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Support for Bereaved Children

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 September 2023

I beg to move,

That this House calls on the Government to develop a protocol for ensuring that bereaved children are made aware of and have access to practical and emotional support through public and third sector agencies.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee and everyone who supported my application.

I have a jigsaw puzzle at home that my sisters recently had made for me for a big birthday. It is an old photograph of the family at Christmas, when they were just seven and 12—it was the last Christmas before dad died. They did not have to explain to me why they had chosen that picture, as I knew from the moment I unwrapped the present. There is an unspoken bond between the three us, and with our mum when she was alive, and that bond is understood by families all over this country.

I have an interest to declare, of course, as I am both an adult who was bereaved as a child and the mother of a bereaved child. Every day, more children in this country experience what we experienced when our lives were turned upside down. The trauma of losing a loved one—not just a parent but a loved one—is often sudden and inexplicable. Every 20 minutes a parent dies in this country, and around 127 children are bereaved every day, but that figure is only for parents, and I say “only” advisedly. We do not have figures for the number of children who lose grandparents, siblings or friends, all of which are traumatic losses for a young person.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. Supporting bereaved children is incredibly important, and the physical presence of their loved ones is a huge part of that. My Broxtowe constituent Aaron lost his wife Bernadette in childbirth. He did not qualify for leave or pay due to the time he had been employed so, while going through the heartache of losing his wife and raising his son Tim, he had the added stress of the employment situation he faced. No one should be in that position, so does the hon. Lady agree that there must be a day one right to leave and pay for those who lose a partner in childbirth, so that children can be with their loved ones?

The circumstances the hon. Gentleman outlines are dreadful and affect so many people in this country every day. We often do not acknowledge the amount of practical and emotional support and help that people need to get through this and, as he says, Aaron should have had support and should have been able to look after his child without having to worry about the financial implications.

I was recently privileged to meet a group of bereaved children who had come to Parliament while handing in a petition at Downing Street asking for exactly what we are talking about today. Listening to them, I could not help but be frustrated that so little has changed in the decades since I went through what they have experienced. Although there are support systems through schools and wonderful charity organisations such as Winston’s Wish, which had arranged the petition, I am told it is still the case that, unless a family is already in touch with social services, those services have no way of knowing about a child’s bereavement or that a child needs support. That means that brave children in this country must often still rely on luck and search engines to find the help they need. It is children of all ages, even those who might consider themselves, as I did, a young adult, who need support through those circumstances, but at the moment we have no official way of keeping track and matching up children with organisations.

These organisations tell me that they know the children are out there and need their help, but they just not know who and where they are, or, sadly, how to get in touch with them. Child Bereavement UK told me:

“As a service that works tirelessly to meet the needs of bereaved children, young people and families, one of the hardest things to hear someone say is, ‘I only wish I’d known you were there when this happened to our family’. Services like ours at Child Bereavement UK are there, but without knowing who and where bereaved children and young people are, they are invisible and the chances of them finding the practical and emotional support they need to navigate life after bereavement are severely diminished.”

That is a crucial point: this is about navigating life after bereavement, and not just immediately after. For children, this can be about more than that immediate period. My sisters and I were lucky, as we had support around us—mum was brilliant—but perhaps there was something more we could have had. Perhaps we could have had more support to make it easier for us and for her—something we did not know about—because it is tough and you just get through the challenges as you can, and not just then. My apologies if this seems ungrateful to anyone, but one reason why I hope the Government are able to take this on, take it across Departments and recognise that it is a cross-departmental issue is that we are dealing with a lifelong challenge. It does not go away miraculously when we hit 30, 40 or 50; I have no idea when it will go away—if it ever does, I would be grateful. More than one person I spoke to cautioned me, when I began to raise this issue, that I might be opening an emotional can of worms for myself. One group I have spoken to, Adults Bereaved as Children, tells me that anyone who loses a parent, grandparent, sibling or friend can be affected in ways that they do not recognise and can be affected later in life when this comes back. I am told that they have an increased risk of depressive symptoms and anxiety. They also have physical health symptoms and can suffer serious illness, have riskier health behaviours and face earlier mortality. Educationally, we can suffer lower than average scores. We are less likely to be employed at the age of 30 and, sadly, we are over-represented in the criminal justice system. Those are only the personal implications. For the NHS, there are ongoing costs involved in dealing with people who have mental or physical health issues as a result of not getting the support they needed when they were a child and this coming back in later life. We must also consider the economic impact of undermining the contributions that so many people could make to our economy by not making sure that they have the support they need at a traumatic time. So the ramifications of this are huge and they are much more than just personal.

