HC Deb 13 December 1977 vol 941 cc423-54

10.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Services (Mr. Eric Deakins)

I beg to move That this House takes note of Commission Document No. R/48/77 on Equal Treatment in Social Security. This draft directive on the progressive implementation of the principle of equality of treatment for men and women in matters of social security is presently under consideration by the Social Questions Working Group of the Council of the European Communities in Brussels.

Under the directive, which implements one of the EEC's Social Action Programme objectives in relation to equal treatment of men and women, member States would be bound to eliminate progressively differences in their national legislations as to entitlement of men and women in the fields of medical care, loss of earnings through sickness or unemployment, old age, employment, accident or occupational disease and invalidity.

The directive applies to social security benefits, certain social assistance arrangements and occupational pensions schemes. It provides for equality in terms of cover and eligibility for benefit, rates of benefit including increases for dependants, and duration and conditions of benefit. The directive does not, however, apply to provisions for widowhood, maternity and family allowances, and member States would not be bound to change arrangements whereby women can retire earlier Than men, count for benefit periods spent outside employment—for instance, during pregnancy—and derive rights from a husband's insurance.

I understand that the view taken by the Commission is that the draft directive would apply only to the present and former working population, including the self-employed and the unemployed, and not to benefits designed for other groups.

As at present drafted, the directive provides that the provisions concerned with personal benefits must be brought into force within two years of its adoption those concerned with payments for dependants within three years, and those regar- ding occupational pensions schemes within four years.

The Government agree with the principles underlying the directive. There has never been any discrimination in access to the National Health Service; we have already taken steps to eliminate two of the major discriminatory features in social security, the lower rate of sickness benefit and unemployment benefit and the retirement pension half-test which applied only to married women; our own proposals for legislation in the occupational pensions field would go a long way towards satisfying the letter of the directive as at present drafted; and the current review of the supplementary benefits scheme is examining, among other things, ways of achieving equal treatment between the sexes.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

Could my hon. Friend give us some guidance and indicate why an exception has been made about retirement? Why should differences in the retirement ages remain in the terms of the draft directive? What are the arguments for this?

Mr. Deakins

My hon. Friend has anticipated me a little. I shall come to this point. Obviously there are things that are missing from the directive.

As the directive is drafted, there is, however, one area of social security which we cannot regard as at all satisfactory. This is the provision which would allow married women to claim increases for the children of the family, in the same way as their husbands do, each time they were sick or unemployed. This would cost an additional £10 million annually, rising over the years to £50 million at current benefit rates as more married women became insured; and virtually all this additional expense would go to families where the husband was in full-time employment and his earnings were continuing without interruption.

If additional resources of this order were available, there are other changes in the social security field which would command much greater priority; and we shall therefore be doing our best in the discussions of the directive which are taking place at official level to ensure that the terms of the directive are amended.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)

My hon. Friend said that "virtually all" this would go to families where husbands were in full-time work. What about enlarging the provision to cover those cases where the husband is not in full-time work? How much would that cost?

Mr. Deakins

We are looking at a number of these matters and I hope that I shall be allowed to reply to the debate later when I shall take account of all the points that have been raised. We are not saying a flat "No" in this case; we are simply saying that it would cost a lot extra and because of that cost there would have to be many changes made in our social security legislation.

In occupational pension schemes there are some differences of treatment between men and women which cannot be dealt with in the immediate future. We agree with their exclusion from the scope of the directive, and there are other minor but important changes in it which we would like to see made in the course of the negotiations in Brussels

I come back now to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) on the difference in pension ages. This has been noted on the Continent as well as here because most countries have inequality in retirement ages. Perhaps my hon. Friend would look at the opinion of the European Assembly and that of the European Economic and Social Committee. Both these bodies are fully aware that this directive does not go as far as my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members would like. Knowing his views, I think he would find some encouragement for the future in the fact that this is the first directive and that others may follow on other aspects that are of more immediate concern to him.

The directive has been considered by the Economic and Social Committee of the EEC and by the European Assembly, each of which has given its opinions on its scope and coverage. Discussions in Brussels will continue in the light of these opinions. There are complex problems to be overcome, not merely in this country but the Government will continue to work towards Community agreement on this measure. Meantime, however, I welcome this debate for the opportunity it gives me and the Government of hearing the views of hon. Members on this important subject.

10.25 p.m.

Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)

We welcome this opportunity to discuss the draft directive. The words "progressive implementation" in Document R/48/77 are a relieving factor because if ever some of these measures were to be taken quickly, I believe that neither this country nor any of the European countries could cope with the situation.

We welcome the directive for a number of reasons. In the last few years our legislation has been moving consistently in the direction of trying to assist women towards equal treatment in all ways. Some of the questions I wish to pose tonight to the Minister arise out of lack of information on pensions matters and the detailed requirements of this directive.

I wish to refer to some of the comments made in the Sixteenth Report of the Select Committee on European Legislation and I wish to ask a few questions about the European Committee on Social Affairs. It might be helpful to iron out some of the outstanding questions.

First, we note that the Select Committee pointed out that there was a need for fundamental changes in the structure of benefits, especially dependency benefits. I hope that when the Minister replies he will say something about what he understands those fundamental changes to be. I accept that it means that married women will have the same rights to these benefits as do married men, but the Committee appears to have thought that it meant more far-reaching changes than the Minister intimated in his remarks tonight.

The Committee also spoke of the payment of invalid care allowance to married women. This would need to be paid to married women so that the system is brought into line with the directive. The Committee also spoke of the difficulty of ensuring equality between men and women in pension matters. The other matter noted by the Committee was the absence from the original directive of any provision to maintain the right of existing members of occupational pension schemes to any unequal benefits earned before the date of implementation of the directive. I hope that the Minister will say whether we may take account of that, and whether he will be pressing for a special provision to look after those rights in the negotiations which he will be conducting in Brussels.

