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Orders of the Day — Young Widows (Pensions)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th March 1968.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ioan L. Evans.]

11.31 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edwin Brooks Mr Edwin Brooks , Bebington

The House is now beyond the eleventh hour before the Budget, and I am conscious that any debate which bears upon financial hazards—in this case those of the so-called young widow, the woman who is bereaved before she reaches her 50th birthday—may well be subsumed in the wider financial hazards of which we shall soon be effectively reminded.

I am nevertheless grateful for this brief and inevitably inadequate opportunity to draw attention to the problems faced by such young widows. From personal acquaintance with constituents who have been thrust into the predicament of what we may perhaps call premature widowhood, I have come to see such women as not only casualties of the Welfare State but casualties all too readily forgotten and unsung by reason of their very isolation and loneliness.

This is not the occasion to discuss the wider problems of widowhood, problems of adjustment familiar to the woman who in losing her husband loses treasured links both of family and friend. Severed from her spouse, her life filled with bleak regrets and empty years ahead, the widow is vulnerable to the polite embarrassment of a society which dislikes reminders of death. Particularly if her children have grown up and left her, she can so easily come to feel unwanted, unnecessary and even futile.

It is against this general background that I should like to focus attention on the contemporary problem of the young widow's mite. I realise that the practice of the House prohibits in an Adjournment debate such as this any reference to matters requiring legislative remedy. But I trust that I shall be permitted to summarise the present position of the young widow following bereavement, for only with such a preface can I develop my criticisms of some of the administrative weaknesses to which my constituents have drawn my attention.

If a woman is over 50 when widowed, and assuming that her husband has paid the necessary contributions, she receives £4 per week pension and is relieved from buying further stamps. If she was married before 5th July, 1948, and her husband was insured, she will receive 30s. weekly, no matter what her age.

It will be recalled that one of the first acts of the incoming Labour Government of 1964 was to treble this pension from the previous—and, I think we would all recognise, miserable—level of 10s. weekly. However, this 30s. pension remains taxable, and the widow continues to pay insurance contributions until she qualifies for an old-age pension at the age of 60. Where her husband had been a contributor, the widow is allowed to count his contributions in order to average 50 per year since 1948 to get the full pension. But if the husband did not contribute under the pre-1948 scheme she does not receive the 30s. pension.

If a woman is under 50 and has no dependent children and does not qualify for the 30s. pension under the criteria I have just mentioned, she gets no pension until the age of 60. Furthermore, to qualify for full pension she must buy stamps until she is 60 whether she works or not. Should the under-50 widow have dependent children, she draws a widowed mother's pension as long as she has a child under 19 and at school or university or apprenticed, but if such children marry, die, are fully employed or take up a residential apprenticeship upon leaving school, the widowed mother's pension is withdrawn and she gets either 30s. or nothing at all as appropriate.

Once again the significance of the 50th birthday is revealed in such a case, since if the widow is over 50, even by one day, when the last child ceases to be dependent her widowed mother's pension will be replaced by a widow's pension and she will not have to pay any further contributions. However, if she remarries, legally or effectively, she stands to lose her widow's pension, and also loses the advantage of counting her former husband's contributions towards her own pension even though she continues to make her own contributions. This might mean that if the woman's second husband has insufficient contributions she would not receive a full widow's pension in the event of his death. If her second husband dies before she has been married to him for three years, unless she remarried within three years of her first husband's death, she will not receive a widow's pension, even if on this occasion she has passed the over-50 test—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. The hon. Gentleman is setting out the present law. He cannot on this Adjournment debate change the present law. He must come to administrative complaints.

Photo of Mr Edwin Brooks Mr Edwin Brooks , Bebington

I appreciate that, Mr. Speaker. My difficulty is that without giving at least some brief summary of the present situation it is very difficult in this case to explain the predicament to which I want to draw attention in terms of employment opportunities. But I shall come quickly to the essence of my case.

