HC Deb 24 June 1999 vol 333 cc1299-339
Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.20 pm
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I beg to move, That this House welcomes the long-overdue extension of widow's benefits to widowers, and the doubling of Bereavement Payments; but notes that this costs only £100 million annually in the long term, compared with the £600 million cut the Government will make through the replacement of widows' pensions by a Bereavement Tax Allowance, the abolition of Dividend Tax Credits and the restriction of Council Tax Benefit on higher-value properties; regrets the Government's woefully inadequate response to next year's halving of widows' entitlement to additional pension; welcomes the fact that this is now under investigation by the Parliamentary Ombudsman; and calls on the Government to cease their attacks on the living standards of widows. Before I begin, may I point out to the House an unfortunate transcription mistake? The motion printed in the Order Paper is not that which we had intended. I understand that the original motion was correctly transmitted to the Government and the official Opposition yesterday.

Madam Speaker

Order. The motion that stands on the Order Paper is the one that was given to the House. It was tabled by the Liberal Democrat party, it was checked by an officer of the party, and it has been presented to the House. Whatever dealings the Liberal Democrat party has had with the other main parties to try to amend the motion is a matter for that party. The motion on the Order Paper is the motion that the House will debate.

Mr. Rendel

I entirely accept that, Madam Speaker, and I am sorry if I seemed to imply anything else. I merely meant to inform the House of the words that were not properly transcribed. I entirely accept that an error was made, and I apologise to the House for it.

The motion originally transmitted to the official Opposition and the Government last night contained, after the words "by a" and before the words "Bereavement Tax Allowance", the words: Bereavement Allowance; deplores the loss of widows". I apologise for that unfortunate error. It is one of those things that occasionally happens, but we must take the blame as it happened in our Whips Office last night.

At least two aspects of changes in legislation relating to widows and benefits are welcome. The first is the extension of widows benefits to widowers. For the first time, the benefits are gender neutral, and that is absolutely right. There is no reason to suppose that men who have been bereaved of their spouses need any less protection than women similarly bereaved. It is unfortunate that change has taken so long to occur. The Government waited until the pressure from a European court case forced them to make a change that should have happened long before.

Secondly, the Government were correct to double the bereavement payment from £1,000 to £2,000. The original payment was introduced long ago, and the costs of bereavement have considerably increased since then. Most of us have probably been involved in arrangements for a funeral, and we all know that costs have been escalating for some time. The £1,000 payment should have been increased before now, and the extent of the increase is evidence of that. Such a big jump should not have been necessary.

Rather less welcome is the fact that bereavement payment is still extended only to those below pension age. It would have been better to extend it to all. At the very least, if that was all that the Government could afford following their massive cuts in widows benefits, the payment should have been extended to the very poorest pensioners. It is odd that those below pension age should receive extra help with paying for funeral and other costs, while those above that age, who are often the poorest, should not receive equivalent help.

There are of course ways in which the allowance could be set up so that only the poorest pensioners received the payment. As we suggested in the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, it may be possible to make the bereavement payment only to pensioners already on income support who had therefore proved that their means were very small. The Liberal Democrats would prefer to go beyond that because, as we have often said in the House, some of the poorest pensioners are for one reason or another not in receipt of income support. A case can easily be made for extending the payment to those of pension age, especially the poorest.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, in the Budget press releases issued by the Inland Revenue, the Chancellor promised that these very people would be taken care of? It subsequently emerged that they would not be taken care of and the promise had to be retracted in Committee.

Mr. Rendel

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am delighted to have it added to my argument. It is a worthwhile point to include.

One further point that must be made on this subject takes up something that the Government said in the Committee stage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. They claimed that there was no need to hand a bereavement payment to pensioners because the equivalent sums were included in the benefits paid to pensioners. We pointed out that, if that were true, it was surely illogical. One assumes that the payment will in most cases be applicable only once in someone's retirement. It is illogical that the one-off payment should be spread over all the pensions and benefits given to pensioners. It is as if the Government were forcing people to start saving something out of their pensions and benefits from the moment that they retired for the day their spouse died. The sensible way is for the Government to make a one-off benefit.

I have pointed out one or two things that are right about the Government's benefit changes. What is wrong about them?

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Government have also introduced a carers pension, which will apply particularly to women and help women who have stayed at home to look after children or people with disabilities? It is a big support for family life and for women, especially widows.

Mr. Rendel

We are debating widows in this case. Some widows and some widowers are carers, but that is a different aspect of the changes. We will no doubt welcome many other aspects of the benefit changes that the Government have promised but that perhaps have not yet been introduced. We are talking specifically about widows on this occasion.

Ms Keeble

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should talk only about matters that relate to widows, why has he included higher-value properties in the motion? What does that have to do specifically with widows?

Mr. Rendel

I assure the hon. Lady that there is a specific reason for including higher-value properties. It is largely widows who live in such properties. As I was about to explain to the House, I intend to leave that aspect of the motion to my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), who will talk about that and two other aspects in a moment.

The aspects on which I will not take the time of the House at this stage are the abolition of the bereavement tax allowance, the abolition of dividend tax credits and the restriction of council tax benefit on higher-value properties. As the hon. Lady has referred to it, I shall explain further. It is often people who are left living alone in large properties when their families have moved out who are hit by that cut. That is sadly often widows.

What else is wrong with the Government's policies? The two aspects of our motion on which I intend to concentrate are the replacement of widows pensions by a bereavement allowance and the state earnings-related pension scheme. Government figures in answer to written questions show that the first will mean a long-term cut of £600 million to widows, compared with the £100 million cost of all the things that we have supported and welcomed. The long-term net saving to the Government—the net cut in benefits to widows—from all the changes amounts to £500 million. That is what the Government are taking from widows in the long term.

The Government have told us all along that they intend to cut the welfare bill but, instead of going for the areas where we would expect them to make savings, such as fraud, they are targeting some of the most vulnerable groups, including widows. All those who were expecting to get widows pensions believe that they have been paid for out of national insurance contributions; they are a contributory benefit. The spouses of people whose widows pensions are being removed have paid contributions to them and have expected during all their working lives that their widows would receive the pensions.

The wives of some people who are at the end of their working lives, or who are approaching that point, are much younger than they are. I have a constituent of 65 whose wife is only 50. If he dies before she reaches retirement age, she will get not the widows pension but only the small bereavement allowance, which lasts for only six months. Because he has already reached retirement age, he has no means of setting aside extra savings to make up for what he had expected her to get. As with the SERPS change, there is a strong case for saying that, were the Government to play fair with such people, they would at least delay the introduction of the new scheme to allow those who could still make up the difference to put aside extra savings. That would reduce the risk of there being people who cannot make it up because they have already reached retirement age.

A more important argument against targeting widows by removing their pensions is that the bereavement allowance that will replace them is available for far too short a time. The Government propose that it should last only six months. Most hon. Members will have had people write to them to say that six months is far too short a time to expect a widow to get back on her feet after bereavement. Bereavement is traumatic and takes time to get over. Many widows may have been out of work for some time if they have been staying at home looking after families or ailing spouses before their deaths. If they are not well trained in modern skills for modern jobs, things may be difficult for them. They may need time to retrain before they can get back into work. As we all know, it takes some time to find a job.

To suggest that one should be able to go straight back to work within a month or two is absurd in the modern age. Even if one has completed a period of training, it may still take some time to get back into employment. In effect, the Government are telling people, who may have been out of work for some years, that, the day after their husbands die, they should walk into the nearest jobcentre and say, "I want a job. I am available, I am trained and I can work within a few months." That is absurd.

Some cases of bereavement are even more traumatic; many Members will have heard of such cases. I quote from the response of the National Association of Widows and the Widows Advisory Trust to the document, "A New Contract for Welfare: Support in Bereavement", in which those proposals were originally outlined. The response states: To pay this benefit for 6 months makes a mockery of the title, 'Support in Bereavement'. I also quote the words of Patricia Thomas of Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide—I am sure that we can all understand that to lose a spouse through suicide is an even more traumatic event, and one that it is likely to take even longer to overcome. Patricia Thomas writes: Unfortunately I am well qualified to comment, having been widowed when my husband committed suicide 5 years ago. I was 45 and left not only with the responsibility of supporting two teenage sons and an eight year old daughter, but also having to face the fact that I had to make provision for my old age, as my husband's private pension could not be inherited by myself. She makes the same point that I made about getting back into full-time work. She writes: I discovered how difficult it is to find full-time work. Both ageism and employers' worries about the conflicting demands on mothers with school age children appear to be significant factors … I have had poorly paid posts of 20 and 24 hours per week, both of which have ended in redundancy. That is the real situation for widows in our society today; it is not one that is met at all by the Government's proposals.

Given those difficulties, the Government should consider at least two new measures. First, there should, at the very least, be a longer lead time before the introduction of those proposals. Secondly, the bereavement allowance should be paid for much longer than the six months that the Government propose. It could be paid for up to five years and the Government would still achieve a net saving on their proposals. To pay the allowance for six months would give them £500 million net savings; they could easily afford to pay it for up to five years and there would still be a net saving.

The second part of our motion relates to the SERPS changes. That problem originated with the previous Conservative Government; no one should blame the current Labour Government for the fiasco of the initial failure to warn people about the change initiated by the Conservative Government in 1986. That Government introduced a policy of halving the additional pension, based on SERPS, paid to women after their husbands die. That halving is due to take place from 5 April next year. In one sense, people were given considerable warning—unlike the changes to which I referred earlier, for which we ask for a longer lead time—because the previous Government allowed a long lead time from 1986. However, although there was a long lead time, no one knew about it, because the previous Government failed to tell people what they were doing. It was worse than that; they continued to send out leaflets and letters from the Department of Social Security making it clear that the full SERPS entitlement would transfer. They made no mention whatever of the fact that it would make a difference when the male partner died.

Unfortunately, the present Government cannot be absolved of all blame. Having come to power in 1997, they continued to issue wrong information through the Department. The leaflets, which had been corrected by then, made some mention of the change, but people who wrote to the Department were often given the wrong information. We have considerable evidence to the effect that letters were sent out late last year giving people the wrong information.

Mr. Pickles

I apologise for stopping the hon. Gentleman in mid flow, but I must point out that letters giving the wrong information were sent out this year.

Mr. Rendel

The hon. Gentleman just got in before me; I was about to come to that point. There is evidence that, as recently as April this year, one or two inaccurate letters crept through the system and were sent out—even after the Government had explicitly told the Benefits Agency to clarify the position.

I asked the Minister by way of an oral question whether he planned to introduce some sort of compensation for people who had been misled by his Department. He promised me on 8 March this year that there would he a compensation scheme: he did not say what it would be, but he said that he would at least consider it. That is welcome news so far as it goes. However, more than three months later, we have been given no details of what compensation scheme is expected. People are worried about what will happen. They took the wrong decision, based on false information from the Government, and they do not know what will happen to their wives when they die. Some such people may be aware that they are nearing the ends of their lives and they do not know in what state their widows will be left.

I am happy to say that, as a result of efforts by me, my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, the parliamentary ombudsman has decided to examine the issue. I hope that he will advise the Government not only that they should introduce some sort of compensatory scheme for those who can prove that they were misled and that their financial situation has been damaged as a result, but that the whole scheme should be delayed. The introduction of the scheme should be put off until beyond next year. The ombudsman has promised that he will inform us of his advice to the Government well in advance of the provisional implementation date of 5 April next year. I hope that we will get his advice soon. I hope also that the Government will not wait for the ombudsman's advice before making up their own mind as to what sort of compensation scheme should be introduced. The Government must move ahead: three months is quite long enough to work up a decent scheme.

