I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding for bereavement charities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. At the end of March 2020, just as we entered the first lockdown, I was contacted by a constituent, Michaela Willis. Today, I want to share her journey.
In the late 1990s, Michaela founded and was chief executive officer of the highly regarded National Bereavement Partnership charity. It was set up to give support to those affected by the issues that arose from the Bristol Royal Infirmary public inquiry and the infamous retained organs scandal. She had lost a baby there herself.
Michaela was chair of the Bristol Heart Children’s Action Group, and chair of the National Committee Relating to Organ Retention. Her charity served both the public and health professionals by providing a helpline surrounding sudden and traumatic death, especially when there were complicated circumstances.
Michaela went on to be a lecturer in death bereavement and human tissue studies, obtained an MSc in healthcare ethics from the University of Bristol, undertook an audit of 36 hospitals and five universities and wrote the bereavement standards for the Irish Government. She was a member of the board for the Retained Organs Commission and the Human Tissue Authority and sat on the council of Action against Medical Accidents. She was also on the board of North Devon primary care trust for six years. In 2002, Michaela was awarded an MBE for her services in this area.
Michaela contacted me to say she was thinking of coming out of retirement as so many people she knew in hospitals around the country had been in contact about what they were dealing with as the pandemic took hold. We are not good at talking about death in this country, but Michaela is an expert. It was clear to both of us that bereavement support was going to be needed even more than normal as we headed into the first wave of the pandemic.
Each year in England around 500,000 people die, leaving bereaved families and friends to deal with the aftermath of loss. My grandmother died on Friday. At 98, it was perhaps not unexpected, but the hole it leaves and the shock for my mother, uncle and our extended family is palpable. As a family, we will muddle through. Most people are able to use their inner resources, combined with support from family and friends, but others, particularly if the death is shocking or living circumstances are difficult, will need the support of trained bereavement professionals to find a way through their loss.
Around 30% of closely bereaved people need organised opportunities to reflect on their grief and get support. A further 10% of people struggle intensively with complex or prolonged grief, and need specialist grief or mental health interventions. Prior to the pandemic, between 20% and 30% of bereaved adults were not able to get the support they needed. As we headed into that first wave, we saw a scared population, with a growing number unable to say goodbye to their loved ones, and a medical profession seeing overwhelming levels of death every day in so many wards around the country.
Michaela clearly had the know-how to do this, and do this she did. I did what I could, not least getting Openreach to kindly lay 5 km of fibre so she could run a helpline from the depths of North Devon. She pressed on throughout the period. I remember discussing with the Cabinet Office—some others here joined those morning calls—and explaining to the Minister that we were going to set this up from the depths of Devon. We were looking at unprecedented levels of death, loss, grief and associated psychological dysfunction.
In the last two years, more than 30,000 people have contacted the National Bereavement Partnership. Over those two years, the charity has witnessed individuals experiencing grief at many different stages, with so many exhibiting severe and varied emotional turmoil. It can be extremely frightening, and can have a detrimental and damaging effect on those who are in desperate need of support, but cannot access it. Indeed, the distinct lack of access to services was the very reason for the National Bereavement Partnership’s inception. As Michaela says:
“We have by far outstripped our own expectation of the demand for the services the charity offers, with contacts to the helpline ever growing with people who need the right kind of support along with talking space and talking therapies.
Access to funding has become increasingly competitive over recent years, with bereavement secondary to charities supporting life-saving treatments and heart-wrenching causes. In the 25 years I have worked in the sector, many will have heard me say ‘death is not sexy’ (for want of a better phrase, but sadly it is fitting)…Media also plays a significant role in impacting on where donors place their money and supporting a charity with either a feel-good story, or a brutally heart-wrenching story, is frequently more favourable to bereavement.”
There is an increasing gulf between the National Bereavement Partnership’s funding capacity and its increase in contacts—people who are desperate for help. That charity has had to pause its waiting list for counselling, as it cannot meet demand. It saddens all of us immensely that that charity is not able to help and support people at the early stages of their struggle before their ability to cope becomes more diminished, causing many other issues in their lives and with an inevitable knock-on impact on the NHS. The past two years has shown the National Bereavement Partnership that if it can assist at an early stage and talk coping mechanisms and strategy, that grief journey can be very different.