I note that the Committee of Social Affairs welcomed this important initial directive towards achieving the principle of equality between men and women in social security matters. It goes on to comment that it notes. with satisfaction that the Community is taking a lead in the practical recognition of the general principle of equal treatment. A little further down in that paragraph there is a crucial caveat which says however, until such time as all laws in the Member States which discriminate against women are abolished, there can be no real progress towards equality. I felt that that was a strong comment considering the steps that had already been taken. There is obviously concern that unless we take account of those cases in which laws discriminate against women there will be difficulties. We should also note that we need to take account of cases in which laws now discriminate in favour of women. This matter was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) in an intervention a little earlier. I shall return to that matter later.

The EEC Committee Report goes on to make several other important points. It says in paragraph 4 of its motion for a resolution: the principle of equality of treatment must for the time being be introduced and achieved within the various national systems of social security, but at the same time urges the Commission not to lose sight of the basic aim of the long-term harmonization of these schemes". We are more concerned that there should not be major upheavals in legislation whether to do with social security—that we are trying to sort out gradually—or in occupational pensions, on which we have had a wealth of legislation in the last few years. I therefore hope that the view of the Committee that things be done within national systems, and gradually will be followed by the Government in considering how we should take steps on this directive.

There are many long-term aims set out in the last paragraphs of the motion for a resolution, but we need to take particu- lar account of the fact that it is recognised that there will need to be, as the Minister said, further directives. To get effective equality of treatment in social security there will be a dependence on the practical and complete implementation of that same principle in salaries, employment, vocational training, promotion and other working conditions, because one cannot come without the other. One cannot have the cart without the horse.

The Opposition are completely in agreement with the principle of gradual steps towards equal treatment, but there is one point where the Opposition and the Government divide. Perhaps the Opposition are looking further ahead than even the Commission. We are anxious eventually to reach a position of equal treatment and so wish to see that principle enshrined that we cannot understand how this can possibly happen with pensions unless we have made a plan to work towards equal pension ages in the State scheme. We know that many occupational schemes have already encompassed that, but unless the Community is prepared to see this as one of the basic steps in the way towards equal treatment, we shall be in great difficulty.

It is interesting to note that when four of the major bodies concerned with these matters came together—the Consultative Committee of the Accountancy Bodies, the Institute of Actuaries, the Bar Council and the Law Society—they read the Community document and the Government's second consultative document on equal status and came to the conclusion that, whether in the context of the Community as a whole or in the context of our own nation, they had serious doubts whether the introduction of legislation which was concerned with less important issues could bring commensurate advantage as long as the central issue of pension age and dependants' benefits had been left aside. They said that first in all our considerations must be pension age and dependants' benefits. The House and the Government must turn their minds quickly to that in the coming months.

We all know that the cost of reducing the male pension age from 65 to 60 at one go is now in excess of £1,600 million, when the increase in pensions is taken into account. Many of us, not only in the House but outside it have considerable doubts whether the reduction from 65 to 60 to bring about equality would be the right way of doing things. Many pensioners are declaring a desire to work longer if possible, and the sheer expansion of the over-65 population in the next 20 years means that we shall have to face a whole new concept of people in retirement and partial retirement. There are some definite pointers away from equalisation at the age of 60 but towards pressures for equalisation at another age.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

The real argument is not for a fixed age at any level—whether higher or lower—but for a flexible retirement scheme that would allow people to retire when they want to retire.

Mrs. Chalker

The hon Gentleman has anticipated the point that I was about to make. There is no doubt that the Bar Council, the Law Society and all those other bodies that deal with the legal difficulties ensuing from the differences that exist firmly believe that this is the first target for parliamentary action. I probably do not need to draw the Minister's attention to the excellent booklet published in September by the National Association of Pension Funds. It says: We recommend that the Government with the main opposition parties should, as a matter of urgency, enter into discussion with a view to announcing their joint agreement:

  1. (i)That the retirement ages for men and women in the State Scheme will be "equalised at a common age"—Over 20 years.
  2. (ii)That this equalisation will be phased in gradually and will not commence to take effect until at least 5 years after April 1978 (i.e. April 1983 at the earliest), and
  3. (iii)That during the next two years a study will be made and agreement reached as to the eventual long terms common retirement age, the length of the transitional period to that age and benefits during that period."
We should welcome a bipartisan approach and working with the Government to make this become a reality. We think that it is important, for those who will become members of the State scheme, because those who have contracted in should know that this change is possible before April 1978. Otherwise we could be accused of altering the scheme and we could give ourselves more difficulties in the long run.

This debate is about a Community document on equal treatment and that is so fundamental that hon. Members may wonder why I make this point now. The reason is that this is the first chance for many months. We must look at this underlying crucial factor in the steps towards equal treatment. I hope that the Government will respond and will tell us what plans they have for the course outlined in the NAPF leaflet.

The Minister referred to amending various Acts, including the Supplementary Benefit Act 1976 and the Social Security Act 1975, which are the two measures that take account of the directive to treat women equally for the entitlement of benefits. Do both these Acts come within the terms of the directive, which deals with personal benefits being brought into line within two years after the adoption of the directive? What plans do we have, if we cannot get the situation eased, to extend the period to three or four years, which might make it easier for us to overcome the problems that we face here?

Now that we are not to have the pensions legislation that was to have been included in the proposals from the first consultative document, what other legislation, with which the Government agree, might be needed to bring us into line with the directive? Equal status for men and women—the legislation recommended by the OPB and written into the first and second consultative documents—seems necessary, yet we have no vehicle for it. Some of the recommendations were too strong for us when we first read them.