There is widespread fury about what has happened among those who have been misled. I am sure that all hon. Members have received letters from all over the country from people who are angry about what has occurred. Mr. W. K. Bennett wrote to say: I could not believe that such an important change to the income of so many people had not received more publicity (from either the Government, politicians or the media). Mrs. Betty Tilford wrote: perhaps we should all kill off our husbands before the 6th April deadline". In saying that, she picked up on the comments of the present Leader of the House when she spoke to the original legislation in 1986. She said: I advise anyone who is married to a man who is lingering on 5 April quickly to shove a pillow over his face, because it will halve the pension entitlement if the husband dies on the following day. It is extraordinary that the Government should place people in such a position … They will be taking away rights that have been earned."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 27 February 1986; c. 470.] There is a further aspect to the campaign to get the Government to change their mind—

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

I trust that my hon. Friend is not proposing such draconian ways of dealing with the situation. Does he not find it bizarre that, a few months ago, the House debated the mis-selling of private pensions in the second-tier phase, and that the Government ran television advertisements alerting people to the fact that they may have been mis-sold second-tier pensions, yet there has not been a single television advertisement or press release and no campaign to alert people to a measure that could have an immense effect on their lives?

Mr. Rendel

My hon. Friend is entirely right. It seems unbelievably hypocritical that the Government should force the private pension industry to do what they are unwilling to do themselves. It is disgraceful. If the private section of the insurance industry is to be forced to write to people to ask whether they feel that they may have been given bad information, surely the Government should do likewise with regard to SERPS.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I do not want him to give the House the wrong impression. Can he confirm that he strongly supports, as I hope that he does, the action that the Government have taken to deal with the mis-selling scandal that we inherited from the previous Government?

Mr. Rendel

I certainly support that. The very fact that I support it means that I would support the Government acting in the same way about their own mis-selling scandal. If the Minister is so keen for us to support his action in relation to the private pension industry, that implies that he should be doing exactly the same with regard to the mis-selling of SERPS. Perhaps he will intervene again and tell me now whether he is keen to take the same sort of action in the public case as he has demanded that the private sector should take. It seems that the Minister is unwilling to intervene again.

There is a further aspect that proves how widespread is the public's fury. Hon. Members may have noticed that one of the rare occasions on which I obtained a full-page spread in The Sun came a few days ago, as a result of my presentation to the Prime Minister of the petition run by that newspaper, asking for the Government to reconsider what they had done and to introduce proper compensation. The petition was widely supported and demonstrates the importance of the issue and the widespread anger aroused by it.

What should be done? I admit that the Government are in an extremely difficult position. I have made it known to the Minister that he has my sympathy for that. It is difficult to see how to overcome the problem. There is only one fair way for the Government to do so. From the time when the information begins to flow, the introduction of the change should be put off for at least the length of time that people were originally given by way of warning. That means, in effect, that the change should not be fully implemented for another 10 years or so.

That will be expensive, but it is the only fair way of dealing with the problem, and I emphasise again to the Minister that that is what the Government have demanded of the private sector. If the private sector must provide compensation, the Government should do the same.

Compensation should be paid to those who can show that they were misled. The difficulty with the compensation scheme arises because the Government are demanding full evidence not only that people have been misled, but that, as a result of being misled, they changed the decisions that they otherwise would have taken. The House can see how difficult that will be.

People must be able to show that they have been misled. What if, 10 years ago, they telephoned the Department or their local Benefits Agency office and received the wrong advice? How can they now prove that, 10 years ago, they had a telephone conversation in which they were given the wrong advice? They may have something in writing from 10 years ago, but how many of us have kept all the paperwork for the past 10 years, which we may at some point need, if it gave advice that we followed? To prove that a person has been misled is difficult.

The Government are asking people to prove not only that they have been misled, but that they have changed their decision as a result of that false information. They may have decided to do nothing, because they thought that the full additional widows pension that the Government were offering was sufficient. If they left it at that and did not change their mind, how could they prove that they would have changed their mind had they been given the correct information? I suggest that that is almost impossible.

If we are to have a compensation scheme, there must be no quibbling about the evidence, and it must be full and fair to people who claim that they would have made a decision even though they cannot prove it.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for missing the beginning of his speech. What would the compensation scheme cost the Exchequer based on what he has told us?

Mr. Rendel

I would love to be able to ask the Government what it would cost, but it is impossible to cost a compensation scheme because we have no idea how many cases are involved as the Government have failed to find that out. We cannot possibly cost such a scheme until the Government have done their job properly.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

If the hon. Gentleman cannot answer that question, can he tell us what it would cost if the measure were postponed for 10 years, which was his other proposal?

Mr. Rendel

I do not have the figures with me, but they were given in a written answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled, so they are available to the hon. Gentleman. It would be expensive: it would cost billions of pounds. It would cost more depending on how long it were delayed. The cost would reduce over the years, because the man and the widow would eventually die. If I remember correctly—perhaps the Minister has the figures—it would be about £10 billion over the next 10 years. I have admitted that it would be expensive, but it is the only completely fair way of going about it.

Mr. Timms

I am happy to help the hon. Gentleman by giving the figures. It would cost about £5.5 billion cumulatively over the first 10 years, and £1 billion a year thereafter, although that figure would diminish. It is a substantial sum.

Mr. Rendel

I am grateful to the Minister for giving that information. I had already elicited it from him in a written answer. It is slightly less than I said, so that is good.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the scale of the loss to the Government if the deferral took place shows the loss to those who would benefit if his compensation scheme were implemented? Does not that strongly underline the sleight of hand that has been performed on widows, the impact of which will last for decades?

Mr. Rendel

My hon. Friend is right. Any money paid out by the Government is money that they have saved by failing to give the correct information in the past. It is fair to those concerned to pay out this money. I have said all along that the only way in which the Government can make the situation fair once again is by putting off the introduction of this halving of the addition pension for another 10 years or so.

Mr. Derek Twigg

Where would this money come from? Would it be from 3p on income tax or from cuts in education or the health service?

Mr. Rendel

I am happy to say that it would be up to the Government to find the money, not up to me. The point is that it is money that was, in effect, taken from these widows as a result of the false information that was given. If society as a whole is to play fair by those people, society as a whole must pay its dues. It is unfair to expect widows to pay to reduce taxation for the mass of taxpayers.

Let me say a bit more about the cost to the individual. Mr. Michael Davies of Kidderminster has written a letter saying that an annuity to compensate for the amount that would be lost as a result of the change would cost £47,000. That is the amount that he has been quoted. It is relevant to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), and gives some idea of the real cost to people who have lost out as a result of the change.

It is hardly surprising that the overall cost to the Government of providing proper compensation for the misinformation that has been handed out will be considerable, but they must answer this question: is it fair for the individuals concerned to have to pay the whole cost, rather than its being paid by society as a whole? I suggest that it is not fair.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

If the Government were to prejudge such cases, it is possible that people would not be adequately compensated. The ombudsman's inquiry will facilitate a proper investigation.

Mr. Rendel

I hope that, if the ombudsman comes up with a solution similar to mine, the Government will accept it. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the ombudsman's inquiry will provide a good indication of what an objective observer might consider a fair response to the Government's difficulty—a difficulty which, as I have said, originates from what was done by the last Government. But, whatever the ombudsman comes up with, if the Government can guarantee us now that they will follow his recommendations, many people will be much happier.

What have the Government done to widows? In effect, they have dealt widows a quintuple whammy. They have changed the widows' bereavement allowance, abolished dividend tax credits, restricted council tax benefit for higher-value properties, removed widows' pensions, and refused to give proper compensation to those who have been damaged by the change to SERPS.

A great many people who voted for a Labour Government in 1997 have become disillusioned. Those people had great hopes of this Labour Government, and believed that, for once, the poorest and most vulnerable would be supported. Harold Wilson once said, "The Labour party is a crusade, or it is nothing." What crusade have we seen? During the past two years, we have seen a crusade against lone parents, and a crusade against those on incapacity benefit; now we are seeing a crusade against widows.

This is not the sort of Government people hoped that they were electing in 1997. This is a Government who did not deserve to give the people of this country the hope that they had when the Government were elected. This is a Government who have failed those who deserve most.

1.59 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: 'supports the Government's proposals to reform bereavement benefits, including the Bereavement Payment, which will provide a tax-free lump sum of £2,000—double the value of the current Widow's Payment; welcomes the additional help given to the children of widowers, who will qualify for the new Widowed Parent's Allowance, which will replace the Widowed Mother's Allowance; welcomes the protection given to widows over 55, who might otherwise have no practical alternative to relying on Income Support; and welcomes the wide range of policies which are designed to assist women to play a full and active part in the community.'. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to debate the Government's policy on bereavement benefits. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) for pointing out an error in the drafting of the motion, which is indeed incomprehensible in the form in which it appears on the Order Paper. I must say, having seen his correction to it, it is still a pretty ill-focused, ramshackle and loosely connected collection of topics—but at least now it makes grammatical sense. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman said that it was the fault of the Liberal Democrats Whips that the motion appeared in that form initially—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. There have been far too many sedentary interventions throughout the debate. If hon. Members wish to speak, they must wait and do so in the appropriate way.

Mr. Timms

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The speech by the hon. Member for Newbury was one with which, at least in outline, we had already become familiar in the Committee's proceedings on the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. Essentially, he welcomes the Government's measures that involve spending more money; objects to measures that involve spending less; and then goes on to call for a very long list of even more spending measures. His speech bore absolutely no relation to reality. One should expect from someone aspiring to leadership of his party a greater sense of the real choices facing a party in government.

The central feature of our changes to bereavement benefits is their extension to men. It is the first time that men will receive the benefit, which is a very big step forward. Our action has been widely welcomed, even—albeit in passing—by the hon. Member for Newbury. The change was long campaigned for, but bitterly resisted by Conservative Members when they were in government. At long last, the current Government are putting the matter right.

The current system—the one that we inherited—is based on the view that each married couple comprises one independent man, who is the breadwinner, and a woman who depends on him. Over 50 years ago, in his report, Beveridge simply assumed that married women would stay at home. That view, which underlies the current system, simply does not reflect the real position in which we now find ourselves. Like so many other parts of the benefits system, that part needs to be modernised.

It is right that the benefits system should reflect the changes that have occurred in society. I understand the attractions of arguments that we should leave things as they are, and appreciate that some people believe that that would be in the best interests of those who depend on the benefits system. However, if we continue paying benefits when real needs have moved elsewhere, it will sap confidence in the system and undermine it. In the long run, those who depend on the system are those who will lose from such an approach.

Thus, for those who believe in the benefits system—as the Government do—modernisation is so important.

Mr. Pickles

The hon. Gentleman mentioned those who are dependent on the system. In the debate on the Report stage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, he said that those who were on contributory benefits were part of dependency. Does he stand by that statement?

Mr. Timms

I recall making no such statement, but if the hon. Gentleman will remind me of the context in which he thinks I made it, I shall most emphatically stand by it. If he will give me the reference, I shall be glad to do just that.

