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Baroness Amos: The purpose of these amendments is to allow a widow or widower to qualify for the new bereavement benefits by virtue of voluntary contributions. The actual effect of the amendments would be to secure entitlement to bereavement benefits by payment of any voluntary contribution. I am not sure from what the noble Lord said by way of introduction that that was the intention behind this amendment.

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Contribution conditions for the bereavement payment are no different to those which apply to the current widows' benefit scheme. We intend simply to carry them over to the new bereavement benefits. As far as voluntary or Class 3 contributions are concerned, it is already possible for them to count as paid contributions. Therefore a person may improve his or her contribution record by paying Class 3 contributions and so protect his or her right to a basic retirement pension or bereavement benefit for a spouse. These voluntary contributions may be paid up to six years after the relevant year, or longer in exceptional cases. Furthermore, a widow or widower can pay Class 3 contributions towards his or her late spouse's contribution record for the purpose of gaining bereavement benefits.

I can therefore assure the Committee that voluntary contributions will count for bereavement benefit purposes either if the late spouse has paid voluntary contributions to protect the benefit rights of his or her partner or if the partner seeks to make up the record to gain benefit rights. I hope that the noble Lord will be reassured by my explanation and will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Higgins: I am grateful for the explanation given by the noble Baroness. I am not quite clear whether she proposes to accept the amendment or whether she is simply saying that it is unnecessary.

Baroness Amos: I am saying that the noble Lord's amendment is unnecessary.

Lord Higgins: In that case there seems little point in pressing it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 77:

Page 54, leave out lines 25 to 28

The noble Earl said: This amendment seeks to leave out some words from the Bill. I will, if I may, read those words as that makes the point as clearly as it can be made. The words are as follows:

    "A bereavement payment shall not be payable to a person if that person and a person of the opposite sex to whom that person was not married were living together as husband and wife at the time of the spouse's death". That restricts the bereavement payment to those who had been through a ceremony of marriage. The purpose of this amendment is to extend it to those couples who are, in the words of the Bill,

    "living together as husband and wife", without having gone through a ceremony of marriage.

Those words are quite sufficiently restrictive. The status of cohabiting is clearly known to social security law and has been so since the National Assistance Act 1948. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord now on the Woolsack for helping to clarify these points during debates on the Family Law Act 1996. So there is no danger of uncertainty if this amendment were adopted; it is perfectly clear what my amendment means.

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I do not understand--particularly in this day and age--why the Government have seen fit to introduce this restriction. Most of us know from our own social experience--if not from reading, then from statistics, from Social Trends or other more academic sources--that many couples who live together without a ceremony of marriage are just as much regular, established couples as any others we know. There is no clear outward difference, except in the ceremony.

Why should those who have not gone through a ceremony--which, however much it may concern some people from a religious point of view, is not a matter of great secular concern--be penalised in this way? I cannot see that the state has an interest in what is basically a matter of religious concern. It is a matter in which some degree of separation of Church and state seems to be perfectly legitimate.

It is also a point which may be of electoral concern. We are told by Social Trends that 20 per cent of couples who live regularly together are cohabiting without marriage. My own experience, from looking at the names on the electoral register when I was canvassing in the last election, is very much in line with Social Trends' findings. For once in a blue moon, my sample must have been not untypical.

If the Bill is left in its present form the Government are saying to large numbers of potential voters, "You are not getting anything from us. You will have to look elsewhere". Purely in political terms--quite apart from any question of justice--that is extremely unwise advice for a government to give to the voters. There is no case in justice why cohabiting couples should not receive a bereavement payment; there is no case in terms of sheer political expediency for taking this line. It is out of line with the developments which are rapidly taking place. I do not see why the Government have taken up the position they have. It is a quite unnecessary restriction.

I hope that they will see fit to change it. When advice has ultimately reached the Minister--by what the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, once described as "that curious process of osmosis by which information reaches Ministers in this House"--she may be able to do something about it. Obviously this is not the kind of question on which one wishes to divide the House at this time of night; on the other hand, it is a serious question of principle; it is a question about what is the purpose of the state; it is a question about equality; it is a question about non-discrimination; and it is a question of sheer human need. I very much hope that the amendment will be taken seriously and will be successful. I beg to move.

