HL Deb 12 July 1983 vol 443 cc754-71

5.42 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, and if so when, they will take steps to end the ineligibility of married women for invalid care allowance and the household duties test for non-contributory invalidity pensions for housewives.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, my Question today is on the ineligibility of married women for invalid care allowance and the household duties test for housewives' non-contributory invalidity pensions. It seems to me particularly appropriate that these matters should be before us for detailed discussion today. The newspapers, radio and television all have extensive coverage of the new round of cuts amounting to £500 million in public spending—£100 million of this to be in the Health Service. Should we pause and ask: what is the point of considering the needs of any specific group in the community now? On the contrary, I would put it to your Lordships that this is the very moment for us to be thinking and planning for the future, It is essential that because of the present financial situation we do not lose sight of our targets.

To end the discrimination against married women in these two cases must be right. There can be no doubt about that. Her Majesty's Government have stated through a number of ministerial replies that they take this view. In reply to my question on 25th March 1982, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said: the Government would prefer to be able to extend this allowance … when resources become available to us to consider those priorities" [Official Report, 25/3/82: col. 1061.] Between the two parts of that sentence his words were: but that preference must be put in competition with other considerations". So my intention today is to put the case clearly and to enter that competition for future consideration.

For the purposes of the debate today, I would make it clear that the conditions applying to married women also apply to cohabiting women; and it will save time not to have to make that point repeatedly. Women, on the other hand, who are widowed, separated or divorced, are not classified as married in these cases of benefit assessment.

First, the invalid care allowance is a weekly benefit of £19.70 paid to someone who does not have full-time employment but instead cares for the disabled person in receipt of atttendance allowance. The attendance allowance for full-time care is £26.25 per week or, if lesss attendance is needed, £17.50. When the benefit began it was paid only to carers who were close relatives. The last Government in 1981 extended the benefit, and this was a big step forward. The extension covered anyone caring for a disabled person except a married woman. The married woman loses not only her £19.70 per week but also the benefit of National Insurance contributions which would be paid with the benefit and would be of value in safeguarding her own retirement pension.

For the invalid care allowance the estimated number of married women currently unable to claim this allowance is 110,000, as against the present number in receipt of this benefit: only about 8,000 in all. This shows the size of the problem and makes clear the extent of granting eligibility to married women, but it is not a simple mathematical exercise of just saying that by multiplying the number of applicants by £19.70 one could discover the cost. There would be amounts to be offset, and the Government's recent estimate indicated that £60 million is nearer the sum needed. In a good number of cases the actual money coming into a household would remain unchanged but the allocation or the claim basis would differ and the work done by the married women in caring for the disabled person would receive the rightly deserved recognition.

Much emphasis has been laid on the transfer of more care in the community, and very interesting new schemes are being developed. Here in Westminster the City Council has a pilot scheme of home care workers, and day centres for the elderly are being planned. Other areas—for example, Croydon—have day hospitals and much is being done to provide holidays (or, more accurately, essential breaks) for the carers, to enable them to continue in the dedicated and demanding task, the strain of which can have disastrous effects on the physical and mental health of the carers.

It may be of interest to your Lordships to know that care in the community is much more cost-effective than other means. Westminster City Council finds that it costs over £100 per week to keep a resident in Part III accommodation. The DHSS today informed me that it costs more than £200 per week to keep a patient in a geriatric ward; and I would remind your Lordships that geriatric wards are part of the National Health Service, and that service is now facing a cut of £100 million. The cost of caring for relatives in their own homes is much lower than any of these other costs.

Many married women have felt morally obliged to give up full-time employment to undertake the care of their loved ones, and at this very moment some of them may be considering doing so. I would ask the Minister to take back to the DHSS the thought that they might consider extending the invalid care allowance in the very near future to those who are actually about to give up work and undertake the care of a disabled person. Obviously one would need to assess an exact date from which such a change would be made, and there are always the borderline cases who just miss out and feel themselves aggrieved; but it would be a start in the right direction and a recognition of the sacrifice involved. It would also be in line with the current aim of community care, keeping disabled people out of hospitals and homes and actually saving costs on those alternatives and giving the disabled people a better life.

The other part of my subject refers to the household duties test for married women who wish to claim the married women's non-contributory invalidity pension. A man or single woman who has been continuously unable to work for 196 days because of ill health or disability and who does not qualify for contributory invalidity benefit can receive non-contributory invalidity pension (now £19.70 a week). He or she can get that simply by having a GP certify that the person is incapable of paid employment. The married woman cannot claim non-contributory invalidity pension. She has to claim housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension and prove that she is unable to work and to do basic housework. She faces the household duties test.

The first step is to complete an application form. I have a copy here. It is triple-fold, in four parts and with 25 questions, of which Question 21 is the least satisfactory and the hardest to assess. Question 21 is a whole page in itself. There are four headings and the applicant is asked to tick the boxes which best describe how she can cope "By Yourself", the words being in large black type. The questions are: Able to do it all. Able to do most of it. Able to do a little of it. Not able to do it at all". Then there are the headings, the first of which is Shopping: Can you— Decide what to buy. Get to the shops. Collect what you want in the shops. Get the shopping home". She has to tick one of those for each of the headings.

