HL Deb 24 January 1978 vol 388 cc311-32

4.29 p.m.

Baroness SEEAR rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Equality of Treatment for Men and Women in matters of Social Security (R/48/77) (Fourth Report (HL 23)). The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. This is a report on a draft Directive from the EEC dealing with equality of treatment in social security. It has in fact ducked some of the more difficult questions which will no doubt emerge, if not in the discussions which will take place before the Directive is finally accepted, certainly subsequent to that.

The draft Directive as it stands requires very little from the United Kingdom—barring one point to which I wish to refer later; the United Kingdom really does in fact comply with the requirements laid down by the Directive. This is partly because the really controversial issues have been left out. By "the really controversial issues" I mean, for example, the question of retirement ages; the difference in the retirement age as between men and women. That is not a matter that can be swept under the carpet indefinitely. It also leaves out the question of qualification—to what extent periods not in employment because of maternity for example, can or cannot be counted towards pension benefit. It leaves out the question of the equality of treatment for dependants derived from the contributions of the woman equally with the man. Those are the controversial areas. They are excluded, no doubt in part, because they are controversial, but I suggest that they are not matters which can be totally ignored in the discussion of this draft Directive, and if they are they will certainly arise again.

Had the question been one merely of the Directive as it stands, we should not have suggested that this issue be debated in your Lordships' House. Indeed, judging from the attendance this afternoon, it seems as if many noble Lords are of the opinion that it should not be debated in your Lordships' House. However, quite apart from the controversial measures excluded, the draft Directive in fact raises one matter of considerable principle which could well be aired on this occasion because undoubtedly we shall have to return to it in the future.

There is one respect in which our provisions are discriminatory and that is concerned with the position of married women and their dependants in relation to social security and supplementary benefit for children. This might, at first sight, seem a relatively minor matter, although it is not a minor matter to married women who are heads of households but who cannot, none the less, claim supplementary benefit for their children. The principle behind it is quite fundamental and one which I am sure, at present, people are not yet ready to change. However, we shall have to consider it later.

Our social security payments and our supplementary benefit payments are based on the conception of the family with the man as the head of the household. If we were to move away from that idea and towards the idea of benefits payable to individuals rather than to families with the man as the head of the household, many of the issues which arise in this connection would not occur. There are many reasons why we might well be advised to think about a move in this direction, but I shall put it no stronger than that at present. We shall be required to make further steps in this direction, and we need to note that we are not acting in conformity with equal treatment between the sexes as long as we have this difference in the way in which we treat married women who are heads of households.

There is, of course, a supplementary point also of considerable importance which, although it is not directly connected with whether we regard benefit as being paid to the family or to the individual, is related to that matter. I am referring to the size of child benefit. Under our regulations the question of whether the married woman gets supplementary benefit for the child is very important, because the wellbeing of the family and of the child depends so much on that supplementation. If we had here the policy which operates in some Community countries, that we pay very much higher child benefits and do not rely on supplementation in cases of need, then this issue would not be so acute. What is more, a further benefit which would derive from this is that the poverty-trap would be very much less of a problem if our regular payment of child benefits was on a scale more compatible with that paid in some other countries. As will be well known in your Lordships' House, the scale of child benefits in France, for instance, is incomparably higher than the scale here. We, by the provision that we make and the standards we adopt, complicate these problems unnecessarily. Of course, additional money would be required, but it would not all be money lost and it would solve some very difficult social problems to which, at present, we have found no answers.

In the discussions which should take place in connection with this draft Directive, there are one or two other points which we should have liked to raise, but which are not covered as it stands at present. No reference is made to support for low income groups. There is in this country no benefit comparable with FIS. We are also discriminatory as regards FIS in relation to the married woman who is head of the family, because she does not get the supplementary benefit for the child under FIS, which again is paid only to the man, assumed to be the head of the household.

