HC Deb 02 May 2001 vol 367 cc866-8 4.24 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the timescale within which payments may be made to bereaved persons. My Bill would require a change in the provisions of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Amendments) (No. 2) Regulations, laid on 14 March 1997. These regulations—which apply to widows' benefit and widows' payment, or bereavement allowance, as it became on 9 April this year—reduced from 12 months to three the prescribed time limit within which a claim for benefit may be made. The clock starts running, effectively, from the date of death of the spouse.

The need to change those regulations was drawn to my attention by the tragic case of my young constituent Mrs. Corinna Smith. I raised this matter in an Adjournment debate more than a year ago, on 6 April 2000, and I therefore propose only to give a summary of the details. On 2 June 1999, Alan Smith of Margate was working with highly inflammable chemicals which caught fire, inflicting terrible burns, from which Mr. Smith subsequently died on 18 June, leaving a 19-year-old widow, Corinna.

Mrs. Smith was required to identify her husband's body in the Broomfield hospital, Chelmsford and then, for a second time, at the Buckland hospital, Dover, to which his remains had been transferred and where a post mortem was carried out. Alan Smith's corpse was subsequently released by the Dover coroner, who provided to the undertakers the burial order necessary for a funeral to take place on 8 July 1999.

A postponed inquest into Alan Smith's death was eventually held on 12 October 1999 and the Chelmsford registrar was finally able to issue a death certificate on 14 October. That was posted to Mrs. Smith with a covering letter, saying: Please find enclosed a Certificate of Registration of Death which should be completed on the reverse side and returned to the Department of Social Security. The leaflets enclosed may be of some assistance to you. That was the first official document that Corinna Smith had received since the death of her husband four months earlier.

As Mrs. Smith was under 45, she did not qualify for a widows' pension and so she claimed the £1,000 widows' payment—the only assistance available to women facing her tragic circumstances—that she needed to help to repay money borrowed to pay for her husband's funeral and related expenses. In a pro forma notice issued by the local DSS she was told that because more than three months had elapsed since the death of her husband she would receive no money. A subsequent appeal to a tribunal delivered the decision that there is no entitlement to a Widow's Payment in respect of a death occurring more than 3 months before the date of the claim. I regarded, and continue to regard, the denial to Mrs. Smith of what was clearly a payment that should have been hers by right, as a considerable injustice and as an affront that added insult to dreadful injury. I engaged in an exchange of letters with the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley). I received much jargon and avowed sympathy for my constituent's plight, including the crass assertion that the Minister could appreciate that the time immediately after the death of a spouse will be traumatic and claiming may not be the main priority", together with a rigid adherence to the book, which says that no payment will be made if a claim is made outside three months.

Given that the death certificate and letter of advice were not sent to Mrs. Smith until after the three-month deadline had passed, I assume that my constituent was expected either to read the fine print of every document in the DSS office or to have second sight in order to know of her entitlement. Without the necessary documentation and information it was not, of course, possible for her to claim in time.

My purpose in raising the matter in an Adjournment debate was not to win retrospective benefit which the Government were clearly determined, under rigid adherence to the regulations, to deny to Mrs. Smith, but to urge the Secretary of State to change the regulations so that no other woman would have to suffer, in similar circumstances, the indignity suffered by my constituent. In response, the Government Department charged with the duty of protecting the most vulnerable in society made it plain that, not to put too fine a point on it, my proposed and simple solution was "not thought of here", and it would not budge.

Replying to the debate, another Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle)—who, I am pleased to see, is in her place this afternoon—acknowledged that in Mrs. Smith's case there were good reasons for the delay in claiming benefit and that It was not her fault that the inquest was adjourned and that, by the time that it … took place … the three months had elapsed". The Minister also offered, again, the helpful observation that at a time of traumatic loss, a widow may not be best placed emotionally or otherwise to make the business of claiming benefit the first priority. But the Government's bottom line was that, as the three-month time limit is an absolute rule, the reason for the delay is immaterial."—[Official Report, 6 April 2000; Vol. 347, c. 1259.] This House of Commons has been devalued by an arrogant Executive, but if it has one useful purpose left it is, when necessary, to challenge and to change absolute rules—and that is what this Bill is about. I have made it plain that the regulations were laid by the last Conservative Government. They have been implemented and enforced by the present Government. As we all know, in politics there is a law of unintended consequences, and I do not for one moment believe that the authors of this nonsense intended to deny the thankfully very few Corinna Smiths of this world a pitiful bereavement benefit in their hour of need.

When I began this crusade I did not seek to apportion blame. However, it has become apparent that this Secretary of State and his Ministers are determined to perpetuate the injustice.

On 9 April, the widows' payment was replaced with the bereavement benefit, and the amount involved was increased from £1,000 to £2,000. It would have been easy to change the regulations at that time and, instead of starting the three-month clock running from the moment of death, to start it from the time when the death certificate—and the vital advice that goes with it—is issued.

That would have been easy, but this Secretary of State has chosen not to do it. It is to bring about that very simple change, and to make sure that others in the future are not denied Corinna Smith's widow's mite, that I seek leave today to introduce this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mrs. Helen Brinton, Mr. Ian Bruce, Sir Sydney Chapman, Mr. Nigel Jones, Mr. Andrew Rowe, Rev. Martin Smyth, Mr. Ian Stewart and Mrs. Ann Winterton.