HC Deb 24 May 1971 vol 818 cc169-76

10.23 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Paul Dean)

I beg to move, That the National Insurance (Married Women) Amendment Regulations, 1971, a draft of which was laid before this House on 20th April, be approved. The purpose of these Amendment Regulations is to improve the retirement conditions for women whose marriages have been dissolved. It is proposed that the Regulations should come into operation on 14th June, 1971, which will be in time to help cases arising from the Divorce Reform Act, 1970.

A married woman usually relies on her husband's insurance to give her a retirement pension, but if she is divorced she can use her former husband's insurance only insofar as special provisions in the National Insurance (Married Women) Regulations enable her to do so. It might be helpful to the House if I first explain briefly what these provisions are.

If the woman is over 60 when she is divorced she can qualify immediately for a retirement pension on her former husband's insurance equal to that she would have received if he had died on the date the marriage ended—in other words, she is fully covered.

Mr. Brian O'Malley (Rotherham)

In the case quoted by the hon. Gentleman, is the husband under the age of 65?

Mr. Dean

It would apply in any event. If she is over 60 she is fully covered whatever the age of her former husband.

The more usual case is that of the woman who is under 60 when she is divorced. She is required to pay contributions, as any single person is, according to whether she is working for an employer, is self-employed or is non-employed. When she reaches age 60, the rate of retirement pension to which she will be entitled will then depend on her yearly average of contributions. These will be based on contributions paid by her or credited to her in the periods before marriage and after divorce. For the period of marriage, she may, if it is to her advantage, as it usually is, count her former husband's contributions. In the ordinary course, where the woman works before marriage and after divorce and the husband has a good insurance record, this arrangement should ensure a full retirement pension.

The draft Regulations, while preserving the present position, make the additional provision that her former husband's record may, alternatively, be used for the whole of the period over which her yearly average is calculated up to the end of the marriage, if that would enable her to receive a still higher pension. His record can accordingly cover her for the period of any earlier marriage when she did not herself have to pay contributions.

I give the House this example. A woman who has been widowed or divorced may marry again in her 40s or 50s and quickly find that she has made a mistake. If she then divorces that second husband, as the Regulations now stand she can, for retirement pension purposes, use her second husband's contribution record to cover only the short period of that second marriage. There may well be an extensive gap in her insurance record during her first marriage. These amending Regulations will allow her to use the second husband's insurance to improve her record for the whole period up to the second marriage.

As the Explanatory Note to the Regulations makes clear, this extension brings the provision into line with those which apply to widows. A preliminary draft of the Regulations has been submitted to the National Insurance Advisory Committee, which recommends that they be accepted.

I apologise for that rather technical explanation, but I commend to the House this improvement in National Insurance cover for women who, everyone will agree, deserve our sympathy and our help.

Mr. Charles Curran (Uxbridge)

Can my hon. Friend say how many women will benefit?

Mr. Dean

I am not able to help my hon. Friend there because it depends largely, especially for the future, on how many women are likely to be in this position, but I can tell him that the proposed improvement will largely help those women who are in the unfortunate position of having had two marriages, both of which have broken down. There will probably be more of these under the recent reform in our divorce laws.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Brian O'Malley (Rotherham)

We welcome these amending Regulations, first, because they mirror almost exactly the proposals which the previous Government put forward in their White Paper Cmnd. 3883, which were reflected in Clause 23(5) of the National Superannuation Bill, and second, because we feel, as the hon. Gentleman does and as the public will feel, I am sure, that they may considerably assist divorced women and women whose marriages have been annulled.

It is significant that the National Insurance Advisory Committee received no representations when the draft Regulations were published. This is not surprising, for everyone interested in this small corner of national insurance and social security cover will feel that they bring a welcome, if minor, change in the Regulations as they stand at present. Under present legislation, divorced women cannot substitute their ex-husband's record for any period between their own school leaving age and their marriage, as, for example, widows can, I understand. Now for the whole period both widows and divorced women can use their ex-husband's contribution record for the whole period to the end of their marriage. This will be useful to women who have, for whatever reason, a brief second marriage. There will now be National Insurance contribution cover over the whole period of the first marriage, whether it has been lengthy or short. In addition, it will be particularly helpful to women who married late, who may well have stayed at home to look after aged relatives and had no contribution record of their own.

The hon. Gentleman explained the position of women who were divorced over the age of 60. The House was pleased that even though the ex-husband might not be of pension age himself—65 years—the woman divorced over the age of 60 will be able to draw a retirement pension if necessary before the ex-husband reaches 65, which is the normal age at which a married woman would be able to draw funds from her husband's contributions.

As I understand the situation as described by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, in another place on 5th May, as reported at columns 422–423 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, the Regulations deal only with the flat rate pension. It may well be, for example that the ex-husband has paid graduated contributions for a number of years under what we on this side describe—I say this without venom tonight—as the Mark I Tory graduated swindle. I understand that if a widow's late husband has paid graduated contributions she not only receives flat rate pension but increments on top arising from the contributions of her late husband into the graduated State system. Why should not the divorced woman receive recognition of the payments her ex-husband has made in graduated contributions, particularly if he has died in the interim and has left no widow who would otherwise be drawing the benefits of those contributions? The Regulations help a woman if she has had a short second marriage, because now she will be able to use the whole of her second husband's record.

