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Sickness Benefit: Widows

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 15 January 1981

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3.23 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. May I mention that originally this Question stood in the name of my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve. She regrettably cannot be here because she has sustained an accident, so I am asking the Question on her behalf.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the forthcoming transfer to employers of responsibility for the payment of sickness benefit for the first eight weeks of sickness, they will arrange for widows who become sick while in employment to receive this benefit and that for this purpose the operation of the overlapping benefits provision shall be excluded.

My Lords, employers' statutory sick pay will count as earnings for social security purposes, in the same way as ordinary sick pay does at present, and it will thus not affect the payment of widows' benefits. The overlapping benefit provisions only apply when two or more benefits are payable out of public funds.

My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for that reply? In view of the anxiety of various widows concerning this, will the noble Lord make this fact known as soon as possible to them so that we need have no further fears?

My Lords, I think that your Lordships know that we shall be having a Bill on this whole matter of the employers' statutory sick pay probably introduced into another place next month so the whole of the provisions of the Bill will be debated in both Houses. There will be plenty of time for everybody to be informed as the provisions are not expected to come into force until April of 1982.

My Lords, will the noble Lord ask his right honourable friend to keep in mind that if the Government follow up this proposal of transferring the payment of sick benefit to employers they will be doing exactly the opposite of what they advocated in Opposition? When the last Government were in office I was responsible for the Employment Bill. In that Bill there was a provision that the maternity benefit should be borne by the employers. There was strong opposition from the Tory Benches in both this House and the other place. In consequence of that opposition, the Minister kindly agreed to withdraw one whole clause of the Bill and introduce a new clause which did exactly what the Tories were asking for—to make it funded rather than borne by the individual employers. Do you do one thing in Opposition and another thing in Government?

My Lords, that I think has been done in the past by both parties. However, I would say that the noble Lord is discussing maternity benefits, and not widows' benefits which are the subject of the Question. The whole position of maternity benefits is at the moment under discussion, and the method with which it will be aligned with the ESSB provisions has not yet been decided.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware on the matter which has been raised that there is no distinction between maternity and sickness benefit? In both cases the question was whether it should be borne by the employer or funded. In Opposition you wanted it funded; in Government you want it borne by employers. Con, con. You cannot have it both ways.

My Lords, the noble Lord is in splendid form. We have, however, decided that there is a great advantage—maybe we did not decide it before—in going through this new system of employers paying the first eight weeks of sick pay. It is liable to save £400 million a year, and 5,000 civil servants.

My Lords, will the noble Lord not agree that it frequently happens that what a party advocates in Opposition, when they have further knowledge proves quite impossible when they are the Government? Would he not further agree that the worsening of the economic situation, which of course was worsening when the last Government left office, may alter a great many attitudes to what is practical and what should be done?

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his supporting remarks.

My Lords, will the noble Lord take steps to see that widows are informed that they ought not to be in a position where they can claim maternity benefit?