HC Deb 17 May 1999 vol 331 cc767-813

`After section 39 of the Contributions and Benefits Act there shall be inserted—

"39BB.—(1) This section applies where a person whose spouse dies on or after the appointed day is over the age of 45 but under pensionable age at the spouse's death.

(2) The surviving spouse shall be entitled to an additional bereavement allowance determined in accordance with section 39C below if the deceased spouse satisfied the contribution conditions for a bereavement allowance specified in Schedule 3, Part I, paragraph 5 and the surviving spouse has received bereavement allowance for 26 weeks under section 39B above.

(3) An additional bereavement allowance shall be payable for 26 weeks for every whole year the surviving spouse has lived over the age of 45 beginning on the day after the surviving spouse's entitlement to bereavement allowance has terminated.

(4) The surviving spouse shall not be entitled to the additional bereavement allowance for any period after which she or he remarries, but, subject to that, the surviving spouse shall continue to be entitled to it until—

  1. (a) she or he attains pensionable age, or
  2. (b) the period mentioned in subsection (3) above expires, whichever happens first.

(5) The allowance shall not be payable—

  1. (a) for any period for which the surviving spouse is entitled to a widowed parent's allowance; or
  2. (b) for any period during which the surviving spouse and a person of the opposite sex to whom she or he is not married are living together as husband and wife".'.—[Mr. Pickles.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

11.15 pm
Mr. Pickles

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 4—Income support premiums payable upon termination of bereavement allowance`After section 39 of the Contributions and Benefits Act there shall be inserted— 39D.—Where the surviving spouse after 26 weeks is eligible for Income Support and below pension age, she or he will be entitled to a premium to be paid with Income Support at a level which will maintain the income received from the Bereavement Allowance while she or he remains eligible for Income Support or until that surviving spouse reaches pension age.".'. Amendment No. 20, in clause 47, page 42, line 41, leave out 'and 39B' and insert `, 39B and 39C'. Amendment No. 26, in page 44, line 7, after '(1)% insert `Subject to subsection (3A) below,'. Amendment No. 21, in page 44, line 15, after '(3)', insert `In cases where a person was under 35 years of age on the appointed day,'. Amendment No. 2, in page 44, line 16, leave out `26 weeks' and insert `one year, after which the payments shall be reduced each year by an amount equivalent to one fifth of the original amount,'. Amendment No. 22, in page 44, line 19, at end insert— '(3A) In cases where a person was on or over 35 years of age on the appointed day, a bereavement allowance shall be payable indefinitely, subject to subsection (4) below.'. Amendment No. 23, in page 44, line 25, after `(b)', insert 'where she or he was under 35 years of age on the appointed day,'. Amendment No. 24, in page 44, line 41, after '(2)', insert

`In cases where a person was under 35 years of age on the appointed day,'. Amendment No. 25, in page 44, line 46, at end insert— '(2A) In cases where a person was on or over 35 years of age on the appointed day, the weekly rate of a bereavement allowance shall be determined in accordance with the provisions of sections 44 to 45A below as they apply in the case of a Category A retirement pension but subject, in particular, to the following provisions of this section and section 46(2) below.'. Government amendments Nos. 63 to 65.

Mr. Pickles

The increase in bereavement payments is welcome, as is their extension to men, but the abandonment of widows without dependent children after six months is shameful. Currently, a person who makes a contribution has the full and certain knowledge that, should something happen to him, his wife will be taken care of. The Government are expanding the scheme to widowers as well as widows, but at the same time they have abandoned a firm promise that they made to the public.

During the general election campaign two years ago, many Labour Members made lots of promises to their electorate and many column inches were expended on what the welfare state had in store should a Labour Government be elected. I cannot find any mention of the fact that one of the first acts of a Labour Government would be to deprive widows of a pension.

Both main parties have the Excalibur software, which makes it possible to search the comments of every Member of Parliament and parliamentary candidate. I am pleased to report that we have not found a single example of a Labour Member or candidate telling their electors that they would put an end to the widows pension.

Mr. Hawkins

Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason why he and others cannot find such a mention is that Labour Members and candidates knew perfectly well that if they had said in the run-up to the election that they proposed to betray widows in that way, Labour would certainly not have won the election?

Mr. Pickles

I am fairly certain that my hon. Friend is right, but perhaps he is being unkind to individual candidates in suggesting that there was a cover-up. I suspect that the information was restricted to one or two key figures. I expect that Labour Members went honestly to their electorate without making a full disclosure, because as far as they were concerned there was no possibility of reneging on a pension that had been in existence since 1925.

Mr. Bercow

Sheep in blindfolds.

Mr. Pickles

My hon. Friend may have a good point about the sartorial elegance of Labour Members. It is not

surprising that they did not intend to renege on the widows pension, because it has been one of the bulwarks of the national insurance system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) pointed out in the last debate, a bulwark is the first thing that Labour needs to start to undermine the system.

The Government's arguments are straightforward and, in one respect, right. They are right to say that the system reflects a time when the man was the breadwinner, and what was appropriate in 1925 or 1948 is not necessarily relevant to 1999; hence the challenge in the European Court by a man, Mr. Kevin Willis. It may have been at the back of the minds of all candidates at the 1997 general election that the Willis challenge would have to be dealt with during this Parliament. However, I do not believe that anyone felt that a Labour Government would deprive women in order to pay for men. I doubt that there was a single person who put their cross on the ballot paper in May 1997 who seriously believed that that would happen. Perhaps two people—the Prime Minister and the Chancellor—knew that it was going to happen.

If I, or any of my right hon. or hon. Friends, had suggested at the election that women would have to suffer to pay for men's bereavement payments, we would have been accused of scaremongering. It would been a "Tory smear" and people would been on the box immediately to rebut it. The question of equality is a veneer—the measure is an excuse to save money. I do not believe that anyone who has watched a mother, sister, daughter or friend go through the process of bereavement will regard the Government's proposals as anything other than cruel and inhumane.

In many ways, this is four Bills in one. We have had a taste of some of the more complex aspects of the Bill earlier today. We have had to rely on experts to give us their views on what might happen. That is not the case with this measure, because it is within the personal experience of us all. I doubt that there is a single person in the Chamber tonight who does not have direct experience of bereavement. If there is, they are very lucky. At some stage, they will have to face that problem.

I use the word "veneer" deliberately. Unlike the welfare budget—which my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said earlier was growing out of control—the number of people claiming widow's benefit is dropping. It has fallen by 30 per cent. since 1983, when 405,700 widows claimed the benefit. In 1997, 283,600 widows claimed the benefit. It is my sincere hope that the figure continues to fall.

This is a cost-cutting measure to save £600 million. Husbands have paid in that £600 million over many years in the reasonable expectation that the Government would honour their promise. The lack of that £600 million will force widows on to means-tested benefits. It will amount to £600 million worth of disincentives to save or make provision for one's loved ones.

It is our contention that six months is too short a period. Grief affects us all differently. Some people become practically catatonic in the immediate aftermath of a bereavement, while others want to throw themselves straight back into work. The person who goes straight back to work and the one who takes a long journey of many faltering steps both need time and understanding.

Sympathy is always greatest in the immediate aftermath of a death and a funeral. That is when people gather round and want to help, saying that the bereaved person need

only pick up the phone, and so on. As many hon. Members will understand, as time goes on, the phone calls and letters start to dry up, and life for the friends and relations goes on as before.

Six months is a crucial period for anyone who has been through a bereavement. In the first months, there are legal matters to take care of, the estate has to be organised and the clothes and possessions have to be disposed of. There is a lot of activity to keep people's minds occupied. It is often around the six-month mark that the full impact of the loss is felt.

I cannot put it better than the National Association of Widows and the Widows Advisory Trust, which say: The proposals give an allowance of six months after which the widowed person is expected to be fit to move through the system into full-time paid employment. In our long experience of bereavement care we would identify six months as being a crucial point in the grieving process. In the early stages of grief the shock goes some way to numb the pain, however at six months the shock is fading and the loss becomes a reality. Imagine the difficulty at this point for a woman who may not have worked outside the home, may have nursed her husband for many months, and still grieving, having to register as unemployed and begin actively seeking work. That is precisely what the Government will force thousands of women to embark on when the Bill becomes an Act.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

My hon. Friend has spoken movingly about the plight of widows. Is not the man who knows that his life is coming to an end, and who has paid his contributions for many years on the understanding that his widow would have a decent pension after he died, also in a difficult situation?

11.30 pm
Mr. Pickles

That is absolutely right. A contract existed between the state and the citizen, and the Government are embarking on a breach of that contract. Men have contributed over many years, through several generations, on the assumption that, should their life be terminated before their wife has reached retirement age, the state would not desert her. The state will desert now them. We would add to all the problems that widows face at the very moment that their loss becomes reality by requiring them to look for a job.

Reality is such that the job search would have to start long before the six months was up. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) is in his place, and he made that point tellingly on Second Reading. In practice, no one will wait until the six months is up, because they will have to start looking for work much earlier—probably after three months. The prospect of the worry of having to find a job and that little bit of financial security being denied to them because they do not have dependent children will hang over those widows, and add to their worries, at a time when their judgment is defective and they are emotionally vulnerable.

I told the Committee that I lost my mother when I was in my mid-20s. I found the experience numbing, I felt bereft, and I had no judgment. The plight that I felt myself in is well described by Mrs. Sheila Walker, from the Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide. She makes this point: The widow … did not choose to be in that position. She has been through this traumatic experience and she is left numb, unable to keep her thoughts straight. Each day initially is a struggle. I spoke to a newly widowed lady yesterday who said, 'I was never like this'. She was very upset because she could not function as she would have liked. Six months is a very short time, and the new clause seeks to address that problem. It is a compromise between the status quo and the harshness of the Government's position and it would give the Government a chance to think again.

Various arguments can be made about social change. The widows benefit was first introduced in 1925 and it was replicated in the national insurance system introduced in 1948. I concede that in 1925 and the years following 1948 the majority of women were housewives. The past two decades have seen an acceleration in the numbers of women joining the work force. From a personal perspective, I say that that is a welcome change in society. The changes in society are offered as an explanation for the proposals for widows benefit, but the Government are anticipating future changes. The proposals do not necessarily reflect changes in the situation of women in their mid-40s and 50s.

We must nevertheless address the current situation. Not all widows are high flyers—city lawyers, partners in accountancy firms or highly paid executives. Many women are engaged in low-paid jobs, supplementing their husband's earnings. That was put very well by Cruse Bereavement Care, which says: losing a spouse from the age of forty-five to retirement age is usually devastating and can result in financial hardship. In particular, many parents in this age group still need to continue to support their older teenage or young adult children without further assistance.

Mrs. Patricia Thomas, national liaison officer of Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, wrote to me and other members of the Committee, and said that her income had been reduced by two thirds by bereavement, and by a further half by a series of redundancies.

Women often return to work in their mid-40s, working in jobs that do not command very high salaries. The widows benefit offered an additional income that went some way to compensate for the sudden drop in income resulting from the loss of a spouse.

Let us consider a couple of cases who will be especially badly hit by the proposals. A female constituent—whose name I shall not use, to protect her confidentiality—was widowed, aged 48. Her children were no longer dependent. At the age of 43, she had restarted work. A year later, her husband contracted throat cancer. At 45, she left work to take full-time care of him. She was advised by doctors that he probably had only three months to live. Actually, he lived for a further three years—three years of very stressful daily care, watching someone who was once a vigorous husband, a commanding man, slowly wither away. For months after his death, she was plagued by nightmares of the last months of his suffering. It is not reasonable to expect such a person to recover sufficiently well to seek employment after a mere six months.

Another case, brought to the attention of a member of the Committee, was that of suicide. It takes a long time for emotions to settle down. The loss is even harder if the bereavement results, not from accident or illness, but from suicide. Overlaying the grief is the question, "Why me? What did I do wrong?"

I return to what Patricia Thomas says. She has considerable expertise, and she writes very movingly:

I am extremely concerned about the lack of appreciation of the effects of bereavement, especially in cases such as suicide which inevitably causes significant traumatic shock. The suggestion that a widow will, six months after such an event when she is still suffering from shock, be capable of applying for jobs, attending interviews or coping with the further rejection of not being offered a post, is completely unrealistic. Career breaks can also affect the situation. Often mothers intend to return to work fairly soon after the birth of their child, and some who do are very successful parents.

Others wish to remain at home to take a career break. A woman might do part-time work from home, or no work other than taking care of her children and running her home successfully.

