HC Deb 07 July 1967 vol 749 cc2255-61

Without prejudice to any other benefits to which she may be entitled under the National Insurance Acts there shall be payable a widow's pension at the following weekly rates—

  1. (i) 30s. a week to a woman widowed between the ages of 35 and 40;
  2. (ii) 40s. a week to a woman widowed between the ages of 40 and 45; and
  3. (iii) 50s. a week to a woman widowed between the ages of 45 and 50:

Provided that in all cases the woman had been married for a period of at least three years.—[Mr. Braine.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Braine

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

We have had a very interesting and constructive series of debates, and I shall be brief. One fact which has emerged from our discussions is that, unhappily, our social security system is riddled with a host of anomalies, and, judging from my postbag, they often strike the people who are affected as most unjust.

The most glaring examples are to be found in the way in which we compensate the breadwinner for serious injury or disease, or the wife for the loss of her husband, circumstances which inevitably change and nearly always worsen the pattern of a family's life. The two sets of circumstances are linked. It is not the extent of the injury or its incapacitating effect, but its cause which determines the social provision which we make. Similarly, it is not the fact of widowhood which determines whether a widow under 50 gets a small pension, but whether she was married before 1948 to a man who was insured under the arrangements then in operation. It is not the fact of widowhood and the circumstances in which the widow is forced to live which determines her entitlement to pension, but her husband's contribution record.

I have come to the conclusion that this is wrong and I do not mind admitting it. We all know that these anomalies were not deliberately contrived but have arisen from the way in which our social services have developed and expanded over the years. The late Conservative Government concentrated, quite rightly, on improving provisions for widowed mothers and their children. The present Government have abolished the earnings rule for widows and widowed mothers. That is an extremely useful step forward which we all welcome.

Yet the anomalies remain. Often they are grossly unfair. A woman of 45 suddenly widowed may very well have been out of employment for 20 years or more. She should certainly get some pension. The distinction between those married before and after July, 1948, is completely unrealistic and could result in two widows of exactly the same age, in identical circumstances, being treated differently one receiving 30s. a week and the other nothing. One of my constituents wrote to me a little time ago asking: Why should some widows at my age have a pension while I have to go on paying contributions until I am 60? I too have lost my husband and I too am having a struggle. The virtues of the right hon. Lady have to some extent worsened the situation because the inequity is all the greater since the widow who gets a pension is no longer subject to the earnings rule. This only serves to heighten the sense of injustice. One way of correcting the anomaly would be to give all widows now receiving no pension at all a pension of say 30s. a week between the age of 35 and 40 increasing progressively as suggested in the new Clause to the full rate when they reach the age of 50.

I do not doubt for a moment the sincere desire of the right hon. Lady and her hon. Friends to get rid of these anomalies. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), whose speech we all enjoyed this morning, has rightly said that social security is about women or rather about the social insecurity of women. This is very true, and there is now evidence accumulating to show that the rigid qualifying age of 50 is too high. A woman widowed in her mid-forties often finds it very difficult to find employment, except of the most casual and unskilled kind. Those of us who see our constituents every Saturday morning know the difficulties of many women in this position. Suddenly their whole world has fallen apart with the death of their husbands—suitable employment is difficult to find.

Then again, women have been marrying younger and having their children earlier. Many find themselves, if widowed, on their own well before the age of 50, faced with the prospect of getting a job, which as I have indicated, can often be a difficult task, and paying contributions for a pension that they will not receive until they are 60.

In December, 1964, the right hon. Lady said that these matters were very much in her mind, and would be considered in the review upon which the Government were then embarking. She said: … the age condition and the other provisions relating to benefits for widows are among what I consider to be the most important matters which we have to examine in the course of the review of social security provisions. The review will have to cover many matters, including the position of the existing widow who has failed to qualify under the present conditions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd December, 1964; Vol. 703, cc. 793–4.] The position of widows was last discussed in the National Insurance Bill in February, 1966. We were unable to get any information as to the Government's intentions. Since then a further 16 months have elapsed. I detected a certain sense of frustration in the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sowerby when he referred to the dawning of the great day, when the review was finally presented to the nation and revealed to all.