Another small but not unimportant benefit which we should like clarified and as regards which there is an element of discrimination concerns the invalid care allowance. No other country in Europe has that allowance, and so it is not included in the draft Directive. However, there is an element of discrimination because the married woman who gives up employment in order to look after an invalid husband does not qualify for the invalid care allowance. Therefore, I think that, although it is a benefit peculiar to ourselves, one can say that there is an element of discrimination in this connection.

One cannot consider a Directive of this kind without coming back—I mentioned this at the beginning of my remarks—to that major discriminatory element: the differences in retirement age. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, who will be replying to the debate has thought a great deal about this matter and we have discussed it on many occasions. I merely say, perhaps slightly out of order in the context of this draft Directive, that this is a very serious form of discrimination. As the noble Lord will know, the possibility of doing anything about realigning retirement ages was ruled out of court on grounds of cost. As I think the noble Lord agreed, the calculations by which the cost was estimated when this was discussed on a previous occasion, based on a publication from the Department of Health and Social security, did, to put it mildly, raise questions as to accuracy. This is a matter of great importance. So, will it not be possible to have a more soundly-based examination carried out as to what the cost in reality would be, so that we can then review, in the light of accurate knowledge, what in fact would be involved in equalising retirement ages? I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on Equality of Treatment for Men and Women in matters of Social Security (R/48/77) (Fourth Report (HL 23)).—(Baroness Seear.).

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad to offer a few observations in this debate, because I was so closely concerned with these matters a long time ago when I was in the Government. The first point I should like to raise is how long some of the primary changes in relationships between men and women as regards social security have taken to accomplish. When I first put forward the outline of a review of the Social Security Scheme in 1965 I never dreamed that it would take 13 years to accomplish the removal of discrimination in such matters as unemployment benefit and sickness benefit as between married women and men. Indeed, I believe that on an earlier occasion I mentioned to your Lordships' House that when I prepared the draft of the review of the Social Security Scheme I put women first.

It seemed to me that it was desirable to remove the discriminatory conditions between men and women, and especially married women, in the old scheme before we embarked upon a new one because, as I have so frequently said, and it is still true, social security is mostly about women: widows, war widows, industrial widows, civilian widows, divorcees, separated wives and other conditions. There are about six conditions of women and probably only one of men: men are men; women are single women, married women, divorced women, separated women. There has been discrimination between members of the several groups.

When Mr. Crossman brought forward his National Superannuation Scheme—the extension of work which I had begun—I expressed the profoundest disappointment that there was so little in it to redress the discriminatory conditions between men and women in social security. In my opinion it was not because of difficulties about money, because on the whole the money was to be obtained by a levy on employers and employees—it was to come from contributions. What was lacking at that time—which we have had since—was the courage to take some awkward political decisions. One of them, of course, was to discontinue the married woman's option; that is, to require all women—whether married or single—to come within the Scheme and to have benefits attached to their personal contributions.

As the report of the Committee indicates in paragraph 12, much that the Directive requires us to do will be embodied in the conditions of the new Social Security Scheme due to begin in April. So we have just avoided being run out. I notice how jubilant we appear to be that what they want we have already done, but others have done it long ago, and we should have done it long ago.

Of course, this concept of the head of the household, to which the noble Baroness referred as being the crux of this matter, extends far beyond social security. The present conditions of the taxation of married women and husbands are positively disgraceful. But there again, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer contemplates giving away, as the saying goes, so many thousand million pounds in personal taxation to all and sundry, surely the opportunity should be taken of removing some of the penal clauses of our income tax legislation relating to married women. Fancy in 1978 requiring a wife to declare her income to her husband so that he may include it in his return, and any failure on his part to disclose the full income of his wife renders him liable to punishment.

I shall never forget that years ago when a change in the Finance Act gave the joint stock banks, and the Post Office Savings Bank the duty of disclosing untaxed income on deposits above a certain amount, a number of married women were found out—they had a little nest egg which they had kept secret from their husbands. They had probably saved a little money from the housekeeping and put it aside to have a little financial independence; they had not declared that they had £600 or £700 in the Post Office and, therefore, were receiving interest in excess of £15 a year, which was then the borderline above which the Post Office had to disclose. I remember one occasion when the local tax office discovered this. They wrote a letter to the husband, giving their reference number, requesting that he call to see them: Will you please bring this letter and your wife with you". These are the ridiculous conditions under which a married woman may be placed for the purpose of taxation. But I shall not prolong my remarks on that because, however belatedly, we have a discussion booklet from the Equal Opportunities Commission giving various options, which I outlined at least 20 years ago, for dealing with this question of separate taxation.

