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1963 Feb 6 We
Margaret Thatcher

HC Committee [National Insurance Bill]

Document type:public statement
Document kind:House of Commons Committee
Venue:House of Commons
Source:Hansard HC [671/547-62]
Journalist:-
Editorial comments:2115-2200. MT spoke at cc553-58, 2130-45. For easier understanding the whole of the short debate on this amendment has been included.
Importance ranking:Minor
Word count:4923
Themes:Social security and welfare
547

9.15 p.m. Miss Herbison

I beg to move, in page 12, line 24, at the end, to insert:

6. Widow's basic pension payable by virtue of the National Insurance (Pensions, Existing Beneficiaries and Other Persons) (Transitional) Regulations, 1948. 548

We need not spend much time on this Amendment. On Friday, 25th January, my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) made a very strong case, which we on this side of the Committee felt was unanswerable, to have the basic pension payable to the 10s. widow increased. I wish to stress as shortly 549as possible the need for the increase. In 1948, widows in that category were granted the 10s. pension as one of the transitional benefits. If in 1948 it was considered that 10s. was a fair amount to give them, by no stretch of the imagination can it be said that they should not have an increase. We are not asking for a large increase; only that the 10s. be increased to 20s. When we consider the rise in the cost of living and we recall all the arguments that have been made at the Dispatch Box both yesterday and today, the case for our Amendment has been made conclusively. There is, possibly, a case for a higher increase than the 10s. for which we ask.

Some of these women, who struggle to work when they can get it—in areas like mine, many of them simply cannot get it—pay almost the whole of the 10s. as their insurance contribution to ensure that when they reach the age of 60 they will have a pension in their own right.

It is strange that whenever a Bill of this nature is before us the Government resist this kind of Amendment. When there was time to develop the case on 25th January, they again resisted what we wanted to do. As the Minister himself said, however, the Government have not been able to give any cogent reason why this simple increase should not be given to these widows.

When she replies, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will say that some widows have less need. We are thinking, however, of the vast majority of the 10s. widows who are in the older category. Our concern is for them. Even if it would mean giving to others whose need is not as great, I am all in favour of giving an increase so that the vast majority who are in difficult circumstances get this little increase for which we ask.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I do not propose to detain the Committee for more than two or three minutes at most and I have not previously intervened in these debates. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) in her Amendment. It is not a great Amendment. It would not alter the position very much, it would not put all the anomalies and injustices right, it would not put the widows concerned in the same position 550as other people are in and as they should be, but it would at least do something.

I do not want to debate the technical difficulties. I do not consider them quite as insuperable as is sometimes made out, but, undoubtedly, they exist. I remind the hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary of what the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir Winston Churchill) used to say about much greater difficulties during the war. He used to say that if a matter was difficult, we would do it at once and that if it was impossible, it might take a day or two longer. I am perfectly certain that, given the will, there is sufficient ingenuity and technical skill in the Department to find a way of overcoming the difficulties.

These people are not in a trade union. They cannot withhold their labour because they live by their labour. They cannot cause difficulties. There are not many of them. Each year, their number grows smaller. They will not affect the result of an election, either a by-election or a General Election. If the Whips were to be taken off for this one occasion during the Committee stage of the Bill, does the hon. Lady doubt that 80 to 90 per cent. of hon. Members would vote for the Amendment? The country would rejoice at it. Even those who do not benefit by it would rejoice; indeed, perhaps they would be pleased most of all.

The present position is inhuman. It is unjust. It is anomalous. Public opinion does not support it. Parliamentary opinion does not support it. It is not difficult to put right. Why in the world do not the Government take their courage in their hands and bring this nonsense to an end?

Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will look at the matter again and not give it the brush-off, saying that it is impossible, that this arrangement has gone on for a long time, that these widows are in a privileged position inasmuch as they receive the 10s. when they are out at work.

Let us consider again the background to this proposal. It was found expedient, when we drafted our National Insurance Act, to continue the 10s. to these people, and, therefore, that 10s. has continued all these years. I think that there can 551be no section of the community which has not, during the intervening years, had a rise. The Minister cannot justify this by saying that these widows are receiving the 10s. and working. That is a threadbare argument to use today, having regard to the steep increases in costs which have taken place.

There are not many of these widows, and their number is diminishing. The total expenditure involved would be well worth while. I hope that the hon. Lady will not feel bound by instructions to say that she must reject the Amendment. If she cannot give us a promise now or cannot accept the Amendment at this stage, will she assure the Committee that the Government will consider the matter again and see whether it is possible to make the adjustment in another place?

