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Clause 3—(Widows' Pensions)

Volume 465: debated on Tuesday 31 May 1949

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3.49 p.m.

I beg to move in page 3, line 4, to leave out from "section," to end of line 7, and to insert:

(ii) the Treasury are satisfied at a subsequent date that the marriage or cohabitation has come to an end or that there are compassionate grounds for the payment of pension notwithstanding the marriage."
As the Bill stands, pensions to widows who cohabit outside the marriage state or marry again are either stopped or not issued. Discretion, however, is given to the Treasury to pay or re-issue such a pension should a subsequent marriage come to an end. This Amendment and the next Amendment, in line 9, allow the Treasury discretion to give or to re-issue a pension, both where cohabitation ceases and where, although a subsequent marriage may subsist, the woman has been, for example, left destitute. I should perhaps say that the discretion to re-issue or pay a pension when after a subsequent marriage the husband is still living will be used very sparingly. What we cannot contemplate is the issuing of a pension simply because the subsequent husband happens to be in poor circumstances.

I only rise to thank the right hon. Gentleman for putting down this Amendment to deal with a matter upon which there was a fairly long discussion in Standing Committee. If a widow cohabited for a very short time and her pension was cut off for that reason, under the Bill as it stood there was not even discretion on the part of the Treasury to restore the pension. That seemed to hon. Members on all sides a remarkably harsh provision; we thought that the pension should not be cut off on grounds of that kind, certainly not permanently. By this Amendment the right hon. Gentleman has certainly gone a very long way to meet the point previously made, and I hope the Committee will accept it.

There is one point which may appear small, but which is nevertheless important. Could the Financial Secretary tell me exactly what the word "cohabit" means? It is important to know the meaning from two points of view. As I understand it, the word is used in this Bill as a genteel word for adultery or fornication. Why the Parliamentary draftsmen have used this word, I do not know, although I do not like to attack members of this esoteric and macabre profession. The word does not appear in any dictionary as meaning what is apparently intended here, except as an alternative. The plain meaning of the word "cohabit" is to live or to dwell under the same roof. The Philistines cohabited with the Ark of God; and so far as I am aware a man may cohabit with his mother-in-law without the slightest loss of any moral status, although it may be a reflection upon his discretion.

This is an important matter, because we are here discussing a subject upon which many of us feel very deeply. As I understand it, this Amendment stops short at two points, and there ought to be provision so that when cohabitation ceases the same effect should be had as when marriage ceases, because we can well understand that, even if for the moment I accept that the word means adultery, the meaning attributed to the word is clear in intention. It is quite clear that there may be a woman who lives with a man who is married to somebody else and obviously cannot marry her, and if that association ceases for any reason, I see no reason why she should not be treated in the same way as a woman who has remarried.

There is another reason why we should not use these words which do not mean what is intended. The word is not in Wharton's Law Lexicon; it is described in the dictionary of legal words, where there is a quite different definition. Even the Divorce Court has become genteel in these days, and as the word is used there, one gets a definition by which "cohabit" need not mean living under the same roof as man and wife; it may mean casual adultery in certain cases. Therefore there may be cases in which it can be argued that certain acts of adultery may lead to entitlement to pension. That is never the intention or meaning.

This can be put right in two ways: first, by the right hon. Gentleman considering whether he should not give to cohabitation, or whatever he cares to call it, the same position as he gives to a re-marriage so far as pension rights are concerned; secondly, by using a word which means what is intended; and there are plenty of Anglo-Saxon words available. Even Mr. James Thurber has used some quite poetic descriptions which the right hon. Gentleman might use if he wished; or he can give a clear definition at the conclusion of the Bill as to precisely what is meant by this and precisely what are the limitations, which I hope will be drawn as tightly as possible.