Bear in mind that as recently as the Royal Commission of 1955, the late Lord Radcliffe was pontificating upon and defending the principle of aggregation. That is really what we want to destroy. It will have to be done in taxation; it will have to be done in social security, if women are to have their separate personality, their separate dignity and their separate economic resources. I hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not overlook the taxation side when he looks at his Budget proposals shortly.

Returning to the Directive and the report, the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, referred to the real problem that now confronts the Social Security Scheme—the attempt that must be made to give the wife a separate position in the scheme of supplementary benefit. That will be most complex because different attitudes will be necessary. So much of this is not concerned with administrative difficulty, the intricacies of insurance or even the amount of money involved; so much of the problem is over attitudes towards the position of women. Regrettably—and the noble Baroness, with her record of work in this field, will surely agree with me—we have been up against the conservatism of men and the submissiveness of women.

The fight has not been the fight that one would have expected from the large numbers of enfranchised women, who, after all, virtually hold the political power in this country in their hands. However the movement to obtain the emancipation of women was scarcely ever a working-class one; it was mostly a middle-class movement. Indeed, a great deal of it was the spearhead of reform which was demanded by many thousands of talented women who were left without menfolk in the First World War.

But I think that this attempt must be made to give the wife a separate standing in the system of social security where means-tested benefits are involved as well as where statutory benefits are concerned. I shall not go into the details of a possible scheme but, as the noble Baroness said, the main provision that must be made, if one is to deal with this problem in terms of equality between husband and wife, is for the children. I suppose that if marriages were universally childless, apart from the demographic consequences, it would not be very difficult to deal with the relationship between husband and wife in economic terms. But when there are children, obligations rest upon both parents to maintain them, and the State must ensure that in whatever scheme of benefits is provided the children will be taken care of. If we can only press ahead with this—and I understand from the report that the review of the Supplementary Benefit Scheme is now in progress—I think we can make a move forward with part of the Directive. But, my goodness! we shall have to be quicker next time than we have been in the past. Wt are not given 14 years in which to do this; we are given only four years, so we have to get a move on.

When the Labour Party says "Labour gets things done", my answer to that in one particular respect is, "Yes, but it took 14 years". I think that we are likely to get a certain reluctance to make haste with this because of the complexities of the position and possibly the difficulty of political decisions to be taken. I conclude by saying that I welcome the Directive. I especially welcome the report of the Committee upon it. It does the Committee great credit to have looked at this in a spirit of reform and realism, and I think that this is one more mark in favour of the retention of your Lordships' House.

4.52 p.m.


My Lords, five years ago the first British delegation to the European Parliament arrived, and I was the junior member of it. I chose from the beginning to sit on the Social Affairs and Employment Committee. It was a time of great optimism and hope. It was before the quintupling of oil prices and in the era of Heath, Brandt, Pompidou. There was genuine confidence that the social consequences of the economic development and integration of the Community could at last be tackled. Commissioner Hillary, now the President of the Irish Republic, initiated the Social Action Programme, of which we are debating one of the fruits today. Therefore, for me this particular Directive is part of the expression of social concern of the Community that is something new to the 'seventies. I believe that it is something whose intention we should all welcome, even if we may criticise the detail.

Since those days the impetus behind the EEC has died away as a result of the world recession, but that makes it no less necessary, if the European Community is to continue—as I believe it should, and as we in this country confirmed in a referendum—but perhaps even more necessary, to update, overhaul and integrate our social security systems. In some ways the chances of doing so have increased. Without casting any aspersions on the President of the Irish Republic, the new Commissioner for Social Affairs is a rumbustious character, Mr. Vredeling, who has made for himself a distinguished career in the European institutions and has a long record of knowing how the Community works and how to make it work. If our Government are to be constructive and positive, there is a chance that we can build sensibly on the impetus of the early 'seventies.

