HC Deb 09 May 1973 vol 856 cc536-50
Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport):

I beg to move Amendment No. 27, in page 32, to leave out lines 30 to 32.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

With this amendment it will be convenient to discuss Amendment No. 184, in Clause 20, page 32, line 7, at end add: ' ( ) Nothing in subsection (3) above shall prevent the continued payment of any amount payable under section 31(4) of this Act' and Amendment No. 182, in Clause 79, page 105, line 7, leave out from 'death' to end of line 9.

Dame Joan Vickers

Clause 21 was not debated in Committee. For that reason this may be considered to be a completely new point. In view of that, 1 hope that my hon. Friend the Undersecretary will come to it with a fresh mind and accept my amendment.

The clause sets out the circumstances in which women may receive pensions. However, they immediately lose their pensions on remarriage. In my view that is very unfortunate, especially when one considers that it may be a time when they are setting up house and may need the money.

It also occurs to me that this provision may also affect Armed Forces pensions even though they come under a separate Act. If a widow receiving an Armed Forces pension remarries, does she lose her pension? I assume that a woman will be allowed to keep an occupational pension if she remarries. But what happens when men have paid into a widows' and orphans' pension fund such as the one we have in the dockyards? If a widow remarries, her children are still half-orphans. Will they get any of the money? Will a widow in those circumstances lose the pension for which her late husband specifically paid?

I am seeking to delete the last three lines of the clause because I particularly dislike the Government's proposal about cohabiting——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am having some difficulty in hearing the hon. Lady. I am reluctant to miss any of her pearls of wisdom.

Dame Joan Vickers

Perhaps it will help if I move nearer to one of the microphones, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I suppose that you would not like me to begin again. I hope that the HANSARD reporters have been able to hear me. It may be that they will let you have a transcript of my remarks.

I was referring to the situation in the dockyards where workers pay into a special fund for their widows and orphans. If a woman in receipt of a pension of this kind remarries, will her children be able to benefit from the money that her late husband contributed to the fund?

As I was saying, I particularly dislike the Government's attitude towards cohabiting. First, they stop the pension. Then, to make sure that the widow does not get any money, they add the words: … or for any period during which she is cohabiting with a man as his wife. I suggest that it is almost impossible to know when a woman is cohabiting unless it is done over a very long period. It means that again we shall have a band of snoopers going the rounds. We all know what happened previously. My hon. Friend stopped snoopers going into people's houses at six o'clock in the morning and setting neighbour against neighbour. We do not want this happening in the future.

If my hon. Friend cannot accept my entire amendment in regard to the pension, I hope he will consider deleting this reference to cohabiting. After all, a widower can remarry and keep his pension. As far as I know he can cohabit. I do not know of any Act which says that he cannot. It is very unfair that a woman should be treated in this manner. Her late husband will have paid for her pension. What is more, very often she has worked just as hard. She will have looked after her husband in his lifetime and cared for any children of the marriage. It may be that her husband was a semi-invalid for much of his life, with the result that she had to work and be the breadwinner of the household. In such circumstances I suggest that she, too, has worked for her pension. Yet, having been widowed, she will lose everything if she remarries. This is very unfair.

I find it strange to have a provision of this kind in the Bill when recently our judges were told that they must not decide the damages which a woman should receive on the basis of her chances of remarriage. They have to decide on the merits of each case. I think that a woman who has looked after her husband and possibly been the sole breadwinner is justified in keeping her pension.

It is said that for reasons of expense a woman cannot be allowed to continue having her pension if she is supported by another man. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider removing the cohabiting provision. It is an insult to the women concerned.

We are now in the Common Market. Like us, the Common Market countries do not allow women to receive their pensions if they remarry. However, they are much more generous than we are. The Belgians give a lump sum for two years after a remarriage. In Germany it is given for five years. In Italy, which is not such a rich country as we are, it is given for two years. In Holland it is given for one year. Even Luxembourg has a scheme; a lump sum is paid for five years to any woman who remarries under the age of 50 and for three years if she is over 50.

If my hon. Friend cannot accept my amendment in this form, I hope that he will consider that we ought to bring ourselves into line with the other Common Market countries. This would be very beneficial to widows. After all, it is their right to have equal treatment with widows in the countries of our new partners in Europe.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

My remarks are directed to Amendment No. 184, which is designed to answer a question asked by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) about what is to happen to the allowances for children of a widowed mother when she remarries.