The covid-19 pandemic and its continuing legacy has brought unprecedented levels of grief and psychological dysfunction to those suffering a loss. There was grief pre-pandemic, and there are many unique pandemic and aftermath grief risk factors including dysfunctional grief, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, general psychiatric distress, disrupted meaning, and functional impairment in treatment seeking.
Those factors are coupled with many living losses and contending with varying levels of emotional wellbeing and mental health, and the coping strategies that people turn to in order to get by are truly alarming. They include alcohol, antidepressants, antipsychotics, worsening mental health including self-harm, risky lifestyles, suicidal ideation, and gambling. The National Bereavement Partnership has taken more than 30,000 calls and delivered over 80,000 hours of helpline services and over 10,000 hours of counselling. However, demand continues to outstrip the current supply.
The service provided by the National Bereavement Partnership is more personal and proactive, enabling reduced numbers to free up valuable NHS time, and is therefore dramatically more cost-effective. It describes many callers as having evidenced PTSD symptoms, psychiatric distress and functional impairment. A smaller, but still concerning, percentage have reported clinically significant symptoms of dysfunctional grief. It is imperative that access to talking therapies is available. The counsellors at the National Bereavement Partnership strive to address the breadth of psychiatric distress in those bereaved by a covid-19 death and its aftermath, and hone their skills in promoting meaning making in the wake of the trauma and loss generated by bereavement during the pandemic.
Living losses have dramatically compounded grief, and in some cases have taken on a life of their own. People feel bereft by significant losses in their life, including the loss of a job, furlough, the loss of their way of life, the loss of a home, debt, the loss of relationships, or just the loss of normality as they once knew it. Now, substantive increases in the cost of living are creating changes that are increasing anxiety for people.
The National Bereavement Partnership has described receiving an abundance of calls from those who have lost loved ones by suicide, and those people’s struggle at being left behind. Sadly, that charity also receives more calls than it would like from people contemplating suicide because of personal loss. Its staff work with any support they have and look to find additional support. Those who suffered losses during covid times, who missed routine treatments, or who were affected by a sudden and traumatic death also have complications on their journey, as the expected passage of such an event was not as it should be and services were more skeleton than normal.
The National Bereavement Partnership says that it was in a position to provide 105 hours of helpline service a week and 12 sessions of counselling to heavily triaged callers who were in need, but, as a victim of its own success, it is having to signpost many callers on to a waiting list or to other charities, as for several reasons, it is unable to keep a sustainable funding flow. The callers who that charity puts on a waiting list are those who its staff feel are the most able to wait, or those who they can refer to other services. However, those services are already full, and people end up on a never-ending merry-go-round of being passed around. Preventing such a merry-go-round was the very reason the charity set itself up in the first place. However, due to the lack of funding it is currently experiencing, the National Bereavement Partnership’s helpline output has also had to be reduced. It could instantly lift back up to full capacity at a moment’s notice—all of its team members are on stand-by. Voluntary support is invaluable, but not sustainable for optimum service delivery.
The charity feels that it has been let down by grant funders, who had promised significant funds, which were then diverted to other worthy causes, notably Ukraine. The sadness of that is that the charity has again witnessed a spike in contacts due to the impact that the war is having on people, yet it is struggling to cope. The charity and I believe that it has proven that it excels at service delivery when sufficient funds are in place. The service is well received and has had tremendous feedback. It prevents many people from having to use the NHS, prevents a deterioration in mental health and, in some cases, saves lives.
Sustainability has been problematic. The charity feels that its cause is not feelgood, and it finds that hard to sell to potential funders. It is also important to recognise at this point how many charities struggled to raise funds through the pandemic: the circumstances were difficult for fundraising. The partnership is a new charity, set up in the heart of the pandemic, so some of the natural fundraising streams have not been available to it. Furthermore, after going to great lengths, the charity found some funders that have not delivered, which caused additional friction in service delivery. It received governmental support in the past, enabling it to deliver an optimum service for a time, but the funding was short-lived. Not continuing it was short-sighted because when the service is sustainable, it eases the NHS, stopping more people from having to enter our valuable health system and giving independent support to people who call and need it.