In the past few months, I have spoken to people in the voluntary sector, written to the Scottish Government and sat down with the former children’s Minister, the right hon. Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho). Without exception, they have been supportive. Everyone recognises that there is a problem, wants to help and outlines the wonderful services that are available. However, pinning down the solution is the problem: how do we connect these services with children who are grieving? That is the issue that everyone seems to grapple with, but should it really be difficult?

As I have said when we have talked about this previously, we have debated the merits of a registry for bereaved children. In modern society, it should not be difficult to find people who need support, as we have registers and statistics for just about everything. A digital society makes a lot of things easier; it is often too easy to keep track of things. For example, my medical records are online, as I am sure all of ours are, in order to make it easier for the NHS anywhere in the country to know our history if we collapse somewhere away from home. I hate to think of exactly what information can be scanned from my passport or my national insurance number. But if, God forbid, anything were to happen to any of us who have children, there would be no way of checking whether they were getting the support they needed and whether they were okay—whether they were safe, looked after, coping with the trauma they were going through or whether they were perhaps just needing someone outside their immediate family to talk to. The immediate family is vital and supportive, and schools do a fantastic job in supporting young children, but that may not be the ideal way of ensuring that every child gets the right help. What happens if they move home, to a different school? Who tells the school about this? Do they tell the school or will they be too embarrassed? What happens if they do not want their classmates to know just how bad they are feeling and they need more than the school can provide? Where is the network to ensure that they get that?

That is why today I am calling on the Government to look at how we establish a new and necessary protocol to help a wide range of public bodies—the NHS, local authorities and schools—to establish where and how children who are grieving can find the support that is right for them and perhaps put them in touch with a charity organisation that can give them support. We need to make the children’s carers and the children themselves feel valued and looked after. This should be a low-cost, low-effort task to help the charities connect with grieving families, but to help them in this process would also have undeniable benefits for many people in our communities. It would help them process difficult, traumatic experiences and overcome the problems I talked about earlier. All we need to do, and all I ask the Government to do, is invest some time, thought and care into coming up with what should be an administrative solution—this should not require legislation. This might be something as simple as noting, when a death is registered, whether a child might need support, and identifying which Department can best administer it and the easiest way to do it.

When I met those children who had been brought here by Winston’s Wish to deliver the petition, it was heartbreaking to hear their stories. I have not met anyone in this place who would not sympathise with them and want to address the problems some of them faced in getting support; we recognise the significance of helping them. There is no political issue here; there is no divide over whether or not we should be supporting our children and our adults who perhaps did not get the support they needed when they were younger and perhaps did not even realise they needed it, because the advice was not there for them. We all want to do this, so what is stopping us?

Many bereaved children will not take up the offer of support, but sometimes even knowing that there are organisations out there to offer it provides the safety net that their families desperately need. They may never actually pick up the phone or send an email, but a protocol would mean that they would know that they could and they would know who they could phone if they wanted to. That would be a way of making sure that we know where those children are, that they are getting the help that they need and that they know that we are here for them. We would be making sure that we can reach out and offer that support to every single child —it is the least we can do.

I would like to start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for sharing her own experiences, as well as for being a voice for so many children who feel forgotten during a difficult time.

I rise to speak because this topic is very close to my heart. When I was at primary school, I lost my father. As for many young people in that situation, it was a confusing time. Life changed overnight and suddenly the relationship that I had shared with him became a distant memory. In an effort to support our mother, who was coming to terms with her loss, my siblings and I stepped up and took responsibility. We essentially became adults overnight.

Our lives at home had changed, but at school there was no acknowledgement of our loss. There was no support or counselling, and we were told to focus on our education and left to our own accord. Life continued as normal, as it does for children. We never took the time to acknowledge our grief and we never spoke about our loss. We essentially went into survival mode, just grateful to have each other and be a family. To be honest, I think we essentially thought we were unaffected.