When a similar amendment was discussed in Committee it was said to be "obscure". However, in my view it is not obscure, because the reference to Clause 31(4) is a reference to the child allowance which at present the widowed mother will lose. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the child allowance is retained if she remarries.

The principle behind the amendment was referred to just now by the hon. Lady. It is that the late father has provided insurance cover for his whole family and that this should not be terminated automatically if and when his widow remarries.

A great many matters were raised on this principle in Committee, and the Minister undertook to look at them. I expect that it is much too soon for him to have examined them in any depth since then, but I hope very much that he will instigate the research into the problem which he promised.

5.45 p.m.

It was also interesting to note from the debate in Committee that this idea was referred to as a novel suggestion. It is very strange that it should be regarded as a novel suggestion that the children of ordinary widows should have the right to benefit from an allowance if their mother remarries. War widows do not suffer in the same way as ordinary widows. Child allowances continue without any restriction if war widows remarry. Industrial widows also continue to receive a child allowance if they remarry. With industrial widows the allowance reduces after remarriage. Before remarriage an industrial widow receives £3.30 a week for the first qualifying child, £2.40 for the second child and £2.30 for each further child. If she remarries the allowance becomes £2.10, £1.20 and £1.10 respectively.

The principle has been accepted in respect of both of these categories of widow, so it is hardly a novel idea to suggest that ordinary widows should be treated in the same way. I do not know the reason behind the present situation relating to child allowances paid to war and industrial widows. It may be the principle that the child's welfare is the prime consideration. If this is so it must apply equally to the children of ordinary widows if those widows remarry. The welfare of the children of these widows should continue to be the prime consideration, and so the child allowance should continue.

It is highly undesirable that widows should be classified in this way, and I hope that we rapidly move away from this idea. It is wrong that a widow should be so classified and entitled to different treatment merely on the circumstances in which her husband died. It is even more wrong that children should suffer from this type of classification because of the circumstances in which their fathers died.

There is a serious principle involved here. I hope the Minister has had time to consider the matter and will give a more helpful reply now than he was able to do in Committee, when he regarded it as something new which he had not considered. I hope that on mature consideration the Minister can be more helpful. We should be concerned about the welfare of the children. The circumstances of the father's death should not in any way prevent them from enjoying continued benefit if the mother remarries.

Mr. Terry Davis (Bromsgrove)

I should like to express my general support for the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) and also the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler). I agree entirely with the views expressed about snoopers by members of the Committee and again today by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport. I also agree that a marriage is a partnership and that a pension is earned by a man and wife and not by the man alone. Therefore, if the man dies the wife should have entitlement to a pension which she has earned and the entitlement should continue even if she remarries.

I take this opportunity to draw to the attention of the Minister Amendment No. 182 standing in my name. This would make the same change in the widow's pension under the reserve scheme as Amendment No. 27 would make to the widow's pension under the basic scheme. I hope that the Under-Secretary will take the opportunity to deal specifically with my amendment in his reply. If I may anticipate his remarks I suspect that he will reject the amendment of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport on the grounds that it would be expensive and that public funds are involved because the Government would provide some of the money.

Although I am not sure that I would accept that argument, I recognise that social security is involved to some extent in the basic pension scheme. On the other hand, I do not see how this can apply to reserve pensions because these pensions are entirely financed by contributions from employers and employees. In effect, a reserve pension and a widow's pension under the reserve scheme are deferred pay for an employee. I do not see why this deferred pay should be forfeited because a widow remarries.

In an occupational pension scheme it is open for the trade union or other representative of the employee to negotiate for a widow's pension to continue after remarriage. I do not think it is unreasonable for this provision to be included in the reserve scheme. I would ask the Minister to consider, for example, the situation about which we all hear from time to time when two elderly people decide to marry. Sometimes it is a widower who marries a widow. As I understand the provisions of the Bill, if the widow was receiving a reserve scheme pension she would lose that upon remarriage and the newly-married couple would not receive any compensatory payment through the pension schemes. As I have already said, the taxpayer would not make a contribution, and if the Minister will not amend the basic pension scheme along the lines suggested in Amendment No. 27 I hope he will accept my amendment which goes some way in the same direction. Of course, it would mean some increase in cost and presumably in contributions. If he rejects my amendment for this reason, I hope he will tell the House how much would be involved.