Work progresses and practices change. New people join a firm, and those familiar with a woman's work move on. She may have been progressing satisfactorily up the promotion ladder, but her time away will force her to start again at the bottom. Mrs. Sheila Walker, secretary of the National Association of Widows, says:

Alistair Darling seems to have lost sight of the emotional side of losing a much loved partner. He proposes that after six months a widow should lose her allowance and be urged to seek employment or to go on to income support, thereby subjecting her to a means test. No way can a widow of six months be in any fit state of mind to do either. She could be suffering from problems of mid life, made even worse by having lost the breadwinner. Where are these jobs Mr. Darling expects her to get? She has had a career break and may not be able to get on any rung of a working ladder. It is little wonder that the Social Security Advisory Committee said that it regarded as unrealistic the emphasis on retaining financial independence through employment.

This change is fundamentally an attack on the contributory principle. If a private company was involved, it would be regarded as mis-selling. Many of us watch the Government's adverts on television in which we are told that anyone who is short-changed has a right to return. My hon. Friends will recall the sight of an ice-cream van. Ice cream is served, a woman buys some, looks at her change and goes back to say, "Excuse me." The Government have gone one stage further than the ice-cream man. Not only are they short-changing us, they are denying us the ice cream altogether, ignoring part of the contract between the state and the citizen.

The Secretary of State is doubtless safely tucked up in bed, pleasantly asleep as we deliberate on the Bill.

Mr. Duncan Smith

No, he is out running the ice-cream van.

Mr. Pickles

No doubt he is at least revving the engine. I hope he is sleeping pleasantly and that he will read what we have said in the morning.

The Secretary of State's argument that the money will go to those who most need it is redundant. The substantial point is that people paid in expecting that their widows would be taken care of if they died. The national insurance principle means that those who contribute get the benefit. Widows currently receive benefit because their husbands paid during a lifetime of work.

Mr. Webb

I have agreed with almost all that the hon. Gentleman has said even if I am puzzled by where it is coming from. Would the principles that he is advancing not have applied equally to the Conservative Government's decision to halve widows state earnings- related pension scheme entitlements?

Mr. Pickles

It must be said that we gave 16 years notice of that—[Interruption.] Labour Members should not get so excited. As late as 12 January, the Government were still giving out duff information at the same time as they were sending out a memorandum to staff. Did they instruct the staff to correct the duff information?

Mr. Duncan Smith


11.45 pm
Mr. Pickles

My hon. Friend anticipates me precisely. The answer is no.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) did not have the opportunity of joining me in that Committee, but his hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) will tell him that I wore sackcloth and ashes: I accepted responsibility. Those on the Government Benches and Members who aspire to those Benches should accept responsibility for not ensuring that the correct information was given out. The decision was taken at administrative level, but ultimately those who stand at the Opposition and the Government Dispatch Boxes must accept responsibility. The whole matter has been a sorry mess.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

My hon. Friend is being his customary generous self. In pointing out the weakness in the analogy, surely one should also point out that we are talking about a measure that goes back to 1925, whereas SERPS had been in being for only a few years when we came to office and found that it was actuarially unsound.

Mr. Pickles

My hon. Friend offers me a Savile row hair shirt, which I accept. He is absolutely right and the sums of money involved are also considerably different. However, one thing that I was taught by mother is that if one has to say sorry, do so and do not qualify it. The point was well made.

We have not been given sufficient time to allow people to change their affairs. I still think that people are blissfully unaware of the change that is about to take place. It will come in, not in 16 years, but almost immediately, after a very brief gap. People should have time to adjust their financial affairs and to increase provision for their wives because the state is going to renege on its promises.

Widows will be pushed on to means-tested benefit. At present, only 16 per cent. of widows are on any sort of income support. Age Concern says that because widows benefit is disappearing, many more widows will be forced on to some kind of contributory benefit. In a simple sentence, Age Concern says:

After a lifetime of work, many pensioners find that they might have been better off if they had not saved. What message are we sending out? On the one hand, we are encouraging people to save for their old age. If they do so, they should be rewarded.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) intervened to encourage me to have a better fitting hair shirt. In Committee, he said:

Are we now telling people, 'You should provide for your widow, in case you die early'? Or are we saying, 'Don't save small amounts, don't provide for a modest amount of support, because the state will be relatively generous towards your widow if you don't bother. However, if you do bother, after six months she will be on her own.—[0fficial Report, Standing Committee D, 30 March 1999; c. 554.] Frankly, I cannot put it better than my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Since the hon. Gentleman is so generously accepting the hair shirt, will he assure me that if he returns to government at any point, he will automatically reverse this legislation?

Mr. Pickles

I like to think that the hon. Lady and I are old friends. She tempts me, but I have to give her the same reply that I gave in Committee. When we return to power, that is one of the measures that we will——[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] This must be part of the training at Millbank towers. One starts to jeer before hearing the answer. Certainly, we will consider the matter and we will look hard at the pros. We will have to take over a welfare state that has seen a considerable erosion of the contributory principle and a considerable growth in welfare higher up the economic scale, further away from people in need. We will have to address those problems. I can give no promises, but if the Conservatives were in government, we would not be robbing widows.

Mr. Bayley

You've lost this one.

Mr. Pickles

If we have lost this point, it is the only thing that we have lost tonight, except perhaps the votes. It is been a very poor show by Ministers, with junior Ministers having to defend an indefensible Bill. If I was one, I would be saying, "Where is my boss? Why can't he spend some time with us at the chalk face?"

We know that this is principally about savings. The Government want to save £600 million. That risks a further reduction in the savings ratio. They say that they want to encourage savings, particularly for retirement but they penalise those very people. In two years the savings ratio has dropped from 10.5 to 7.5 per cent.

New clause 1 is designed to mitigate the effects of the Budget, which was particularly damaging to widows, with the abolition of mortgage interest relief at source. The Government handout suggested that everyone would be compensated for abolition of the widows bereavement allowance and that no one would lose out. In Committee, we examined the Inland Revenue press release, but it turned out that the boast was wrong. An important group of widows aged between 60 and 64 will lose out because they will not be entitled to the bereavement payment. We thought that we could probably do something in Committee by tabling amendments to give the money back. After all, that is what the Chancellor intended. I was disappointed to find that it was not possible.

When we asked whether the Chancellor really wanted to ensure that all widows would be compensated, the answer was no. The Minister of State said that I was right to say that that is not the case because that payment is not available to those widows who are over retirement age. For that reason, the Inland Revenue has publicly acknowledged that it made a mistake in the press release."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 25 March 1999; c. 497.] Are we really to believe that when the Chancellor of the Exchequer sat in No. 11 Downing street in his sparse office drinking his cups of tea, he thought that through this Bill, he would compensate all widows except those aged between 60 and 64, who would be penalised? I do not think that that was his intention. I do not think that he knew the effect that the provision would have. When we give the Government an opportunity to try on their own version of the hair shirt, they refuse. They say that it was all a mistake, a printing error. They did not mean to say it; it belonged to another press release. The last debate showed how much Government commitments given in press releases are worth. They are worth only a few weeks before the Government change their mind. It is worth as much as the Prime Minister's promise that he would review the plight of war widows and their pensions. That promise was made a year ago and it would seem that the right hon. Gentleman has done nothing.

The new clause has been introduced in the spirit of compromise. We wish to arrive at all-party consensus on widows. It should be recognised that the further a person is from her mid 40s, the harder it is to find well-paid work, especially after a break.

It is reasonable to ask why there has not been an outcry. Why are people not pounding on the doors of the Chamber demanding change? The answer is that the Government have been particularly cunning. No one currently resident in this country knows that he will be affected by the change that is set out in the Bill. There is not a victim now. Those who will be affected are going about their normal lives. They are blissfully unaware that in a few months disaster will affect them.

Mr. Brazier

Surely my hon. Friend will agree that that is the story of the Government. There is the exact parallel of £5 billion taken out of pension funds when many of them were in surplus. Nobody noticed at the time. It is when disaster strikes that the markets turn down. That will be exactly the same in this instance.

Mr. Pickles

My hon. Friend is right. When the Government see a soft target, they kick. They avoid all difficult decisions, which are put off to spin. If they can find a group who are defenceless, who cannot focus on attacking them, they will go in hard.

Mr. Hawkins

I think that my hon. Friend is being remarkably polite to the Government. Would he agree that people are starting to discover what is happening? I do not know about other hon. Friends, but I have started to receive letters from constituents, from husbands who are starting to discover Labour's betrayal. Our constituents who may be affected by the Government's proposals are becoming extremely angry.

Mr. Pickles

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a betrayal of everything that the Labour party used to stand for. My great grandfather helped found the Independent Labour party. He would be ashamed of the decision taken tonight. [Interruption.] It is worth while attending these debates because one learns something.

I wish everyone in the Chamber a long, happy and fulfilled life. However, the Government's proposals could affect any one of us. We had a sharp and sad reminder of that last week. People going about their daily lives are unaware that the state is about to desert them. Fine words at funerals are not enough. Similarly, sympathy and kindness are not enough. The new clause offers a financial breathing space to enable people to get on with the rest of their lives, and I commend it to the House.

12 midnight

Mr. Field

I shall speak to amendment No. 20 and the linked amendments, but before I do so, I hope the House will allow me to comment on the speech that we have just heard from the official Opposition. As usual, the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) was gentle in his intervention.

Unlike the hon. Member for Northavon, I have been in the House for 20 years. During that time, there must have been 20 occasions when the then Conservative Government attacked the national insurance principle, the national insurance system and the contributors who, over a long period, had built up what they thought were entitlements.

Although it is always welcome when a sinner repents, and we know that there is much rejoicing in heaven when such an event occurs, when there is a mass conversion, as seems to be happening on the Opposition Benches, I am not sure what is going on up there. Their conversion is welcomed, but some of us feel that it is 20 years too late.

Tonight we have been looking at the broad canvas of the Government's welfare reform programme. We spoke earlier about the single gateway and one of the most successful parts of that programme, the new deal. Labour Members rise with considerable pride to support their Government in the changes that they are bringing about through that programme. The Government are turning a largely passive welfare service into one that is proactive and that tries to help many of our constituents who were largely ignored by the Conservatives.

There is a clear difference between the way in which this Government behave when reforming welfare, and the behaviour of previous Conservative Administrations. The Government have raised substantial sums from the privatised utilities to ensure that there is not just rhetoric, and that staff are not simply given more power to persuade some claimants that they should be more anxious to seek work. The Government have laid down a programme to ensure that there are real opportunities for them.

It is noticeable that Labour Members speak about the new deal with pride and confidence. However, when we move to another aspect of the Government's reform programme—their reforms of or, some would say, cuts in national insurance—uncertainty is expressed on these Benches. Partly to counter those uncertainties, my hon. Friends and I tabled our amendments.

When the Conservatives were in government and were hacking away at the insurance system, on at least 12 major occasions we in opposition spoke with one voice. We said that those attacks on the insurance system were an unwarranted attack on working-class values. In our communities there was a decency that sprang from wanting to look after oneself and one's family, and a real wish to pay those contributions.

We attacked the Conservative Government for endlessly pushing our constituents on to means-tested benefits. We saw during those 20 years a welfare state that was largely based on a system of people paying for it through their direct contributions being changed to one that was paid for largely by taxation and in which an ever-growing body of our constituents were dependent on means-tested assistance.

At the end of the Conservatives' stewardship, one in three of our constituents were living in households dependent on one or more of the major means-tested benefits. We did not attack the Conservatives for ideological reasons; we did it because they had attacked the basis of the way in which our constituents tried to survive and live their lives. The Government were developing a powerful engine and teaching people not to work and not to save or, if they did either of those things, not to tell the truth.

The reforms in the Bill affecting widows will affect older women and older men so I hope that all of us have received some correspondence—though perhaps not quite as large a correspondence as that which has already been received by one Member of the House—from people who contributed to the insurance system knowing that their wives, and then their widows, would be covered should their health fail.

Those people are coming to the end of their working lives and may have contributed for 30 or 35 years. They would not have had the resources, even if they had had the freedom of not contributing to the insurance system, to make alternative provision for their spouses. That group in particular will be hardest hit by this reform. I hope that we will hear from those on the Treasury Bench an assurance on how that fits in with the programme of reform that the Cabinet approved in the first Green Paper on welfare reform and with the Prime Minister's more recent remarks about the kind of welfare state that he wants to be more firmly established in this country.

In the Green Paper, the message was clear: we would move from the provision that we have now to provision that would increasingly place the emphasis on contract. We would do so because we thought that that would add not merely security in respect of how people run their own lives, but protection against attack from Governments, and because those benefits would be safer if there was transparency and people could see clearly what they were paying and what they were receiving.