What I want to know from the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, is whether he can update the situation as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and her Committee. There was a debate in another place on 13th December in which they discussed the Directives we are discussing today in your Lordships' House. I have been told—and it would be helpful to have it confirmed—that the proposals of the Directive debated then and discussed today have been altered by a subsequent Directive numbered R/57/58. That is not available in the Printed Paper Office; I checked half an hour ago. However, I was told on the telephone from Brussels that it altered the time-limits under which Member States have to complete the rearrangements of their social security provisions, and that it made some alteration in the scope, or ambit, of the Directive.

It would be helpful for your Lordships to know whether the proposals which Lady Seear's Sub-Committee discussed have been overtaken by events, and, if so, whether the new proposals dilute the Directive that she was discussing with her colleagues, or strengthen it. It would also be helpful if we could be told whether the Government have come to any firmer conclusions than they revealed in another place on 13th December. What is their view of the Directive now? When do they think it will be implemented, and what sort of arrangements in the Council of Ministers can we anticipate? Is it going to be something that will go on being discussed for years and years, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, might expect, or is it something that is going to be decided soon? If the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, is able to give us some idea of the time scale, it would be very helpful.

If I may be allowed to intervene for a moment as a member of the Select Committee rather than as a Front Bench spokesman, I think it is useful for debates on instruments that have become out of date to be updated by the Government during the debate. Sometimes in matters like this the Committee may feel that it is necessary to go back to the same subject later on to see whether progress has been as much as they hoped, or as little as they feared.

Before going on to one or two points about the actual report itself, may I ask the noble Lord whether he could say whether it is the Government's plan to extend the ambit of the Directive, or not? As I understand it, the draft proposals from the Commission are unlike normal Government Bills. They usually pass with a great deal of amendment, and if amendments are made by Member States who argue their case well, they often become incorporated in the Directive. Indeed, it makes it very difficult for the scrutiny committee to carry out its job when these amendments are copious.

It would be interesting to know, if the noble Lord is able to tell us, whether the Government plan to deal with any of the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in the working groups or in the Council of Ministers itself. Do the Government intend to extend or strengthen this Directive in any particular way? If so, could we be told, because surely it cannot harm the Government's case to state it out in advance.

I am not an expert on social security in Britain, let alone at Community level. I have found it a subject almost as intractable as the new maths on which I attempt to help my daughter sometimes in her homework. But I should like to know whether it is correct that one of our difficulties is that we have a more comprehensive, if not necessarily a more generous, range of benefits and that this Directive is only directed at equality within benefits rather than the equality of benefits themselves, or whether the range is wide or narrow, so that our position is made more awkward by the fact that we have tried hard, in that there are more benefits here than there are in other Member States and we have to introduce equality into all of them. This Directive does not lay down any extension of the ambit of social security provisions; it merely lays down that they must all be equal as between the sexes.

I should like to know whether the Government have come to a view as to whether this is a wholly satisfactory way to go about correlating social security systems within the Community. If there is equality of treatment for both sexes within provisions that are themselves wholly different between Member State and Member State, it can be an equality between sexes that is more apparent than real if the extent of the provision within the different States is not comparable.

Some anxiety has been expressed about the effect of this Directive on pension schemes. I should like to know from the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, what consultations the Government have been able to arrange on this subject. I wonder whether they are of a mind to agree that a code of practice or persuasion might be equally as desirable as legislation itself, because the whole method by which this Directive seeks to work is a series of steps.