The next heading is Meals: Can you— Decide what food to prepare. Prepare food for cooking. Move pots, pans etc. about as necessary, e.g. from shelf to table and cooker. Cook food. Wash up".

The next heading is Washing and Ironing: Can you— Do the washing. Remove it from machine or sink. Dry it. Do the ironing".

Again, you have to tick one of those items. The final one is Cleaning. Can you— Dust and tidy. Use a vacuum cleaner or carpet sweeper. Clean. Polish. Clean windows". I should have to reply that I am not able to do a lot of these things, and I am not sure whether I would be able to complete the form, because it is a fairly complicated one.

The percentage of refusals of people who apply is quite high. Of those who are refused only 30 per cent. appeal but the percentage of appeals that are allowed is very high since 40 per cent. of appeals are allowed and are re-classified and those people are given the housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension.

It is the principle of this household duties test that is wrong. The more a woman tries to help herself to do the most basic things, so as to retain a degree of independence, the less hope she has of getting the HNCIP. Even in the very harsh and provocative article by Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph, he stated that previous societies had differentiated between the deserving and the undeserving poor and, it seemed best to concentrate on those who might benefit most, i.e., on those prepared to help themselves". I do not at all agree with the tone of his article because, after all, who is to decide between who is deserving and who is undeserving? My own experience in dental practice and in social service work has shown me that often the most deserving are the least demanding, so it is very complicated. But even on his terms I know that the household duties test is directly in conflict with any encouragement towards self-help.

I am convinced that this is not a party political matter. In fact, I have evidence from the Conservative Women's National Committee on their proposals to the Chancellor for the 1983 Budget concerning the invalid care allowance. They wanted that to be phased in, They recognised that substantial costs were involved, but they recommended that steps be taken to phase in the invalid care allowance for married women.

I know that there are many more points to be made on this subject; and I know too that the speakers who ably follow me will do much to cover the subject. I should appreciate the opportunity now to thank your Lordships for taking part in this debate on this Unstarred Question. I shall not have an opportunity to speak later, so I should like to thank the other speakers in advance. I should also like the Minister to know of the genuine concern on this subject and to understand that we will continue to press for these changes in the future.

5.55 p.m.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, I rise sadly to support the noble Baroness in her Unstarred Question, because the discrimination against married women in the awarding of the invalid care allowance and the housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension has gone on for far too long. I hope that the noble Baroness who is to reply from the Government Benches will have some encouraging news for us. I am not sure whether to feel pleased that she is there to reply to this debate or to be concerned for her lest she should have to give us the same discouraging response that we have had in the past.

But the fact is that this discrimination has been going on for a long time and it is based on a false assumption. It is based on the assumption that all married women are financially dependent on their husbands; whereas of course as we know, and as I have said before in this House, that is not true because 61 per cent. of married women between the ages of 16 and 59 are in paid employment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, mentioned that this is an all-party issue—something that we are concerned about in all parties—and I would agree with her. I would tell her that as long ago as early 1977, in my capacity as the then chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, I wrote to the then Secretary of State of another administration pointing out the inequities of this system and suggesting that it was time that we regarded as questionable this assumption that married women were dependent on their husbands.

Again, as the noble Baroness indicated, many of the married women who are not receiving the housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension gave up jobs before they became invalided and before they needed to remain at home. The reason why many of them do not qualify for a contributory benefit is probably the encouragement that housewives were given previously to opt out of paying the full national insurance contributions.

Certainly the major part of the women who are caring for invalids have given up a job in order to care for either a relative or a friend. Research undertaken by the Equal Opportunities Commission indicates that three times as many women as men care for invalid relatives and we know that the majority of those women are married. They are usually mothers, daughters, sisters, wives or daughters-in-law. Those are the major groups of carers in the country.

In relation to the housewives' non-contributory benefit, no other group of people is subjected to the two tests which are imposed upon the housewives. First, the test of being incapable of undertaking paid employment is a test that all who have a non-contributory pension have to undergo. But no other group has to undergo the second test of being incapable of carrying out normal household duties.

The real problem is that nobody really knows or nobody agrees what normal household duties are. We have had some information from the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, about the success rate of those who appeal against the test. It is quite clear that different tribunals and different doctors have different views about what is meant by being capable of carrying out normal household duties.

The real point about this is that married women who might otherwise have some financial independence become totally dependent on their husbands. As a consequence, many of them often try to undertake more tasks than they are physically capable of, whereas if they had the assistance of benefit they would be able to bring in some outside help to assist them with the additional expenditure that being an invalid involves. The report of the National Insurance Advisory Committee in 1980—this committee was the body which then advised the Government on these matters—recognised that the household duties test was discriminatory. The report went on to say that it would become increasingly seen to be discriminatory. Therefore, the National Insurance Advisory Committee recommended an alternative test for HNCIP. This would be related to the normal activity of individual claimants, regardless of their sex, and could be considered to be either employment or housework activity.