In a note on 2nd February, the Minister of State said that although the broad policy of occupational pension schemes mentioned by the directive was the same as the broad policy to which the Government were already committed, coverage of the directive extended to employers' sick pay schemes and it was necessary to consider whether any new implications were raised in this area against the background of the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act.

I ask this question because although the Minister referred specifically to the sickness scheme, it is possible that he is aware that many employers are already operating schemes that are perfectly acceptable within the directive. If that is not the case we should know, so that those employers may take steps, if we are to agree with that part of the directive, to put their own schemes in order.

There is a further problem. I wonder whether the Government are aware that some employers' sick pay schemes that have been advanced of late have been of what may be called a permanent health insurance nature. In a period of high inflation in the United States of America it seems that such schemes are being used as a means of early retirement. That has highly dubious economic consequences and in discussing the directive with the Commission it should be pointed out that any move that would force a similar scheme upon employers in this country would not be a good thing. It is something that should be discussed with the Commission.

It seems that there is broad agreement on equal access as there has always been on both sides of the House. If the Government eventually find that they are forced to take legislative action as a result of the directive, we believe that that should not be done in isolation, and not until all the snares and catches that might follow from it have been considered.

The Committee on Social Affairs referred to difficulties with maternity leave and pay and what might happen if there were increasing pressure from countries such as Italy for paternity leave. That would happen only where the wife was sick and unable to care for the new child or other children of the family. I must tell the House that, having consulted a number of outside bodies, it is the feeling of practically all the professional pension organisations that we should not go any further, as the Committee on Social Affairs would wish us to go, and include such matters in the directive. It is felt that they should be excluded for the time being.

The Committee, which sat on 9th November, did not seem to realise how much in the United Kingdom, anyway, the circumstances have already changed by employers being able to use a flexible attitude towards men having to take leave of absence because of the sickness of a wife, and how much our pension trustees are able to do within the Inland Revenue guidelines. There is a worry, however, because there is undoubtedly pressure from the other States within the Community to widen that aspect still further. For the time being that pressure should be resisted.

As for the sell-employed, how will the United Kingdom handle the indications for equal treatment that are given? We note from the draft order, which we shall be debating on Thursday, that the contributions of the self-employed will be reduced quite soon. Has there been any move within the Department in discussions on pensions for the self-employed? It seems that the long-term aim of the Commission will be to bring about this equality of treatment not merely between men and women but between the self-employed and the employee. That has been mentioned in a number of documents emanating from the Commission and is something that the Minister should examine.

I turn to pension rights on divorce and separation, which are mentioned in paragraphs 21 to 23 of the second consultative document. We know that the Occupational Pensions Board wanted legislation on the matter, but we consider quite strongly that if there has to be a decision on pension rights on divorce or separation, it should be taken in the court at the time of the divorce or separation and the settlement between the two parties. We do not believe that legislation will be necessary, and any pressure from the Commission that there should be legislation should, in our opinion, be resisted at present.

We know that the occupational schemes that may be covered in various ways by the eventual directive from the Commission are fully prepared to move towards equal treatment provided that the Government and the Commission do not ignore the statistical realities of health and age differences between the two sexes. That is an important point which should be borne in mind in all the deliberations.

We are convinced that the many requirements of the directive can be met by voluntary action, particularly on the occupational pensions front, and that a code of practice is all that will be required to bring into line those pension schemes that do not have the good practices of many today. But I believe that we shall be better off if we can grasp the nettle of flexible retirement ages in the long term, because until we do there will never be real equality of treatment in old age. We shall never be able to move towards widowers' benefits based on a full contributions record of the woman. The other matters do not seem to require legislation.

Above all, one concludes from reading the many documents that there are so many unknowns, even now, that this House can move to be in line with the directive without further legislation until it is absolutely necessary. If I make one plea tonight it is that the Government continue the discussions that they started with the first and second consultative documents after their next session in Brussels. Then when the final directive becomes even clearer we can work our way towards accepting that, with the industry concerned just as much as the Government and without unnecessary legislation, which not only takes time but often puts a stranglehold on the development of measures towards equal treatment.

We have very good practice in the occupational pensions scheme. Our first priority, in order to reach the principle of equal treatment in our own legislation must be further discussion—discussion on the moves towards equal pension ages and flexibility in pensions, which are all important. From them all else will follow.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

It is a poetic irony that the House should be invited to take note of this document immediately after a decision which will not leave the future of the European Economic Community and this country's membership of it unaltered. I say that because the document brings before us in strong form the exorbitant demands and the expansive claims of the European Economic Community.

We have just ended a debate in the course of which we were told from the Dispatch Box that in the Government's view the European Economic Community consisted of independent and sovereign nations co-operating together for a common good. It is almost beyond the power of imagination to conceive how that definition can be squared with directives imposing harmonisation in the most fundamental and sensitive aspects of the social services and social security of the respective countries.

As one listened to the admirable speech of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and realised how these questions looked backwards and forwards in our own legislation, and how closely they were bound up with the fabric of our habits and outlook in this country, one could not but realise how inappropriate it was, and how increasingly old-fashioned in the chronology of the EEC, that we should be invited to debate these aspects in terms of the impertinence of a body which imposes phases in terms of two years or three years, at the end of which we are to comply with certain requirements laid down by the Commission in Brussels.

I agree with the hon. Lady that we want, if we can avoid them, no further major upheavals at present in our structure of social security, and that we should be in a position to choose ourselves—and this was implicit in the Minister's speech—the priority that we give in this country to advances on one front or another, and that we should not find ourselves obliged to devote resources which we think would be best allocated, for example, to moving towards a flexible form of retirement age, to other objectives which fall in with the artificial requirement of harmonisation.

There is nothing in the logic of the EEC which requires the harmonisation of the matters with which this directive is concerned. Neither the theoretical free trade, which is the economic aspect, nor the freedom of movement of labour requires that all the nations party to the EEC should move together to common deadlines on all the matters which are involved in this directive.