For those who believe in the benefits system, as we do, and in the potential of publicly delivered welfare to improve people's circumstances in a decent and dignified manner, modernisation is vital. Things do not stand still, and it does absolutely no favours to those who depend on the benefits system to behave as if nothing had changed. If we are spending benefits cash to meet yesterday's needs rather than today's, we are weakening the system and damaging the interests of those who look to the system for support. If we insisted on dealing only with yesterday's needs, we would be unable to meet today's needs, let alone tomorrow's.

Mr. Rendel

Is the Minister telling us that no one today is widowed, not in a job and unlikely to find one for some time, or traumatically affected by bereavement?

Mr. Timms

I am saying that the circumstances in our society are radically different from those that prevailed when the existing system was introduced. We need to bring the system up to date to reflect the huge changes that have occurred over the past 50 years.

There are big new demands on the welfare system that must be addressed, such as the needs of bereaved fathers who were dependent on the income of their partners. We shall make sure that the necessary capacity is available so that we do not let people down.

Mr. Rendel

I thank the Minister for giving way again so quickly. Is he seriously saying that he needs to make £600 million worth of cuts in order to pay for £100 million worth of enhancement?

Mr. Timms

I shall come in a moment to the financial consequences of the changes that we are making, but it is a feature of the changes to bereavement benefits that there will be additional spending in the early years to meet the new needs that we are addressing. The savings to which the hon. Gentleman referred will take a long time to materialise, so, on that front, his point is misleading. There will be an additional £140 million in the first year and about £100 million extra in the following year. So there will be substantial extra spending in the early years to meet the new additional needs that will be picked up.

The benefits system needs to reflect the changes in our society. If it does not, the system will be weakened and people who depend on it to provide security will be the losers. We will not allow that to happen. We are absolutely determined to rebuild our welfare system, and to restore public confidence in it and public support for it. That is our goal and we will achieve it.

Society has changed but the system has not. It ignores the fact that married women are far more likely to be financially independent and that flourishing public-private partnerships have developed in this area of welfare provision. Two thirds of working-age women are in work, as are seven out of 10 married women. That is nearly as large a proportion as the proportion of married men in work. The picture is therefore completely different from when the existing system was originally designed. Today, 47 per cent. of widows have occupational pension income. It is a condition of contracting out from SERPS that the SERPS element of an occupational pension offers a 50 per cent. survivor's pension. The system needs to be modernised accordingly.

The current scheme fails on a range of fronts. First, and above all, it gives no help to bereaved husbands, even when they have children to care for. That is a scandal and we are putting it right. Secondly, it no longer provides enough help with the immediate costs of bereavement. It continues to provide most help to those least likely to be in need of it. Currently, 75 per cent. of expenditure on widows benefit goes to the more numerous widows without dependants, while 35,000 widows receive nothing at all because their income support is reduced, pound for pound, by the amount of widows benefit that they receive.

The system does not recognise the enormous changes that have taken place in welfare provision. Many families now make their own provision for bereavement through occupational pension schemes and life insurance policies.

Our reformed system will for the first time treat men and women equally and will focus resources where they are needed most. We are not simply extending the old system of widows benefits to widowers. We have re-examined it in the light of our principles for reform and made improvements to bring it up to date.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that things have changed, but widowhood is still a dreadful experience and the time that it takes to recover from it has not changed in the past 50 years. The six-month limit is crucial. The hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), who is Chairman of the Education Sub-Committee, challenged the Minister on that limit in the early hours of the morning during Report stage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. Is the Minister saying that widows can now cope better with bereavement? Surely the situation has not changed and widows should not be forced back into the labour market so soon.

Mr. Timms

I shall come to that point in a moment. It is a question of balance and we believe that we have made the right judgment. I urge the hon. Gentleman to be cautious, because the bereavement benefit system is not to do with the scale of someone's shock and their difficulty in coming to terms with bereavement or the undoubtedly enormous trauma involved. It is about giving people a breathing space after they lose income from someone on whom they were dependent. We have decided that six months is the right period to give that opportunity.

We will give immediate support on bereavement by introducing the bereavement payment—a tax-free lump sum of £2,000. That is double the value of the current widows payment. Some 15,000 men widowed every year will benefit from that for the first time and 40,000 new widows every year will get £1,000 more than they receive under the existing system.

We also intend to introduce two new contributory, non-means-tested benefits: widowed parents allowance and bereavement allowance. They will also be available to both widowers and widows. Widowed parents allowance will follow the rules that currently apply to widowed mothers allowance and will be calculated in the same way, but it will also be paid to widowed fathers, who are unfairly excluded at present. The new benefit will apply not only to new widows and widowers, but also to fathers who have already been widowed, if they meet the qualifying conditions. In total, around 25,000 widowers will benefit in the first year. That is a substantial improvement that has been widely welcomed. Bereavement allowance will be paid for six months following a bereavement, at the rate of the current widows pension.

I stress again that the benefits are contributory, not means-tested—there has been some mischief and misinformation about that—but they are time-limited. It would not be right to go on paying a widows pension for life to those who could be earning a decent living or who have large alternative forms of income. I shall deal in a moment with the period for which they will last.

Financial support is important in the period immediately after the loss of a husband or wife.

Mr. Pickles

I am curious about what the hon. Gentleman has just said. He said that widows benefits should not be paid for life. Can he tell me a time in our history when they were paid for life, assuming the beneficiary did not die suddenly and tragically before retirement age?

Mr. Timms

It has always been paid up to retirement. We are saying that that is no longer appropriate and does not reflect the reality of people's circumstances now.

Financial support is important in the period immediately after bereavement. Bereavement allowance will provide support in those vital six months. It will give people the breathing space that they need before they are in a position to support themselves by returning to work or through other income. That important breathing space allows people to come to terms with the emotional and practical financial upheaval caused by the loss of a spouse. However, we do not think that it would be right for younger widows and widowers, many of whom will already have regular employment, to assume a lifetime of dependency.

Another aspect of the current situation that I have not mentioned is that 98 per cent. of married women have had a job. Even if they are not currently employed, they have a history of work. Our comprehensive welfare-to-work programme offers a range of support, including advice on employment, training and benefits, to aid a person's return to work. It must be right and beneficial to ensure that a person can be put in touch with that support at the earlier stage of six months rather than delaying it for a year or more.

It is often in people's interests to get back into the labour market as soon as possible. We want men and women to be financially independent while they are of working age and in retirement. We are committed to removing the barriers to work and ensuring that work pays. Our reforms will refocus expenditure, concentrating the help that is available where and when it is most needed. That means meeting immediate needs at the point of bereavement and focusing on children and families. We want to balance sensitivity to the needs of people who have been recently bereaved with a recognition that, after a period of readjustment, those who are able to support themselves should do so.

It has been suggested that bereavement allowance should be paid for a significantly longer period, with the cost offset against the expected savings. However, the savings of £500 million that we have published are for the long term—they are expected in 2020. We shall be spending around £100 million extra in each of the first couple of years following the introduction of the new scheme. Paying bereavement allowance for a longer period would add substantially to those costs. It would not be a responsible use of resources to pay a long-term benefit to widows and widowers—without dependent children—who could be earning a decent living or who may well have a substantial income from an occupational pension.

I want to underline again the fact that, as we have always said, existing widows will not be affected by the new arrangements. We shall ensure that the existing arrangements continue to apply to all who are currently entitled to widows benefits. The new scheme will ensure that help is focused on those with the greatest need at the time of that need, with a weekly benefit for widowed fathers and widowed mothers giving long-term help with the extra costs of bringing up children, and a transitional benefit for widowed people over 45 and without dependent children, to permit a breathing space to help them to adjust to their new circumstances.

The hon. Member for Newbury spent a considerable amount of his speech expressing concerns about the change to the amount of SERPS that can be inherited from a spouse. That change was brought in by the previous Government in 1986. The change was designed to bring SERPS into line with occupational pension schemes, in which it has been the norm to pay a widow only half the spouse's pension rights.

That change was not published before 1996. A great deal of concern has been expressed to me here and in letters by hon. Members on both sides who want to know why. I wish I knew. The then Minister told the Standing Committee in 1986 that there would be a major publicity campaign about the changes. Not only was there no publicity campaign; the Benefits Agency leaflets did not refer to the changes for 10 years, until 1996. That should clearly not have happened. As in so many other areas, we are having to clear up the mess that we have inherited.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

What was the position of the then official Opposition on the measure when it was introduced?

Mr. Timms

The measure was opposed in 1986, 14 years ago. We are now considering how to deal with the enormous difficulties that we have picked up as a result of those changes not being publicised at the time they should have been. As the then Minister said, there should have been a major publicity campaign at the time to make people aware of them. That was not done, and it led to the problems that we now face.

I have said that anyone who can show that they have been mis-advised and, as a consequence, have taken action to their own financial detriment, will be entitled to compensation. A large number of people may be affected and we are considering carefully how best to resolve the matter. The ombudsman is also considering a sample of cases. We will make an announcement in due course, in good time for April next year when the change is due to take effect.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

The Minister said that, where it could be shown that someone had taken action, he would be entitled to compensation. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) pointed out that it is people who have not taken action who have been lulled into a false sense of security. Can the Minister give some assurance that those people, the real victims, will be compensated?

Mr. Timms

If, for example, people have received advice by telephone, we shall take that into account. If what the hon. Gentleman is putting to me is that people may have received advice—for example, over the telephone—on the basis of which they decided not to do something that they would otherwise have done, then they, too, will have a case for compensation. However, this is an exceedingly complex and large issue which requires careful consideration by the Government. That consideration is currently being given and we shall make an announcement in due course.

Mr. Derek Twigg

I am reassured by what my hon. Friend says. I, like other hon. Members, have received letters from constituents on the subject. It is obviously a serious issue. However, are not the Government dealing with the matter in a more responsible way than the Liberal Democrats? When I asked how they would pay for a 10-year delay, they said that it was up to the Government to sort that out. But this is the same party that wants to put 1p on income tax to fund its education priorities. That seems like double standards to me.

Mr. Timms

My hon. Friend is being kind. I do not know about double standards—I would say treble or quadruple standards.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle)

Quintuple standards.

Mr. Timms


My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Twigg) is right to say that the Liberal Democrats' proposals are entirely free of any sense of responsibility.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster

In view of the Liberal Democrats' interest today in the fact that the matter has not been mentioned since 1986, does my hon. Friend know whether the Liberal Democrats have mentioned it since 1986?

Mr. Timms

No, my impression is that they have not mentioned it until these last few months. My hon. Friend makes a telling point.

Mr. Pickles

The hon. Gentleman has been his customary courteous self today. One has become accustomed in debates such as this for Ministers to read their brief, not make important announcements. Today, however, the Minister has made an important announcement about telephone claims. How much proof will be required? Will an applicant's word that he telephoned in 1987 or 1988 be sufficient, or will a telephone bill have to be produced?

Mr. Timms

I advise the hon. Gentleman to be patient. As I have said, we shall make a fuller announcement on these matters in due course and as soon as we can.

Mr. Rendel

The hon. Gentleman seemed to make a double announcement, one of which was referred to by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), concerning the proof that would be needed that a telephone call had been made. That is an interesting concept. I imagine that almost everyone involved could say that they had made a telephone call and it would be difficult to prove otherwise. But what happens if people say that they did not take any action? Most people, if they were reassured, will not have taken any action. Will they all receive compensation?

Mr. Timms

My advice to the hon. Gentleman is the same as to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar—to wait for the announcement that we will make as soon as we are in a position to do so. The hon. Gentleman's point may well provide him with an explanation of why it is necessary to take some time over the details of the matter to ensure, as we will, that we get it right.

