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Widowed Parent’s Allowance

Volume 653: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the widowed parent’s allowance.

It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Moon. I felt compelled to call for this debate about the marital status requirements of widowed parent’s allowance and the need to update the eligibility criteria of its successor, bereavement support payment, following contact by parents affected by the loss of partners. I wish especially to raise the case of Mr Arwel Pritchard and his family.

I have known Arwel, a police officer, since he was in my class in the sixth form at Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor. He met his partner, Donna, whom I also taught, while they both studied there. They were together from then until her untimely death. She leaves two young sons, Cian and Danial. The letter Arwel wrote to me 11 days after Donna’s death is heartbreaking, and his justifiable anger at the callousness with which he and his children have been treated deserves to be put on the record. If I may, I will read some of his words. He wrote:

“On the 20th of May 2018 the mother of my children and my long term partner Donna Claire McClelland passed away following a long illness with breast cancer.

She had been my partner since the time we met in college approximately 24 years ago.

During our time together we got engaged but, due to financial constraints, we did not get married as we had to make the difficult decision either to purchase a home together or get married. Wanting to raise a family, we decided to buy a house in order that we could have a home for our children.

The decision was made to become home owners, and, due to the inflated cost of living and the pay freeze that I received at work, we were never able to afford to be married.

Why am I—a person who has been a lifelong partner to Donna, who has two children with Donna and who has been in a relationship and living with Donna for more years than she lived with her parents—why am I treated as nothing in the eyes of the government?

Why am I treated differently to a person who could afford or was willing to get into debt to be married?

Why are my children not going to receive bereavement benefit for their loss just because their mother and father were not able to get married?

Why is the government discriminating against unmarried people?

Why is the government discriminating against people from different social backgrounds?

Why are children punished financially when one of their parents dies, just because their parents were unable to afford to get married?”

I am proud to be able to put those words on the record.

In many ways, widowed parent’s allowance has been around in one form or another since the inception of the modern welfare state. Society recognises that the death of either parent causes great trauma in a family and seeks to alleviate that distress with financial support. But although the names and conditions of bereavement support payments to widowed families have evolved since the days of Beveridge and Attlee, the requirement for widowed parents to be in a legally licensed relationship —either married or in a civil partnership—is a throwback to the social mores of the 1940s.

The Beveridge report of 1942 acknowledged, in a very different social context, the “problem” of unmarried couples being discriminated against, but none the less recommended limiting widow and guardian benefits to

“the legal wife of the dead man.”

That principle has remained enshrined in certain aspects of our social security system ever since.

That discrimination on the grounds of marital status was challenged in Northern Ireland by Siobhan McLaughlin, whose appeal was ultimately backed by the UK Supreme Court last summer. Ms McLaughin’s partner, John Adams, died in 2014. The couple were not married, but they had lived together for 23 years. At the time of his death, the couple had four children, aged between 11 and 19. The late Mr Adams had made sufficient contributions for Ms McLaughlin to be able to claim widowed parent’s allowance had she been married to him. The Supreme Court ruled by a majority of four to one that denying those payments to Ms McLaughlin was incompatible with article 14, in conjunction with article 8, of the European convention on human rights. Its judgment also sets out incompatibility with articles 2 and 3 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.

Essentially, the Court reasoned that although the promotion of marriage and civil partnerships as a policy goal is a legitimate aim for any Government, denying Ms McLaughlin and her children the benefit of Mr Adams’s contributions simply because they were not married was not a proportionate means of achieving that policy goal. In other words, privileging marriage and civil partnerships with tax breaks is one thing, but denying money to grieving children simply because they come from unmarried households is quite another. I say “children” quite intentionally.

The hon. Lady is making a very eloquent case for children who are punished because their parents chose, for whatever reason, not to get married. Does she agree that the entire bereavement support regime introduced in April 2017 punishes all children, because some families with children lose up to £12,000 a year under the new system—working-age parents with children may lose up to £23,500 a year on average—despite this being a contributory benefit?

Indeed. It interests me that the Supreme Court judgment makes reference to article 2 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which decrees non-discrimination in relation to children, and to article 3, which endorses Governments’ working for the best interests of the child first and foremost. Those principles apply not just to the matter we are debating but to other issues.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing forward this important matter. She outlined clearly a case in Northern Ireland. Does she agree that going from having a wage coming into the house to receiving £117 a week is a massive step, and that that help needs to continue for more than a year for homes with children? That needs to be reviewed. A year is not long enough for someone to sort out how to cope financially in the long term without their spouse and how to raise their children alone. This matter is highly important, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing it forward.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is evident that this matter raises a whole number of questions over and above the one I am specifically addressing.

