whether it represented a proper relationship to the percentage rise in the cost of living, and on a great many other technical details which happily we need not bother about when discussing this new Clause, because no amount is proposed in it regarding the amount of the increase in the 10s. pension.

These widows are now getting on in years, and many of them are struggling trying to do a bit of work and pay their contributions under the present Scheme in order to qualify for the full retirement pension when they reach the age of 60. We think that something should be done to improve the 10s. pension which they now draw. We all remember that under the old scheme, when a married woman was widowed and she qualified for a widow's pension, she received 10s. per week whether she was fit or frail, old or young. She had that pension whether she went to work or not, and she had it for life. If she had any children, then she received an additional payment for those under school-leaving age.

10.0 p.m.

But under the new Scheme, following the recommendations of the Beveridge Report, the approach to the provision for widowhood was quite different. Now, as we know, many widows who have young children, and who are under the age of 50, receive no widows' pension at all. It is true that they receive the widows' initial allowance, but they do not receive a widows' pension. There are certain provisions regarding widowed mothers who are under 40 when their children cease to be of school age, and they, again, are not entitled to continuing widows' pensions.

Our approach to widowhood under the 1946 Act was quite different. It must be admitted that there are some widows under the new Scheme who receive no benefit at all, but who would under the old scheme have received the 10s. widows' pension. Our concern is that the 10s. is by now well below the 1946 purchasing power, and on those grounds alone we are of opinion that something should be done to bring that meagre benefit more into line with the current price level and with the level of other benefits.

When this matter was under discussion in Standing Committee in May, 1952, the then Parliamentary Secretary defended doing nothing for these widows on the ground that even in 1946 nothing was done to improve the residual benefits under the old scheme where the beneficiaries did not qualify for any addition under the new scheme. In effect, the then Parliamentary Secretary said that as nothing was done in 1946 or in 1951, there was no need to do anything in 1952. We have already heard that argument once again today.

We expect the Minister to break away from both precedent and tradition in matters where the remedy is called for. Conditions in 1954 are vastly different from what they were in 1946. We have seen many things about the new scheme which do not entirely fulfil the expectations which we had when the new scheme came into operation.

It is a miserable thing to leave these widows entirely out of any improvement in the meagre benefits which they now receive. They cannot qualify for the full benefit under the new Scheme except for sickness, unemployment and retirement pension. They have no other means of getting benefit under the new Scheme except those of the ordinary contributor moving towards age 60 when, if they qualify under the retirement conditions, they may be entitled to a full retirement pension. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will have something encouraging to say about the 10s. widows' pensions.

I am not quite sure of the circumstances in which this matter has gone to the National Insurance Advisory Committee. If it is in good hands there, who are we to take it away, so long as the Minister makes sure that the National Insurance Advisory Committee deals with this matter especially, and with the others as well, we hope, and makes an early report?

Then new Clause fixes an appointed day upon which new regulations affecting widows are to be laid before the House. We fix the appointed day; we do not leave it in the hands of the Minister. It is fixed at 31st March, 1955, and that should give time enough for the Minister to get the report from the National Insurance Advisory Committee, reach conclusions upon its recommendations, and lay his proposals before the House.

Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee hope very much that the Minister will take advantage of the opportunity that the proposed new Clause gives him to do something for these widows. I am told, in a Written answer today, that there are 165,000 widows in the country still receiving the old 10s. benefit. They are a diminishing band because they are an ageing part of our population. Therefore, the Minister's liability is a decreasing one.

I asked in a Written Question today what it would cost to put these 10s. benefits up to the level of the purchasing power they had in 1925, and the Parliamentary Secretary replied that the cost would be about £2¾ million. That is a very small sum compared with the amount that we are talking about in this great National Insurance Scheme. I am sure that all hon. Members often receive letters, and very often bitter letters, from widows who are in these difficult circumstances, showing that the women feel they are very much a forgotten legion, or, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill) referred to them last week, the "Cinderellas of the Welfare State."

They are, in fact, a forgotten legion, except when contributions have to be raised. Although their benefit has continued unchanged at 10s., each time there has been an increase in contributions they have been called upon to pay it. Many women getting 10s.—which, in terms of pre-war values, is worth about 4s., considering the prices of some things today—are to be asked, under the Bill, whether they want to keep up their payments entitling them to retirement pensions, to pay 5s. 2d. if they are not at work.

These are the only beneficiaries from whom we are taking something away. Under the proposals of the Bill we shall be leaving them worse off than they were before. If they are working, the rates will go up according to whether they are earning more or less than 30s. It will be 4s. 7d. under 30s. and 6s. 9d. above. In many cases these women are doing little jobs, like helping in school canteens or doing domestic work, and are not earning a great deal more than 30s. a week. For these women, the contribution will go up to 6s. 9d.