And then A-levels came. My eldest brother suddenly died and, to be honest, I felt as though the world had been shaken. I will never forget the day my mum called me at school to tell me. For the first time in my life, I experienced an anxiety attack. My brain could not decide how to react. The security, the hope and all the certainty that I knew was gone overnight.

As the weeks went by after the death, I had to adjust to the new responsibilities. I found myself learning about things I had never thought I would have to learn. I had to learn about how to bring a body back from abroad, because he had died in Peru, how to get a death certificate translated and how to organise a funeral. As well as that, I had the added stress of being told that, because my school had put me in for exams, there was no way any adjustments could be made, even though the school tried very hard, and I had to sit those exams. I know how hard my school tried and how much support they offered me during that difficult time.

As the years went by, as I discussed with my siblings, I realised that although we had thought we were unaffected, actually the situation has had a considerable impact on our outlook on life. It meant that we grew up with separation anxiety, difficulties adapting to change and many other things that we did not necessarily acknowledge at the time. I am exceptionally grateful for having an incredibly supportive family and friends, and a church community that was always there.

Sadly, my case is not unique. I hear many stories from my constituents about children who are experiencing a difficult time. Children should not have to ask for support while they are grieving; it should be a given that they are offered our support. Schools should have guidelines to support children. Care, counselling and support should be given to young children. Leaflets and clear signposting should be available so that families know exactly where to go to get support and what charities are available locally. GPs should be equipped with the knowledge to support families and to identify them once they are in that difficult situation.

We all know that grief can be difficult and can have a lasting impact on our lives. That is why it is so important, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh West said, that we collect data, so that we can understand how many children in our country face the situation every year. Then we will be able to identify the gaps in our current services and make adjustments to the current provision.

Lastly, we need to understand the impact of childhood bereavement on those children as they grow older. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh West said, research has shown that those children are more likely to be unemployed by the age of 30, and evidence from studies supports the various impacts that growing up with childhood loss can have on children. It is important that those children are not forgotten and that they are given the necessary support to allow them to achieve their full potential, to support our economy and to know that, because we did not give up on them, they were able to become the best adults they could be.

I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for setting the scene, and for doing so from personal experience. I also thank the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for telling her personal story in this Chamber. I always believe that personal stories carry extra emphasis in illustrating what has been asked for.

As a father, I found preparing for this debate difficult, because the natural reaction is to think about one’s own children and grandchildren. That is the nature of these types of debates. “Support for bereaved children” is the title of the debate and encapsulates what we are talking about well.

I was an adult when I lost my own father in 2015, and also a father myself, yet that pain and loss was immense. I am going to give an illustration of someone who was bereaved as a child—I have asked her permission, so I know I can mention her name. A lady called Yvonne works in my office and looks after all the questions about benefits. She does that five days a week and is very good at her job: she is compassionate, understanding and able to relate to people. When we were preparing for the debate, she reminded us that she lost her mother at age nine. She described the confusion and the loss, and the feeling that she was lost for many years after.

It is clear from her story, and from the others we have heard today, that the support she craved was not available. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West said that clearly. That is why the hon. Members participating in the debate—giving speeches, contributing from the Front Bench and making interventions—are asking for that support, because there was nothing available then and no help to fill the gap through school or even the GP. The hon. Member for Coventry North West and I share a faith, and that faith encourages us in the times when we need it. However, the issue is that something needs to change, because we see children facing pain and loss. Even adults struggle to deal with it, never mind how difficult it must be for children.

The Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that some 26,900 parents pass away each year in the UK, leaving approximately 46,300 dependent children aged between zero and 17. That gives an idea of the magnitude of the issue and why it is so important to debate it in the Chamber today. Although those estimates provide an understanding of the scale of the issue, the absence of concrete data poses significant challenges in providing those children with the appropriate support.

The Belfast Barnardo’s child support bereavement system was set up in 1998. It directs therapeutic support to children, young people and their families. There are other examples of such charities across the United Kingdom, irrespective of geographic location, including Winston’s Wish, which helps children, teenagers and young adults up to the age of 25 to find their feet when their worlds are turned upside down by grief. Those charities do a magnificent job, but they need referrals as there is no automatic process in place for referring children to get the help they need.

I believe there is a role for Government to play in the matter, which is what the hon. Member for Edinburgh West is asking for. I hope the Minister can respond to that request and give us the encouragement we all seek—through personal experience, in the case of the hon. Members for Edinburgh West and for Coventry North-west; and in my case on behalf of my constituents. Those charities do a fantastic job when people’s worlds are turned upside down by grief.

