HC Deb 04 May 1976 vol 910 cc1063-6

3.31 p.m.

Mr. Roger Stott (Westhoughton)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 22(5) of the Social Security Act 1975. This Bill—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members please leave quietly so that the hon. Member may pursue his speech?

Mr. Stott

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Section 22 is a very small section of the 1975 Social Security Act, and the existence of subsection (5) may seem insignificant. Insignificant it may be until it is applied, but in its application it compounds a situation of appalling personal tragedy. The existence of the subsection militates against any kind of compassion or common sense.

Section 22(5) deals with payment of maternity allowance. My attention was drawn to the provisions of the subsection just before Christmas last year when a constituent of mine, Mr. Stephen Baillie, telephoned me at my home in Westhoughton. The story of his case is, fortunately, exceedingly rare. It is because of the rarity of the case that I seek leave to change the substance of the subsection.

My constituent, Mr. Baillie, was a young married man. His wife, Heather, was expecting her first child in December last year. She was in full-time employment and she worked up until the time she received the certificate of confinement from her doctor. Because she worked until her confinement, she fulfilled the obligations under Section 22 of the Social Security Act whereby she could claim maternity grant and a maternity allowance.

The maternity allowance is payable to the woman only if she satisfies the conditions in the Act. In other words, she must have worked full-time and paid national insurance contributions up to the time of her confinement. Mrs. Baillie fulfilled these obligations and was issued with a payment book by the Department of Health and Social Security so that she could claim her maternity allowance of £11.10 a week. The normal period of claim is 11 weeks prior to the birth and seven weeks after the birth, a total of 18 weeks.

Mrs. Baillie was admitted to hospital on 7th December last year. At 8 p.m. she delivered a perfectly normal and healthy baby son. Unfortunately, two hours later, my constituent, Mrs. Heather Baillie, died as a consequence and a direct result of childbirth. Naturally, her husband was in a distressed state of mind because of this profound personal tragedy. Fortunately, he was able to take his baby son home and leave him in the care of his parents and friends while he tried to sort out his life.

Early in the new year, after his wife had been buried and after he had taken a considerable time off work and lost a considerable amount of money as a result, Mr. Baillie found in his wife's possessions the maternity allowance book. He found that there were still seven weeks' payments left to claim. He went to the local DHSS office in Bolton and presented the booklet to the official. He was promptly told by the official that because his wife had died in childbirth he was not entitled to claim the remainder of that allowance.

I have looked into this matter carefully. Section 22(5) of the Social Security Act states: A woman who has become entitled to a maternity allowance shall cease to be entitled to it if she dies before the beginning of the maternity allowance period; and if she dies after the beginning but before the end, of that period the allowance shall not be payable for any week subsequent to that in which she dies. In other words, in layman's language, if a woman dies in childbirth the surviving parent of the child cannot claim the benefits that his wife would have been been able to claim had she lived.

This subsection is devoid of any compassion. On checking the statistics, I find that in 1970 81 women died in childbirth, in 1971 82 women died, in 1972 61 women died and in 1973 57 women died. That is a death rate of roughly 0.08 per cent. for every 100,000 live or still births. Thus, thank God, this is an extremely rare occurrence—so rare, indeed, that it is incredible that the subsection should exist at all.

I maintain that if a women meets the criterion of the Act—that is, if she has worked until the time of her expected confinement—she qualifies legitimately and legally for maternity allowance. In a sense, she has paid for it through her national insurance contributions. But the subsection, in effect, nullifies that payment if she dies in childbirth.

As I have said, my constituent, Mr. Stephen Baillie, had to take considerable time off work and lost a considerable amount of money as a result. The money which would have been due to his wife had she lived was £77.70. That money would have assisted my constituent considerably during the terrible and traumatic days after her death. My Bill therefore attempts to rectify the matter by amending Section 22(5) so that that payment can be made to the surviving parent of the wife dies in childbirth.

This is a small amendment to a large and complex Act. The vast majority of its contents are sensible and well-meaning, but Section 22(5) is brutally insensitive to a rare but devastating tragedy.

For a man who loses his wife in childbirth there can be no material or monetary substitute, but surely it is not too much to ask that in these tragic circumstances the remaining parent should be allowed to claim the rest of the maternity allowance—which, after all, his wife would have claimed legitimately had she lived. I hope, therefore, that the whole House will give its support to this small but, I hope, compassionate Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roger Stott, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mrs. Lynda Chalker, Mr. Michael English, Mr. Bryan Gould, Mr. John Ovenden, Mr. Doug Hoyle, Mrs. Ann Taylor, Mr. Neil Kinnock, Mrs. Helene Hayman, Mr. Cyril Smith and Sir George Young.