Baroness Amos: Our intention with bereavement benefits is to continue, as now, to base entitlement only on legal marriage between couples at the time of death and for entitlement to end when a person remarries or lives with another person as husband or wife.

We believe that a scheme based on marriage is right for two primary reasons. First, marriage is the basis, the cornerstone, of the contributory benefits system. This applies not only to this benefit but to others--for example, to war widows, to public sector pensions and

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to many other benefits. Secondly, marriage provides a straightforward method of deciding whether benefits should be paid. It would be far more difficult and intrusive to administer and police the benefits if they were extended to unmarried couples.

Our intention is to provide the new support on bereavement in as direct and simple a way as we can. We have as far as possible maintained the current conditions of entitlement while extending the benefits to widowers. So, as with widow's benefit, entitlement to the new benefits will be based on legal marriage.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, raised a number of wide-ranging points with respect to issues of principle and equality. These are general issues which I am sure this place will continue to debate. However, on the basis of my comments about the cornerstone of the contributory benefits system, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

11.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: I understand what the Minister says: that the provision is based on current conditions of entitlement. That is not a matter of dispute between us. I also accept that marriage has been, as the Minister put it, a cornerstone of the contributory principle. But the Government, and not least the Prime Minister, tell us almost daily how much the world has changed since Beveridge. This is one of the ways in which the world has changed most. The status of cohabiting couples is quite different now from what it was in 1948. One can now include one's unmarried partner in one's Who's Who entry. I can think of plenty more symbols of that change. I shall not bother to produce them at this time of night.

The Minister then falls back on the argument that this proposal would make it much more difficult to police the benefit. But in all other social security law cohabiting and marriage are taken as being of equal status. It is one of the principal ways in which social security law differs from the law in regard to other ministries. We came up against this issue over and over again in debates on the Family Law Bill. If the Department of Social Security can manage it for practically every other benefit under the sun, I do not see why it cannot manage it for this one. Bringing this provision back in this form, in this day and age, is a thoroughly retrograde step, and one for which, whether it concerns the Government or not, they will lose a considerable number of votes--and rightly so.

I do not intend to divide the House at this time of night. Therefore I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 49 agreed to.

Clause 50 [New allowances for bereaved spouses]:

[Amendments Nos. 78 to 82 not moved.]

Baroness Crawley moved Amendment No. 82A:

Page 56, line 16, leave out ("pensionable age") and insert ("age 60, if the bereaved spouse is a woman, or age 65, if the bereaved spouse is a man,")

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The noble Baroness said: This amendment stands also in the names of my noble friend Lady Lockwood and other noble Lords. I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 86 and 89 in this group.

Amendment No. 82A is a probing amendment. It seeks clarification of the Government's thinking in this area. I know that my noble friend the Minister is only too aware of the financial problems that face very many women in Britain in their old age. Women face inequality in pay structures and have a history of low pay and interrupted, dislocated working lives. That is especially true of women with children.

While I am aware of the Government's important initiatives to reverse the sorry saga of women's pay inequality--for example, through the introduction of the national minimum wage and the working families' tax credit--the reality remains that women face an unequal struggle in their older years, despite the international legal obligations of equality in pension rights.

Amendments Nos. 86 and 89 reflect what I believe is the experience of bereavement. We all need look no further than our own families to know that bereavement has its own uniquely difficult timetable. People's reaction to the trauma and pain of bereavement depends on individual circumstances, but those of us who have suffered or observed the bereavement of a surviving spouse at close quarters know that it takes at least a year to feel any sense of normality returning to one's life. Physically, mentally, emotionally, a year makes sense.

That is why those Members of the Committee who put their names to Amendments Nos. 86 and 89 believe that 52 weeks is a far more appropriate time-scale for the period of a bereavement allowance than the 26 weeks in the Bill. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will give positive consideration to the two amendments. I beg to move.

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