The assumption is that if bereaved children do not need foster care, then their families can take care of them. Unfortunately, that does not always happen, as the hon. Members for Edinburgh West and for Coventry North West expressed. While family are important, it is clear that support may not always be there in the way that is needed. Families are not always able to see the support that a child needs when they are in the midst of their own loss, which was exactly what the hon. Member for Coventry North West said in her contribution. That is why I believe an automatic referral to support must be put in place.

We all understand the current pressure on children’s mental health services, so it is clear that the current system cannot deal with the additional pressure. Such support must therefore come with additional funding. Whether that is granted to charities to provide, directly through NHS services or through the education system, as represented by the Minister who is responding to the debate, the fact is that grieving children need at least to be given the option of speaking with someone without having to request that themselves.

I always bring a Northern Ireland perspective to debates because I like to refer to the things that we are doing. I believe that within this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland we have so much regional experience that we should be able to swap ideas, so that other regions can take advantage of their benefits. Back home, this is something that the education sector is considering; there are more than 300 teachers across Northern Ireland embarking on bereavement training to enable them to better support students who have lost a loved one. It is a fantastic initiative, but it needs to be rolled out further. Hopefully, we will be able to do that in Northern Ireland.

Training will take place at seven venues across Northern Ireland and has been designed by Marie Curie and delivered in partnership with Cruse Bereavement Support, two magnificent charities. Marie Curie is a charity that we all know and love, and Cruse Bereavement Support is known back home for its fantastic work—we love it every bit as much as Marie Curie. In my opinion, the initiative should be rolled out to each school, so that the education support system is in place. School can be a lonely place for someone who is grieving; that person could be surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of pupils and still be on their own. My thanks go out not only to all those in Marie Curie and Cruse Bereavement Support, but to the education authority, which has been determined to make this change.

I believe that we in this House must support these children to navigate their grief in as healthy a way as possible. It is so important that help is given at an early stage to enable people to get out the other side. At the minute, too many children are lost in pain and not getting the help they need—they are unable to seek the help they need. Let us have that support widely available to stop these children from having to ask. In these instances, I always think of a biblical text:

“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”

Our duty in this House is to ensure that children across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can be comforted. Support must be available. So, here in this House, I am asking the Minister and the Government to step up and deliver the support that is needed. Thank you so much.

I am delighted to participate in this debate and thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine for securing it. She and I do not agree on many things, but I absolutely agreed with what she said in her excellent opening speech.

Like many people who have spoken today, I wish to focus my remarks largely on children who are bereaved by the loss of a parent. And I, like many others here, declare an interest, because I come to this debate having been bereaved twice as a child, as the youngest of eight children: my father died in 1969 when I was 15 months old, and my stepfather died when I was 17 years old. Both events had a huge impact on my family. When my father died, the eldest child in the family was 14 years old. I am perhaps the only member of the family who has no memory of my father. I have never even seen a photograph of him, because of the poverty in which we were raised—photographs were a luxury, far beyond our reach. My father was a labourer and died very suddenly of a heart attack, while waiting for a minibus to pick him up for his shift at Hamilton Cross, which was far from home. I have no memory of that, but the shockwaves that went through my family were significant.

As an immigrant, my mother had no idea of what support—financial or otherwise— could have been available to her, so she struggled on with no more support than her own resilience and family allowance. I well remember my stepfather dying at home in 1985, also of a heart attack. I was there when it happened, and it was truly traumatic. My mother never really recovered from the shock and she died a short five years later.

On both occasions, my family’s reaction took the lead from my mother who, at the best of times, could never be described as a tactile woman. The way to deal with this was to simply plough on and get on with things. Loss was not discussed. Certainly, when my father died in 1969, my mother, left alone with eight children, dealt with it by making sure that everybody was shod and fed as best they could be and looked after with the basics. I have to say, that stiff upper lip approach to loss— I hate to use that phrase—from when I was a child growing up has very much shaped how I have dealt with subsequent bereavements in my own life.