The report then went on to suggest that if the department found this approach to be impracticable within the framework of the social security system, consideration should be given to phasing out the test altogether—initially, perhaps, on the basis of age group. So far, however, nothing has happened, except for a protracted departmental review which is, I understand, still under way. On 13th July of last year, exactly a year ago, in a Written Answer to a Question in another place Mr. Hugh Rossi, the Minister then responsible, said at col. 365: The departmental review of the household duties test for housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension is nearing completion". As I say, that was exactly a year ago, yet we have heard nothing further. Apparently we are still awaiting completion of that review.

I turn now to the invalid care allowance, which again is equally anomalous. It is available to single and married men and to single women but it is not available to married women. Some time ago, a rather sad example was sent to the Equal Opportunities Commission and we submitted it to the National Insurance Advisory Committee. A man wrote to inform us of the difficulties he and his wife were experiencing. For many years his wife had suffered from multiple sclerosis. Her condition had become so bad that their daughter had had to give up paid employment to look after her mother. The daughter happened to be single. Therefore, she was able to draw invalid care allowance. However, she was a young woman and was shortly to get married. Thereupon she was informed by the Department of Health and Social Security that because she was getting married her invalid care allowance would be removed. As the husband said, the alternative to care by the daughter was that his wife would have to go into residential accommodation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, indicated some of the costs involved in residential accommodation. The difference between the award of invalid care allowance to all women, irrespective of being married, and the cost involved as a result of residential accommodation is enormous. Surely it would pay the Government to make sure that as many people as possible are kept at home, though with some recognition of the sacrifices which are being made. In his Written Answer to the same Question in July of last year, Mr. Rossi also said: The extension of invalid care allowance is one of a number of competing social security priorities which can be considered only when the resources have become available". This is a response which we are continually receiving. I suggest that the £60 million involved in paying invalid care allowance to those married women who are caring for invalids would be money well invested. Certainly it is not a great sum of money when it is compared with the bill for social security benefits, which I understand totals something like £20 billion a year. If, therefore, we look at the savings which could be offset as a result of caring within the community the figures could probably be revised even more. The often-stated policy of the Government is community care. As we have seen, community care means care within the family. That in its turn means care by women. When they look at the costs involved, I wonder whether the Government take fully into account the alternative costs involved in residential accommodation.

Finally, as well as the financial burden there is a very real social burden. Tremendous strains are placed on members of a family where there is either an invalid or a carer. We are suggesting that the payment of these two benefits to married women, thereby removing discrimination, would not entirely remove the social strains, but they would at least lift some of the strains and help those women once again to feel more independent and more like individuals in their own right.

6.8 p.m.

Lord Banks

My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for asking this important Question this evening and also for putting the case behind it so clearly. In pressing for the extension of the invalid care allowance to married women and for the abolition of the household duties test for the housewife's non-contributory invalidity pension, the noble Baroness has the full support of my party and also that of my noble friend Lord Kilmarnock, who has asked to be associated with these remarks. We have raised these issues on many occasions in the past. Indeed, the Alliance manifesto at the recent general election contained a firm commitment to take these two important steps. However, I fully appreciate what has been said by both noble Baronesses: that this is a matter which raises concern in all parties.

It is estimated that there are 1.4 million people who do not live in residential institutions but who require extraordinary assistance or attention. The application of the policy, to which reference has been made, of care in the community would add to that number. We want to see more elderly people and more mentally handicapped people able to live in the community instead of in institutions. If we are to do that, then we have to see that those people themselves have an adequate income and also that there is an adequate income for the carers.

Research shows that the majority of carers are women and the majority of those women are married; 70 per cent. of married women aged between 35 and 54 are in jobs. If they become full-time carers, they lose income and they may lose pension rights. So we see that married women constitute the majority of carers, that 70 per cent. of married women normally work, and yet that invalid care allowance does not apply to married women. That does seem to be an absurd situation. It derives, of course, from the old fashioned idea that all married women are at home, ready and waiting to undertake the role of carer with no recompense.

As we have been told already, the availability of invalid care allowance is restricted to those who look after a person who is in receipt of attendance allowance; attendance allowance is confined to those who need frequent attention and help with bodily functions. Looking after an elderly parent who cannot look after himself or herself but who does not qualify for attendance allowance does not qualify the carer, married or not, for invalid care allowance. The Equal Opportunities Commission have suggested that there ought to be a carer's allowance paid at a lower level to cover those people who cannot qualify for invalid care allowance.

However, invalid care allowance itself is at a level that is scarcely adequate, at £19.70 per week. In 1981, the average weekly earnings for women were £91.40 gross. At that time, invalid care allowance was £17.75 per week, which indicates the large gap even when the attendance allowance of £17.50 paid to an elderly or disabled person in need of daily attendance only is taken into account. Married women are excluded from even this inadequate benefit.