Mr. James A. Dunn (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I add my voice to those who have already spoken in support of this proposition. I refer particularly to Amendment No. 27 which deals specifically with capitation. This rule operated by the Department has many facets. It embraces even those who are included in widows' allowances. I ask the Undersecretary to review the conditions for certifying or dealing with alleged cohabitation. There are many problems associated with this. It is well known that there are areas of concern and that it causes anxiety for many people.

If it is not possible for a reply to be given today, I would point out that the Bill will be going to another place. Can the Minister give an undertaking that he will review the cohabitation rule referred to in Clauses 19, 20 and 21?

Mr. Dean

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) has today raised many of the problems affecting widows, as she has done on a number of other occasions. I assure her and the House at the outset that the Government are most sympathetic towards the general points she has made. I hope the House will feel from what the Government have tried to achieve in this Bill and in other legislation that not only are we sympathetic towards widows but that we have taken a number of important steps to try to ease their lot and help them in the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves.

One of the first acts of the present Government was to introduce within the National Insurance Scheme the new pension for widows between the ages of 40 and 50 who were not previously eligible for pension. The pension for the over-80s goes to a large extent to women because they live a great deal longer than men. We have also introduced a number of improved arrangements for war widows, a subject in which my hon. Friend has shown considerable interest. The recognition conditions for the second pension provide for the first time that all recognised occupational pension schemes must provide cover for widows. The same applies to the reserve scheme. I hope the House will feel that not only are we showing sympathy towards widows but that we have taken practicable steps to help them.

My hon. Friend also drew comparisons with other European countries. We are carefully studying the experience of the EEC countries to see what we can learn from them because we are very ready to do so when they are doing better than we are. It is difficult to make exact comparisons. There may be some areas of widowhood covered among those countries which are in advance of our practices. I suspect that there are other areas where we are in advance of them. When it comes to general family cover in pension arrangements, it is fair to say that there are a great many gaps in European countries whereas we provide such cover in our system. It is difficult to draw general conclusions about what is happening in the other EEC countries.

Understandably, my hon. Friend also mentioned the children of widows who remarry or widows who cohabit. The hon. Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) raised this point too. She made the point that, in her opinion, the children of these widows suffered, particularly when the mother remarried. I do not think that this is so and I would like to explain how the arrangements work particularly the widowed mother's allowance.

Mr. O'Malley

It would be helpful if at some stage the hon. Gentleman could say what would be the cost to the National Insurance Scheme if the Government accepted Amendment No. 184. The Minister has had time to consider this because I tabled the amendment at the time of the Committee proceedings.

Mr. Dean

Perhaps I can go on to deal with the position of children. Allowances for a widow's dependent children are an increase in the widowed mother's allowance, not a benefit in their own right. They are subject to the same conditions as the substantive benefit. The general rule is that a woman can qualify for benefit only on the contribution of a man if she is either married to him at the time or she is his widow. A widow who remarries becomes along with her children, part of the family of her new husband. He is able to claim dependency increases for them on his own contributions when he is sick or unemployed and when he retires.

If the widow who has remarried is widowed again, she will be eligible for the widow's benefits on her latest husband's contributions. The point is that either the widow will be receiving benefits for her children because she is a widow or, if she remarries and becomes the member of another household, those children will continue to be entitled to benefits within the new family she has joined. There should not be a gap in the arrangements.

My hon. Friend also asked me about the practice in occupational pension schemes. They differ. In many cases such schemes do not continue the pension when the woman marries because it is felt that she will be obtaining cover through her marriage. Equally, with cohabitation there are some schemes which have written into their rules provision for the withdrawal of the pension in the event of cohabitation. Here again, it depends on the judgment of the scheme concerned

6.0 p.m.

I turn now to the point about cohabitation which was mentioned particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon-port and by the hon. Member for Broms-grove (Mr. Terry Davis). I assure the House that any inquiries are made with extreme care and discretion, as they must and should be in this delicate area of human relations. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn) is also interested in this matter and has just spoken about it.