In 1974, when I was a child at school, two children at my school—a brother and sister—were murdered. One of the children in the family survived. The story attracted huge publicity. The papers at the time showed that children were frightened. I remember that, as a school, we went to the funeral service and sang hymns. I was eight years old at the time, and remember being very traumatised by the sight of these two little white coffins. I cannot even begin to imagine how the surviving child felt. When the service finished, we were all marched back to school and immediately the workbooks were given out and we were back to our work with nothing said. Nowadays, that would not happen. The way that loss and bereavement is dealt with for children actually shapes how they then go on to process grief as an adult. I think that that is why I have dealt with grief subsequently in the way that I have. I am not aware that it has done me any harm, but I know that, for many children, it can be very, very destructive. Debating and discussing how children should be supported in managing grief really matters, and that is why this debate is so important.

I have spoken a great deal about bereavement in this House. I introduced the Bereavement (Pay and Leave) Bill, which asked, very modestly, for two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for anybody who loses a close family member. I did so because there is much evidence that the cost of that would be offset by the benefits to society. That Bill mattered, and it still matters even though it did not pass. It matters because we need to look after the bereaved. We need to support bereaved parents who have to look after their grieving children as well as trying to cope with their own grief. We know that how a child copes or does not cope with grief can have a long-term impact on their own mental health, their wider outcomes and their general wellbeing. How Government are able to support those grieving, especially bereaved children, alongside surviving parents really matters. Getting it wrong—I do not know that we are getting it right—has a huge social cost, which outweighs any economic cost. Put simply, we cannot afford to fail bereaved children.

As we have heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that 26,900 parents die each year in the UK, leaving approximately 46,300 dependent children aged up to 17 years of age. By age 10, 62% of Scottish children will have lost a close family member. By the age of 16, up to 7% of children in the UK will have lost a parent. We must remember that, when children lose a parent, there is another parent who somehow has to navigate their own grief and the grief of their child.

A few years back—I think it might have been in 2017—we had a debate when the Government brought in changes to payments for bereaved parents. I criticised that move, but it is done now. The argument is over because the litigation has gone through, and the changes have been made. The reason I was concerned about that change to legislation is that those who are grieving need support, and unless that support is adequate the social fallout is significant, and we all pay the price for that. At the time, I expressed real concern about the consequences of the so-called streamlining of these payments for children, and the potential detrimental consequences for their emotional and mental wellbeing, as well as for their educational outcomes.

We all understand that the bereaved need time to process and somehow come to terms with their grief. How long a person needs to emerge from the fog of bewilderment, shock and disbelief, as well as the pain of the grief that the loss of a loved one brings with it, varies from person to person. We know what that is like, but also how much worse it is for children. Cash payments for bereaved parents are now limited to 18 months. I feel that that means that grief has been given a sell-by date, when it is not like that; if only it were.

When a parent has been bereaved, and left to bring up their children on their own, we know that the surviving parent wants to be around to support, listen and help their children to make some sense of the irreplaceable loss that they have suffered. That is where bereaved parents want, and ought, to be—not stuck in an office or on a shop floor, having to put in extra hours to make up their income shortfall due to the death of their partner, and hoping that friends and neighbours will step in.

My fear is that the recent streamlining cuts to the bereavement payment regime disproportionately affect women. Working-age women are more likely to claim bereavement allowance, with recent figures showing that most people who claim it are women. Nobody wants or expects to claim bereavement support, but its existence is vital for bereaved parents who are left to bring up children with one parent missing, with all the grief and distress that that can bring.

Some people have mentioned this in the debate, but having been an English teacher for 23 years before I was elected I can personally testify to the terrific and extremely sensitive support that young people can receive in schools following the loss of a parent or close family member. That kind of support is essential in helping children to process and come to terms with their loss, but it is not always available and is not always of the same standard. I have alluded to the fact that when I was at school, in the ’70s and ’80s, if somebody lost one of their parents or a close family member, it was never mentioned or discussed. That is not particularly healthy for every child.

In the early days of grief, a child will be in the fog of disbelief and bewilderment, and the surviving parent is not always able to help them to navigate and process that grief, because they are suffering with their own grief and trying to navigate their own bewilderment and loss. That is where outside agencies such as schools, though not just schools, can provide vital support to bereaved children, and why an appropriate level of financial support is necessary and crucial, so that the family unit can work through their grief with less financial pressure interfering with that process.