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to think that I am quibbling, but because of the inevitable complications of any National Insurance scheme there will always be cases where individual women will be badly affected because of the individual contribution records of their ex-husbands. The second husband might not have had a good contribution record and the woman who has divorced or been divorced by the second husband might well have had a very long marriage to her first husband who had a good contribution record. I recognise all the difficulties and complexities which can arise in a National Insurance scheme such as ours, but does not the hon. Gentleman think that in some circumstances it might be justifiable to consider the contribution record of the first husband rather than the second to help women who have had a brief second marriage and their second husbands had a poor or non-existent contribution record?

My noble Friend Baroness Phillips, in another place, asked a question of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. She said:

I understand the Regulations to prescribe the yearly average contribution over the lifetime of the husband. This in fact is different from the widow's pension which appears to be based on the yearly contribution for the last three years before death. I do not expect an answer immediately, but perhaps this is something where, when we come to discuss pensions totally, we may find there is some slight anomaly which can be ironed out".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 5th May, 1971; Vol. 318, c. 424.] I know that the scheme as it exists for widows gives a number of options in order that the widow can get the highest possible pension according to how the contribution record is calculated. I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary would comment on my noble Friend's question.

I proposed to ask the Under-Secretary what numbers of divorced women would be helped by the Regulations, but he rightly pointed out that it would depend on the divorce rate arising from recent legislation on the subject. However, it may be that I have misunderstood the transitory provisions in Regulation 3 of the Statutory Instrument. I understand that divorced women will not receive any increase in the amount of benefit in respect of any period before the coming into operation of the Regulations on 14th June, 1971, but I was under the impression that women whose marriage, in the terms of the Regulation, was terminated before the date of the coming into operation of these Regulations". could conceivably find in some numbers that their retirement pension was increased as a result of the new basis of calculation. If I am correct in my interpretation, perhaps the Under-Secretary would give us the figures.

We welcome this minor improvement in what we regard as a generally unsatisfactory National Insurance scheme. But that does not alter the fact that married women who work and choose to pay their contribution get a poor return on their contributions when they are taken with the contributions of their ex-husbands. While in 1931 fewer than 500,000 married women were employed, that figure had jumped to 2½ million by 1951. Now it is probably approaching 5 million. Under the present National Insurance scheme, married women who work for a considerable period of their working lives—and the number may well include a considerable number of women who are divorced—get a poor deal. When we introduced our National Superannuation Bill, we sought so to change the basic National Insurance system and the principles underlying it that for the first time in the history of this country married women who worked would get a fair deal and return from it. Therefore, while welcoming these proposals, which, after all, are proposals put forward by the previous Government, I am bound to say that these are only minor proposals. We have to ask the question, when are the present Government going to bring forward their proposals which will give full justice to these women, as we wished to do? There is no sign of that yet.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Charles Curran (Uxbridge)

I welcome these proposals, of course. I do not think so meanly of them as the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) does. Nor will the women who will benefit by them take the lofty view that he has been taking; they will welcome them with a good deal more enthusiasm than he has done.

However, I would ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary whether it is possible for him to give us any idea of his thinking about the future of National Insurance as it affects married women. I know that it is a very large subject, but I think we are entitled to raise it in this debate, and I should like to see whether I can persuade my hon. Friend to open his mind to us on what is really a basic question. Should a married woman's right to pension depend upon her husband's contributions record, or upon her ex-husband's contributions record either?

I am surprised that we have not had a few members of the Women's Liberation here for this debate, because this seems to me to be a question on which women's organisations would be likely to be more vocal than they are. In National Insurance we treat wives as appendages of their husbands, and as persons whose rights are dependent not on what they themselves do but on what their husbands do, or fail to do. I am familiar, and I am sure other hon. Members are familiar, with the case of a married woman finding that when she reaches pensionable age she does not get the pension she hoped to get, because there was something the matter with her husband's contribution record.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. I hope very much that the hon. Member will confine himself to the Regulations, and not encourage his hon. Friend to stray equally far from them.

Mr. Curran

I accept that Ruling, of course. I did not want to do more than touch parenthetically upon the question in the hope that my hon. Friend, when he replies, could give us some idea of his thinking about this. Because he understands the National Insurance subject thoroughly, he does not need me to convince him that this is a basic question that I am asking him to answer, and I ask him to open his mind on it.

10.43 p.m.

Mr. Dean

With the leave of the House, perhaps I may briefly try to answer some of the questions put to me without getting out of order.

The position with regard to the graduated contribution is that the woman who is over the age of 60 will be entitled to half her husband's graduated pension. But this is not so in the case of a woman who is under 60.

With regard to the transitional Regulation, Regulation 3, the new Regulation that we are speaking about provides that there shall not be an increase in the amount payable to a woman whose marriage was dissolved before the Regulations for any period before that date.

With regard to the contribution point which the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. O'Malley) put to me, the position is that for both the flat-rate retirement pension and widow's benefit there are two conditions which must be satisfied in relation to the insurance record on which the benefit is based. The first is that at least 156 flat-rate contributions of any class must have been paid since the person last entered insurance. The second is as that for benefit to be paid at the standard rate there must be an average of 50 flat-rate contributions for each year of insurance. For the purpose of this condition full contributions paid and credited can be counted. Widow's pension was at one time related to the last three years of insurance under the Contributory Pensions Acts. That system ceased to operate in 1948 when the present National Insurance scheme came into force. Therefore, the point to which the hon. Member's noble Friend in another place referred to no longer obtains.

The final question I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran), and that was about opening my mind as to the future of married women in National Insurance. It is clear from what you have already said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I must proceed cautiously in this, so I had better content myself, in order not to incur your displeasure, by asking hon. Members to exercise patience a little longer until we produce our plans.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the National Insurance (Married Women) Amendment Regulations 1971, a draft of which was laid before this House on 20th April, be approved.