The Prime Minister has said more recently that it is his wish to move from a something-for-nothing society to a something-for-something society. All of us knew what he meant by that. Many of us would have felt that it was noble that some people should get something for nothing in our society, and that being dependent was a noble situation for many people to be in. Most of us read his speech as the country read it, quite properly—he would have a determined war and drive against those scallywags who think that they can take most taxpayers to the cleaners not once, but on many occasions.

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 more than 30 years-and substituting nothing, which is the exact opposite of what he says he is about.

There would have been an alternative way to reform widows benefit—maybe one day this approach will be adopted—had we introduced universal and compulsory stakeholder pensions reform that brought in age groups regularly as they came on to the labour market. We could have ensured that each of those groups had life cover on the back of their pensions cover. That would have been very cheap, because there would have been no cherry-picking from the private sector. Everyone would have been covered and we could have moved safely to seal the national insurance widows benefits for those who would have alternative provision. Sadly, that alternative is not on offer at the moment.

I should like briefly to say what the amendments attempt to achieve. They attempt to ensure that women aged 35 and over will continue to be covered by the range of provision that they currently have—not only for the national insurance benefit, but for the state earnings—related entitlements which widows have. We are not trying to reverse the first or the second major attack made on SERPS by the Conservatives when they were in government; we are accepting SERPS as it stands as the status quo.

Amendment No. 20 and subsequent amendments would ensure that women aged 35 or more continued to be entitled to their current entitlement. Younger women would be expected to have alternative insurance cover, as they would be in a position—if not financially, at least in terms of their age—to make that cover. In that sense, people would not be pushed on to means-tested assistance. There would be time to make those changes, and those who had paid for their entitlement would be secure.

There are a number of amendments in this group, and I am sure that many hon. Members want to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Later, we shall need to consider which amendments should be pushed to a vote. As you know only too well, once we have finished with the Bill, it will go to another place. I am fairly confident—at least, I hope—that the amendments that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have tabled will be moved in another place and will thus become part of the Bill for us then to reconsider in this House.

As the House wishes to come to a major decision tonight on incapacity benefit, I shall not press these amendments at this stage. However, I hope that many of us will have an opportunity to express the disquiet that we still feel about this aspect of the welfare reform programme while rightly drawing attention with pride to other aspects, such as the new deal. I hope that, both here and in the other place, the Government will be in listening mode and that we shall have some progress to report when we debate that aspect of the Bill at a later stage.

I am grateful to the House for allowing me to explain what these amendments are about and to hint at the disquiet that exists on these Benches about the attack on the insurance and contributory principle. Although we are grateful to be joined by that band of sinners opposite, we know that, ultimately, if the Government change their mind, it will be because they have listened to views from the Labour Benches. I hope that hon. Members will continue to press their views on the Government.

Mr. Rendel

I am delighted to follow the two previous speakers, whose speeches I mostly agreed with. That will come as no great surprise to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), with whom I found myself in considerable agreement on several of the amendments that he tabled in Committee on this part of the Bill.

I was interested in the points made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who seemed to come close to saying that if the Government accept the amendments, they will have fulfilled the requirement which the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar outlined—that the imposition of the changes that the Government are trying to introduce, particularly the cut in widows pensions, would be put off for a time. I hope that the Government will listen carefully because the amendments would allow them to overcome the fact that this measure would be a very 0sudden imposition.

New clause 4 and amendment No. 2, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and I, address two different aspects of the problem. New clause 4 would allow those who would otherwise leave bereavement allowance after six months but who would then be on income support to continue to receive benefits up to the level of the bereavement allowance until they reached retirement age. I hope that, when the correct time comes, I shall have the chance to press new clause 4 to a vote.

12.15 am

Amendment No. 2 would have a different effect. It goes part of the way towards the move that was being made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead in that it phases in the changes over a five-year period, rather than bringing them in straight away.

The overall effect of the proposed changes in bereavement allowances will be a cut of some £600 million in the long term. The cut in widows pensions is larger than that. However, some of the changes that the Government propose are welcome, such as the extension of bereavement benefits to widowers. That was rightly forced on the Government through the European courts, but the Government have taken on board the need to make that change. We all respect the need for equality between the sexes in these matters, so it is right that benefits previously available only to widows are now being made available to widowers. That is a small extra cost compared with the proposed cuts in benefits.

The Liberal Democrats also welcome the doubling of the bereavement payment from £1,000 to £2,000. It has not been raised for a long time. There is no question but that the extra costs involved in bereavement, such as funeral expenses, have gone up over time, and it is reasonable that the payment should be doubled. Again, the cost of that is small compared with the overall savings that the Government are making.

Had the Government come to the House with a Bill that included a certain number of potential savings that they could justify on the basis that they were increasing some benefits—whether bereavement benefits or payments to widowers—and that the cuts were necessary to pay for the extra benefits, many of us would have been able to accept that. However, the difficulty that we have with the Bill as it stands is that the major, significant cuts to these benefits are not necessary to cover the extra costs. The Government are making some £750 million worth of cuts at a cost of only £150 million, which is a net cut of £600 million in the long term. We see no reason or justification for that.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar was kind enough to refer to some of the arguments that I used on a previous occasion. I contend that the six-month limit on the bereavement allowance is far too short to allow people who have been recently widowed to recover from their bereavement. Sadly, many of us have lost a close friend or relative, and we know that that can set us back for some time. Happily, most of us have not yet lost our spouses; some may never do so. I am happy to say that I have been married for 24 years, and I can only imagine what it must be like to face the loss of one's spouse after that length of time. It must be a shattering blow.

We are talking about people who lose their spouses when they are still comparatively young. Sadly, the loss of the spouse will be a traumatic and unexpected event, perhaps as the result of an accident or even suicide. It is the traumatic and sudden loss that is most likely to cause the surviving spouse real trauma, which may take months to get over—certainly a great deal longer than the six months in the Government's proposal. That is far too short a time to enable the widows or widowers who are left behind to recover their lives and to have a chance of getting back into work.

There is, however, a problem relating to the way in which, up to now, benefits payable to widows—which will, in future, be payable to widowers—were expected to make up not only for the amount that the woman involved might have earned later in life, but for the loss of the earnings of her partner who has died.

In future, a number of people will undoubtedly find themselves bereaved, having expected to live another 10 or 15 years with the spousal income still coming into the family home. The loss of that income will be a significant factor for the surviving family. One of the reasons why people were happy to pay national insurance contributions in the past is that they genuinely believed that the payment was intended to take account of just that sort of loss of salary in the later part of their married lives. The fact that that is now being lost is, I think, a reason for those people to believe that a genuine contract between the state and the individual is, sadly, being broken as a result of the Bill.

In some cases it will be too late to do anything about this, although such cases would certainly be met by the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. Some people—such as a gentleman who has written to me—will find that, although the wife may have never expected much more in the way of salary to come in from her husband, it is now too late to make alternative arrangements. A man who wrote to me recently said: as a State Pensioner I am not now in a position to make alternative widows pension arrangements. I am 65 years of age, had major heart surgery and my wife of 24 years is only 51 years of age, as a profession she provided a home"— spent her life providing a home— for my two daughters and for him; and now she takes care of him. She has not had the training to earn a salary on my demise. Such a woman would not expect much further salary to be brought in by her husband but, because of the almost immediate effect of the Government's proposed cuts, there is now no way in which her husband—already of pensionable age—can make any sort of alternative arrangements to ensure that his wife would not be not driven into deep poverty were he to die in the near future.

The Government have said all along, and no doubt will say again today, that their proposed changes are intended to help the most needy. They want, perhaps, to take a little money from those who do not really need it to provide a bit more for the least well-off. One of the Government's arguments in Committee was that a great many people who currently receive widows pensions do not need the money all that much, because they are receiving some other form of income.

We have already heard the argument that such benefits rely on the contributions of ex-spouses. There is a strong case for saying that those who make insurance payments when young have a right to expect insurance pay-outs when they are older, and that it is necessary for those who are putting something in to be promised something at the end—that we should have not a nothing-for-something but a something-for-something society. If the Government really wanted to target the neediest members of society in making the big cuts that they are making, they would feel confident about giving a little more to the very neediest. That is why our new clause 4 directly addresses that point.

There will, of course, be some widows who are comparatively well off. Some widows will perhaps find it comparatively easy to get over the death of their spouse. Some will find it easy to go back into work and to earn an income in later life, but there will always be others for whom that will not be easy. There will always be others who do not come into the richer category, whom the Government seem happy to deprive of their benefits. There will always be others who depend on means-tested income support. It seems unfair that their widows pension should be removed, with no alternative means for them to obtain income.

If the Government's wish to give back to the poorest some of the money that they are taking away from the comparatively well-off is genuine, surely they should see the point of new clause 4—all we ask is that at least those who are bereaved and who then depend on income support should have their incomes raised to the bereavement allowance amount, which they will receive only for six months, and for which their husbands have paid through a lifetime of earnings and contributions. It is for that reason—to follow the Government's own theme of trying to give back a bit more to the most needy—that we hope that the House will accept new clause 4.

Mrs. Dunwoody

All Parliaments and all Governments have been known from time to time, when they found themselves in control, suddenly to decide that the things that they were attacking when in opposition were not quite as dreadful as they initially imagined. It is not exactly a new phenomenon, but it is one that some of us find difficult to accept.

I hope that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) will not misunderstand me if I say that I was irresistibly reminded of the walrus and the carpenter when he told us how he wept for us and deeply sympathised. Those of us who know what happened to those for whom the walrus had that warm streak of sympathy will remember what the Conservatives did when they had control of the national insurance system.

All Governments take political decisions. They decide what their priorities are, what is important to them and to those who support them. Therefore, it should be accepted that the amount that will be saved by the change may not be quite the world-shattering amount that it appears to be on first acquaintance. Indeed, what we should be considering are the implications of the decisions of those who, having for many years accepted the idea of a national contributory scheme, at this juncture, with very little preparation and very little open discussion, are now prepared to abandon one particular aspect of it, which will affect a group of women who are least able to cope.

It is not a well-founded theory. I find it difficult to accept, not just because I have always strongly supported the idea of contributory schemes and resented what the previous Government did to SERPS, but because it is partly a generational thing. 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. They will find it almost unimaginable that, after their husbands have for many years contributed to a scheme that they regarded as a form of insurance, they will not be able to benefit.

There may be a number of ways of equivocation; there may be a number of wonderful phrases; there may be a number of theories—but those who say that there are good things in the Bill, that we will support four-year-olds, and that we will make major changes in various sectors that will target help at the least comfortable, have a duty to say why that should be done at the cost of a group of people who are themselves extremely frail and vulnerable. I do not mean that they are physically frail. However, they are at a time in their lives when they will find it extremely difficult to cope. I do not believe that they have been given sufficient warning of the changes.

12.30 am

I do not believe that the principle behind the changes is defensible, and I very seriously ask my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench to think about what we are doing tonight. Do we genuinely believe that those things to which we have contributed, and the principles on which we have built our political platform all these years, are so unimportant that they can be thrown over for, in Government terms, not a very large amount of money? If that is their case, I do not accept it. Even if the vote does not go as we wish tonight, before the measure goes on to the statue book this particular, rather grimy little law will be examined in much greater detail. It may be found to be seriously wanting.

Miss McIntosh

Cutting the bereavement allowance after six months for widows without dependent children is a disgraceful act. I should like to recall one personal experience during the general election campaign to explain the misconceptions that were put around by the Labour party when it realised that it was on the verge of entering government.

I was, exceptionally, out campaigning with my husband, who—in the last week of the campaign, for the first time—devoted himself full-time to canvassing. It was a new role for him, and I and many of my supporters in the Vale of York welcomed him to it. In Rawcliffe, on the outskirts of the city of York, in my constituency, he called at one door where he was met by a recently bereaved lady, a lifelong Conservative voter who had no family and felt—as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) felt when his mother died—completely bereft.

The lady was completely alone, grieving for her husband. She probably could not afford a financial adviser, but was completely taken in by Labour's claim that if the Conservatives were re-elected to government in May 1997, the state pension would end or be cut.

Mr. Hayes


Miss McIntosh

My hon. Friend may laugh, but the lady was taken in by the claim. Initially, she closed the door on my husband. Subsequently, however—as she had been a lifetime Conservative voter and, as she admitted, had been fooled by Labour's rhetoric—she followed my husband down the street in tears.

The fact is that a Conservative Government would have increased the state pension and allowed additional top-up contributions to private pensions for those who could afford to make them and wished to do so. As we now know, the Labour party was able in the general election campaign to propagate a complete, but very successful misconception about our position on pensions.