Mr. S. Silverman

Now.

Mr. Popplewell

My hon. Friend says "Now". I am making allowances. The Parliamentary Secretary is to reply, and, perhaps, a Parliamentary Secretary has not quite that power. What I am concerned to do is to press the hon. Lady to do something for this small band of very worthy people.

Mr. Victor Yates (Birmingham, Lady-wood)

I do not apologise for returning to this matter again. We recently debated it in the House, and I expect that we shall have the same arguments put against it tonight. It is a human problem. There are only 85,000 people involved. During the previous debate, I told the House of letters which I had received from a number of widows who were in great distress. I shall not go over that again, but I do not consider that an adequate answer was given by the Minister.

Do the Government really appreciate the pain and distress which comes to a widow who is excluded from the normal pension and is given the 10s.? Let me quote a letter which I recently received from a widow in Birmingham. She says:

"I lost my husband in December, 1953, and if only he had lived for a further three months I should have received the full pension of £2 17s. 6d. As it is, I pick up the large sum of 10s. per week less 8s. 9d. stamp (which has to be paid whether I am working or not to enable me to qualify for my full pension at 60) leaving me with 1s. 3d. per week."
552

This pension was fixed over twenty years ago, and it has not been revised at all. Here is a widow who has to pay 8s. 9d., or 8s. 8½d. to be precise, for the stamp out of her 10s. pension. She tells me that she worked through the war years and has paid National Insurance since she was 16. Her husband also paid it. She has had nervous exhaustion, blood pressure and has been constantly under the care of the doctor. This is an Amendment which should not be brushed off with technical answers, which is all that we have been given so far.

There are other cases, some of them heartrending. One widow explained to me that over the years she has struggled to try to obtain a living by taking in lodgers. Then her health gave way. Another has done her best for her children, and two of them have done very well at school. When they are 18, her National Insurance pension comes to and end and anything extra they get comes out of the 10s. She is still trying to do her best for her children, who have not yet finished their education.

I wholeheartedly support the Amendment. The hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary ought to understand more than most about the plight of women. What argument can she advance against this Amendment, apart from saying that if the Government do this for some they will have to do it for others? As I have said before, the anxiety of these women is worse now than it was even a few months ago. The money which she saves if she does not have to pay 8s. 9d. for the stamp is no more than the cost of a hundredweight of coal. The suffering of these women is simply enormous. I am tired of hearing answers such as those we have heard in the past. I hope that the hon. Lady will say something new and will at least give us some hope that this matter will be further examined and that some increase will be made.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

I did not intend to intervene in this debate, because there are many other hon. Members who can put the case for the 10s. widow much more eloquently than I can, but I wish to take up a point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell). He pointed out that this 10s. pension has not been increased since it was first awarded. 553

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us—in fact, I challenge her to tell us—in terms of 1963 values, how much 10s. is worth now compared with when this pension was first instituted so that we can see by how much its value has fallen.

9.30 p.m.

Mrs. Thatcher

The hon. Lady the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) was kind enough to point out that we spent a long time debating this issue a few days ago, and, therefore, was also kind enough to be brief in moving the Amendment. The hon. Lady and I are both in a difficult situation. Each of us is convinced absolutely by our own arguments, but neither is able to convince the other.

May I put my case for the view of the Government why we cannot increase the 10s. pension, at any rate for the time being; in fact, why we cannot increase it at all. Perhaps I might ask the hon. Lady if she could help me before I embark upon my reasoning. The Amendment which is in her name refers only to 10s. pensions in payment in 1948. Perhaps she would say whether that is what she intends, or if she intends to refer to all 10s. pensions.

Miss Herbison

All 10s. pensions.

Mrs. Thatcher

The great majority have come into payment since 1948. This Amendment refers only to those which were in payment at the time. Perhaps I may use that as a starting off point.

A great change came over the National Insurance Scheme at about that time. The position with regard to this particular group of pensions then in payment was this: those widows then receiving the 10s. pension, who would have qualified for a widow's pension or a widowed mother's pension had they been widowed under the terms of the new scheme—that is to say, those who, at the time they had the 10s. pension in 1948, had children, or were over 50 and sick—would have got a pension under the new scheme. Those automatically got the rise from 10s. to 26s. as it then was, and they have had successive increases since.

