HC Deb 23 July 1969 vol 787 cc1886-901

11.49 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Campbell (Oldham, West)

I recognise that I shall have to read carefully in this debate, because of the rules governing the conduct of the debate. I shall, however, seek to draw to the attention of the House what I submit is a grave injustice which many widows suffer under our present pension arrangements. It is one of the gravest injustices in the Welfare State, of which we are justifiably proud. There are certain widows who for quite arbitrary reasons never receive a widow's pension. At is stands, the law does not allow a woman who is widowed under the age of 50 to receive any pension.

There is an exception to this rule and that is when the women was married before 1948, when she receives 30s. a week, even if she is less; than 50 when her husband dies. This is not very much because the 30s. is taxable and out of it she will have to pay, as from the date of her husband's death, National Insurance contributions which amount to 14s. 1d. a week if she is to qualify for an ordinary pension at the age of 60. By the time that she has paid her income tax and the 14s. 1d. there is precious little of the 30s. left.

The number of women married before 1948 and still under 50 when their husbands die is rapidly decreasing and must eventually disappear. But that one exception to this harsh rule does not bring any great relief to the general suffering which this rigid age barrier of 50 brings about.

Putting the exception aside, the rule is that if a husband dies while his wife is under 50 years of age, she will get no pension, and she will not get one even when she becomes 50. The age barrier is absolutely rigid. If a widow is under 50 by even an hour, she gets no pension, and never does. So long as she reaches the age of 50 before her husband dies, even if she has reached that age by only an hour, she gets her pension. The line is drawn absolutely rigidly at the age of 50, and it causes the gravest injustices.

I was fortunate earlier in the Session in the Ballot for Private Members' Bills. I realise that I cannot refer to legislation, but I submit that I can refer to something that never became law, namely, a Bill which I introduced in the hope of remedying this injustice. Because of lack of time my Bill was never debated and has now been lost. I am, therefore, very glad to have an opportunity of ventilating the matter.

When it was known that I was introducing the Bill to which I have just referred, I received a flood of letters from all over the country from widows who have been caught by this harsh age rule. These widows have no organisation and they are not militant. They suffer in silence. Few people realise the sufferings which they endure. I came to know about them as a result of my Bill.

These days people tend to marry quite young. It is quite common for a woman to have been married for 20 or 25 years and yet still be under 50 years of age when her husband dies. I ask the House to consider the position of such a widow. For 20 or 25 years she may have been off the labour market. Indeed, if she was married very young, she may never have been on the labour market. Therefore, she has no skill and no experience in any work outside the home. She has spent 20 or 25 years running a home, looking after her husband and possibly bringing up children—therefore, doing very important work. She may have spent the last few years before her husband's death nursing him during an illness.

But he dies when she is still in her forties. If she has no dependent children, she receives no pension. She is left alone and completely unprovided for. Her husband will, of course, have paid his contributions every week for all those years in the fond belief that his widow would get a pension, but she will not get it if she is not 50.

What does that widow do? She has to find a job. She has not been out to work for 20 or 25 years. She has no skill or experience, and yet she has to try to find a job. And if she finds a job, she has to pay National Insurance contributions to qualify for a retirement pension when she reaches the age of 60. Her position really is desperate. She has just suffered a bereavement, which is bad enough. She is possibly left with the family home, which is too big for her to live in alone, and which is possibly heavily mortgaged. She is then at the most vulnerable point in her life. She is probably in her late forties, is experiencing the change of life, and is in indifferent health. At this, the most difficult time of her life, she has to go out into the world, without any qualifications. or experience, or skill, to try to find a job.

It may be asked why a woman should get a pension simply because she is a widow, why should she be treated differently from the spinster who has never had the advantages of marriage? But that is a fallacious argument. If it were not, it would apply to all widows, even those over 50. If that argument had anything in it, there would be no case for giving any widow any pension. The real difference between the widow and the spinster is that the latter has been able to pursue her career uninterrupted by marriage and child-bearing and the years of running a home and bringing up children. She has been able to climb the ladder in some career to a point where, when she is in her forties, she is able to command a reasonable salary, but the widow has to try to begin her life again in middle age, with no experience, and no skill, and at an age when jobs are difficult enough to come by anyway.