The charity feels that, to continue to do its work and to deal with the increasing demand on its service in a world where access to funding is stark, it needs to find financial support now—before effective services are lost, increasing pressure on other already overstretched services, in particular the NHS. I have also been overwhelmed by the number of other bereavement groups and charities to have contacted me ahead of the debate to highlight identical issues elsewhere in the sector.
The charity will continue to seek funding from as many areas as it can, and I hope that anyone listening to the debate and feeling like making a donation will be able to, and will work with the charity to see what else can be done to support it. It launched with speed and yet, in a matter of months, became the key player in the sector, given the complete service it offers. Ultimately, good bereavement support leads to good mental health and wellbeing in a world that is crippled by losses. Rather than being ignored, that should be embraced.
The charity’s financial requirement to meet the demand of the service—all it needs per month—is £20,000, with an additional £10,000 of expenditure each month targeted at counselling. That is all. Some numbers we talk about in this place amount to billions, but this is really not that much. However, without support from somewhere, this vital charity will not be able to continue. I applied for the debate to highlight the issues for the charity that, in a tiny way, I helped to set up in that first lockdown. It was not really for the people of my constituency, because our pandemic was smaller than in many other parts of the country, but from the depths of North Devon one woman reached out across the country. Other bereavement charities have also contacted me to highlight the variance in their funding and the concern that integrated care boards will not give bereavement support the priority that it rightly deserves and needs.
The NHS needs a senior lead for bereavement. The issues that stem from grief, if left unsupported, cost the Treasury nearly £8 billion a year through reduced tax revenues, from a cost to the UK economy of £23 billion a year. This week, Michaela is the joint author of a paper in the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, which details that there have been more than 6 million deaths globally from covid-19, including nearly 175,000 here in the UK. Each death has been estimated to affect an average of nine family members. We know our mental health has been damaged by the pandemic, and those who lost loved ones—and we with them—must ensure the grief and distress they and we have unfortunately experienced.
We must also ensure that that grief does not lead to another pandemic of highly distressed mourners. We must find a way to fund such vital services more effectively, to ensure that the knowledge and experience of someone like Michaela can benefit those who so need it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on bringing the debate forward. The topic is something that I deal with nearly every day—bereavement charities, if not their funding. We always see the funding; we do not always see the charitable work that they do, but we see the end results. The hon. Lady outlined clearly and helpfully the importance of the funding.
In our own constituencies we have all had direct contact with bereavement charities. These last two and a bit years, where death has been much more apparent to us all, have been difficult. Across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 160,000 people have died due to covid-19. Just over 4,000 of them were in Northern Ireland. I have worked with some of the bereavement charities that do such fantastic work.
This is by no means an easy topic. There are often no words to describe the pain of losing a loved one. As elected representatives, we may deal with that more than most, because people come to us with their issues. We feel the pain of those who have lost loved ones. It is something that we will all experience at some time in our life. There is no rule book when it comes to coping with loss. There are no parameters, rules or ways we can follow. The one thing we always need is support from family and friends and from our elected representatives, which the hon. Member for North Devon does in spades. We are fortunate in the United Kingdom to have a long list of charities that work tirelessly to provide support for the bereaved, so it is great to encourage them all and to look to our Minister to see how we can ensure they continue their work and do it better, as the hon. Lady said.
When death comes, more often than not it is the Church—the minister, pastor or priest—who comes to offer support, and family gather round. The hon. Lady referred to the rise in suicides across the United Kingdom, which was on my mind, too. We had a spate of them in our constituency and it was very hard, because they were mostly young people. The hurt, pain and loss was perhaps greater because they were young—not that it should be any more of less for anyone, but when young life is lost, it has a big effect.
As we know too well, the covid-19 pandemic caused many people, old and young, to lose their lives. There has been an immense feeling of loss since the beginning—that resonates with us all. Members will recall only too well that I lost my mother-in-law, but I got great reassurance from my family and our local church. That does not take away the pain of the loss and the hurt, even if I know my mother-in-law is in heaven. It is fair to say that everyone copes differently. We all have different ways of responding and dealing with things.