At one stage, the hon. Member for Wallasey assessed what in her view should be the next "targets for parliamentary action". I noted her words, for they were significant. For of all the possible subjects of concern to those whom we represent, these are the subjects which should most be domestically and exclusively the concern of this Parliament.

I have intervened only briefly in the debate, but I think that it is right that the relationship of this debate with the bigger debate that is going on should be pointed out this evening.

10.51 p.m.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)

I share the view that it is an impertinence for the EEC to attempt to impose legislation on us in this or any other field. My remarks about how I feel we should develop are very much about how "we" should develop, and they would be couched in similar vein whether they were in line with the views that the Commission happens to hold or contrary to the Commission's views. I have no great faith in that body, in any case, in arriving at the decision that would most meet the needs and wishes of either sex in this country, so I encourage the Government to have a very bracing attitude in their general response to the EEC on this and any other matter.

I am concerned about what is regarded as the achievement of equal treatment. This can happen in a number of directions. One can look at a particular situation and equalise in the direction which is the cheapest. One can very easily equalise on pensions—it is easy to talk about, although it would not be easy to achieve—simply by saying that women will retire at the age of 65 as do men. That is equal treatment and is presumably in line with this draft directive. If that were the case, I for one would have none of it, and I am sure that any Government would meet immense resistance.

I am in favour of equalising in the direction of improving the situation for both sexes. I believe that the proper attitude is to take the best practice and then try to apply that to both sexes. In the case of pensions, I regard the best practice as being to fix a retirement age which is quite low, as has been done for women, but to regard that as being an opportunity for retirement and not a requirement to retire.

There is all the difference in the world between having the chance to retire at the age of 60, if one's health, working conditions, history or family circumstances make that seem the best for the individual; and having either an employer or the Government say that one must retire at 60.

I should like to see both sexes have the opportunity to retire at 60. I viewed with some alarm the remarks of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) be-because I was not at all certain that her flexibility would be based on the age of 60 for both sexes. I want flexibility on that basis. Although there could well be an increasing tendency for people to want to retire at a later age than 60, I want them to have the opporunity to do so at the lower age.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

Does not my hon. Friend also agree that this flexibility ought to relate to the type of work in which a person is employed? In heavy industry for example, retirement ages should be brought down considerably more than in the lighter industries and an opportunity should be given for people to move from that sort of industry into a lighter industry if they want to continue working.

Mrs. Wise

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that flexibility should be very thorough and not simply on paper. It needs to imply the right to change to different sorts of occupation.

I would be very much in favour of that kind of change. I am sure that women in general in this country want men to have the opportunity to retire at earlier ages.

Many wives of industrial workers are distressed by the fact that their husbands have to continue doing work that is unsuitably heavy for them. In fact, I had a letter only the other day from a constituent who talked about her husband as "having to drag himself to work", and having to do so for a few years, because he could not retire until the age of 65. This is an important matter which should not simply be looked at on the basis of paper equality but rather on the basis of a real improvement for men.

From time to time I have tabled Questions about dependency benefits. Although I accept the point about the reluctance of the Government to double their liability in this area, I do not accept their point about refusing to allow a couple the choice of who should be regarded as the breadwinner. If for any reason—whether of choice, availability of work or anything else—the wife is the breadwinner, then she should be entitled to claim dependency benefit. But she is not so entitled. It has been made clear to me through Parliamentary Answers that this would cost very little, but the Government are afraid that they would be opening the door.

We can discuss the question of refusing the extension of benefits on the grounds of high cost, but I do not think we can discuss the question of improving benefits in one circumstance because of any supposed effect on another circumstance. The Government should be able to justify their policy on the merits of a particular case. I do not think that there is any merit in the Government deciding which member of the family should be regarded as the prime breadwinner. That should be the prerogative of the couple concerned.

In the case of Family Income Supplement we have a particularly bad example of bad practice because, as has been bitterly pointed out by the National League of Blind and Disabled, if a man is blind or disabled and his wife is the breadwinner and if she qualifies for FIS on the basis of her income—which is the family income—she is nevertheless denied it because the regulations lay down that for FIS purposes the husband only can qualify. The husband must be a full-time worker. That is monstrous. It is particularly monstrous in the case of families where the husband is blind or disabled, but it is also extremely bad even if it is by choice of the couple. As long as one of the couple is a full-time worker it should not matter which one it is for the purpose of qualifying for family income supplement. It should be determined on income level alone. This is a change which could be made rapidly, within the present Session, and which I am sure would have the support of the whole House. I do not believe that it would cost much. It ought to be done, in equity.

The question of discrimination is very complex because there is, for instance, discrimination against widowers, a matter which will be of increasing concern. A widow's necessity for a pension derives from the historical fact that women were not only economically dependent upon their husbands but were at a great disadvantage in the labour market. As those factors become less important the discrimination between widows and widowers becomes less defensible. I want there to be the acknowledgment that a widower will in most cases be badly disturbed and financially affected by the death of his wife and should have some period of help in the same way as a widow receives an allowance. There should be an improvement in the position of men in this respect.

The same is true of paternity benefits. If I understood the hon. Member for Wallasey correctly, she was wary of any extension of rights to paternity leave. On the contrary, I welcome the fact that young husbands now feel very much involved in the family situation when their wives are having babies. They are involved in caring for the child and want to be with child and wife in time of sickness. This is to be encouraged. The Government should look with favour on moves to improve the position of men in that respect. I am less concerned about the statistical realities to which the hon. Lady referred. I am concerned about the family realities, which are moving in the direction of both partners in a marriage taking responsibility for bread-winning to some extent, and for caring for the family. This should not be impeded by our social security legislation. At the moment, I am afraid, to a large extent the Government choose how the family should be organised. We must move in the direction which allows the family to organise itself as it wishes. I hope that the Government will have this yardstick in mind.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Robin Hodgson (Walsall, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) has remarked that it is difficult to disagree with a directive which aims to eliminate differences in social security treatment between men and women. When the directive goes on to ask for equality of coverage, eligibility and rate, we have to applaud the principle behind it. However, there are four points I wish to bring to the Minister's attention.

