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Lord Higgins: Concern has been expressed in all parts of the Chamber about the Government's proposals. The Government propose to extend benefits to widowers as a result of the case which was brought in the European Court of Human Rights. However, the hand of the Treasury was immediately seen. It was felt that somehow the money must be clawed back. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, referred to it being snipped here and snipped there. It gives cause for concern. Amendments have been tabled from different parts of the Chamber ranging from extending the period from 26 weeks to a year. Amendment No. 88 extends it to two years.
We all have to consider carefully between now and Report stage the right answer. However, it is clear from the whole Committee that what the Government propose is not the right answer. I hope that we shall have a reply from the Minister now. If not, we shall need to return
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: As Amendment No. 82A is a probing amendment, I shall briefly explain why the clause is drafted using "pensionable age" rather than "age 60 for women and age 65 for men". I should first make it clear that Clause 50 will allow men and women aged between 45 and pensionable age when they are widowed to claim bereavement allowance. Pensionable age is now defined in the Pensions Act 1995 which, as I am sure noble Lords are aware, is the legislation which will phase in equal pension ages for men and women. That is why it is drafted in the way that it is. The other amendments before us make three different proposals dealing with the length of time for paying the new bereavement allowance. Amendments Nos. 86 and 89, tabled by my noble friends behind me, suggest that the benefit should be paid for a year instead of six months. Amendments Nos. 85 and 88 propose a period of two years. But I should like to start with the first amendments on the list, Amendments Nos. 83, 84 and 87.
These amendments would, as we have heard, remove the time limit from bereavement allowance completely. In effect it would be the status quo. Our reforms, as set out in this Bill, focus help from the state where and when it is most needed, while helping those who can support themselves to do so. For example, we are spending an extra £140 million in the first year, to meet real need. Around 40,000 new widows and 15,000 new widowers each year will gain from the new bereavement payment--which at £2,000 will be double the existing widow's payment.
We are meeting the needs of families, by providing a weekly benefit for both widows and widowers with dependent children--the widowed parent's allowance will have the same entitlement conditions and be paid at the same rate as the existing widowed mother's allowance but will be available equally to mothers and fathers. In other words, the bereavement payment doubles the lump sum from £1,000 to £2,000 and extends it to men. The widowed parent's allowance has the same entitlement conditions as the widowed mother's allowance but also extends it to men. Both of those, I should have thought, are to be widely welcomed around the Chamber.
We shall be giving extra help to those who are aged 55 or over at the start of the new arrangements and who are widowed in the first five years after the changes are implemented. That is part of my response to the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about giving people notice. We are indeed having a five-year transitional arrangement in which widows will be able to claim income-related help without signing on for work or being expected to be available for it. There will also be a special premium in income-related benefits to help ensure that their income will remain at the level of the six months' bereavement allowance.
The first amendments with which I am dealing would extend continuing support for widows in the form of the bereavement allowance until pension age, regardless of their circumstances or income. I believe that there is a generational shift that perhaps we have not all grasped entirely. Today, as many women are in work as men, 98 per cent of married women have had a job and 70 per cent of married women are in work while married. Increasingly, it is easier for women to find work than for men and women have no dependants. So why do we expect men, as widowers, to be in the labour market, available for jobseeker's allowance and actively seeking work? Why do we assume that men must find their own way in the harsh world outside but that women--who are as likely now to be in work as men and who are at least as likely as men to find it easy to work, particularly when they become older--are somehow dependent, are unable to make their way in the world and must seek certain privileges?
A woman nowadays may have a generous occupational pension as a result of her husband's death and is therefore in no financial need. She may be in work--possibly earning an adequate salary or better--and she may have no dependent children. Why should that woman, simply because she is a woman, receive a widow's pension from age 52, 55 or whatever until retirement age? I do not understand why that should be the case.
That was the situation in Beveridge's day--of course it was--because women performed essentially unwaged work in the home. Nowadays, there are many women in the labour market earning over the national minimum wage and acquiring their own benefits in their own right. They find it at least as easy as men to get into work and, for the most part, they are widowed while they are in work. Why should such women be treated differently from any man in a similar situation? I do not understand that thinking, which I suggest--with all respect and courtesy--belongs to a different generation. That is not the experience of today's generation or of today's women.