It is right, in meeting the needs of bereaved men for the first time, and in making a priority, as we are doing right across government, of the needs of children—in this case through the widowed parents allowance—that we should also take the opportunity to bring bereavement benefits up to date and modernise the circumstances in which they are paid. That is what we are doing, and I urge the House to support the proposals that are in the Bill.

2.26 pm
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I commiserate with the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) on the mistake in the drafting of the motion. He blamed the Whips Office, but if any trade union operates in this building it is that of the Whips. I shall watch for the number of times that the hon. Gentleman is slipped over the next few months.

It is also a great pleasure to follow the Minister. He spoke fluently and, in commemoration of the day and in honour of the Liberal Democrats, he is wearing a yellow tie. I also commend him on his bravery. His announcement concerning telephone calls is important. For him to say that, if people did nothing, they may well have a claim is an important announcement.

Mr. Derek Twigg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles

In a moment.

Not many hon. Members, save the Chancellor, have the opportunity to commit the Government to a potential £5 billion of expenditure. I congratulate the Minister on doing so. That shows real courage. I hope that he has a peaceful weekend in consequence, particularly as the hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Twigg), who is seeking to intervene, criticised the Liberal Democrats for suggesting such a thing. I trust that he will now apologise to the hon. Member for Newbury.

Mr. Twigg

When will the hon. Gentleman apologise for the current debacle? Will he apologise now on behalf of the Conservative party when it was in government?

Mr. Pickles

I have apologised from the Dispatch Box on a couple of occasions. Hon. Members should accept responsibility for what happens. The fact that the publicity campaign did not take place is a disgrace. I do not think for one moment that Ministers in the Department of Social Security prevented that from happening; nor do I suppose for a moment that the Minister would issue inaccurate information. At the beginning of this year, the Department issued a memo on pensions dated 12 January. It contains no instruction to give people the right information. That is an interesting date, because I received a letter on the same day giving inaccurate information.

Too often in politics, people are not prepared to accept responsibility. This situation arose when I was chairman of education for Bradford metropolitan district council and before the Minister entered the House, but I accept responsibility, as must we all. We must all find ways to deal with such matters. The Minister, in the undertaking that he has just given, and in terms of the ombudsman's report, will go some way towards doing so. I look forward to the Chancellor honouring the hon. Gentleman's pledge today. I hope that he will support him in that. It is a brave thing to come before one's Back Benchers and defy their wishes.

The Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, which largely dealt with these matters, is now in another place. We spent many hours debating the Bill in Committee and on the Floor of the House. We hoped to receive some explanation of why the Government are abandoning a proportion of widows, but we have received no explanation in Committee, on Report or today. The Government have deliberately picked on a group of women who are unaware of their fate. The great advantage for the Government is that no one can identify the victims. The women are unaware—they are currently in a marriage, and they have a reasonable expectation of a long and happy marriage. Sadly, fate will deny them that. From a spin point of view, that is marvellous. There is no opposition, because no one can point out that they will lose from it. However, those women will have to face not only the loss of a spouse, but the sudden realisation that their Government will abandon them at their time of greatest need.

The proposal offers the veneer of change under the cover of sexual equality. The Government are right to say that times are changing. Widows pensions were introduced in 1925 when the man was the main breadwinner. In 1999, things are changing—but they are not changing that fast. I welcome the fact that there are more women in the work force, and their increasing role, but these are early days.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) put it well on Report when she said: It will not do for Ministers to wrap it up in spurious feminism, claiming that the world has changed, women have moved on, women all work and they do not need the present provision. The world has not changed that much and the majority of women, particularly working-class women, still earn less than the majority of men. The hon. Lady was absolutely right about "spurious feminism". The Government put on a veneer of sexual equality. They are using widows as the battering ram of social change, rather than as a reflection of social change. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), from a sedentary position, does not show sufficient compassion. Surely it makes sense to carry out such a measure once matters have changed, rather than to use it as a battering ram to make the change.

Nobody is fooled by the veneer, which is entirely transparent. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said in the same debate: Many women who will be affected by the changes will not have had jobs, will not have qualifications and will find it impossible to find employment. Unlike other matters in the welfare budget generally, the number of widows is falling. It fell by 30 per cent. between 1983 and 1997. This is simply a cost-cutting measure to save £600 million of money which, as the hon. Member for Newbury said, husbands have paid in over many years in the reasonable expectation that the Government would honour their pledges. This £600 million will force widows on to means-tested benefits.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

The hon. Gentleman is as gracious as ever, and I am enjoying his flamboyant use of language. Does he accept that focusing resources on families with children will do far more socially than anything that he is now suggesting?

Mr. Pickles

The hon. Lady cannot get away from the fact that what she voted for the other week was the abandonment of widows at their most difficult time. It will ensure that women who perhaps have nursed a husband for many years will suffer. People who have lost a husband by suicide will suffer. In addition, someone who loses a sole child will suffer because of this when they are at their most vulnerable. The Minister is right to say that this is not about compensation for bereavement. It is about giving a breathing space, or providing the thing that the state can offer in those times—a little bit of money to allow women to make sensible decisions.

The Minister said that those on contributory benefits are part of the dependency culture—a point that he repeated on Report. He asked for the reference—it is column 810. That proposal goes to the heart of the Government. I do not believe that the Minister is an uncaring man, but he does not understand the difference between means-tested and contributory benefits, and the effect of pushing more of society on to means-tested benefits.

I accept that the Minister may not want to take my view on this, so I will simply repeat some of the speeches that have been made by Labour Back Benchers. This matter concerns the famous "something-for-nothing society" speech made by the Prime Minister. The Government believe that widows receiving benefits that their husbands have paid for are getting something for nothing. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) put this well in the debate on 17 May: Given that it is the Prime Minister's wish for welfare to be based on something for something, it is difficult to justify the Government's changes in the provision for widows. We are taking away benefits—contributions towards which may have been made for 30 years—and substituting nothing, which is the exact opposite of what he says he is about.

Kali Mountford

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that life on benefits is no fun at all, and that people in employment are significantly better off? Does he accept that those who are willing and able to work will find that the opportunity to work gives them far better opportunities in life than languishing on any benefit, whether contributory or otherwise?

Mr. Pickles

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, but those who receive contributory benefits are getting back money that they have paid in. The widows pension has enabled a number of women to receive a sum of money as of right, which has often enabled them to get back to the workplace. That is why only 17 per cent. of widows currently get means-tested benefits. After these proposals are brought in, a great deal more will be forced on to such benefits.

Mr. Rendel

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Pickles

I will in a moment. Distinguished as the hon. Member for Newbury is—and as I aspire to be—I fear that we are not going to impress the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford). Let us look instead at what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) said. She said: The vast majority of working women are in jobs that pay less than the male average wage. Some have been on very low pay … Some will not have been working at all while raising their families. A woman's family might have left the nest only recently, leaving her on her own."—[Official Report, 17 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 777–92.]

Mr. Rendel

Even if it is true that living on benefits is less worth while than having a job, is it not also true that living on no benefits at all when one cannot get work is the worst of all possible situations? Taking away the bereavement allowance after six months does not provide an opportunity for work; that opportunity exists anyway.

Mr. Pickles

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Widows will be forced further and further down the income scale and will have to sell their property and personal possessions until they qualify for income support. That will add to the amount being paid to people through means-tested benefits.

There is one vital question: why six months? What is so magical about the figure of six months? We have received much evidence and many statements from various organisations, all saying that six months is wholly inadequate. I recall a very moving speech by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington about the loss of her mother, and I spoke in Committee and on Report about the loss of my mother. I know that one's judgment has not returned six months after that loss, so how much more difficult must it be for someone who has lost a life partner, someone to whom one may have been married for 20, 30 or 40 years?

The Minister said that it is all a question of balance. What is the balance? What are the ingredients of this magical balance? We know that part of the balance is that, if the widow remarries within the six-month period, she loses the bereavement benefit. Who marries within six months of a bereavement? It is odd to put such a provision in primary legislation.

We know of one famous marriage within six months: that of Hamlet's mother, Queen Gertrude.

Angela Eagle

A dysfunctional family.

Mr. Pickles

I suppose that it is fair to say that the king and queen of Denmark and their eldest son were indeed a dysfunctional family, but why is an entire piece of legislation being put together on the basis of such families? Not all families are the Simpsons or Hamlet's family. You are very well read, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so you will recall that Hamlet talked about thrift. He said: Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. One might need the provision if it were a matter of 15 years' potential pension—but 26 weeks? Now we know what the balance is that the Minister wants to achieve. At one end of the scale is Queen Gertrude of Denmark and at the other is the spurious feminism referred to by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington—a balance between Denmark and Hackney.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

My hon. Friend may know that I am part Danish. I have recently joined the Anglo-Danish society. On behalf of all my compatriots, I hope that he is not arguing that all Danish families are dysfunctional; I am sure that that was not his intention.

Mr. Pickles

I wish my hon. Friend a long and happy marriage. Much as I love and admire her, she should be reassured that I will not be on the waiting list should anything unforeseen happen.

Mr. Stunell

May I bring the hon. Gentleman back to this country? Labour peers have tabled an amendment that would increase the bereavement payment period from six months to 12. Does he agree that it would be good if the Minister could announce that the Government were prepared to accept that amendment?

Mr. Pickles

It would be marvellous. The Minister has had his chance, but I will gladly give way to him if he wants to make that announcement. Various formulae could be available to extend the period, but we have still not received an explanation of why the period should be six months. On this matter and on the bereavement tax allowance, to which the hon. Member for Newbury referred, we need to know where the Government stand.

Let us consider the plight of war widows. The Government appear to have a cynical attitude to widows. This is a small matter, but I think that it speaks volumes about the Government's attitude. For the purposes of housing benefit, £10 is disregarded from war widows pensions and from war disablement pensions. Some local authorities use their discretion and waive more, or the entire amount. That is as one would expect for the widows of the generation of heroes who gave their lives for their country. It is right that local authorities should act with compassion, but a few stick rigidly to the £10. It is unfair that widows living only a few miles from one another should be treated differently.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), to whom I pay tribute, asked the Prime Minister to review the matter and consider how to achieve some uniformity among local authorities. The Prime Minister said: I am certainly happy to consider it, but my hon. Friend will know that discussions about the problem have been going on for a considerable time. It is for local authorities ultimately to make their own decisions, but we shall continue to keep the matter under review and under discussion."—[Official Report, 20 March 1998; Vol. 312, c. 950.] When I heard that commitment, I thought that it was marvellous and I looked forward to some action. I felt that it would be a good test of the Government's and the Prime Minister's sincerity. It is a small matter with small cost implications, and a promise was made to the House from the Dispatch Box.

A year passed and nothing happened. I asked why that was, and the Prime Minister's reply was very different in tone and content to what he had said to the hon. Member for Thurrock. The Prime Minister said: We have explained constantly that the problem is cost, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman that he supported a Government who were in power for 18 years and never did that. I appreciate that we now have the responsibility"— that is a good thing in a Prime Minister— for those decisions. We have said that we will look at it, and we will do that, but the problem is simply one of cost."—[Official Report, 12 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 315.] I have checked Hansard carefully, but I could see no reference in the intervening period to any Minister saying that it was a matter of cost. I cannot understand how the Prime Minister can say that the Government have consistently said that cost was the issue. I concede that the previous Government did not increase the disregard, but a promise is a promise.