I reiterate—I hope I say this regularly during the debate—that I say “children” quite intentionally. The great majority of EU member states make children themselves directly eligible for bereavement benefits up to a certain age. Essentially, bereavement benefits function as a sort of topped-up child benefit for children who have lost a parent and therefore require additional support. It is not, however, within the remit of the Supreme Court to correct primary legislation; that duty lies with us in Parliament.

Let me make it clear that despite the title of the debate, I believe the principle established by the Supreme Court ruling extends beyond the widowed parent’s allowance. We have heard that families in which a spouse has passed away since April 2017 are entitled to bereavement support payment, which replaced widowed parent’s allowance. It is therefore implicit in the Court’s ruling that bereavement support payment, too, ought to be extended to children regardless of their parents’ marital status. After all—I wish to impress this upon everyone present, including the Minister—the key takeaway of that ruling is that refusing to extend payments to the children of unmarried couples is of material detriment to those children and is discriminatory against those children.

In the eyes of the Supreme Court, a policy may offer special treatment to married couples when children are not involved, but it may not do so in relation to a benefit targeted at the needs and wellbeing of children. That is directly relevant to both widowed parent’s allowance and bereavement support payment, as in both instances the wellbeing of the children is the primary purpose of the benefit. That is expressed very convincingly in the Supreme Court judgment. It is not acceptable for the state to discriminate against children who happen to hail from unmarried households—to confer stigmatising status on families as either legitimate or illegitimate in the eyes of their own Government. If the support is there, it must be there for all children.

The Minister may well argue that there are bureaucratic barriers to extending widowed parent’s allowance to the children of unmarried couples. He may suggest that the requirement of a legal union protects widowed parent’s allowance from abuse. In reply, I would highlight the armed forces pension scheme, which successfully utilises a definition of “eligible partner” that is not narrowly restricted to the confines of marriage and civil partnership. Of course, the Department for Work and Pensions routinely assesses whether individuals are cohabiting, in pursuit of rolling back their means-tested social security benefits. In many such cases, there is considerably less evidence of cohabitation on display than the existence of living, breathing children. In fact, widowed parent’s allowance itself can be withdrawn if a parent later cohabits with a new partner. It is striking that Governments past and present have been willing to recognise the validity of cohabiting couples in life but not in death.

The Minister may highlight that discrimination against the children of unwed couples was debated during the passage of the Pensions Act 2014. I would reply that the legality of the Government’s standpoint is now informed by the Supreme Court’s ruling from last summer. Where Parliament previously debated in a fog of unknown quantities, we now know that the legal union requirement violates the human rights of children born to parents who are neither married nor in a civil partnership. Defenders of restricting payments to married households typically concern themselves with spousal rights, but the crux of this issue can no longer be allowed to rest solely on the rights of a bereaved spouse. Today’s debate is about whether the Government can continue to materially disadvantage children born to unmarried parents.

Household compositions have changed visibly since the widowed mother’s allowance of 1946, and the Supreme Court ruling is a reminder that our social security system must evolve to keep up. According to the Office for National Statistics, cohabiting couple families have been the fastest-growing family demographic across the UK for two decades, and in the past few years, families headed by cohabitating couples have been more prevalent than lone-parent families in the UK. By 2017, 17% of all households with dependent children were headed by a cohabitating couple.

We also know that there is a socioeconomic and geographical element to family composition, and 49% of cohabitating households in Wales are home to dependent children—the highest proportion throughout the UK. Poorer families are more likely to be headed by unmarried parents, and both mothers and fathers in married couples are more than twice as likely to have a degree as their counterparts in cohabiting couples. Children in lower socioeconomic households are therefore disproportionately exposed to bereavement support discrimination of this type, compared with their wealthier counterparts. That is deeply ironic given the Government’s approach to non-means-tested benefits: to those who can afford to marry, they give more, but to those who have less, they seek to justify denying them at the most traumatic time.

When will the Government formally respond to the issues raised in the Supreme Court ruling and in this debate? The Minister said on 5 September last year that there would be a response anon, but a number of months have since passed. If he will not provide a set timetable today for a response, will he explain why? Could the Government use legislative vehicles to make such a change? I think particularly of the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill promoted by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). A private Member’s Bill might well be a vehicle through which to make such a change.

Extending widowed parent’s allowance as well as bereavement support payments was recommended back in March 2016 in a report by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, “Support for the bereaved”. It outlined, as I have done today and as the Supreme Court did last year, that excluding the children of unmarried couples from bereavement support in the 21st century is both unjust and unjustifiable.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) who is a passionate advocate of this issue, and I thank her for giving me advance notice of the topics she intended to cover so that I could consider seriously the points raised. She gave an impassioned interview on BBC Radio Wales today, and her work in this area is a credit to the campaign she is championing. I also thank other Members who have contributed to this short but important debate.