This is an opportunity for the Minister to do something. He has not done much today to commend himself to the people of this country and I very much hope that he will help these women. Many of them have fulfilled all the obligations that were incumbent upon them at the time their husbands died. Their husbands' cards were fully stamped up, according to the legislation then obtaining. The only fault so far as these women are concerned is that in many cases their husbands died too soon. They have fulfilled all the obligations relating to contributions. It seems most unfair that they alone should be excluded from the benefits which we are now considering.

The Minister suggested last week that he could not help the 10s. widows at this time because their case was before the National Insurance Advisory Committee. There are two ways of approaching this matter. I quite agree that there is a case for considering the whole problem of the status of these women in the pattern of the Welfare State, and it is very important that the Advisory Committee should be doing that.

I understood—I hope I am right—that the purpose of the Bill is not to increase benefits, but merely to raise them to a purchasing power equivalent to that which obtained when the benefits originally came into force. I cannot see, therefore, why the important question of the status of these pensioners should not be left before the Committee; and why they should not be included in a purely routine Measure raising their benefit to a purchasing power equivalent to that which the original 10s. conferred.

It is difficult to tell people who are getting the 10s. that their case is before a committee and that that is all there is to be said about it. They cannot tell the coalman that—or the landlord. Landlords are not interested, especially at a time when increased demands under the Housing Repairs and Rents Act are fast coming in. When the 10s. widow tells the landlord that perhaps she may be a little better off later, and may be able to pay the rent, he is not interested.

I plead with the Minister to be sympathetic to break away from the rather bureaucratic approach that sometimes rather confuses this problem, and to accept the new Clause, which, I am sure, will be welcomed by people of all shades of opinion.

Dr. King

We are all in this together. We all have to accept some responsibility for the fact that, although, in the National Insurance Scheme we have looked after the aged and the fatherless, we have never been quite clear as to the fair way to treat widows. We have tried to improve things in recent years by raising the amount a widow can earn. I want to remind the Committee just who are these groups of widows who receive unjust treatment, and whom this clause seeks to benefit.

Some widows get less than the full rate because their late husband's contributions were not fully paid up. That is a very small group. If the husband was unable to pay through sickness the National Assistance Board made up his contributions. This group will consist largely of the widows of Class 2 contributors, self-employed people, or people coming from abroad. That is one small group.

The largest group of unjustly treated widows is the now well-known group called the 10s. widows. Before 1948, many of them were married to men who were qualified under the previous Act for a 10s. benefit. Their husbands, however, died before qualifying for the benefits under the present Act. Others—after the 13 weeks of help which all widows get after bereavement—either because they have no child, or because they were under 50 when the husband died, or because, being over 50, had not been married for 10 years, receive only the 10s. benefit because their late husbands had pre-1948 qualifications.

Many of these receive nothing at all—except the benefits of National Assistance, about which I shall speak in a moment—from the National Insurance Act, 1946. All the reasons which I have mentioned as disqualifying those widows are reasons over which the widows themselves could have no control whatever. They are either acts of God or accidental dates on the calendar. What makes it much more grave is the fact that such a 10s. widow cannot expect, on the strength of her husband's contribution, to draw her retirement pension at 60.

10.15 p.m.

Widows who receive full benefit earn the right to retirement pension at 60 on the strength of their late husbands' insured position. Not so these widows. They have to go on paying National Insurance contributions to qualify themselves as insured persons for the retirement pension at 60. They have to have paid at least 104 contributions; they must have paid an annual average of 50 contributions; otherwise, they have to wait for the non-contributory pension later in life. So that the 10s. widow, the so-called basic widow, has to keep up her contributions out of her earnings to avoid being one of those waiting for the noncontributory pension, and her contributions to National Insurance are to be raised by this Bill. She is a woman who, far from receiving any benefit from the Bill, suffers financial injury as a result of its provisions.

Moreover, there is a group of widows whose late husbands may have been earning just enough to have been above the opportunity of making contributions to National Health Insurance before the National Insurance Act, and this group is not receiving even the 10s. pension. So we have not only 10s. widows but no-shilling widows suffering very greatly.

It is true that this is only part of the story. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J Griffiths) could never have left this quite large group of women in the position I have described. Obviously. among these widows those who are really poor, those in real distress, are Picked up by National Assistance.

National Assistance was created parallel with the great National Insurance Act to pick up and deal with such anomalies as these, and it is doing grand work.

