Select Committees of the House of Commons do excellent work; their role is even more important now that the Labour Party has abandoned any attempt to function as an effective opposition. The Work and Pensions Select Committee is currently engaged in scrutinising the Government’s Draft Pension Bill. Most of the focus will be on changes in state pension. One other area may prove to be both important and controversial, however: it concerns the status of cohabiting couples, a topic where reform is long overdue.
The Government is proposing to introduce a new Bereavement Support Payment to replace the suite of bereavement benefits. This is a minor change in itself but raises the broader issue. The new benefit will be available to husbands, wives and civil partners, a definition of eligibility that reflects our changing attitudes as a society. Historically only widows were eligible for some benefits; subsequently gender distinctions were removed; now we are comfortable with civil partnerships. However the new benefit will not apply to those involved in long-standing cohabitation and various charities are lobbying for this to be changed.
For what it worth these charities have my support. I am sufficiently traditional to be pleased that both of my sons are happily married totheir partners, but sufficiently liberal to be comfortable with the idea of cohabitation. Indeed, in many cases, it is far better for couples to find out if they are suited to shared domestic life before they commit.
I was brought up on a council estate where young men and women married early to leave home and also to enjoy a ceremony where they were the centre of attention. Often there was family pressure on them to take this step. One particular conversation from my teenage years will always stay with me. My mother was talking to one of my many Aunts about the Aunt’s 20 year-old daughter. The Aunt’s status update was “Susan and Jason (not their real names) are rowing with each other all the time. They’re going to have to get it sorted out because they’re getting engaged at Christmas”. They did indeed get engaged at Christmas, had a big wedding the following year and divorced two years later. Thankfully society has moved on since then.