Industry and commerce have become much more technical. New techniques and new skills are now required, and a woman in her forties who has not been to work for many years finds it increasingly difficult, indeed sometimes impossible, to obtain anything other than the most menial employment. In the Bill which I introduced I sought to remedy this injustice by allowing a pension to be paid as from the age of 35, but at a lower rate, and on a sliding scale. I think that it was £2 at 35, increasing gradually until, at the age of 50, the widow received the normal widow's pension of £4 10s.

I could go on for a long time talking about the injustices of the present system. I could read some of the heart-rending letters I have had by which even the stoniest-hearted Minister would be moved. I realise the limitations within which I must frame my remarks. The White Paper is not good enough. Something to be done in 1972 will be too late for many of these widows; some of them will be dead then. What they want is some cash now. It would cost so little to give some relief to women placed in this difficult position.

Under the scheme I suggested, pensions on a sliding scale could have been provided at a cost to the country of less than £20 million, probably about £16 million. If the age were merely reduced to 45, which would help the most needy cases, the cost would be only £10 million. Without legislation being introduced, they could be relieved of the necessity to pay National Insurance contributions to qualify. If some means could be found of relieving them of that obligation it would be a tremendous boon to these most deserving people.

Recognising the limitations within which I speak, I urge the Minister to find some way within his administrative powers to alleviate the great suffering which these women have to endure.

12.2 a.m.

Mr. J. C. Jennings (Burton)

This is a story of forgotten women, pensionless widows. I shall try to tell the story con- cisely and simply. I realise that this subject is probably the most difficult in the list for debate in the long night ahead of us because, under the rules of order, we dare not even breathe the words "future legislation". In presenting what I consider vital facts and statistics to clarify the mind of the Minister about the lines on which he could act, I make no attempt to influence future legislation, but to encourage the Minister to seek to do what we are trying to suggest within the bounds of order.

Two salient facts have been admirably presented by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell), a lawyer particularly skilled in this part of the pensions field. If a woman is over 50 when widowed, she gets £4 10s. a week if her husband has made the necessary contributions. If she is under 50, and has no dependent children and does not qualify for the 30s. pension—which we who have been in this House for a long time remember as the "Ten-shilling widow pension"—she gets no pension, but she must buy National Insurance stamps until she is 60 to obtain a pension whether she works or not.

Let us consider the second stark fact. When a man retires at the age of 65, his wife is qualified to receive a supplementary allowance irrespective of her age, but if he—her retired husband—dies before her 50th birthday she loses that allowance and gets nothing. In addition, she has to pay National Insurance contributions until she is 60. These two examples epitomise the hardship from which this type of pensioner suffers.

What is the Minister's problem? It is the age barrier of 50. I must tread carefully here and content myself with stating the facts, and let the implications be what they are. To abolish the age barrier would cost about £21 million. It would mean less than 1s. on the stamp of every married man or less than 2d. on all stamps spread over the whole insurance field.

On 30th June I asked the Minister of State a Question—would widows who are pensionless and who are paying National Insurance contributions have to pay the increased contributions which will be imposed later this year? The answer was that women who have to pay contributions must pay that increase later this year. Does the Minister realise that £5 million a year will be taken from these pensionless widows? They get nothing from the State and the State is making a profit on them. It is no laughing matter. I do not know what the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. McCann) is laughing at.

Mr. John McCann (Rochdale)

I was not laughing.

Mr. Jennings

I gather that the hon. Member for Rochdale made a comment about "thirteen wasted years". He has been here long enough to know that year after year, when the Conservatives were in power, I fought for the 10s. widow. I take none of his accusations personally. I condemned my Government as much as he should be condemning his Government for not dealing with this problem. He should be quiet.

