Skip to main content

Abolition Of Cohabitation Rule Bill

Volume 886: debated on Tuesday 11 February 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

4.25 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal the cohabitation rules contained in the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act 1965, the Supplementary Benefits Acts 1966 to 1974 and the Social Security Act 1973, and for purposes connected therewith.
The cohabitation rule states that a woman may be disqualified from benefit for herself and her children in her own right if she is considered to be cohabiting with a man unless, in the case of supplementary benefits, there are exceptional circumstances. That rule affects entitlement to supplementary benefit, national insurance benefit and widow's benefit. There is no clear statutory definition of "cohabitation". That is the problem, and that is why I am seeking leave to bring in the Bill.

One Act defines the rule in one way, another Act defines it in another way and the Supplementary Benefits Commission handbook defines it in a third way. All those definitions are vague and imprecise. They are imprecise enough to make it difficult for an investigating officer to decide easily and clearly whether a man is taking financial responsibility for a woman in the way that a husband takes financial responsibility for his wife.

So many anomalies have arisen and so much injustice has been done that I have come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with the situation is to abolish the rule altogether. That would remove the risk that the rule may be applied to people who are not in fact living together as a couple and when the man is not supporting the woman. It would remove the shabby practices to which the rule gives rise. Most important, it would remove the injustice which is caused by treating the cohabiting couple as if they were married. The officers of the Supplementary Benefits Commission frequently assume that, because a widow or a single mother has a lodger, she is cohabiting with him and he is supporting her in the way in which a husband supports a wife.

I know of many cases like that. I know of a lady who worked as a home help and in her spare time acted as a driver for handicapped children. She lived in the house of an old friend who suffered from cancer. She provided domestic help and occasional nursing in return for free accommodation. At the same time she also looked after an old man of over 90 who was living in the same house. What was her reward? She lost her widow's pension.

I know of another elderly lady who for many years has had a male lodger, many years her junior, living in her house. An officer came along and decided that this young man was cohabiting with the elderly woman. The result was that her benefit was withdrawn. The shock to the woman was double. There was the financial shock and also the severe mental shock, from which it took the old lady a long time to recover. She was shocked that she should be suspected by the commission and her neighbours of sleeping with this man who was 25 years younger than she.

Young unmarried mothers who have boy friends, either occasional or serious, frequently find that their benefit is removed because the officer assumes that the young man is taking financial responsibility for the woman and is keeping her. Many young mothers avoid making lasting relationships and avoid having boy friends because they are afraid that the commission will remove their benefit.

The rule does not in fact say that a woman may not sleep with a man. The financial consideration is the one which ought to be taken into account. But the Supplementary Benefits Commission's investigating officers carry out their investigations very often in a way which leaves much to be desired. In many cases the claimant does not even know that she is being investigated because the officer carries out his survey of her by means of questioning neighbours, the landlords, the rent collector and the milkman—and even children, horrible though that may sound.

Observations have been carried out by officers sitting nearby outside the house. Sometimes they have gained access to a house opposite that in which the woman is living and have spied upon her from there. In one ludicrous and outrageous case an investigating officer was found kneeling and looking through the letterbox, and when challenged he lamely said that he was trying to take out a census form which had fallen through.

When an interview takes place with the claimant, the questions nearly always lay far too much stress on the sex side of the case. The officer—or may I call him the sex snooper?—snoops around the house and looks in wardrobes to see whether a man's trousers are hanging up in the same wardrobe as the woman's clothing. He tries to decide from that whether that means that a man is sleeping with her and whether he is cohabiting with her. He then asks impertinent questions about the sleeping arrangements in the house. He tries catch questions on her to try to trip her up.

If the officer is satisfied that a cohabitation situation exists, he very often takes away her book on the spot, although he is supposed to have a written order to do so. Many claimants allege that the book is snatched away from them by the investigating officer. The benefit then having been removed, the onus is upon the unfortunate woman to prove her innocence. There is appeal machinery but often she does not know about it, and unless she has expert advice and representation it is very difficult for her to go through the machinery. That is why only a relatively small number of people exert their right to do that.

Many pleas have been made and much case history has been put forward to get the cohabitation rule properly defined. I know that an inquiry is being carried out by the Supplementary Benefits Commission into the operation of this rule, but it is taking a long time and in the meantime the disadvantages still exist and the anomalies still occur.

But there is also a very great injustice in treating a genuinely cohabiting couple as a married couple. The argument against abolishing the rule is probably based on the fact that a cohabiting couple have an advantage over a married couple because the married woman does not draw benefit. But this implies that marriage is no more than a formality—and it is a great deal more. It is undertaken with considerable thought and it gives considerable rights to the woman in the case. A married woman has a legal right to maintenance during the life of her husband; she can inherit from him; through his national insurance contributions she can get the maternity benefit, and a pension when she is 60, and so on. These are important rights which are not available to the woman in the case of a couple who are cohabiting. By comparison cohabitation is a very insecure situation, especially if there is a threat that the woman's benefit is to be cut off.

For all these reasons—administrative, social and downright human—the sensible way to ensure that a woman receives the benefit to which she is entitled, and to relieve the officers of a very unpleasant task, is to abolish the cohabitation rule.

The House will wish to know how much this would cost. On the last known figure the net gain to the Revenue of recovering benefit, after deducting the cost of administering the rule, was about £500,000 net—nearly the same sum as is rumoured as an increase in the Civil List. The cost is nothing by comparison with the relief which will be felt by many thousands of women who feel that in a modern and enlightened society they are being subjected to Victorian behaviour.

I hope that the House will take a step forward today by supporting the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Jo Richardson, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Bruce George, Mr. John Ovenden, Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk, Mr. John Moore, Mrs. Helene Hayman and Mr. Sydney Tierney.

Abolition Of Cohabitation Rule

Miss Jo Richardson accordingly presented a Bill to repeal the cohabitation rules contained in the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act 1965, the Supplementary Benefits Acts 1966 to 1974 and the Social Security Act 1973, and for purposes connected therewith: and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 25th April and to be printed. [Bill 83.]