Bereavement is one of the toughest experiences that people face, particularly with the immediate upheaval. I know that from first-hand experience because I lost my father at an early age. My parents ran their own small business and—this is a sign of times gone by—it was predominantly in my father’s name. At the point when grieving should have been the natural process, my mother was required to go back into work and fight the banks to try to keep a roof over our heads, and I was back in school the following lunchtime.

The Government’s focus is very much on appropriate and immediate support, and that has been reflected in some of the changes we have made. That is an important focus for the Government, and we spend £464 million a year on various forms of support for those who have been bereaved. Recent changes mean that over the next two years we expect to spend an additional £40 million. I recognise that the thrust of this debate is to encourage and push for further changes, particularly for children, and we have demonstrated a willingness to do that where appropriate.

Changes to the bereavement system will cost an additional £40 million over those first two years—something we all welcome. As a principle, such support will be easier to claim, and it will provide the immediate support that was very acute on the list of asks in the 2011 consultation—the need for help in those early months is paramount. Such support is now paid in addition to other household income, and it is not taxed, means-tested or applied to the benefit cap. After we listened during the consultation we widened the support available to include anyone of working age, and younger spouses and civil partners without children will now get support. It also removes the potential trap that stops people being able to move on because if they found a new partner they would lose any support, even if they are still in need of it.

Having listened to the consultation responses we increased the initial lump sum for those with children by an extra £1,500, to recognise that additional need. That support is in addition to the initial sum of £2,500 for those without children, and £3,500 for those with children, and therefore provides 18 months of support, rather than 12. Those without children receive £100 a month, and those with children get £350 a month, for 18 months. Overall the changes not only reflect that immediate need for support, but target those on the lowest incomes and those most in need, who will receive cash on top of what is already provided.

I appreciate the Minister informing us of that, but he has not said whether the Government intend to move on cohabiting couples, and whether—five months down the road—they intend to respond to the Supreme Court judgment, and if so, when. Forgive me, but I feel it is my duty, given the title of the debate, to press those points.

We are only five minutes into my response—fear not, there is more to come, and it will cover exactly those points.

After the introduction of the bereavement support payment, a broader point was raised about how and when we will evaluate the effectiveness of that new system. We recognise that, as with many Government changes, we need to listen, learn and act, and that is separate from any legal judgment. We intend to assess the situation once sufficient evidence is available, and we must have enough data to examine fully the continued circumstances of the bereaved once their benefit payments come to an end. We will analyse that information, which will include looking at the characteristics of those in receipt of benefits, such as age, gender and other sources of income, as well as how bereavement support payments interact with other benefits. We will also look at outcomes for recipients once bereavement support payments come to an end. At this stage, we do not have a specific timescale for that evaluation, as we must ensure enough time to allow other forms of support fully to bed in.

Let me turn to the thrust of the hon. Lady’s intervention and the principle of cohabitees. The question of opening up bereavement payments to cohabitees was debated and decided against in Parliament during the passage of the Pensions Act 2014, which legislated for the introduction of bereavement support payments in the UK. Restricting bereavement payments to claimants who are in a legal union with the deceased has been a feature of bereavement support since the 1920s. That was based on the outdated assumption that someone would rely solely on their spouse for income and would never work themselves. The concept of a legal union is a constant feature of contributory benefit schemes. It promotes institutions of marriage and civil partnerships by conferring eligibility to state benefits derived from another person’s national insurance contributions only on the spouse or civil partner of the person who made the contributions.

Cohabitation is not a straightforward concept and can sometimes be open to interpretation; unlike a legal union, it is not a black-and-white issue. That is partly why it is taking time for us to reflect very carefully. An extension to cohabitees could also trigger multiple claims on behalf of the same deceased person—for example, if the deceased was legally married to one person but cohabiting with another. That has the potential to lead to delays and additional burdens to claimants that are likely to cause distress at a time of bereavement. It is an important factor. I am not saying that the issue is insurmountable, but that is why this is a complex issue to reflect on.

I am sure the Minister needs no reminding that the UK Government ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child in 1991, and I am sure that he would therefore share my concern that if discrimination against children is being facilitated on the grounds that it is bureaucratically too difficult to resolve the issue, that is not making the interests of the child a priority.