We want to move towards a non-earner's benefit or credit at an adequate level for all who are non-earners for an acceptable reason. Another example of the assumed dependence of married women upon their husbands is the household duties test for the noncontributory invalidity pension, with which this Question also deals. The assumption is, that if a married woman earns, it is a fortuitous "extra" or pocket money which the State has no obligation to replace when disability prevents work. As we have heard, it is only if household duties cannot be undertaken that the benefit is available to married women.

The idea that a married woman is dependent financially upon her husband runs right through our social security system and also runs through our income tax allowances system. We have to eradicate that idea and treat men and women on an equal basis, regardless of marital status. The Government could begin this process and help to promote care of the community by returning an encouraging answer to the Question of the noble Baroness this evening.

6.14 p.m.

Baroness Lane-Fox

My Lords, in the past your Lordships have very often shown favour to an unfair case even when the tide is against it—and especially if it concerns those who are badly placed to speak up for themselves. It is gratifying that, with her usual sagacity, my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes has put before the House two classic cases of unfairness—both of which the Disablement Income Group has fought to correct over at least the past 10 years.

Neither case is new to your Lordships. On the invalid care allowance, the noble Lord, Lord Banks, during the debate on the Charter for the 80s in November last, spoke of the denying of invalid care allowance to the married or cohabitating women as an unjustifiable discrimination. The normal household duties test to establish the housewife's right to noncontributory pension was referred to as being an "injustice" in a Question in my name recorded by Hansard on 3rd March 1982. Alas, neither of these cases has improved since then.

In a period of retrenchment, and while I for one admire my party's dedication to taking the measures necessary to secure the remarkable reduction in inflation, it is not pleasant to parade two cases which call for money. My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes must at heart feel this same inhibition—yet here are two cases with little chance of struggle for themselves calling out for our support. Let us first take the invalid care allowance.

It cannot be anybody's wish to be lumbered with a severely disabled person to care for; to take the full burden of it and change the pattern of life to allow for it. Yet the fact is that a high proportion of disabled people are living in the community. They do so through the generous spirit of friends and relations. It was indeed wise to introduce the invalid care allowance to repay some of these good, kind people. To begin with, the beneficiaries of the allowance had to be a close relative, provided this was not a married woman. As my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes mentioned, in 1981 this was extended to include anyone who looked after such a disabled person, unless that carer was a married or cohabitating woman. The irony is, that the majority of disabled people cared for at home are looked after by their nearest female relative, who is often married.

The present method of non-payment of ICA seems to suggest that a married women is supported by her husband, even if she has to give up her work to look after him when he is no longer able to work or support her. It is different when the position is reversed. I have known of two husbands who left work to take care of their disabled wives. They were eligible to receive the £19.70 a week, but I know of married women—including two who are wives, and one of them a mother—who, although they have sacrificed their careers in order to shoulder this responsibility, cannot draw the allowance. The rest of us really should not take all this for granted. By their own efforts, such people can be saving the state £150 a week in residential care charges. With the way the law now stands, far from encouraging their efforts, the state is taxing them for their loyal love and devotion. Without wishing to be over-sentimental, this is not a situation that any of us want.

As for the normal household duties test, its very basis is farcical. It is used in order to establish the eligibility for the housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension by showing inability to accomplish various household activities, splendidly described by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. To pass this test, one has to fail, not to succeed. The campaign against this test describes it as unfair, discriminatory and humilitiating—and it is not less than that.

After all, both married men and single men win the right to this pension if it is proved that they are unfit for paid employment. It is only married women who must undergo this extra, obnoxious household duties test. This seems like discrimination with a capital "D", for it classes married women as a separate category and implies that they are the kept slaves of their husbands—when in fact, today, many of them have held down important careers outside their home. For those who already have to overcome the sadness and indignity of the onset of some disabling condition, it is quite inhuman to pile on the agony by rubbing in their inabilities. The humane course to be taken with all of us who are disabled is not to be reminded, not to bewail what it is not possible to do, but to be encouraged and helped to do what is possible. In this age, surely, of sophisticated psychology it seems ludicrous that the law should stoop to such a cruel stupid test.

It is obviously my wish to welcome my noble friend Lady Trumpington on her first moment at the Dispatch Box, and to recognise too her very special inside knowlege about these two issue before us today. I plead with her to heed very closely the words of the noble Baroness who asked the Question and of the supporters, and ask that she will stir up the action required to sweep away such unacceptable regulations.

6.21 p.m.

Lady Saltoun

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for asking a question which I have been wanting to ask for a very long time. I am particularly concerned about the ineligibility of married women for invalid care allowance and also about the level of that allowance. Nowadays a very large percentage of married women work full or part time, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Banks, has said, they can earn substantial salaries. The hourly rate for a cleaner in London is now £2.50 to £3 an hour, which for a 40-hour week means £100 to £120 a week. In the Grampian region, where I live, the hourly rate for home helps is over £2 an hour or over £80 for a 40-hour week. Against such earnings as these £19.70 per week, to be increased in November to £20.45, for being in many cases on call 24 hours a day and seven days a week, seems ludicrous, and even more ludicrous does it seem that a married women forgoing such gainful employment to care for an invalid should get nothing at all, despite the fact that her sacrifice is in many cases saving the Government the cost of a hospital bed.