I assure the House that there is no question of a widow's benefit being withdrawn on suspicion, tittle-tattle, talk in the neighbourhood or anything of that kind. The officers concerned must be satisfied that there is a stable union between the man and woman concerned. Even if, after careful inquiries, they are satisfied that that is the position, if the woman concerned feels that her allowance has been withdrawn unfairly she can appeal through the independent appeal procedure.

Were the benefit not to be withdrawn in those circumstances we should, in effect, be saying that a man and woman living together but not married should be in a preferential position regarding benefit compared with a man and woman living together who are married. I do not think that anyone would wish us to get into that position. It is for that reason that cohabitation arrangements have existed for such a long time. I hope the House will feel that in principle they are justified for that reason.

The hon. Member for Bromsgrove asked about the reserve pension scheme. I think that he answered the question for himself. He admitted that so far as the reserve pension scheme is concerned, for the pension to be maintained on either co-habitation or remarriage would increase the cost. It certainly would. It is not possible for me to give figures, because I do not know how many cases would be involved. Therefore, we are up against the question of priorities within the reserve pension scheme. Do we wish to increase the cost to provide cover for people who, in many cases, will be eligible for another pension and will have widowhood cover on the basis of remarriage? I suggest that this is not the highest priority that we should give in a scheme of this kind.

Mr. Terry Davis

Surely the Minister is under an obligation to attempt to make an estimate of the cost of some such amendment. The Government have had plenty of notice of this subject because it was debated in Committee. It should have been possible to arrive at a statistical idea of the number of widows who remarry and, therefore, an approximation of the cost. My own opinion is that it must be very small.

Mr. Dean

It is difficult to answer the hon. Gentleman's question because we do not know how many people will be in the reserve scheme. It must be a matter of pure speculation. However, in answer to the hon. Member for Rother-ham (Mr. O'Malley), I can give some indication of what the cost would be for the basic scheme. It is easier to give figures for the basic scheme because we know the numbers involved. The cost of continuing payment, after remarriage or cohabitation, of the child dependency part of the widowed mother's allowance would be about £500,000 a year in 1975– 76 rising to about £6 million a year after 19 years, but there would be a small saving on supplementary benefit.

I turn now to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport regarding widows who remarry. This is in addition to the point I have made about children, which. I hope I have covered to her satisfaction. Again, we come up against the harsh reality of priorities for the scarce resources which are available to the National Insurance Scheme.

The widow who remarries becomes part of another household. In other words, she is in a similar position in this sense to any other married woman. Were we to say that she could retain her widow's pension within the national insurance arrangements, despite the fact that she has remarried, I think that a woman who is married for the first time could say "This is an unfair situation. Why, now that she is in much the same position as me, should she have an additional pension and I should not?"

In the light of the scarcity of the resources which inevitably there is and always will be in the National Insurance Scheme, would my hon. Friend give a higher priority to this proposal than to doing more for the older widow living on her own, for the very old, the sick and the disabled? We are up against the allocation of priorities.

Having covered, I hope to my hon. Friend's satisfaction, the position regarding children in these cases within the National Insurance Scheme, having explained the way that the cohabitation rules are administered and the reasons for them, and having explained what we have already done to improve the position of widows, I hope she will agree that in the circumstances we have got the right priorities here.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to all hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. I assure the House that the Government are extremely anxious to go on improving the lot of widows and the benefits available to them because they represent one section of our community which is most in need of help and support from our social services.

Mrs. Joyce Butler

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to comment on the difference in the treatment of the child allowance for the different categories of widow when they remarry?

Mr. Dean

The main allowances for the war widows come through the national insurance rather than the war widows' scheme as such. The allowances within the National Insurance Scheme for children and other dependants have taken on the original rôle which the allowances had in the war pensions scheme when it was first formulated, which was long before the National Insurance Scheme came into being. In the Industrial Injuries Scheme there is some preference, but, as the hon. Lady recognised, there is a reduction of the allowances for children in these cases.

Mrs. Barbara Castle (Blackburn)

I have a good deal of sympathy for the arguments that have been put forward by the movers of the three amendments that we have discussed this afternoon. The discussion has led us back to the heart of the argument that we had in the early hours of this morning on the married women's option about the whole principle of dependency.