Everybody in this debate understands that we need to do more to support children who are struggling with bereavement, as well as bereaved parents who lose a spouse, who will also struggle but have to continue to be the responsible parent and meet their child’s needs. They will need support with that. This debate is extremely helpful, as too often grief and its corrosive impact are not discussed as openly as they should be. We need to get better at talking about dying, because death touches every family and we all experience it.

We need to do better at supporting children through the death of a close family member and helping them to make sense of it in a way that is suitable for that child. If we can do that, we will have healthier, happier and well-balanced children who in turn will be better at supporting their own children through such loss. That is where we need to get to as a society. We are not there yet, and we need to get better at supporting bereaved parents, because the bereavement that a child suffers is inherently linked to their other parent, if it is a parent who has been lost.

Ultimately, this is about ensuring that, despite the confusion, trauma and bewildering impact that grief can cause children who lose a close family member, the children affected can and will, with support, recover and go on to live healthier, happier and more fulfilled lives. It is really important that we have this debate and keep on pursuing this subject, because there is a lot of work to do here.

I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) for securing this incredibly challenging debate. I know she has worked hard to raise this issue, both here in this Chamber and prior to that in Westminster Hall. I pay tribute to her for her work to ensure that this matter gets the time it deserves in this place. She made an incredibly moving opening speech.

I also thank all those who have contributed to this debate, because it is not easy to share personal experiences and insights on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) made a most powerful speech; I know it will have resonated with many people, and sharing such a personal story will have the impact of making this situation better for somebody else who is facing it. I pay tribute to her for the incredible speech that she made. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who brought his perspective and his insights into this important issue from his many years of experience speaking in this House.

Bereavement is an experience that is difficult for anyone, but for a child the impact truly is profound. We know and we have heard in this debate the experiences of how that impact can stay with a young person for many, many years after their bereavement. The problem is that we do not even know how many children are currently living with bereavement across the UK. Estimated figures from the Childhood Bereavement Network—we have already heard them in this debate, because they are some of the only figures we have—suggest that each year 26,900 parents die, impacting around 46,300 children under 17. That is happening every year.

Without any further data, we have no way of knowing how many more might be impacted by the death of a close relative. The charity Winston’s Wish has provided the figure that one in 29 children are affected by the loss of a parent or sibling. That could be one in every classroom, with schoolteachers and support staff potentially completely unaware of that child’s loss. For that reason, while schools may name bereavement as a key concern that they would like more support to deal with, the support they can give is currently limited by lack of time and lack of skills among an already stretched school staff.

Schools need the tools to help grieving children. However, between the pandemic and disruption to education, crumbling infrastructure, the cost of living crisis and budget restrictions, school staff increasingly find it a challenge to direct their resources to addressing the issues that young people face. It is the Government’s role to break down those barriers to achievement, yet sometimes it feels as if the barriers are just being built higher for some of our young people.

Teachers are not trained mental health staff, but are often expected to fill that role, because they are often the ones who children turn to, if they turn to anyone at all. Yet when teachers look for support with helping that young person, too often it is not there. We should pay tribute to teachers who go above and beyond their role in supporting young people who they know are suffering bereavement.

While of course young people should feel able to share with their teachers the fact that they are struggling with personal loss, children who are suffering from bereavement need professional mental health support. Every child should have access to that, but we just know that that is not currently the case. Many schools do not have trained mental health resources, and accessing child and adolescent mental health services can take years before a child can even get an appointment, never mind be seen. Far too often, children reach crisis point before any help is found.

During that crucial part of a young person’s life, they are missing out on education due to a lack of support and missing out on their development. Older children may be taking on the role of supporting their younger siblings in dealing with that bereavement, putting to one side their own bereavement, and their education as well. Every young person deserves the tools they need to take advantage of the opportunities that school provides, yet for far too many young people those essential mental health services simply are not there.

In 2021 and 2022, patients seeking mental health treatment spent more than 5.4 million hours waiting in A&E—waiting rather than getting the support they need. The Government’s scrapping of the 10-year mental health plan has left 1.6 million stuck on waiting lists for mental health treatment. That is why Labour recognises that the sticking-plaster approach is failing our children badly. We must move to a preventive plan to support our mental health services and support those who need them. That is why Labour is committed to expanding mental health services and staff, ensuring that everyone can receive mental health treatment within a month of their referral. Labour is also committed to putting a specialist mental health professional in every school, and open-access mental health hubs for children and young people in every community. We need those measures in place urgently to address problems early and provide young people with a place to discuss issues such as bereavement before they reach crisis point.

