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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the clauses which we are discussing, which the Government propose and to which Amendments Nos. 95 and following relate, would reform the current, and in my view, outdated, system of widows' benefits, which apply only to women and not to men. The proposals would replace it with a fair system of bereavement benefits for men and women alike. Far from reducing the contributory principle, they will actually be extending it to men for the first time. The benefits are designed to provide help where one member of a working-age couple is left, often unexpectedly, to cope alone.
Our reforms will concentrate help from the State where it is most needed. Many noble Lords have experience of this issue. I can tell the House where that help is most needed. It is needed at the point of bereavement itself, for the immediate problems of adjusting to funeral arrangements, of sorting standing orders, pensions, car insurance, house insurance, the estate and so on. That will normally take a couple of months. One may also need a lump sum to help with the immediate arrangements. One will need a breathing space while one continues with the arrangements and gets one's life sorted". If one has children who are not yet in further or higher education, one will also need help to support them and in order to have a genuinely free choice as to whether one should work--man or woman alike--or stay at home and bring those children up, knowing that having lost one parent, they may not wish to see the second parent out of work.
I know, as do many noble Lords, where the points of pressure lie. They lie first, in the immediate few months after widowhood, or widowerhood, and secondly, there is pressure if one has responsibility for children, which remains an ongoing responsibility. I am sure that I am speaking to something which all noble Lords would accept and understand. That is precisely where our reforms are aimed to help. At present, they help women, who will often for the rest of their lives be back in the labour market, and they are giving them a benefit which they do not necessarily need, like myself. The present system does nothing at all to help men who may have come out of the labour market to look after their children, and in doing so go onto income support.
We must change the system because it is not fair to men who may be struggling to look after their children, and because it no longer in my view reflects the situation which families may face. They need help in the immediate few months after bereavement, and, as I say, if they have ongoing responsibilities for children.
We are talking about the future. No existing widow will be affected by these changes, so no one need worry that their benefits will be changed tomorrow. In our reforms we are proposing three things. First, at present, a woman would receive a bereavement payment of £1,000 at the point of her husband's death for the immediate expenses. The Government propose to double that sum from £1,000 to £2,000, and to apply it to men and women alike, because these needs do not apply solely to women but to men or women in that situation.
Secondly, we are giving both men and women alike a breathing space; a benefit as of right--not a means-tested benefit--for six months to men and women, whether they have children or not and whether or not they work. They will have a breathing space in which to come to terms with their loss and to adjust their lives accordingly. Thirdly, the Government propose to develop a widowed parents allowance, to apply to men and women alike, while their children are dependent on them.
My problem with the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Turner is that they effectively maintain the status quo. There is effectively no change: they propose money for life for a widow, whatever her circumstances, and as far as I can see, unless the noble Baroness is going to say otherwise, virtually no change for men. It may be that my noble friend wishes to extend the same principle of benefit as of life for men, at whatever age they may be widowed, whether or not they have responsibilities or whatever their income. That would mean that my noble friend would be offering the state benefit to men who possibly have perfectly generous salaries, and so on, simply on the grounds that they have become a widower at some point in their lives.
I believe my noble friend's amendments would undermine one of the fundamental principles of what we are trying to achieve--to focus support where it is most needed; that is, in the immediate period after bereavement and on families with children. Quite frankly, why should a woman with no dependent children and therefore no one dependent on her staying at home, possibly in a well-paid job with no financial need and possibly with a generous occupational pension, receive a state benefit as of right? I am talking about someone who has no children, is in a job and with a decent pension. And yet a man who may be struggling to bring up his children by coming out of the labour market on income support gets nothing at all. That cannot be right and that is what we propose to change. It is not right to put money into the pockets of a widow who does not need it while denying it to men who may do. At the moment men get nothing.
Our reforms will change that. We propose to extend bereavement benefits to men and remove the assumption that widows--simply because they are women--should have to rely on benefits through the rest of their lives. I do not find that situation acceptable because the world in which the original widow's benefit was devised--the world of Beveridge and of subsequent times--has changed beyond recognition. When I listen to speeches, even those of my noble friend, who knows a great deal about the field of social security, I wonder sometimes whether people realise just how much the world has changed. In Beveridge's day, one woman in eight worked. Now seven out of 10 married women work; eight out of 10 married men work. That is seven times as many as in Beveridge's day. I give another example: 98 per cent of married women--that is, all but 2 per cent of them--either are in work or have been in work while married.
Earl Russell: My Lords, the Minister is putting words into my mouth when she says for the first time". I did not develop my side of the argument about how much the world has changed because I thought that the House knew it.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am sure the House is grateful for the noble Earl's brevity. In that case, let me attribute the phrase to the noble Lord, Lord Astor, who certainly used those words.
