HC Deb 18 November 1998 vol 319 cc939-51 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling)

With your permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the next stage of our welfare reform programme.

We have already launched the new deal, the biggest ever investment by Government in jobs and training. We have begun to tackle child poverty, with the biggest ever rise in child benefit. We have introduced a national child care strategy. We are modernising our tax and benefits system to make work pay, with a new working families tax credit, which will benefit up to 1.5 million people, underpinned by the national minimum wage.

Three weeks ago, I set out wide-ranging reforms to disability benefits, giving more help for severely disabled people and those disabled early in life. We are modernising the system to ensure that benefits go to those for whom they were intended. All these reforms are driven by our central objective—work for those who can and security for those who cannot.

Today I am publishing a consultation paper on our proposals for the reform of bereavement benefits paid to people of working age. Copies of the consultation paper are available in the Vote Office. The reforms apply only to people of working age who lose their husbands or wives. Women already widowed, widows over state pension age, and war widows will continue to get the support that we give them now. They will not be affected by the reforms that I set out today.

My announcement is one in a series of long-term reforms that will form the basis of legislation at the earliest opportunity. However, today's proposals will not be introduced before April 2001, so as to allow time for implementation.

The system of bereavement benefits that we inherited is out of date. When it was introduced 50 years ago, most women did not work, certainly not after marriage. Today, seven out of 10 married women work—almost as many as the eight out of 10 married men who work. Today, 1.5 million women benefit from their late husband's pensions, compared with the 100,000 who did so 50 years ago. About 40 per cent. of the women currently getting widows benefit are in the top half of the income bracket. The world has changed, and the benefits system needs to reflect those changes.

The system also fails on four specific counts. First, it is unfair to men: 15,000 husbands bereaved each year get no help at all. That unfairness cannot continue, and it is already being challenged in the European Court of Human Rights—so doing nothing, as some urge, is not an option. Secondly, the system does not provide enough help with the immediate costs of bereavement, such as unpaid bills or funeral costs. Thirdly, money often goes to those who have the least need of it. Widows without children who have substantial incomes can get benefits for years, but a man—who may have growing children and modest means—gets nothing at all. Finally, the present system fails to support the poorest mothers on income support. Widows who have children to care for lose their benefit pound for pound, and so get no financial gain from their widows benefit.

The reforms that I am announcing today will change all that. Our reforms will, for the first time, get help to men who lose their wives, and on an equal footing with widows. They will provide extra financial help with immediate needs, such as funeral expenses.

We will continue to help those older people without children during the period immediately after bereavement and, as with our other reforms, our priority is to provide security for families with children, and to get the greatest help to the poorest. Our proposals will ensure the security of families with children, and we will do more for the poorest families and their children.

First, I can announce today that men who lose their wives will get help on the same basis as women who lose their husbands. We will go further—once the reforms are introduced, they will apply not only to newly bereaved widowers, but to those husbands with children already widowed. For the first time, we will be providing security for around 20,000 men and their children.

Secondly, I wish to refer to immediate help on bereavement. The loss of a husband or wife is traumatic, and a time of great need and anxiety. We recognise the need for immediate financial help. Indeed, it is one of the strengths of the current system that, on bereavement, a widow gets a £1,000 lump sum within four days. In my view, that payment is no longer high enough—the amount has not changed in 10 years—so, today, I can announce that we are doubling the lump sum cash payment to £2,000. We want to give more help with a range of costs, such as bills or the cost of a funeral.

Thirdly, we want to ensure that we get help to those who need it most. Today, long-term widows benefits may go to many who do not need them because they do not have the extra costs of bringing up children, or because they have good incomes from jobs, pensions or insurance. Some argue that those are grounds for abolishing the benefit completely, but we do not believe that that would be right. We recognise that financial support is needed in the period immediately after bereavement, so we will continue to provide a financial breathing space for bereaved spouses—aged 45 and over—who do not have dependent children by paying a weekly benefit, worth up to £64.70. The new bereavement allowance will be paid for six months only-providing transitional support at a time of particular need.