My first point concerns the effect of tax and tax treatment on benefits and the consequential effect on the equality of treatment principle. Many anomalies have been thrown up as a result of the different taxation treatment of short-as opposed to long-term social security benefits. As an example, of all the points made by my constituents in the short time that I have been a Member of this House, the treatment of widows' pensions has caused more aggravation and heart-searching than anything else. If we are now to have equality of benefits for men and women whose tax position may be dissimilar, we shall create a great deal of aggravation. Primarily, beneficiaries must be concerned with the bottom line, what they receive in their hands—that is, after deductions—and not the top line or the gross amount before deductions.

The second point I wish to make concerns the inequalities in treatment—the need for equality of eligibility and of coverage. To a large extent, this matter does not seem to be tackled by the directive. Many of our social security benefits are payable not according to need but according to the pure chance by which the accident or the hardship occurred. The hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) referred to the particular problem of the blind. I should like to expand a little on what she said. Last summer I raised the question of inequality in the treatment and payment of blind benefits. I pointed out that, as a result of irrelevant incidents—whether, for example, people were blinded at work or in the home—the financial treatment of such persons was quite different. It could be as little as £5 or £6 or as much as £40 or £50 a week. The tax treatment was also different. It seemed to me then that it was morally indefensible that such a differential should be maintained.

Therefore, when we talk about equality of treatment for both men and women, must we not also consider the question of equality of coverage and of eligibility? Will the Minister confirm that if we implement the directive the gaps to which I have referred and to which the hon. Member for Coventry, South-West referred will be closed?

The third point concerns retirement age. I should like to associate myself with remarks already made about the need for flexibility to meet individual requirements rather than to lay down a strict and rigid law.

The Central Policy Review Staff Report on the future population of this country, which was published in the summer, showed that there will be a large increase in over-65 dependants towards the end of the century. Therefore, it behoves us, as we approach a time when we may have to support an increasingly large population over 65, to find some way of making sure that as many people as possible over that age remain active and economically able to support themselves and make their full contribution to the community as a whole. I should be unhappy if, as some have suggested, we were to go down a road which laid down fixed and firm requirements for retirement for men or women.

The fourth point concerns the family unit. The directive refers to the major implications for benefits for families. I am concerned that nothing should be done to amend the social security system in such a way as to make any break-up of the family unit any more likely than it is today. It is not clear from the directive whether implementation is likely to make a woman better off away from her husband or remaining in the family unit with him. It am not so cynical as to suggest that a failing marriage can be glued together by the withdrawal of benefits. On the other hand, since the family unit remains the basic building block of our society, it is important that any amendment of the social security system should in no way affect the financial viability of marriages. I should welcome the Minister's comments on that point.

The principle underlying this directive seems laudable and praiseworthy. The need for equality of treatment between the sexes is undeniable, and it will come to pass whether we like it or not. I hope that in considering this matter we shall bear in mind some of the wider implications and the need to root out, simplify and amend the social security system as it exists.

11.9 p.m.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

I shall not follow some of the paths taken by one or two of the earlier speakers in commenting on the general EEC question. I think that when one looks at a document such as this one cannot look too closely at gift horses.

It seems to me that this document should be generally welcomed. I am not sure, however, that adequate priority has been given to the question of pensionable ages. Although I appreciate what my hon. Friend said about the European Assembly, and also the more sympathetic tone that I detected from his hon. Friend in reply to a Question of mine earlier today, I still feel that the priority given to this matter is inadequate.

That is particularly so at this time, because one feels that enabling people to retire somewhat earlier than they do now would make a considerable contribution to reducing the dole queues. It seems a matter of simple arithmetic that if we can pay an additional man a pension and save by offering a job at the other end of the chain to somebody from the dole queue, the cost of that move might be minimal.

Although I accept what the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) said on the wider question of pensionable age—I accept that there has to be some gradualism—I do not accept her figure of £1,600 million—plus. In fact, as she probably knows, we have had several figures from the Government Front Bench, and I am not sure of the actuarial basis of any of them of the allowances that were made in calculating them. I do not accept the figures, because we are in a period when unemployment is to a considerable extent a product of technological change.

Many hon. Members have said that the solution might lie in operating on the working life and the working week. The Government can have very little effect in the short term on the working week, because that is generally a matter for trade union negotiation, but they can have a direct effect on the working life by enabling people who want to do so—I emphasise "people who want to do so"—to retire earlier.

Reference has been made to particular occupations. There are certain manual and non-manual occupations where people feel that they have given their worth to society by the time they reach the age of 60. I believe that there is a case for enabling people who want to retire at that age to do so and for allowing those who want to go on working to do so.

Mr. Loyden

Does my hon. Friend agree that certain industries endanger the health of workers? An example of that is the rubber industry, where work can result in people suffering from carcinoma. In such an industry the industrial life ought to be short-lived. That would meet the point that not only in that industry but in many others employment opportunities could be extended if the health of the workers was protected by a shorter working life.

Mr. Roberts

My hon. Friend has summarised the situation excellently. That is the situation in that industry and in many others. Before the present scheme came into operation in the coal mining industry, when collieries were closed many of those who were given the opportunity to retire did so. There is an argument for a flexible pattern of retirement.

Mr. Ivor Clemitson (Luton, East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that many people are taking earlier retirement by using the Redundancy Payments Fund? About one-third of the total payments are to men between the ages of 60 and 64. If there is a scheme for voluntary redundancy, many men aged between 60 and 64 will take the redundancy payment, sign on for a year and receive unemployment benefit and thus, in effect, take early retirement.