The hon. Lady, I know, is well aware of these facts, but a number of hon. Members are not and there are a number 554of people in the country who are not. It gives a wrong impression when people say that the 10s. widow's pensions in payment in 1948 have never been increased. That is not entirely true, because those who would have qualified under the new scheme straight away got an increase because they had children or because they were old and sick.

That left in receipt of the 10s. pension people who, under the new scheme, would have got nothing at all because they were widowed when they were under 50 or had no children. Under the new scheme they would only have got the 13 weeks bereavement grant which now, under the new Bill, would amount to £61 15s. taking the total over the 13 weeks, and after that nothing else, and they would have had to keep up their contributions for retirement pension.

The comparison is between the person who got 10s. and her modern sister who, in identical circumstances, would have got nothing. By far the great majority of these pensions have come into payment since 1948. They are payments made to women whose husbands contributed under the old scheme and who were married to those husbands before 1948. But I must point out that that scheme went out of existence, and the contributions under that specific scheme went out of existence at the same time, so no premiums for this particular pension under this scheme have been paid for fifteen years, although new awards have been coming into payment during those fifteen years and are still this year coming into payment to women who are widowed under circumstances that would not have entitled them to anything under the new scheme.

Dr. King

I am sure that the hon. Lady wants to be fair. The husbands of these ladies paid their proper contributions under the old Health Insurance Scheme as long as it existed, and they paid their contributions under the new one as long as they lived. The benefits that were promised them in 1926 when they began to pay are the benefits that we are talking about.

Mrs. Thatcher

I do not think that there is any substantial disagreement between the hon. Gentleman and myself. There are two schemes, the National 555Insurance Scheme and the old Widows' Pension Scheme—two lots of contributions, one for the old Widows' Pension Scheme, which gave the 10s. widow's pension, and one for the National Insurance Scheme which gave no pension under circumstances which I have described. When we dropped the old scheme, naturally contributions terminated under the old scheme and there were only contributions for the benefit of the new scheme. So there is no difference between what the hon. Gentleman and I are saying.

People who are entitled under this are people whose husbands paid a minimum of 104 contributions of a few pence a week under the old scheme. There was no minimum period of marriage at all under the old scheme. What I am trying to get across to the hon. Gentleman is that because the scheme went out of existence premiums have not been paid for fifteen years although all of the benefits of it have been preserved. I hope I have made myself clear and I hope I have not wasted the time of the Committee in drawing that distinction.

Dr. King

The hon. Lady will agree that this is important. Their husbands paid under the 1926 scheme which gave those ladies as of right, if their husbands died, 10s. a week. When the old scheme perished and the new scheme was substituted their rights did not go. They got 10s. as of right. We are questioning the value of it.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I point this out to the hon. Gentleman? Their rights were not only preserved, but we have had the transitional period of fifteen years already and there is no end of it in sight at all because some other people whose benefits are now coming into payment may have derived them from the minimum number of contributions. I do not complain about that at all, but the scheme being extinct the premiums have not been kept up although the benefits have.

Miss Herbison

rose——

Mrs. Thatcher

I do not want to labour the point too long. I hope that I have made myself clear. I will give way to the hon. Lady.

Miss Herbison

The hon. Lady is making very great play about not a single 556contribution coming in to meet these pensions since 1948. It seems that the whole basis of her case is that one cannot raise this 10s. because of that. If that is the basis of her case and we follow it to its logical conclusion we come to the old people who were retired in 1948. They were getting 10s. a week pension, and we immediately increased it to 26s. Some of those old people will still be living today, and when there is an increase they get an increase. It does seem to me that one cannot possibly put up a case against the widows when we compare them with the old people. And, thank heaven, that case was never put against the old people.

Mrs. Thatcher

Apart from the specific case which the hon. Lady mentioned, apart from the five-year option period which we now have for old people, their pension had already come into payment. The only difference between that scheme and the new scheme is what I call the five-year option retirement period. But we are not discussing old-age or retirement pensions. We are discussing widows' pensions. It only appears to the hon. Lady that I am putting too much play on this case, although I have tried to make myself clear in response to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Southampton, Itchen.

If one looks at it on a rather different benefit basis and one compares the old 10s. widow with her modern sister who would not get anything under the new scheme, one finds this transpires. If a person is widowed now and is under 50 and childless, then, unless she has the old reserved right, she will get just the grant of £61 15s. in weekly amounts for 13 weeks. If she happens to have a reserved right under the old scheme she will probably get that grant because she will have been insured under the new scheme as well. When that period ends she will be entitled to 10s. till she becomes 60. If she is 45 when widowed she will receive, in payments of 10s., £390 apart from bereavement grant—£390 more than her sister would get under the new scheme.

