HC Deb 22 June 1956 vol 554 cc1786-90

11.6 a.m.

Mr. H. A. Marquand (Middlesbrough, East)

I beg to move, in page 3, line 44, to leave out from the beginning to the end of line 5 on page 4.

At present, a widow may in certain circumstances receive a pension if she is incapable of self-support. That part of subsection (6) which we propose to delete would eliminate this provision, which enables a widow to receive a pension if she is incapable of self-support. The justification for this proposal in the Bill is that in other parts of the Bill the widow will become eligible either for unemployment benefit or for sickness benefit. We understand from what the Government have told us in Committee that this improved eligibility for unemployment and sickness benefit, coupled with improved contribution conditions which are to be given to widows, would eliminate the need for the present provision entitling some widows to benefit if they are incapable of self-support.

There is a difference between being unable to work on account of sickness and being incapable of self-support on account of infirmity. It is easy to imagine circumstances in which a lady of middle age who is moving on towards old age finds herself unable to go out to work very frequently or, even if she does go out to work, unable to put in a long time at it and, therefore, unable to earn a sufficient income to support herself completely. That arises because of her infirmity or because of the difficulties of her past life which may render her psychologically unable to do a full and sufficient day's work to earn a living.

It must be admitted that there are instances in which that may occur to a widow. We are not entirely satisfied that a widow who is suffering in the way I have attempted to describe—a widow who is ailing or who is not quite able always to face the day's struggle of going to work and doing a job—may not nevertheless be regarded by a doctor to whom she goes for a certificate as in a condition in which he can honestly say that she is unfit for work on the grounds of sickness.

By the Amendment, which we put forward originally in Committee and subsequently withdraw after discussion, we wanted to try to ensure that after the Bill becomes law, such a widow would riot be denied benefit of one kind or another. Certainly, as the law stands, she gets a benefit, but we are not entirely satisfied that, if the Bill becomes law, widows in this condition of health will get a benefit.

We withdrew the Amendment in Committee on the understanding that between then and now further inquiries could be made. We have made some further inquiries. We are grateful to the Minister for saying that he had no objection to our talking to officials of his, and we have now had a conversation, my hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) and I, but such inquiries as we have made still leave us rather doubtful, though I do not put it any higher than that.

It is true that one example to which I referred in Committee has been looked at since then very carefully by the right hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for writing to me about it as he did a day or two ago. I am bound to admit that in that case I, so to speak, fail. I must agree that that is not a case which proves my point. However, the mere fact that the only example which came immediately to my attention proves not to be entirely valid still leaves me with some measure of doubt.

What I hope is that the right hon. Gentleman himself has not been content merely to leave it to my hon. Friends and me to make what inquiries we could but that he also has looked at the matter a little further, and it is chiefly to give him or the Joint Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity to tell us the results of those further inquiries and, I hope, to reassure us that I move this Amendment.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Miss Edith Pitt)

This Amendment, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) has just reminded us, is in identical terms with an Amendment which was withdrawn in Committee. I gather from the comments which the right hon. Gentleman has just made that he moved this Amendment to provide for further discussion today and, particularly, to know the results of inquiries we have been able to make at the Ministry.

During the Committee stage of the Bill my right hon. Friend invited hon. Members to send him any cases which, in the words he used then,

… justify the view that we should be excluding any case that could be dealt with under the present law."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E, 5th June, 1956; c. 86.] That is, the fine distinction which the right hon. Gentleman just instanced, when he said that it is not always possible to differentiate between a widow incapable of work because of sickness and a widow incapable of self-support because of infirmity.

The offer of my right hon. Friend was accepted by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Middlesbrough, East. He referred in Committee to a constituent of his, about whom he has been in correspondence with us. That case is not relevant to this discussion, because it has been found that the widow concerned did not qualify for incapacity pension.

This is the fact now: Since we discussed the matter in Committee no other case has been sent forward to the Ministry for consideration on these special grounds. I conclude, therefore, that some of the doubts expressed by right hon. and hon. Members opposite are disappearing.

However, we have in the meantime taken a sample survey from five regions of the Ministry of what I would call the more difficult cases—cases in which the title to incapacity pension was not straight-forward, and cases that could not be decided by the local insurance officer but probably had to be referred for another opinion. I hope I make that quite clear—we have not taken the easy cases: we have tried to find cases of the type which the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends had particularly in mind.

We have had all these cases looked at by our headquarters medical staff. The result has confirmed our view, that, broadly speaking, there is little doubt that in those cases we have investigated, the doctors would under the new provisions have certified the widows as incapable of work for sickness benefit purposes.

11.15 a.m.

We are, of course, thinking only of women who may be widowed in the future. I want to make that quite clear. No existing rights are affected, because women already receiving incapacity pension will continue to do so. From this hon. Members will agree with me, I imagine, that only experience will show whether the fine distinction which has been emphasised today will be significant, but we believe that the provisions in the Bill will be more comprehensive and will avoid the difficulties of the present scheme.

Those difficulties I outlined in Committee. They are mainly the necessity under the present provisions to define a prolonged period of incapacity; the fact that incapacity pension can be paid only if the woman is shown to be incapable of self support immediately the widow's allowance ends; and, thirdly, that under the present conditions, widow's incapacity pension would be at a reduced rate if her husband had a deficient record of contributions. Those are some of the difficulties of the present scheme.

We feel that to retain the incapacity pension would make for unnecessary complications in an already complicated scheme. For the Ministry, it would mean complicated leaflets and instructions and having to give complicated explanations. For the widow—and this is more important—considerable doubt, when she is widowed as to the type of benefit for which she is eligible. I am sure that it is better for the widow to be brought within the ambit of the normal insurance provisions and thus qualify for either sickness or unemployment benefit, rather than that we should permanently isolate a small group of widows and label them as permanently incapacitated, because by this we imply that they are unable to play a normal part in the life of the community.

I think that the present provisions will be not only more generous to widows in general, but will avoid describing a certain section of widows as incapable of leading a normal life. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Marquand

I am glad that these fairly thorough inquiries which the hon. Lady has described have been made, and, with her, I hope that our fears will prove to be groundless and that no cases of this kind will occur in the future. In view of what the hon. Lady has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.