We have argued all the year, however, and, indeed, it is the deep, implicit thought behind the Bill, that we should try to raise the national level of pensions as of right. The Minister himself is boasting that he is lifting some old-age pensioners from National Assistance because he is raising their basic pension. I believe that he has gone too far in the disparity in the amounts by which he has raised the two, but he subscribes to the principle of granting people their benefit as of right, which is one we have been arguing on both sides of the Committee for quite a long time.

Many of us have been trying to assure people who go to National Assistance that there is no stigma in that, that is part of the pattern of the Welfare State which is doing a grand job, but there are still thousands of people who are unwilling to go to National Assistance. When we debated this in March cases were mentioned of people who had to be found out and urged to take National Assistance, because they were unwilling to seek what they still regarded as old public assistance.

I had in my "surgery" last weekend a widow, a dear, refined old lady, living alone—and how lonely elderly people can be—who was paying an exorbitant rent for two rooms. Her husband had been careful and thrifty all his life. He had cared for his own widowed mother, too. When National Insurance came in he rejoiced because he thought that it meant that if anything happened to him, at any rate his widow would be all right. He died three weeks before he had enough National Insurance contribution stamps to qualify his widow for benefit.

The woman has to seek National Assistance, but she feels it keenly. She wept as she described her position and as she attempted to explain that she wanted her pension as of right and not as a grant from National Assistance. My job that day, as is the job of many a Member with some of his constituents, was to persuade her to regard National Assistance as something that she could accept without any shame at all. It seems to me, however. that it is our job in this Committee tonight to attempt to persuade the Minister to remove this group of widows from the necessity of having to go to National Assistance.

I have said many times that nothing hurts more than an injustice. If one widow compares herself with another widow, when each receives from the State different rates of benefits and both have suffered the same bereavement and have faced the same problem, the only difference between them being some technical matter of dates or of the time of the husband's death, then the widow who suffers financially for a reason which she cannot understand not only has a financial problem to face but feels a deep sense of injustice. I hope that the Minister will put this right.

Mr. Peake

I do not want to curtail the debate, but I think that it would be helpful to hon. Members if I intervened for a short time. I was going to begin by commending the draftsmanship of the new Clause, which I believe is to be attributed to the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison), but I have to add that I have never before seen a Clause which compelled a Minister to make regulations on a particular day, namely 31st March.

Mr. H. Hynd

It states "not later than" the 31st March.

Mr. Peake

One only has to mention the word "widow" in conjunction with the rate of 10s. for everybody immediately to assume that here must be a very hard case where a remedy is urgently called for, but I would point out to hon. Members that the approach to widowhood, as such, changed when we adopted the Beveridge proposals. The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) put this very clearly.

Before that date, it was thought proper that widowhood by itself, whether or not there were young children, and whatever the age of the widow, should attract a permanent, regular, weekly payment of compensation from the contributory insurance scheme. After 1946, and after the 1946 Act came into force in 1948, there was a new approach and long-term provision for widows was made in only three cases. It was made where they were incapable of self-support, or where they were over 50 at the time that they were widowed—and then only if they had been married for 10 years—on the grounds that at that age it was unreasonable to ask them to enter the labour market and seek a job. The third case was that where there were young children in the home.

One has heard this point put in different ways, but from 1948 onwards, the loss of a husband was no longer thought to be a circumstance which properly called for a regular weekly payment out of the National Insurance Fund. I have heard it put in the form of the statement that the mere loss of a husband did not call for a regularly weekly payment. I have also heard it put that the loss of a mere husband was not something which called for a regular weekly payment. However, that was the new approach of the 1946 Act. But the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) made a curious provision among the transitional arrangements. I am not quite sure, even now, whether he was right or wrong. I accept part of the responsibility, because I was a member of the Standing Committee at which we discussed all the details of that Measure.

The right hon. Gentleman provided that any woman who was married to a contributor before 5th July, 1948, should have a kind of reserved right, on widowhood, to the old 10s. pension. The result of that is that these pensions on this low rate of 10s., made under certain circumstances, can continue to be granted for as far ahead as 1980.

In the case of men having retirement pensions a different system was adopted. There the right to a 10s. automatic pension was abolished after a period of five years, and they were forced to take a pension dependent on retirement. They could not claim a 10s. pension which they had a right to automatically when they attained the age of 65. I am beginning to wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman was right in preserving a kind of vested right for persons who happened to be married before a certain date and in denying it to spinsters who were not married by a certain date, that vested right to go on for another 30 years from today, with an entitlement to a pension at a very low rate. At any rate that was done at that time.