What is the size of the problem? My figures are two years old. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary has better figures, but these will make the point: to reduce the age barrier from 50 to 45 would cost £12 million. That has nothing to do with future legislation. These are simple financial statistics. To reduce it from 50 to 40 would cost £18 million. To abolish it altogether would cost about £21 million.

Mr. Bruce Campbell

Should not my hon. Friend add that many such widows now receiving no pension have to claim supplementary benefit, which they would no longer need if they had a pension, so that his figure might be substantially reduced?

Mr. Jennings

That point is very well made, and I am grateful.

That is the financial side of the problem. Let us now look at the human side. Widows with no pension at all total 40.000. Those on the 30s. pension total 75,000, making 115.000 in all. Without even dreaming of legislation, the Minister should re-examine the whole question of the age barrier.

The next broad aspect of the problem I would like to look at is the retraining and re-establishment of widows. My hon. and learned Friend showed conclusively how difficult it is for a widow—certainly one over 40—to get a job. These days, it is difficult enough for a man over 40 to get into the labour market if he has been made redundant. How much more difficult it is for a woman over 40, after having raised a family and run a home, and lost her skills in industry, commerce or wherever she was employed. Is it to be understood that widows are held in less repute than other redundant workers, the disabled or even criminals, for whom the authorities provide all sorts of re-training and re-establishment schemes?

Therefore, I ask the Minister to look again at the whole question of these forgotten women. I hope that I shall not be fobbed off with the White Paper, to be effective, if ever, some years ahead. These women want help now.

12.14 a.m.

Mr. Donald Williams (Dudley)

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) have stated the sad plight of the pensionless widow and advocated her cause most ably.

I support them, because over many months innumerable widows have written to me and been to see me about their problems as a result of being pensionless. As a result, on 12th May I asked a Question, and at the end of my supplementary question I asked the Minister: Could he not give such people hope that in the near future they will be helped over their problem in regard to pensions? The reply was: This is precisely what the White Paper does. It gives not only hope but confidence to the widow that she will benefit in widowhood as well as in retirement from contributions paid by her husband."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th May, 1969; Vol. 783, c. 961.] That is hope for something which may happen in 1972 or thereafter, if at all. I trust that the Minister will not hide behind what the Government hope to put into the White Paper—

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting very close to the rule about not raising legislation on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Mr. Williams

I am very sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but this is a very difficult and narrow debate in this context. I know that he wants a wider debate on this subject. He has said so on more than one occasion. We wants it so that he can get an understanding of what people are thinking and feeling about this.

The House has been told of the numbers of widows. I understand that the Registrar General's estimate is that on 30th June, 1968, there were 6,200 widows under 30; 22.500 from 30 to 39 inclusive; and 113,100 from 40 to 49. I have done my arithmetic, and at a rate of £4 10s. a week the total cost would be £33,181,200. But that is not the real cost to the State, because a substantial number of these widows get social service benefits now and quite a large number get the 30s. a week.

The strange part is that in answer to another Question by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oldham, West, who wanted to know about the supplementary benefits in 1967 to wives separated from their husbands, the reply was: I regret that this information is not available. But a sample inquiry in November, 1967, suggested that expenditure on supplementary benefit for separated wives staying at home to care for children was at the annual rate of something like £30 million."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th July. 1969; Vol. 786, c. 169.] So we are more concerned with looking after the duties of husbands who have deserted their wives than with widows unfortunate enough to get no pension from the State. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look into this.

My hon. Friends have been raising the question of widows in the future. In a reply by the Under Secretary I was told: It is estimated that the number of such widows under age 60 will be about 2,000."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th July, 1969; Vol. 786, c. 66.] That refers to those who will have died between 1st June, 1969 and 31st March, 1972. All hope of them ever getting anything from their husbands' contributions and all confidence for them will be destroyed fairly quickly.