The average cost per resident per week of a hospital bed in Scotland in the year 1977–78 ranged from £107 to £132, and £55 a week was the cost of a place in a local authority old people's home. These figures take no account of capital costs, of building, which in Scotland in the years 1977–78 were £15,000 per place for residential homes and £30,000 to £50,000 per bed in a district general hospital. I got these figures from the social work services group in Edinburgh in May 1980. I am sorry that they are not more up to date.

Between January 1978 and December 1981 the retail price index rose by over 50 per cent. and now over 18 months later is still higher. With even a 50 per cent. increase on the figures I have given, and taking the interest rate at 11 per cent., the cost of keeping one elderly disabled person in institutional care in a local authority home or in hospital must, according to my calculations, be anything from £130 to £350 a week, although the cost of a bed in a geriatric unit is not quite as high as in a general hospital, but geriatric units are overflowing into general hospitals. In England I understand the cost of places in local authority homes is roughly similar, but tends to be higher for beds in general hospitals. With an estimated increase of 500,000 people over the age of 75 and 250,000 over the age of 85 by the year 2000, many of whom will require a considerable amount of care, this represents substantial expenditure.

I do not want in this debate to go into the pros and cons of home care as opposed to institutional care for the old and infirm, but I think it is generally agreed that it is better and more pleasant for them to remain in the community wherever possible. I believe that if the Government were to increase invalid care allowance to, say, £50 a week, and make it available to married women, they would not only right an injustice but would be taking a step towards solving what is going to become an immense problem over the next 16 years, while reducing the cost to the health service at the same time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner—I hope she will correct me if I am wrong—mentioned a figure of 110,000 married women who should be eligible to receive invalid care allowance at present. At £20.45 per week this would only cost the Government £2¼ million, and even at £50 a week it would cost the Government only £5 ½ million, if my arithmetic is right. I know this is the worst possible moment to ask for more money for anything, even something that might save expense in the long term. While I fear that this afternoon I shall get a dusty answer from the noble Baroness, whose first tour of duty this is, I should very much like to know the Government's views on this matter and their hopes and their aims for the future.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, before the noble Lady sits down, perhaps I could just take up the matter of the 110,000 people. Apparently the calculation is not very simple, because it is not just the amount paid to them but also the amount of administrative staff that would have to be taken on by the DHSS to deal with them; and a number of other factors come into it. I have not had time to check the noble Lady's arithmetic on my calculator—I am afraid I would not be able to do it in my head—but, apart from that, it is not a simple mathematical calculation.

Lady Saltoun

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness.

6.28 p.m.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, we are greatly indebted to the noble Baroness who has raised this important matter, and I think it is worthy of very serious consideration by your Lordships. What we are trying to look at tonight is a very fundamental problem about the very roots of our social security system. I was very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Banks, referred to this. Our present system had its roots in Beveridge, Lloyd George, and some of it in the Elizabethan Poor Law. But society has changed fundamentally. Successive governments have tried to meet emerging contemporary problems as they manifested themselves and created their own pressures and their own pressure groups. The result has been that we are having a sort of patchwork in our social security system; we try to add on a bit here and take away a bit there, equalise a bit, and suddenly find that society has produced another problem and so there is an extra allowance, which nobody understands and half of those entitled to it do not know about.

The basis of this is of course the total change in our family pattern. I am so old that I can remember when many families had maiden aunts. There was always an Auntie Mary or Auntie Molly somewhere, unmarried, devoted, not particularly attractive or interesting, who would come and look after mother when she was having a baby, or generally take on the chores of caring for elderly relatives. One of the gaps in our social provision now is that we do not have maiden aunts—and thank goodness we do not, because what a rotten life most of them had!

Nowdays marriage is much more popular, both marriage and unmarriage, but at least the majority of people do have a try at getting married. The results of all these changes have not been taken on board by our social security system at all. We shall be having debates like this time after time, as we try to look after first one group and then another. I very much hope that we shall be able at some time to take a longer look at all the anomalies which we are creating. There seems to be general agreement that we should do this and that we need a total overhaul, but that does not appear on even the distant horizon.

The subject we are discussing tonight is an example of failure to adapt. This applies to all parties and to many of the so-called experts. Beveridge based his plans on the concept of a conventional family unit when most married women stayed at home and looked after the family. Today the contrary is true. The majority of married women go out to work, at least for part of their married lives, but we still find in the House of Commons paper entitled Social Security Provision for Chronically Sick and Disabled People (HMSO 276) published in 1974, the following: Housewives are essentially married women who do not do paid work and whose normal job is in the home". But that definition, on which so much of this legislation is based, no longer applies to the majority of married women in this country.