I thank the hon. Lady for her invention and have two points to make in response. I am not necessarily questioning that. What I am demonstrating is that we have acknowledged that we need to respond—we need to act. This is not a black-and-white issue, so we cannot do that within 24 hours. In effect, there are two asks. One is that people want me to do something, and to do something quickly; and that is what I am—

I am coming to the issue raised by the hon. Lady. The second point is that we do recognise the principle in respect of children, which is why, under the bereavement support payment, there is additional money for those with children; that principle is there.

Let me cover a bit more and I will happily take interventions, because we are okay for time.

Last year, the Supreme Court declared that the primary legislation that governs widowed parent’s allowance is incompatible with the principles of human rights law, as it

“precludes any entitlement to widowed parent’s allowance by a surviving unmarried partner”.

The courts cannot strike down primary legislation; only Parliament can change primary legislation. Therefore, that ruling does not change the current eligibility rules for receiving bereavement benefits. I am keen to take action, however, in the light of the Supreme Court ruling. I made that very clear in my statement on the Floor of the House, and since then, to help to shape the response—this debate will also be taken into consideration—I have met a number of MPs and campaigners personally. That has been an important part of the process.

However, the issues are complex and there is no quick fix. As Lady Hale herself noted in her judgment:

“It does not follow that the operation of the exclusion of all unmarried couples will always be incompatible. It is not easy to imagine all the possible permutations of parentage which might result in an entitlement to widowed parent’s allowance.”

Crucially, that is not a clear steer—a clear steer equals a much swifter response from us—and we have to take that into consideration; Lady Hale herself acknowledged that. That does not mean that we are pushing this into the long grass. As I confirmed on the Floor of the House and I am hoping to convey here, we are taking it very seriously. There is extensive and comprehensive work to look into it to ensure that we get it right.

To go back to the earlier point, we do not wish to unintentionally cause additional stress where there could be competing people who feel, under the new rules—new potential rules—that they would have the claim. Each in their own right would feel that it should be them; and at a time of bereavement the last thing we want to do is cause undue stress.

I remind the Minister that virtually every other European state treats the children as eligible, in which instance the legality and licence of the relationship between the parents is inconsequential. I wonder whether the Minister would move to support such a principle, but none the less I would greatly appreciate some sense of the timeframe. I understand his point that the matter is complex and thus deserves a thorough response, but I would press him to give an indication of when he is likely to come back.

In terms of the way other European countries do this, that is part of our work, because we are looking at what has worked, what the potential unintended consequences are and what can be done to mediate that. That is shaping much of the work. I absolutely understand why the hon. Lady would love me to be able to give a specific timeframe, but I cannot do so, other than to say that it is an absolute priority for us to do this and to do it thoroughly and properly and to avoid unintended consequences. We absolutely recognise the importance of this.

I am gratified by what I think the Minister said, which is that eligibility based on marital status cannot be determined purely on the basis of convenience. I am glad that he seems to have said that, but like the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), I ask him to assure the House right now that the children will be at the heart of any way forward that the Government embark on.

Many of the things that we do as a Government rightly recognise the importance of children. As the state, we have a duty of care to ensure that all children, regardless of background and circumstances, have the opportunity to unlock their full potential. Whichever political side they are on, every individual Member would echo that, in their own terms.

As I said, we have recognised the importance of the hearing. We are keen to do this thoroughly. We are taking it very seriously. We wish to do it as swiftly as possible, but it has to be done absolutely right. Let me give further reassurance. Although there is no one simple or obvious solution following the declaration of incompatibility, the officials are working very carefully, and ultimately I will return with potential solutions. This must go through the House’s legislative process, so all Members will have further opportunities to shape what we then believe would be the right conclusion. We are working very closely with our counterparts in Northern Ireland, recognising that the specific case was from there. But this must be done very thoroughly.

In conclusion, we are carefully considering the McLaughlin court ruling. We recognise that we currently have incompatible law on the statute books, and we are actively considering all options. With the introduction of the bereavement support payment, we have demonstrated that we will seek to make sensible and positive changes to target support at those most in need.

It is very clear that the hon. Members present feel strongly that the emphasis has to be on the children; I have heard that loud and clear. As I said, it has always been our intention to assess the impact of the bereavement support payment, which we will do once we have sufficient data. We are committed to supporting the bereaved and ensuring that they receive the right support at a difficult time. I echo my tribute to the hon. Members who care so passionately about this subject. It is a real priority for the Government and for me, and as we make progress I will be very happy to meet again, individually, those who are interested, in order to update them on the work. I want to be inclusive, because we all want the right outcomes. It is just that the issue is complex. There was not a clear steer, which meant that there could not be a quick fix, but the issue is a genuine, real priority for us.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.