This Bill improves the rates for the first 13 weeks of widowhood, which are generous at 55s., and it also provides the new 40s. rate as a permanent rate for the pensions. But the reasons hitherto given not only by me but by the former Minister of National Insurance in the Labour Government for not making these 10s. widows' pensions up has been that under the new Scheme the people can be widowed without any entitlement to a pension at all. It has been held that, for that reason, it would be scarcely equitable to increase a rate of pension which finds no counterpart at all in the new approach to widowhood which was adopted in the 1946 Act.

I want to give the Committee the fullest possible information about this matter. Just before the 1946 Act came into force, 485,000 women were drawing the old 10s. pension. The numbers, of course, have decreased steadily as those widows were either upgraded to a higher rate in 1948 by virtue of the fact that they had young children or by virtue of the fact that they were invalids. Many of them have now got into the retirement pension class by virtue of having passed the age of 60, and the result is that the numbers of widows with this low rate of pension has fallen to about 165,000.

Our information, as a result of the inquiries undertaken in 1952, seemed to show that the great majority of these 10s. widow pensioners were in regular employment, and they also show that of all classes being supplemented, or having insurance benefits or pensions supplemented, by the National Assistance Board, these 10s. widows provided a smaller proportion of supplementation cases than any other class of insurance beneficiaries.

Nevertheless, I want to say this to the Committee. I am not altogether happy about the provisions for widowhood embodied in the 1946 Act. Hon. Members will remember that at that time we adopted new maternity provisions. We devised what we thought were the best possible provisions that could be devised or imagined, but the right hon. Lady, three years after the appointed day, early in 1951, found that the machine was creaking in the matter of maternity provisions.

She referred the question to the National Insurance Advisory Committee, a most eminent body, and I should like at this stage to pay tribute to it. It includes members of the Trades Union Congress, together with employers and other distinguished people. I think it produced an extraordinarily good new scheme which we were able to embody in the Act which we passed two years ago.

I have referred this question of the widows to the National Insurance Advisory Committee. I will tell the Committee of some of the matters about which I do not feel convinced that what we did in 1948 was necessarily right. I am not altogether happy about the age of 50, which was rather arbitrarily chosen. I am not altogether happy about what I call the 10-year rule—that is, having to be married 10 years. And there are various refinements of that rule which enable one to link marriage to one person, who dies, with a marriage to some other person, provided that the death and remarriage are not separated by too long a period.

10.30 p.m.

Again, I am not altogether happy about the transition which occurs from a higher to a lower rate of benefit, sometimes for quite a short period, at the time when the youngest child reaches the school-leaving age. All this needs to be looked at again.

Another thing I am not happy about is reserving a right to persons who happened to be married before a certain date—this was done in the case of the widows but was denied to men—for the purpose of the retirement pension, thereby putting us in the position of going on granting to persons who happened to be married before a certain date pensions at what will look in the future a quite derisory rate, perhaps as late as 1980.

I want the National Insurance Advisory Committee to look at the whole subject, and it is for that reason I have referred it to them. In conjunction with that reference to the Committee, we are undertaking a new inquiry in the Ministry, with the help of the National Assistance Board, to try to find out more about the present position of the group drawing this 10s. widow's pension. I am inclined to think, although our records about them are not up-to-date, that a great proportion of those who were getting elderly in 1948 are now passing, or have passed, into the retirement pension class, and their places in this group of pensioners are being taken by comparatively young widows who happened to be married before 1948, but had no qualification for the higher rates of pension given by the 1948 Act.

I hope with that statement, which I trust will be understood to be a sympathetic one, the Committee will not insist upon passing this rather arbitrary provision into the Bill. I want to give the National Insurance Advisory Committee sufficient time to have a good look at this subject. In the case of the maternity provisions, the right hon. Lady will remember that the Committee took about 18 months to arrive at a conclusion, but when it was reached, it was a good conclusion. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will not be unduly hustled or pressed in this matter and that we shall be able to consider its report upon this matter as a part of the wider non-statutory review of the great insurance Scheme which is progressing at the present time, and to which I referred in the Second Reading debate.

Mr. Mitchison

Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down, will he answer one question? I wonder if the Minister will agree with me that while one can properly raise the question of the 10s. widows under this Bill, many other matters concerning widows involve introducing new beneficiaries or perhaps the stopping of pension altogether, and therefore would not appear to be within the scope of this Bill or within the Long Title, so that this proposed new Clause was necessarily limited to a particular class of widows?

Mr. Peake

Certainly, I agree that there are probably many things which hon. Members in many parts of the Committee might want to provide widows with which would be outside the scope of this Bill.