We also recognise that, for the generation of widows and widowers aged 55 or over at the time when the changes are introduced, special arrangements will be needed because it could be difficult for them to make new plans. I can announce today that anyone from that generation who qualifies for income support and who is widowed in the five years after the changes are introduced will get support worth the same amount as the current widows pension.

Fourthly, we are determined to ensure that the greatest help goes to those with greatest needs. Our reforms will continue to provide long-term financial help to bereaved parents with children. I can confirm that bereaved husbands and wives will continue to get a weekly benefit—currently worth, on average, £85—payable until their youngest dependent child leaves full-time further education. As with our other proposals, that help goes to both men and women who lose their spouse. However, we want to go further. We are determined to do more to help people who need help most, and we will ensure that the system helps the poorest widows and widowers, and their children.

Today, I can announce that the poorest bereaved parents who are on income-related benefits and getting bereavement benefits will gain additional cash help worth up to an extra £10 a week—providing the greatest help to those with greatest needs. The reforms modernise the benefit, treat men and women equally, give immediate help where it is needed, give more help to the poorest and do not affect existing widows.

As with the reforms that I announced three weeks ago, the structural changes will deliver significant savings, of around £500 million in the long run. However, we will do so by ensuring that the greatest help goes to those with greatest needs, and, in the short term, we are spending £140 million more to meet real need. As society gets wealthier, the amount that we spend on the most vulnerable should increase—but benefits must go to those who need them most. We must give more help to those in greatest need. We are planning now for the needs of the future, to ensure that the system is affordable, fair and effective.

Some people will urge us to do nothing, and, yes, turning our backs on the failure of the current system would have been the easy option. However, the real scandal would be for a Government committed to social justice to ignore the unfairness, to ignore the needs of children and to do nothing to help those in greatest need.

These are fair reforms, which provide real security and real help at a time of real need for bereaved husbands and wives and their children. I commend the proposals to the House.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

I must thank the Secretary of State for giving me a copy of his statement in advance. It contains some good and some bad proposals, and I shall deal with those fairly quickly.

Obviously, it is the Government's right and responsibility to reform the benefit. They are right: things have changed. The way in which people live their lives is changing all the time. No benefit is fixed in concrete and should stay the same for ever—that is an agreed principle. Therefore, the Government are right to consider this benefit. There is no question about that.

Clearly, the question is how the Government go about it. Who will be the winners and the losers? What will be the long-term prospects for those who would, or should, be dependent on assistance and support as a result of national insurance contributions made, in many cases, by husbands but now, obviously, by wives?

When we introduced the lump sum concept in the mid-1980s, it was the right thing to do. By increasing it—that is welcome—the Secretary of State has agreed that that is the right principle. It goes to people at the moment when they most need it, and does not depend on their filling out huge forms and getting into difficulties. The right hon. Gentleman was therefore right to focus on that; it is welcome.

Clearly, the issue of men being dependent on the benefit was relevant because of the court case. It was a necessary change. The Government have taken the view that the case will be won, and whether they are being a little previous is not the point of this debate. The fact is that they have taken that view, and there is no point in discussing it further.

However, the Government must answer some other major questions. First, the Secretary of State talked about the average £85. Will he break that figure down? He said that the benefit was currently worth, on average, £85. Does that mean that the future commitment is to retain it at that purchasing power? How will he calculate that in future? Obviously, the £85 is a mix of what is there at the moment, but why not specify how it is broken down and the Government's commitment for the future?

I must criticise the Government on their handling of the second issue, as it concerns me that they have put the cart before the horse. Surely the issue is linked inextricably with pension reform. Everything that the Secretary of State has said puts the burden on those in work to provide not merely for their own retirement, but for their dependants and spouses. He is suggesting that that will, and should, happen; yet we have heard nothing in 18 months from the Government about pension reform, other than leaks and suggestions in the papers that they are eroding the pension. They have said a little about what they may do, but there has been no great focus on the subject. So many of them—[Interruption.]