I tried twice more. I asked the Leader of the House about the issue at business questions on 13 May and I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security on 24 May. He told me that it was a matter for the discretion of local authorities. I already knew that. Indeed, the Prime Minister told the hon. Member for Thurrock that a year ago. What happened to the review of the situation? I submitted a written question, which was answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security who is in her place. I asked her: how many local authorities (a) do and (b) do not disregard the whole amount of war widows' pensions and war disablement pensions". I also asked what the total cost would be. She replied: The additional cost to central Government of a full disregard … is estimated to be in the region of £70 million".—[Official Report, 20 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 429–30.] She also said that information on the use of discretion by local authorities could not be provided because of the "disproportionate cost".

The sum of £70 million is a full £10 million less than the Government spend annually on publicity. They could find £70 million by reducing the number of leaflets that they produce. [Interruption.] The Government Whip appears to look favourably on that idea. The sad fact is that the number qualifying for the benefit falls every year, because many of them are in their 60s, 70s or 80s so the Exchequer would not have to make a large commitment.

The Under-Secretary did not know which local authorities used their discretion. How then can the Prime Minister say it is a matter of cost? He does not know what the cost would be. However, for the cost of a telephone call, I have been able to obtain that information, courtesy of the British Legion. Only 10 authorities stick rigidly to the £10 disregard. I shall list them for the Under-Secretary's information—Chester-le-Street district council, Easington district council, Gateshead metropolitan borough council, Manchester city council, North Tyneside metropolitan borough council, Norwich city council, Redcar and Cleveland borough council, South Tyneside metropolitan borough council, the City of Sunderland metropolitan district council and Wear Valley district council. They are all Labour authorities. Another 31 authorities apply less than a 100 per cent. disregard. If that is the sum total of the problem, the figure of £70 million might be a smidgen on the high side.

The Prime Minister made a promise and then forgot about it. He stonewalled a year ago and Ministers have stonewalled since, and we are no further on. If the Government are not prepared to concede on an issue so small and insignificant, what chance have we of extracting any concessions in the House of Lords?

What will happen next? I can find no better way to express that than to use the words of the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara). In a final appeal to the Government to change their mind he said: I appeal to them once again—in friendship and fraternity—to stop attacking that group"— widows— and, when they have an opportunity in the future, to find some way of being more generous to them."—[Official Report, 17 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 784.] What an appalling indictment of the Government that a Labour Back Bencher has to urge them to stop attacking widows. If Conservative Members can make a speech on an issue based on criticisms from disgruntled Back Benchers and squirming Ministers, the Government's policy must be deeply flawed. They should reverse that policy and, in the words of the hon. Member for Knowsley, South "stop attacking" widows.

2.56 pm
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

The Government's proposals to ensure that widows and widowers receive significant help when they most need it is to be applauded. The present provision that we inherited failed to provide the right amount of help at the right time. It is the time shortly after a bereavement, when distress is coupled with extra cost, that needs are at their peak and when help is required. I therefore support the Government's proposal for a doubling of the immediate help through the bereavement payment because that will be of great assistance at the time when it is most needed. Also important is the fact that it will be paid to widowers as well as widows.

However, neither the present provision nor the Government's proposals deal with the small group of widows who face perilous financial loss at a time when the enormity of their situation is at its worst. I speak of those recent widows who receive the support of widowed mothers allowance and then lose their child.

The current provisions rightly provide significant support for young mothers—those under 45—who have children to support at the time of their husband's death. Such support continues until the child ends full-time education and then, depending on the age of the widow, a widows pension may be claimed or, if the widow is under 45, the provision ends. However, the changes can be planned for, as there is some certainty about when the child will leave the nest.

There are some widows, however—no doubt, a very small number—who suffer grievous financial and personal loss when they suffer not only the loss of a spouse but the subsequent death of a child. Such a tragedy befell my constituent, Mrs. Norma Haigh.

Mrs. Haigh was just 40 when her husband died and she was granted widowed mothers allowance. Up until earlier this year, with a part-time job from which she brought in £136 per week and the widowed mothers allowance amounting to £103 and child benefit of £11, she was able to support herself and her 16-year-old daughter, Rachel, albeit not to the same standard as if her husband had lived. Mrs. Haigh had an older son in the family who had completed full-time education but who unfortunately was out of work. He at least had the stability of a home in which to live following the death of his father.

On 1 January, Rachel was rushed to hospital and died in the operating theatre in tragic circumstances. No one could have expected that otherwise healthy child to have died in that way. My constituent was distraught following the death of her husband and that second tragedy and was too ill to return to work full time. She did manage to work for 15 hours a week, but, in consequence, her income was reduced to £54. Her widowed mothers allowance of £103 and child benefit of £11 ceased on the very day of her daughter's death. Having had an income of more than £250 a week, she was thus reduced at the time of her greatest need to an income of just £54. There was no provision for the funeral expenses or for the extra help needed at such a time. The previous Government's provisions did not cover that tragic circumstance. I am not suggesting that the previous Government intended to deny help to this small minority of needy individuals, but I am absolutely sure that the present Government would not wish for that small but needy group to be left without support.

I am asking not for compensation for bereavement but for practical and immediate help in such tragic circumstances. In particular, I have two requests to put to my hon. Friend the Minister. First, will he ensure that, when such situations arise—when either a mother or, now, a father is left with a double bereavement such as I have described—there should be an immediate bereavement payment, such as is paid under the new provisions, to assist with the funeral expenses? Secondly, will he ensure that there is a period of protection of perhaps six months from the loss of the widowed parents allowance to help overcome the immediate trauma?

A period of six months would probably be sufficient, as people's circumstances change while they adjust to bereavement. Because of the rarity of the situation, the costs to the Exchequer would be minimal; but, to the affected parent, the assistance may just make life worth living.

It is too late to help Mrs. Haigh, but I look forward to receiving my hon. Friend's assurance that my requests will be taken seriously and that proposals will be made to help others in such tragic circumstances in the future.

3.1 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I shall make a brief contribution to what has been an interesting debate. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) for the way in which he introduced the debate and ensured that it covered a wide spectrum of issues.

We are not holding the Government to account for one specific action in relation to widows, but we are worried about the cumulative effect of many different aspects of Government policy. When taken together, they make life very difficult for a particular group of people who often are not best equipped, either financially or emotionally after a bereavement, to make good the loss.

We do not damn the Government's intentions. The Government, when formulating social security policy, probably do not intend to be discriminatory against widows or any other group. Nor do we wish to damn all the Government's initiatives in that regard. We support many of them, and the extension of existing provision to include widowers is especially welcome, although we might quibble about its precise terms. We also welcome the promised additional support for carers although, given that the arrangements are not yet in place, it is stretching the point somewhat to claim that that is evidence of the Government's generous support for widows. We are entitled to wait until those arrangements are implemented before we hang out the flags.

The Government seem to have a blind spot in this matter, which is why the debate is so important. We must make it clear to those of our constituents who are widows or widowers that they are not forgotten, and that they are an important group whom we shall support in our arguments today.

It is rare for me to agree with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), and spurious feminism is the last thing in the world of which the Conservative party could be accused. However, the hon. Gentleman had a case when he identified some wishful thinking in the Government's policy of social evolution rather than revolution. That evolution is under way, but it is not complete. The present sociological and demographic position is that many widows are not given the independent means and employment prospects that we want them to have. The truth is that they have often been placed at a disadvantage throughout their lives by the social conditions in which they have lived, and that they are disadvantaged now by the arrangements governing what happens after the death of a spouse.

I wish to concentrate on the changes to SERPS and the undoubted mis-selling of pensions using terms that were anything but precise. That is a Government responsibility and a matter of enormous consequence to constituents. I have received very many letters on that subject. I shall not read them out, but I will name some of my correspondents. They include Mr. Deasington of Queen Camel, Mr. Michael of Bower Hinton, Mr. Smith of Milborne Port, Mr. Brosnan of Frome, Mrs. Stonell of Frome and Mr. Cochran of Henstridge.

The people who wrote used almost exactly the same terms, and it is interesting that most of them are men—husbands worried about what will happen to their wives after they die. The letters share one of two emotions: either devastation at the unpicking, through no fault of their own, of what the writers had arranged on their spouses' behalf; or anger at the degree to which they had been misled, right up to a few weeks ago, by the advice that they had received.

People often make SERPS contributions over a lifetime. The men who wrote to me expected that those contributions would mean that, after their demise, the arrangements for their spouses would be satisfactory. That expectation has now been dashed. They feel that the Government have reneged on what amounted to a genuine contract.

I feel sympathy for Ministers, because clearly this matter is not of their doing. The fault lies with the previous Government, who should have made the appropriate dispositions at the time and should have maintained them in the intervening years. However, that does not alter the facts facing the people who write to hon. Members of all parties. They are not interested in where the fault lies. Their problem is that, through no fault of their own, they have been left in an impossible position. They made the simple mistake of trusting the Government, and assuming that advice from the Department of Social Security was good. That advice was not good.

The problem of SERPS for widows is especially difficult. The demographic information shows that widows are among the poorest pensioners, as the relevant statistics prove. Many widows do not take up their income support entitlement. We may wish that they did and that the mechanisms were better at encouraging them to do so, but the fact is that they do not. Women tend, in general, to have lower pension entitlements than men—another example of the disadvantage that widows suffer. In addition, people who work under the SERPS system tend to have lower lifetime earnings and are therefore the least able to cope with the financial shock that has been described.

I intervened on the Minister of State's speech to ask about the position of the Labour party in 1986, when it was in opposition. I was not trying to make some clever debating point. I do not expect nothing to have changed over such a period, nor that members of the Government should adopt exactly the same position on every matter as they did in 1986. However, I would have thought that, when the Government came to power, Ministers would have talked to civil servants in the Department of Social Security about that Department's prospects. I should have expected them to realise that a measure that they had opposed in opposition—and opposed virulently, as the contemporary remarks of the Leader of the House show—was still waiting to be implemented. If Ministers did not realise that when they came into government, civil servants certainly should have known it and should have included it in the hand-over brief. They should carefully have flagged up the fact that a provision yet to be implemented had been opposed, giving Ministers a chance to reconsider it.

Of course, nothing happened. There was no decision to reverse the policy, which may have been impracticable in any event. More importantly, it was not drawn to Ministers' attention that no publicity had been given to the proposal. It is absurd that people were incorrectly advised. The mistake, far from being rectified, was amplified after the Government came into office.

Mr. Rendel

Perhaps when she winds up the debate, the Minister will tell us when her departmental team was told that incorrect information had been given.

Mr. Heath

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Either Ministers were told and were negligent, or the civil service has made an appalling error of judgment. The Government have ended up implementing a measure to which they were strongly opposed, and it would be a dereliction of duty in the civil service if that fact had not been brought to Ministers' attention.

All that is history, and we must deal with what is happening now. People have been placed in a difficult financial position. The Minister made the perverse suggestion that people who have suffered real hardship must establish that they were misled, and that they consequently made the wrong decision. I do not know what will happen to those who were misled, but took the right decision. Is the test cumulative or single? The test is perverse. Anyone who was wrongly informed by a Department of Government has been misled. It matters not what process of mind people went through. If they were told something wrong, they were misled, and the Department should be big enough to say so.

The Minister has put a gloss on the situation by saying that a phone call is sufficient evidence of someone's having been misled, even where there is no documentary proof. Inaction is just as adequate as action as a proof of wrong action. A person need merely say that he was telephoned, and did nothing more. That will be enough proof to win compensation. That is nonsense, and if the Minister does not realise on reflection that it is nonsense, someone else will realise it for him.

