Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who are going to speak in this debate, as this is an issue of great importance to the well-being of many children in our country, and I am grateful for the interest shown. This matter came to its head in your Lordships’ House during the passage of the Pensions Act 2014. The issue being debated then was the universal credit regime covering those who are bereaved. Changes to the benefits system for widowed parents means that those with ongoing income support needs, with the conditionality requirements it brings, would claim universal credit.
On Report, my noble friend the Minister announced that he was to conduct a wider review of the impact of universal credit in circumstances where children could be in considerable distress. I am most grateful for the time my noble friend has spent in undertaking the review, and for the way in which he has engaged with myself and other noble Lords in progressing the terms of reference and in discussing the outcome.
Since the debate in your Lordships’ House on 24 February 2014, the review has concluded and the relevant regulations were laid before the House in November 2014. This review came about because of the concerns of Members of your Lordships’ House. It was a review made in the House of Lords and delivered in the House of Lords. It was personally entrusted to my noble friend the Minister, and I am sure that noble Lords on all Benches recognise his efforts in bringing this to a conclusion.
I put down this Question for Short Debate because it provides a first opportunity for this House to deliberate on the findings of the review and its implementation. While I have some concerns, which I will come to later, there is much in the structure of the outcome of the review which is to be welcomed. Claiming universal credit brings work-related conditionality requirements. Following the review the Government have created a carve-out from these requirements for a group of circumstances all related to children in distress. The Government intend to switch off these conditionality requirements for up to six months in circumstances where a child is in distress because of bereavement or domestic violence and abuse. This switch-off is mandatory, not discretionary. After that period, those caring for a child affected by distress can ask for the conditions attached to universal credit to be suspended for a further three occasions, one month at a time, but only once in every six-month period. For other circumstances of distress—witnessing violence and abuse—the setting aside of conditionality is for one month in every six for up to two years.
I turn to the matters which I welcome in these Government actions. First, there is the recognition of a need for exemptions and a different approach for those who care for children in distress. The scope of the exemptions currently applies to children in distress as a result of bereavement, fleeing from violence, or experiencing or witnessing violence and abuse. I hope that my noble friend would also consider adding to that list children who are made homeless. There may be others to be added at a later date, but it is particularly important and welcome that there is no required definition of distress, simply the circumstances in which distress can occur.
Secondly, the solution provides a light-touch requirement on the evidence to establish distress. I understand that a wide range of acceptable evidence of the impact on the child is acceptable. It could be as straightforward as a description by a carer or a parent, a note from the child’s school or a local charity.
Thirdly the focus on the needs of the child is at the heart of this solution. The issue of the needs of the parent or carer is an obvious concern but this new structure is rightly focused on the absolute concerns of the child. But the distress or unavailability of the parent or carer can be transmitted to the child and become a source of distress for them. The new structure is wide in the evidence it requires of distress, but clearly understanding the complexity of the relationship between the carer or parent and their distress, and distress transmitted and experienced by the child, requires a sensitive understanding by work coaches who conduct the interviews. I would be grateful if my noble friend could explain that relationship between these easements in conditionality and easements for the parent or carer under the already existing domestic emergency or temporary circumstances provisions.
I also welcome having a structure which can grow to accommodate additional circumstances. Encompassing two additional areas which can lead to distress is welcome, but there may be more, and as I said earlier the obvious one which comes to mind is that of a child being made homeless.
The key question, therefore, which I wish to ask my noble friend is this: is the six-month easement sufficient for children in bereavement circumstances? Perhaps more importantly, are the one month every six months easements of the correct length or timing? We need to understand the evidence behind the policy to be able to establish whether it covers the widest possible range of circumstances, to ensure that there is adequate protection for children whose needs possibly still require close parental or carer engagement, and this may go beyond the seven-month maximum consecutive time period allowed. Research evidence in this area appears to be somewhat incomplete, and some of the main sources were published some considerable time ago. But common experience will tell you that the way in which children respond to bereavement will vary from child to child.
In the current regime—pre-universal credit—York University research showed that most bereaved partners retain work or enter work within 18 months of bereavement. Is it appropriate to try and compress what is already happening as a normal state of affairs? So the question remains: are the six-month and then the three one-month easements adequate and proportional? A secondary question is that of the revolving-door nature of the requests. Despite the light touch on evidence the continual requirement for producing evidence each time a request is made for an easement can be a tough challenge for a parent caring for a distressed child.