It is all very well for those on the Treasury Bench to snigger. The fact is that many people outside this place who have listened to the statement will be concerned about what means testing means to them and how they can provide security for their families when they have no idea what framework the Government propose for pensions. The Government must accelerate that process; otherwise, people will remain in fear and will worry about what will happen to them.

The second part of the statement was the most critical. This Government seem to be unable to admit that they are about getting rid of the contributory principle. That is what this is all about. They do it by stealth. Each time the Secretary of State produces another proposal, the ending of the contributory principle lies at its heart.

The Secretary of State is being very clever in talking about widows pensions. He says that, after the six-month transitional period, those on income support will continue to receive the benefit for five years. However, those who are not on income support clearly will not receive it. Those on the margins, with small savings, will fall off.

The Secretary of State admits that he has an obligation to those who pay national insurance, but he limits that obligation to five years and to those who are on income support. He is saying that the contributory principle is no longer relevant and will be ended. People outside the House who hear that should remember that the Government are hellbent on completely changing their position.

If the Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer intend to means-test the basic state pension after the next election, they should say so. They should say: "The contributory principle is over. We shall now have a means-tested set of benefits." That is what the statement suggests—it proposes taxed and means-tested transitional relief.

The proposals contain an absurdity. The Government will means-test those on upper incomes for this benefit, but the working families tax credit—which the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), who is chirping away on the Treasury Bench, admitted would create no jobs—will be paid to people with incomes as high as £38,000 year. The Government seem to be unable to settle that conflict. They means-test to reduce some benefits, whereas they scatter money around and waste it on other benefits, increasing expenditure by £1.5 billion.

Reform of the benefit is necessary, but this reform is driven by a Government who are in desperate need of short-term savings. They are scraping away, saying, "We've got to find some way to save the money." The Secretary of State is, in no small measure, robbing Pauline to help Paul.

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging the fact that I gave him a copy of the statement, but I had hoped that he would read it. The proposals contain no short-term savings, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has pointed out. As I said in the statement, we are spending more in the short term to meet immediate need. The £500 million savings will be in the long term—like the measures that I announced some three weeks ago, these proposals represent major structural changes to the benefits system, which will enable us to plan for the future.

I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the fact that the lump sum will be increased, which most people recognise will meet an immediate need. He said that we were right to extend the benefits to men and women, although he thought that we were premature in taking account of the case that is before the European Court. I take a slightly different view: I believe that it is unfair to treat men and women differently, which is why I wanted to put right that wrong.

If the best that the hon. Gentleman can say is that he is against my announcement because it did not deal with pensions, I shall have to accept it. I shall make a separate statement on pensions when the Government publish their proposals, as we have promised. Today's announcement was about widows benefits.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the make-up of the £85 a week. That figure—the widows maintenance allowance—will depend on how many children a widow has. There is an allowance of £9.90 for the first child and £11.30 for the second. There is also a state earnings-related pension scheme element. The hon. Gentleman asks whether we will keep the figure under review. As he should know, all benefit figures are kept under review.

The contributory principle is worthy of discussion, although perhaps not in these exchanges. Successive Governments have changed the conditions attached to the contributory principle. Indeed, the previous Government did so on several occasions—most recently in 1996, when the entitlement to unemployment benefit was reduced from a year to six months. We are in many respects increasing the benefits available—we are extending benefits to men, and we are increasing the lump sum.

Over the past few weeks, the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members have called for welfare reform. However, whenever any reform is suggested, they say: "Welfare reform, yes, but not this." They will not address themselves to the fact that there are many problems with the current benefits system and that not least among them is the problem that we are paying benefits to people who do not need them and not doing enough for people who do. That in itself is a case for reform, and that reform deserves support.