The assumption behind a lot of the argument for no change is that a widow has not worked and that, suddenly, as a result of bereavement she is forced out into the rough and difficult world of work and that that is not fair. There are as many women working in the labour market as there are men. There are almost as many married women in work as there are married men. I repeat that 98 per cent of married women have worked. Therefore, the assumption that married women should have a benefit as of right for life simply because they are a widow, irrespective of their income, their job or their children, belongs to a generation that has passed.
Indeed, I wonder what noble Lords would expect when looking at the figures relating to the number of women and men, of widows and widowers, in work. If one looks at the number of widowers in work between the ages of 45 and retirement--admittedly, five years longer than women--53 per cent of widowers work while 54 per cent of widows work; that is, more women (widows) work than men (widowers), and yet we give the benefit to women and not to men. That is the scale of the change in our society. Our proposals seek, in decent, fair and just ways, to reflect that so that men and women are supported at the two points of need--the immediate period after bereavement and also if they have a responsibility for children.
We recognise that people need a breathing space to come to terms with the emotional and practical upheaval caused by the loss of their husband or wife. That is why we propose that the bereavement allowance should offer financial support for six months for men and women alike.
We weighed up all the arguments. We thought that six months was about right. We wanted to concentrate help where it was needed. However, following the debate in Committee and the eloquent speeches made there and again today by my noble friend, there has been much pressure on the Government to change the period from six to 12 months; that is, to double the
I believe those arguments were put forcibly. Men and women alike, particularly if they have been caring for a spouse, may be tired and depressed and may need a longer breathing space than we perhaps first thought. My noble friend Lady Crawley has made that point. We have reflected and I am delighted to be able to say that we are willing in principle to accept the amendment of my noble friend Lady Crawley to extend the bereavement allowance not to six months for men and women alike but to one year. That is a significant move and means that widows and widowers aged over 45 without dependent children--if they have dependent children, they are both eligible for the widowed parent's allowance--will receive financial support from bereavement benefits for a year. That is for twice as long as under our original proposals. That will cost a further £50 million. As a result, 20,000 or so new widows and many thousand widowers each year would receive that allowance for six months longer.
As I said, we are willing in principle to accept the spirit of the amendment of my noble friend Lady Crawley. However, if the House were instead to accept the amendment of my noble friend Lady Turner, or, more particularly, the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, I must tell the House that I would expect the Secretary of State to seek to overturn that amendment. I phrase my words carefully. But because the six-month period is on the face of the Bill, we would find ourselves returning to that point--not the 12-month period. In that situation I could not guarantee what the other House would do. It would obviously reflect upon it.
The offer that I make to your Lordships today is that were the whole House to support my noble friend's amendment which proposes a 12-month period, that would be accepted by the Government and would survive. If instead that is displaced by an amendment which has to be overturned in the other place, I cannot predict what the outcome of that may be. I do not know what would happen. I am being frank with the House. There would be all sorts of pressures in the other place.
I urge your Lordships to accept that the Government have moved very considerably on this matter. We have listened to the points made by your Lordships. As a result we are proposing, if the House so wishes, to accept the amendment of my noble friend Lady Crawley which would double the bereavement period from six months to 12 months. That means that men and women alike would get a bereavement payment of £2,000, not £1,000, at the point at which they lost their spouse.
Secondly, men and women alike, whether or not they had children, and whether or not they were in work, would get a bereavement payment of support for 12 months. Those with dependent children would receive benefit--men and women alike--until their children were adult. That is the package I put to your Lordships. We have listened, but we cannot accept the
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her detailed response. She will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with it. If I may say so, I believe that she has overlooked one of the main points in my submission, which is that we are talking about a contributory benefit. This is a benefit to which the spouse who has died contributed during his working life. Probably because he believed that his widow was covered to some degree, he had not perhaps made other provision.
As regards widowers, I certainly did not intend to imply that I do not believe that widowers should have the improvement that has been recommended. On the contrary, but under the same conditions. The widower would be entitled to a benefit based on the contributions of his spouse while the spouse was in work in the same way that the widow would be entitled to a benefit based upon the contributions that her husband had made. Answering this again on the basis of need--that a great number of women who do not need it receive it--is no answer to the argument. A contributory benefit ought to be a contributory benefit, and you should get the benefits accruing therefrom when you qualify.
For example, if I took out a policy with the Prudential and when under the terms of the policy I qualified for a payment I was told by the company, Well, we're very sorry but you can't have it because you don't need it", I would feel very angry indeed and the Prudential would probably end up in court. We are talking about the same kind of principle here. We are discussing a contributory benefit in a system of social insurance: we all contribute, and then when we need the amount due under that contributory system, we receive the benefit.
Further, I do not agree even when we examine the question of need and the number of women who are said to be in work. According to information I have been provided with by, for example, the Child Poverty Action Group, the majority of widows, if they work, are working part time, and are usually in low-paid employment at that. I do not believe that that argument holds water.
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