I should like to quote from a letter from one of my constituents: I was widowed five years ago and have a daughter of 18. I am at present in receipt of a widowed mother's allowance of £6 15s. 6d., but this will cease entirely at the end of next month when my daughter reaches the age of 19 years. By any standard this will be quite an appreciable drop in income especially when considered in relation to the ever-rising cost of living. In addition to losing this allowance. I am advised that it will be in my own interests to pay a full National Insurance contribution as against the 7d. rate I pay at present, and I no longer qualify for Income Tax Relief in respect of my daughter as her 19th birthday comes in the current tax year. I estimate that my income from the beginning of June will be reduced by over £9 per week. In spite of this, I still feel that I am one of the fortunate ones, as, following my husband's death, I was able to resume, after a break of 15 years, the type of work I had done prior to my marriage which is reasonably well paid. Many widows are, however, unable to do this and have to take unskilled work at quite a low wage, which means that the loss of their State pension is nothing, short of disastrous. This is the point my hon. Friends have been trying to emphasise. It does not help, when a reply by the Under Secretary to a Question I raised with the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. I am told: Pensionless widows and widows receiving 30s per week have the same right to be considered for training under the Government vocational training scheme as other women or men. Where retraining is needed in their cases, however, it is usually carried out by industry itself, with the assistance where appropriate of grants from the Industrial Training Boards."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th July, 1969; Vol. 786, c. 194.] This is a platitudinous argument because, assuming that these widows are already over the age of 40, it is well known that they will wish to retire at the age of 60 under the present provisions. There are not many people in industry or commerce who will spend considerable sums of money on training people for such a short period of industrial or commercial life.

I have had many letters and there is one which I consider to be so damaging to any case that the Government may have that I feel that I must read it. It is dated 1st July, 1969, and reads: My husband passed away six weeks ago, after being in full employment until the age of 65, then continued part time until his death. Due to this part time employment he was unable to obtain old age pension and as I am under 50 years of age I shall receive only 26 weeks pension, after which I shall be unable to obtain any further benefits whatsoever. I have also been informed that I have to contribute out of my own pocket for the next 11 years to enable me to receive a pension at 60 years of age. My late husband was a serving member of H.M. Forces at the age of 15½ and took part in the battle of the Dardenelles at 16. This, of course, upsets me greatly to think that my husband served his country not only during his period in H.M. Forces, but for a further 50 years without receiving any benefit whatsoever from the State. We have tried to give the hon. Gentleman a fair and reasonable understanding of the position of the pensionless widow. I hope that he will not fob us off with mere hope for the future and will give these widows genuine hope that action will be promoted in the very near future.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order now.

Mr. Williams

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am coming to the end of what I have to say.

The Department of Health and Social Security has issued a booklet, "The Right to Help". I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take this to heart and decide to help these pensionless widows.

12.23 a.m.

Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)

I intervene briefly to support the points made by my hon. Friends and to congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell) on his luck in the Ballot and his skill in remaining within the rules of order.

I am sure that it is clear to the Under-Secretary of State that all my hon. Friends are dissatisfied with the proposals which the Government have made with regard to some years ahead to deal with this problem. They have spoken movingly and with obvious close knowledge of the problem of the rigid age barrier which exists and which inevitably appears unjust to the widows who are just on the wrong side of the barrier. They have quoted letters. I have one here which I will not quote. They all show that there is here a strong feeling of injustice.

The hon. Gentleman may well say that this decision was made in the years after the war, when it was decided that, rather than give a pension for widowhood as such, it would, following the Beveridge scheme, be better to concentrate the benefits on those widows who were over a certain age or who still had dependent children. Whether that decision was right or wrong at the time, I think he will recognise that conditions have substantially changed since.

Women tend to marry younger and their families tend to grow up earlier and, therefore, more of them are faced with the position where they are not entitled to anything more than the short-term resettlement allowance, which is what it is, for the 13-week period. Many more of them are caught by this rigid age barrier owing to having had their families earlier than was the tendency when the present arrangements were introduced in the early years after the war.