Conservative Members must do a little bit better than merely apologising for cutting the married persons tax allowance—which is their policy on the family—and proposing a transferable tax allowance which would cost £4 billion every year; they cannot tell us how they would fund it.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Is the Secretary of State proposing that the existing package of benefits for widows should be extended to widowers? If so, how many widowers and how many women will lose benefit when the reforms come into force, and how many people will be pushed on to means tests?

Mr. Darling

No, we are not proposing to apply the existing benefits regime to men. That would cost about £250 million a year and could not be justified. We are continuing the system of support for mothers, and now fathers, with young children, which is entirely justified, and ensuring that the allowance payable to people without children runs for six months only. That is a major change from the present scheme. We cannot justify spending money on those who do not need it while many people who need help are not supported.

I know my right hon. Friend's view on income support—he is against means-testing—but income support and means-testing are ways of ensuring that we get the help to those who need it most, and that is an extremely important safeguard as a fundamental part of the structure of the benefit system. Our reforms for widows benefits overall will ensure that we give help where it is needed.

On my right hon. Friend's detailed points, I sent him a copy of the consultation document, and he ought by now to have received it.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I, too, am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving me a chance to read his statement before he delivered it. I have both read it and listened to him delivering it, so I hope that I know what is in it. The Liberal Democrats welcome the doubling of the lump sum but, given the Secretary of State's cogent arguments for it, should it not be done straight away? It will be given universal acclaim and could probably be implemented by regulation rather than by primary legislation. If the costs are already much greater than £1,000, we could surely do something about that immediately.

We also welcome the reform to make all the payments payable to men who lose their wives as well as to wives who lose their husbands. That is clearly right, as I have said to the Secretary of State before, and I am glad that he has acknowledged that in his statement. Is the new bereavement allowance to have an earnings-related element, as I believe the current widows pensions do?

Is not six months far too short a time for the bereavement allowance to run? The Secretary of State will surely know that, when people lose their spouses in middle age, it can take them months to get over it or even to start thinking straight again about their future. His comments about those who will be over 55 in 2001 suggest that such people may take much longer than six months to start making new plans. Would it not be sensible for the bereavement allowance to last some years rather than some months?

Mr. Darling

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. The period for which an allowance should run is always a matter of judgment. We took the view that six months would be a suitable period to allow someone to adapt to changed circumstances. Almost as many women work as men; the situation is now very different from 50 years ago, when very few women worked after marriage. All the experience shows that women wanting to return to work want to do so rather sooner than after a period of several years.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the lump sum cannot be introduced now. The proposals are part of a package. Following an exchange that one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues had with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister during Prime Minister's Question Time, I must tell the Liberal Democrats that, at some point, they have to square up to the fact that all these things have to be paid for. This is a coherent package of reform.

I am grateful for the general welcome that the hon. Gentleman has given to a number of the specific proposals. The hon. Gentleman asked whether there will be an earnings-related element. I was not quite sure exactly what he was getting at. The widows payment is taxable now. If he is concerned about the state earnings-related pension scheme, he will see that the details are spelled out in the consultation paper. However, SERPS continues for the parents allowance.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

I welcome the Government's search for a modern approach to this important issue on widows, widowers and bereavement. I welcome particularly those parts of the package that do not rely on means-testing. There are some useful ideas about targeting resources without recourse to the means test.

I put it to the Secretary of State that, over the past 20 years, a number of ad hoc policy reforms have touched on the national insurance system, yet, paradoxically, we have never had a serious debate about the future of national insurance and the contributory principle in this country. We have to find a means of holding that serious debate about a national insurance system based on the principle that people contribute to the community chest when they can, and draw out, as of right, when they need to do so. Given the new issues such as how we fund long-term care and perhaps pay for parental leave, surely we need a debate to see whether a renaissance of the social insurance principle could be the future of social security if we are to avoid the increasing move towards the nastiness and division of the means test.

