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Widowed Parent’s Allowance

Volume 646: debated on Wednesday 5 September 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on widowed parent’s allowance.

Widowed parent’s allowance is paid to families in receipt of child benefit where one parent’s husband, wife or civil partner died prior to 6 April 2017. It was replaced after that date by bereavement support payments, which are now paid by the Government to families who find themselves in the same unfortunate circumstances. New claimants have no eligibility for widowed parent’s allowance.

Last week the Supreme Court ruled that the primary legislation that governs widowed parent’s allowance is incompatible with the principles of European human rights law, as the benefit precludes any entitlement to widowed parent’s allowance for a surviving unmarried partner. We are in the very earliest stages of carefully considering the full implications of that ruling. Officials at the Department are working closely with their counterparts in Northern Ireland to examine the judgment and what our next steps should be.

However, as the House will be aware, only Parliament is able to change primary legislation. Lady Hale ruled:

“A declaration of incompatibility does not change the law: it is then for the relevant legislature to decide whether or how it should be changed.”

The Court’s ruling therefore does not change the current eligibility rules for receiving bereavement benefits.

I remind the House that the question of opening up bereavement benefits to cohabitees was debated and decided against in this place during the passage of the Pensions Act 2014, which introduced bereavement support payments, the successor to widowed parent’s allowance. It is worth noting that restricting bereavement payments to claimants who were in a legal union with the deceased has been a consistent feature of bereavement support in order to protect and clarify the entitlement. Other contributory benefits linked to national insurance contributions also contain special rules for claimants in a legal union.

A legal union gives the surviving spouse the right to claim state benefits derived from their deceased partner’s national insurance contributions. This principle provides a clear threshold for determining who can be provided for from a deceased person’s NI accumulation, and it serves to promote the institutions of marriage and civil partnership.

As I have stated, we are carefully considering the Court’s judgment and how the Department should proceed in light of it. When we have looked at all the options, I will come before the House to update Parliament further.

Last week the Supreme Court ruled that the denial of widowed parent’s allowance to surviving unmarried partners with children is incompatible with the law, in upholding the appeal of Siobhan McLaughlin, who lived with her partner, John Adams, and their four children for 23 years until John died in January 2014. I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement, and I pay tribute to Siobhan McLaughlin and her family for their courage in pursuing this important case. Unmarried bereaved parents should not be subject to discrimination because of their marital status; to put it simply, their children’s needs are the same. The Supreme Court said:

“The financial loss caused to families with children by the death of a the same whether or not the parents are married or in a civil partnership.”

The financial support provided by the state can be vital to a family who are already grieving for their loss and who may also be facing financial hardship because of diminished income.

The judgment relates to legislation in Northern Ireland, but unmarried couples are ineligible for widowed parent’s allowance in the rest of the UK as well, so the principle established by the Supreme Court has wider implications. Bereaved parents are already contacting support organisations, such as the Childhood Bereavement Network, to ask for guidance in the light of the judgment.

The Minister said that the Government are considering the Court’s judgment and how the Department should proceed, but this judgment did not come out of the blue. In March 2016, the Work and Pensions Committee warned the Government that they could be forced to change their policy as a result of this specific case. The Select Committee’s “Support for the bereaved” report, published in March 2016, clearly expressed the view that excluding unmarried couples was wrong. It said:

“Penalising children on the grounds of the marital status of their parents is unjust.”

So what assessment has the Department made of the cost of bringing the legislation on eligibility for widowed parent’s allowance into line with the Supreme Court judgment in the whole of the UK? What assessment has the Department made of the number of families who made a claim for widowed parent’s allowance that was denied because the parents were not married?

The Minister said that restricting eligibility to those in a legal union has been a consistent feature of bereavement support in order to protect and clarify the entitlement. However, although unmarried couples were treated differently when it came to making a claim for widowed parent’s allowance, that does not apply when it comes to the Department ending their claim, because if the surviving partner cohabits with a new partner their claim is ended, just as it would be if they remarried or entered a civil partnership. The Minister said that it was for Parliament to change the law, and he referred to the vote in 2014. That led to the Government introducing the bereavement support payment in April 2017 to replace widowed parent’s allowance and two other bereavement benefits. Yet they decided to continue to exclude unmarried couples, even though both Members in this place and voluntary organisations working in the field called for eligibility to be extended to them. The Department for Work and Pensions itself estimated that 75% of bereaved families with children would receive less support under the new system.

The Government claimed that they were motivated not by the desire to save money but by the need to “modernise” financial support for bereaved families in order to better reflect society. According to the Office for National Statistics, cohabiting couples are the second largest family type and the fastest growing. The number of cohabiting couples has more than doubled, from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.3 million in 2017, and the percentage of dependent children living in cohabiting couple families increased from 7% in 1996 to 15% by 2017. When the Government introduced the bereavement support payment to “modernise” support, why did they not extend eligibility to unmarried couples? What message does that send to those children about how they are valued by this Government?