For this reason, my party committed itself at the last election to removing the rigid age barrier of 50. We welcome the fact that the Government have taken up this proposal in their White Paper, but we have strong feelings about the Government's sense of priorities on this issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Jennings) pointed out that widows who are not entitled to a pension are to have to pay the increased contributions which will come into operation in November. They are, naturally, asking themselves about the Government's sense of priorities when they see that an additional £430 million is to be raised for increases in benefits and to get the scheme out of the red while they will receive nothing.

Inevitably the suspicion grows that the Government announce policies to be put into operation some years ahead and are prepared to write cheques now to be honoured by another Government after the election. It will not be convincing for the Under-Secretary to say that the Government intend to do something some years hence. I know that he will rely on that argument, but it will not carry conviction of a correct sense of priorities.

I appreciate the problems of keeping in order, but I hope that at least he will be able to say something to give my hon. Friends some reassurance that the Government intend to take action in some respects to relieve the plight of these widows rather than rely as the hon. Member appears to be doing, on some promise to come into operation only after the next General Election.

12.28 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Security (Mr. Norman Pentland)

I am sure that everyone will sympathise with the feelings which have prompted the debate, for all hon. Members will have come up against the problem of the sharp cut-off at 50 years of age in the National Insurance Scheme provisions for widows' pensions.

I know that the hon. and learned Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell) was not successful in getting a Second Reading for a Private Member's Bill on this subject earlier this year. I am as glad as he that, through the medium of the Ballot, he has at least been able to express his views on this difficult problem, as have his hon. Friends the Members for Burton (Mr. Jennings), Dudley (Mr. Donald Williams) and Somerset, North (Mr. Dean).

Matters relating to employment and vocational training are outside the scope of my Department, but no doubt my right hon. Friend the First Secretary will have her attention drawn to what has been said this evening.

As the House knows, the Government's ideas on the social security provision appropriate to widows were published in the White Paper on National Superannuation and Social Insurance in January this year. The new scheme provides that a childless widow between 40 and 50, or a widowed mother whose allowance ends between 40 and 50, will receive a scaled-down pension. A scaled-down flat-rate pension will also be provided for existing widows if they satisfied the new qualifying condition at the time that they were widowed or when widowed mother's allowance ceased.

In contrast with the proposals in the hon. and learned Member's Bill, the Government's proposals are part of a carefully integrated scheme and are necessarily linked to the earnings-related contributions and pensions proposals. We intend this scaled-down widow's pension to provide a benefit in circumstances in which the woman is fully able to work, but her earning capacity has been impaired by absence from the labour market through marriage.

I would emphasise that the Government's proposals have been worked out bearing in mind the consequences such an extension of widow's benefit might have—for instance, the problems of the relationship with title to sickness and unemployment benefit, with retirement pension when the widow reaches 60, and so on. For this reason alone, it would be premature to take this group in isolation when there are related areas of the new scheme proposals still under public discussion. The Government have produced proposals and have shown the country that they are prepared to meet the problem and that the necessary resources can be made available through the earnings related scheme.

The cost of the scaled-down widow's pensions proposals would be about £12 million in terms of the present standard rate of £4 10s. and slightly more when the new £5 rate operates this autumn. The Bill of the hon. and learned Member for Oldham, West, proposed a sliding scale starting at 35 with quinquennial increases until full pension was reached at age 50, and would cost about £17 million a year, rising eventually to £22.5 million. These are substantial sums.

I would draw the hon. and learned Gentleman's attention to the debate on the Divorce Reform Bill in Standing Committee on 29th January, in which he took part. He remarked on additional expenditure of £400,000 on additional cases if the Bill became law. He said that this: Was a large sum at a time when we are being told that public expenditure must be curtailed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 29th January, 1969, c. 11.] The hon. and learned Member also put down a Motion to reject the Bill on those grounds, which said: On Third Reading of the Divorce Reform Bill, to move, That this House declines to give a Third Reading to a Bill which at a time of severe economic stringency is likely to throw additional burdens on the taxpayer in the shape of further demands on the Legal Aid Fund and a large increase in claims for social security benefits. That was the hon. and learned Gentleman's view of an additional expenditure of £400,000.

