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Entitlement Of Married Women To Category A Retirement Pensions

Volume 77: debated on Thursday 18 April 1985

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'(1) Paragraph 11 of Schedule 1 to the Social Security Act 1979 (by virtue of which the additional conditions for the entitlement of a married woman to a Category A retirement pension imposed by section 28(2) of the Social Security Act 1975 continue to apply in relation to any woman who attained pensionable age before 6th April 1979, notwithstanding the repeal of that subsection) is hereby repealed Subsection (1) above shall be deemed to have come into force on 22nd December 1984.'.—[Mr.Newton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this new clause it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 21, 99 and 103.

I hope we can take it that the strictures of the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) about an earlier clause, whose purpose was to extend pension rights to certain individuals, will not be repeated in relation to this new clause which extends pension rights to an estimated 25,000 married women who were previously disadvantaged by the residual effects of something, which I shall not attempt to explain in too much detail, known as the married women's half test — namely, an additional contribution condition which married women had to fulfil over and above the normal national insurance conditions before they could enjoy a pension in their own right. That additional condition entailed them having paid the relevant amount of national insurance contribution, or having received the relevant amount of credits, for half the years between the time at which they were married and the time at which they reached age 60.

To a significant extent that rule was abolished in 1979 for all women reaching age 60 after 6 April 1979, but it has continued, and will continue, to apply, unless the amendments are passed, to women who reached age 60 before that date. In practice, the vast majority of such women will not now be suffering any financial disadvantage, because they will have picked up what are known as category B retirement pensions on their husbands' insurance when their husbands retired, but there are still some who may be disadvantaged. Most of them, because their husbands have not yet reached age 65, can receive neither a pension on his insurance nor the pension to which they would otherwise be entitled on their own insurance.

As I said, we estimate that there are 25,000 women in that category, together with some minor categories that I shall not attempt to cover in detail. Having reviewed the matter, and considered again the European Community's equal treatment directive and its possible application, we have decided that it is proper to seek to abolish the half test for all those women to whom it still applies, with effect from the date on which the directive came into effect —22 December 1984.

As soon as the legislation is passed, we shall undertake an exercise to identify and contact all the married women who might gain, with a view to inviting claims from them and paying to them the pension to which they would be entitled. We estimate that in benefit terms that exercise will cost about £25 million in the current financial year, but the cost should fall to nil by the end of the decade.

I hope that the House will regard this as unequivocally good news. I merely ask that those who have any influence in these matters should seek to encourage the married women who think they may gain not to contact us in a flood, but to rest on the assurance that we shall be getting in touch with them as soon as we can under the proposals that I am putting forward. If they all write to us, it will make it even more difficult to deal with this in an orderly fashion and to get the pensions into payment as soon as possible.

With those relatively few words, I warmly commend the proposals to the House in the happy spirit of a Minister for Social Security who, for once, is able to stand at the Dispatch Box and propose something which everyone in the House will regard as well deserved and generous.

I warmly welcome the acceptance by the Government of the need to make this change in the legislation. It is right for the Minister to smile and to feel self-congratulatory. However—and I am not being niggardly—the 25,000 women who have been on the half test, many of whom have contacted hon. Members on both sides of the House with great resentment over the years, may feel that it is a little tardy. Nevertheless, the change will be most welcome. I take this as further evidence that the Government are complying, generally speaking, with all the conditions, implicit and explicit, in the EC directive on equal treatment of both sexes in regard to social security.

I shall try to ensure that people in my area do not all pound the Minister's door down at the same time, although it will be difficult to stop them. I am not sure whether I heard the Minister aright, but I think he said that he would be advertising or making it known that this change would be made. I hope that he will ensure, for example, that citizens advice bureaux as well as DHSS offices have ample supplies of leaflets. I have had many queries on this subject from CABs, and I know that they would welcome that. It might help if the Minister explained to them that they should ask women to wait until they are contacted. I only hope that it is not too long before they get the money.

7pm

I speak briefly as I have raised one or two of these cases for my constituents. I warmly welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister.

The abolition of the half test is extremely welcome. It caused great misunderstanding and resentment on the part of older women who are married to slightly younger men. They could not see why they should not be able to claim pensions in their own right, much as their sisters and sisters-in-law have done. Only married women were affected, and women were discriminated against. Indeed, I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House now feel quite strongly about that. But married women were discriminated against, since I understand that the test did not apply if the lady was living with a man and was not married to him. I doubt whether many ladies of that generation went in for that sort of thing, but it still was not right or fair.

Abolition, presumably at the cost of a comparatively small amount, will not show up much in the social security accounts where we shall spend some £40 billion this year. I warmly welcome the measure, and I look forward to similar statements on other parts of the Bill on other discriminatory elements involving married women.

My hon. Friend the Minister is to be warmly congratulated on getting rid of an injustice that has lasted for some time. It must be a unique experience for him, as the Minister for Social Security in this Government, to be congratulated by the Opposition. I should like to raise one point. If I am well off beam my hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt put me right in his normal polite fashion.

Having dealt with the half test anomaly, it seems appropriate to mention the difficulties that are now coming to the fore of the one quarter test whereby on a putative working life of 44 years so many women must have paid contributions for a quarter of their working lives. I understand that in many cases married women worked perhaps during the war years and paid a full stamp, and then married and worked only sporadically thereafter, paying half a stamp. I understand that they will not be helped by these proposals, and that the financial effects of helping those caught in the one quarter test are considerably greater. But, as things stand, there are injustices about the operation of the one quarter test.

For the sake of completeness, and as I do not wish to be left out, I wish to speak briefly on what must be a unique occasion, because the Minister has introduced a welcome proposal. We also give our support and congratulations to the Minister—[Interruption.] I speak for the alliance, and have not forgotten my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy).

The half test was a pernicious piece of legislation which we have been labouring under for a long time. We will be well rid of it, and I congratulate the Government on the step that they have taken.

What can I say except "Thank you very much." However, I should like to resist the idea that this is a unique occasion and that it is the first time that I have done any good work. Nevertheless, I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House, even if I suspect that some of them have half an eye on the women's vote. I certainly do not want to draw a dividing line between the two halves of the alliance in their appeal. Nor do I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) the impression that I have been frightened into action by my desire not to discriminate against her.I have certainly taken note of her representations in the past, and I thank her for her remarks.

Before coming to the more serious point raised by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson), I should say that I will consider further the point raised by my hon.Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley) about the so-called quarter test. The point is that a minimum pension is 25 per cent., and anything less than that does not qualify. But with home responsibilities protection being available to married women in certain circumstances, 25 per cent. does not seem to be too unreasonable. However,I shall consider my hon. Friend's remarks.

On the question of publicity, I should point out to the hon. Member for Barking that I have a feeling that the mere announcement has done a good deal. This morning my officials told me that the first inquiry came in seven minutes after I had answered a parliamentary question on Tuesday. We have already had inquiries from citizens' advice bureaux and other quarters. This morning I did an interview, which I presume will be used, with the BBC's "Money Box" programme. It will no doubt give more publicity to that point. We shall be writing to all those—it will be most of them—whom we can identify from the computers. I do not want to promise a very elaborate publicity campaign beyond that at this stage, but we shall want to engage in further general publicity once we have contacted all those whom we can identify, with a view then to contacting those whom we have not been able to identify.

We shall certainly do everything possible to ensure that those who can claim successfully under the new clause are made aware of their entitlement, and that they are dealt with as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.