As long as we accept the principle of family cover and dependency there is a great deal of logic in what the Undersecretary has said, because, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) argued, her amendment is a profound break from the whole principle that has underlined the National Insurance Scheme to date. The hon. Lady has been expressing the growing desire of women for a pension in their own right, for equal treatment as individuals—in other words, the rejection of the concept of family cover which the Government were justifying so strongly in the earlier debate.

There is a great deal of logic in what the hon. Lady and my hon. Friends have said about the concept of dependency being demeaning to the woman. It implies that she is not a contributor to the pension that is being earned and it is only the man, the breadwinner in this case, who has paid for the widow's pension, whereas the whole argument which women today are trying to express is that a wife's work is of equal value, although it may not be remunerated directly. Many people want it to be remunerated directly. That is why we talk about a home responsibility payment. It is not remunerated directly financially. That is why we have the situation when the man dies that it is assumed that what has been earned by him is cover for his dependants, a cover to which the woman is entitled not as of right as an individual but only as a dependant.

When that woman becomes a dependant of someone else, to use the words of the Under-Secretary, she becomes "part of the family of the new husband". A new harem is created and she becomes part of the new national insurance seraglio. It is tremendously important that we should ventilate this principle this afternoon and think and argue in the new terms and, therefore, proceed to build a new social security system upon it. In the best occupational pension schemes, as the Government Actuary's report makes clear, the widow's pension cover does not cease on remarriage. I agree with the Undersecretary that that happens still in a minority of cases, but increasingly in future women will see that that is the position in the majority of cases.

I believe it was in the Sunday Times that I read the other day the report of an advertising agency which introduced a far-reaching occupational pension scheme. The top women employees—it was a "top-hat" scheme—were asked whether they would like to join. It would necessitate their making a larger contribution but they would get totally equal rights. The women jumped at it because, as we have argued, women are prepared to pay for equal treatment and to accept equal responsibilities. But then they ran into a snag because they found that the argument about equal treatment cut both ways. The women said "It is all right; we shall pay our contributions", and there was excellent widows' cover in the scheme which would not cease on remarriage.

Then they said "If we are to have equal treatment, it must apply to our widowers." This was another new concept. It was then discovered that under the rules of approval of occupational pension schemes under the Finance Act 1970 such widowers' benefit is not possible. So here is a new field for us to explore and new horizons of equality that we have to enlarge. In passing, I regard it as totally intolerable the way my widower will be dealt with—I shall undoubtedly die first because of overwork—under the superannuation scheme for Members of Parliament. It is intolerable—I having served as long as anyone in this House and longer than most, and having always paid my full contributions, and my husband having undoubtedly contributed by his forbearance and understanding to my capacity to have a career—that he should be treated in the way he will be.

When hon. Gentlemen die, which I hope they will not do for a long time, their widows will get automatic cover. My husband has to reflect the principle of dependency. He has to have been dependent upon me and or incapable of self-support, a principle which we reject for widows. I resent that. A reform for which I shall fight is the complete equality of widowers' cover under schemes where women contribute equally and play their full part. There should be treatment of people as individuals. We are only just beginning to grasp that idea. I shall not go on longer now on this theme, but it is one on which I feel strongly and to which I shall return on other occasions.

6.15 p.m.

I welcome the fact that hon. Members on both sides of the House have chanlenged this principle of family cover and the fact that a woman can get a widow's pension only until she moves under the family umbrella by marrying again. Whether we should make this a priority is something we cannot decide, because we have no particulars of costs. It is reprehensible that the Under-Secretary, between Committee stage and now, has not made an effort to find what the cost of these reforms might be. If he had a great reforming mind in social security he would have got this information from his office. He would have got the civil servants working on it. But he does not care and he is sunk in the morass of the principle of dependency. We are having a terrible struggle to pull him out of that mud in which he is embedded.

I do not feel prepared today to say that this is the first financial priority, but we have started something by this short debate. We must keep it up and insist on having more knowledge. Above all, we must insist on the Government beginning to think on the lines of the new principle that in social security everyone should be treated as an individual with individual and equal rights.

Dame Joan Vickers

I thank all hon. Members who have supported my amendment and the amendments in the names of the hon. Members for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) and for Bromsgrove (Mr. Terry Davis). I do not think we shall get anywhere tonight. I should get the same dusty answer in the Lobby as I get in the Chamber. In these circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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