HL Deb 08 November 1999 vol 606 cc1177-81

33 Clause 50, page 56, line 23, leave out ("26 weeks") and insert ("two years").

The Commons disagreed to this Amendment but propose the following Amendment in lieu thereof— 33A Page 56, line 23, leave out ("26") and insert ("52").

4.16 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 33 to which the Commons have disagreed, but do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 33A in lieu thereof.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 33 to which the Commons have disagreed, but do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 33A in lieu thereof. —(Baroness Hollis of Heigham).

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, we on these Benches shall not seek to overturn the Commons proposal disagreeing to our amendment to extend the allowances for bereaved spouses to two years. However, we feel very strongly that the Government have shown their true colours in regard to this important issue by preventing any debate in the other place. That indicates calculated contempt both for Parliament and for vulnerable bereaved spouses. Ministers should be utterly ashamed of themselves. It is hardly surprising that so many Labour MPs voted against the Government despite all the usual bullying.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I deeply regret that the other place has seen fit to disagree with the amendment passed by this House after a great deal of discussion to allow a bereavement allowance for two years rather than the six months originally proposed in the Bill, and have proposed one year, which was defeated in favour of the two-year option.

During the passage of the Bill in this House, I moved amendments, which I did not press to a Division, calling for widows benefits for women over 45 to remain as of now, equalising for widowers on the same basis; namely, the national insurance contributions of the deceased spouse. I still believe that that was the right course. However, I supported the two-year amendment rather than the one-year option as being the more generous alternative.

I have repeatedly said, and say again for the record, that it is wrong to remove by stealth the right to contributory benefits. The Government have no electoral mandate for that. There has been no public discussion of the merits of social insurance as compared with the welfare system based on means-testing. Much of the Bill is based on the removal of the right to a benefit for which contributions have been made in favour of a system of welfare benefits dependent on means-testing.

The Government appear to be shifting from a system of social insurance, whereby people qualified for benefit for which they had paid, in favour of a welfare system whereby people do not get what they have paid for unless they can demonstrate real need. We are not talking here about the well to do, for whom the amounts involved are not even small change; we are talking about ordinary working people who, over the years, have prudently set aside money—perhaps through an occupational pension, to which they have contributed to provide a modest income when they can no longer work. Such plans have always taken account of the fact that there will be some state provision for which people have also paid.

That is true for widows. Even if they have rights under occupational pension schemes to which the deceased spouse contributed, they are unlikely to qualify for more than half the pension that the husband earned up to the date of death—which anyway is unlikely to be a full pension at that date. The overwhelming majority of such people are not rich.

The removal of the right to a pension has occurred with little publicity. Only recently have sections of the media woken up to the fact that it is happening at all. It is happening against the assumption that things have changed for most women more than actually they have. Despite what was said by my noble friend the Minister, 5 million women do not work outside the home. The nearly 6 million women who do so work part time. The national minimum wage—which I applaud—overwhelmingly benefits women. That shows, if we need to be shown, that women are still not the main wage-earners in the majority of households.

If we turn away from social insurance as a way of providing for people, the only alternative is to encourage them to provide for themselves through private insurance. Many people will not do so. There are other pressures on disposable income during the middle years of life. So the future could be grim for pensioners in the next century.

The Government seem anxious not to increase income tax at least. I understand that, but if people are forced to provide for their future or for possible future dependants through the private insurance industry, they will not find themselves better off.

I return to my original theme. The widow's benefit for women age 45 and above was based on the contributory principle. The Government's proposal to remove entitlement to it altogether will save large amounts of money—roughly £500 million a year. That does not take into account the money that will be saved by ending the personal allowance concession for widows in their first two years of widowhood. The Government, like those preceding them, have little to learn about clawback when it comes to taxation. I do not personally object, provided the poor and vulnerable are not denied benefits for which they have paid. I believe that is happening under parts of the Bill.

I repeat that I deeply regret that the Government and the other place have not found it possible to accept the modest two-year amendment that was overwhelmingly proposed in this House.

Earl Russell

My Lords, with this amendment, the Minister has shown the real advantages of timely concession. We would have preferred two years to one year, but we prefer also one year in the hand to two years in the bush.

At this stage of the Session, only issues of the very highest priority justify dividing the House—and only on those issues will we take part in doing so. We therefore accept the one year that is in the hand, with thanks to the Minister for her efforts in improving on the original six months.

The Minister knows that we think she is not so much wrong in what she is doing as substantially premature. She and her colleagues would expect us to press her even harder than we would have done before on legislation against age discrimination in employment and on the need to make rapid progress towards equal pay. With those provisos, I leave the position as it stands and thank the Minister for a mercy that, although small, is very real.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Astor, was essentially to complain about the role of the guillotine in the other place. That is a little rich coming from an Opposition who, when in government, regularly used the guillotine when that suited their purpose. This was, after all, a guillotine Motion that the Opposition in the other place did not choose to oppose and did not put to the vote. I sat through the entire proceedings in the Gallery and that Motion seemed to have the consent of the other place, so the noble Lord's comments were misplaced.

As to the amount of time spent on this issue compared with others, that is a matter of the priorities of the House. If Members of the other place chose to speak longer on one item than on another, and chose not to speak fully on this matter, that presumably reflected the importance they attributed to the amendments. I repeat, the guillotine Motion was not opposed. A cluster of invalidity benefit amendments were discussed by 7 o'clock. Between 7 o'clock and 10 o'clock, this matter and other widow-related issues were debated by consent through the usual channels. The comments of the noble Lord are misplaced to that extent.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, given the size of the Government's majority in the other place, clearly they would get a guillotine Motion through—come what may. The view was taken, I think rightly, that rather than debate the issue in question, it was right to concentrate on the substance of the issue. That is what happened. None the less, throughout the debates in another place, Ministers complained that they could not give a proper answer because of their guillotine.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lord, if the noble Lord is saying that Opposition Members did not vote against the guillotine Motion in the other place thinking that they would be defeated and would be wasting their time. I point out that that did not stop them voting on other issues that day and on other days. It was entirely up to the Opposition whether or not to challenge the guillotine Motion. They did not do so.

I turn to the substance of the points made by my noble friend Lady Turner. Originally, we proposed a six-month period for bereavement allowance. Instead of returning to the 26 weeks in the Bill, the amendments moved in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State provided for a more generous 52 weeks—which was the length of time proposed to this House by my noble Lady Crawley, to whom we must all be indebted.

We have held lengthy debates on the proposals. The Government believe that it is no longer possible to justify paying a widow's benefit for life regardless of circumstances—regardless of whether the widow has a generous occupation, has any dependants or has a well-paid job of her own.

We propose instead that the new bereavement allowance should offer financial support for a limited period following bereavement, recognising that people need that breathing space. Our first proposal was six months. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for his remarks to that effect. The Government did listen and move, and they came forward with the proposal for 12 months. When that was put to the vote in this House, it had wide support.

On Report, the amendment of my noble friend Lady Crawley was supported not only by my noble friends but also by right reverend Prelates, Liberal Democrats, most life Cross-Benchers, and even some noble Lords on the Benches opposite. The only opposition in your Lordship's House to the one-year amendment came from Members on the Tory Front Bench and on the Tory Back Benches. Now the other place has endorsed that proposal.

Our reforms concentrate help available from the state where and when it is most needed—on immediate needs and on children and families, while ensuring that existing widows will not lose.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, does she not recollect that a number of us on this side of the Chamber voted for the two-year option—including myself? That proposal was not supported only by Opposition Members.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

4.30 p.m.