Dr. Summerskill

I believe that I detected a note of real sympathy in the voice of the Minister tonight. But he will agree that he has deceived us before by that note, and so we are inclined to be a little suspicious. I was disappointed when he opened once more by pointing to the precedent of 1946 and subsequent years for a scheme of this kind. Surely he would agree that there is no virtue in always being consistent.

He has already provided an example of where I was prepared to eat my words about the question of a maternity scheme, and he would agree that in this Scheme there are already so many anomalies that to create a few more does not call for an apology. Therefore, although I agree that after 1946 we told the particular widows about whom we are now talking that it was necessary to maintain the rate at 10s., because they did not qualify. I feel, at this stage, while the original Act is undergoing so many amendments, that this particular category calls for our sympathy.

The Minister said that few of them asked for a supplementary grant. But surely he must also realise that these women are for the most part unskilled and in the lowest-income groups. They do not call for a supplementary grant, but it does not mean that they are not in want because they are the lowest-income groups. The great majority of our scrubbers in Whitehall—our "Mrs. Mops"—are widows. Therefore, I do not think that we can find such comfort in analysing the figures and discovering that they are not asking for supplementary benefits.

I wish to ask, when did the Minister give instructions to the Advisory Committee to examine the whole question? Although it took the Advisory Committee 18 months to produce a report on the maternity schemes, and the final schemes were rather complicated in character, this question of widows' benefits has been examined many times, and an increase in benefit to these widows is not of such a complicated character, and does not involve plans for midwifery in the home or institution and so on.

I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will not tell the House that, because the maternity schemes took 18 months to devise, the question of widow's benefit will take a similar time. Will he tell us when he gave the instructions; where he made the inquiries; how the discussions are going forward; and when he hopes to receive a report.

Mr. Peake

The right hon. Lady will have observed that in my Second Reading speech I mentioned three important questions, of which this was one, which I have referred to the Advisory Committee. They were the provisions for widows and other dependants; the question of contribution conditions for the receipt of benefits—and that is a pretty wide question—and contribution liability for small-income groups in which my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward) was particularly interested.

I announced at the end of March, or the beginning of April, in connection with the statutory review, that I was referring these three questions to the National Advisory Committee. I cannot give the Committee any real information about the progress of the Advisory Committee. It is going ahead and, as the right hon. Lady knows, it does not waste time. But I suppose that it will be some months before we have a report.

Miss Margaret Herbison (Lanarkshire, North)

I join with my right hon. Friend in asking the Minister to get this report quickly. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that it would not be right for us to try to hustle this Committee. But it depends on what one feels about the importance of the matter before the Committee. I understood from the reply of the Minister to my right hon. Friend that this matter has been before the Advisory Committee since March this year. That means that it is one of three matters which have been before the Committee for about nine months.

It seems to me that that is a considerable time because, on this matter of the "10s. widow"—those women who receive only 10s.—the problem is not nearly so complex as the one on which recommendations had to be given before. I am quite sure that there are many hon. Members on this side of the Committee, as well as on the Government side, who want to hustle that Committee so that it will get out its report as soon as it possibly can.

We ask in this new Clause for certain regulations, and I understand that, even when we get the report from the National Insurance Advisory Committee, we shall have to wait for legislation, and, that being so, I expect we shall be told that after that legislation is on the Statute Book, several months will have to elapse before payment can be made.

I say all this because, if one goes in a leisurely fashion, it will be a very long time before there is any improvement of the kind which we want for these widows who are receiving only 10s. I have had some correspondence with the Minister and his Department about representations from certain people, not only in my own constituency, but from all over the country, on this question.

I think that this is the only time today when the Minister has not fallen back on some precedent set by this side of the Committee, and I must say that I feel somewhat heartened because I think that the Minister intends to do something; but, at the same time, I fear that that something may be long in coming. The Minister has said that there are about 165,000 of these widows receiving 10s. I expect that a great many of those are women who are not in regular employment; that is, women not doing a full-time job; and many of us on this side would point out that though they are doing part-time jobs they are paying the full contributions, although denied any rights of unemployment benefit because they are considered to be casual workers. It makes matters very difficult for these women.

Our new Clause asks for regulations to be made, and a number of my hon. Friends have suggested that we should try to raise the purchasing power of the rate given until it has the same value as when the 10s. was first decided on some years ago. I do not think that that is nearly enough. I think that we should still be doing an injustice to many of these women if we merely raised the 10s. to its purchasing power in the days when it was first given.

I would like to see these women receive the same widows' pension as other widows who are getting the full rate today and, when I say that, I add that I would be willing to apply the same restrictions to those widows as apply to those who became widow's after 1948. I am not asking for the full widows' pension as we know it today to be given to these 165,000; what I ask for is that the full rate should be given to a certain number of them.