By reforming and expanding mental health services, we can take the pressure off teachers and allow young people to thrive again at school. Mental health hubs will also allow young people to seek support outside the school environment and in their community instead. The Government may have written off a generation of young people, with crumbling schools and public services, but Labour will ensure that every child gets the support they need to take advantage of opportunities both at school and throughout their lives. That is vital because we know that issues that affect us in childhood can affect us throughout life. We have to go beyond expecting teachers to pick up the pieces; we must instead expand mental health support services and give teachers and students the support they need so they can focus on their progress at school.

I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West again for securing this important debate. I hope that the Minister will provide clarity on how the Government will tackle this issue and when they will recognise the importance of mental health support reform.

May I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) on securing this debate on an important subject, and on her very poignant opening speech, informed as it was by her personal experiences? She made the important point that children need support to navigate life after bereavement, during and beyond the immediate period of their loss. As she said, losing a loved one is a lifelong challenge for a child, or indeed for any person.

The Government are committed to ensuring that bereaved children get the help that they need. We are always looking for ways to improve support and access to it, and to ensure that families are aware of such help. A family bereavement is devastating for anyone, but especially for children. Bereavement turns a child’s life upside down and can have profound and far-reaching consequences that may affect their mental health, their wellbeing and their academic performance, meaning that they require additional support.

I listened carefully to the powerful and moving speech by the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who I know is currently attending a Westminster Hall debate on kinship carers. Losing her father as a young child was clearly devastating for her. The lack of empathetic support at school clearly compounded that hurt, but her family, her friends and the Church were her salvation. To lose her brother in her late teens, at the time of her A-level exams, was clearly overwhelming for her. In those circumstances, exam boards will use special consideration to reflect the impact of bereavement on a candidate’s performance in exams.

The hon. Members for Coventry North West and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned the financial consequences of losing a parent. Bereavement support payments provide short-term financial support to working-age people with dependent children whose spouse, civil partner or partner is deceased. As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran pointed out, it consists of an initial lump sum and then up to 18 instalments, with higher amounts paid for those with children.

No one experiences grief in the same way, and children are no different in this respect. Not all children will need access to services when they experience bereavement, due to the support they may receive through their family and wider community, but where support from early help services is required, the Government are committed to ensuring that it is provided.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), in a speech again based on personal experience, helpfully highlighted the role of the voluntary sector. It plays a vital role in supporting schools, children’s social care and other services that can signpost children to support and help them find it. We are always looking for ways to support all children, and the support provided by Government is complemented by the tremendous work of the voluntary sector, some of which has been inspired by personal experience of bereavement. For instance, I am incredibly grateful to the Childhood Bereavement Network and Papyrus for working with us on the review of the relationships, sex and health education statutory guidance. Recently, the Minister for the School System and Student Finance met Andrew Strauss to discuss the important work of the Ruth Strauss Foundation. The foundation does valuable work in preparing children and families for the bereavement of a parent, particularly families with a parent who has a terminal condition.

As the former Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), set out in the Westminster Hall debate on this subject in March, there are no official statistics on the number of bereaved children in the UK. The Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that 26,900 parents die each year in the UK, leaving approximately 46,000 dependent children under the age of 17. Those figures are based on sources such as the census and mortality statistics, in the absence of any other data, so they are only an estimate, as Members have pointed out. However, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh West said, it is not just the loss of a parent; the loss of any loved one—a sibling or a close friend, for example—can have a deep and lasting impact on a child.

Families provide the love and support that we all know children need, and Government are committed to supporting families, including through the most difficult times. Early help services—a key plank of our reforms announced in “Stable Homes, Built on Love” earlier this year—play an important role in supporting families, and they can be used in some cases to help children through bereavement. Central to the Government’s ambitious plans to reform children’s social care is family help, which will provide effective and meaningful support for families. Multidisciplinary teams will work with local partners to meet the whole needs of a family.

As set out when we published “Stable Homes, Built on Love”, the Government are providing over £45 million of additional funding to pathfind family help and build on the strengths of existing early help services. We recently announced Dorset, Lincolnshire and Wolverhampton as the three local authorities that will be involved in the first wave of the Families First for Children pathfinder.