As the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. P. Thorneycroft) very properly said, we spent a good deal of time discussing this matter in Standing Committee. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) that what was meant by "cohabit" was well understood in all parts of the Standing Committee. I understand that it is a term of art which is well understood in Acts of Parliament, and also I imagine in courts of law, although I agree that the dictionary meaning is undoubtedly the one mentioned by my hon. Friend. I shall certainly look at this again before the Bill goes to another place, but it appears to us that the meaning of the word is well understood. For that reason it might perhaps be a waste of time— I put it no higher and no lower than that—to move further Amendments to add certain words which may qualify the matter for the benefit of my hon. Friend but not for the ordinary citizen or the person who will have to study this Bill. The Treasury well understand what is meant by the word, and after all it is the Treasury who will have to use its discretion in this matter.

We do seem to be in rather a difficulty here because the right hon. Gentleman has himself admitted that he is not very clear on the matter. The hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) has pointed out the great difficulties which may arise. I understand that there was considerable debate on this in Standing Committee, and I should have thought that by the time we had reached this stage of the Bill there ought not to be uncertainty about whether "cohabit" means that a man is living with his mother-in-law. It is all very well to leave this until yet a later stage, but I should have thought that the simple and expeditious way of dealing with such a problem would have been to have present a Law Officer who would know precisely what it meant. It is very bad that it should go out from this House that we are passing something which the Treasury does not really understand. In any event, we ought to be enacting not what the Treasury understand but what will be a legal fact. We ought not to leave anything to be interpreted by any one Ministry, or any part of a Ministry, however efficient it may be. While there is no question of voting against this Amendment, I must express my dissatisfaction.

Amendment agreed to.

I beg to move, in page 3, line 9, to leave out from "from" to the end of the line, and to insert "that date."

This is consequential.

In the event of its being consequential, I would point out that we are being consequential about something, when we do not really understand what we are doing.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

4.0 p.m.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman what will be the financial effect now that this Amendment has been made, because the scheme is contributory and the Exchequer are paying a portion. Presumably when the Bill was first presented to the House the actuaries had worked out an estimate of what was involved in this Clause. Presumably through this Amendment there will be increase in expenditure, and we should be told how much it is. I should like before we part with this Clause, once again to lodge a protest, as I did on the Second Reading, against the penalisation, as I consider it to be, of widows who remarry. I still think it is a cruel piece of legislation wherever it occurs. I am not singling out this Bill in particular, but it seems to me quite wrong that when a widow remarries, she should lose certain rights and pension, especially in view of the fact that her husband contributed towards those benefits.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman raised two points, and if I may I should like to answer the second first. It is quite true that a civil servant will have to contribute towards his pension, but not to anything like the extent of the full value which may be paid by way of a pension. When working this out the actuaries realised that a certain number of widows would marry again and, therefore, would cease to draw a pension. That makes it cheaper for the civil servants and also for the State, because half is being paid by the taxpayer. It will be wrong if under this scheme, the taxpayer has to pay more and the civil servant in his lifetime has to pay a higher contribution in order that the widow should draw a pension until the day she dies even though she had remarried. If she marries again it is assumed that her husband should keep her, and there is no reason why the taxpayer should.

The extra cost of this Amendment is negligible. We do not assume that widows of all civil servants will—I hesitate to use the word but it is the only one which occurs to me—cohabit once they become widows, and the short answer to the hon. and gallant Member is that I do not think there will be many cases of this kind, and that in any event the cost will be negligible.

It is quite obvious that the widow under this Clause is in a position whereby she might lose her pension. I should like to ask if it is possible for the man to lose his pension as well, not under this Clause maybe, but under some other regulation. Do the two things combine?

I probably misunderstood what the hon. Gentleman said, but the widow will not start drawing her pension until she is a widow, so that the husband by that time will be dead.

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. A widow in certain circumstances loses her pension. Is it possible that the person she marries, who is also a civil servant, could also lose his pension under some other regulation? Could that case occur?

Whether the widower loses his pension largely depends on the source. Once the widow marries a second time, the pension ceases, so that to that extent it is quite immaterial where the husband gets his income from. It is his job to keep his wife. If ever he deserts her, or goes mad or if quite a number of things happen to him and the widow once again becomes destitute, discretion is given to the Treasury under this Amendment to re-issue the pension if they think it is desirable.

Therefore, it is possible for both parties to lose their pensions, one under this regulation and the other under another regulation.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.