The Government's Budgets and the provisions of this Bill, which the Government are today pushing through the House, demonstrate that it is the Government who want to cut pensions. It is now becoming apparent that, most regrettably, the Government want to cut bereavement allowance for the most vulnerable people—recently bereaved women. The change would be most regrettable for women between 45 and 60 without dependent children, as their payments would be cut after six months. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, those women have no children to tide them through possibly the most difficult period of their lives. They are probably not in a position to take financial advice.

It is regrettable that we are also seeing the end of the contributory principle. I hope to strike a chord with Labour Members when I say that the proposals go to the heart of the post-war Beveridge system. There are wide ramifications that we should pause to consider. If the Government succeed in ending the contributory principle, how far will they seek to go? It is insulting to husbands who have paid their contributions in good faith, often over a long time—10, 15 or 20 years—particularly in cases where there is an older husband and a much younger wife. They have been taken in by the Government. Means testing will damage them considerably. Widowed women between 60 and 64, many of whom are reliant on savings, are also net losers under the Government's proposals.

We are seeing the unravelling of the Beveridge system. The Government are no longer entitled to call themselves the people's Government. They have made a mockery of their own phrase this evening. I hope that I shall have an opportunity in the next few months to knock on the door of my constituent in Rawcliffe and assure her that had the Conservatives won the election two years ago, she would not be in the position that she will find herself in under the new provisions.

Mr. Eddie O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

This is a major social welfare Bill. It is being debated in the context of many generous improvements in social welfare by the Government, affecting all age groups: child benefit, nursery provision, the new deal for the young unemployed, the extension of the new deal to the older unemployed, the billions spent on schools and the national health service, and numerous enhancements to the living standards of pensioners, including increases in pensions, the minimum income guarantee, cold weather payments and the reduction of VAT on fuel bills. Clauses 46 and 47 also extend bereavement allowances and payments to widowers and double the bereavement grant to £2,000.

However, there is another context. I do not want to be confrontational with a Government who have been responsible for all that I have just described, but I want dialogue with them about the effects of some of their measures on a group of people who concern me, as chairman of the all-party group on ageing and older people. The widows and widowers affected by the provisions can be of many ages, but typically they are of middle age, either side of state retirement age.

Let us consider a widow in her 50s, who has been out of the job market for some time, who does not have many marketable skills and who perhaps had a low-paid, part-time job supplementing the family income while her husband was alive. At the moment, she has the cushion of a non-means-tested widows pension to enable her to continue to get by in that job or get another job as needs be. Under the new proposals, the means-tested element in the bereavement allowance may be a disincentive to finding employment or staying in employment, because her earnings may go above the threshold.

Let us also consider a widow over 60. Currently, she gets a bereavement payment if her husband was drawing the state pension. There might be a case for improving that and saying that a widow over 60 should get a bereavement allowance if her husband was not yet drawing the state pension. Under the proposed system, her situation will worsen and she will lose the payment altogether.

Those are yet more examples of a feature of recent tax changes to which I have drawn the attention of Treasury and Social Security Ministers in this House. Older people—male and female—on either side of the official retirement age are finding that their incomes are under attack from an array of recent tax changes, of which the bereavement allowance and bereavement payment proposals are but the latest.

Add to those the abolition of tax credits on dividends, the abolition of tax relief on new home income plans and the monumental fiasco of the changes to SERPS—for which the Government are not responsible; that fiasco was perpetrated by the previous Government—and we have a picture of older people who have done exactly what the Government wish all people to do in future: they have made financial provision for themselves or their spouses in old age. However, they have found that the goal posts have moved and their expected incomes have been salami-sliced. Juvenal usually had a line for a rum situation, and this is one. Juvenal's line was "probitas laudatur et alget"—probity is praised and is left out in the cold.

I ask the Government to consider their proposals for bereavement benefits in the wider context of their impact, together with other changes, on the incomes of the people to whom I have referred. If the Government cannot find a way during the passage of the Bill to help those people, I appeal to them once again—in friendship and fraternity—to stop attacking that group and, when they have an opportunity in future, to find some way of being more generous to them.

Mr. Hawkins

We have heard three distinguished speeches from three senior Government Back Benchers, none of whom significantly supported the Government's policy. All of them have criticised it—although, admittedly, all three spoke more in sorrow than in anger.

Unlike those Labour Members, I am angry on behalf of my constituents. I have referred to the fact that I have started to get letters on the matter, and it may be that other hon. Members have received letters also. However, I can promise hon. Members that they will get a lot more letters after tonight's debate. An awful lot of Labour Members will be getting letters from their constituents, who will be asking why they did not tell them what was going to happen.

I do not blame the Pavlov's dogs who have been left to try to defend the indefensible from the Front Bench. I blame the guilty men who are absent—the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State. They have left the monkeys to try to defend the indefensible while the organ grinders are safely abed. It is outrageous that the guilty men are absent and are not prepared to face the music on this or subsequent clauses, where they will be under even more fire from their own Back Benches. They cannot be bothered to defend this proposal in public.

Mr. Swayne

The last time we were faced with such a situation, the then Secretary of State at least showed up—although the Treasury Bench was entirely abandoned by the right hon. Lady's colleagues.

Mr. Hawkins

My hon. Friend is quite right.

I was particularly struck by the apt quotation from Juvenal given by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) about probity being praised but left out in the cold. That quotation applies, above all, to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who was originally asked to think the unthinkable. When he started sticking with probity and principle-he would not have introduced the changes that we are debating—he was left out in the cold.

12.45 am

Earlier this evening, by accident, I saw a Labour party political broadcast. It was not a broadcast of hon. Members in this debate talking about abolishing the widows pension and forcing widows on to means-tested benefits; it was full of the usual smug, sanctimonious claptrap. There was nothing about European policy, about which the Labour party is clearly ashamed; it was supposedly a party election broadcast for the European elections, but it talked entirely about domestic policies. It did not admit the truth because today's Labour party knows that if it tells the truth about its policies, nobody will want to support it.

We want to expose the truth about new Labour policies, as the three Labour Back Benchers have already done. The hard-faced, uncaring new Labour party is not fit to call itself a caring party. A constituent wrote me a letter which I received this very day. He said:

An unbelievably unfair change is proposed … How can it be right? He had never received any verbal or written information about what the Government intended. He said:

This reduction would cause considerable hardship to my wife should I pre-decease her … I feel very strongly that this proposed legislation should be withdrawn. The letter ends with a request to forward it to the Secretary of State, but I am unable to draw the matter to his attention tonight because he does not dare to come and listen to Labour Back Benchers—former Ministers—attacking the Government's policies.

This is a betrayal of all that the old Labour party claimed to stand for. If Ministers had any guts, they would demand that the Secretary of State come and face the music and they would listen to my hon. Friends the Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), and to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), who made valid points attacking the proposals.

The proposals are an outrage and a betrayal of what new Labour said at the general election. They should be dropped and the new clause should be substituted for them.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I subscribe to what my hon. Friends have already said. I want to concentrate on the position of the 45-year-old widow with no dependants. Until now, such a woman would have had up to 15 years' widows pension, up to the age of 60. From that, we are going to the extreme of having only 26 weeks' widows pension.

I urge the Government to rethink their policy, because they are treating all women over 45 without dependants as though they were in identical circumstances. A small minority of women are well-off in their own right. A woman might have a good salary or a substantial pension from her husband's employment. Better-off families will have taken out insurance so that, when either spouse dies, the mortgage will be paid, but plenty of families cannot afford such insurance.

At the other end of the income scale, women on income support have the widows allowance deducted pound for pound in any case. The circumstances of a vast swathe of lower-paid women in the middle are not being sufficiently regarded. The vast majority of working women are in jobs that pay less than the male average wage. Some have been on very low pay and are only now beginning to benefit from the national minimum wage. 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.

Why are women in that position being given only six months to find work, training or other means of support? Mention has already been made of how traumatic it is to be suddenly widowed. The widow has to get over that pain and distress and launch herself into a career that she might not otherwise have had, with all the difficulties that one can imagine for someone whose skills have gone rusty over the years. Why make no distinction between the different circumstances of women? Why treat all women as if their circumstances are all alike? It does not make sense.

I was amused to notice that the Bill provides that the benefit would not be payable on remarriage. That was a sensible provision in the context of a span of up to 15 years, but suggesting that widows will remarry after six months reminds me of Hamlet describing Gertrude as remarrying in time to serve the funeral meats at the wedding feast. I wonder how many widows marry again within six months of bereavement. I suggest very few. The vast majority will have to launch themselves into the world of work.

I beg Ministers to reconsider this issue. The Government have done good work helping other groups having difficulty getting back into work, in particular through the new deal for under-25s. Why is insufficient notice taken of the needs of that middle-age group of women? We need a new deal for widows, not the treatment that the Bill will give them. I urge the Government to rethink that aspect of the Bill.

Mr. Brazier

At this stage in the evening, the blood sugar is getting low and the House is often fairly empty, but the quality of the speeches that we have heard in the past hour or so is enough to energise anyone. I think in particular of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and I also regret missing part of the speech by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I was reminded of just how much is at stake in this issue.

The three worst features of the changes that the Government are making in social legislation are combined in the provision that new clause 1 seeks to address. First, the provision would undermine the contributory principle and force people into means testing. Secondly, it would hit an especially vulnerable group in an especially obnoxious way, while saving relatively little money. Thirdly, it would put one of the final nails into the coffin of one of the few measures left in the tax and benefit system in which marriage still plays a part.

In an excellent opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) admitted to some wearing of sackcloth and ashes for the record of the previous Government on means testing and the contributory principle. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead chided us mildly—and all the more effectively—for the number of times that we departed from the contributory principle.

I would rightly be chided by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I were to repeat the points that I made on Second Reading, but I wish to tell the House that the great conversion came for me when I saw the massive impact on pensioners' saving behaviour of the changes the previous Government made in 1988. Some 500,000 pensioner households ditched their savings when they discovered that they could live better off the state than by retaining their savings and providing for themselves. We slapped in the face those who had sought to use their modest savings to top up their retirement income and rewarded those who did no such thing.

A smaller group would be affected by this provision, but it is an especially vulnerable group. I do not wish to cover the same ground that so many hon. Members on both sides of the House have covered so effectively, but I wish to throw in three brief thoughts of my own.

The first concerns the position of someone who has just lost their husband, someone who—as several Labour Members have said—may have been earning for long periods, but has not had a proper career in any sense that we would recognise. All the work may have been part-time. It may have been full-time work, but at a miserably low wage. It is one thing to expect that person to re-enter the labour force, but quite another to expect her to do so and find work within six months. Realistically, the earning power of someone who has not had a proper career —a person of that age who may have been out of the world of work for a bit—is very small. It is hardly fair to choose to take money from that group of people.

Secondly, if we are to say to people who have lost husbands, and who are grieving, "We shall not look after you all the way through", surely it must be possible, simply out of common humanity, to give them longer than six months. If the Government want to put aside the contributory principle, there is surely a case in elementary decency for more than six months. The sums involved are relatively small. When the existing generation has worked its way through, only a few hundred million pounds a year will be saved. If we were to extend the period from six to 18 months, the cost would be in tens of millions, not even hundreds of millions.

I shall conclude with a political point, which I should like to share once more with the House, which is remarkably well attended for almost 1 o'clock in the morning. Repeatedly, at every stage of the Bill's passage, whenever Conservative Members have said, "The Government pledged themselves to make people more self-reliant but now they are introducing more means-testing," we have had the same jibes—from Ministers. I am not talking about distinguished Back Benchers who have maintained the same view throughout. Ministers have jibed, "Look at all the means testing that the Conservatives introduced."

I have news for the Government. One reason why they were elected two years ago was that a lot of ordinary people, including many who had always voted Conservative, were fed up with the undermining of the contributory principle, and they believed the then Leader of the Opposition—the present Prime Minister—when he said that he was going to get back to the contributory principle and give a hand up, not a handout. Many people decided, for the first time, to cast their vote for the Labour party, not for us.

I remember the fury among some of our party workers at some of the changes that we made, and I have the following message for the Government. The Government have picked on many vulnerable groups in the Bill, but I doubt whether any of the picking has been quite as mean as the picking on widows.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

The House finds itself in genuine difficulty in discussing such an important and complex matter at such an hour, but I gently say to Conservative Members that, in those circumstances, we should pay regard, not simply to their strategies as a Government over 18 years, but to their tactics tonight, in the last nine and a half hours of debate.

Like several of my hon. Friends, I am troubled by the removal of an entire category of long-term contributory benefits. That important and significant step may have ramifications and consequences for other issues on other occasions. We should think again.