I want to praise the work of NHS Charities Together, who have allocated £125 million to a range of projects that aim to support NHS staff, volunteers and patients who are coping with bereavement. All those wonderful people have done incredible things. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), is one of those NHS staff, and we thank her for her contribution, as well as the hon. Member for North Devon, who spends a few days a week working in this area. We all appreciate it.
NHS staff are among those mourning the loss of loved ones during the pandemic. The personal grief of many of them has been made all the more complex by isolation from family and friends while working in high-pressure environments during covid-19. King’s College Hospital is among those that have launched a bereavement service for NHS workers, recognising the pain, soreness and hurt among staff members and responding positively. The service also offers free telephone and face-to-face support for the relatives, partners and friends of any patient who died in the trust’s hospitals during covid-19. That is another example of people starting things that were not there before to respond and to help.
Back home, each social care trust has publicly available bereavement services. Charities such as Cruse Bereavement Care—a group with which I work regularly, as I do with Marie Curie, the Samaritans and the Compassionate Friends—have proven instrumental in providing support. Naming them all, as I have done those four, is all well and good, but we must ensure that they can carry out their services, which we may rely on one day. It is our duty to ensure that those charities are financially stable so that they can. The hon. Member for North Devon is right to bring the debate, and we look to the Minister for a response.
The stats state that, on average, 26% of people want to talk about their grief but do not know how to, or they talk to a professional. Some people out there have never been able to cope, and I believe that we must do something for them. The support is out there, and there is no stigma around it. Bereavement will not go away, but to prevent further hurt, mental-health deterioration, self-harm or even suicide, which the hon. Lady referred to, we must ensure additional funding for bereavement organisations so that people have access to the help that they need.
I call on the Government and the Minister to consider the funding of bereavement and mental health strategies. I know that the Government have committed a substantial amount of money to mental health, which I welcome. Could some of that money be made available for bereavement care? If so, we might answer the hon. Lady’s question by finding a way to help those returning to work after a bereavement with readily accessible schemes across the whole of the United Kingdom.
We all have to face bereavement someday. We will face it ourselves; we will face it for those close to us; we may face it multiple times. Bereavement charities are central to the healing process. The funding and strategy to respond are therefore critical, and that is why the debate is so vital. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing it, and I look forward to the other contributions, especially that of the Minister.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for bringing forward such a vital debate. Unfortunately, its topic has been of much greater importance over the last couple of years.
The death of a loved one is a pain that haunts us all; for many, it can have a deeply profound impact. We must recognise that covid-19 has added urgency to our understanding of grief and the importance of bereavement support. As we have heard, such support can take a number of different forms—from formal methods of support, such as prescription drugs and counselling, to informal methods, including the advice of family and friends on managing grief. Everyone experiences grief differently and it is not a linear process, so support needs to differ from person to person and from case to case, and it may change over time.
Sue Ryder’s recent research, “A better route through grief”, found that 70% of people in the UK could not access the support that they would have liked; 63% accessed informal support; and only 34% were assessed for some type of formal support. Almost one in five people said that the barriers that prevented them from accessing formal support were a lack of culturally relevant services, and a lack of services in the recipient’s language. I am sure that everybody on all sides of the House would agree that we all have a duty of care towards our constituents. Those statistics are simply not to be borne. No one should be unable to access support because of their culture or language.
I thank the hon. Lady for setting out the fantastic initiative and expertise of her constituent Michaela, who is clearly a formidable campaigner. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke with his usual knowledge and with the compassion that he is so well known for across this place. He spoke about how important funding is, particularly given the last couple of years. He also spoke about the loss that he suffered in his part of the world due to the pandemic; today we remember everyone lost to that horrible virus.
The Scottish Government are leading in this area, with a mental health transition and recovery plan that recognises the importance of ensuring that high-quality, person-centred bereavement care and support is available to those who need it. That has been delivered through targeted spending towards mental health, with 10% of Scotland NHS frontline spending going directly into the area. That is a simple step we can take to ensure that supporting our constituents’ needs is at the very heart of what our NHS health boards do. I formally recommend that the Minister explores the potential of that; I am looking forward to hearing what the Government intend to do.