I was very interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said— as I always am—and I was impressed with the range of his comments and the sincerity with which he drew the points from the wealth of his experience. But I wonder whether he would not agree with me that, if an outside agency like the Brussels Commission is to attempt to herd the Member States in a similar if not the same direction on a matter like this, where there are long traditions of different ways of looking at things, surely it is better to start by setting a series of gradual steps which each country can reach in time rather than to put forward target dates by which everything must be settled to perfection, when some may fall back altogether; whereas, if it had gone more slowly, gradual progress reaching the same ultimate end could have been achieved. I take it as a tribute to the new wisdom of the Commission that they are less prone to say that black must be white tomorrow; if they want to change black to white, or if they get it into their heads that it may be a good idea to make changes in the customs of Member States, they consult and they are open-minded and they suggest a gradual series of steps. I think in this field any other method would be bound to fail.

Nevertheless, I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, the feeling that the pensionable age is an issue which cannot be avoided. Indeed it is an essential one and I do not think it is necessary to approach it in a partisan manner. Indeed, I read with great interest—and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, has done so too—what my honourable friend Mrs. Chalker, speaking for the Opposition in another place, said on this subject on 13th December last. Without quoting her, at that time she was calling for a bipartisan approach to this matter and hoping that even if agreement could be reached there would be flexibility for those who wanted to continue to work beyond whatever date was settled.

I am looking forward to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, has to say, but I wish to support what the Committee has called for in paragraph 17, when they suggest that the Commission, …undertake an inquiry into the changing attitudes to retirement within the Community"— that is, the European Community. If the Commission in Brussels is to make sensible proposals which we have to discuss and debate, then it must be better if they base their proposals on a wide-ranging inquiry into the practice of Member States on these matters. They are a tiny bureaucracy. As the President of the Commission said recently, they have fewer staff than Wandsworth Borough Council and it is necessary for them to undertake inquiries to make sensible proposals. I hope that those who criticise the occasional absurdities which they perpetrate will also be prepared to be constructive and to say that we must support the Commission in their attempt to have inquiries on certain matters because that will stop them being so silly the next time. Therefore, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, will be able to express the enthusiasm of Her Majesty's Government for making the Commission better informed on this subject, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, has called for in her report.

This has been a debate of great interest in which I have certainly learned a lot. I feel that there is a danger of these debates turning into a perpetual seminar on the subjects of rights and equality between the sexes. I am equally aware that when I speak there is certainly a danger of the debate turning into a perpetual debate on the virtues of Europe. These debates on proposals from the Scrutiny Committee are, I feel, most valuable when they are closely tied to the proposal which is under discussion. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, will be able to tell us how the Government have seen that the proposal has altered since the Sub-Committee looked at it and what progress the Government hope to achieve during their discussions in the Council of Ministers.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I should like to ask him a question. He was speaking about equal provision throughout all the nations of the Common Market; but Germany, for instance, has double our gross national product. None of the countries has the same gross national product and I do not see how we could have equal provision for social security in all the countries owing to that difference in gross national product.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to say that I quite agree with my noble friend. He is absolutely right that the different economic health or illness of the various Member States makes it extremely awkward if any attempt is made to compare social security arrangements between one country and another and to attempt to arrange for them to become equivalent or even equal. To achieve that would be something that the wildest dreamer in Brussels at the moment would feel, with the diverging economies, would probably take a long time. If I may briefly repeat one remark that I made previously, the importance of what we are discussing today is that this Directive is not attempting anything as ambitious as that. It is merely focussing on the equality of treatment for men and women and between men and women in matters of social security, and I think that more limited objective is something for which we can all work.

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, as was to be expected, the debate has to a large extent referred to matters which are outside the scope of the present Directive. However, it is desirable that we not only look at what is in the Directive but also have in mind various other things which a good many of us want to see happen. May I state the obvious?—at least, I hope it is the obvious. We in this country have one of the, if not the, most comprehensive systems of social security in the world. In most areas there is no discrimination and there has not been any for a good many years. Our health care arrangements are universal and apply not only to the working population but to everyone.

