Clause 12 - Polygamous marriages

State Pension Credit Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 23rd April 2002.

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Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 5:15 pm, 23rd April 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 33, in page 8, line 16, at end add

'except in cases where a party to a polygamous marriage has established an entitlement to basic state pension in their own right'.

It seems that it is up to me to speak about polygamy.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am not one of the 200 people to whom the provision will apply.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that he is talking about 200 polygamous pensioners?

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

It is a good question whether the 200 refers to units of polygamy, polygamous pensioners or polygamous non-pensioners. I take that figure because it was given in the House of Lords as the number of people to whom the provision could possibly apply. That was an interesting debate, because we also discussed the difference between polygamy and polyandry, which refers to a wife with more than one husband. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary says that that is much more interesting. She will be interested to hear that polyandry is prevalent in several parts of India, as we found out in the debate.

A distinct type of polyandry is also practised in Tibet, where a woman who marries the oldest brother of a family may also take his brother as her partner. I do not know what term would be applied to a collection of husbands. Perhaps it would be called a harem or something like that. Some would just call it bad luck.

The purpose of the amendment is to probe polygamy, if that is the right way of putting it. The Bill leaves the matter to regulations. I understand that the regulations are already made in respect of minimum income guarantee. The basic approach in such cases will be to ensure that the guarantee part of

the pension credit is paid, although it would be interesting to hear more detail from the Under-Secretary as to how much will be paid, and to whom. The amendment deals with subsection (4), which is interesting. It says:

''Except in relation to the amount of the standard minimum guarantee, any power to prescribe amounts by virtue of this section includes power to prescribe nil as an amount.''

As that does not apply to the minimum guarantee, the provision must create the power to prescribe nil in respect of the savings element of the pension credit. It would be an interesting exercise to tell someone that they were entitled to something, but that the amount would be prescribed as nil. I should like to hear in what circumstances someone would be prescribed nil as an amount, and I wonder whether the Under-Secretary can throw light on how the provision will apply. We apprehend that it will be relevant to only a limited number of people. For various reasons they are likely in many cases to have low savings and an incomplete pension record, and may be entitled to only the standard minimum income guarantee.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I hope that I can assist the Committee, although the hon. Gentleman has removed all the fun that I was going to have describing polyandry, but that is probably just as well.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I have not taken away all the fun, because one matter that was left mysterious in the House of Lords debate was the meaning of polygyny. That was not explained. If the Under-Secretary can explain what that is, I shall listen with rapt attention.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I do not have my dictionary with me, so any answer I give would probably be a bit risky. In the context, perhaps it means—no, I will resist the temptation, because it would probably be foolish.

The hon. Gentleman has admitted that the amendment is probing. If the claimant is a member of a polygamous marriage and at least one partner to the marriage were entitled to basic state pension, nil amounts could not be prescribed in respect of the savings credit and the components of the guarantee credit. However, the power to prescribe nil is a standard power that has been inserted for the avoidance of doubt. Parliamentary counsel does not like doubt. The amendment would not make a major difference.

I shall take the opportunity to explain why polygamy must be dealt with under the rules. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware from debate in the House of Lords and other debates, the social security system recognises the validity of polygamous marriages undertaken in countries that permit polygamy. It is, therefore, appropriate for pension credit and other elements of the social security system to make provision to reflect that. As we do not recognise polygamous marriages that take place in countries in which it is against the law, we are dealing with a small number of people who have married abroad in a country in which it is fine to do so and have ended up living here with more than one spouse.

The key aspect of our approach is that we are not treating polygamous marriages any more generously for pension credit than a conventional marriage. I am

sure that that will enable Committee members to breathe a sigh of relief. In addition, we shall treat polygamous marriages for the guarantee credit as we do for the minimum income guarantee. In the case of the guarantee credit, we shall pay the standard couple rate to the claimant and his first spouse and for each subsequent spouse the difference between the couple rate and the single person rate. For the savings credit, although the guaranteed minimum income will be higher than for a couple, the maximum savings reward will be set at the same amount as for a couple. Therefore we are not extending the maximum savings reward to take account of that small number of people. We believe that that is the most equitable approach to deal with the small number of people who may be involved in such circumstances. The hon. Gentleman referred to a figure of 200. We believe that it is a small number.

