HC Deb 25 June 1996 vol 280 cc145-6
10. Mr. Barnes

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will introduce measures to allow women to qualify for widows' benefits when they have not been married to their late partners but could qualify as having been married by cohabitation. [32981]

Mr. Heald

No. There is no reason why those who choose not to marry should be entitled to married persons' benefits.

Mr. Barnes

When unmarried couples live together, their joint earnings are taken into account in assessing their benefits, such as income support. Why cannot women qualify for the widows' benefit when their partners die? That arrangement operates in Scotland, so why cannot it work here? Are we to have Victorian values in that regard?

Mr. Heald

Social security legislation involving the right to contributory benefit derived from another person's contributions is based on the concept of a legal marriage, which is something that the Government believe upholds family values. The existing provisions, which make contributory benefits available to a surviving spouse but not to the survivor of an unmarried partner are long standing, and the Government do not believe that a case has been made for changing them.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Does my hon. Friend believe that we should support the institution of marriage, appreciate the seriousness of marriage and appreciate the commitment of both parties to a proper marriage? Therefore, it would be wrong for us to give in to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes); surely, if one is prepared to commit oneself to marriage and the responsibilities that go with it, one should be entitled to get something from it when one becomes a widow or widower.

Mr. Heald

Conservative Members believe that the institution of marriage is vital to our society. The legislation reflects that.

Mr. Denham

Does the Minister recognise that there is wide concern about equal treatment of cohabiting couples in pension schemes? Will the Minister confirm, for example, that serving firefighters and police officers who lose their lives in the course of their duties may leave dependent partners and children without any pension benefits? Will the Minister recognise that there is real concern about that? What plans does he have to study the problems involved and to introduce proposals to ensure that equal treatment is made available to more people within pension schemes?

Mr. Heald

There is a difference between a lifelong commitment and another sort of commitment. There is no legal obstacle in occupational pension schemes to the payment of survivors' pensions to unmarried partners who are financially dependent. The Government always keep these matters under review.