In terms of National Insurance benefits, we are abolishing the last two provisions which impose on married women a reduced rate of benefit, or tougher qualifying conditions. In April of this year a married woman will quailfy for the standard personal rate of unemployment and sickness benefit instead of the existing lower personal rate, and in April 1979 the retirement pension half-test, which applies only to married women, is also being abolished, so we are making some progress in terms of the matters which have been raised. Our own proposals for legislation in the occupational pensions field would go a long way towards satisfying the EEC Directive as at present drafted, and the current review of the supplementary benefits scheme is examining, among other things, ways of achieving equal treatment between the sexes. As I said, these are all matters covered by the draft Directive.

The debate has been much more about what we in this country should be doing on equality in social security than about what the Directive actually says, and that is not a bad thing. That is what we should be doing; we should be looking at tomorrow rather than at today, to see what we can do. We are committed to some sort of directive, as noble Lords know, by the social action programme of 1974 and the text before us by no means represents the full measure of steps which will need to be taken; it does not cover many points of interest raised by your Lordships or by Members in another place. Nor is it perfect. We have some broad reservations about some of the points in it.

The Government agree with the principles underlying the Directive. In our discussions in Brussels we are concerned to ensure that when the Directive finally emerges—and nobody can say when that will be; it has been under discussion for the best part of two years—it will be in a form that will be acceptable to the Government and the people of this country, and in a form that will not make too much of an impact on legislation.

There is only one major area in the Directive which the Government cannot regard as satisfactory. This is the provision which would allow married women to claim increases for the children of the family, in the same way as their husbands do, each time they are sick or unemployed. This is a very difficult problem. When I say we cannot agree with it, what I mean is that it is not something capable of easy solution. If a man is in full-time employment, and I know he has paid his national insurance, and he has a wife who is also in full-time employment, and I know she has paid her national insurance too, on the face of it it seems simple to say one should treat one like the other. However, under such a system many people would not need it because of the full-time employment of the other. I think it would be very difficult to devise a scheme under which one could say that either partner, if sick or unemployed, should be able to claim dependant benefit in respect of the children when the other partner is in full-time work. As I say, in many instances the money would not be needed for the welfare and benefit of the family. Our child benefit scheme, because it will find a more important place in our way of life, will, one of these days, probably, overtake dependency benefits; I do not know, but at least some of us would like to think that will happen.

Returning to what I was saying, so far as we can tell—I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, that it is extremely difficult to make accurate forecasts in terms of either money or individuals—it would cost an additional £10 million annually. That may not seem a great sum, but it would rise over the years to about £50 million at current benefit rates as more married women became insured. Virtually all this additional expense would go to families—I have made the point already but I make it again—where the husband was in full-time employment and his earnings were continuing without interruption. One must ask whether that would be reasonable.

As your Lordships know, there are major differences between the social security system in this country and in Ireland and in the rest of the Community, particularly with regard to dependency benefits. Broadly, the other countries do not have dependency benefits as we know them, but they have much higher levels of family benefits, which, as I say, we are moving towards. Our view is that, since we pay dependency benefit only for children so as to supplement child benefit during periods when there is an interruption of earnings, these dependency benefits should be excluded from the scope of the Directive for the present, just as family charges—which, for the purpose of the Social Protection Accounts, have always included dependency benefits for children as well as family allowances—are excluded. This would ease our difficulties considerably.

I think I can say that we are sympathetic to the case in which the husband is not the breadwinner and is not himself entitled to benefit, but since principal legislation is involved, we will need to see precisely what is required under the provisions of the Directive as it finally emerges before embarking on changes in our own social security arrangements for dependants. Meanwhile, the phasing-in of child benefit and specifically next April's substantial increase in child benefit, will mean much reduced rates of dependency benefit for children.

So far as occupational pension schemes in this country are concerned, these are diverse in scope and application. The elimination of certain differences of treatment between men and women must be a gradual process and we agree with our colleagues in the European Community that there should be some exclusions from the scope of this Directive. There are other minor but not insignificant changes to the Directive which we would like to see made and these are being discussed in Brussels.

Perhaps I should say, for the benefit of those noble Lords who do not know what the situation is—and I mention it only for their benefit—that the present Directive is in fact being discussed at official level (I think we tend to use the term "officer level") between the officers of the various countries, and submissions will be made to the Council of Ministers by our own Minister on that Council in due course.