Mr. Darling

As my hon. Friend knows more than most, the benefits system in this country is complex. The contributory system sits alongside means-tested payments for extra costs and so on. I suspect that most people going along to the Benefits Agency will ask not about the origin of the payment but about how much they will get and the conditions of entitlement. I agree that this matter ought to be debated and I know that a number of hon. Members would like such a debate. By good luck, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is sitting next to me, and she will no doubt be pencilling in a date as we speak. It is a serious debate in which I intend to engage before too long.

The Government approach this as a matter of principle. In general terms, first, we want to ensure that we encourage all those who can work to do so and, secondly, we want to provide security for those who cannot. In each case, particularly where we want to provide greater security, we must ask ourselves how we can best get money to those who need it most. This afternoon's announcement goes a long way to meeting some of the gaps in need that have existed before. I believe that income-related benefits will remain part of the system for some time to come. They are important, particularly for the low-paid. I shall be happy to have a general debate; I am sure that some hon. Members cannot wait, but I suspect that others possibly can.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Can the Secretary of State explain why it is fair to take away widows benefit from widows without dependent children when they have incredibly modest means but not sufficiently modest to be able to qualify for income support while, at the same time—if I understand the Secretary of States's announcement—proposing to give benefit to other widows and widowers who may have been left a substantial amount by their dead spouse?

Mr. Darling

My proposal is that we continue to help the surviving parent and children. What is more, we want to extend that help to men with young children who do not get a penny under the present system. For those without children, the widow and widowers pension should be payable for a transitional period of six months because we believe that that is a reasonable time to adjust. I repeat my earlier point that I find it difficult to justify the current situation where, in many cases, we are paying benefit for years to people who do not need it while not doing nearly enough for others, particularly those with young children. I should have thought that the hon. Lady would support that, rather than defending the status quo, which most people find it difficult to defend.

Audrey Wise (Preston)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absurd for the Tories to complain about means-testing, which is their favourite tool? By the same token, we have to be cautious about making it a tool of ours. I offer my warm congratulations to my right hon. Friend on the extension of the principle of benefits to widowers for the first time, which is a good move. However, I wish to express my concern and ask for more information about the position of older widows. My right hon. Friend referred to the fact that many women now work, but he did not mention that they are still congregated in low-paid, temporary or part-time work or that the gender gap in wages is widening. Will he give more thought to, and explain, the plight in which older widows may be left by his proposals?

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome for many of the proposals. Low wages for women generally, and older women in particular, will be helped by the minimum wage. It is more difficult to take account of women aged 55 and older when changing the structure of the system, but we want to ensure that those on income support are no worse off after the changes. In other words, we wish to safeguard the position of that older generation of women who are probably less likely to be in work than younger women because of the changes in working habits.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about means-testing. I am not sure whether the Conservatives have now come out against means-testing as part of their strategy, but we will wait and see. Today, we have introduced a disregard of £10 for the poorest widows and widowers to ensure that they get a benefit from the widows and widowers payments that they do not currently get. That is a similar move to ones that we have made for other benefits, and it means that the poorest will keep the benefit of £10 a week. That will be welcome.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

May I seek the Minister's confirmation? In the simplest terms, he appeared to say that the widows pension will be abolished for those under 45, whether men or women, if they are widowed in the future; there will be a more generous payment on bereavement; there will be a payment for six months; and otherwise they will need to rely on income support and other child allowances. That seemed to be the essence of his statement.

The role of men and women in our society may have more overlap than before, and both may work, but there are still significant differences. Because women generally have a lower earning power and many break their careers to have families, a system of benefits for those who are widowed that is precisely equal for men and women is not entirely suitable. Indeed, most women will feel that it is unfair, given the patterns of employment and different responsibilities of men and women.

