Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Pitkeathley: I support the amendment on the grounds that it is unreasonable to expect someone to be able to adjust to the trauma of bereavement in only six months. Almost everyone who has suffered a bereavement understands that the year's anniversary is a turning point. That applies to the practicalities of learning to cope in a different way of life, especially for older women who have not been used to dealing with the practicalities of finance, household matters and so on. It also applies most particularly to the emotional trauma. I hope that the Minister will be able to support the spirit of the amendment.

Lord Rix: I too am concerned at the effect of Clause 50 which brings in the new bereavement allowance. I do not think the clause has had the attention it deserves because it hides the abolition of the contributory widow's pension. There are therefore a number of amendments on the Marshalled List which I support and which would improve a bad clause. As with Clause 49, I welcome the fact that the allowance will be paid to men as a result of the European Court case.

6 Jul 1999 : Column 858

My main objection is that this is worse than salami slicing. A contributory benefit is being hacked and chopped at with a vengeance. The widow's pension is being replaced with a time-limited benefit of just six months. That change drives a coach and horses through the contributory principle. What about the millions of men who have been contributing to national insurance, some voluntarily, in the expectation that their widow will get a widow's pension? From 2001 many will not and they will never know what they should have received. As I said at Second Reading:

    "Widows seem to be something of an easy target. They do not know when they will be bereaved and they probably will not know what they could have expected under the old dispensation".--[Official Report, 10/6/99; col. 1601.]

The Government have made much play of their commitment to women's issues, and I wonder whether the Minister's conscience has been pricked by the negative impact on the future income of many bereaved women, in particular those without dependent children. Women already have lower incomes than men. This measure simply makes matters worse.

It is a similar argument to the one which we will debate when it comes to my amendment on SERPS for widows. It may, I fear, yet end up with the Government in the European Court of Human Rights challenged on the legitimacy of cutting back on benefits to which people have already contributed.

One final point: if the Government are determined to enact Clause 50, I believe that at a minimum they must extend the allowance from six months. It is absurd to think that six months is long enough to cope with the effects of bereavement. As Age Concern has noted, the representations on this point made by them and all others on the consultation paper, Support in Bereavement, have apparently been entirely ignored. No one, except the Minister and her officials, seems to think that six months is long enough. I therefore support the amendments that seek to extend the duration of the allowance, as well as the earlier amendments to include those people who have made voluntary contributions.

I should add that I am pleased that additional safeguards have been included for those bereaved with dependent children, but they can be seen as mere crumbs of comfort for far larger numbers of sorrowing widows.

Baroness Turner of Camden: Amendment No. 84 in my name has been grouped with this set of amendments. The Committee will recall that on many occasions, most recently on Second Reading, I have spoken against the intention to remove widows' benefits that hitherto have been paid on a contributory basis. I understand that this is known as "modernising" widows' benefits. The Government's reason for incorporating this provision in the Bill is the need to equalise widows' and widowers' benefits so that widowers are entitled to benefits when their partners die. The modernisation consists of removing entitlement to benefits from widows over the age of 45 with no children or those who are no longer entitled to the widowed mother's allowance. Instead, both widows and widowers will receive a bereavement allowance for six

6 Jul 1999 : Column 859

months only, plus an increase in the basic lump sum of £1,000 to £2,000, which incidentally I welcome. In addition, the SERPS addition is to disappear.

This provision represents a significant transfer of benefit support from women to men. Childless widowers over the age of 45 will gain but childless women who are widowed after 45 will lose. They will lose more than 19 years' benefit and all the additional pension that their husbands paid for through national insurance contributions. Women with children who are widowed at an early age will be particularly badly hit. A woman with small children widowed in her 20s or 30s will probably cease to be eligible for the widowed mother's allowance, now to be the widowed parents allowance, in her late 40s or early 50s.

Currently, the benefits system recognises that someone in those circumstances will find it difficult to enter or remain in employment while the children are young, and she may well find it difficult to get a job when they leave education. The provision in the Bill means that someone in these circumstances, who has perhaps been out of the labour market for 20 years, must sign on for jobseekers allowance at an age when other women are preparing for retirement.

When these issues have been raised previously the Government's case has been put to the House very ably by my noble friend the Minister. However, she knows that I do not accept it. It is my belief that those who frame these policies think that things have changed for women far more than they have. It is true that many more career opportunities are now open to women than 30 or 40 years ago, but one has only to look at any gathering of professional or senior executive personnel to see at once that women still constitute a tiny minority of the better paid. Nicola Horlick is so exceptional that she is a constant news item.

