§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE FIRST LORD OF THE ADMIRALTY (THE EARL OF SELKIRK)
My Lords, one of the consequences of a universal insurance system is that it necessarily has to meet the many varied situations which occur in family life in this country. To meet such conditions the provisions, I am afraid, necessarily have to be rather complicated. I regret to say that this Bill is no exception and I think that a number of the provisions are not easy to understand on first reading. I can, however, reassure the House by saying that in every case except one the Bill has followed the recommendations of the National Insurance Advisory Committee. Under the 1946 Insurance Act it was laid down that there 869 should be a quinquennial review. This was initiated by my noble friend Lord Ingleby, and I think it is proper to repeat what my right honourable friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance said in another place, and what I think is generally known, that this very intricate subject benefited greatly by the care and skill which the noble Lord devoted to it over a number of years. I think it is also proper to express our gratitude to the members of the Advisory Committee who have given so much time and trouble to examining with great care the questions which we have to consider in the Bill. I should particularly like to mention Sir Will Spens, who has retired from the chairmanship after ten years.
I now turn to Clause 1. This clause enables pensioners (men under 70 and women under 65) to de-retire. That word may perhaps be rather unattractive, but I think its meaning is clear. It means that the person concerned can resume paying full contributions, which is possible only if he or she resumes regular work. If a man pays the necessary contributions, when he retires again or reaches the age of 70 he will get the enhanced pension, which will normally be something rather less than the 90s. payable to a married man who postpones retirement for the full period.
§ THE EARL OF SELKIRK
I think the right way to put it would be that he then retires a second time. I think this is really in the national interest, because it encourages people to stay longer at work. These provisions are controlled by regulations, and it is proposed at the present time to cover only the case of a single de-retirement. If experience shows that provision for a second de-retirement is necessary, that matter will be fully considered by my right honourable friend the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. In the case of a married couple both receiving pensions on the husband's insurance, de-retirement requires to be a joint act of husband and wife. The Bill, however, envisages the possibility that a wife may withhold her agreement unreasonably, and in such cases the matter can be referred to the independent statutory authorities.
870 Clause 2 enables a widow pensioner to gain a higher pension by postponing her retirement until the age of 65. This puts her, if I may so express it, on all fours with other pensioners. I am sure that this is right, and it is perhaps surprising that this is not already the situation. Clause 3 is the most beneficial clause. If I may put it shortly, it means this: in the case of a husband who is drawing benefit—say, unemployment benefit—the earnings of his wife which can be disregarded are now increased from 20s. to 40s. This benefit will affect an appreciable number of people. A further provision of this clause enables a retirement pensioner to receive an increased benefit in respect of a woman who has the care of his or her children. Clause 5 affects only a limited number of cases. It originated from a recommendation of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce and is also supported by the Advisory Committee. In the case of a woman whose marriage has been dissolved and who is receiving maintenance payments from her ex-husband in respect of her children, in the event of his death she would be left with no support for her children. In such cases payments will be made for the maintenance of the children at the same rate as that paid by the husband, up to 16s. 6d. for the first child and 8s. 6d. for younger children. That is an important innovation.
Clause 6 extends the scope of benefits for children. For instance, under subsection (1), guardian's allowance can be paid although step-parents are still living. If a further explanation is required of this clause, I shall be very glad to give it later. Subsection (4) of Clause 6 deals with the case of anyone who is receiving a benefit in respect of a child who is not living with him. In such cases the person must contribute to the child's maintenance not less than the amount of such benefit. Clause 7 deals with the death grant and seems to me to make obvious provisions. It ensures that the death grant is paid to the people who really bear the cost of the funeral expenses; but where there has been no expense, as may happen in some cases, the death grant is paid to the executors or next-of-kin.