1 am

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) pointed out that benefits can be replaced on the private market, but the sums of money required to buy substitutes are far in excess of the savings of most of the people whom Labour Members represent. They are far in excess of a lifetime of savings for a working family. That should make us cautious as we consider this matter, reminding us that the collective savings of working families, expressed through national insurance contributions, are a basic, inescapable building block of our social security system. They should not be chipped away.

I am disappointed by the Government's proposals. In short-term bereavement allowances, they have dealt with the problem of equality between men and women and come up with positive and imaginative solutions. Yet, in the proposals before us now, there are important gaps. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) rightly reminded us that people who return to the labour market in their 50s find it a tough and raw place. Good opportunities are scarce. The Government intend to make more opportunities and to support people who take them, but they should recognise that men or women who have been full-time carers and who, between 45 and 55, find themselves back in the labour market after a bereavement require special support that goes beyond six months.

The Government should also recognise the link between these proposals and the Budget's proposals for an employment tax credit for the over-50s. Can the Ministers assure us that the short-term bereavement allowances introduced by the Bill, which are new, will be a qualifying benefit for access to an employment tax credit on return to the labour market, even though that credit, in its present form, is just a short-term support?

May I draw to the Government's attention the situation of women who have been on widowed mothers allowance? When their children cease to be dependent, they will find themselves with no support at all. The average age at which that occurs is 51. The position for those women is difficult and traumatic.

Mr. Rendel

Has the hon. Gentleman considered the possibility that such a woman may no longer have a dependent child because the child may have died? That would be an even more traumatic circumstance in which to be left with nothing.

Mr. Cousins

Clearly, if there were time, it would be possible to devise all sorts of circumstances that could heap upon the misery of those women. That is not my intention.

At termination of widowed mothers allowance, when children are no longer dependent, women require support. The Government's proposals lead to complete withdrawal of widows benefits and pensions. I urge the Government to think again. At a better time, in better circumstances and in a better mood, I hope that we may return to this matter and find better proposals.

Mr. Brady

Despite the late hour, I am pleased to follow such powerful speeches in this important debate. I mention in particular the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who powerfully criticised the Government's proposals, saying that they undermine the contributory principle, attack those who are most vulnerable and remove one of the last vestiges of recognition of marriage in the tax and benefits system. I can think of no better way to crystallise everything that is wrong with the proposals in the Bill.

Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have received many letters from constituents who are concerned about these matters. What struck me most strongly was not merely the concern of those who have been widowed and are anxious that proper provision should be in place for others who may face a similar fate and circumstances. Sometimes, the most moving letters were from elderly husbands, to whom the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) referred. Frequently, they are much older than their wives and are of a generation who have felt a total responsibility to care and provide for their wives. Also, in many instances, they are men who are quite ill and who have written to me in some distress and anguish feeling that, because of the changes, they may not be making proper provision, and are letting down wives for whom they have cared for so many years and for whom they believe that they should continue to care.

All that I can tell them is that I believe that the contributory principle should be maintained. It is an important principle in the welfare system. In some ways, it is the most important, in that it contains an element of contract. People have paid in expectation of securing a benefit. In this instance, perhaps more than any other, they have paid in the expectation of securing a benefit not for themselves but for others who may be left in need of support in difficult circumstances later in their lives.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) welcomed sinners on the Opposition side of the House who repent. I was left wondering what was the appropriate phrase for the opposite situation. Hon. Members who have been in the House for longer than I have will remember that, when this matter was raised by the previous Government, the then Opposition spokesman responsible, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) said:

I want to make it absolutely clear that the Opposition unequivocally reject the revised proposals on SERPS".—[0fficial Report, 28 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 834.] At that point, the then Opposition were unequivocal on the matter. It was a principle that had to be defended. Far from being sinners who repent, they were virtuous believers in a principle that was important to them. Apparently, they now feel that it is appropriate to sin.

Mr. Hawkins

My hon. Friend mentioned the anguish expressed by a number of husbands and the inconsistencies on the Labour side. Does he agree with one anguished husband who has written to me to draw attention to the fact that, once before, someone who professed to be Labour robbed pensioners—the late Robert Maxwell. Are not the Treasury Bench the spiritual inheritors of the mantle of Robert Maxwell?

Mr. Brady

I thank my hon. Friend for that colourful illustration, but perhaps I should not be drawn on that at a late hour in a serious debate in which some Labour Members have made thoughtful contributions.

Mr. McWalter

The hon. Gentleman talks about the contributory principle. Does he agree that clause 53(4) allows some people who have not made contributions to be treated as though they have? They have made contributions, but not of a financial nature. People who receive invalid care allowance who may not have a recent work record would be protected by that principle. Does he agree that extending contributory rights to those who have not been able to make them is valuable?

Mr. Brady

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. However, the Government are extending not contributory rights but some rights to benefit. That may be reasonable, but it does not, by definition, involve a contributory right because no contribution has been made to secure it. The Bill would snatch away rights for which contributions have been paid. That is where the contributory principle is undermined. He may have a reasonable point, but it does nothing to lessen the abuse of taking away something that was paid for in good faith. People have a right to expect what they paid for, and those who have contributed on behalf of others over many years have a right to expect that it will be maintained.

Many people who are drawing to the end of their working lives face legislative changes that affect the benefits for which they have contributed and permanently affect the well-being of those for whom they care. However, there is no long run-in, no recognition that the measure should apply only to those who can make alternative provision. It will come into effect quickly, with no opportunity for people to make such provision. It will affect many people who cannot contemplate private provision. For them, this is the most appalling betrayal, because they have paid.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

In view of the hon. Gentleman's concern for the fundamental importance of the contributory principle, will he commit the Conservative Opposition to restoring it where they summarily removed it, such as with earnings-related unemployment pay and in the undermining of the state earnings-related pension scheme? That profoundly affected the individuals who suffered.

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Mr. Brady

Sadly, the hon. Lady cannot make me commit the Conservative party to anything. The critical factor is what her party and Government are doing. I think that she would do herself more credit if she were to take responsibility for her stance and that of her right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Front Bench. That is the issue on which she, and her right hon. and hon. Friends who are not safely tucked up in their beds at this hour, will be judged when the time comes. They must remember the pledges and unequivocal statements that they made in the past. They should look to those and try for some record of consistency and principle.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I shall speak briefly on the regrettable Government proposal that is before the House. 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. It is unrealistic of Ministers to imagine that women in their 50s, who perhaps have never worked or have worked only part time, can re-enter the labour market at a time of bereavement and hope to earn the sort of income that widows benefit would have provided.

I remember when my mother died. It took me much longer than six months to recover from that. It must be much worse if a partner in life, with whom one has lived for 20, 30 or 40 years, has died. Six months after that, Ministers are expecting unskilled and semi-skilled women to go back into the labour market. The spurious feminism that I have heard about in the past will not do.

Secondly, there is the idea of alternative provision. It has been said already that to make such provision, people would have required notice of the Government's proposal. Moreover, it would require sums well out of reach of most of my constituents. Why should people put their money into private sector provision, with the huge rake-offs in commissions and up-front fees, when they thought that they had a contributory system available to them, to which they had contributed throughout their working lives in good faith?

We have seen much briefing in the press during the days running up to the debate about how Ministers will be tough on these issues and face people down. We have been told that Ministers will show that they have backbones of steel. I say gently that it is not necessarily the most desirable thing to be tough on widows and the disabled.

Last week, we had a set of election results in Scotland and Wales which were variable in their quality. We were told by Millbank—I always believe what Millbank tells me—that we had such a low turnout in parts of Wales because people were so happy and pleased with new Labour. That was why they did not bother to come out to vote. However, I shall put forward an alternative theory, accepting that the results in Scotland and Wales were complex and there were different phenomena in different parts of the country.

For our core electorate—the people who stuck with us throughout the 1980s when many of those surrounding new Labour or in positions of high office in new Labour were nowhere to be seen—it is matters such as those before us which make them wonder, "Is this really our party after all?" Even if we are not able to reverse the Government's proposal, I believe that at another time and in another place, the Government's unfitting and rather mean proposal will be taken out of the Bill.

Mr. Hayes

I have listened with great interest to the contributions of Labour Members, perhaps with even more concentration than I listened to the contributions of my colleagues. We have heard most interesting criticisms of the Government's position from Labour Members, and not always from the most expected quarters. I was particularly interested in the speech of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who talked with unnecessary generosity about the Prime Minister's facile remark about the something-for-nothing society. I accept that it was just a facile remark in what was an otherwise banal speech. The right hon. Gentleman may have been excessively generous for that reason.

However, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead will understand, because of his distinguished record in these affairs, that many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House found the Prime Minister's remark a flagrant attack on some of the most disadvantaged, desperate, needy and defenceless people in our society. There are those of us on both sides of the House who believe that there are some people who deserve something for nothing. They deserve compassion, care and even our indulgence. They have very little to give in return. Those who are most disadvantaged in our society do not believe that they should give something in return for that care, compassion and charity.

The idea of compassion for the needy being part of a trade-off is unacceptable to many of us, but it does not surprise me that the idea has currency with the Prime Minister. If we are sinners, we are venal sinners. He is a mortal sinner, and an unrepentant mortal sinner. I shall not take the right hon. Gentleman too far down an Anglo-Catholic road, but it is important to recognise that Labour does not have a monopoly on care and compassion, or on regard and concern for disadvantaged and needy people.

Labour never has had such a monopoly, throughout the history of this place and of British politics. The Conservative party has a proud history. I shall not go into it—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."] You would not let me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but you and other hon. Members are fully aware of that proud history.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead also spoke of his admiration for working class culture. There is nothing incompatible between that admiration, which I share—a belief in preparing for the future, in putting by for tough times, and in making provision and taking responsibility—and my earlier remarks. Working—class culture is also compassionate, caring and concerned for those who cannot put by for the future. That acceptance has always been a central part of our welfare state.

The contributory principle is valuable and important, but it does not mean that everyone should be obliged to contribute. Those who cannot contribute and those who are most desperate deserve support. The least fortunate deserve support from the most fortunate. That must be said time and again, particularly when we are governed by such a Prime Minister and Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) set the tone when he dragged out his great-grandfather—not literally, I hasten to add. Perhaps that was fortunate, because we all have a great-grandfather in the cupboard whom we can drag out to prove our credentials. While the grandparents of some liberal bourgeois Labour Members were no doubt founding the Woodcraft Folk, or writing pamphlets about the Spanish civil war, my grandfather was on the dole, a chairman of his local branch of a trade union and campaigning for the rights of other working class people to improve their lot. We do not need any lectures from the other side of the Chamber about working class culture or the need to support working class communities.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead spoke with proper admiration for that culture, but I believe that he was referring to a deeper strain—the idea that we should look to the future, and that man is not here by accident, but is a product of his past and has a role in looking to his future. Man is linked to both past and future; preparedness and responsibility for the future are thus a fundamental instinct in humankind. It is the antithesis of the hedonistic live-for-today attitude that characterises the worst extremes of pop culture.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw our attention to that. The attack on the contributory principle implicit in the measure is an erosion of values which are bigger than working class culture. It is a deeper instinct still. That attack is also an attack on the trust of the people—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Twigg) wants to say something about his working class roots, I am happy to give way. I am not sure whether he has any, so perhaps he does not want to intervene after all.

The attack on the contributory principle is a breach of people's trust in government. The contribution that people make is based on a proper expectation of what they were told they would receive at the end of the contributory period. The undermining of trust implicit in the measure not only damages the working class culture to which the right hon. Gentleman drew our attention, but undermines people's faith in good government. It also undermines people's trust in the promises that they were given-year by year, by successive Governments—about what they would receive when they fell on difficult times.

No time is more difficult than when one loses a loved one. I do not want to dwell on that, because it has been spoken about already, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, most of us have been through some form of bereavement and understand some of the tensions that it creates. His honest remarks contrast starkly with the assurances given in the Budget speech by the Chancellor, who said that

the Budget will increase the income of all pensioners."—[Official Report, 9 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 174.] Does not that look pretty strange in the light of the measure that is before us tonight?

That calumny was reiterated in the Inland Revenue press release on the Budget, which said:

Widows will be more than compensated by the loss of this allowance by the proposed Bereavement Payment in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. The end of widows bereavement allowance, which would be worth up to £197 in the new tax year and £285 this year, will certainly not leave widows better off and will not increase the income of all pensioners. Widows will not receive any degree of equivalence.

It has already been said that the change will harm the interests particularly of widows aged between 60 and 65 who will no longer be entitled to the benefit. It has also been said, but needs amplifying, that the six-month rule is at best—and I am being extremely generous —very harsh, given what we all know about bereavement and the status of people in the job market at that stage of life, to which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred. Her point concerned that generation of women who find themselves in the job market, and peculiarly and particularly disadvantaged because of their historical situation.

