HC Deb 03 February 1993 vol 218 cc335-6 4.15 pm
Mrs. Judith Chaplin (Newbury)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to apply the National Insurance Fund to provide an allowance for widowed fathers with dependent children equal to that provided for widowed mothers with dependent children. This is a Bill about equality, fairness and the importance of family life. I am sure, therefore, that it will commend itself to all hon. Members on both sides of the House.

When the national insurance system was introduced in 1948, following the Beveridge report of 1942, the majority of married women stayed in their homes. Indeed, the Beveridge report was drawn up on the explicit assumption that wives were financially dependent upon their husbands and should receive benefits based on their husbands' contribution records.

Many women, of course, still choose to stay in their home when their children are young, and I am sure that most hon. Members believe that they have a right to do so. If that is the case, if the husband dies and the principal source of income is lost, it is right that the widow should receive a replacement income based on her husband's contribution to the national insurance fund. Widows with children receive such an allowance—the widowed mother's allowance—£54.15 a week, with additions for each dependent child, based on the husband's contribution.

Fifty years on from the publication of the Beveridge report, we need to look again at whether the assumptions in that report are still appropriate and whether the benefits on which those assumptions are based give an equitable system. Circumstances have changed radically. In those days, fathers were not expected to look after their children and, if the mother died, would obtain paid help or help from family or friends, or the children might be put in care.

Nowadays, many fathers—indeed, I hope many fathers in the House—are perfectly capable of looking after their own children, and play a full role in bringing them up. In some cases, parents have chosen to reverse their roles, with the woman being the main breadwinner and the man staying at home to look after the children. If a wife dies, the man may well wish to stay at home to ensure that one parent, at least, can have a full-time role in bringing up the children.

In these circumstances, however, there is currently no help from the state through the national insurance fund. Despite the fact that it is the man's contribution to national insurance that qualifies his widow to receive widowed mother's allowance, that contribution by him does not secure benefit which would enable him to stay at home. Nor can he receive other contributory benefits, for he is disqualified for unemployment benefit because, by definition, he is not available for work. He may, of course, be eligible for income support if his savings fall below a certain level, but that does not compensate him for not receiving a contributory benefit to which he should be entitled through his contribution record.

I therefore believe that a widowed father's benefit should be introduced to enable widowers to stay at home to look after their young children, if that is what they choose to do.

In recent years there has been discussion of the need for the equalisation of survivor's benefit. In 1989, the House of Lords European Communities Select Committee recommended that men and women should be provided with survivor's benefit on the same terms, but that a substantial period should be allowed to introduce this. The Committee feared that compulsory equality immediately might deprive widows of benefits they still need because of their different position in society.

I do not believe that there should be total equality of survivor's benefit. A widow can receive a widow's pension if she is aged 45 or more when her husband dies. This is in recognition of the difficulty that she may find in re-establishing herself in the labour market if throughout her married life she has not worked outside the home. Such a benefit would not be necessary for a man, who would be more likely to have been in full-time work previously, and would be able to return to work when his children no longer needed his full-time care.

Nor does it seem necessary to have the same conditions for the widowed father's allowance as currently apply to the widowed mother's allowance. A widowed mother's allowance continues to be paid based on her late husband's contributions, regardless of her own earnings if she returns to work. It is taxable, but it is not withdrawn while she has dependent children. Since the main feature of our social security system is that it is a social insurance against the interruption and destruction of earning power, it is perhaps odd that a widow can both earn and receive this benefit. It is because it is based on her husband's contributions, and perhaps we should look again at the circumstances there.

Certainly any widowed father's allowance should be designated to compensate for loss of earnings while the father is not employed outside the home, and should cease when he returns to full-time work. That would substantially reduce the cost of such an allowance, recently estimated at some £90 million a year. If it was given only to those fathers who chose to stay at home on the death of their wives to look after their children, as is the case with one of my constituents, and ceased when they returned to full-time work, the cost would be relatively small.

Its value to the family, however, would be immense. It would ensure that the best care was available for children who had already suffered a tragic loss and who would benefit greatly from the full-time care of their fathers. The number who choose to do this may not be large, but, in all fairness, they should receive a benefit equal to that of widows in similar circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Judith Chaplin, Mrs. Angela Browning, Mrs. Edwina Currie, Mrs. Cheryl Gillan, Mrs. Angela Knight, Mrs. Jacqui Lait, Lady Olga Maitland, Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock and Mrs. Marion Roe.