It will come as no surprise to my noble friend if I ask him about the interaction between widowed parents allowance and universal credit for those who would claim both. For the purposes of universal credit, widowed parents allowance will be treated as “income other than earnings”. This means that it will be deducted at a pound-for-pound rate from the claimant’s universal credit entitlement. That means, in turn, that the actual value for a widowed parent with no other income will be £0 per week. However, widowed parents allowance will also continue to be treated as taxable income. For this reason, working claimants may not only have their WPA deducted in full from their universal credit entitlement, but also pay tax on it. The outcome is that working widowed parents in receipt of both universal credit and the widowed parents allowance could end up overall paying £7.90 per week on account of their receipt of the widowed parents allowance.
I understand that those who are moved on to universal credit will get transitional protection, but this will only be until the first change in their circumstances. Will an application for a further one-month easement under the new regime be classified as a change in circumstances? If that is the case, as soon as the new system is applied, the parent could end up paying an extra £7.90 a week.
I appreciate that this is a complex issue but I wonder if my noble friend could give consideration to four possible solutions: first, removing widowed parents allowance from the list of benefits treated as income other than earnings; secondly, partially disregarding WPA for the purposes of UC entitlement; thirdly, treating WPA as earnings rather than income for the purposes of universal credit; or fourthly, continuing to treat WPA as income other than earnings, but introduce a “widowed parents element” as an additional component within universal credit. A similar approach is seen in the interaction of carers’ allowance and the carer element in universal credit.
In conclusion, there is much to be welcomed in the outcome of this review, but there are also some large questions, and beyond that, the experience of the system in action. I would be grateful if my noble friend could give us an assurance to give us confidence that the Government are monitoring this carve-out as it happens, and are willing to make changes as appropriate in the light of experience.
I am grateful for the Minister’s close interest and commitment to these matters, and I very much look forward to his response.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord German, for prompting this debate about the review of universal credit when children are in distress. I speak this evening particularly about the distressing and challenging circumstances of the death of a parent, carer or sibling. I speak not only because I have experience as a priest alongside parents in such situations, as do so many of my clergy colleagues, and because I now support clergy in my diocese of Portsmouth ministering to those facing such deaths, but because of personal experience in my family.
The Minister’s departmental review shows welcome easing of existing regulations, but I suggest that that easing does not truly take account of the depth and extent of the challenge facing a parent or carer bereaved of a partner or child. Bluntly, she or he must support their grieving child while coping with their own grief. The grief of each family member is hugely affected by how others in the family are doing. That challenge is exacerbated if the demand of work-related requirements is added.
In my case, the death of my wife Julia left me the sole parent of two teenaged children. I had the advantage of being in a secure post, an officeholder with understanding colleagues—not even an employee—and under no pressure to fulfil specific requirements to maintain my income. Nevertheless, your Lordships will understand the range of everyday reactions—sadness, guilt, sleep difficulties and anger, for instance—which may sound modest or even trivial but have significant consequences in combination between you and dependent children.
To those, we might add the clinical range of emotional and behavioural difficulties that arise in children, particularly in the two or three years following the death. Those are potentially debilitating in themselves and inhibit development. I also raise the likelihood, as various studies show, of depression, clinical anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, learning underachievement and even suicide—all with significant costs to society.
I know how quickly a surviving parent must try to adjust to a new role. Even for those of us in fortunate and supportive circumstances, this is a big ask. I say that not with the flippancy of a sports commentator but from personal experience. The surviving parent must be able to respond flexibly and quickly, which often includes being physically present.
I recognise, of course, that every situation is different, but I doubt if the proposal to be relieved of obligations for only six months and then for intermittent periods of one month in, at best, every six months for two years is realistic. I welcome the implicit understanding that the impact of bereavement on a parent, carer or sibling may unpredictably arise over a two-year period or longer. That is a helpful acknowledgement for which I thank the Minister. I suggest, however, that the six-month respite may be an impediment to a bereaved family’s recovery and healing. It could hang like a threat for the parent, particularly if he or she is home-based, non-earning for some time, or had withdrawn from work to care for a sick or dying partner or child. I recognise that in many—perhaps most—instances, parents will seek to return to work and to “normality”, as it is sometimes unhelpfully put.