Mr. Roberts

I accept what my hon. Friend says. This is a complex question, because one has to provide adequate pensions at the lower end of the age band. On the other hand, there are certain incentives for continuing at work. I welcome the reference that has been made to the need for a planned programme towards a flexible system of retirement. We need a non-partisan approach. I accept what the hon. Member for Wallasey said about the need to move towards equal treatment for the sexes and for the employed and self-employed. Many of us feel that the self-employed have had a harsh deal.

People should know where we are going. We should have a common target which remains firm irrespective of which party is in office. There is a real need to move towards a nonpartisan approach that will remove some of the anomalies in terms of the sexes and of the employed and the self-employed.

I welcome the document. I hope that it is the forerunner of other documents which will move some of the way towards the direction in which both sides of the House wish to go.

11.16 p.m.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

This document, like a number of others, slightly strains the original Treaty of Rome by moving from certain parts of social security policies to family policy. This might be a welcome development, but it should not be construed as following legitimately from the original Treaty.

Page 2, paragraph 7, of the directive says: women and family benefits lie more within the domain of family policy That is odd, because paragraph 5 refers to the absence of all discrimination based on sex, either directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to marital or family status"— which covers the whole of humanity.

If hon. Members feel that they are part of the wider Community, it is important that the Treaty of Rome, the development of Community policy and levelling up should apply not only to people at work but to people who will be and were at work, and that benefits which are part of family policy should be considered at the time as other parts of the social security system.

We seem to pay a lot of attention to fairly small details in terms of money for the social wage or social security, but very few debates take place on other parts of the social wage and other aspects of health. Hospital provision is an example. If the Secretary of State were to announce the closure of both the hospitals in my constituency, against the wishes of my constituents, thousands have signed a petition, he would experience one of the biggest Christmas fights that he has had, especially if the timing of his announcement meant that it would not be reported or seen in the Press until Christmas Eve.

11.19 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Since I have campaigned against hospital closures myself, I am sympathetic to the point made by the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley).

There are two issues involved in the document. The first is the question of how far and in what direction we should move towards non-discrimination. Secondly, there is the question of the rôle of the EEC with regard to British legislation. I hope that the Minister is as interested in receiving views on the second point as he is on the first and that he will regard it as a co-equal part of the debate.

So much has been said with which I agree on the first point and so much on the second that I can be brief. The EEC is obsessed with harmonisation. Many people have tried to push the EEC off this mad endeavour, but we have not pushed it very far. It seems to be intent upon harmonising everything except the thing that will always be out of its reach, namely, geography. It will never be able to abolish the disadvantage—sometimes it is an advantage, but in economic terms it is a disadvantage—that there is a minimum of 20 miles of water between this country and the Continent, and that with all its harmonisations the Community will not be able to make of this country anything but an offshore island of what is increasingly a Continental economic system. What we are left with is not equal competition by a long way, and that view ought to get through into the heads of the European bureaucrats.

I do not think that the European Commission should have anything to do with this matter. It should be told to get its nose out of it and to get on with the other work which is more directly concerned with the proper functions of the EEC. I totally disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts), who said that he would welcome this kind of move, from whatever source it came. If we take that approach, we will be building up the power of the Community, because that is exactly the game it is playing. It will put forward proposals for this purpose. We should resist it when it comes from the Community, even if we agree with every jot and tittle of the content of the document.

I come now to the substance of the matter. As has been said, social legislation of this kind goes very deeply into long-ingrained habits and, in this field, into the Fabian doctrine—I apologise to my hon. Friends for distancing myself from all those I see present—of the inevitability of gradualness, which applies to nothing more than it does to social legislation.

We cannot possibly move to eradicate the traditional attitudes that the husband is the person who really looks after the wife and not the other way round, and that the husband has the primary responsibility of looking after the children, unless we do it on a gradual basis. We should be insistent on making constant changes, but peoples' attitudes do not change very swiftly and I do not think that we can set ourselves any legislative timetable which can be expressed in terms of two, four or six years. That fact should be got through in Brussels.

I strongly agreed with the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) when she stressed that of all the items upon which harmonisation is required, by far the most important is the business of pensionable age. I regard early action on this as important, not because one can get early completion of harmonisation on this matter but simply because one cannot possibly get early completion of harmonisation on it. One can do it only over a prolonged period, something like 30 years. Therefore, it is one of those subjects upon which we must get started quickly, because it will take 30 years to get finished.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

There is a great danger when figures of this sort are quoted without any actuarial basis. My hon. Friend produced the figure of 30 years, but it could be 10 years. It is dangerous to set such long-term targets of this sort, because Governments should be optimistic rather than pessimistic.

Mr. Cunningham

My experience is that the main thing is to get started. If one gets started, the time scale may shorten and one might achieve more if one plans on the basis of a long progression rather than on the basis of people accepting a short-term progression. If we are to move towards the same retirement age for men and women, or the same flexibility of retirement arrangements for men and women, I would prefer that we built into it, gradually over two or three years, a sex equalisation factor by which men and women come into line with each other. There is no great difficulty as long as we accept that we have a long job ahead. This is the most important thing.

I imagine that equality of treatment for pensions was excluded from the document because it is not something that can be achieved rapidly. Because of this, it is most important that we get started on it. I hope that the Ministry will take that line in the negotiations with other European countries and stress that this is something that we think should remain the responsibility primarily of the national legislatures. In fact, the Ministry should make it clear that as far as we are concerned it will remain the primary responsibility of national legislatures, and if Brussels does not like it—hard luck; we shall block it in the Council of Ministers. That is the way in which the French have proceeded since the beginning of the EEC, and it is the way in which they have established their dominance in the Community. It is an attitude that we must adopt. I do not feel at all sensitive that it would be condemned by some as a Gaullist approach.