Mr. Bruce Campbell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of what I said in a different context, but should he not compare like with like? I was criticising the expenditure of £300,000 or £400,000 a year out of the Legal Aid Fund to enable guilty people to divorce their innocent wives. Is not that rather different from granting pensions to widows?

Mr. Pentland

I entirely disagree. The hon. and learned Gentleman mentions additional expenditure of £400,000, but his Motion ended with these words: … is likely to throw additional burdens on the taxpayer in the shape of further demands on the Legal Aid Fund and a large increase in claims for social security benefits. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have one standard here and another for unfortunate people who are involved as a consequence of divorce.

Mr. Jennings

Later this year the Government will drastically increase the National Insurance contribution. Does he not agree that, if the spreadover is correct, as I have said, to abolish the age barrier at a cost of rouhgly £21 million would mean 2d. on every National Insurance stamp? Would that be a great burden in view of the vast increase proportionally which is to be made? Would it not be worth while to deal with these forgotten women in this way?

Mr. Pentland

I cannot qualify or dispute the hon. Gentleman's figures at this time. Is it the Opposition's policy, if, unfortunately, they are returned to power, to have no age limit for widows? If so, where will they find the additional money for this? The hon. and learned Gentleman's Bill referred to the age of 35 and scaled the amount down at 35 moving on to 50. The hon. Member for Burton, on behalf of the Tory Party,—

Mr. Jennings

Not on behalf of the Tory Party.

Mr. Pentland

—says that there should be no age limit. Is that Tory Policy on the pensionless widow?

Mr. Dean

We have said that we believe that the rigid age barrier of 50 should be removed.

Mr. Pentland

We have said that in the White Paper. We accept that the age of 50 is too rigid. Hon. Members are condemning us for saying that in our White Paper, which we brought forward for public discussion.

To meet the cost of providing pensions for these widows, whether at 35 or 40 and whether at the full rate or on a scale as the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests, it would be necessary to increase contributions. Under the present scheme, contributions may in many cases bear very harshly on the family man with a low income who can be in a worse position than a widow without a child and who is capable of work. There are special provisions in the present scheme covering widows who are incapable of work or who have difficulty in finding work. If they do not qualify for a widow's pension when the widow's allowance or widowed mother's allowance ceases, the present provisions give title to sickness or unemployment benefit irrespective of the woman's own insurance record at the time and this would be at the same standard rate as a widow's pension. That already applies to the widows about whom hon. Gentlemen are concerned.

The Government's new scheme proposals are integrated. They include a new contributory structure to meet the new pattern of benefits. To introduce an isolated item in advance, it would be necessary to accept that the claims of this section of the community are such that the necessary increase in the present contributions would be justified and that there was a prior need as against claims by others, such as the disabled and the long-term sick, for improved social security benefits.

There is another section of the community about whom we must be concerned. A married woman might go to work because her husband has a serious or long illness or is long-term unemployed. The hon. Member for Burton will be aware of cases like this. A woman in that position also has a difficult problem. All these problems have to be considered.

The Government have said that we are very much aware of the problems of the pensionless widows and have produced proposals for meeting the difficulty. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said time and time again that he would welcome discussions of the proposals contained in the White Paper. The evidence which is put forward as a result of that discussion and all the ideas that come forward, including the views expressed here tonight by hon. Members, will need to be considered. I have an assurance from my right hon. Friend that everything that is said and every proposal that comes forward in the larger public discussion which is taking place will be fully examined. I give that assurance.

The outcome of all this will be for the Government to put forward legislation. As the White Paper said, we intend to introduce legislation—it could not be done sooner—in the next Session of Parliament and to start the scheme as soon as possible afterwards with a target date of April, 1972.