It would be far better to deal with problems at source, and fairest to take proper measures to extend the period of introduction to mitigate them. If that is not done, both the Department's culpability and the size of damages will have to be established, and it might cost the Government more to act in that way than to extend the period. Alternatively, a clear system must be developed to identify cases in which people were let down. Leaving it to the ombudsman would be another dereliction of duty. The Government appear to feel that it is all too difficult for them, so someone else must decide. "See you in court," they seem to be saying. A responsible Government dealing with people who have taken decisions on the best available advice would surely think it right to pre-empt the ombudsman and the courts by doing the right thing from the start.

I question the difference between the approach taken to this issue and that taken on the mis-selling of private pensions. There is a cost to the Exchequer, and I have the greatest of sympathy for Ministers. However, they must take this matter seriously. To the suggestion that the Liberal Democrats should somehow have warned people, I can say only that had we been running the Department of Social Security, we would have done so. It so happens that that responsibility fell to the Conservatives for a long time and has fallen for the past couple of years to Labour Ministers.

We achieve nothing by laying blame. We must do right by widows who are suffering and by husbands who are worried sick about the provision that they thought that they had made, and that they must now make again. It is cruel that elderly gentlemen have been left not knowing which way to turn. I implore the Government to take this matter seriously, and to do all that they can to mitigate a mistake that is not their own, but that they have not yet sought to repair.

The Minister of State is a decent chap—I often travel home with him on the tube, and I know that he would not intend widows to suffer. I hope that he will back his intentions with the right action.

3.17 pm
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

I apologise to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) for missing his speech. He and I have exchanged views during the course of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, so I have had the benefit in the past of the full range of his views.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) gave us a vision of a widow, wrapped in her weeds, covered in a black shawl, shuffling about and unable to raise her head for want of self-esteem or dignity. The hon. Gentleman should know that times have moved on. The picture that he painted did no credit to him or to widows. We ought to recognise that widows have reached a dreadful time of life—I can imagine few things more terrible than the loss of a spouse—but the point is that it is the loss of the spouse that causes deep grief, not just the loss of a husband.

The hon. Gentleman might have recognised that benefits should be extended to men as well as women, not out of some spurious feminism and not even out of simple fairness, but because both men and women grieve. I do not know how men have carried on until now. Those who have managed to set aside grief to go off to work have done so because they had to. I have never seen a difference in the ability of men or women to cope with grief, which is equally deep, whether the deceased is a husband, a wife or a child. The quality of grief does not vary according to gender.

To suggest that extending benefits to men is spurious feminism is both wrong and unfair, particularly to fathers who must support their children. Many fathers choose to continue to work, but others do not. Mothers make similar choices in the interests of their families. The Government are right to restructure benefits to help families at a time of great need.

I cannot imagine that anyone could offer me a sum of money—even £50,000 a week—that would ameliorate my grief. There is no cost to grief, but there is a cost to living. The argument is why a period of six months has been chosen rather than a year or two years, but we have to look at everything on balance. We do not argue that, after six months, the grief will suddenly end.

Eight years ago, I lost a grandchild. I grieve for him still. I imagine that I shall grieve for the rest of my life, but I am not incapable of working and never have been. Nor is my daughter, who returned to work fairly quickly after the terrible, grievous loss of her first child. We cannot put a defined time limit on grief, but benefits are not about compensating for grief. They are about giving a period of sanctuary, but then life goes on and it must go on. It is right for Governments to consider how they can best help people through a period of distress in their life. I know from my family, friends and neighbours, and my own life that dignity comes from work and that it can provide a way of returning to life.

I do not argue that every woman or man is capable of going back to work instantly after the grievous loss of their spouse. They may still be grieving and their grief may cause them mental ill health, for which they will receive support. Even Liberal Democrat Members have failed to recognise that, if the bereaved person does not have children, when the allowance comes to an end, a range of other benefits will be available. They are available to all people who are ill or seek to retrain for work. People are not left unsupported in British society today.

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar back in his seat. I hope that he will read my remarks about widows and recognise that they are not the women wrapped up in shawls whom he seemed to describe. I am glad to have the chance to put that point directly to him. I am grateful to him for recognising the terrible mistake of the Government whom he supported. Much has been made by Members on both Opposition Benches of what happened with SERPS in 1986. It was gracious of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar to accept responsibility, even though he was not a Member of the House at that time. It makes a pleasant change.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made the point that we had to look at the situation that we were now in, not the one that we would have wished to be in or imagined that we were in. We inherited the most appalling mess, and that is why I am grateful for the apology. That appalling mess is such that the ombudsman is investigating it. It would be foolish and wrong for any Government to come in and say, "Here we are. We are going to save the day without looking closely at the detail." The detail is so complex that it may take a little while to sort out. It would be a grave mistake to rush it.

It occurred to me during the debate that people might say that they telephoned and were given advice. If they telephoned from a telephone box, I have no idea how they can prove that they made the call. The mess will be difficult to unpick. I do not seek to cast blame here, there and everywhere; that would not help the situation. The fact is that the matter has to be put right. I have no idea what the ombudsman's report will look like; I await it with interest. People feel let down by what has happened to them. People have made plans according to the advice that they were given. It behoves the Government to look closely at how that can be put right. To pretend that we can come along 14 years later with an instant solution would do no one any service.

Simply to say, "We do not blame you because you were not in government then, but you have to put it right and therefore it is your fault," does not take us any further forward. The way forward is what the Government are doing—namely, examining closely what happened and seeing whether there are lessons for the future and what, if anything, can properly be proposed to people who have lost out as a result of a mistake that was made 14 years ago in not giving out information.

Some comments were made about letters written in January to the Department about someone's entitlement on a particular day. My experience of Government Departments is that, when they consider a potential claim, they consider the day on which that claim might be made, which is the day on which it is proposed. Someone's entitlement may be six months down the line.

Mr. Pickles

The hon. Lady is courteous in giving way. I saw her name on the Annunciator screen so I came in to listen to her. She is doing well, but we are talking about 12 January. Information had gone out, instructions had gone out, everyone knew that there was a problem, and hon. Members were holding debates on the matter, but still the information had not got through to the Department. I cannot believe that we can run a Department on the basis of reading newspapers, but anyone who read a newspaper would have known. It is an indictment that the information was not passed down and that, on 12 June when a memorandum had gone out, it still had not told people in the Department to correct the mistakes.

Kali Mountford

I am flattered that the hon. Gentleman was so interested in what I had to say, but I would be more impressed if he did not try to use a tiny fig leaf to cover his embarrassment. It is extraordinary to pretend that the mistake is the responsibility of this Government when his Government introduced the procedures and I am surprised that he even attempted to do so.

Time is pressing, so I will simply say that the process that is in place now is the only one that can possibly work. The hon. Gentleman smiles at that, but I think that the process is right. I hope that lessons are learned for the future and that pensioners who feel aggrieved will have their concerns met by this Government.

3.27 pm
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) has made a thoughtful speech in this important debate on an important issue, but she misses the point about what happens after six months. We are not saying that all financial support stops then. The significance of the six-month threshold is that it is when pressure starts to be applied to a widow. After six months, she ceases to be entitled unconditionally to what was previously the widows pension and will become the bereavement allowance. At that point, she receives only benefits conditional on actively seeking work and walking through the infamous single gateway. In other words, from the day of bereavement, a clock starts ticking and the widow knows that, six months down the line, pressure will be applied.

Widows will vary in their experience and circumstances of bereavement. A balance has to be struck, but we have been given no justification for the six-month threshold. It is another arbitrary assertion. I dare say that the pressure for the six-month threshold came not from Richmond house but from the Treasury 30 yd over the road. The balance that had to be struck was between what the Chancellor would let the DSS get away with and the needs of widows. What research has been done into the experiences and needs of widows and when they feel ready to look for work? I would love to know what evidence there is. Or is it just arbitrary or Treasury pressure?

The phrase "By their deeds ye shall know them" will be well known to hon. Members. New Labour has reconstructed the division between the deserving and the undeserving poor. The deserving poor are elderly or poor pensioners and the severely disabled. None of us would query that. Who are the undeserving? The Government have attacked lone parents and the incapacitated, but who would ever have thought that widows would constitute the undeserving poor? That is the group from whom they are now taking half a billion pounds. What is the great crime that widows have committed that the Government need to take half a billion pounds from them? It is that they have lost their husbands. That makes them undeserving under new Labour.

Much mention has been made of what the Government are doing for pensioners and carers. We have heard mention of the so-called minimum income guarantee. I offer my hon. Friends a guide to new Labour-speak. When a new name is given to something, it always means precisely the opposite. Therefore, the Bill to clamp down on information getting out is known as the Freedom of Information Bill, and the Bill to abolish legal aid is called the Access to Justice Bill; and the money to which 500,000 people are entitled but which they will not get is called a guaranteed minimum income. The Government's fig leaf is that they will help poor people through the guaranteed minimum income but, unlike the contributory benefits that they are cutting, the means-tested benefits are not guaranteed and will miss many of the most vulnerable. They have no defence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) spoke passionately about the attack on widows through the cuts in SERPS. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out some of the absurdities of the Government's approach. That highlighted an interesting benefits policy issue. Many elderly men are distressed about what will happen because, next April, the widows pension will not be phased down but slashed. It will fall by half, overnight.

While it is Government policy to phase the increased retirement age for women by six months at a time over a decade, this cut is keenly felt—Ministers do not realise this—because, although there is allegedly 15 years' notice, the 50 per cent. pensions cut will happen with dramatic suddenness. There was no notice and people were never told, so they feel angry about the sudden halving of their widows' prospective income. None of us would accept the threat of such a prospect. That is why there is anger and why we need action.

We have touched often on the Government's benefit changes that are an attack on widows, but several other things in our motion have not been touched on. The first is an acute problem for widows: the restriction of council tax benefit. The Conservatives propose that someone who lives in a property above band E—a big house or a house in London—should get only as much council tax benefit as they would if they lived in a band E property. The Conservatives proposed that for everyone. The Government backed down on their proposal following pressure from the Liberal Democrats and others. [Interruption.] Labour Members snort; I am not sure whether that is parliamentary. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury sat on the Committee that considered the regulation that would have introduced their proposal. We opposed it and voted against it. London Labour Members expressed their concern. The Government forced it through with their loyal Back Benchers but, after that debate, the Government rightly gave in to our pressure. That is a statement of fact.

The Government have protected existing recipients but new widows—widowhood can strike at any time—who live in properties above band E will find that council tax will be paid only up to band E equivalent. Why does that matter? Take a married couple who live in a large house and whose two or three children leave home for university and are no longer part of the benefit unit. The couple still live in a large or high-value home. If the husband dies, the widow, as well as coping with everything else, will find that the Government are saying that she lives in too big a house. That is the implication of the restriction to band E. The Government are saying that such people should trade down. They will only pay band E benefit because those people should not be living in such a big house. That is an extraordinary thing to say to people who have just been widowed. Not only are they being told that in six months they will have to get on their bikes and look for jobs, but, from now, day 1, they are to be told that they are living in too big a house. If they are on income support, they will have to find the shortfall in the council tax bill out of their basic income support—the poverty line that is supposed to be for food and clothing. How can that be acceptable?