11.22 p.m.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

I want to deal very briefly with the question of the danger of disturbing in any fundamental way the position of pensions and social security in this country. One of the things that riles industrial workers is the number of occasions on which pension schemes set out by the Government have been changed during their working lives. There is no security or long-term stability for the mass of insured persons.

There was the Crossman scheme, and now there is the present Government's scheme, and many people find that they are paying increased contributions for which they have not received any benefits. We do not need any further convulsions in pensions or social security. We need stability and fast movement towards a proper scheme.

The need for flexibility in pensions has been mentioned. This is a matter of great importance to the document and the debate. Our main responsibility is not to be geared to any European concept of pensions and social security but to react to the needs of our people.

One of those needs is to correct the almost inhuman attitude adopted to people working in industries. Many injuries to health have been suffered by these people, but because there is no flexible pension scheme they must continue working and virtually kill themselves. Many of the diseases are not recognised as occupational diseases as the direct result of people working in bad conditions. Flexibility in that sense could shorten considerably the working lives of people in these industries and offer employment opportunities to others.

Government efforts to help industrial workers should be looked at seriously. The point has been made that there are other fields that we can usefully investigate for the use of resources if we have the resources now. We are still awaiting the implementation of the Finer Report. Considerable hardship is suffered by one-parent families, and if resources are available they should be applied with sufficient flexibility to meet the needs of these people. Any spare resources from the Government should meet the needs of the community rather than the regulations of Brussels.

I disagreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) when he said that he looked on the directive as a gift horse but felt that we should not examine its mouth too carefully. He should remember the precept about being wary of Greeks who bear gifts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) mentioned the human problems involved in these matters and brought an air of reality into the debate. I hope that the Minister will take careful account of her words as well as of the contributions made by other Labour Members.

11.31 p.m.

Mr. Tony Newton (Braintree)

I wish to intervene briefly, and in part to comment on what seemed to me to be the ungenerous approach of some hon. Members to the Community's activities, and, indeed, to the existence of this draft directive at all. I feel that they should be more gracious in acknowledging the simple fact that the Community's activities have provided us with an opportunity of debating matters which many EEC members clearly feel is of great importance and which have been under-discussed.

The purpose of our joining the Community, and, indeed, of the setting up the Community in the first place, was substantially to enable countries to work together to achieve the highest common set of standards in terms of the economic and social well-being of the peoples of the Community. I wholeheartedly welcome that purpose, and that is one reason why I personally was happy for this country to join the Community.

I think that all the nations of the Community must set an example in various areas of activity. We are not ahead of many other countries in social security matters. We have much to learn in harmonisation in respect of many of the worst-off in our society. I welcome the Community's activities in seeking to move towards harmonisation and I also welcome this stimulating debate.

Therefore, I believe it is somewhat nitpicking to argue whether the Community's scales are two, three or four years behind. One might discuss whether everything in a draft directive makes practical sense for everybody in the Community at any one point in time, in much the same way as one might argue about the details of a United Kingdom Government Bill which one supports in principle. But to elevate these details into an attack on the Community's whole purpose in bringing forward draft directives of this kind and with their undoubted benefits for people in all the Community countries seems to be failing to see the wood for the trees.

I do not wish to take up too much time because I want to give the Minister ample time to reply to the debate, but I wish to make a few quick points to the hon. Gentleman. There was one reference in the commentary and in the Select Committee's comments to the question of the invalid care allowance. I hope that the Minister will say a word or two about the effects of the draft directive on disablement benefits. These benefits are an enormous tangle, and they include a number of benefits that apply only to women. Perhaps the Minister will be able to give some information on the effects of disablement benefit, and particularly about the housewife's non-contributory allowance.

Has the Equal Opportunities Commission been asked to comment on this directive, or has it been consulted about it? It is a matter on which that body might have been expected to be consulted. In deed, it might have commented on it voluntarily. Perhaps we may be told.

What worries me about the Minister's approach and that contained in other speeches in this debate is the defensive flavour therein. We all agree that a flexible approach towards such schemes is devoutly to be wished. There has been a good deal of academic work, particularly by Professor Michael Fogarty and other people who are actively concerned in the pensions industry, particularly Noble Lowndes.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the comment made by Mr. Eric Short writing in "Benefits International" in March 1977, when he said: The impression conveyed is that the Department"— that is, the Under Secretary's Depart-ment— has enough problems maintaining the existing situation and it is not going to make a rod for its own back by proposing further changes. The computer at Newcastle is programmed for men to retire at 65 and women at 60, and the DHSS is not going to undertake the task of changing it. That is the feeling one has, that there is an endless stream of reasons why nothing can be done and how difficult it all is, and there are no signs whatever of a constructive effort being made to get to grips with the problems, even if it will take some time to resolve them. I hope that one thing that will emerge from the debate is a more positive approach from the Department to what we all regard as a crucial issue.

If I may leave one suggestion with the House, it is that it may be right now to ask the Government to produce, if only as a discussion document, a systematic attempt to assess where all the differences now are between men and women in our social security system and at the very least to map out an approach to how they propose to tackle these over a period of time. At the moment, we get a series of piecemeal points. The hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) has made some very good ones. A number of others have been made in the House. However, to my knowledge, so far no genuine systematic study has been made of the extent to which this problem still exists and there has been no positive attempt to bring something forward for the future.

If the Community's activity generates something more positive along those lines, this draft directive and this debate will have been well worth while.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. Deakins

I do not have much time, so I am sure that the House will forgive me if I run out of time while attempting to deal with all the points which have been made in the debate.