Having discussed some of the points that are within the scope of the Directive, I will now turn to deal with other aspects of equality in social security which I know are of particular interest to noble Lords but are not included in it. The Directive does not apply to provisions for widowhood, maternity and family allowances, and Member States would not be bound to change arrangements whereby women can retire earlier than men, count for benefit periods outside employment—for instance, during pregnancy—and derive rights from their husbands' insurance. I understand that the view taken by the Commission is that the draft Directive would apply only to the present and former working population, including the self-employed and the unemployed, and not to the benefits designed for other groups.

The Directive has been considered by the European Assembly and the European Economic and Social Committees. Both these bodies are fully aware that this Directive does not go as far as your Lordships would perhaps like it to, but this is the first Directive, and in all probability others will follow. In any event, the existence of the Directive would not prevent us from moving further in these directions unilaterally if that were possible. But there are complex problems to be overcome in other countries as well as here, and the Government think it right that we should proceed deliberately one step at a time, and with due regard to the structure of our schemes as a whole.

I do not know whether I shall be able to answer all noble Lords as adequately as they would wish—I want to be brief about it—and if I do not touch on anything I hope noble Lords will let me know, and then, perhaps, I could write to them. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, raised the question of supplementary benefit payable to individuals instead of to households. The problem with this proposal is that many more people would be brought on to supplementary benefit who could not really be said to be in need. This is the Government's view. If we ceased to aggregate the requirements and resources of the family—that is, parents and children—as we do now, it would be possible for a married woman living with her husband, who could well be earning a considerable wage, to claim and receive supplementary benefit. The proposal would therefore cost a lot of money, which would not necessarily go where there was social need. Whether one ought to take that kind of thing into account and say that it is the principle that matters rather than the effect of it, I do not know; but one has to take it into account particularly when there is, and will be for some considerable time, a good deal of money shortage. The amount that we are able to spend on social security must have some relation to the amount of money we earn. I think the two must go together. If they do not, then, of course, if we spend too much in one direction we shall have to cut very severely in other directions.

I think the noble Baroness also raised the question of periods of maternity. Periods of maternity are taken into account for pension purposes. Maternity allowances give rise to credits, and subsequent periods during which a woman or a man stays at home to care for children will entitle her or, for that matter, him to have basic pension rights protected from 1978 onwards. I acknowledge that 20 years' contributions will still be needed before anybody can get a full basic pension.

A noble Lord raised the question of the inability of married women to receive invalid care allowance. The cost of extending invalid care allowance to married women is not an expense which the Government are contemplating—and let me say that quite frankly. In any case, invalid care allowance is not a benefit which is generally available in other EEC countries. It seems likely that it would be accepted that the draft Directive, which is intended to cover people in the employment field and those who are sick, unemployed or retired from work, does not apply to married women, since they are regarded as not being in the employment field at these times.

I wonder whether I ought to say something—I am tempted not to do so—about the question of the equalisation of retirement ages. It is a very complex matter. One could take women up to 65 or bring men down to 60, or try to find something between the two. A good deal of thought has gone into this. Again, I can only give the noble Baroness and your Lordships some figures, and I know they are always subject to contradition, but my Department did publish a memorandum on pension age. We published it in September 1976, and copies were supplied to all Members of Parliament. I know there was a considerable consensus of opinion which challenged a good deal of the memorandum—I remember, I think, the noble Baroness talking to me about it—but it was the best forecast that we could make. The memorandum considered four possible solutions. The first was reducing a man's pensionable age to 60, which we thought would cost approximately £2,000 million a year in the long term, although I know many people do not accept that. The next possible solution was increasing a woman's pensionable age to 65—and, for the life of me, I cannot think that women would agree to that for one moment.

Then there was the question of trying to work out a common pension age somewhere between 60 and 65; and to do that and not involve the country in extra cost would mean that you could not do it much below 64½. Then there was the flexible pension age. A good deal of thought has gone into these matters, and obviously a good deal more thought has to go into them. I will not say it defies solution; what I am saying is that it is extremely difficult.

The noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, asked whether we knew anything about a new Directive. The answer is that we do, but, to give a perfectly frank reply to the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, how soon the Directive emerges from the Brussels discussions depends on the priority given to it during the Danish presidency and subsequently, which I think started this month and goes on until June 1978. Until it comes out, the Government's attitude to it cannot be finalised, and we will not know all the details. Its existence is certainly known to us, but, as I say, there is that particular problem at the moment.

Mention was made of occupational pension schemes. I think the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, touched on this. The Government have informed occupational pension schemes of the requirement to give equal pensions, and they have sent out a Paper on this—I will not say a Directive. I think it is also true to say that to enforce this it would be necessary to have legislation, and the Government are contemplating, at the appropriate time, introducing legislation to deal with this situation, so I understand, within the field of occupational pensions.

I was asked whether we are preparing to extend the ambit of the Directive. I think that the answer to that is, no. I was also asked whether the Government intend to strengthen the Directive and, if so, in what way. At the moment, I can give no indication at all that we want to strengthen the Directive in any way. The matter is still under discussion. We shall have to examine what comes out of the discussion at what I would prefer to call the "officer level". What we aim to do is to change the Directive so that it is in a form that we can reasonably adhere to; and that is about as far as I can go.

My Lords, I do not think that I have left anything out but, if I have, I hope that noble Lords will let me know, and I will endeavour to write to them and cover the points they have raised. May I say, on behalf of the Government, that we are grateful—and I say this with real sincerity—to the noble Baroness for introducing this Motion. We are not unmindful of the contribution that she has made as the chairman of this Sub-Committee which heard a good deal of evidence and which spent a great deal of time on this matter. I have, obviously, read the report and, I may say, learned a great deal from it.

5.32 p.m.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, I should like to thank those noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, and also to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, for his reply and for the kind things that he said at the end of his speech. I am bound to say, however, that I am not that susceptible to flattery and that I do not feel that many of the points raised were dealt with satisfactorily. I am fully aware that the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, personally might well want to go beyond what it is possible for him to do at the present time. I accept that; but it is disappointing that the Government are not even prepared to look at the position of the woman who is head of the household and who is claiming supplementary benefit. Although not necessarily conceding the point, I can see the difficulties in this connection of granting equal rights to the dependants of both men and women; but where the woman is the head of the household this is, surely, a different situation and it is not one that will involve the same amount of cost.

May I say also that it seems to many of us that even if you cannot take the more radical approach—and, in this case, I think the word is used correctly—towards changing the basis from a family to an individual system, surely with the introduction this year of the child benefits payments, we want to monitor very carefully whether we cannot go along that line and make the child benefit adequate so that supplementation is not necessary. This, as I have already said, would deal with two problems. It would deal with the problem of women's claims to dependants allowances and also, more importantly perhaps, with the question of the poverty trap; because the child benefits would be paid whether the people involved are or are not in work. Can we not ask the Government to keep this very much in mind, to see whether or not they can make a move along these lines, with the reduction in supplementation and the increase in child benefit.

My Lords, before I sit down, I really cannot resist coming back to this question of the report by the Department of Health and Social Security on which the costings for the pensions, the voluntary reduction of pension age to 60 for men, is based. I thought that it was well understood in the discussions at that time that it was agreed by the Department that those costings were based on the assumption that a man of 60, given the option to retire, would behave in the same way as women had behaved when given the option to retire at 60—forgetting two very important factors. They are that women, in fact, to a large extent, do not have the option to retire, for a good many of their jobs terminate at 60 and, therefore, they are not compatible in that respect; nor was the fact taken into account that the personal pension schemes for which many men qualify would give them a considerable incentive to stay on. I protest that those costings were wrongly based and that before assumptions are made about the cost of retirement age, those sums should be done again. I do not believe that it is beyond the ability of the research department of the Department of Health and Social Security to do a better job than they did in that report.

On Question, Motion agreed to.