I asked the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), a written question last week about how many people had been affected so far, because the measure came in only this April. The answer was that the Government do not know. They will know next January. They do not know the effects of their policy on widows. Every widow affected by this—there will be many in London and the south-east where high-value properties are not necessarily huge; we are not talking mansions—will have to make up their council tax out of their basic income support. Because of what the Government have done to local government funding, council tax is rising faster than inflation. It is a serious burden. It is part of the Government's attack on widows.

The amount that the Government are saving through their measures is pathetically small given the scale of Government spending, but it will matter to widows who have to find £2 or £3 a week out of a pension of, say, £60. That is a substantial figure and the Government should reconsider.

It is not just the council tax. What about bereavement tax allowances? That allows widows to keep the tax allowance to which husbands were entitled through marriage in the immediate aftermath of bereavement. The Chancellor abolished that in the Budget but we did not hear about it in the Budget speech. We had to rifle through the Budget press releases. When someone untrustworthy has been to a house, it is necessary to count the silver after they have gone. When the Chancellor has not mentioned something in his Budget speech, we have to check the press releases to ensure that he has not abolished it. That is the precedent that he has set.

When we found the press release, it was wrong. As the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said, it said that the Government were abolishing the allowance but were doubling the widows payment from £1,000 to £2,000 so that they would all be protected, but that applies only to widows under pension age. Widows above pension age have no offsetting protection. That is another Government attack on widows buried in the small print but it is real money to real people in real need.

It is not only the bereavement tax allowance. What about the dividend tax credit? That is the tax that non-taxpayers have to pay on their share dividends that they would previously have got back. Some 300,000 pensioners who do not pay tax, by definition poorer pensioners, will now pay tax on their dividends. Imagine a couple where the husband has put together a small share portfolio precisely because he wants to provide for his widow should the need arise. The Government say that it has been passed to her, so she must pay tax on it despite her not being well enough off to pay tax. That people are below the tax threshold and that it would cost only a few tens of millions to do something about it does not matter to the Government. In doctrinaire fashion, they will not make any concession because, if they make one, they might have to make another, so widows have to pay.

Mr. Timms

A few tens of millions?

Mr. Webb

My hearing is better than the Minister expected. He says that as though the Liberal Democrats are always spending such sums. Given the chance, we probably would. But, in forecasting its expenditure each year, his Department does not get it right to within £10 million or £100 million but has trouble getting it right to within £1 billion. In that context, £10 million to protect widows is small beer.

I may be mistaken, but my previous professional career reminds me that one of the Government's worst forecasting errors in recent years was in respect of war widows pensions. The Department of Social Security got its forecast wrong on a matter that one would have thought that it was not hard to forecast. If they can say that being a billion out does not matter because they will find the money from somewhere, the tens of millions that do not matter to Government but matter hugely to widows are not chicken feed. The Government need to act.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) has gone because he raised the important problem of widows who suffer further the bereavement of losing a child. That is a dreadful situation that one would wish on no one. He seemed to be unaware that the Government's proposal not only fails to deal with the situation, but makes it worse. Previously, a widow who lost a dependent child would move from widowed mothers allowance to widows pension. [Interruption.] The Minister rightly indicates from a sedentary position that it would depend on age. However, there will be no widows pension if the child dies more than six months after the first bereavement. The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye was pointing to a deserving situation that his Government have made worse. He asked for reassurances from the Minister that it would be tackled but I look forward to them with little anticipation of a satisfactory answer.

We talked about widowers. Understandably, the Minister focused at length on widowers, as I would have in his situation. Denuded of anything to say on widows, I would have talked about widowers at some length—that is perfectly legitimate. However, some months ago, when the announcement was made in the House about widows and widowers, I challenged the Secretary of State on that matter. Although I welcomed the fact that the benefit will go to existing widowers and not only to new widowers, I asked why we have to wait until 2001.

I have had to ask the local rotary club to bale out two widowers in my constituency in order to provide a much-needed holiday after their bereavement or to help with child care costs. I told those widowers that the Government—with their arm behind their back—will be bringing in additional benefits for widowers, but that widowers would have to wait, not until the start of the next financial year, but until 2001. They asked me why—I could give them no answer. As constituency Members of Parliament, we are having to turn to the voluntary sector—to rotary clubs, for goodness sake—to find financial support for that group of people, because the Government say that they cannot do anything until 2001.

The Government's amendment to our motion is abject—for want of a better word. What does it do? It supports the Government's bereavement payment, and the doubling of the value of the widows payment—so did the Liberal Democrat motion. It welcomes the additional help given to the children of widowers—as did our motion—so none of that part of the amendment was necessary. What else does the amendment do? It welcomes the protection given to widows over 55, who might otherwise have no practical alternative to relying on Income Support. Hang on—why might they otherwise have no practical alternative? Because the Government have just abolished their benefits. That is extraordinary. The amendment welcomes the fact that the Government have only been fairly nasty. For tomorrow's 55-year-olds, the Government will be very nasty, but for today's they will not.

We have already gone through half of the Government's amendment. The first two parts agree with our motion; and the next part states that we should applaud them for not being as nasty as they might have been. Then, in the last sentence, they give the reason that we should reject the motion: the amendment welcomes the wide range of policies"— none of which are listed— which are designed to assist women to play a full and active part in the community. So that is all right. We can take £500 million away from widows—the undeserving poor—because we are allowing women to play a full part in the community. I am sure that that makes widows feel very warm inside.

The Minister of State told us that the fact that the Government were slashing £500 million from widows was not important, because, over the first couple of years, they would be giving £100 million to widowers. That is bizarre logic. At the risk of insulting the hon. Gentleman, that is very un-new Labour. The new Labour thing to do is not to talk about what the Government are doing this year, but to add together the next three years—or, given half the chance, to add together the next 30. However, the case of widows is different: to make a cut a few years down the line does not matter, the Government count only the money that is being spent this year. They are disregarding cuts down the track of £500 million for widows to focus only on this year.

The Minister spoke to representatives of Help the Aged yesterday. I saw the press release issued by the Department of Social Security. Its headline claimed that the Government were spending £4 billion extra on pensioners. [Interruption.] As the Minister says, it would be very good if they were. The question is: over what period is that £4 billion to be spent? Probably, it is three years because, in new-Labour-speak, numbers are usually tripled, so that would give an amount of £1.3 billion. Inflation is usually included, so that would knock off about £500 million. In effect, the Government will probably be spending an average of £800 million extra a year on pensioners—as indeed they are through income support. We welcome that. However, that amount is only one fifth of the amount that was claimed.

The Minister tells us that the cuts of £500 million for widows are unimportant because they are a few years down the track. To those people who will be widows at that time, the cuts will be as important then as if they had been made now. It is truly extraordinary that the only defence that the Minister can offer is that the cuts will take a few years to come through. However, the benefits will not be paid now; as I pointed out, widowers will have to wait until 2001.

I want to clarify and confirm the concession that the Minister made in the debate, because it is probably the most expensive concession that any of us have ever heard. As I understand it, people who were wrongly advised about SERPS—because they phoned the DSS in 1986 and were not told that their SERPS widows benefits would be cut—and who, on the strength of that bad advice, stayed in SERPS when they might have been better advised to opt out, will be compensated for that mistake.

I think that the record will show that that is what the Minister said. I am more than happy for those who read our proceedings to confirm that that is what he said. My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), who is leaving the Chamber at the moment, questioned the Minister on that point and is obviously running off to tell his local newspaper to report the concession that he wrought from the Government.

The Government must take action on the matter; Governments—in the sense that government is continuous—have failed to give citizens the right information. Let us face the fact that none of us really understand pensions.

Angela Eagle

Except the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Webb

Present company included. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for suggesting that I might understand pensions, but even I would not claim that.

The complexity of these matters is such that Governments must be proactive. If they make a complex change to a complex system, they must tell people about it. If they fail to tell people, they must take responsibility for that failure. The Government failed to tell people about the SERPS changes; therefore, they have a responsibility to pay compensation.

The Minister said that an announcement would be made in due course—I think that those were the words he used. Three months ago, he told my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury that there would be compensation. Time is running out, because the ombudsman promised to give us a decision by next April, when this cut is implemented. Is the Minister in dialogue with the ombudsman? Is he waiting for the ombudsman to come to a conclusion? Will he undertake to implement whatever the ombudsman decides? Will he pre-empt the ombudsman? What if the ombudsman makes an announcement next March? Will we have to wait? It is not clear.

It is not good enough for the Government to say that there will be an announcement in due course. Elderly gentlemen—for it is they who are writing to us on these matters—who believe that they have made financial preparations in the event of their death, are distraught at what successive Governments have done to them. I accept the Government's admission that, in 1986, Labour voted against those measures, but, as with so many things, they are now in favour of them and will implement them. If they are going to implement them, they must compensate those people who were misled by successive Governments.

There has been a sustained assault on widows. A litany of measures have taken hundreds of millions of pounds out of the pockets of widows, who, by no stretch of the imagination, could be regarded as the undeserving poor. We have heard no convincing defence from the Minister; there is nothing in the Government's amendment that represents a defence. The case is proven and I urge the House to back our motion.

3.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle)

We have had an interesting debate. It has ranged from an interpretation of Hamlet from the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that was rather odd in places to a whole range of issues, some of which were sweeping in their scale and some of which were extremely detailed. In the remaining time for the debate, I shall try to deal with some of those issues.

Before I respond, I emphasise that our reforms will modernise an outdated scheme for those people who are bereaved. In considering widows benefit and the extension of the scheme for compensating widows, we would do well to remember the original purpose of such benefits. That was referred to in the extremely good speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford). In the Beveridge reforms, the original purpose of the benefit was to compensate for the loss of a sole breadwinner; it was not to compensate for the pain of bereavement itself. Many of us have had painful experiences of bereavement, but, in considering the redesign of this benefit, we must focus on its original purpose.

The society of the 1940s was different from today's society. We are also talking about 2020 and many more years in the future, when I assume that society will continue to evolve and change. Our society is not set in aspic, preserved like a museum piece. Nor should our welfare system be preserved like a museum piece. In the 1940s, when the widows benefit system was created, only one in eight married women worked. Now, seven in 10 married women work. In the 1940s, the opportunities available to women to support themselves through employment were much more limited than they are today. For example, in teaching—a profession in which women are always well represented—women were required to give up their jobs when they married. They were not expected to continue in employment. No such expectations exist now, thank goodness, and opportunities for women in the labour market continue to improve—although I would not say that they are entirely equal.

Mr. Pickles

The hon. Lady referred to the 1940s—the time of the second world war. Is she in a position to tell us what happened to the Prime Minister's review of war widows pensions? When did the review body meet, what were its deliberations and what was the outcome?

Angela Eagle

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in raising the issue of war widows pensions. However, he will know that the war pensions scheme is entirely separate and different and does not come within the purview of this review. If he reads the Prime Minister's words, the hon. Gentleman will see that the Prime Minister said that that situation—like all Government policy—will be kept under review.

Women's opportunities in the labour market continue to improve. I am an optimist in this regard: I think that they will improve still further in the future. In the 1950s, only 100,000 women had access to occupational pensions—and that was through the pensions of their husbands. Today, 1.6 million women have such access. The society that was reliant on the single male bread winner, around whom the original welfare state was built, has disappeared. Women are now far more likely to be in work and accruing their own pension entitlements.