First, may I say to all those who have taken part and to those who have attended without taking part that I can assure the House that we shall take careful note of all the points that have been made in the debate? Some of them overlap each other. I take on board first, the points made by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) about the scope of the directive. We are, so to speak, committed to the directive by the social action programme of 1974. We are committed, that is to say, to a sort of directive, not necessarily in this form, but a directive of some sort, and there may be further directives.

What we are concerned with in our discussions at Brussels is to ensure that when the directive finally emerges—no one can say when that will be; it has been on the stocks now for the best part of two years—it will be in a form that will be acceptable to the Government and the people of this country and in a form that will not require too much impact on legislation. I shall say more about that later.

The debate itself has been very much more about what we should be doing in this country on equality in social security than about what the directive actually says. That, in a sense, is a good thing. After all, the directive is by no means perfect. We have some broad reservations about some of the points in it. It does not cover many points of interest to hon. Members in all parts of the House.

The fact is that there are major differences between the social security system in this country and in Ireland and that in the rest of the Community, particularly with regard to dependency benefits. The other countries broadly do not have dependency benefits as we know them, but they have much higher levels of family benefits. That is a major difference.

One of the problems that the directive is causing us is in respect of dependency benefits. It is a fact that we are moving in any event towards greater equality in social security and in pension provision in the United Kingdom, so the directive is merely concentrating our minds a little more wonderfully, because if the directive goes through it will have an impact on the legislation we shall have to bring forward.

I also take the point that there should be no major upheavals in social security legislation. In the past four to five years we have had much social security legislation under both Governments. The broad structure of our system is now complete. The details have not all been filled in, but the pension scheme, the child benefit scheme and measures for the disabled and so on are now complete in outline. Many new benefits have been introduced and we really do not require further major alterations in the structure of our benefits, although I must enter a caveat because we are conducting an internal review of the supplementary benefit scheme with a view to simplifying it, which may eventually lead to legislation, which, I hope, all would accept.

Mrs. Chalker

I am sure that, apart from that sort of simplification, we should be going towards legislation to prevent overlap and inequality—things that bring benefits home to the people rather than great new structures built one on the other.

Mr. Deakins

I entirely agree.

I now turn to the major theme of the debate in terms of the detail of the directive. Unfortunately, what is not in the directive is the idea that we should move towards greater equality of pension ages and flexible retirement ages. I remind the House of this because not all hon. Members may have read the opinion of the European Assembly on this: the determination of pensionable age should be the same for men and women and apart from this, in recognition of the family duties generally incumbent upon them, there should be the possibility of earlier retirement for women at their own request. I find it a little difficult to follow that even within the European Assembly people are thinking about equal pension ages and at the same time qualifying that by the idea of flexibility. I should have thought that flexibility should apply to men and women and not merely to women.

We have had a number of debates on these issues in Committee and, no doubt, there will be more. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury that the important thing—he is a doughty fighter for this cause—is to get started on the process. Chairman Mao said that on a journey of a thousand miles the first step was the biggest. That is the one that we have not yet taken, but it is an important step and we want to be certain of the direction in which we are headed.

We have not yet had sufficient public debate in the House or publicity on the the equality of retirement age and flexibility—and flexibility is much more complicated because it raises the matter of benefits. What should the person who has chosen to retire early get in comparison with those who have retired later? I pose the questions but I do not know the answers. No doubt we shall debate them a great deal.

On dependency benefits—with which my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) was concerned—it is true that the number of married women going out to work is increasing, but in most cases the husband is the major breadwinner and it is exceptional for married women to have an uninterrupted employment record. I have the figures, and I shall write to my hon. Friend giving them.

We are basically concerned with the cost where there are two breadwinners in a family with children because paying dependency benefits to both—which is what we understand the directive means—would lead to the costs that I have mentioned. We are sympathetic to the case in which the husband is not the breadwinner or is incapacitated, and in those circumstances the women should be able to claim.

The point has also been made about the case in which the breadwinners decide that one shall have the responsibility for earning the family income. The number of such cases known to us is relatively insignificant in numerical terms now, but there are cases in which husbands have taken time out of employment for study or activity, such as writing, with deferred financial reward, and have relied on their wives' earning. We are sympathetic about the problem. It is not easy and we shall, not resolve it easily because it will be-open to much abuse, because a couple could decide to change places as breadwinners at appropriate times in their lives to get the most income from the State. Some might say that that would be a good thing, but from the point of view of social security expenditure we should look carefully before embarking on that particular path.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Will the hon. Gentleman write to hon. Members explaining why he says that? Surely, if a couple have income and dependants, it does not matter who looks after them?

Mr. Deakins

We are talking about two earners, and we must have equality between that family and the family with only one earner. In correspondence, the Commission has given as its view that the draft directive does not include housewives, and, therefore, it will not affect the invalid care allowance or the noncontributory invalidity pension. As to equal treatment under the occupational pensions legislation, we have said that we shall introduce a Bill as soon as practicable. We have a long-standing commitment to secure a fair deal for women and to remove discrimination in occupational pension schemes. There is little difference between what we want to see in this area and what the draft directive suggests, though we shall want some changes made in the provisions and we shall be pursuing those in Brussels in the coming months.

I take the point that there is reverse discrimination against men. The 1975 Pensions Act makes provision for a divorced man with a less than full record of contributions to make use of his ex-wife's contributions in calculating basic pension, and it allows a retired or chronically sick widower to receive some benefit from his late wife's record. However, we have not gone all the way towards true equality, and the directive does not require us to do so. The point of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) should be taken into account, though not necesarily in the context of carrying out the provisions of the directive.

An hon. Member asked about the Equal Opportunities Commission. It has given written evidence to the Scrutiny Committee.

I now have less than a minute left. I shall read carefully all the points that have been made in the debate. Certainly, we shall try for some major modifications—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3 (Exempted business).

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of Commission Document No. R/48/77 on Equal Treatment in Social Security.