I hope that the Minister will at the very least consider more generosity in the initial suspension of conditionality and flexibility in the ad hoc easements proposed. To monitor that and offer support—and I hope that it is not too much in those circumstances to expect a pastoral touch rather than a rigorous adherence to rules—I suggest that periodic interviews giving advice, supportive rather than coercing, would be entirely right. To expect that every widower or widow will be ready after six months to return to work or to an active monitored search for work with up to four further months, one by one, might suggest a punitive approach to those who have suffered through no action of their own.
I know the sadness and disorientation of bereavement, and I hope that the Government will acknowledge that more generously. In this of all circumstances, surely encouragement is more appropriate than compulsion. I enjoyed that, and benefited from it with my children, and I believe that others should as well.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord German this evening not because I am at all qualified in the intricacies of the working of the current benefit system or any of the proposals. I speak because I know a little bit about children’s grief and the distress following the death of a family member. In my case, one daughter was killed and her younger sister and I lived through the ensuing years and the aftershocks of extreme grief. I was lucky to be married to an extremely supportive second husband, who had himself suffered the death of his beloved elder brother at a similar age to my surviving daughter, so he was able to empathise more than most people.
During earlier debates on this issue, I note that noble Lords who are speaking today, including the Minister, referred to the many effects of extreme grief, and I do not need to reiterate them now. However, one thing that I would add to this evening’s debate is that a child in distress may learn very adequately to disguise that distress because they want to make the burden less on the surviving parent. That is a danger: if one of the measures is whether the child is in distress, the answer may be apparently no. My noble friend said:
“The point I am trying to make is that it is far better to recognise that individual responses to grief vary. As a number of noble Lords have said, grief often does not manifest in behavioural and emotional challenges until months or even years down the line”.—[Official Report, 27/2/14; col. 744.]
I appreciate his deep understanding of the issue.
This evening, I want to share a few points about the causes of bereavement and what effect they can have on the grieving process. Those come not as a direct result of my personal experience but because I was, as a result, asked to become patron of the Compassionate Friends, which is an international bereavement support network. Through that organisation, I have learnt of the many and varied circumstances in which parents can find themselves. The death could be suicide, accident, murder or illness. It can be sudden, shocking and numbing or it can be lengthy and drawn out, so that by the actual death the survivors are already exhausted.
This is particularly pertinent to this evening’s discussion because in the case of suicide or murder there would of course have to be an inquest, which might well not begin for over six months. I am glad to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, is in her place, because she and I debated the issue of timeliness at length during the passage of the Coroners Act. This has improved, but the inquest could still not take place for several months, and might then continue for several weeks. This is likely to be at a time which is at least as stressful as the actual death and often more so, given the forensic examination of details. In the case of a death resulting from a crime there would be a court case. Again, this may continue for some time and be very stressful. In those cases it would be impossible to apply the formula which my noble friend raised this evening, because periods of one month every so often would not cover those sorts of scenarios.
I will briefly make a point that has been raised by the organisation I mentioned, the Compassionate Friends. Of course family and friends generally rally round at first to help. However, as time passes they might not be able to continue that support, or they may feel that it is time someone got over it, and so the situation may become more stressful after six months.
Returning to work is often welcome, because a return to any sort of normality is helpful. I must say that in my own case, while I would not say that returning to the House of Lords was life-saving, it brought me back to a state of normality. Even when someone is back at work, there will of course be the dreaded Christmas or other festive occasions such as birthdays, and there will be anniversaries of the death. In addition, for the child or children there will be things that trigger an enormous need for extra support from their surviving parent—for example, very predictable things such as exams or parents’ evenings. Holidays can be very stressful. There might be things that are not even foreseen. A teenage child might suffer from the break-up of their first or second relationship, which would also trigger all sorts of unforeseen issues.