Administration of the new allowance will now be carried out by the Department of Social Security and the benefit will be available only to widows and widowers under retirement age. The change is not aimed at improving the lot of widows and widowers; it is about saving money. It would be better if the Government came clean and did not hide behind the pretence that, somehow, people will be better off. We all know that they will be significantly worse off. The change is about saving money and filling the coffers of the Exchequer in a fairly grubby way. If that money were reallocated to another good cause or to similar groups, one might be able to justify the reform, but there is little evidence of that. The net cost to widows of £600 million is highly unacceptable to Members across the Chamber.

The change also needs to be seen in the context of the other pressures that fall on elderly people and on these widows. We should not ignore the fact that the abolition of mortgage interest relief at source affects older people as well as younger ones; and, I suggest, disproportionately affects people who bought their own council house in their 50s. Following the Thatcher legislation in 1980, a lot of working class couples in their 50s decided to buy a house for the first time. Almost 20 years down the line, some of them find themselves still with a mortgage. I can say that with some authority, because my parents were in that category.

Tax credits on dividends have been abolished, people continue to pay tax on savings income and the married couples tax allowance has been abolished, too. Older people were excluded from that, but people coming up to retirement age—60 or 65—would have continued to receive that allowance for some time.

1.30 am

Therefore, we need to see the change in the context of a wider attack on the elderly and on a range of disadvantaged groups. I do not want to anticipate the heated debate that the House will have later on disabilities, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the context of disabilities, because many old people and widows are also disabled. Those groups overlap. We should remember that some 70 per cent. of disabled people are over retirement age. It is therefore important to consider these matters in an holistic fashion.

Mr. Hawkins

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to reflect on what our hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said in drawing a comparison with the Government's television campaign, which talked about paying pensioners back and used the phrase "They owe you"? Given all the changes that the Government are making—introducing stealth taxes and attacking pensioners—is it not the case that the Government owe the widows?

Mr. Hayes

Yes. I—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I think that we have now sufficiently explored the width of the context, and the hon. Gentleman would do better to bring his remarks back into focus on this new clause.

Mr. Hayes

I had no intention of allowing my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) to seduce me into pursuing a subject that would meet with your displeasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and test the patience of the House. It is important, however, that we understand that widows may well fall into one of the other groups that have been targeted for particular treatment by the Government, which is why I mentioned disability.

This is a grubby measure. I am not the first to describe it as such; that word has already been used by Labour Members this evening. It is negative, spiteful and draconian. I hope that the House will reject it and that the people of this country will see it and understand the sort of Government with whom they are dealing. I hope that many Labour Members who have been brave and bold enough to criticise their Government will remember that as we discuss other matters later tonight, when they may have a chance to register their compassion, care and concern, and their contempt for this sort of attack on vulnerable people by the Government.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I wish to speak briefly in support of the tranche of amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I begin, as he did, with a recognition of how much praise and credit the Labour party deserves for founding the welfare state, which Labour built up and has been responsible for constructing and maintaining. Labour fought to resist its erosion by the previous Conservative Government—

Mr. Quentin Davies

There are some things that one should not be allowed to get away with, even at this time of night. Is it not a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to say that the Labour party built up the welfare state when we are now talking about defending widows pensions, which were introduced by a Conservative Government in 1925?

Mr. Simpson

The strengthening of widows pensions was among the first tranche of measures that the Labour Government introduced in 1945—

Mr. Pickles


Mr. Simpson

The Labour Government of 1945 laid down the building blocks of a welfare state, based on universality and rooted in the contributory principle. However much of a hair shirt the Conservatives now wish to wear in accepting the damage that they have done to widows benefit, we should not be deluded into believing that that somehow makes them the defenders of a universal and inclusive welfare state. That is about as convincing as Rupert Murdoch proclaiming his support for a contributory tax system.

When the Conservatives were in office they got someone else to make the commitments and contributions. Their notion of equality was based on the principle of hitting the old just as hard as the young, and of treating the not so young as badly as those who were not so well. That is the history of their 18 years in office. Labour has inherited the remnants of that destructive period. We should treat their hair shirt confessions with some caution.

I should also put in context the unexpected and belated conversion of the Liberal Democrats to new clause 4. I was pleased to see that they have come round—I knew that they would, but not this soon. Yet that party has found more ways to spend a penny than any other in political history. A universal and inclusive welfare state cannot be funded entirely from a one penny increase in tax revenues.

The Labour party wants to preserve and modernise the welfare state. Our position must be tested against the benchmarks that are important to the Government in the refounding and reforming of the welfare state. We make great play of the fact that the Labour party is committed to the family, and to marriage in particular. I am not sure that we should focus on the centrality of marriage instead of having a more inclusive view of families, but that is one of the benchmarks that we have set ourselves. We have also set out our stall as a party that encourages responsibility and that values the things that we hold in common as much as those we have constructed for ourselves as individuals.

I ask Ministers to measure the proposal on the restriction of entitlement to widows pensions against those three benchmarks. I think that the proposals breach all three commitments. The national insurance principle is a contributory principle. Millions of families, whose members are spread across several generations, believe that they have been part of that contributory principle, and that it gives them some guarantee against an uncertain future. People believe that there is a safety net which, in the event of an early and unexpected death, will leave their widow with an entitlement based on contributions already made. We cannot wipe out that history of contributions or condense it into a six-month period and pretend that that is still the basis of a universal and inclusive provision.

We must recognise that millions of people still believe that, under the national insurance structure, widows benefits form the foundation of a modest income that may be supplemented by earnings. Whether a person is male or female, the prospect of finding work in their 40s and onwards is not great. All Members of Parliament in their constituency advice surgeries have heard a litany of complaints from older workers who feel that they have been abandoned by the labour market. They constantly refer to their experiences of seeking jobs and being told that they are past their sell-by date. It is a tribute to them that they continue to look for work, but we ought not to pretend that this is a process whereby a declaration of intent to look for work will magically secure the opportunity. Bereavement compounds the problems that older workers experience in pursuing secure and reasonably paid employment.

I am sure that most Members of Parliament will have received letters from Age Concern and many other groups. We are, in fact, vulnerable to the criticism that the changes will mean that the Labour Government are themselves guilty of a form of pensions mis-selling. Age Concern has sent details of people who have received letters from what is now the Department of Social Security, dated 1979, 1987, 1991, 1994 and 1998, all telling men that their wives would be covered, and would receive widows pensions. One sentence from such men comes up time and again: "I am now too old to make any alternative plans for my wife".

The amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) address just how far back we ought to set the benchmark relating to those whom we continue to include in the current provisions governing the contributory framework for national insurance. All who have made such contributions will no doubt tell us that, to a certain extent, we have been obtaining money on false pretences. They believed that they were contributing to the common pot of national insurance, on the basis that it would be there for all at the point at which it would be needed. In that context, we are in danger of constructing something that is close to retrospective legislation. It is retrospective in the sense that all who have already made contributions are in danger of seeing those contributions being taken from under their feet not just by a change in future commitments on social policy, but by a reneging on past commitments.

We should also consider what bereavement means as a personal experience. I do not think that the House has begun to scratch the surface in considering the impact of the death of a partner. Seeing a partner die makes huge demands not only on a person's work prospects, but on that person generally. It makes demands on the person's social confidence; it makes the person introspective, in that he or she must simply get through life day by day, week by week. The point at which death occurs is the beginning of what is often a long grieving process. The idea that the process can be limited to six months—the idea that people can be told, "That's your lot, get yourself sorted out, get out there and get a job"—does not remotely equate to the real-life trauma that many people, especially women, experience in the process of nursing a partner to a dignified death.

I think it demeaning to talk about time-limiting, or cash-limiting, the entitlement to six months. To compensate for the cash losses for a woman of 55—what would amount to more than £21,000 in the five years that would take her to retirement age—we would now offer £1,735. That is a derisory exchange, given the human and personal commitments that would have been made over, perhaps, many years of nursing care.

1.45 am

It is also an impossible message to sell. How on earth do we tell people, as the legislation goes through, that the only way to deliver the widows benefit that they had hoped would be in place for their spouses is to do a Captain Oates and say, "I am going out now and I shall be gone for a while." We cannot say, "You have to act quickly before the legislation comes in. Die now while stocks last." That is hardly a commitment to a new, refounded welfare state, based on the principles of social inclusion and universality.

I hope that, when the Bill goes to another place, Ministers will take the opportunity to reflect on the fact that the House has other choices. It has better and more inclusive choices. I hope that, when the Bill comes back in its final stages, we will have found a way in which to honour and to extend widows' benefit rights, rather than contracting and limiting them.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I am, for once, grateful to have been called in the debate after many hon. Members have spoken—perhaps, for all I know, near the end of the debate. It has been a fascinating debate. In the course of it, I have understood much better some of the points that I wanted to make from the beginning. What has become clear is that we are discussing two separate, but connected issues. The first relates to the specific question of widows and their payments on bereavement.

In case Ministers do not do so in their answer to the debate, I should explain what I take to be the logic behind the Government's proposals on the precise question of widows. It is part of a general logic. If I were going to defend the Government's proposition on widows, I would say what the Government would say, if they were honest, about a range of their social security measures: the Government no longer accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) referred to implicitly, which is that with certain categories of person, regardless of their income, it is right to recognise their need for extra payments, or for reduced taxation, which come to the same thing, but in different ways. That is as true of the married couples allowance—which, obviously, I am not able to speak about tonight—as it is of widows benefit.

If they were defending their position against new clause 1, the Government would say, "We do not accept the idea that widows as widows have any right to any special payment on bereavement. For political purposes, we will admit to payment for six months." However, the six-month limit makes no sense. There is no logic to six months. While we are at it, there is no logic to a limit of three or nine months.

Mr. Duncan Smith

It is plucked out of the air.

Mr. Letwin

Indeed. It is plucked out of the air for understandable political reasons, but the proposition that underlies that arbitrary six months is the fundamental one that circumstance should not count. In the Government's view, only one circumstance should count: income.

That is a reasonable proposition; it is rational. However, it is wrong because of two consequences. The first involves incentives; the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has talked many Labour Members and now, thankfully, almost all Conservative Members into recognising the argument. The proposition that it is always lack of income, and only lack of income, that should attract payment from the state, or reduction of tax from the state, is an incentive always to reduce, rather than to increase, income at any stage in life. The right hon. Gentleman has written lucidly and powerfully about that. In the Bill and in many other measures, the Government have forsaken the principles that he has enunciated.

The second reason why circumstances should count is that we should be giving positive incentives to people. In this case, we should be giving people incentives to save and to contribute; in other cases, they should be given incentives to look after themselves and to behave in certain ways—such as to enter stable relationships for the sake of children. If we do not admit the principle that certain circumstances, quite apart from income, are ipso facto a reason for being treated differently from other people, we sweep away the whole argument for using the tax and benefit system as a means of creating a better society and preserving that which is good in our society.

The conception that certain circumstances are not a reason for different treatment—if that is what Ministers believe—is a profound misconception. If that is not their conception, the argument for doing away with widows benefits collapses entirely. If one admits that circumstance is a reason for increased payments from the social security system, who could possibly be in a circumstance more meritorious and needy than someone who has been bereaved?

We have been discussing two issues: the first is that of widows; the second is a broader and deeper one, on the contributory principle. I should like to enlarge a little on a debate, which, although it has been very interesting, has not quite yet got to the nub of the issues.

It is clear that the contributory principle is a very special thing. It is not like a contribution or a contract between an individual and a private scheme, and I think that many hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that that is a very fine thing.

As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said, a principle in the Green Paper, and for the Prime Minister, has been to encourage private provision. However, private provision has a characteristic that contributions to the social security system can never share. More importantly, contributions to the social security system have a characteristic that private schemes can never share. Private schemes can never be as diversified as contributions coming compulsorily to the central pool. Compulsion is the basis for universality—which is the principle that I think that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) had in mind.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I am fascinated by the debate, and am delighted that I stayed up to listen to it. [Interruption.] I may be mad—and I hope that my hon. Friends will help me out when I am old—but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is alighting on a very important point. We talk about the contributory system, but are we not simply talking about a form of taxation?

Mr. Letwin

I am delighted that my hon. and learned Friend stayed up, not to listen to me, but to alight instantly on a point that is far distant in my speech, towards which I was gradually wending my way. My answer is no—I do not think that the contributory principle is a form of taxation. The problem, however, is that the Government do. I shall try in a moment to explain just what I mean by that.