Perhaps just one point is worth stressing, that if the man should retire at the age of 65 the wife would receive a supplementary pension no matter what her age, but if her retired husband then dies before her 50th birthday she loses her old-age pension, gets nothing and must pay stamps until she is 60.

The point of all this is that the woman faced with this dilemma has necessarily to find employment if she is to sustain herself, and this is particularly relevant to the criticisms which I shall come to in the field of industrial training and rehabilitation. Should a widow, for example, wish to train in some Government subsidised category—teaching, for example—her training grant is reduced by the amount of her widow's pension, whether 30s. or £4. The same deduction is liable should she fall ill while working, and her sickness benefit is correspondingly reduced.

These are the features of the predicament of the widow under our complicated rules. I am bound to say that as these and other facts were clarified for me by various constituents I became increasingly disturbed not only at what the facts seemed to reveal but at my former ignorance of them. I am satisfied from discussions that I was not the only Member of Parliament ignorant of the true position, and if this is not entirely surprising in view of the complications and anomalies involved it seems probable that many people are ignorant of the hazards faced by the widow, and particularly by the under-50 widow.

It is true that the present Government, by extending from three to six months the period following the husband's death when his widow is entitled to the initial resettlement allowance, have eased the transition problems of adjustments to new and completely fresh employment, but I am sure that many under-50 widows are surprised and dismayed at their subsequent predicament when their pension ceases altogether. I therefore suggest—and this surely requires no legislation—that a comprehensive leaflet should be prepared for wide distribution explaining the potential position of the under-50 widow. Many husbands, recognising the dangers to which their wives may be exposed in certain circumstances due to their untimely death, might well wish to make provision by private insurance or under their own occupational schemes. Were it not out of order, I would suggest that some husbands might wish to pay rather more—it need not be much—to safeguard their wives under the State pension scheme.

My hon. Friend should make a wider research to clarify the facts. On 3rd July, in my efforts to get more accurate information, I put a variety of Questions to the then Minister. I asked her, for example, what were the average earnings of those widows between 50 and 60 and in employment who did not qualify for pension due to the under-50 rule. The information was, and to the best of my knowledge still is, not obtainable. The same answer came to Questions on the proportion of under-50 widows who had subsequently remarried—not entirely irrelevant, I would have thought, for actuarial calculations—the proportion who died before reaching the age of 60 and the numbers who failed to qualify for full pension at 60 because they never paid an adequate number of contributions,

But the ignorance of the Ministry of Social Security, my hon. Friend will be glad to know, is reproduced in the Ministry of Labour, which had no information on the number of young widows who are classified as unemployed. Yet this sort of information is surely vital if we are to check on the contention of the Ministry of Social Security. I quote from a letter to me from my hon. Friend as long ago as 24th May, 1966. This was to the effect that the under-50 age condition: …relates generally to a widow's ability to re-establish herself in the employment field at the time of widowhood, and is therefore applied at the date of the husband's death, and not at arty later date. But if we do not even know what sort of jobs can be taken by women—some, by definition, as old as 49 before they have to start looking for employment—and do not even know how many succeed in getting any sort of job at all, such Ministerial reasoning is incapable of rational justification.

What we can surely anticipate, however, are major difficulties for many such women, many without training except as housewives, approaching an age when illness must be more common and liable to deter employers, and having to adjust to the shock of the death of the husband, who may have spent 30 years as companion and protector. The chance of such middle aged women remarrying are statistically slight, since I understand that only 3 per cent. of all those widowed between the ages of 20 and 55 marry again. The other 97 per cent. have no alternative—and particularly those with no pension entitlement until 60—but to keep looking for work until the retirement age.

I therefore asked the Ministry of Labour what redeployment and resettlement schemes existed for the under-50 widows, but the answer gave little hint of these special yet obvious difficulties. It is simply not good enough to say as I was told: Opportunities for training, under both Government-sponsored schemes and arrangements made by industrial training boards, are open to suitable women widowed under the age of 50, as they are to other suitable people. Just as Plowden recognised that certain areas are, in an educational sense, at risk and deserving of priority treatment, so there are certain people—and a bereaved woman in her late forties, say, is surely among them—who equally deserve special help and encouragement.