Now I am going to turn to Clause 4, which I know has been a matter of a little controversy and which deals with 871 unemployment benefit. I think that it is proper to remember that the payment of unemployment benefit comes from the National Insurance funds, in which all contributors are interested. This is not part of the "bottomless pit" of the Treasury. The question is the circumstances in which a man on short-time work is entitled to draw unemployment benefit. At the present time, if a man is normally working six days a week, he must be unemployed for two days out of six to draw benefit. If, however, he is working five days, he draws benefit if he loses work on one day. That means that he can get two days' benefit for one day's work lost in six. I do not think that anyone can say that that is of itself a very fair arrangement between the two parties concerned. The Advisory Committee was asked in 1953 to review this question. They went fully into the matter and found themselves equally divided in regard to any change in these provisions. I tell your Lordships this quite frankly. They admitted the anomalies and made no recommendation. Accordingly, it falls to Parliament to make up its mind.
This Bill proposes that unemployment benefit can be drawn only in the event of two working days in six (other than Sunday) being lost. The rules about waiting days remain entirely unchanged. If a man loses two days in any week, he will always be able to get unemployment benefit for those days. If he is unemployed for the full normal working week, he will always get six days' benefit. This rule, however, will not apply in cases where employment is terminated; and for this purpose suspension for twelve days will be considered as termination. Power is taken under this clause to make regulations to deal with difficulties which might arise in exceptional cases. I am fully aware that there may be different opinions expressed as to whether this is the right way to handle this problem. I do not think that the Government could have left it unchanged, and I consider that, if it is looked at carefully, it will be recognised that it is a fair, reasonable and proper provision.
I think I can claim that, taken as a whole, this Bill, though very limited in scope, constitutes a number of improvements to the insurance scheme. It is estimated that it will benefit something 872 like a quarter-of-a-million people in the course of a year. Clause 3, which increases the earnings disregarded for a dependent wife, will be brought into operation within a week or two after the grant of the Royal Assent. The remaining provisions, which are dependent on regulations which have to be submitted to the Advisory Committee, will take a little longer; but it is hoped that they will be brought in without any undue delay. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Selkirk.)
§ 3.55 p.m.
§ LORD BURDEN
My Lords, I am sure that the House will agree that the noble Earl has explained the somewhat complicated problems of this Bill with his usual luminous clarity. While it is true that there are one or two clauses to which we feel that objection could be taken, in particular Clause 4, to which the noble Earl made reference, I am glad to say, on behalf of my noble friends on these Benches, that we give the Bill a welcome. With regard to Clause 4, all I need say is that that clause was debated at some length in another place, and for that reason we find that it is not necessary for us to do anything further in regard to it. I understand that the timetable makes it necessary that this Bill should receive the Royal Assent before Whitsuntide, in order that the necessary regulations should be prepared and the benefits become payable at the earliest possible moment. In these circumstances, we do not propose to impede the passage of the Bill through all its stages, and we hope that it will have a speedy and safe journey to the Statute Book.
May I say a word about Clause 7, to which the noble Earl made reference and which widens the ways in which funeral benefit may be paid? Those of us who have had experience of working-class life will know with what horror a pauper burial is regarded by working people. The words, which I am sure your Lordships will know,Rattle his bones over the stones—It's only a pauper that nobody ownshave bitten deeply into the minds and consciousness of the working people. I am glad that this Bill widens the scope of the payment of funeral benefit, and I hope that it will make anything in the 873 nature of a pauper funeral a thing of the past.
I am glad that the noble Earl has paid tribute to the work of the National Insurance Advisory Committee. As he has said, it is due, in a large measure, to the labours of that Committee and the reports which they have submitted that this Bill comes before us, and I join with the noble Earl in the tribute he paid to that body. I welcome the Bill for these and for other personal reasons which I do not propose to develop. I shall say nothing more now, except to wish the Bill a speedy passage through your Lordships' House and to thank the noble Earl for the manner in which he has presented it to your Lordships.
§ THE EARL OF SELKIRK
My Lords, I do not think that I can do more than thank the noble Lord, Lord Burden, for the welcome that he has given this Bill and for re-echoing what I said in regard to the Advisory Committee's work. It is very complicated and detailed work, not always easy to understand, and I was glad to hear the warm words of tribute which the noble Lord has expressed to-day.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.