The Scottish Government have funded a number of charitable organisations, including Child Bereavement UK, Includem and Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland, to ensure that additional support is available to individuals and families at the point of need. My own office manager was able to access the Cruse Bereavement services over the past year after the loss of her father. She has explained in great detail and applauded the quick access to a qualified specialist within two weeks of initial contact and the time, dedication and individualised support given by the team. That has all been made possible from the additional funding that was put in place, which has in turn cut down waiting times and made services far more accessible and wide-ranging.
Much more must be done. The Government should fund a marketing campaign to actively support grassroots charities and promote the support available to grief sufferers. That would allow grief to be recognised with a formal, bereavement-specific pathway that accounted for its multifaceted impact on individual lives. It would also encourage employers and workplaces across all four nations to understand the importance of a compassionate approach to a healthy working environment. My SNP colleagues within this House have long campaigned for legislation on paid bereavement leave, particularly in the case of miscarriage. The loss of a baby is a pain that no parent should have to endure.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) introduced a private Member’s Bill last month to change the law to ensure that those who experience a miscarriage are given at least three days of paid leave. Tomorrow she will present a ten-minute rule Bill, which, if successful, would introduce statutory paid leave for parents who experience miscarriage before 24 weeks of pregnancy. While two weeks of parental bereavement leave and pay is in place after stillbirth, there is no such support for anyone who has experienced a miscarriage before 24 weeks of pregnancy.
While bereavement is a fact of life, if a fraction of the costs associated with it could be mitigated with better support at the right time, we could boost our economy and have a healthier society with a greater sense of wellbeing at its very heart. I urge all Members within this Chamber, and indeed the whole House, to support the Bill tomorrow and in doing so take a positive step into making the four nations a compassionate and empathetic place for all those experiencing bereavement.
It was approximately six years ago that you sat next to me when I made my maiden speech, Mr Davies, and today is the first time I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship. I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this important debate, and all hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions.
People, including us in this place, are growing more comfortable about sharing their own experiences of loss and grief. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for kindly mentioning my professional experience with those needing bereavement support. Last year I had the very painful personal experience of losing my father after a long, protracted, difficult and painful battle with dementia, which came on when he was very young. No one can prepare someone for how they will cope with the loss, and everyone will react incredibly differently. The only sure thing we know is that everyone will go through it at some point.
It is important to remember that everyone deals with loss differently. I threw myself into exercise and relied on a support network of my friends and family. Together, we mourned for the life lost and the experiences we were never able to have. Others require professional help.
I will take this opportunity to thank the palliative, neurological and bereavement support charity Sue Ryder, for the assistance it provides to so many families, and Lottie Tomlinson, who has done so much to break down the stigma that still exists around bereavement. Lottie speaks from the heart about navigating the loss of both her mother and her sister, and the different experiences she had in getting informal support from her family and professional support after the loss of her sister.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to bereavement. Indeed, it is different for everyone, depending on whether they have lost a child or even, in the case of the hon. Member for North Devon, a grandmother—I am so sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s loss. No amount of comments such as “She had a good innings” can take away from the pain and loss that she feels, because the family had her in their lives for 98 years and that really counts for something. All our love and support go to the hon. Lady’s family at this time.
The pandemic robbed so many families of the opportunity to say a final goodbye. That has had a profound impact on people’s ability to grieve. The mental health impact of that is enormous. Around one in 10 people bereaved will suffer from prolonged grief disorder, resulting in severe mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the report released by Sue Ryder last week, 70% of respondents reported that they could not access the type of support they would have liked after a close bereavement. The most common barriers to accessing support were that it was not culturally specific, or not provided in the recipient’s language. That has to change. There is a postcode lottery on bereavement support, and that should not be the case. Some local authorities do a fantastic job with limited resources, but it should not have to be that way. So much for levelling up if some areas cannot even afford dignity in death.
Bereavement charities and local authorities should not be living hand to mouth when it comes to bereavement support. The Government must have a clear strategy that tackles the social isolation and loneliness that people often experience after a death. It must ensure that all family members are provided with information about bereavement support services in all appropriate languages.