The EOC report contains the not unsurprising information that women still on average earn 76 per cent of male earnings. A woman who has spent a large amount of time bringing up a family--this is still a socially desirable thing to do--is not likely to find matters easy in a highly competitive labour market when she is widowed. There is also the fairly common situation in which a woman will have spent much time caring for a sick or disabled husband before he eventually dies. The opportunity that she has had to update her skills and qualify for outside employment is likely to be minimal.

There is also the argument that nowadays a number of women benefit from generous occupational pension provision. I must tell the Committee that, based on some experience of negotiating these matters, most ordinary schemes, unless they are of the top-hat variety for very senior staff, are based on the assumption that there will be state benefit in addition. The same is true of survivors' benefits, which are rarely more than one half of the original pension, again on the assumption that there will be a state benefit entitlement. Even with the better final salary-type schemes, few people nowadays manage to qualify for the Inland Revenue limit. Therefore, while private occupational pension provision may be adequate for most people, it rarely qualifies even now as generous.

6 Jul 1999 : Column 860

The Government further believe that to equalise widows' and widowers' benefits on the existing basis would be too costly. I question that. The widow's benefit is paid on contributions paid by the husband. It is intended to pay the widower on the basis of contributions by the deceased wife. In the light of current circumstances, since women have a more interrupted work pattern than most men, the entitlement of widowers is likely to be less and, therefore, equalisation will not be quite so expensive.

I return to my main theme. This is a contributory benefit. If we are to depart entirely from the social insurance concept with which we have lived since Beveridge and return to the days of means testing, and ultimately to the concept of the deserving and undeserving poor, there should be a proper debate about it. It should not be done in the fashion proposed in the Bill--a snip here and a snip there in the hope that no one will appreciate what is happening. If this contributory benefit goes, what will happen to others? This is not acceptable.

My amendment seeks to maintain the system as it is. It may not be very well worded, but that is what it is about. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can be persuaded to reconsider what is proposed. As I am sure she is aware, the provisions in the Bill are opposed not only by the Widows' Advisory Trust, of which I am a trustee--one would expect it to oppose them--but by the Trades Union Congress. Doubts have also been expressed by the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux. I await my noble friend's response with interest.

11.30 p.m.

Earl Russell: The Government's proposals are the downside of equality, the argument being that if one believes in equality, both sexes after a bereavement should be equally required actively to seek work. I can understand the logic of that, but I also understand, and feel considerable sympathy for, the argument of the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden. I am not sure that equality has yet gone that far.

There is also a problem, as there was with the SERPS amendments, of legitimate expectation. Many people have made provision for their spouses on the assumption that there would be a continuing widow's pension. If that is to change, people should have notice of it in good time so that they can make provision in advance to leave their spouses sufficiently well provided for when the time comes. The notice period contained in the Bill will not do that.

I am also worried about another issue. I had hoped to table a further amendment, but it has not yet been drafted. I hope that it will be ready on Report. At the moment, we have considerable age discrimination in employment. The effect of cutting the bereavement allowance to six months will be that after that people will be expected actively to seek work.

As things stand, if a woman is widowed at 50 and she has been the sort of wife who has stayed at home looking after children and keeping the house, she will have no qualifications or recent work experience. She

6 Jul 1999 : Column 861

will not find it easy to get work, and the numbers in receipt of income support will increase. The statistics will not look good and people will start to ask questions of the Government.

I know that a code of practice has been issued on age discrimination, but it has not yet made much difference. Before any change to the bereavement allowance comes into force, we need to have in place proper legislation with teeth against age discrimination in employment. Beyond that considerable problem, I see all the arguments between equality and positive discrimination running round in a circle. Those arguments are a revolving door and governments never quite get the provision right.

Amendment No. 86 would extend the six-month period to a year. That is a simple and straightforward amendment to which the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, spoke movingly. We on these Benches will undoubtedly support that amendment. We need further amendments, not all of which have been tabled. We need one to defer the commencement of the clause and one that requires a commencement condition of legislation on age discrimination in employment. I would be happy to discuss with other interested parties what other safeguards we need.

I accept the principle in the abstract of what the Government are doing, but I do not think that we are yet ready for it. We have not had enough notice, and I do not think that we have adequate safeguards. So I hope that between now and Report stage there will be a little more thinking. We need it.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page