As the Compassionate Friends say, individuals grieve differently and there is no timetable for grief. I hope that, within the constraints of needing some guidance, the discretion given to the easement months can be considerably more flexible. I am very grateful to my noble friend for raising this issue.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord German, for having secured this very important debate. About a year ago we debated at length the difficulties of children who are in distress. I give credit to the Minister for having listened and taken seriously the issues that were raised, and for having consulted widely and tried hard to come up with a solution. Of course, everybody knows that no solution will ever be perfect, but in the last year we have become better than we were a year ago. That is a tribute to all noble Lords in this House who have argued long and hard.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, have laid out very clearly how incredibly difficult it is to be bereaved. There is no formula and no straightforward way ahead. Indeed, life will never be the same again. Nothing will ever feel normal again. It is a different life, and you carry that with you always, as do the children. Of course, the children’s grief will manifest itself in all sorts of different ways. As has already been said, children who are very distressed often appear at first to behave very well, and their grief explodes at different times and in different ways, because they really do not want to cause more distress to others. I have even come across family members who have said, “How can you go out and play? Your mum’s just died”. That child is trying desperately to find something normal left in their life—and that is going out to play with other kids in the playground at school and so on, and not feeling as excluded as they usually do.
I also pay tribute briefly to the organisation The Compassionate Friends, with which many years ago I carried out a study of bereaved parents with a bereaved mum. It was published in the British Medical Journal, and we called it “Your Child is Dead”. That was how people had been told that their child was dead. It is the only paper I have ever published that was translated into French and published in a French journal. We managed to raise awareness in medicine at that time, when people were really not taking much notice of children’s needs facing bereavement.
There are of course voluntary sector bodies which now provide guidance to organisations. Employers receive guidance; ACAS has produced some very good guidance on dealing with a bereaved employee. The National Council for Palliative Care has produced a range of booklets and support materials for people supporting others in bereavement. Hopefully, the world is slightly better than it was those years ago when we actually had to flag up the fact that there were bereaved children and bereaved parents out there, and people should not run away from that.
The issue of timing is of course difficult. From having meetings with the Minister I know that the timing and the right cut-off point have been difficult to determine. I appreciate the time the Minister has given to those of us who have really wanted to bend his ear on this issue. I do not have the anxieties that some others have about the fixed time of one month. This is because I am glad that it is non-negotiable, so that whoever is bereaved does not have to justify that they need a few more days or another week. They get their block of a month, with no questions asked.
I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the work coaches will be appropriately trained to have a light touch. They should be instructed that the first time round their request for evidence should be very, very light. Possibly the second time they can prompt someone and say, “Look, I will need something to justify this—a little bit more than you provided last time.” But it should not be punitive. The bereaved person should not have difficulty making appointments. Work coaches should know that bereaved parents should be able to jump the queue to get an appointment if they need it. They should not have to wait and go through some slow process, as others might have to.
I also hope that the voluntary sector organisations will wake up to the need to be rapidly responsive. I fear that some of them have waiting lists for bereavement support or children’s bereavement support, and they need to speed up as well. When you are distressed you cannot wait, and you need somebody to acknowledge that distress there and then and provide you with the support that you need. So it behoves those of us who work with voluntary sector organisations to be aware of this.
I declare that I work with these organisations—and there are a lot of them—which help people who are facing death and bereavement. I have also carried out work with the Childhood Bereavement Network, which provided information to the Minister. All of these organisations need to step up to the plate and become rapidly responsive, because if they do not and there is no joined-up system, people’s distress will be greater. We have to provide support within society and not have people locked away in aliquots of grief. That is a danger whenever you put down something with timeframes around it.
There have also been concerns that for a bereaved parent, getting the evidence that they need for the work coach might feel difficult and stigmatising. Again, I hope that the work coaches will be specifically instructed that they must not ask questions that the person is embarrassed to answer. They might appear to be embarrassed, but it may be that it is just too painful for them to utter what is going on—or perhaps they have not yet come to terms themselves with the behavioural difficulties and internal turmoil of the child that they are left supporting.
I also hope that the work coaches will be taught—because they may need to have it spelt out to them—that the bereaved parent may have never worked previously. They may have been a stay-at-home parent or somebody who has left work to provide care for their relative during the dying phase or because their employer was unhelpful in supporting them and they took a decision to do that. Then they suddenly feel that they have nothing left, and they have lost their job and career opportunities.