The difference between contribution in social security and contribution to a private scheme is that, in a private scheme, a person is looking after himself or herself—[HON. MEMBERS: "Here he I certainly do not attribute the arrival of the Secretary of State to my own eloquence, but we are honoured by his presence.

In a private scheme, in which an individual looks after himself or herself, the individual necessarily is an economic proposition; otherwise, the private scheme would not be taking him or her on. All the other individuals in that private scheme also are economic propositions—which is a fine thing; there is nothing to be said against it. I think that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will agree that any proper long-term provision for old age and the many other vicissitudes of life depends greatly on private provision. However, it will never satisfactorily wholly depend on private provision; neither will it ever satisfactorily wholly depend on means-tested benefits for those for whom private provision fails. There must be a middle portion that is funded by compulsory contribution into a pool that is sufficiently diversified for there to be a transparent link, in the words of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, for those who, throughout their working life or for a large part of it, do not constitute economic propositions for private providers between what they contribute and what they receive. That link is not between the amount that they contribute and the amount that they receive, as in a private scheme, but between the fact of contributing and the fact of receiving. That is the huge distinction between contribution and tax.

Mr. Garnier

Might I not have the same feelings about the payment of tax and what I eventually receive in an old age pension or another form of benefit?

Mr. Letwin

I am particularly grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention, which moves me on to the next phase of my argument. My answer to his question is again no. When I make a tax payment, I do not believe that I have any right to expect particular results. For a long time, the House has recognised that distinction through the consolidated fund. We have also recognised that it is legitimate to change entitlements and tax regimes more or less willy-nilly, year after year, without trying to go back and ask whether someone making a tax payment in previous years had any contractual expectations.

Mr. Hayes

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Letwin

Of course I shall in a moment.

That was a great distinction between the tax system and the contributory system. Those who fostered and preserved the contributory system always imagined that there would be a framework of legitimate expectation and that people would not retrospectively make changes that falsified those expectations.

Mr. Hayes

I am sorry to harass my hon. Friend. Is his point that obligation produces a certain type of trust? The difference between a compulsory system managed by the state and a private contract that one might enter into, like a business deal, is that the obligation engenders a certain expectation and trust that is peculiar to the system that we are talking about.

Mr. Letwin

My remarks seem to be so unpleasing to the Secretary of State that he has left the Chamber again. [HON. MEMBERS: "Back to bed."] I hope that he rests well.

My hon. Friend is right. Part of the point of the contributory system as it was understood is that it creates a bond of trust in the framework of legitimate expectation, but it also does more, creating clarity for people who would otherwise lack it about the fact that they are contributing to their later benefit. It creates a sense of responsibility that would not be possible for them in private schemes because they are not economic propositions. It transfers a large part of the population, widows in this case, from being legitimised beggars looking to the state for money to being upstanding, proud people who have contributed—either personally or through a spouse on their behalf—to something that they receive.

We all know that distinction as it is felt by people in this country. Despite the efforts of the Government, which I applaud, there are still hundreds of thousands of pensioners who refuse to draw income support, because they make in their hearts the distinction that I am trying to make in our minds between contribution and receipt of unmerited benefits.

Mr. Garnier

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that the taxation system and the contribution system should be engines of social change? I thought that the old Labour party used to stand for that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds to that, I think that we are getting wide of the mark. He ought to talk more specifically about the new clause and the amendments.

Mr. Letwin

Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I stand admonished and I shall not say more than yes. I believe that the tax and social security system should be used as a framework to try to create proper relationships between individuals and the state and proper relationships between one individual and another. There is nothing harmful in that.

This is a defining moment for the Government and their social security policy and for my party and its attitude. To take the second first, there is no doubt that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead was right to say that we were grossly at fault. In trying to save money in the social security system, we frequently attacked both the contributory principle and the principle that means testing should not be extended. Ironically—horribly ironically—the results of our efforts to save money by doing those two wrong things were to increase vastly social security spending; a point made in opposition and now in government by the Prime Minister, who frequently thinks that he is still in opposition.

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Tonight is a defining moment for my party, because we must promise ourselves that we will never again make that mistake because we will have learned the lessons that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead has taught us all these years.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)

In seeking to justify the abolition of non-means-tested widows benefit, the Government have said that only 16 per cent. of widows benefit recipients are on income support. Does my hon. Friend agree that there has been no calculation of the numbers who will have to go on to income support as a result of the abolition of widows benefit?

Mr. Letwin

My hon. Friend—as usual, with his acuity about Treasury matters—is absolutely right, and it is typical that the calculations often omit hidden costs. However, the situation is worse. It is not just a question of the immediate effect of the measure, but the collective effect of a range of measures of which this is one of the most important. Together, they will vastly increase the propensity to move to a position where means-tested benefits are attractive. That has a colossal systemic effect on the bulk of social security spending.

It is a defining moment for the Government tonight. If they stick to their guns—admirable as that may seem in moral terms—against their own Back-Bench feeling, which is very strong tonight, they will be engaging in precisely the mistake that we, to our great cost, have learned that we made and which we are promising ourselves tonight not to make again.

The only purpose of Ministers imposing this arbitrary six-month limit on widows benefit—they do not hate widows any more than the rest of us—and in getting rid of that bit of the contributory system in which, in principle, they believe is to save some money. They have been told to do so by the Treasury because it has decided that tax and social security are all one, and that the big aim must be to save money. The tragic irony is that the Government will not achieve that.

Two or three years' hence, the Government will end up discovering—to their astonishment—that, yet again, as in the past two years, the social security bill has gone way up. Hey presto, they will discover a new range of benefits that they can clobber and new means testing that they can introduce. Yet again, social security spending will go up. The widows will have lost, but the taxpayer will not gain.

What makes it so surprising that the Government are adopting that position is that it was a Labour Member—someone who was, for nearly two years, a member of the Government in charge of these matters—who made us all see the light. Yet they are wearing a mask to protect themselves from this light because they have been told to do so by the Treasury. That is extraordinary.

I beg the Government to listen, not just to their own Back Benchers but to the lesson of the recent economic history of this country. The Government's whole project depends critically on containing social security spending. In that, they are right—but this measure will not do it. It will have the opposite effect in the long term. If they learned that lesson, they would deserve and get—I hope—our praise.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

I have listened to the two and a half hours of debate since my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) moved the new clause. I do not normally speak to the House at this time—[Interruption.] Well, I have not for the past 20 years, but I did for the 20 years before that. I do so tonight for a number of reasons.

If this new clause, which we are trying to correct, had been introduced by a Conservative Government, there would have been uproar from a Labour Opposition. Labour Members would have been incensed and would have rolled out all aspects of the terrifying prospect of a Government determined, once again, to attack the pensions and benefits system. I find it strange to have to remind Ministers of how they would have behaved if the proposals had been introduced by a Conservative Government.

The measure has been condemned in many aspects, but what is so sad is that it is unnecessary, because it does not save much. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is absolutely right. The cost of benefits will rise and any saving from the measure will be a drop in the bucket. For that very reason, it is mean. It is the meanness that I object to, on behalf of my constituents.

Many people will consider that their husbands have paid for them to have a pension. They will have believed that they were protected and will suddenly find that they are not. The Government will have to do a lot to make certain people understand what they are doing. They should not do it in the dark.

My constituency contains the second largest proportion of retired people, at 38 per cent. Many of those people have much younger wives. [Laughter.] Some may laugh, but I am delighted for the older men, because they are being properly looked after, and surely hon. Members of all parties can admire that. I hope that it happens to them when they get older.

Mr. Bercow

I hope that my right hon. Friend will not take it amiss when I say that, from my own extremely stimulating visit to his constituency some years ago, I seem to recall that he himself has a substantially younger, and extremely agreeable, wife.

Sir Peter Emery

Who, I am very glad to say, looks after me extremely well.

What position will the Government be in when many women who become widows find out that they have been taken for a ride, in that their husband's contributions have not brought them the benefit that they expected? Members of Parliament will be inundated with letters of objection. If the Government are intent on pressing ahead, they must be much more frank than they have been in publicising the effect, because some people will want to take other measures to replace the protection that currently exists for their wife when they die.

I cannot understand why the Government persist. They must know in their heart of hearts that they are not doing something to be admired. They must know that. I say to Labour Members, you know that you do not like this or approve of it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman, of all Members in the House, knows the correct parliamentary language.

Sir Peter Emery

I do indeed, and I apologise. It must be the hour. Nobody in the House believes that the Bill should pass unamended: new clause 1 would be of great benefit to everybody in the country and it deserves support.

Mr. Swayne

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) is right to draw attention to what will happen when the letters arrive. Earlier in the debate, several hon. Members mentioned the letters that they had received. I have received no letters, but I believe that the public have yet to cotton on to what is happening. Those letters will come and many Labour Members will find answering them very disagreeable.

I found some two hours ago that Ministers were at their weakest when responding to our criticisms of Government new clause 15. However, one of their arguments resonated with me, although it was treated somewhat dustily by many of my colleagues. Perhaps I am more gullible. I was persuaded by the Ministers' argument about their motive. They said that it was their perception that some people were escaping their obligations and not paying the level of national insurance contribution that they should be paying. The Ministers' estimates were probably incorrect, but the motive behind them had some resonance for me. However, in the context of these provisions, the incentive to pay up and make proper contributions is undermined by the way that we will all be treated in the future.

I entirely understand those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have dwelt on the plight of widows-often movingly—and of elderly men who recognise their frailty and are concerned about how their wives will manage after they have gone. However, the Government's proposal should concern everyone, and not only widows and elderly men. It is a question for all of us, because we will all be short-changed by this measure. Our legitimate expectations will be undermined.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) made a telling contribution when he intervened in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). Indeed, my hon. Friend gave a dusty response to the important point made by the hon. Gentleman when he drew attention to the importance of imputing to people contributions that they could not otherwise make because we approved of the activities that they were undertaking. That is a good and responsible measure, but I am tempted to ask to what end we would do that now. What is the point of imputing contributions when we are set on abolishing the contributory principle? That will be the effect of this measure. We will move away from the contributory principle to means testing.

It has been said before, but it bears repetition, that the previous Government greatly extended means testing. As a policy, it was not a success. It certainly failed to achieve its principal purpose of restraining the rise in the social security bill. However, one of the most depressing features of life since 1 May 1997 is the inability of the Labour party to learn from that experience.

2.15 am

I urge the Government to recognise the problems that we faced and the problems that they now face. Astonishingly, as the debate has proceeded, I have heard three Labour Members sort of shuffle away from the debate, saying, "We might not press our amendments tonight, we might not sort this out tonight, but we hope that these matters will be properly addressed in the other place". After the debates in recent months about the nature of the other place, Labour Members would do well to press their amendments tonight if they have any honour and honesty.

Mr. Timms

In Committee, we had a very serious debate on this part of the Bill; on the whole, we have done so again tonight. In Committee, we debated several permutations for extending bereavement allowance. I shall tell the House the reasoning behind the reforms that we propose, and explain why we believe that we are doing the right thing.

First, the widows benefit system that we inherited was hugely out of date. Thousands of people are unfairly excluded from the benefit each year, simply because of their gender. Conservative Members have said remarkably little about that tonight, but I suppose that that is not surprising.

We are modernising the system by extending benefits to bereaved men for the first time, giving widowed fathers the support that they need through the new widowed parents allowance—support to which they have never previously had access. That is a huge step forward. Let me emphasise for the benefit of some Conservative Members that the widowed parents allowance is a wholly contributory benefit. It is an extension of the contributory benefit system to people who have never had access to it before. It is an extension, not a reduction, of the contributory benefit principle.

Secondly, and equally old-fashioned, the current system is based on the assumption that wives are wholly dependent on their husbands. That has not been the case for a considerable time.

Mr. Pickles

The hon. Gentleman says that this is an extension of the contributory principle. Will he confirm that, because women accumulate a smaller amount of national insurance contributions, it will not create equality because the level of allowance that a widower will receive as a result of his wife's contributions will be less than a widow will receive as a result of her husband's contributions?

Mr. Timms

No. Through the widowed parents allowance we are greatly extending the contributory benefit system to many people who have not had access to it before. The hon. Gentleman's argument is misleading because women's contribution records are very rapidly catching up with those of men.

Mr. Pickles

One cannot use phrases like "are very rapidly catching up" in this context. The fact is that women's contribution records are considerably behind.

In future they are bound to catch up, given time, but now and for the next few years they will be less than the equivalent of male contributions, and therefore widowers will receive a lesser pension than widows will. It is common sense.

Mr. Timms

The amount of contributions will not affect the level of allowance that widowers receive, but it will determine whether people are entitled to receive that allowance.