Our new scheme recognises that fact: it refocuses assistance by providing a weekly benefit for both widows and widowers with dependent children. Widowed parents allowance will have the same entitlement conditions and be paid at the same rate as the existing widowed mothers allowance, but will be available equally to mothers and fathers. William Beveridge would never have countenanced that—indeed, he ruled it out explicitly when considering bereavement provisions. About 40,000 new widows and 15,000 new widowers each year will gain from the new bereavement payment, which, at £2,000, will be double the existing widows payment.

We have recognised the needs of older widows and widowers through the new bereavement allowance. There has been little focus today on the transitional scheme for widows aged over 55. We recognise that women of that age are more likely to have been out of the labour market for long periods so they will not be asked to make themselves available for work. Our transitional scheme will passport those women on to retirement pensions by giving them an amount of money that is exactly the same as widows benefit. Women aged 55 at the time of the change will be passported into retirement and will lose nothing. Older generations of women—who were not long in the labour market or did not expect to work—will have extra protection. There has been no mention of that scheme in the debate, and it would have been nice if hon. Members had conceded that point.

We have heard much talk about annuities and all sorts of pension rights. However, there has not been much criticism of the existing system, which fails to support poorer women as well as it supports those on higher incomes. Thy current system takes away benefit, pound for pound, from women on income support—who end up no better off, despite their widows payments. Therefore, we have introduced in legislation a £10 disregard on income support for women in that situation and a £15 disregard on both housing benefit and the working families tax credit in order to provide a little extra help. That is another positive measure introduced by the Government that was not mentioned in the debate.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) welcomed the extension of these benefits to widowers. However, he did so rather churlishly, claiming that the Government had acted under pressure from the courts. In fact, we introduced the measure because we believe that people should have equal access to benefit and not be discriminated against on the ground of gender. The hon. Gentleman welcomed the doubling of the bereavement payment but seemed to want to extend the entire scheme to those above pension age. That has never happened before.

To return to my initial comments, the payments for widows—which are now being extended—are designed to compensate for the loss of a breadwinner's income. There is no breadwinner in retirement, so that factor is not relevant. Payments have never been made to women over retirement age who lose their husbands. The hon. Gentleman wants to change the system and extend bereavement payments to men and women in retirement. That would cost £400 million a year, which presumably must be added to the £10 billion that the Liberal Democrats spent when telling us what we should do about SERPS and to the dozens of other spending commitments that littered Liberal Democrat contributions to the debate.

We are considering how we can ensure that the welfare system is modernised properly so as to retain the support into the future of both the taxpaying public and those on benefit. Therefore, we must take a little notice of how much proposed measures will cost. One quickly learns that, in terms of welfare reform and the Department of Social Security, billions of pounds of public expenditure can be dispensed with in the twitch of an eye. We must ensure that the expenditure is in proportion with the problem.

Mr. Rendel

The Minister must accept that the additional £10 billion—the Minister of State mentioned £5 billion in the case of SERPS—must be paid for by somebody. It will be paid for either by the widows, in which case each widow must pay rather a lot, or by the taxpayers, who would pay rather less. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that, in order to retain the support of the taxpaying public, she will take all of that money from widows?

Angela Eagle

The money is not available in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I suspect that that is why the previous Government decided to restrict SERPS to half of the payable pension. However, they did it so incompetently that—as I think all hon. Members have admitted today—they landed the present Government with enormous potential costs. That says it all about the standards that we expected, and became used to, from the previous Government.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar went on about how the contributory principle had been badly affected by the changes. No one has recognised the fact that we have extended that principle through these changes: widowers will benefit from the contributions of their wives.

Mr. Pickles

The hon. Lady must recognise that men will be disadvantaged because of the low level of women's contributions. Women have lower incomes, as the Minister of State conceded, so there will be no equality.

Angela Eagle

The hon. Gentleman should get his facts straight. First, women's contributions are rapidly catching up with those of men. Secondly, the contribution rates for qualifying for benefits are quite modest over a lifetime of earnings.

The hon. Gentleman announced at the end of his peroration that he wanted the Government to "reverse this policy"—they were his exact words. Therefore, I assume that he opposes all the changes, including the doubling of bereavement payments and the extension of payments to widowers, upon which the previous Government utterly and resolutely refused to legislate during 18 years in office. I presume that the hon. Gentleman will go to the country at the next election and tell the beneficiaries of that payment that he is against it.

Mr. Pickles

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Angela Eagle

No, I do not have much time.

On the question of when the changes should be introduced, the Conservative spokesman suggested that we should put off the changes to widows benefit until some unspecified time in the future. The hon. Member for Newbury also said that but, in his winding-up speech, the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) suggested that we should bring forward the introduction of the changes.

One part of the Liberal party and the Conservative party say that we should put off the changes, but the hon. Member for Northavon says the opposite. The Opposition do not know which way they are facing. It is difficult to listen to their arguments, when there is no coherence or consistency in their position.

The existing scheme is outdated. It was devised for a time when few married women worked and very few had insurance or a private pension. The death of the family breadwinner clearly had a huge impact on family finances, and the widow was dependent on support from the state.

However, widowed men with dependent children were usually expected to continue to work following their wife's death. Beveridge maintained that very few men's wages are insufficient to cover at least two adults and one child. Today the situation is entirely different. It is the norm in many two-parent families for both parents to work.

Our reformed scheme will reflect today's society by making bereavement benefits available equally to men and women. It will also take account of the increasing number of married women in work, and the much higher number of people who are protected by life insurance and occupational pensions.

Our reforms will refocus expenditure, concentrating the help available from the state by focusing on immediate needs. The bereavement payment will give a tax-free lump sum of £2,000—double the current payment. Bereavement allowance will give older widows and widowers without dependent children the support that they need for the six months following bereavement. The help will focus on children and families.

Just as society cannot be preserved in aspic, neither can our welfare state be so preserved. It is our duty to keep the system relevant to modern society, not for ever stuck in the past. We believe that our proposed changes will do just that.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 37, Noes 274.

Division No. 219] [4.2 pm
Allan, Richard Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Kirkwood, Archy
Baker, Norman Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Beggs, Roy Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Moore, Michael
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Öpik, Lembit
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Rendel, David
Brake, Tom Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Breed, Colin Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Burstow, Paul Sanders, Adrian
Cable, Dr Vincent Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Stunell, Andrew
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Cotter, Brian Thompson, William
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Tonge, Dr Jenny
Fearn, Ronnie Tyler, Paul
Forsythe, Clifford Webb, Steve
George, Andrew (St Ives)
Harris, Dr Evan Tellers for the Ayes: Mr. Phil Willis and Sir Robert Smith.
Harvey, Nick
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Abbott, Ms Diane Blunkett, Rt Hon David
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Boateng, Paul
Ainger, Nick Borrow, David
Alexander, Douglas Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Allen, Graham Bradshaw, Ben
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Brinton, Mrs Helen
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Browne, Desmond
Ashton, Joe Buck, Ms Karen
Atherton, Ms Candy Burden, Richard
Atkins, Charlotte Burgon, Colin
Austin, John Butler, Mrs Christine
Barnes, Harry Caborn, Rt Hon Richard
Beard, Nigel Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Casale, Roger
Bennett, Andrew F Caton, Martin
Benton, Joe Cawsey, Ian
Berry, Roger Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Best, Harold Chaytor, David
Betts, Clive Clapham, Michael
Blackman, Liz Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Blizzard, Bob Clark, Dr Lynda
(Edinburgh Pentlands) Hopkins, Kelvin
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Clelland, David Humble, Mrs Joan
Coaker, Vernon Hurst, Alan
Coffey, Ms Ann Iddon, Dr Brian
Cohen, Harry Illsley, Eric
Coleman, Iain Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Colman, Tony Jenkins, Brian
Connarty, Michael Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Corbyn, Jeremy Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Cousins, Jim
Cranston, Ross Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Cummings, John Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Keeble, Ms Sally
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Dalyell, Tam Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Darvill, Keith Khabra, Piara S
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Kidney, David
Davidson, Ian Kilfoyle, Peter
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Dawson, Hilton Kumar, Dr Ashok
Dean, Mrs Janet Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Denham, John Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Lepper, David
Donohoe, Brian H Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Doran, Frank Linton, Martin
Dowd, Jim Livingstone, Ken
Drew, David Lock, David
Drown, Ms Julia Love, Andrew
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth McAvoy, Thomas
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) McDonagh, Siobhain
Edwards, Huw McDonnell, John
Ellman, Mrs Louise McFall, John
Ennis, Jeff McIsaac, Shona
Field, Rt Hon Frank McNulty, Tony
Fisher, Mark Mactaggart, Fiona
Flint, Caroline McWalter, Tony
Follett, Barbara McWilliam, John
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Mahon, Mrs Alice
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Mallaber, Judy
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter
Foulkes, George Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Gapes, Mike Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Gardiner, Barry Marshall, David (Shettleston)
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Martlew, Eric
Gerard, Neil Maxton, John
Gibson, Dr Ian Merron, Gillian
Godman, Dr Norman A Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Godsiff, Roger Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Goggins, Paul Moffatt, Laura
Golding, Mrs Llin Moonie, Dr Lewis
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Moran, Ms Margaret
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Morley, Elliot
Grocott, Bruce Mountford, Kali
Gunnell, John Mullin, Chris
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Hanson, David Norris, Dan
Heal, Mrs Sylvia O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Healey, John Olner, Bill
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) O'Neill, Martin
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Organ, Mrs Diana
Hepburn, Stephen Osborne, Ms Sandra
Hesford, Stephen Pearson, Ian
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Pendry, Tom
Hill, Keith Perham, Ms Linda
Hinchliffe, David Pickthall, Colin
Hodge, Ms Margaret Pike, Peter L
Hoey, Kate Plaskitt, James
Hood, Jimmy Pollard, Kerry
Hoon, Geoffrey Pond, Chris
Pope, Greg Stoate, Dr Howard
Pound, Stephen Stott, Roger
Powell, Sir Raymond Stringer, Graham
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Stuart, Ms Gisela
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Primarolo, Dawn
Purchase, Ken Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Quinn, Lawrie Temple-Morris, Peter
Radice, Giles Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Timms, Stephen
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW) Tipping, Paddy
Roche, Mrs Barbara Todd, Mark
Rooker, Jeff Touhig, Don
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Trickett, Jon
Roy, Frank Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Ruane, Chris Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Ruddock, Joan Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Ryan, Ms Joan Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Salter, Martin Walley, Ms Joan
Sarwar, Mohammad Watts, David
Savidge, Malcolm White, Brian
Sawford, Phil Whitehead, Dr Alan
Sedgemore, Brian Wicks, Malcolm
Shaw, Jonathan Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Sheerman, Barry
Shipley, Ms Debra Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Wills, Michael
Singh, Marsha Winnick, David
Skinner, Dennis Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Wise, Audrey
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Wood, Mike
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Worthington, Tony
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Wray, James
Snape, Peter Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Southworth, Ms Helen Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Spellar, John Wyatt, Derek
Squire, Ms Rachel
Steinberg, Gerry Tellers for the Noes: Mr. Robert Ainsworth and Mr. David Jamieson.
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Stinchcombe, Paul

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House supports the Government's proposals to reform bereavement benefits, including the Bereavement Payment, which will provide a tax-free lump sum of £2,000—double the value of the current Widow's Payment; welcomes the additional help given to the children of widowers, who will qualify for the new Widowed Parent's Allowance, which will replace the Widowed Mother's Allowance; welcomes the protection given to widows over 55, who might otherwise have no practical alternative to relying on Income Support; and welcomes the wide range of policies which are designed to assist women to play a full and active part in the community.

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