Mr. Darling

I am becoming increasingly puzzled about the Conservatives' position on these matters. Over the years, patterns have changed and the work force is now almost half made up of women, thanks in many ways to the reforms that we are introducing. The difficulties of low pay are being addressed, and many women have successful careers and have chosen to work throughout their lives. The benefits system must reflect that. The hon. Gentleman should remember that the system was introduced in the 1940s, when most women did not work. When Beveridge drew up the plan, it was never the intention that people should remain on benefit when they could be working.

I believe strongly that the benefits system must change to take account of completely different economic and social circumstances. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's argument; he seems on the one hand to argue for the status quo, but on the other to display a new-found sympathy for the low-paid. I cannot understand such an attitude from the Conservative party, which has spent a lifetime fostering lack of such sympathy.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

My right hon. Friend knows that I represent part of north-east England where working class men die younger than in any other part of England. Is he telling me that, as a result of the changes that he proposes, a woman partner of one of those working men who is left a small quantity of savings or a small works pension that still accrues to them after her husband's working life will be completely excluded from all long-term bereavement benefits unless her savings and income are reduced to the bare income support level? If he is saying that, I urge him to think again.

Mr. Darling

I am not saying that. All bereaved husbands or wives will be entitled to an allowance for the six-month period. Those with children will receive the allowance for a lot longer. Those who are dependent on or entitled to benefits will receive them. My hon. Friend must face the fact that nearly 40 per cent. of women who currently receive the benefit are in the top half of the income bracket. Others are working and earning quite good wages. I am determined to ensure that bereavement benefits bring help to those who most need it. That is what the reforms are designed to do.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Can the Secretary of State say at what level of earnings a widow or a widower who has children will begin to lose benefit under his new proposals?

Mr. Darling

If the hon. Gentleman cares to consult the various income support tables that we publish each year, he will be able to find that level easily.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

I welcome the statement, particularly the £10 disregard on income support and the doubling of the lump sum. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, contrary to reports, the new bereavement allowance will not be means-tested? Will he confirm, too, that the generous current contributing conditions for the lump sum will remain the same?

Mr. Darling

The contributory conditions will not be affected, and the benefit will not be means-tested.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that many of us share his puzzlement that the Opposition now oppose means testing, and champion the national insurance principle? Does he recall that, when the previous Government made the change from unemployment benefit to jobseeker's allowance—a major breach of the national insurance principle—they changed the signing-on rules so that those who had previously not worked for 10 years and were aged 50 or over would not have to sign on, but those in that position after 1996 would have to do so? Can he clarify whether those bereaved in later life will be required to sign on?

Mr. Darling

It is the case that, as a result of reforms introduced by the Conservatives, widows had to sign on a week after losing their husbands. As a result of my proposals, at their introduction women aged over 55 will not have to sign on for work, because I do not think it reasonable that they should have to do so.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

May I refer briefly to a constituency case that touches on the Secretary of State's statement? A woman in my constituency was widowed about four weeks ago. She is in her mid-50s, and her husband was in his late 50s. She receives about £60 a week in bereavement allowance, and she works eight hours a week as a cleaner. She would like to work more to supplement her diminished income, but fears that she cannot do so because her widows allowance will be reduced for every hour she works or every pound she earns. Is that correct; if it is, does the Secretary of State's statement remedy her situation?

Mr. Darling

If the hon. and learned Gentleman would care to write to me, I will look into that case. If the situation is as he described, it occurs under the system that we inherited. His constituent ought to be receiving £64 a week, which is a taxable benefit, and it is not clear how she is losing the benefit to which he referred, but I will look into the case if he writes to me.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

After the complexities of the transitional period are out of the way, how many more people than at present does the Secretary of State estimate will face means tests?

Mr. Darling

Again, Conservative Members are expressing concerns about the means test, which many Labour Members find extraordinary. Using a variety of measures, such as the new deal and the single gateway, we are ensuring that as many people as possible have the opportunity to work rather than be reliant on benefits. I repeat my earlier point that many women work at present and many more are choosing to work, and we propose to make it easier for them to do so.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether existing widows will benefit from the proposals? I had a telephone call two weeks ago from a constituent who is on benefits because he had been caring for his wife. She died, and he had a visit from the Benefits Agency for the sole purpose of tearing up her benefit books. He asked me angrily, "How can I pay for the funeral and live with my two kids on £117 a week?" I hope that, following the statement, I can ring him and give him good news. Will the Secretary of State tell me whether I can do so?