In Beveridge's time, when the current system was designed, only one in eight married women worked. Today, seven out of 10 do—a proportion almost as great as the proportion of men who work. As a result, women's national insurance contribution records are catching up.

Dr. Lynne Jones

Has my hon. Friend discussed the proposal to curtail widows benefits with the Minister for Women? I understood that it was Government policy to involve issues concerning women's disadvantage in the mainstream of Government policy. Even when women are working full-time, they earn far less than men, and the disparity is greater the older they are. Given those facts, are the proposals not discriminatory against women?

Mr. Timms

I can reassure my hon. Friend that our proposal has the full agreement and assent of every member of the Government, including the Minister for Women. National insurance contributions records for women are catching up with those of men.

The third flaw in the system is that it pays money to people who have substantial provision of their own, while simultaneously failing to provide adequate support for those who need help most. It does not distinguish between those who need continuing help and those who do not. Those who earn decent wages or who have substantial occupational pensions or life insurance see the greatest benefit from the system as it stands. The least-well-off widows receive the least. Some 35,000 widows see no gain from their widows benefit because they have to have it topped up in income support. Widowers receive no help at all.

Mr. Rendel

The Minister says that he does not like the present system because it does not give more help to the poorest. Am I correct to say that if he cuts widows pensions for everyone, that will not give more help to those who are poorest?

Mr. Timms

I do not entirely follow the hon. Gentleman's logic. I shall come to his amendment in a moment.

Mr. Bercow

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms

No, I need to make some headway.

I have outlined the background to the problems that we inherited in the present system. We are introducing reforms that will bring the system up to date, delivering support to those who need it. No one on the Opposition Benches mentioned the fact that we are doubling the lump sum benefit paid on bereavement from £1,000 to £2,000.

Mr. Pickles

I mentioned it.

Mr. Timms

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I am grateful to him for informing the House of something that none of his hon. Friends mentioned.

We want to provide help with the immediate costs that face people following bereavement. We are ensuring that the system helps the least-well-off widows and widowers with children and on income support. They will be entitled to an additional premium of £10 a week through a new disregard of the widowed parents allowance instead of having their benefit deducted pound for pound. We are also providing long-term, non-means-tested contributory support for bereaved mothers and fathers with dependent children through the widowed parents allowance. That is equivalent in value to the current widowed mothers allowance.

I ask the House to support Government amendments Nos. 63, 64 and 65, which correct a minor drafting error in clause 48 to make sure that widowed mothers and fathers receive the full pension that they are entitled to at retirement age. As well as providing continuing help for those who most need it, we recognise that people need breathing space to come to terms with the emotional and practical upheaval caused by the loss of their spouse. We have rightly heard a good deal about that, and we propose that the new bereavement allowance should offer financial support to widows and widowers aged over 45 and without dependent children for the six months following bereavement. I suggest that that is a reasonable period of adjustment.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

I have listened with care to speeches from both sides of the House and have heard many hon. Members talk about the inadequacy of the six-month period, given the nature of bereavement. Given the weight of argument, would the Minister at least agree to reconsider the period?

Mr. Timms

No. This is a question of balance. Having considered the matter carefully, we think that we have struck the right balance.

Mrs. Fyfe

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Timms

No, I need to make some progress. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."' I shall be pleased to give way to my hon. Friend later in my speech.

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) said that we were moving away from the principles of the Beveridge system. I took the opportunity to look back at what William Beveridge said about widows benefits in 1942. He rejected universal cover for all widows regardless of need. It is important to recognise what the Beveridge principle was in this respect. The report said, although it is in terms that I would not use:

There is no reason why a childless widow should get a pension for life, if she is able to work, she should work. On the other hand, provision much better than at present should be made for those who, because they have to care for children, cannot work for gain or cannot work regularly. It is important to remind the House of that because, from the comments of the hon. Member for Vale of York and some of the other comments made in the debate, one could easily get the impression that these things were fixed in tablets of stone years ago by our forefathers and cannot possibly ever be changed. That is not the case. The truth is that we need continuously to review the way in which the system works and reflect in it the changes that have occurred. In that way, we can ensure that the system meets current needs and does so effectively. We will have a stronger benefit system as a result. Simply refusing to change things—saying that we cannot change anything, as a number of people have said tonight—would mean that the system would not meet the new needs that it must address.

Miss McIntosh

My point was a more serious one. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House accept that one has to move with the times. I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who said that the Government are trying to score a cheap feminist point. I particularly want the Minister to answer this question: what about the expectations of husbands who have contributed for a substantial number of years and whose contributions will be worth nothing when, as has been put on the record this evening, the savings will be so minimal that the Government will not help the category of people whom the Minister says that he wants to help?

Mr. Timms

The hon. Lady may well want to put that question to those who were on the Front Bench when the Conservative party was in government and to ask them why they made the huge changes that they did to the contributory benefit system during their 18 years in office. I wanted to raise that matter myself.

Mrs. Fyfe

I happen to agree with Beveridge. Speaking as a widow, I do not believe that widows should be kept by the state for life, but I object to the six-month period. Will my hon. Friend expand on what made him and his colleagues arrive at six months? I do not believe that most middle-aged women could get into work or training in that space of time.

Mr. Timms

The judgment is a balance. We want a reasonable breathing space to allow people to adjust to their new circumstances and then move on. That is what the six-month period will do.

Those who are aged 55 or over at the start of the new arrangements and who are widowed in the first five years after the changes are implemented will be able to claim income-related help without signing on for work—my hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) asked about that. Particular help will be available transitionally, and there will be a special premium in the income-related benefits to help ensure that people's income remains at the level of the six-month bereavement allowance.

It would not be right to assume that younger widows and widowers, many of whom will already have regular employment, should settle into a lifetime of dependency. We have a firm commitment to help men and women to be financially independent, both during their working life and in retirement. We are putting policies in place to achieve that.

We have introduced a comprehensive welfare-to-work programme, which offers a wide range of support to help people back to work, including advice on employment, training and benefits. In particular, I would pick out the new deal for the over-50s that was announced in the Budget, which will provide a personalised service for people who have been on benefit, jobseeker's allowance, income support, incapacity benefit or severe disablement allowance for more than six months to help them return to work. Bereavement allowance is not included in that list. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) made an interesting point about that, but it is not in the list as it stands. The new deal will offer people a £750 in-work training grant.

2.30 am
Mr. Cousins

I want to clear up this important point. The Minister rightly drew attention to the introduction of the employment credit system for the over-50s. Is he telling the House that short-term bereavement allowance will not be a qualifying trigger for access to it?

Mr. Timms

That is correct. People would need to spend a further sixth months on one of the other benefits to qualify for the new deal for the over-50s. A spin-off benefit of what we propose is to ensure that people can be put in touch with this support at the earliest stage, in six months rather than delaying longer.

Mr. Ruffley

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms

I will not because I must make some headway.

Our reforms will refocus expenditure where and when it is most needed: on immediate needs, children and families. We are concentrating help on the immediate period of bereavement and, where necessary, providing carefully focused help to those most in need thereafter.

Several Opposition Members suggested that changing the rules for contributory benefits is a breach of promise. They spent 18 years doing that. We will take no lectures or crocodile tears from them on that front. A series of Conservative Members, including a Front-Bench spokesman, apologised in Committee and tonight for the record of their Government. I will be interested to hear whether the shadow Secretary of State will echo them.

Mr. Letwin

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Quentin Davies

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms

No, I need to conclude.

Our measures modernise bereavement benefits. It is right that the benefit system should reflect changes in our society. I understand the attraction of the argument that we should leave things as they are, and that some people believe that it is in the interests of those who depend on the benefit system to do so. It is not. If we hand out benefit to people who plainly do not need it, we undermine the system. It saps confidence in the national insurance system that underpins it and, in the long run, those who depend on the system are the losers. That is why modernisation is so important for those of us who believe in the system and in the potential of publicly delivered welfare to improve people's circumstances in a decent, dignified manner.

Things do not stand still. It does no favours to those who depend on the benefit system to behave as though nothing has changed. If we are spending benefit cash to

meet yesterday's needs instead of today's, we are weakening the system and damaging the interests of those who need support. The capacity of the system to meet need will always be constrained. To insist on continuing to meet yesterday's needs means only that we will be unable to meet today's, let alone tomorrow's. There are big new demands that the system needs to address. We must ensure that the capacity to address them is in place without making unrealistic demands for new resources. That is what we are doing.

Fifty years ago, one in eight married women worked; today it is seven out of 10. The benefit system needs to reflect that change. Some 47 per cent.—almost half—of widows receive income from an occupational pension; 50 years ago, it would have been unusual. That change has consequences for the benefit system that it must reflect.

Audrey Wise (Preston)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms

I cannot give way.

According to the latest labour force survey, of the minority of women aged 35 to 54 who are not working, only 16 per cent. had not worked in the past five years. That is a small proportion. The benefit system must reflect those changes. If it does not, it will be weakened and those people—widows, widowers and others—who depend on it to provide security will be the losers. We will not allow that to happen. I urge the House to reject the new clauses and the Opposition amendments.

Mr. Pickles

We know now that when a Minister is in trouble he puts his head down, sticks to his brief, and ignores everything around him, including arguments and reasons. The Minister's speech was a disappointing end to a fine debate which has included some interesting and intelligent contributions. I am sorry that the Government seem to be so obdurate when so many Labour Back-Bench Members and Opposition Members are doing their best to dig them out of a hole. The debate has continued for more than three hours, and it is remarkable that there have been only two loyal interventions from Labour Members. With the notable exception of the Minister, not one speech has been made in support of the Government's proposals.

Mr. Rendel

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most disappointing features of the Minister's response to the debate was when he was challenged on six months? He was asked to say what evidence he had to support his suggestion that six months was the right period. Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that not one of the organisations that deals with widows has said anything other than that six months is far too short a time? I know that he has several letters similar to those that I have received.

Mr. Pickles

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have not come across anyone, with the exception of those who occupy the Treasury Front Bench, who thinks that six months is acceptable. I have considerable time for the Minister, but I am unhappy about the way he responded to the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks). The hon. Gentleman made a reasonable suggestion. He said, "Maybe we should have a think about this. Perhaps we should pull back from this. Perhaps we should consider a figure other than six months." The Minister just said no and moved on. That is insulting to a senior Member of this place.

Mr. Letwin

The Minister is laughing.

Mr. Pickles

I am sorry that he is laughing.

It is also insulting to the House that we have not had the continued presence of the Secretary of State. The right hon. Gentleman has been in his place for exactly five minutes. If he was able to break off from the pensions debate last week systematically to tell Lobby journalists how he would crush the rebels, he should have the decency to be here in front of the rebels to tell them how he will crush them.

There have been some notable contributions from both sides of the House. Some were very amusing but mostly they have been sombre. That reflects the fact that what we are about to do is shameful. I think that I heard the Minister say—he was going at such a gallop that I cannot be sure—that people on contributory benefits were part of dependency.

Mr. Letwin


Mr. Pickles

My hon. Friend agrees with me. If that is what the Minister said, and his civil servants do not try to erase it or paint it out in Hansard, it is the clearest indication that we could get that he does not understand the contributory principle and the basis of someone paying into a national insurance scheme so that, if times are bad, he can take out what he has been paid in.

Mr. Letwin

If my hon. Friend thinks that he may have misheard the Minister, does he agree that the Minister went on to say that we should not—I think that I quote almost ipsissima verba—hand out benefits to those who do not need them. That is undermining the entire contributory principle and announcing that means testing will be the sole basis of the whole system.

Mr. Pickles

I regret that that is the only way in which the Minister's comments can be construed. I hoped that it was a slip of the tongue. If it was not, the Government are in deep trouble.

Mr. Bercow

Does my hon. Friend also recall that in response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) the Minister failed to confirm that support for the Government's proposals had been forthcoming from the Minister for Women, or even that that Minister for Women had been consulted? He merely gave a blithe, bland and meaningless reassurance that Government policies commanded the support of all Ministers, including the Minister for Women. He failed to answer the specific question whether the Minister for Women was consulted directly, yes or no.

Mr. Pickles

That is true, but, in fairness to the Minister, perhaps he cannot remember who the Minister for Women is. Who can blame him?

The Government are in a terrible hole. They will have to rethink the measure. It will not get through another place in its present form. We are conscious that votes give people mandates, and that the decisions of this place affect the other place. We want to give the Government a chance to rethink. We do not want to paint them into a corner. It would be easy to kick them about now, as they seem to have lost the support of every thinking hon. Member on their Benches.

We believe that the Government should be given one last chance to rethink. I am firmly convinced that another place will send the measure back for our further consideration. In order to enable the Government to climb down, as they must do in the interests of justice, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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