There are also those who feel forced to not carry on with their job because of problems with childcare, and because what has happened to the child has meant that they feel mistrustful of others and of strangers, so they make the choice that they have to stop working to provide support to the distressed child. The work coaches may well not have the life experiences that others have had. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide us with that reassurance.
In closing, I thank the Minister, who has shown humanity, compassion and the ability to listen. He has really tried to make the review better and to understand the difficulties for children in distress and for the bereaved parent—or the guardian who is left trying to support them, if both parents have died.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord German, for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue again and to all noble Lords who have contributed tonight. I am particularly grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth for sharing his experience. It was a brave thing to do, and we benefited greatly from it—and to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for the same thing. To come to the House and share things from one’s knowledge is one thing, but to share it from one’s experience is quite another. I really appreciate that.
I, too, have some experience, but from rather longer ago. My mother died when I was eight, and my father had to cope. He did go out to work, but that had consequences as well. It may have been unrelated—and I did not realise it until some time later—but I went on to run a charity that worked with single parents, so I met a number of single parents who had become so involuntarily, because their partner or spouse had died. I am very conscious of the consequences of that, so I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about this today.
We heard evidence during previous stages of the Bill, when many of us were assembled—and particularly from the noble Lord, Lord German, who talked about the longitudinal study, to which he referred again tonight, and about the importance of the capacity and availability of the other parent. So we know quite a lot about what it is that makes a difference. I absolutely take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, that the impact on the children is often hard to detect from their initial behaviour. They can be told to be brave because mummy or daddy is struggling—so they can often end up behaving in ways that may seem not to be distressed when, actually, they are.
I am very grateful to the Minister for having agreed during the passage of the Pensions Bill to take this issue away. When he comes to reply, I would be very grateful if he could take the House through what happened in the review, as the noble Lord, Lord German, suggested. What advice was he given and what brought him to make the decisions that he or the Government did in its wake?
As I understand it, the Government’s intention is that bereaved parents should not have conditionality applied for the first six months of universal credit after bereavement. I confess that, when I was trying to go through all the repeatedly amended regulations, I struggled to find the section where that is set out. I would be grateful for my own ease in my future work if the Minister would share that with us. The Government then brought forward the Universal Credit and Miscellaneous Amendments (No. 2) Regulations 2014, which amended the universal credit regulations. Regulation 8 seems to have the effect that work search or availability requirements may not be imposed on a parent or responsible carer claiming universal credit in the event of the death of the child’s other parent or carer or a sibling or another adult living in the family, or if the child has suffered or witnessed violence or abuse.
The bit that I am not clear about is that, from my reading of the regulations, the suspension of conditionality seems to be available not if the parent can demonstrate the distress of the child but if they can show that their childcare arrangements have been significantly disrupted as a result of the events that have happened. Could the Minister clarify that? When the Minister for Employment, Esther McVey, made a ministerial Statement in another place on 23 October 2014, she said:
“We do not intend to seek evidence of the child’s distress, but rather on how the situation has impacted the day-to-day functioning of the parent/family”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/11/14; col. 82WS.]
She gave the example of having to go to statutory appointments. Is that the intention, and could the Minister elaborate on that?
I would like also to understand a few other questions. First, is anyone currently affected by these provisions? The answer may not be known because of timing, but perhaps the Minister could advise us on that. Could he give us a sense of how many parents he thinks might be eligible when it is rolled out fully, and what sort of take-up he expects? Furthermore, what steps have the Government taken or will they take to make sure that any parent who is eligible is aware of these provisions, particularly the extra one-month provisions?
When we debated the Pensions Bill in Committee, my noble friend Lady Hollis expressed a lot of concern about the level of discretion being awarded to young staff. The question of the training of work coaches has been raised by various noble Lords. In addition, what work has been done with decision-makers? He may be able to explain this to us, but my understanding is that, if a bereaved parent does not fulfil the work requirements because, for example, they have not been able to demonstrate what is needed to get the extra month, or maybe they need more than a month, presumably the work coach would refer them to a decision-maker in the department, who would sanction their benefit—in other words, stop or reduce their universal credit. Is that the case? Could the Minister confirm that? If so, what steps have been taken to train the decision-makers to understand the consequences of these provisions? If that is the case, if the person then wished to challenge a decision, would they have to go through the process as with other benefits of first seeking mandatory reconsideration from the department before being allowed to appeal a decision? If so, how long could that take? We are getting reports of delays of many months with regard to other benefits—but I hope that that will not apply here.