If she is a widow of 40 she would get a sum of £520. For a widow of 35 the sum is £650. That is very much to her advantage over her modern sister, but I should point out that these sums under the new awards are now paid out of the National Insurance Fund supported by 557the contributions of people not entitled to this particular benefit.

Those are our main reasons for saying that we cannot accede to the hon. Lady's request in the Amendment. As I have pointed out, the Amendment would not do what she seeks to achieve.

The Chairman

Mr. Bence.

Mr. S. Silverman

Before the hon. Lady sits down, may I ask one question? I suggested in my short intervention that if the Whips were taken off there would be a clear decision on this. The hon. Lady has made a case. I do not deny that. It is rather an administrative, bureaucratic, actuarial case—some people would call it a third-class insurance company case—but it satisfies her and I am not complaining. As there is this complete opposition of administrative view, would she not consider letting the House of Commons in Committee decide this matter according to its own conscience and judgment, without involving in it confidence in the Government? Let us have a vote on this with the Whips off and see how many hon. Members are for the Amendment.

The Chairman

Order. The Committell will have noticed that I called the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr. Bence). The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) interposed, saying "Before the hon. Lady sits down". That would have been all right for a short question, but not for a considered speech. Mr. Bence.

Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)

In the twelve years that I have been in the House of Commons I have heard many times the statement that it is the desire of both sides that in granting social benefits to different sections of the community we shall increase those benefits in such measure that the increasing prosperity of the country shall be shared by all sections. However, listening to this debate and previous debates, it seems to me that an exception is made of certain widows. Apparently all widows in Britain shall have all sorts of things done for them—except the ones we are talking about.

I cannot understand this. Even last night I supported hon. Gentleman opposite in their plea on behalf of widows who will suffer some loss as a result of events 558in Egypt in 1956. I have heard splendid pleas for those widows. Tonight we are making a plea for the most impoverished section of our community, the widows who are receiving only the 10s. pension——

Mrs. Thatcher

They are not the most impoverished section, as the hon. Gentleman would know if he had read the speech of [ Niall MacPherson] my right hon. Friend on this subject on 26th January.

Mr. Bence

Am I to believe that the prosperity of certain sections of the community is based on the speeches of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite? If I believed the things I heard from those benches, I should believe anything. I would say from my experience that those who suffer widowhood are very often the most unfortunate people in the country at that time. It is tragic for a woman to be widowed. It is a very unfortunate circumstance for a working-class woman with a growing family to be widowed.

I am shocked that we should have got from a Minister, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) rightly said, the sort of thing I should have got if I had claimed from an insurance company, which is concerned with commercial practice and preserving its financial stability and profit. We have had almost exactly the same answer from a Minister in respect of this small section of the community.

I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will divide on this matter and that the people at large will realise just how mean the Government are towards the working-class widows, in contrast with their attitude to widows with property or shares, as expressed through the Rent Act and other Measures. They have used such Measures to help, so they claimed, widows who have property and shares. But for the 10s. widow they do nothing.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. McKay

I congratulate the Joint Parliamentary Secretary on her logical argument and lawyer-like explanation. It does not follow, however, that we accept her judgment, or the judgment of her advisers, for maintaining the present position. I always understood that any Government could overcome technicalities. I have always understood that this Parliament cannot be tied indefinitely to whatever technical arguments may be put up 559against a course which it wishes to follow. It follows, therefore, that if we think it wise that widow's incomes should be increased, then the technicalities must be changed if they stand in the way.

The hon. Lady argued the case for keeping things as they are on the ground that other widows have been dealt with in a certain way. But that way is itself not very satisfactory to the Labour movement. If the Government judged that things should be changed, they would change them. The only thing standing in the way is the Government's refusal to overcome the technicalities. The hon. Lady's argument was weak, dependent purely on technicalities without judging the position either morally or socially.

The provision that a widow should be 50 before she could get a pension if her family was above the dependency limit was based on a bad argument. It is ridiculous that a widow who has raised a family for whom she has received dependants' allowances should lose all her allowances when her family reaches the age limit and she becomes 50 years of age.

It is said that to make this change would make it very difficult to refuse comparable concessions to young widows of 20 or 25. But we are here concerned with women who have gone through a trying time raising a family during a long period of widowhood. That is a bad argument. The technical difficulties can be overcome if the will is there.