Mr. Darling

The proposal is that, from the implementation date of the changes, widowers will be treated in exactly the same way as widows, so that we avoid a situation in future where bereaved women receive the widows allowance and lump sum for themselves and their children, but men do not.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

May I follow on the questions asked by the Secretary of State's colleagues, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the hon. Members for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins)? The right hon. Gentleman knows that, since the Widows', Orphans' and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act 1925, widows pensions have been based firmly on the contributory principle. Will he therefore confirm that the proposal is a decisive shift away from that principle towards means testing, and tell the House how that will foster a responsible society?

Mr. Darling

That is a bit rich from the Conservative party, which spent almost a quarter of a generation trying to undermine the contributory principle. The benefits remain contributory. The proposals are not a move towards means-testing. The hon. Gentleman ought to be aware that, during the past 50 years, many changes have been made to the widows benefits regime and to the contributory principle. In many cases, we are extending the benefits that in the past were not available to men and increasing the lump sum. We are determined to ensure that those benefits are modernised to meet the needs of today's society. To say that no change is necessary, and ignore injustices, is absolutely crazy.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, particularly because it addresses the changing roles for men and women in our society. Some of the inequalities, such as low pay, that women face today are caused by the fact that there is still an assumption that they are earning pin money to keep the family going. That is not the case. Many women in my constituency are the only breadwinner in their family. I welcome the policy because—I hope that my right hon. Friend will reassure me on this point—it addresses the changing roles of men and women, particularly the parenting role of the father. For too long, child care and domestic and family roles have been seen as women's burdens, and the proposals are part of the means of beginning to challenge that.

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is right on the latter point, that fathers and mothers should play a greater role in bringing up their children. Perhaps some of us have further to go than others.

On my hon. Friend's general point, the Government's whole strategy on welfare to work and reform of the benefits system is to do everything possible to encourage men and women to work and to make work pay, something that the Conservative party opposes.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

I thank the Secretary of State for going one step further than he needed to go. He may have been forced to extend widows benefits to widowers, including those with children, but I thank him for extending them to existing widowers with children. I draw his attention to the case of my constituent, who was widowed earlier this year, has two young children and is struggling to keep a part-time job to pay for child care. If I tell my constituent that he will have to wait two and a half years, he will be desperate. Must the package take two and a half years to be introduced? Could it not be introduced in even one and a half years?

Mr. Darling

The measure is part of a package. It will not be possible to implement the package before April 2001. It is always tempting to implement one part while delaying another, but the measure must be seen as part of a coherent package. Whatever the date is, there are bound to be problems either side of it.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the fact that, from the implementation date, we will be able to help fathers with young children, even those without mothers now. The hon. Gentleman must accept that all these changes take time. We need primary legislation, and we need to change our systems to enable us to introduce the package. April 2001 is probably the earliest that we can do that.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify a point that builds on the interesting question from the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks)? Is it his intention to put men and women on the same basis? Will the payment of the new six-month bereavement benefit be determined by the level of contribution of the other spouse? If so, how will the Government deal with the question raised by the hon. Member for Preston (Audrey Wise), as contributions from wives are likely to be less than contributions from husbands? [Interruption.] Almost certainly. The hon. Member for Preston has a great deal of experience of these matters and knows what she is talking about. How will the right hon. Gentleman deal with that shortfall? Will there be a mechanism to equate the level of pension that husbands and wives receive?

Mr. Darling

As I said earlier, this is a contributory benefit. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He wants to defend the status quo, and now he is asking for a slight change in the contributory benefits system. Far more women now make contributions than was ever expected 50 years ago.