I admit that neither party has got this right, but, at the risk of disturbing the harmony that has so far manifested itself during this debate, I must point out that at least the Labour Party manifesto for the last election, on page 18, made the promise: We will abolish the household duties test for housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension and extend invalid care allowance to all those women presently excluded". I am very sorry that we do not immediately have the ability to carry out that promise.

I looked through the Conservative manifesto and found a very caring reference. I quote from page 28: Most people who are ill or frail would prefer to stay in or near their own homes rather than live in a hospital or institution. Helping people to stay in familiar surroundings is the aim of our policy here in the community". I welcome that and I very much hope that, with the help of noble Lords who have spoken tonight, some action will be taken to see that at least that is carried out, because what we are discussing tonight is surely the best way of helping people to stay in their own homes.

I was very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, referred to that dreadful form. I seem to remember a promise made years ago when the Conservative Party was in power that some of its top level assistants were to do a great swoop through all Government forms in order to simplify them and tidy them up. They were to make the print bigger and easier to understand. Certainly the form in question has not been so dealt with, and I will gladly offer to do it myself if no one else will.

But look at this position of the household test. I agree that I was connected with the party which was in power when some of these things were discussed, but we really were trying to find our way and we have got lost. Applicants are asked, "Can you clean your windows?" That is one of the most stupid questions one could ask. Is one referring to a little bungalow in the country with leaded panes? Is one referring to a picture window on the 17th floor of a tower block? They are also asked, "Can you wash up?" The answer might be, "I could if I had a washing up machine. But if my son gives me a washing-up machine I am disqualified because I can wash up". Another question is "Can you take care of the house?" "Yes, if I am living in a centrally heated flat with wall-to-wall carpeting and Hoover to push around, but not if I am living in a cottage in the country where I have to take a bucket out to get water and scrub the kitchen floor".

Then there is this idea that general practitioners should be the ones to decide whether a woman can carrry out general household duties. That is the biggest rubbish ever. I do not know any general practitioners who know anything about general household duties. Certainly my husband never did.

I hear a noble Lord, say, "Tut, tut." I do not know about the noble Lord, Lord Stone, and whether he gives a hand with the washing up, but that the question whether one of these disabled women should get her allowance or not should depend on some doctor popping in who has probably never done any of these chores in his life shows how both sides of the House must look at this again.

The main idea behind all our thoughts tonight, I am sure, is keeping people out of residential care and hospitals. I have been trying to look up some of the figures about this. Your Lordships have heard many figures tonight so I will not take long, but I am very worried about one figure. I am glad that we now have attendance allowances being paid to 299,981 people. This means that they need attention and attendance. But only 6,500 people are receiving the invalid care allowance. Therefore, if I was a statistician—which I am not, thank goodness—I would ask: why are 6,500 people looking after 299,981 people? There must be very many people in this country carrying out this caring work who are not getting rewarded, who are not being compensated and are not getting the help that they should and that they deserve.

We are still awaiting a report promised by Mr. Hugh Rossi. I hope the noble Baroness will be able to tell us something about that. I hope that she will also be able to tell us, when she is laying out the costs, as I am sure she will have to do, whether these costs have taken account of the money that these people are saving society by keeping their old and disabled people at home. They are saving what must be many hundreds of pounds each week in each case. That has been referrred to in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Saltoun, and I am sure that a note will have been taken of what she said.

Basically we must face the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, and referred to by my noble friend Lady Lockwood, that it is this concept of dependence that runs throughout our income tax and social security structure and which still, in this 20th century, denies women, whether married or not, individual status.

I conclude by saying that while we are trying to do the arithmetic of this we must all know that it is not just a question of arithmetic. The loneliness, the tension, the strain, and often the impossibility of marriage, all come into the picture of life for those who care at home, particularly for elderly relatives. I mention one case briefly of someone I know. She is a career woman who is very highly qualified in her profession and who gave up her job for a short time, as she thought, in order to look after her mother of 60 who was supposed to be terminally ill. That obstinate old lady lived to be 90. She has not long died. The daughter is now 70. She is ill and has been destroyed by those years of strain and caring. She could have pushed the old lady into a home and gone back to work. But, because she did not, the rest of her life is ruined. I should not have mentined that had I thought it was exceptional, but I do not believe that it is. We have to take on board that this sort of responsibility exists when we are looking at this matter. We must put into the balance not only the costs of the allowances and the money that we are asking for but the money that we are saving and, beyond money, what we are trying to do to help the lives of people whose capacities have been diminished by the responsibilities which they have taken on.

I look forward very much to hearing, not only tonight but in the future, what the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, has to say. I do not envy her. I know that she has every reason to understand this problem. We certainly congratulate her on her job. I am sure that all your Lordships would agree, looking around this House, that we could not manage without the numerous housewives here, all carrying out abnormal duties.

6.41 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, may I first thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, for their very kind welcome. I am most grateful to them. I was rather tempted to say, as in the song in "Hello, Dolly!", "Wow, wow, wow, fellahs! Look at the old girl now, fellahs!"