I appeal to the spirit of the Conservative Party, regardless of the numbers involved, to consider the moral argument for the change which we propose. These widows always have been entitled to receive 20s. Practically every National Insurance beneficiary has received increases in benefit as the years have gone by. However, as the country's economic circumstances have changed there has been no change in the financial position of these widows.

The Government's present view is unjust. It is for hon. Members opposite to bring moral pressure to bear to see that the treatment of these women is brought into line with that accorded to other sections of the community.

Mr. Donald Wade (Huddersfield, West)

This 10s. was granted in recogni560tion of an anomaly when the present scheme was first introduced in 1948. The anomaly applied both to those who became entitled to 10s. in 1948 and those who have come into benefit since.

Dr. King

It is not an anomaly. It is a right. Their husbands paid for it.

Mr. Wade

I will not argue about that. I agree that it could be regarded as a right.

The Government's view is simply that, because Governments have refused an increase for many years, they are bound by previous statements and must continue to say, "No". That is the gist of the Government's case. Surely the fairest solution is that suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock)? Calculate the real money value of 10s. when it was first decided on.

Dr. King

1926.

Mr. Wade

I would settle for 1948. I shall not argue whether it should be 1926 or 1948. Calculate the value as at 1948, and increase it so that there will not be any fall in real money terms. Failing that, if the Minister is so unwilling, so reluctant, to depart from the case that has been put from that Bench so many times, may I suggest another way out which would go some little way to meet the sense of hardship felt by these 10s. widows?

Why not credit them with the contribution which they are now having to pay out of the 10s.—I think that it is 8s. 9d.—until they become entitled to a pension under the new scheme? That, I think, would go some way towards meeting the very real feeling of injustice of which I know the Minister is aware.

Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)

It would be impertinent to presume that the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary have not studied with great care every part of this Bill, but the House and the Committee have not discussed in great detail every part of it, and in relation to the hon. Lady's speech I want to refer to Clause 6, because this is the Clause which appears in all Bills of this kind, and which no one wishes to discuss at the time.

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Member is aware that we are discussing an Amendment to Schedule 2. Schedule 2 has nothing to do with Clause 6.

561

Mr. Parkin

You will be aware, Sir William, that the hon. Lady developed at some length an actuarial argument against the Amendment in terms of funds and contributions and all the rest of it. What I desire to point out is that although it may be convenient to discuss the balance of payments in and out from stamps to benefits and so on, although it may be convenient to assess from time to time what benefits can be borne by the National Insurance Scheme, the moment of truth is in Clause 6 which appears in every one of these Bills, where it says:

"There shall be defrayed out of moneys provided by Parliament ..."

It never says, "There shall be paid out of moneys paid in by contributors, by widows, by husbands, by people before they were sick", and every time in this moment of truth——

The Chairman

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but this is not the right and proper occasion to develop the argument he is now making.

Mr. Parkin

But, with respect, Sir William, at the other end of this Clause there is a similar statement:

"There shall be paid into the Exchequer any sums falling to be so paid in consequence of this Act."

The contributions are paid into the Exchequer. It is clear—and I appreciate your suspicion that one could on the basis of this develop a very wide argument indeed attacking the whole myth——

The Chairman

Order. It is for just that reason that I hope the hon. Member will not on this Amendment go further. We are discussing a very restricted Amendment. I can read it out for the hon. Member if it is not before him. The Amendment is in Schedule 2, page 12, line 24, at end insert:

"6. Widow's basic pension payable by virtue of the National Insurance (Pensions, Existing Beneficiaries and Other Persons) (Transitional) Regulations, 1948. 20 0/—/—/—."

That figure is to be in place of 10s. The hon. Member cannot stray into a full-dress debate on the whole principle of that Bill.

Mr. Parkin

I was about to explain, Sir William, that I had no such intention. I was attempting to reply to the hon. Lady's assertion that there was something wrong with this 10s. situation because there had been no corresponding sum paid into any 562fund to sustain it. I hope you will agree that in reply to that argument I am entitled to quote two phrases from this common Clause 6. Where we may for convenience discuss what payments have been paid in and paid out, it is only a good help to get this sense of balance in this Fund. It is only a convention but it is a myth. Nobody believes that there is actuarial control of the Fund. Nobody in the Government believes it. Nobody in his heart believes it.

It being Ten o'clock, The Chairman left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.