In A&E, where I work, when a patient dies, there is all too often little joined-up working. I know local bereavement organisations and am able to signpost loved ones to them, but not everyone is able to do that. That is where the development of a specific bereavement pathway would be incredibly useful for frontline workers. It could ensure that relatives are given the information that they need at a time of crisis by hospitals, GPs and charity services. That would help healthcare professionals to find the right support for anyone who has experienced a bereavement, and should be supported by a public health campaign to promote awareness of the different services available.
I would again like to thank everyone who has shared their experiences in order to help to tackle the pernicious stigma still associated with bereavement. It is clear that there is a long way to go to ensure that bereavement services get the support they need to support all of our communities at their darkest hour. I urge the Minister to take the comments made today into account. I know that the UK Commission on Bereavement is currently working to analyse and understand all the evidence that it has received, and I look forward to its report this year.
Experiencing the death of a loved one is one of the hardest things a person will go through. Unfortunately, the last couple of years have made that an all too stark reality for too many people. The humanity was stripped out of grieving; it is high time that it was put back.
Thank you very much, Mr Davies. It is also my first time —and a real pleasure—to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this important debate and using her voice to support a local charity and its role in helping people all the way through the pandemic. I also congratulate her on her role in getting broadband to so many of her constituents at such a vital time. I am sure they were very grateful.
It is vital that bereavement support is available and accessible to those who need it, when they need it. People who have been bereaved navigate their grief in different ways, as we have just heard in the moving testimony from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), about the sad death of her father. I, too, would like to pass on my condolences at his untimely death. She threw herself into exercise, and some people can manage their grief in that way, with the support of loved ones—family and friends. Our role as Government is to signpost the options for support to help people through this journey, however they need that. Probably all of us have suffered a bereavement, and I understand how overwhelming the emotions associated with grief can be. From conversations with bereaved people, bereavement support organisations and my policy officials, I know that there is still more to do to overcome the stigma of grief.
As part of its “Time to grieve” campaign, Independent Age recently came to the Department of Health and Social Care to deliver to me an open letter about the importance of emotional support services. I was pleased to meet the representatives from Independent Age, as well as a number of bereaved people who had made the journey to the Department, in Victoria Street, to join them. It was deeply moving to hear their harrowing stories of loss and grief. They included people who had been, very sadly, bereaved by covid-19. I heard how much all the restrictions had impacted their ability to go through the difficult but normal mourning and grieving processes. I gained so much from that experience and the conversations that I had, and I would like to thank those people. I know that it was not easy for them to come. It took a great deal of time, and it took a great deal of strength to share their stories.
I know that many people still feel unable to speak up about their grief. We must encourage people to have conversations, whether that be with personal support networks or specialist bereavement support organisations, about their feelings and experiences. There is no quick fix for grief. But as a society, we can collectively tackle the stigma and make it easier for people to share their feelings and to seek the support that they need.
At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, the Government recognised the unparalleled circumstances and the need for additional bereavement support due to the increase in deaths. And as the pandemic progressed, we recognised that the restrictions on social contact that were in place to limit the spread of the virus disrupted the grieving process for many. That made it much more difficult to say goodbye and led to some people experiencing more complicated grief.
In 2020-21, as part of a wider package of mental health support, we provided more than £10 million of funding for mental health charities, including several bereavement support organisations. One organisation to benefit from that funding was the National Bereavement Partnership, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon has referred to in this afternoon’s debate. I know that the National Bereavement Partnership was able to achieve some invaluable outcomes with the funding. It bolstered its capacity to provide support for those suffering mental ill health and anxiety following a bereavement; and it was able to provide support through its helpline, a befriending programme, a signposting service and therapeutic interventions. I am truly grateful for all its hard work during this tough period.
Other organisations funded by the Government during this time were able to achieve some fantastic outcomes, such as increased signposting, online resources and training events, and increased capacity to run helplines and webchats. They were also able to advise people of something that perhaps not everyone knows: people can now self-refer for NHS talking therapies. If people go on to the NHS website and search for talking therapies, they can self-refer to get that support if required.