When widows' benefits were introduced, widowers were not included in the system because it was assumed that they would return to work after the loss of their wife. I cannot accept that the situation for men has deteriorated to the extent that they, too, now need a benefit for life. It is also clear that the situation has improved for women, and it is much more likely that they will be in employment.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that a woman would have to "go into work". I gently suggest that she is already in work and that bereavement happened to her while she was in work. As soon as she is ready--be it in a month, two months, three months or six months--she will want to return to work. Work is not a new activity for her: she has been doing it for the past 20, 30 or 40 years. It is just that, somehow, our social security system has not caught up, largely because it
I shall give another example. In the age group covered by bereavement allowance--between 45 and pension age--it is assumed that the widower will be in work and will find it easy to work and the widow will not. Is that not the assumption that lies behind the views expressed this evening? That is simply not true. Of those aged between 45 and retirement age--which, admittedly, is five years later for men at present--there are more widows in work than widowers: 54 per cent of widows and 53 per cent of widowers are in work. Far from women needing support and being dependent, more of them are in the labour market and they have a better standing in the labour market than men. Yet we appear to be saying, like the Victorians, that women are clinging to their husbands like weeds upon a wall. I believe that that is no longer the case.
In the light of that, we believe that the provision of a benefit for life, regardless of circumstances--whether the woman has a pension, a salary or dependent children--can no longer be justified. We believe that we should help at three particular points. The first is immediately on bereavement when there are costs and unexpected stress and hardship. Hence, the payment of £2,000. The second point of stress is where there are children to be supported. The third point of stress is a six-month period when the widow is getting her act back together and deciding how to spend the rest of her life.
We identify those three points of stress, but we are not saying that a woman who has been in work, has been bereaved and can return to work more easily than a widower should none the less have a widow's pension automatically, as of right, irrespective of financial need, irrespective of whether she has dependants and irrespective of her circumstances just because she is a woman and therefore a widow and therefore needs more protection than a man. I do not believe that that is right. I believe that the world has changed and that we should not provide such protection as though widows are dependent and cannot make their own way.
I turn to the other two sets of amendments which would extend the period of time for widows and widowers to receive bereavement allowance. Those of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, propose a two-year period while my noble friends behind me suggest one year. Unlike the previous amendments, Amendments Nos. 83 and 84, these proposals acknowledge the principles behind the Government's reform. They merely challenge whether six months is the appropriate time as opposed to one or two years.
As I said, we believe that the current system does not distinguish between those who need continuing help and those who do not. Those who are earning a decent living or have a large occupational pension or life insurance see the greatest benefit and the poorest widows see the least: 35,000 widows see nothing of their widow's benefit because they immediately lose income support; and widowers receive no help at all.
The amendments accept this. They recognise that it is no longer appropriate to pay a life-long benefit to widows and widows without dependent children regardless of their circumstances. So the argument here is not so much on the basic principles, but on where the line should be drawn.
The Government are sensitive to the needs of those people who have recently become bereaved. We believe that six months is about right. We believe that it balances sensitivity to the needs of recently bereaved people with a recognition that after a period of readjustment people can, for the most part, return to the job they were holding. The length of that transitional period was something we considered very carefully when we first drew up our proposals.
We believe that the six months is about right. However, I have listened to the debate and was moved in particular by the speech made by my noble friend Lady Crawley. We shall reflect on what has been said tonight and consider the matter.
It is important to recognise that we are doubling the bereavement payment. It is important to recognise that we are extending the bereaved parent's allowance to men and women alike. As regards the six-month bereavement allowance, we shall consider whether the period is right. Men and women should be treated alike because today they are equally likely to be in work--indeed, she more likely than he. They will have equal access to the labour market and will equally have built up their benefit contributions.
That is the world in which we now live and why we are making these long-overdue changes. We are meeting the need where it lies at the immediate point. The basic amendments which would retain the present situation, even when the world in which those pensions were shaped has been transformed around us, is no longer viable. Therefore, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
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