Will the Government now act to bring bereavement support payment into line with the principle established by the Supreme Court that bereaved children should not be disadvantaged because of their parents’ marital status? The purpose of financial support by the state for bereaved families is to try to ensure that, as far as possible, families struggling with grief at the loss of a parent or partner should not have to face the additional worry of how they will manage financially. That should surely apply to families regardless of whether the parents were married or not, as the Supreme Court said last week.

I thank the hon. Lady for her response. As I said in my statement, the Court cannot change primary legislation, and many of the points she raises are the very ones we will be considering, including the potential impacts of any changes that could happen. I will happily update the House on those once we have had the chance to consider them fully.

Many of the other points raised were at the heart of the principles of why we brought forward the new bereavement payments process: it is far simpler and it is a quicker process. We did consider the point about cohabitation, but this is not straightforward, as was extensively debated during the discussions around the time of the Pensions Act 2014, particularly as the regulations were brought forward. That makes this a complex process, because it can be open to interpretation, leading to delays and additional burdens for claimants, particularly at a time of distress. Any extension could trigger multiple claims; a bereaved person may have been legally married to one person but living with a new partner, who would therefore become eligible.

The hon. Lady talked about the new proposals for families with children, but I will challenge her back on that, because the new system is easier and quicker, and the payment is in addition to other household income. It is not taxed or means-tested, and it is not applied to the benefit cap. These are all keys areas that help those with the lowest income, as the principle was based on fairness. We also widened support so that anyone of working age would qualify and younger spouses and civil partners without children would get support. Specifically for those bereaved with children, an additional £1,500 was paid as the first lump sum. In some cases, those families could be eligible for additional benefits, whether through universal credit, child benefit, tax credits or the funeral expenses payment.

Whatever the decision of the Court, will the Minister give consideration in his deliberations to the fact that many on these Benches have a preference for our own law made in this House over the provisions of European human rights law?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Let me reassure him that that has always been the founding principle of contributory benefits, and to our mind it should continue to be so.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. He said that the Department was only consulting Northern Ireland on the implications of this Court ruling, but this is a UK reserved benefit, so why is that consultation not extending further? He also said that the Supreme Court ruling does not change the law, but the ruling does say that the law as it stands is flawed, so not updating the eligibility rules has the potential to store up further challenge to the new as well as the legacy benefit, given the precedent that has now been set by Siobhan McLaughlin’s significant win. It would be grossly unfair, and surely open to further challenge, if the Minister did not come back to the House to explain how this decision was to be applied across the board, so can he confirm that the work he is now undertaking with the Department is with that end destination in mind, and is not seeking to limit this significant win to just one family?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The Court ruling specifically applied to Northern Ireland, but I understand the point he has made and I would be happy to meet him to discuss wider implications across the UK. On the other points he raised, those are the very things we are considering, and I will update the House once we have the chance to assess them fully.

I am no fan of the European courts and I am extremely pro-marriage, but we have to live in the modern world that we live in now, and when the Government consider how to respond to this Court ruling, will they look at something called fairness and natural justice? Many people who will have been able to go to work because their partner stayed at home with the children will have then lost their loved one when they were not married. We need to show compassion, while understanding the benefits system.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that and he raises a fair point. As with any of the benefits we provide for those in need, this is always underpinned by the principle of fairness.

May I welcome the Minister back to the Treasury Bench, after a very short period with the Work and Pensions Committee? Might I say that there is some disappointment at the fact that more progress has not been made for him to report to the House today. In other areas of social security the cohabitation rule applies and evidence of cohabitation can be male slippers in the home, but in this case we are talking about evidence of children. There is no doubt that this was a stable union. As the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said, surely in such cases fairness is not operating.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. I enjoyed my brief four or five weeks as part of his Select Committee, where he was a formidable, excellent and well-respected Chair. Fairness is the key. In my defence, this judgment was made only last week and it would have been churlish of me to make a rushed decision, as this has very serious implications and we need to consider it carefully. I will return to update the House as quickly but as sensibly as possible.

When I served on the Work and Pensions Committee, under the chairmanship of the excellent right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), whose party no longer seems to find room for him, although he remains Chairman of the Committee, we looked at various issues to do with the widowed parent’s allowance. I hope the Minister will look carefully at the recommendations in that report, which tackled the issue of partners and of how income would be treated under universal credit, because there is a question of fairness to address in how widowed parent’s allowance is currently treated.

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and that is why under the new benefit payments any income that is gained is not means-tested and the benefit cap does not apply to it, to make sure that people are not given money on the one hand that is taken away on the other, and that the most vulnerable people get the support that they need.

I have to tell the Minister that I met his predecessors about this issue, because it is clear that legislation written in 1958 should not mean that children in 2018 live in poverty. We have cases of parents having to get married in intensive care units to avoid the humiliation that this legislation entails. Will he learn from Germany, where the money follows the child through orphan pensions and parenting is the requirement, not marriage? Telling parents that they have only 18 months to grieve is hurtful. Telling them that their family does not exist because they did not put a ring on it is unforgivable. I hope that he will take up my offer of a meeting with the campaigners from Walthamstow—women who have been directly affected by this—and I hope we will finally bring the legislation up to 2018.