When can we expect this review, in respect of a matter to which the right hon. Lady attached the highest importance in December, 1964—this year, next year, 1969, 1970, or on the eve of the next General Election? We are entitled to a clear answer on this point and I must tell the right hon. Lady that we shall go on pressing until we get it.

Mr. Pardoe

We are being subjected to the most appalling blackmail in being told to shut up, namely, that if we do not allow the Government to get the Bill—and the Government have presumably been promised the Bill by the Opposition—by four o'clock they will go round the country telling all the old-age pensioners that we did not let them have their increase. The whole debate, including the Second Reading debate, has been a shambles, and I hope that both parties are disgusted with their performance.

Miss Pike

I should like to point out that the Conservative Party was also blackmailed. We were told that if we did not allow the Committee stage to be completed today we should be responsible for not allowing the Bill to go through and for the pension not being paid. It is no wish of ours that the Committee stage should be rushed through; we had no choice but to do it this way.

Mr. Pardoe

I am glad that the element of blackmail has had its due effect upon the Conservative Party. As I said, this has been a shambles. I merely want to say a brief word about an Amendment of mine, which has not been selected, but which would have met all the points that have been made, by providing that we should incorporate into our National Insurance system a lump sum life insurance policy giving a wife a lump sum when her husband dies, at whatever age. That would meet all the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine).

Miss Herbison

This has been another short debate. I am grateful to both hon. Members who have spoken. The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) said that the provision for widows are riddled with anomalies. I have often said that the anomalies are legion. During the two-and-a-half years that I have been in this office I have often wished that I could have started with a clean sheet in social security. How much easier it would have been, without all the vested interests and anomalies which exist.

The hon. Member made some play about what I had said in 1964 and what I had said when presenting the previous Bill. He wondered when the review would finally be presented. This sort of thing is often said. Hon. Members do not seem to be aware that we have not waited until the whole review was finished before doing anything about it. As each part of the review has been completed we have brought it to the House. The part dealing with supplementary benefits has been of immense importance to thousands of people.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) has spoken about a lump sum payment for widows, under the impression that that would be a cure for almost all their troubles. I do not agree. We extended the 13 weeks of the widow's temporary allowance to 26 weeks, and under this Measure the amount will be increased. At whatever age a woman is widowed, if the necessary contributions have been paid, she now gets £5 12s. 6d. a week for six months, and on top of that—under another piece of legislation that we brought forward—she gets the earnings-related benefit due from her husband's earnings.

If we add those together we see that they represent quite a large lump sum payment. After that, if the age condition is satisfied, the widow gets the pension weekly. I thought that the hon. Member might like to look at the existing position and how it matches the proposal.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Pardoe

I spoke so briefly, in order to meet the Government's wishes, that the right hon. Lady may have misunderstood me. The lump sum is not instead of the present benefits but in addition to them.

Miss Herbison

It may be because the hon. Member spoke so briefly—and I understand his reasons for doing so—that I formed that impression.

In our review of the general provision which we shall make for earnings-related benefits, this is one of the matters to be considered. I am certain that there will be a change. The kind of change which I envisage is one in which I have always believed, with no cut-off. At present almost an hour can make the difference between getting a pension and not getting a pension. I suggest that there should be no cut-off but a minimum age and a maximum age and graduated payments between the two. That is what I have in mind. When we have the very big problems solved about earnings-related and disability pensions, that will be one of the matters of which we must take care.

Mr. Braine

I must confess that I found the right hon. Lady's reply somewhat disappointing. I acknowledge, as I said in my last speech, that the Government have taken some steps to improve certain social provisions in advance of the review, but her protestations would be more convincing if we had some assurance—which we have not been given so far—that this review will be produced very shortly. The disappearance of the right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) from the ranks of the Government after his long labours and his known knowledge and enthusiasm for this subject suggests that there are more difficulties over the review than have been revealed so far. There are probably deep divisions within the Government.

But the present is not the time to discuss that matter, and in view of the fact that the right hon. Lady is unable to give us any information as to when we shall get the review—it may be that she is not free to do so—I fear that I cannot withdraw the new Clause.

Question put and negatived.

Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.