The dimensions of the problem are hard to ascertain and the numbers involved in any one area may be quite small, but over the country as a whole it mounts up. Last July, I was informed that there are 40,000 widows under 60 in Britain who qualify for no pension because their husbands died, or the children ceased to to be dependent on them, before they reached the age of 50 and that a further 75,000 such widows qualify for the basic widow's pension of 30s. a week. Following my Questions last July, I was encouraged to think that progress might be made on a study of the employment opportunities available to these thousands of women, but on 23rd October my right hon. Friend contented herself with saying that she was still considering proposals for such an investigation.

It is about time that we had a little of the famous white heat applied, particularly at a time when shake-outs and rationalisation are likely to complicate still further the job opportunities of these more elderly young widows in what may become an increasingly buyers' market for labour. The point has to be made that, for many women seeking employment in their late forties and fifties, special difficulties arise because of the menopause, difficulties which can affect their mental resilience and willingness to adjust to what may be a wholly strange and even humiliating way of life.

Even without this temporary problem, the widow bereaved after a lifetime of happy marriage is as deserving of special help and perhaps protected employment as the disabled worker in a Remploy factory. One of my constituents recently wrote to me: I lost my husband five months before my 50th birthday…he had paid national insurance contributions all the years he was employed in a well-known concern for 43 years. We had been married for 29 years…never having had to go out to work, and considering the fact that my husband was on shift work, which made it impossible for me to have a job, my health is suffering, and my doctor will not allow me to be employed…My pension only amounts to 30s. a week, until I am 60. if I live to see it. I am aware that the procedural limitations of an Adjournment debate have prohibited my tackling the case for an urgent reform of the law relating to pension entitlement, but I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would at least promise that an urgent review of employment prospects and difficulties for the under-50 widow is to be embarked on forthwith. Without such a study, I fail to see how the long promised major review of social security can take adequate account of the specific problems faced by the woman alone in our society.

11.46 p.m.

Photo of Mr Norman Pentland Mr Norman Pentland , Chester-le-Street

I should like to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks) on the attention which over the past year or so he has given to this aspect of social security and for the sincere way in which he has deployed his case this evening on behalf of these widows. I also want to thank him for the opportunity which he has given me to explain the range of considerations to which we have to pay attention when looking at the question of what insurance cover is needed for widows.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the discontent caused by the age-50 rule which limits the award of widow's pension to widows who do not have dependent children. This is a matter which is very much in our minds and I will say something about it later. However, at this stage it would be useful to remind this House of the provision currently made for widows.

Widow's allowance is paid to most widows, however young or recently married, for the first 26 weeks of widowhood when they are adjusting to their new situation. To this allowance is added an earnings related benefit, the widow's supplementary allowance, if the husband's earnings were £450 or more in the relevant tax year. Allowances for any children are also paid. The Government have not only increased the rate of widow's allowance and provided for the earnings related supplementary allowance, but have also doubled the period for which this initial benefit is paid, increasing it from 13 to 26 weeks. Under these arrangements the maximum total allow ance as payable to a childless widow would amount to £13 7s. a week. These allowances go to young as well as older widows.

I turn next to the provision made for widows left with children. These widows will ordinarily qualify for a widowed mother's allowance. This again is paid irrespective of the widowed mother's age, or the duration of her marriage. When the children have grown up, if the widow is then more than 50 and three years have passed since the date of the marriage, widowed mother's allowance is normally followed by the long-term widow's pension. The widow's pension is, of course, the benefit paid after the widow's allowance period to the widow who is aged 50 or more at her husband's death if there are no dependent children and the marriage has lasted for at least three years.