I join those who have spoken before me in thanking my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes for initiating this debate. It is perhaps appropriate that I should find myself replying on behalf of the Government since I preceded my noble friend as the United Kingdom delegate to the United Nations Status of Women Commission—a position that I know she fills with the greatest distinction. Thus, we both have similar experience in working for the interests of women, and the subject she has raised today is of particular interest. The debate has certainly shown the depth of feelings involved.

It may be helpful to your Lordships if I begin by explaining something of the reasoning which has led to the present exclusion of the vast majority of married women from the invalid care allowance scheme. When the scheme was introduced in 1976, your Lordships will remember that it was part of a substantial and widely varying programme to improve what is done for disabled people through the social security provisions. Then, as now, limited resources dictated the scope of the benefit, and it was necessary to confine the help it afforded to those who were thought to need it most.

It was considered that those in greatest need were the man and single woman who could not go out to work because they were needed at home on a full-time basis to look after a severely disabled person. A married woman separated from her husband and not being maintained by him falls into the same category and is as a consequence able to claim the benefit. The intention therefore was to provide a non-means tested income maintenance benefit designed to compensate this group of carers for loss of the earnings, which for the vast majority of men and single women is their only means of support. The married woman living with or being maintained by her husband, on the other hand, is not generally in this position in that either her husband will be providing for her from his earnings or, alternatively, if he is sick or unemployed, he will normally receive a social security benefit with which he can claim a dependency increase for his wife.

The Government are well aware of the case for extending entitlement to the allowance to all married women. But a change of this sort will be in competition with all other demands for improvements in social security and the social services, as my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes reminded us. The relative priority to be attached to this and to be applied to other changes is a fine judgment. Even then, the timescale within which we can think of improvements of any sort is entirely dependent on the success we have in strengthening the economy and creating the necessary resources.

I can assure your Lordships that we have given the question of the extension considerable thought and have sought to obtain a reliable indication of the costs involved. Accordingly, the department undertook a survey of recipients of attendance allowance last August to find out how many married women caring for severely disabled people would qualify if we extended invalid care allowance to all married women. Postal inquiry forms were sent to a statistically approved random sample of all recipients of attendance allowance. The results, when projected to all attendance allowance claimants, indicated that about 78,000 married women would become entitled to invalid care allowance if it was extended to all married women.

I ought to make it clear however that a significant proportion of the families concerned would gain little or nothing from this new entitlement. Some 9,000 families would gain nothing because the husband is already receiving a benefit which is paid at the same rate as or higher than the invalid care allowance, such as supplementary benefit or the increase in retirement pension for a dependant. The invalid care allowance is not payable in addition to such benefits.

Similarly 13,000 families would gain less than the full rate of invalid care allowance because they are already receiving other benefits which are paid at a lower rate than the allowance; namely, increases for a dependant in unemployment, sickness, and invalidity benefits. That leaves some 56,000 families who would gain invalid care allowance at the full rate—an estimate which, if anything, is likely to rise over the years. These figures have enabled the department to place a cost on the extension. The gross annual cost of paying the allowance to all married women would be of the order of £80 million, but the net cost, after allowing for savings from other benefits, would he about £60 million—a considerable sum, as your Lordships will appreciate.

In 1982–83 about £8 million was paid in invalid care allowance to some 8,000 carers—about 4,000 men and 4,000 single, widowed, divorced and separated women. The House will appreciate therefore that, on the basis of last year's survey, by extending entitlement to all married women, we would create a ten-fold increase in the scale of the benefit. The gross cost would be about £88 million per annum instead of £8 million and be paid to nearly 90,000 carers instead of 8,000. The increased activity would also require another 200 civil servants in the department.

May I remind your Lordships that we have not been inactive or unsympathetic as regards this benefit. In 1981 we introduced amending legislation which gave non-relatives who stayed at home to look after a severely disabled person entitlement to the allowance. This change benefited those people, including friends, who provided a valuable service but who, not being related, were not previously eligible. Last year we made a further improvement to this allowance by doubling the amount carers can earn without affecting their entitlement. By raising the earnings limit from £6 to £12 per week, we broadly restored the value of the original limit which had been fixed at £6 since the introduction of the allowance in 1976. This enables carers (where they have the opportunity to do so) to undertake more remunerative part-time jobs which, at the same time, do not conflict with the requirement of preceding virtually full-time care. These are small improvements admittedly, but they are attempts to do what we can within the limited resources available.

I should also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the valuable services provided by married women in caring for elderly and disabled relatives, often at great personal sacrifice. There is an enormous amount of caring within families which it is important to recognise and be grateful for; and it is right that we should express warm admiration for those who are doing the caring. I am only sorry—I have to say this to my noble friend Baroness Lane-Fox and to others—that I cannot be more forthcoming about extending entitlement to the allowance but we are well seized of the case.

I turn now to non-contributory invalidity pension and, in particular, to non-contributory invalidity pension for housewives. These benefits are more popularly known as NCIP and HNCIP respectively. As noble Lords are aware, the household duties test for HNCIP has been under review. We intend to make an announcement as soon as posible and I am grateful for the opportunity that my noble friend Baroness Gardner has given us at this stage to discuss in some detail this much criticised benefit. I should perhaps say, in relation to the review to which the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, referred, that a year is a short time in Government for a review, as she well knows. Not only Governments send out rather cumbersome forms to be filled in. The forms should certainly never be discussed on a party political basis.