The Childhood Bereavement Network was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. I am sure that we have all had briefings from that organisation, and the Minister will be aware that it remains very concerned about the provisions. What plans do the Government have for evaluating those provisions, and at what stage? Would the Minister be willing to commit to sitting down again with key stakeholders at a certain period, perhaps after a year or two, to discuss with them the evidence and see whether it has worked as they hoped it would?
On the childcare point, if it is the case that the parent would have to demonstrate that their childcare arrangements had been significantly disrupted, what would happen in the case raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, of a teenager who manifests some behaviour—for example, by developing an eating disorder or getting into trouble at school? A teenager would not necessarily have childcare and a parent of a teenager would be expected to go to work full-time. So there may be no disruption to childcare in that case, but the parent might then feel that the right thing would be to be at home every day when that teenager came home from school to make sure that the new problems that had manifested themselves were dealt with. How would that work?
Finally, how will in-work conditionality be applied for this group? If a bereaved parent of a teenager takes a job below the target for a single earner—in other words, less than the equivalent of a full-time job at the minimum wage—as I understand it, the in-work conditionality rules for universal credit would mean that they would be called and then required to go out and increase their hours. What steps will be taken to make sure that they may need to work only school hours or fewer hours in that circumstance? Could the Minister explain that?
I want to say how much I appreciate the fact that he has taken the issue away and taken the time and trouble, as with so many aspects of universal credit, to supervise it personally. I know that he cares very much about how it works in practice. Therefore, I look forward to what he has to say.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord German for bringing this Question to the House. As noble Lords have said, I promised to come back with the findings of the review that I committed to undertake as we went through the Pensions Act 2014. Noble Lords have referred to my Written Statement on 23 October. The regulations for the measures were brought into force last November.
Let me remind noble Lords of the context. Concerns were raised by Peers, particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and my noble friend Lord German about the universal credit requirements placed on the parents of bereaved children. I have to say that the noble Baroness’s speech during the Committee stage of the Pensions Bill really resonated with me personally. She highlighted the fact that difficult circumstances can cause a substantial and varying amount of distress for children, and that parents and carers need time to provide them with additional care, support and stability. We have built a clearer, more demanding welfare system which places robust requirements on claimants. But placing robust expectations also means recognising that we should suspend these requirements at certain times, providing temporary relief from conditionality to deal with the situation without moving claimants too far away from the world of work.
I should like to mention that I have been ably supported in my considerations of the review findings by two external expert advisers—which is one up from the number recommended by my noble friend Lord German. They are Dr Jane Callaghan from the British Psychological Society and Karina Dancza from the College of Occupational Therapists. I am very grateful to them for their invaluable support. I should add that I also gained enormously from the insights from our own people on the front line, in particular Colin Cottingham and Graham Sandilands, who know what it is to help parents in this situation.
The review concluded that there are particular situations—bereavement or a child witnessing or being a victim of violence or abuse—where there is compelling evidence that children were very likely to experience a period of acute distress following such an event and where additional support would be required from the parent. These situations cover a wide range of circumstances where child distress can occur. There will be other circumstances that are not covered where we would expect our work coaches to use the current tailoring and discretion available in exactly the same way.
I decided to make these policy changes through regulations, as recommended by the review, as opposed to doing so purely in guidance. These regulations establish a clear and consistent framework for work coaches, which is so important when exploring such sensitive topics. More circumstances, such as homelessness, as my noble friend mentioned, could be included in regulations at a future time if evidence suggests that that is appropriate.
The review found that a six-month suspension of requirements for parents of children in cases of bereavement and domestic violence would normally be appropriate. We have therefore extended, from the previous three months to the current six months, the suspension of conditionality requirements for victims fleeing domestic violence where they are responsible for caring for their child. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, noted, child distress is not a linear process and families may experience late effects of dealing with grief. To help support their children in these circumstances the parent will be able to access a new one-month suspension of requirements once in every six-month period for a period of up to two years following the death or incident of violence or abuse.