Our work to reform children’s social care builds on our wider work to support families, including the £695 million Supporting Families programme, which this year sees its 10th anniversary. Through that programme, we have supported over 650,000 vulnerable families through whole-family working to achieve positive and, we hope, sustainable outcomes. The programme has put whole-family working and early help at the heart of the local offer for families.

Key to our strategy for supporting families is the £300 million to establish family hubs and transform Start for Life services in 75 local authorities. Family hubs join up services locally to improve access to services, improve the connections between families, professionals, services and providers, and strengthen the relationships that provide the foundation for happy and productive lives. Family hubs will bring together services for children from conception to adulthood, with a great Start for Life offer at their heart. Family hubs are now opening, with the majority having opened by the summer, and they will be delivering all the programme’s expectations by the end of the funding period in March 2025. We have published guidance for participating local authorities.

As was referred to a number of times during the debate, we know that bereavement can have a significant impact on mental health, requiring specialist support. We are expanding specialist mental health support by spending an additional £2.3 billion a year—we are putting that into mental health services—by March 2024, which will mean 345,000 more children and young people accessing mental health support per year. We are also introducing mental health support teams to support schools and students across the country. Those teams offer support to children experiencing common mental health issues such as anxiety and low mood, and facilitate smoother access to external specialist support. As of April 2023, mental health support teams covered 35% of pupils in schools, and we are extending the coverage of those teams to an estimated 44% by the end of this financial year and at least 50% by the end of March 2025.

Schools and teachers are often a first source of support for children in tough times, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) mentioned. I am grateful for what they do to provide effective and sensitive pastoral care, although it is important to remember that they cannot be expected to provide specialist support: as she pointed out, they are not mental health, bereavement or trauma specialists. However, teachers know their pupils best, so they are in a position to decide on the pastoral support that they might need. We are offering all schools and colleges a grant to train a senior mental health lead to help schools to put informed support in place, drawing on specialists and working with families where needed. More than 13,800 schools and colleges have now received a senior mental health lead training grant, including more than seven in 10 state-funded secondary schools.

In addition, over 14,000 schools and colleges in England have benefited from the wellbeing for education recovery and wellbeing for education return programmes. Those programmes provide free, expert training support and resources for staff dealing with children and young people who are dealing with additional pressures from covid-19, including a focus on supporting pupils with bereavement. During the covid-19 pandemic, we provided a list of resources for schools to draw on to support children’s mental health, including the Childhood Bereavement Network, Hope Again, and resources from the Anna Freud Centre on supporting children dealing with loss and bereavement.

Health education—taught as part of relationships, sex and health education—became statutory in schools in 2020, and through the mental wellbeing topic, pupils are taught a range of content relevant to dealing with bereavement. That includes recognising and talking about emotions and how to judge whether what they are feeling and how they are behaving is appropriate and proportionate. It is important that children know where and how to seek support, including whom in school they should speak to if they are worried about their own mental health or someone else’s. We also know how important regular attendance at school is for the development and wellbeing of children and young people. Schools should speak with pupils and families to understand what support bereaved children will need in order to be integrated back into school following a bereavement absence so that they can re-engage with their education and social development.

In conclusion, I again thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West for continuing to draw attention to what is an important subject: the needs of bereaved children. As we have heard, the impact of losing a parent or close family member is profound. The Government remain committed to supporting families in difficult times in a number of ways, including those I have set out today. Grief and loss are deeply personal, and where additional support is needed, I pay tribute to the organisations and individuals who provide that support to bereaved children and their families.

I thank the Minister for his comments, and I thank everyone who has stayed late today to take part in the debate. The powerful speeches from the hon. Members for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) all had one thing in common: they all reflected my own experience, as well as each other’s experiences. I find that we have confidence that support is there and is available, but our fear is that the people who need it do not know, and it is not reaching them.

I thank the Minister for his commitment to making sure that children get that support, that the services are there and that the Government are investing in them. I only ask that the Government continue to listen to survivors such as ourselves when we highlight what is perhaps missing—the co-ordination that is needed—so that we can continue to improve the support for children and young people that I am sure the Minister, and all of us, want to provide. I thank everyone for taking part today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House calls on the Government to develop a protocol for ensuring that bereaved children are made aware of and have access to practical and emotional support through public and third sector agencies.