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Lord Rix: My Lords, I explained in Committee why I am unhappy at the abolition of the widow's pension. I do not need to repeat myself. Nothing has changed since then and I am still unhappy. In particular I do not like the fact that another contributory benefit is being virtually removed for some people who have already contributed to it. The House knows of the campaign I have been waging with Age Concern to protect future widows' rights to SERPS after April 2000. This matter is somewhat similar.
The Psalms teach us that God defendeth the widow. Thank goodness someone does, for there appears to be very little help from this or previous governments. I recognise that they have the prerogative to make changes to the benefit system. Judging by the amendments moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, and those to be moved, I believe, by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, it is abundantly clear that no one believes that a six-months' bereavement allowance is enough. The Minister hinted in Committee on 6th July that she would reconsider. I hope that we may hear some good news today.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I speak to Amendment No. 96A. It reflects a similar amendment that I tabled, with colleagues, in Committee. It is a modest but sensible alteration to the measures in the Bill as regards the bereavement allowance and its length of payment.
There is no ideal stage at which a person must decide to begin again and move on. But I genuinely believe that the resources and the strength required to take that step and accept new challenges are far more likely to be present for the bereaved a year after death rather than at six months. I ask my noble friend the Minister to look favourably on this temperate amendment which would be of enormous significance for those who have suffered bereavement.
Earl Russell: My Lords, the House owes thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, for the determination with which she has kept before us the big issues arising from this clause. I agree with a great deal of what she said. At the end of the day, however, our positions differ. The Minister has also said a great deal with which I agree, but at the end of the day our positions differ. Indeed, I believe that I just about bracket the difference between the two of them.
As the Government originally envisaged the clause, it is in effect the downside of equality. The requirement to work, on women as on men, after bereavement is an attempt at full equality. I understand the kind of pride that leads the Minister to defend that. My sense of it is not that it is wrong but that it is considerably premature. It is a major cultural change enforced on a world which is not yet ready for it.
Before we have such a change I would like to see progress made towards equal pay reach at least the point of women earning 90 per cent of equivalent male earnings. I would like to see effective legislation against age discrimination. The requirement to work is nugatory if people cannot be considered for employment. I know the Minister will tell us that there is in place a code of guidance against age discrimination. A recent survey by, I believe, the CBI found that one-third of its members were unaware of the existence of that guidance. The overwhelming majority of the others thought that it made very little difference. Were that otherwise I would be more inclined to agree with the Minister's position than I do.
However, we cannot begin from anywhere other than where we are. I listened with a great deal of sympathy to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. I remember the amendment moved in Committee. It was introduced in a particularly moving speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley. At the end of that debate I said to myself that this is probably where we are going to end up. If so, it has taken a very long time.
The Treasury always reminds me of the 17th century Spanish proverb that if death came from Madrid we would all live to be very old. In a perfect world compromise is inadequate. But the whole point is that it is not quite adequate to any party. That is why
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, for moving her amendment so eloquently. She made a very convincing point. I look forward to the Minister's reply.
As regards the two amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, we on these Benches are very sorry that they were tabled so late. We believe that they should have been grouped with our Amendments Nos. 96 and 99. Accordingly, and with the leave of the House, I shall speak to those amendments at this point.
We agree with the noble Baroness that an allowance for 26 weeks is not long enough for a bereaved widow. However, we do not believe that one year is long enough. Our amendments are designed to ameliorate the effect of Clause 51 by extending the new allowance to two years. We realise that no length of time is likely to truly overcome the sense of loss of bereavement, which is often unexpected. My noble friend Lord Higgins gave warning at Committee stage that we would be returning to this issue. The principle of our amendments was widely supported in the other place by Members who sit on the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Benches. There was a truly outstanding contribution on this issue from the honourable Member for Newbury.
The principle is supported by Age Concern, the Child Poverty Action Group, Disability Alliance, citizens' advice bureaux, the National Association of Widows, Cruse- Bereavement Care, Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide and the All-Party Group on Ageing and Older People. All of those groups are unhappy about the abolition of the contributory widows' pension.
The Government will eventually save over £600 million per year which many future widows--there are over 250,000 of them--thought that they would receive because their husbands had paid national insurance contributions. Sometimes they paid voluntarily over a lifetime of work. Those contributions will no longer count. The Government clearly do not seek to honour that contract. There was no mention of that intention in the Labour Party Manifesto. Every penny of that saving for the Treasury will come directly from the pockets of recently bereaved women. The additional expenditure on widows and children in a family where there has been a bereavement pales into insignificance when compared with the savings being taken from widows.
Losing a partner is often devastating. Some people will have nursed their spouse through a terminal illness. I have seen at first hand the suffering that a husband endures watching a partner die since my wife's sister died of cancer only a couple of years ago. Many widows in that age group still need to continue to support their older teenage or young adult child through further education or training. The Government's proposals mean that a woman will suddenly be forced to work to support herself a mere six months after the death of her husband, when she may still barely cope with getting through the day. The reality is that the job search would have to start long before the six months were up.
Is it not incredible for the Government to expect a widow to enter the competitive world of work so quickly? She may have had no previous work experience, nor time to study for a qualification to earn the kind of money that the widows' pension would have provided. The six month bereavement allowance is not an adequate substitute for the widows' pension, especially for those who may be struggling hard to keep their heads above water and to keep a family together. An allowance should give the bereaved person time for grieving, for reorganising the home, taking care of financial and legal matters connected with the bereavement, and preparing, where necessary, to take up work. Widows will be punished for having stayed at home to bring up their children.
Baroness Berners: My Lords, I strongly support the amendment, and especially what my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever has just said. The proposal as it stands is far too short a time for any real support for a widow or widower in a state of bewilderment and desolation. There must be many who are not able to cope at all for months. All kinds of ongoing circumstances may abound, such as debt or disablement and family problems of one sort or another. Such widows would find 18 months to two years' pension a real benefit towards helping them to sort out and come to terms with their much-altered circumstances. Therefore I ask the Minister to concede this point as a way of extending the compassionate nature of this welfare reform.
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