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Earl Russell: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for the care of that reply. This is not, of course, the sort of amendment which one considers pressing. One raises this sort of amendment in an attempt to gain clarification, of which I have gained a good deal. I am most grateful to the Minister for the information about the vires on partners. I did not actually supply her with the regulation. I supplied her with the text of Section 19. I believe that the regulation reached her by the usual process of osmosis!

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I stand corrected. Following his generosity to contribute to the intellectual level of the debate, I was crediting the noble Earl with even more expertise on social security than is customarily the case.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am flattered. I entirely understand the point made by the Minister about non-existent partners. It is a valid point and I accept it. However, we need to distinguish between the claimant's own claim and the household claim on behalf of a partner. I do not understand why, because it is difficult to verify the identity of the partner, the claimant's own entitlement to benefit as a single person should also be threatened. I believe that this is a matter which calls for some thought.

I am also extremely grateful to the Minister for what she has said about help with regard to national insurance numbers. However, my information is that this does not relate to a single case, but to a whole sequence of cases in a number of local authorities. That suggests that the system is not working particularly well. It may be possible to get a national insurance number within a matter of weeks for those who are extremely fortunate. However, for most people, it takes a great longer than that. Indeed, one of our social security researchers in another place recently needed to claim another national insurance number, and it took no fewer than six months to get it. In my experience, that is by no means exceptional. If the Minister can think of any way of improving that, I shall be extremely happy to talk to her. However, I do not believe that I need to detain the House waiting while we do so. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Clause 55 [New allowances for bereaved spouses]:

Baroness Turner of Camden moved Amendment No. 5:


Page 60, line 26, at end insert--
("( ) At the conclusion of the two year period, the surviving spouse shall be entitled to an allowance, based on the contribution record of the deceased spouse (subject to the conditions in subsections (4) and (5) below), until he or she attains pensionable age or dies, whichever happens first.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I return again, as I said I would on Report, to the matter of widows' benefits. At Report stage, the House agreed, with a substantial majority, to an amendment to extend the period of the bereavement allowance from the six months proposed by the Government to two years. That is, of course, an improvement. No one who knows anything about the trauma of bereavement believes that it can be overcome in six months or even a year. Therefore, this is a very welcome improvement. I said at the time, however, that I did not believe that it went far enough. After all, what the Government are proposing is the removal of a benefit to which widows over the age of 45 have hitherto been entitled as of right, based on the contributions of the deceased spouse.

My amendment seeks to restore the benefit to widows, taking account of the two-year amendment, and also extends the benefit to widowers, but on precisely the same terms as it is today paid to widows. It makes it quite clear that both sexes will benefit equally to the extent that the deceased spouse paid national insurance contributions. In other words, as happens now, it is a contributory benefit.

I expect that it will be argued again that this will result in benefits going to those who do not need them, but that is true of all contributory benefits. The Government redistribute through the tax system. They should not seek to do so through the benefits system, since this automatically impacts on poorer and more vulnerable people.

My major argument is that this is a contributory benefit and the Government are seeking to remove it from people who believe that they have a right to it because it has been paid for. To remove it would be a breach of contract, just as much as it would be were a private insurance company to refuse to pay out when policy conditions had been met.

The other argument against what I am proposing is that times have changed; most women work and are working at the time of bereavement and therefore have no need of the benefit. I believe that some of the statistics advanced in support of that argument are rather suspect. It is true, of course, that of the 17 million women of working age, approximately 12 million work. There is, therefore, a large proportion of women who work. However, there are 6 million part-time workers, and the overwhelming majority of those--about 5.4 million--are women.

There has been a slight narrowing of the gap between female and male earnings, but that is due to the impact of the minimum wage of £3.60 per hour. The minimum wage, which I welcome, has in fact

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benefited mostly women; £3.60 per hour is certainly not a fortune. It is not within striking distance of the £15,000 a year which my noble friend the Minister has from time to time claimed to be the average earned by married women in work.

Moreover, about 5 million women do not work at all, either part time or full time. Presumably, they are spending their time bringing up their children. And no real research has been undertaken to see just what the effect will be of the removal of this benefit. There has been no challenge to my contention that households in which women are the main earners are in a minority. The loss of the wages of the principal earner in a household is bound to lead to hardship and a drastic reduction in living standards in many cases.

Nor is it true that many women will benefit from generous white-collar pensions. In support of her argument, on one occasion my noble friend quoted bank managers. Not all white-collar workers are bank managers, and pensions are not always all that generous. The average white-collar worker not at managerial level is likely to qualify for a pension of around £7,000 a year. His widow will qualify for about half of that. So for someone receiving a generous white-collar pension of £3,500 a year, the widow's benefit is a useful, indeed necessary, addition, even if she is successful in obtaining full-time employment at the rate of £3.60 an hour.

I repeat that much occupational pension provision, apart from top-hat provision for people at managerial level, is based on the assumption that there will also be a state benefit. That includes survivor's benefits as well as the basic state pension paid at normal retirement age.

I understand that the Government will make a profit from this scheme, even with the two-year amendment, of around £500 million a year. Why is it necessary to make this small profit at the expense of the bereaved? I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, the noble Baroness moved the amendment with her customary technical expertise. The House has already decided to amend the Bill by extending the proposed 26-week period to two years. The origin of the matter is in the fact that the Government lost their case in the Court of Human Rights and they then extended the benefit to widowers as well as to widows. The Treasury, in a classic Treasury clawback, is seeking to recover the money it has to pay by penalising some other group. In short, the widower's benefit is to be paid for by a reduction in the duration of the benefit paid to widows.

Moreover, there is a degree of overkill to the extent of some £500 million. I presume that part of that arises because although the change will take place rapidly in respect of widows, due to computer problems there will be a technical delay in payment to widowers.

The noble Baroness rightly stressed the importance of the contributory principle in this context and the fact that contributory benefits are not normally means tested. However, while it is right to raise the matter

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today I believe that we should wait and see what happens in another place. I profoundly hope that it will accept the amendment that has been made, but either way the Bill will return to this House when we can reconsider this issue. It is right to raise it at this stage because we believe that the Government's solution to the decision of the Court of Human Rights is not correct.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the amendment seeks to extend entitlement to bereavement allowance well beyond the two-year time limit currently on the face of the Bill. It would extend payment of the allowance to men and women alike right up until pension age.

My noble friend Lady Turner made her position clear on Report. I respect her views, although they are not the same as mine. However, I am baffled by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, not only supported the amendment from the Opposition Front Bench but put his name to it. When we debated the issue a fortnight ago, he seemed to be wedded to a different proposition. On that occasion, the noble Lord successfully secured an amendment to extend entitlement to the bereavement allowance to two years. He has now joined my noble friend Lady Turner in tabling an amendment which would annul his earlier one by allowing bereavement allowance to be paid beyond the two-year limit. I find that deeply perplexing.

He clearly accepted at Report the principle of a time limit and, indeed, pressed to the vote his proposal to set it at two years. Yet in a matter of only two weeks he has decided that there should be, in effect, no time limit at all. I realise, because the noble Lord has told us on many occasions, that in sitting on the Front Bench as Opposition spokesperson on social security he takes no responsibility at all for any policies expressed at the Dispatch Box by his Conservative predecessors at the DSS while they were in government on the ground that "it was nothing to do with him". However, I had hoped that he might take responsibility for his own policies of just a fortnight ago. But apparently not. When can we hope from consistency from the noble Lord?


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