My hon. Friend's concern has been with the remaining widows, those who do not qualify for a long-term widow's pension under the scheme, because they are under the age of 50 with no children when the husband dies, or because they are under the age of 50 when the widowed mother's allowance ceases, usually because their children have grown up.

Special provisions protect the last group of widows, those without long-term widow's pension, if, when their previous widow's benefit ends, they are sick or unemployed and seeking work. These widows can qualify immediately for full unemployment benefit or sickness benefit regardless of their own contribution records.

The cover given by these provisions has not, perhaps, been emphasised sufficiently in the past, and I feel that hon. Members have not appreciated as fully as they might that the widow who, in these circumstances, claims benefit because she is incapable of work or is unable to obtain work will receive the standard rate of benefit of £4 10s. a week. She may be better off than the widow who is entitled to a pension but whose pension is received by her at a reduced rate because of a deficiency in her late husband's contribution record.

In brief, the existing provisions provide a much improved resettlement benefit for virtually all widows under the age of 60; a long-term widow's benefit for about three-quarters of women widowed under the age of 60 and, finally, give protection to the remaining one-quarter if they are sick or unemployed and unable to find work when their earlier benefit ceases.

It can be fairly claimed that the existing provisions achieve the National Insurance objective of providing a flat-rate benefit in circumstances where income from earnings has been interrupted. We recognise, however, that the sharp cut-out provision at the age of 50 causes some women narrowly to miss qualifying for a widow's pension; and requiring them to contribute to the scheme for their retirement pensions causes considerable dissatisfaction, as my hon. Friend has said.

The claim is sometimes made that the interruption of a woman's employment history due to marriage and raising a family, reduces her earning capacity when widowhood compels her to return to employment. It is often suggested to us that the answer to this is to devise a sliding scale. This would be a new concept as a basis for benefit in the existing National Insurance scheme. Apart from the fact that there would still be dissatisfaction at the bottom end of the scale, complex issues have to be faced as to whether the scale should be related to age or to length of marriage, or both, and there are also questions about paying or crediting contributions.

The principle underlying a sliding scale raises similar issues in other sectors. Such a change would amount to a new approach to benefit and, as such, could have far-reaching consequences. A departure of this sort could not be lightly undertaken by the Government.

My hon. Friend referred to training allowances, and I know that he will appreciate that this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour Similarly, a variety of Government Departments are involved in questions concerning the overlap of widow's benefit and training and other allowances and, no doubt, my hon. Friend's comments will be drawn to their attention.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the question of research into the financial conditions experienced by young widows and their employment prospects. As my hon. Friend has said, in reply to his Questions on this subject, we have said that proposals for such an investigation are being considered, and I regret that I cannot go further than that tonight. The Government's studies for the future of social security provision cover a wide field and we have to settle priorities in making the best use of the available resources.

Having said that, however, I emphasise once again—and this was said in answer to my hon. Friend's Questions, which he has pursued so diligently—that we are very much aware of the problems of young widows. They are not being overlooked by the Government. Any provision for the younger widow must obviously, however, be such that it can be integrated with the new structure which the Government are developing. If we are to avoid waste of effort we have to phase our activity very carefully indeed. But this is a matter which we have very much in mind.

I feel that the picture presented by the existing arrangements is reassuring. The great majority of widows under 60 receive long-term benefits, and the younger widow who is sick or unemployed is helped. As opportunity has presented itself to this Government we have made those improvements which seemed to us the most needed—the lengthening of the widows' allowance period, the introduction of earnings-related supplement which I mentioned earlier, and the abolition of the earnings rule. Widows, particularly those with children, have fully shared the general increases in rates of benefits made by this Government. We are also pressing ahead with the work of examining the other aspects of benefit for widowhood in the context of our plans for reshaping the whole of the National Insurance scheme. I hope I have said enough to show my hon. Friend that the question of National Insurance benefit for the widow under 50 is not a problem which can be quickly and simply solved, because there are a number of considerations which the Government have to take fully into account in the course of their studies of this problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Twelve o'clock.