I want to be clear: we will not seek to assess the child’s distress. Instead, we will look to identify the situation that has occurred and the impact it is having on the family unit. In terms of evidence, I do not want to introduce an overly bureaucratic system. When a claimant first accesses the one-month easement for the reasons set out in the regulations, if the work coach is satisfied that the situation is having an impact on the claimant’s ability to fulfil their conditionality requirements they will allow the easement. The work coach will at the same time ask the claimant to provide appropriate evidence. But unless work coaches think that it is necessary, we will not delay this first one-month easement because of waiting for evidence.
The form of that evidence is not set in stone. We do not expect evidence to detail the child’s distress but it should provide work coaches with information on the additional caring responsibilities that the claimant is undertaking. The types of acceptable evidence are varied and could include appointments at the child’s school, social services, healthcare professionals in connection with the child, additional childcare responsibilities or support arrangements. To help provide subsequent and ongoing support to families where longer than a month is needed to get them back on track, work coaches will make use of the discretionary tailoring available to personalise requirements in the light of individual circumstances. This helps to ensure that claimants can move on in a way that is appropriate to those circumstances.
When a parent has had a previous easement, this makes it easier for work coaches to identify the need for ongoing support and, as a result, to apply discretionary conditionality easements. I hope that that will provide the flexibility that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and my noble friend Lady Miller were looking for. I echo the words of admiration of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for those deeply personal contributions and experience in this area.
We have strong evidence that shows that work has a positive impact on individuals and their families. Focusing on bereavement, the review found that the existing six-month conditionality easement is appropriate. It did not find evidence that extending the six-month period would benefit the majority of those who have been bereaved. My experts advised me that this, combined with very clear and supportive tailored conditionality, should help parents to cope. I am not saying, by any means, that the grieving process is over by six months. But the evidence shows that usually by this time, a person’s grief is no longer a barrier to their continued life, although it may not be normality as they used to experience it. Many parents facing difficult circumstances want to return to work, for themselves and for their children.
I recognise the concerns that noble Lords have expressed about the level of work coach capability in this whole area, which is why, as part of this review, my officials worked with experts in the field to develop guidance for jobcentre staff. The stakeholders we worked with include the Childhood Bereavement Network, WAY, Gingerbread, Child Poverty Action Group, Grandparents Plus and Refuge, to name but a few.
The universal credit learning programme ensures that work coaches have up-to-date skills to deal with any claimant interaction and support them in making relevant and appropriate decisions on an individual basis. The training focuses on providing a personalised, flexible service to claimants and treating them as individuals, building strong relationships with them. To ensure that work coaches adhere to standards, we have put in place a quality assurance framework which managers use to monitor the service and to ensure a high-quality level of support. I hope that that gives some reassurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in this area.
Let me now pick up on a few of the questions that have been asked in the short time we have had for this debate. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, the six-month bereavement provisions can be found in regulation 99(3)(d). As to my noble friend’s concern about transitional protection in UC, this would be not affected by invoking this particular relief. In numbers terms, we expect that no more than 10,000 claimants a year will take up the easement when universal credit is fully rolled out. We do not have information on the numbers currently affected but they are likely to be extremely small. People subject to in-work conditionality will be able to access the same conditionality easements. However, I emphasise that in-work conditionality is at the beginning of its exploratory phase for getting it right. It is therefore currently not a policy with hard edges.
I think that I have dealt with all of the issues. I shall look through the debate and if there are one or two questions that I have not had time to deal with, I shall write to noble Lords.
We are building a new welfare system at the moment, which is a major endeavour. We cannot do so without talking and listening to people. I am extraordinarily grateful for all the help that I have had in this House over the past few years to get to a positive result in this and other areas. In this particular case, I thank again the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay—she made her point so effectively that it convinced me that action was needed—and I thank my noble friend for showing such tenacity in pushing for the process to be taken forward at speed. It has meant that the changes were introduced at the same time as we are now rolling out universal credit to families in the north-west. We are now up to 26 jobcentres where families are part of the process.
I am grateful to the House for trusting me to do this exercise without all the normal paraphernalia. It has meant that we have been able to do it quickly and I hope that noble Lords are satisfied with the outcome.