The scale of the cuts was largely obscured from MPs as the announcement was presented by Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, as a reform to give more help to the needy including an extension of the benefit of pounds 64.70 a week for the first time to widowers, provided their wives had paid full National Insurance contributions.
But the changes mean that nearly all widows who are over 45 and without dependent children will lose the widows' benefit after six months. When the size of the cuts sink in, it could provoke a backbench rebellion.
The shake-up of widows' benefits was seen at Westminster as a signal of sweeping changes to be made to the welfare state by the Blair Government, with a move towards more targeting and means testing of benefits, including future increases in the state pension and child benefit, which is likely to be taxed. The Social Security Secretary told MPs a total of pounds 500m will be saved over the long term as he ran into criticism from Labour backbench MPs opposed to means testing of welfare. Officials confirmed last night that by the year 2020 the number of widows under 45 without children claiming widows' benefits is expected to dwindle to 30,000.
No existing claimants will lose money and Whitehall officials said the future claimants would not `lose out' because they would never have received the money. That reasoning is likely to be lost on the Labour MPs including Audrey Wise who yesterday raised their concern at cuts to welfare.
Defending the cuts, Mr Darling said 40 per cent of the women currently getting widows benefit were in the top half of the income bracket. The total claiming the benefit had risen from 100,000, 50 years ago to 1.5 million women today.
"The world has changed and the benefits system needs to reflect those changes," he said. "Long-term widows benefits may go to many who don't need them. We want to ensure that we get help to those who need it most."
From April 2001, the lump sum payment will be doubled to pounds 2,000. Existing widows benefit effectively will be scrapped and replaced with a new benefit called bereavement allowance. Anticipating an expected judgement in the European court, the Government is equalising the benefits for men and women.
But the benefit will end after the first six months for bereaved spouses aged 45 or over who do not have dependent children. Those aged 55 or over who qualify for income support and who are widowed in the five years after the changes, will get support worth the same amount as the current widows pension.
The widows benefit, now worth pounds 84 a week for parents with dependent children, will be paid until their youngest dependent child leaves-full time further education. The poorest bereaved parents on income-related benefits will gain additional cash help worth an extra pounds 10 a week.Reuse content