These are the points which I make, and which I hope will be considered by the National Insurance Advisory Committee because they may well help it in its work. It may be of assistance to the Committee if it knows what is in the minds, not only of hon. Members, but of many people throughout this country.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)

I hope that the Committee will not consider it remiss if a word is said from this side of the Committee—

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Hear, hear.

Mr. Thompson

It is a great relief to the Committee to know that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has woken up—in order to express our appreciation of the approach of the Minister to this very difficult problem. There are probably no Members who have not at some time or another been gravely disturbed in their minds over the position of those whom we refer to somewhat lightheartedly as the 10s. widows. It is perfectly true that many of these women sustain themselves by taking the lowest-paid jobs in various industries, including the distributive trades.

Many of us are aware of extremely hard cases existing among this class of widow pensioner, and there are probably no Members who have not been greatly impressed by the courage and fortitude of many of these women, who do jobs which are not very congenial or easy to do, in order that they can keep themselves in respectability and independence. The fact that there are now being applied to this problem, through the action of the Minister, the best and most knowledgeable brains among those who are interested in insurance problems, will be a great comfort to many people in my constituency.

I was greatly interested in the remark of the hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) that on this question, for the first time, the Minister had departed—so she said—from pleading in aid the example set by the last Labour Government and the predecessors of my right hon. Friend in the office he now holds. It is significant that this should have been the first occasion upon which my right hon. Friend has managed to secure the approbation of both sides of the Committee. If he departs more frequently and dynamically from the examples set by his Socialist predecessors he may find even greater favour, not only on this side, but on the opposite side of the Committee. I have the greatest pleasure in commending the action of my right hon. Friend, and join with all Members in hoping for a speedy solution of this very difficult problem.

Mr. Thomas Steele (Dunbartonshire, West)

The argument of the Minister tonight indicated that he ought to accept this new Clause. We are not now concerned about the date when the new regulations should come in, but if he accepts the Clause, once the National Insurance Advisory Committee has reported he will have the power to bring in any provisions which are suggested by that body, and we need not await any further legislation.

Mr. Peake

The hon. Gentleman has been Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry and is probably aware that I have power by regulations, quite apart from this new Clause, to deal with this matter. The new Clause is simply a peg on which to hang a debate.

Mr. Steele

So long as it is not a peg upon which to hang widows, I do not mind.

I have some sympathy with the Minister in his task of answering the points which have been raised. In my experience at the Ministry of National Insurance, and in my travels through the country, nothing has caused me more difficulty than explaining the position of the 10s. widows. I was interested in what the Minister said about it, but before any of my hon. Friends who welcome the Minister's statement leave the Chamber I hope that they will note that one of the suggestions he made was that the Ms. pension should be abolished altogether.

I think that it will be difficult to point out the problem to many of my hon. Friends, because I have argued it with them on many occasions and still they are unable to see the point which was made in 1948 with regard to these pensioners. Change 17, on page 64 of the Beveridge Report states: There is no reason why a childless widow should get a pension for life; if she is able to work, she should work. That is a bold and clear statement. When Lord Beveridge made that recommendation, he had in mind that no childless widow should have a pension if she was under 60 years of age. But when the 1946 Bill reached the Statute Book, the age of 60 had been reduced to 50. Therefore, some improvement was made in that respect. I am glad to note that the Minister is recommending to the National Insurance Advisory Committee that the question of age should be considered.

My next point is that in 1948 we were faced with the problem that the new provisions were entirely different from the old with regard to widows, and I think that the Committee has to face that fact. The problem arose concerning the transitional payments, and as to what we were going to do with the people receiving benefit at that time.

Widows with children received the new pensions, and incapacitated widows received the new incapacitation benefit, but widows who were childless and who were able to work were not given any increase at all. They were left with the 10s. pension in accordance with the provisions of the new principles embodied in the Beveridge Report.

After 1948, it was clear that widows who were childless and who were not incapacitated would not get a pension at all, and that, I think, should be borne in mind. When we discussed the matter on the National Insurance Advisory Committee at that time, it was felt that the contract was such that those insured persons who had contributed under the old Act would qualify for the 10s. widows' pension without any conditions whatsoever. My right hon. Friend suggested that that right should be maintained. Indeed, the Minister himself has said that he also agrees with this.

As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, this means that any widow whose husband contributed under the old Act and who qualified under the old Act was entitled to the 10s. as of right, even if after the 1948 Act she was not entitled to the full widows' pension. At that time, we thought that we were conferring a benefit on that widow, but it seems to me that we did the very opposite.