It may be helpful if I begin by reminding noble Lords of a little of the history of this problem. NCIP, which is limited to men and single women, was introduced in 1975 with all party support. It provided a benefit for people who did not qualify for sickness or invalidity benefit because their illness or disability prevented them from working and so from building up a contribution record. Before its introduction, only means-tested benefits were available for such people. In the early 1970s, there was a growing feeling that such a system could be unfair to those who had no opportunity to pay contributions in the first place. It was thought that these groups—mainly congenitally disabled people and people incapacitated in childhood—should have a benefit based on incapacity and not on a means-test.

It was out of this awareness that NCIP was born. The 1974 Social Security Benefits Bill which introduced NCIP excluded married women altogether. The then Government's argument was that though they intended to introduce a benefit for disabled housewives, that would have to be based on incapacity for housework. That would be a novelty for social security and the Government pleaded that time would be needed to devise the practical procedures. However, as a result of a Back-Bench amendment to the Bill, the then Government agreed to extend the benefit to married women who were incapable both of employment and their normal household duties. Even then, the Government argued it would take time to sort out the difficulties of this new concept.

In the event, it took two years. Part of the reason for the delay was perhaps that the Labour Administration had first got to find the money to pay for it—a difficulty that parties tend to forget when they leave office. But certainly the delay testifies to the problems involved in devising the household duties test and the technical difficulties in drawing up procedures.

It is in that context that the time taken to carry out the present review should be placed. Two years were needed simply to implement a rule which clearly many noble Lords find unsatisfactory, It does not seem surprising then that a little more time has been needed to reconsider the whole question and to explore the practicality and desirability of alternative approaches. It is perhaps unfortunate this work was not done before HNCIP was introduced. It is always easier to design a new benefit than to amend the rules for an existing one.

There is one other point about the history of HNCIP which is worth making. In preparation for this short debate, I re-read what was said in 1974–75 when the benefit was being discussed in Parliament. Very little was said in those debates about paying NCIP to married women on the same basis as it was paid to men and single women. That proposition has appeared since the original legislation. One reason certainly is the increased interest in the equality of the sexes. Another is that the practical difficulties of operating a household duties test, which were recognised by the Government at the time, are now appreciated more widely.

Suggestions have been made in the House today as to alternative approaches which would dispense with the need to administer the household duties test: I shall deal briefly with two of these. It will come as little surprise to noble Lords to hear me say that we cannot lightly contemplate the easy alternative, the one most often urged on us. Simply to abolish the household duties test and to extend NCIP to married women on the same basis as everyone else would cost about £275 million at present benefit rates. That is equivalent to nearly 8 per cent. of existing social security spending on disabled people. A sum of money of that size is simply not available either now or in the foreseeable future. As a practical alternative, straightforward abolition of the test, even on a phased basis, is not a runner.

A number of other approaches have been made to us besides those from the National Insurance Advisory Committee. I have already stated that we hope to make an announcement about the review as soon as possible. I hope that I have shown up to a point—time is going by—that it has concerned a most difficult subject that has had to be dealt with thoroughly and carefully. We do not have an unlimited purse. No Government ever do, although some have behaved as if they do. This Administration has had to do battle with the effects of that kind of spendthrift behaviour. So the limitations on our purse are strict, much as we would like it to be otherwise.

I should like to reiterate and join with noble Baronesses and the noble Lord. Lord Banks, in paying tribute to those who stay at home—the carers who look after the disabled, It might be thought that the cost of extending invalid care allowance to married women could be much reduced, even perhaps eliminated, by savings on institutional care. This is not the case. People go into long-stay institutional care because there is no one to look after them. Their families, if they have them, simply cannot cope. Paying married women for invalid care would not. I am afraid, change that fact. What we are doing to help people in long-stay institutional care is our Care in the Community initiative. This makes it possible for health authorities to offer local authorities and voluntary organisations continuing payments for as long as necessary to help these patients to be transferred to a more appropriate care in the community.

I have a great many pieces of paper before me from the department giving individual answers to many of the points that have been raised. Rather than detain the House, if I have not answered everything, I should be glad to write to any noble Baroness or noble Lord to supply any information that they may feel that I have not given.

In the light of some of the general criticism levelled at the Government over their attitude to help for disabled people, it may be appropriate to say a few words about our achievements in this area despite the grave economic situation that has lasted for the past four years. We have taken mobility allowance out of tax. By next November it will have increased by 90 per cent, since we took office in May 1979.

The invalidity trap will disappear this year. We have already solved it for people aged 60 or over. In November, it will be completely removed, benefiting a further 30,000 people. We have raised the real value of the therapeutic earnings limit by 20 per cent, since coming into office and will put it up by another 12½per cent, this November. Given the economic background, we can be proud of those achievements.