Age-Related Payments Bill

[back to previous text]

Clause 8


2.45 pm

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in

    clause 8, page 5, line 17, leave out subsection (2).

I apologise to the Committee in advance. I could not resist tabling the amendment because, hidden among much more mundane definitions, part of the subsection leaps off the page. The bit that gets me is ''with any necessary modifications''. I wonder what wealth of real-life detail that encompasses.

Apparently, the prospect of polygamous marriages is among the detail that has been examined in advance. I did not know that they were legal in this country, but assuming that they are, one wonders how many people we might be talking about—not how many people are in a given marriage, but how many in total might be affected. Legally or otherwise, if one were Polynesian or Mormon, one could have several wives all living under the same roof, but they would be treated as constituting one couple and would receive only £100.

Malcolm Wicks: They could have several husbands.

Mr. Waterson: I believe that that is possible in theory. In this enlightened modern age, some modern men might be happy to be one of several husbands of a modern woman. I do not know for sure, but the provision is interesting and we need to be told a bit more about it. How would it work? Is there any basis on which the £100 should be divided up between them? How are polygamous marriages to be defined?

I was under the distinct impression that such marriages are not permitted in English law, although I might be wrong. Why should they be singled out? If they are permissible and legal, and, indeed, encouraged under a particular set of religious beliefs, why should not all the people involved be entitled to their £100 providing that they are all over 70? We must remember that they must all be over 70, so we are talking about a long running polygamous marriage.

Column Number: 44

That just seems to be another layer of complexity which the Government seem intent on adding to the Bill.

2.47 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.2 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Webb: Just before we suspended, the Conservatives made a shameless bid for the polygamous vote among the over-70s. That is obviously part of a new strategy for targeting the electorate. There were also yet more examples of tax and spend. The hon. Member for Eastbourne implied that he would shower the £100 on any number of wives. It was quite shameless.

I am unclear whether the amendment would help or hinder those in polygamous marriages. It would take the provision for such marriages out of the Bill completely, leaving the question of what the default position would be. On one reading, the default position might be that each partner will get 50 quid, so not having a specific provision for polygamous couples to be treated as one might therefore result in multiple £50 payments. I am not sure whether that was the hon. Gentleman's intention or whether he did not want to provide for this group at all.

It is worth including the provision for this rare group so that we know where we stand. Having it in the Bill is probably preferable to not having it. However, I want one thing clarified, which arose during discussions on previous social security Bills. Is polygamous in this context taken to mean polyandrous as well?

Malcolm Wicks: The answer to the last question is yes.

The amendment would remove the provision to treat the members of a polygamous marriage as a single couple for the purposes of the £100 payment. I was not entirely clear what the Opposition were getting at—whether they wanted to be more generous than us or meaner. The hon. Member for Northavon took the more generous interpretation. I am sure that things will be clarified later.

The clause is largely technical. Its purpose is to define words used in the Bill and to set out, among other things, that members of a polygamous marriage will be treated as forming one couple. The provision clarifies what is to be paid to members of a polygamous marriage. They will be treated as one unit and receive £100, however many of them are over 70.

There are not many polygamous marriages in Britain, although I understand that there are no firm figures. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there may be a few hundred such relationships among the elderly. I must check that—if anecdotal sources can be checked. The numbers are reducing because since August 1988 immigration legislation—section 2 of the Immigration Act 1988 to be specific—has prevented a polygamous wife settling in Britain with her husband if another wife is already in the country. It has been a long-standing

Column Number: 45

convention that benefit rates for couples are lower than twice the single rate because two can live more cheaply than one. Equally, we believe that three can live more cheaply than two. Our approach takes into account one household, one council tax bill and one payment.

As this matter is of interest to the Committee, I can inform hon. Members that valid polygamous marriages that are contracted outside the UK are recognised for certain social security benefits. Obviously, polygamy cannot be initiated in this country. Second and subsequent wives are treated as dependants for income-related benefits, but polygamous marriages are not recognised for contributory benefits. Given that we are only talking about one payment, our approach follows the position set out on winter fuel payments.

I hope that I have clarified that this is about polygamy in the general sense, so it is also about polyandry, where a woman would have more than one husband, should she choose to take that step. Polygamy is where a man has more than one wife. The provision is all-encompassing. Despite the Opposition's concerns about the wide-ranging nature of clause 7, we would not use the provision to make the situation compulsory.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful for the Minister's explanation. I am surprised, if not slightly alarmed, to hear that there may be several hundred polygamous marriages among the over-70s, although he was good enough to say that he was not sure whether that was across the board.

On reflection, the generation of hippy commune dwellers from the 1960s may produce a boom in indigenous polygamous relationships as they get older. There are a lot of ageing hippies around, usually with long pigtails and bald heads. They are an historic group and must be recognised as such. However, the Minister was right to remind us that polygamy is against the law, except for those marriages that were initially contracted outside the country. I am relieved to hear that.

On balance, although my amendment would have been more generous to people in polygamous marriages, I do not want to upset the shadow Chancellor, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Waterson: I have a couple of points to make, although I know that everyone is anxious to get back to the Gender Recognition Bill in the Chamber.

The definition of a couple seems a little out of date, given the Government's Civil Partnership Bill. It refers, in a rather dogmatic and old-fashioned way, to

    ''a man and a woman who share a household''.

Column Number: 46

Although I have not looked at the detail of the Civil Partnership Bill, I assume that sooner or later an amendment will be needed to bring this Bill into line with it, or vice versa, unless the Government are reverting to the more traditional approach of a couple, meaning a man and a woman.

Malcolm Wicks: I think that I am right in saying that because this is a one-off payment, the Civil Partnership Bill will not apply to the £100 that will be paid later this year.

Mr. Waterson: But it might arise in the context of future payments as set out in clause 7. I would not like the Minister to be taken to the European Court of Human Rights by a homosexual couple who felt that they were missing out on their payments.

Another thing that slightly puzzles me, although it may just be me, is the definition of ''single'', which

    ''in relation to an individual, means not part of a couple''.

That seems to raise issues of policing and so on. To go back to the Civil Partnership Bill, there is a school of thought that says that the potential benefits to be gained under that legislation, particularly in relation to inheritance tax, will mean that it becomes a source of tax planning for better-off and better advised gay couples. In the context of this Bill, how is one to define whether someone is part of a couple?

Presumably, the term involves some sort of sexual relationship—or does it? I hark back to what the hon. Member for Northavon said in a different context about a brother and sister. Indeed, one could talk about two friends, male or female, who happen to have lived together for a long time and are now over 70. The provision needs a bit more clarification. I am sure that the term has to be put in the broader context of social security legislation generally. It would be nice to have some further background.

Malcolm Wicks: Although the provision once again essentially replicates winter fuel payment provisions, it has regard to different forms of household composition and relationships, hence our need to detain ourselves with the slightly esoteric issue of polygamy. Having arrived at definitions of criteria, we must be on our guard to ensure that, where appropriate, those can be adequately policed, just as we have to take action, with appropriate evidence, if someone says that they are single for income support purposes, but turn out to be cohabiting. In most of the provisions, there is not much scope for abuse, but there is always possible abuse in the social security system, and we must be on our guard against it.

On the hon. Gentleman's remarks about all the '60s hippies, now past the age of 70, still living together in communes, my guess is that some of those relationships did not last beyond the first track of a Rolling Stones album, let alone stand the test of time.

Column Number: 47

By and large, cohabiting relationships are less likely to be secure than those based on marriage; that is a matter of fact.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2004
Prepared 25 May 2004