That is exactly what has happened. At present we could have the case of two widows of 30 years of age who were widowed during the same week. The one whose husband had contributed under the old Act would get a pension of 10s. and the other widow whose husband had only contributed under the new Act would get nothing at all.

All the argument in the Committee tonight has been in favour of the widow who receives 10s. and no plea has been made for the widow who is receiving nothing at all. That is why I am glad that the Minister is sending this matter to the National Insurance Advisory Committee, so that all the provisions can be considered.

I am concerned about widowhood in general, and, if my conscience troubles me about the 1946 Act at all, it is because we have never made proper provisions for widows with children. I regret that in his recommendations to the National Insurance Advisory Committee, the Minister is not asking it to consider whether the widows' pension is adequate at the present time.

Change 17 also states: Replacement of unconditional inadequate widows' pensions by provision suited to the varied needs of widows, and that: The rate of guardian benefit proposed is designed to be sufficient, in combination with children's allowances, to meet subsistence needs, even if the widow does not undertake any gainful occupation while she is looking after the children. Therefore, what the National Insurance Advisory Committee ought to consider is whether this benefit is adequate at the appropriate time.

I think that we have been troubled all the time in the consideration of this matter by the insistence of Lord Beveridge on the flat rate of subsistence benefit. I know the arguments for that, and I also know the old argument about whether a person should have sickness or unemployment benefit, and so on. Looking back on it, it seems to me that the arguments for a flat rate of subsistence benefit, where it applied to sickness and unemployment benefit, had no application at all to widowhood, which was an entirely different benefit.

The Bill proposes to pay to an old couple the sum of 65s. a week, while to a widow with two children living at home it proposes to pay only 63s. In all fairness, is this right and proper? The 63s. is made up of the widowed mother's allowance of 51s. 6d., the family allowance of 8s. and the increment for the second child of 3s. 6d. The rent factor applies both to the old couple and to the widow.

11.0 p.m.

Is it to be argued that an old couple living alone require as much food and nourishment as a widow and her two children? We have only to think of what is necessary for the growing child to know that the old couple require less food. Again, an old couple do not require as much clothing as does the family I have instanced—the widow with two children. Every parent knows the sort of bills that have to be met for children's clothing, boots and shoes, and so on. Even for the ordinary pleasures and interests of life, that little family needs more than does the old couple. Even the National Assistance scales make greater provision for the old couple than for the widow and her two children. If the children are under five years of age the payment is 61s. 6d., as against 63s. for the old couple. If one child is over five years of age, an extra 2s. 6d. is paid.

The Minister should put the whole question of widowhood benefits before the National Insurance Advisory Committee. The conscience of this House should be stirred at the thought of the widow's struggles. It should recall that the Beveridge proposal was to give to her an adequate pension, which would ensure, irrespective of gainful employment, a livelihood for her and for her children. The problem should be studied afresh. If we can have an assurance from the Minister that, in addition to the matters which he is to put before the Advisory Committee, he will ask it to consider the amount paid to the widow, I shall be satisfied.

Miss Alice Bacon (Leeds, North-East)

As the Minister himself has mentioned my chief point, I shall be brief. It is a point which I have raised on many occasions with my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths).

The truth is that with regard to widows' pensions we have got into a complete muddle. That was to be expected, because after 1948 we carried forward the potential benefits of pre-1948. It was then said that we could not take away the rights which had already been paid for; that it would be unfair to deprive future widows of the 10s. pension to which their husbands had contributed. The fact remains that we had already set a precedent in regard to the retirement pension.

I think that what I said at that time has come to pass. I said that, as the years went by, the insurance part of the pension, and the pre-1948 Act, would be forgotten, and that what would be looked at would be what was in operation at the particular time. I think that is what has happened. In one street we can have four childless widows. A widow of 25 can be receiving a pension of 10s.; a widow of 35 can be receiving nothing; a widow of 51 may receive 32s. 6d., and a widow of 59, 10s. That shows that in regard to widows' pensions we have got into rather a muddle, and I am pleased that the matter is to be examined.

Reference has been made to the widows over 50 who are receiving a pension of 10s., and I want to make my position on this matter clear. I do not think we could take away from the widow any money she is receiving; but it would be reasonable to say that in future we are not going to pay the 10s. pension to young widows. If we fix 50 as a reasonable age at which a childless widow shall have the pension, then I think we ought to say that a widow of that age is a widow of 50, no matter what the insurance contributions were previously.