On the technical point about prescribing nil amounts, as that is a standard power, the amendment would not make a major difference. I shall give an example, if the hon. Gentleman would find that helpful.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Lady gives a clear explanation, but does it follow from what she says that the second spouse would receive £53?

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

That is almost right. The difference between the couple's rate of £154 and the single person's rate of £100 is £54. I wonder whether there is any point in my going through the example. I shall do so if it might be helpful.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry is all agog.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I shall ignore the hon. Gentleman's invitation to say something nasty about the hon. Member for Daventry.

The point at which the income is rewarded and the guaranteed minimum level couple's rate are £123 and £154 respectively. We add to that an amount equal to the couple rate plus the difference between the couple and single rates. That makes the personal guaranteed minimum for a man with two wives £208, giving a minimum income of £208, a maximum savings reward of £18.60—that is, £154 minus £123, times 60 per cent., the little formula to which we have become used. The taper would end at £254.50. The key point is that we are not treating such marriages any more generously for being such marriages. That is the best that we could aim for.

My suspicion, which I refused to put on record without a dictionary, that polygyny is the specific term for marriage with more than one wife, has been confirmed by my officials, who clearly have a dictionary and have looked up what polygyny means. I believe that polygamy means having more than one spouse—either a man with more than one wife or a woman with more than one husband. It is the generic term, with polyandry used to refer to the woman with more than husband and polygyny to the man with more than one wife. I hope that that clears

up the dictionary questions; it seems a good point to sit down.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her explanations, not least the last one about the meaning of polygyny and, indeed, how to pronounce it. She pronounced it much better than I did. We have shed some light on this corner. Some have doubts about polygamous relationships, but we have avoided doubt about how much will be received through savings and pensions credits. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark

This has been our raciest start yet. I am sorry that so much of the original ground has been swept from under my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and me.

In common with other parts of the Bill, clause 12 refers to regulations, which are the appropriate vessel when, following enactment, something is expected to vary over time. Will the Minister explain why we are debating a Bill whose detail is unknown to us in so many respects? If an issue can be decided and is unlikely to vary over time, it should be dealt with in the Bill itself. Why is it necessary to regulate the prescription of the level of pension credit awarded to those involved in polygamous marriages? Similar discussions took place in debates about other pensions legislation—the minimum income guarantee regulations and other income-related benefits, for example, which already make similar provisions. In the regulations proposed for polygamously married households, a special assessment is made of the amount of benefit payable. If the system used for payment of the current minimum income guarantee is deemed reasonable, I am confused about why we are again forced to debate the empty shell of a provision, only to have to fill it in later through regulation.

I understand that since August 1998 immigration legislation has prevented a polygamous wife settling in Great Britain with a husband if another is already in the country. Given that the number of polygamous households in Great Britain should diminish over time, surely lengthy discussions of this point are unnecessary and should be cleared up in the primary legislation. Sadly, I can provide no examples, but I should be grateful for clarification.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I shall try to deal with the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. We are following a precedent in referring to polygamous marriages. Some Conservative Members, who were Ministers at the time, might recall section 133 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, which made similar provision for polygamous marriages and council tax benefit. We are only following a precedent set by the Conservatives.

We must make it clear that we will deal with the small number of relevant cases. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention changes in immigration rules, which will mean that the number of people affected will not increase, but decrease, over time. However, we wanted

to make it clear that the few cases dealt with by the social security system here would be treated in respect of this benefit in the same way as others. The Bill is in many respects a framework Bill, so many regulations will develop out of its provisions to deal with the detail of benefits. As I said, we are following the precedent of the hon. Gentleman's party in including this specific instance in the Bill itself. I hope that that deals with the hon. Gentleman's points.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.