The wider fiscal and economic context meant that we were not able to extend the additional grant funding to bereavement support organisations beyond March 2021; it was for a specific period. Outside the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, bereavement support services are commissioned locally, based on the needs of the local population. We know, though, that in the past it was not always clear whether clinical commissioning groups or local authorities were responsible for providing or commissioning bereavement support. As a result, it could sometimes fall through the cracks. However, the establishment of integrated care systems, as of last Friday, in places across the country will help to improve collaboration among commissioners, local authorities and other partners. The integrated care system for Devon is now established, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon will be meeting its representatives very shortly. She will be pleased to hear that we have added palliative care services to the list of services that an integrated care board must commission to ensure a consistent national approach and support commissioners in prioritising palliative and end-of-life care. To support that, NHS England will introduce new statutory guidance as well as technical guidance and tools, which will include bereavement support as part of a wider package of palliative and end-of-life care services.
I was interested to hear about the many achievements of Michaela Willis and how many people she has personally helped. It was sad to hear her powerful testimony that the National Bereavement Partnership has had an abundance of calls from those who have lost loved ones, including by suicide, and from people contemplating suicide as a result of personal loss. The NHS long-term plan has ensured that every local area has services for suicide bereavement support. By the end of the year, these services will proactively communicate with bereaved families within days of a sad death to offer their support. The Government can provide better support in other ways. For example, we know that fewer people from minority ethnic groups access bereavement support services, so we are working with the National Institute for Health and Care Research to commission research into the barriers that prevent minority ethnic groups from using these services. That bid is backed by at least £350,000, and we expect the findings of the research in 2024.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said that many people may experience complex grief. We recognise that, and we are working with the National Institute for Health and Care Research on other areas relating to bereavement support, including prolonged grief disorder, on which further research could be commissioned. We will continue to work closely with the bereavement support sector on the matter. In June 2021, in response to the pandemic and the societal impact of the huge numbers of individuals and families suffering a bereavement, the UK Commission on Bereavement was established. Its remit is to explore issues and make recommendations to Government on how to support bereaved people better. Alongside launching calls for written and oral evidence from bereaved members of the public, the commission is informed by a lived experience advisory forum and is working with stakeholders in the sector via a steering group. I have met with the commission and I await the publication of its report in September. Knowing the extent to which its report is informed by the voices of the bereaved, I look forward to reading the findings and recommendations. I have made a commitment that the Government will formally respond to the commission’s report.
I have been actively engaging with a range of bereavement support stakeholders. Their main concern is the lack of join-up across Departments on areas that impact bereaved people. We have listened and acted to address that. I directed my officials to set up a cross-Government working group to discuss cross-cutting issues that relate to bereavement support, and I am pleased to say the working group first met earlier this year, with representatives from 10 Departments. The working group continues to meet on a regular basis and has met with the UK Commission on Bereavement to discuss its initial findings.
The pandemic has been the largest public health challenge in the past 100 years. Its legacy is clear: thousands of bereaved families are grieving the loss of a loved one. So bereavement will form a central component of the public inquiry into the Government’s handling of covid-19. As a Government, we are working with the bereavement sector to ensure that support is available for those who need it. We must break down the factors that create barriers to bereavement support, such as ethnicity. Our research with the NIHR will help us do that. I thank all those who have lost friends, families and loved ones and have shared their deeply personal experiences with me, either directly or through the UK Commission on Bereavement. To all bereavement support organisations, I want to say thank you. The services they provide are vital for their communities. I encourage bereavement support organisations to reach out to their local integrated care system to understand the support on offer and how they can help deliver bereavement services.
Finally, to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, I am truly sorry to hear about the loss of her grandmother—my condolences to her and her family. I, too, lost my grandmother, who was nearly as old at 96. I still have her as my screensaver on my phone. It cheers me up every time I switch my phone on. It is still very sad and a loss that is keenly felt. I thank my hon. Friend for her strength in bringing forward this important debate and championing her local charity. I hope that the information I have provided will be instructive, so that she can carry on those discussions with the integrated care system in Devon.
It is a pleasure to have you in the chair, Mr Davies. I thank the Minister for her words. I hope that this is the start of a conversation and that, by talking about some of these difficult things in this place, we are able to move these things forward. I thank the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan)—my grandmother was one of her constituents. I place on the record my thanks to all hon. Members for their kind words this afternoon. I would dearly like to make this a tribute to my grandmother Mrs Doreen Fitch.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered funding for bereavement charities.