I think there is a good case for saying that in future we will pay no more 10s. widows' pensions to those under 50, and to counteract that we will give to those over 50 a pension equivalent to the pension they are now receiving under the 1948 Act. We would be taking from those able to do without, and giving to those in need. Most of those over 50 are employed, or are drawing National Assistance. If they are employed, the earnings rule will apply. If they are drawing National Assistance, then it will not be any extra. I hope that the Minister will look at this matter as quickly as possible, and that we shall be able to bring the various pensions into line with one another.

Mr. H. Hynd

For a long time it has been evident that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have been troubled about this class of pensioner, and it has been refreshing to hear the back-bench contribution to the discussion. No doubt many other hon. Members on the other side of the Committee would wish to give their views in a more private place, bringing pressure to bear on the Minister on this subject.

The Minister's sympathetic tones this evening must have been welcomed on all sides. Unfortunately, he spoiled matters when talking of reference to the Advisory Committee. He seemed to give the impression that it would be a long time before we could have the results of the Committee's consideration of the matter. I would suggest to him that if the Committee is to be bogged down considering the three questions he has submitted to it, he might ask the Committee for an interim report on the matter we are discussing. Then we could get on with the necessary alteration in the 10s. widows' pension, a matter which all hon. Members want to see dealt with.

All hon. Members must recognise that there are anomalies, and that we have widows who are receiving nothing. There are also a considerable number who are getting only 10s. Whatever arrangements we may make for the future, they are on the books, and we shall have to do something about them. We cannot be satisfied with their receiving only 10s., particularly as, if they wish to continue their insurance so as to get retirement benefit at 60, they have to pay more than 5s. for an insurance stamp. That just cannot continue, and something must be done about it.

I have a suggestion I want to put to the Minister. If he cannot immediately give these widows a financial increase, he could allow them to continue their insurance for the retirement pension at 60 either by giving them a free stamp or by allowing them to continue to pay a nominal sum, as in the case of a married woman in employment. People receiving sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, retirement benefit are not expected to pay for insurance stamps at the same time, and it may be possible that those widows who are receiving this small pension could be excused payment for the stamp and allowed to continue their insurance on a free membership basis.

I hope the Minister will think this suggestion worthy of consideration and pass it on to the Advisory Committee, and that something will be done for these widows quickly.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I do not wish to detain the Committee unduly, but I cannot let this debate pass without making a plea for sympathy for these widows. I do not mind if I am accused of being sentimental about it. I am the son of a widow of the days before there were 10s. pensions. I could tell some horrifying stories of how this country treated its widows 40 years or more ago and it has been made evident in the debate that hundreds of those sorts of widows are still being harshly treated in this society of ours.

I would beg my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Miss Bacon) not to put the widows' pensionable age at 50 but 40, because anyone who has any knowledge of the working classes must know that women who have had children are, at 40, no longer fit to go into the labour market to compete with younger women. I am ashamed to say that some local authorities today are not prepared to give preference to widows when they have vacancies for women employees. They allow them to compete in open competition with younger and stronger women, sometimes married women whose husbands have good employment.

I believe that the Committee generally sympathise with the claims of the widows. I am sure nobody in our society deserves it more. At one meeting at the last General Election three of the 10s. widows asked me the same question, why they could not get a pension of more than 10s. I do not want to say any more now. I may have spoken with sentiment, but I am not ashamed of it.

Mr. Keenan

There is one point that has not been made yet and which I want to put to the Minister. I put it to his predecessors for consideration, without success. More than three years ago I asked what was the number of 10s. widows. I think the number then was 300,000. It has decreased, but, obviously, Some of those women have died.

Here is my suggestion. There is a very large number of 10s. widows who are not working, and who have not worked for a variety of reasons. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the desirability of making it possible for them to qualify for pension at 60? I suggest that at the age of 60 it is desirable to let the 10s. pensioner qualify for the higher pension.

Question put and negatived.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. J. Griffiths

I beg to move, That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

We have made good progress today and I think we have reached a convenient stage at which we could break off until tomorrow. I do not think it would be wise now to embark on the Amendments to the Schedule, which are the next batch for consideration. It would be better if we took them tomorrow, when we can come fresh to our task. I hope, therefore, that the Leader of the House and the Minister will agree that this is the proper time at which to stop consideration of the Bill for today.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Harry Crookshank)

We certainly have done well today. We have made good progress and we are not too late. From all the reports I have heard, the debate has reached a high standard, with everybody anxious to get on with what all sides of the Committee desire, to pass this Bill on from this House and as soon as possible get it on the Statute Book. If we were to proceed in the same sort of way tomorrow, it would be better to stop now and start then with the new block of Amendments. The Government are, therefore, willing to accept the Motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee report Progress; to sit again Tomorrow.