Widows are not a special case

STOP PITYING the widow. We have been feeling sorry for the defenceless, manless creature since the time of Christ, when she popped her mite in the collection box, and there's always been an assumption that she's poor. Forget the fact that we've all met merry ones and rich ones - the widow of common myth is a wretched figure, at a loss because of her loss.

Time has stood still for the women in weeds. While family life has undergone fundamental changes, the widow's standing has not. It's as if we still assume women are entirely dependent on men. Only women who have lost their husbands are eligible for support. Women who have lost partners are not, no matter how dependent they were on them; nor are men who have lost their breadwinning wives (or partners).

This is not just quaintly old-fashioned, it is daft and cruel. Kevin Willis is a victim of this unreconstructed piece of welfare. His wife, Marlene, was the family's breadwinner and Mr Willis had to stop work to look after their two school-age children when she became ill with the cancer that finally killed her. For him there was no pounds 1,000 - the lump sum payable to widows on bereavement - and no allowance, which, if he were a widow rather than a widower, would have come to pounds 85 a week for him and the children. And, because he has savings, he is expected to live on them, rather than receive income support.

Britain is virtually alone in Europe in not treating widows and widowers equally, and Mr Willis is taking his case to Europe, where he is mounting a legal challenge to the Government under the European Convention of Human Rights.

He and his fellow widowers are not the only people who should be aggrieved about widows' special treatment. Since they were introduced in 1948, widows' pensions have been surprisingly generous compared to other benefits. Current provision includes the pounds 1,000 lump sum and a widow's pension of pounds 64.70 a week, plus up to pounds 11.30 for each dependent child.

The widowed mother receives cash benefits that on average are three times as much as other women also struggling to raise children on their own. Divorced women continue to fare much worse than widowed women as they get older. The prevailing view of the welfare system today, just as much as in the days of the workhouse, is that there is a difference between the deserving and undeserving poor.

Earlier this year Tony Blair sacked Frank Field, the man originally asked to think the unthinkable on welfare. Now it's time for Alistair Darling, charged with welfare reform, to do the unthinkable. He has to go further than merely chopping benefits. He has to make the system fairer. One way to do this would be by paying widow's benefits to widowers with children. But that would be costly, and New Labour did not get where it is today by spending money on the needy.

A more realistic - indeed a juster - approach would be to scrap the existing system altogether. After all, should women today, with all the opportunities available to them, really get a payment from the state, regardless of income, just because they lose a partner? Benefits today have become so byzantine that a woman on a lower income would lose out because her widow's benefit would be deducted from her other means-tested benefits, while someone else on a higher income would not be penalised.

What Mr Darling needs to do is be brave, and haul the welfare state into the late 20th century. The key influences on women's incomes remain education, marriage and children (or the lack of them). But they have choices that their grandmothers and great-grandmothers didn't have. They have every right to secondary and tertiary education; they have choice over the size of their families, and they can work. Nobody forces them to give up work because they marry or have children.

The mothers who are raising their children in poverty today are those who have never married. Mr Darling needs to find a solution to that problem, and fast. A benefit that recognises the needs of child carers, regardless of status or gender, and doesn't keep parents in the welfare trap, is what is needed.

And while Mr Darling is going about his reforms, the rest of us should think again about the way we perceive widows. Instead of pitying them as victims who are incomplete without a man, we should recognise their emotional loss. But we need to stop treating them as if they lost their brain and their earning potential while they wept at the graveside. Like any woman (or man) who has undergone relationship breakdown, they have endured a terrible trauma. But they don't need an automatic handout, or to be patronised, or to be treated as a special case. The same treatment as others in their situation, mixed with plenty of compassion, is all that's required.