I will be happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues. I have worked with her before on several issues, and I am happy to extend that invitation. It is a balance: contributory benefits have always followed the principle that inheritable benefits are based on the concept of legal marriage or civil partnership because that provides legal certainty. I understand the points that have been raised, and we are considering them following the judgment.

I know that the Minister recognises that all such cases involve distressing circumstances as someone has lost a parent, and that legal niceties are therefore not their first thought. When the Government look at this, will they consider carefully a system that is compassionate but also brings clarity, so that people know exactly when they will qualify?

As I have said, fairness must underpin this. We do not want to have a complex benefit, because it is a very distressing time for people. We want it to be simple and quick and to provide support to those most in need.

It seems clear that the will of the House is that a child who has lost a parent should not be penalised because of the marital status of the parents. Does the Minister intend to carry out an equality impact assessment of this benefit?

Actually, as part of the commitment to bringing in the new bereavement payments, we will do a full impact assessment, which will be shared with the House. One of the key changes is the additional £1,500 in the initial payment for those in a marriage or civil partnership who had children. We understand the importance of making sure that those with children get additional support.[Official Report, 13 September 2018, Vol. 646, c. 6MC.]

I echo the calls for compassion and fairness when dealing with children affected in this way. I also gently remind the Minister that this is the seventh ruling in the last 18 months against different aspects of the Government’s social security policy. It would be appropriate for the Government to show some humility and listen.

I thank the hon. Lady, but those are the principles that govern us. The new system that we have brought in provides immediate support; it prioritises help for those on the lowest incomes; and it recognises that those with children, regardless of age, need additional immediate support. We will continue to assess both the ruling of the Court in relation to Northern Ireland and the wider implications of the new benefit.

I urge the Government to accept the ruling by the Court. Several hon. Members have talked about fairness, and it is a basic issue of right or wrong. Why does the Department take account of cohabiting couples when determining eligibility for universal credit, but deny those same households bereavement support if one of them passes away?

I would gently remind the hon. Gentleman that it was his former colleague Steve Webb who steered through the Pensions Act 2014, when this issue was extensively debated. The principle of the new benefit is about fairness and delivering quick and immediate support for those most in need.

I too thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement.

My constituent Donna McClelland died on 20 May, leaving two sons, Cian and Danial, and her partner of 24 years, Arwel Pritchard. They were engaged, but they had prioritised buying a house over the cost of getting married. Arwel and Donna put their children’s home first. When will the Government bring forward a review that will console Mr Pritchard and admit that a legal contract is not a precondition for supporting a grieving family?

May I first express my personal condolences to the family at this distressing time? I understand the points that the hon. Lady makes, and they are being considered. In the short term, I urge hon. Members to look at the other potential benefits that could be offered to support families, including universal credit and tax credits. I will return to update the House fully as soon as I can following the ruling by the Court last week.

In a debate on 2 March 2017 on bereavement support benefit, I pressed the then Minister on the issue of cohabiting couples. I pointed out that they are treated as couples for other benefits such as tax credits, but I was told that extending eligibility to cohabitees would “increase spend” and be “complex to administer”. Despite what the Minister has said about legal certainties, we know that many bereaved cohabitees and their children have lost out because of the UK Government’s reluctance to recognise them as families. In the light of the Court judgment and the hardship caused to bereaved cohabitees and their children, does he agree that the Government should apologise for their inaction and that, as soon as can possibly be arranged, this needs to be corrected retrospectively so that justice is obtained for the people affected?

This issue was considered at great length in debates on the Pensions Act 2014 and the subsequent regulations. It is not straightforward. How do the Government act as judge and jury in situations in which someone could be living with a different partner? At a time of great distress, the emphasis has to be on providing appropriate and quick support particularly targeted at those in the most need. Following the ruling in the Supreme Court, the points raised will be considered and I will come back as quickly as is appropriate to provide an update to the House.

It is an important principle that social security should be a safety net for us all, because we cannot predict circumstances such as the death of a partner or parent, which could happen at any time. Children should not lose out regardless of the marital status of their parents. How much has the Department spent on fighting the decision in the courts, and can the Minister confirm that it has ruled out appealing the decision?

It is right to highlight that we should provide support, and that is why in the new benefit we have widened the support available to anyone of a working age and to younger spouses and civil partners without children. They will now get support, and it will not be lost when someone moves into a new relationship. We will continue to review the situation following the Court decision last week, and I will fully update the House.

The Minister’s statement did not contain the word “sorry”. Following on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), I will give the Minister an opportunity to say sorry to the individuals affected. Can he also tell us how many of the Government’s welfare and benefit policies have been found to be illegal since 2010?

As I have previously said, we are considering the Supreme Court ruling. As we have demonstrated, with the introduction of the new bereavement payments we have made it easier to claim, it is paid in addition to other household income, it is not taxed, it is not means-tested and is not included in the benefit cap. We have extended access to it and targeted those most in need. It is that principle of fairness that underlies not just these reforms but all our benefit reforms.