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Bereavement Benefits

Volume 782: debated on Thursday 6 April 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will reconsider changes to bereavement benefits for parents with dependent children.

My Lords, bereavement support payment is a new benefit intended to help people with the immediate additional costs of bereavement. It will not be taxed and is disregarded for income-related benefits, thus helping those on the lowest incomes the most. Those who need further support will be able to access better-placed areas of the welfare system for long-term, means-tested financial assistance.

I thank my noble friend for his response and agree that the old system needed modernising and the new system has some advantages, but these reforms are designed to cut £100 million from welfare spending for bereavement. Within that reduced budget, bereaved partners without children will get more at the expense of those with young children, who will receive significantly reduced support which will stop completely after just 18 months. What is our national insurance welfare state for if not to support families properly in such tragic circumstances? Will my noble friend acknowledge the problems that this is likely to cause and relay concerns from across this House expressed in a cross-party letter to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State asking his department to reconsider these reforms by extending support for bereaved children beyond the inadequate 18 months?

My Lords, I am aware of the letter that my noble friend refers to. My right honourable friend will answer it in due course. I can give an assurance that we have consulted on these matters—my noble friend will be aware of this because she was a part of it—legislated on them and consulted on them again. We made changes to the regulations before we introduced them and we have made a commitment in the impact assessment that there will be a further review. Nevertheless, I will convey my noble friend’s concerns to my right honourable friend, and I am sure that, his door always being open, he will be more than happy to see her.

My Lords, I also signed the letter and was pleased to do so. There is genuine feeling around the House that the Government have made a mistake on this. What will happen in practice is that a six year-old who lost her father last year will be supported until she leaves school; if her father dies next year, that support will stop after 18 months. That cannot be right. I know that I gave the Minister a hard time a few weeks ago when the regulations were in Grand Committee, but I do not blame him; I know that he did not make the decision. I think that we are now at the point where the whole House recognises that the Government have made a mistake. These cuts were simply part of an attempt to cut £12 billion off social security. The House does not believe that the Government should be taking money away from bereaved children. Will he please tell his Secretary of State that?

My right honourable friend will obviously listen to what the noble Baroness has had to say, but I reject her allegation that these are cuts. There will be no savings to the taxpayer in the first two years; thereafter, as was made clear in the impact assessment, there will be some savings. The important point to get over is that we have increased the initial payment, which was frozen by the previous Government in 2001 and remained frozen for many years, from £2,000 to £2,500. We then make payments for 18 months to those with children. Obviously, no element of money will resolve the problems that individuals who have lost one or other parent will have. This is designed to help with the immediate costs of that bereavement. That is why we think that, by increasing the initial payment, we have made a very real change and provided some support for those with children.

My Lords, the DWP impact assessment taken from the consultation on the website suggests that bereavement benefits make up a tiny part of the welfare budget, accounting for 0.32% in 2016-17 and anticipated to fall to 0.27% by 2019-20. I totally support the Government in the need to reduce the welfare bill, but it should not be done here. If children are bereaved, there is no fraud; you cannot fake it, or even abuse the system. Are we not, as I fear, targeting the wrong area?

My Lords, again I do not accept what my noble friend said. We have made changes to this because the old system of three benefits—bereavement payment, bereavement allowance, widowed parent’s allowance—was overcomplicated, had been in place, with minor changes, since around 1920 and needed change. We have made a change that provides extra support at the immediate moment that that support is needed and appropriate support for those with children. There are, as I said, no immediate savings to the taxpayer; there might be savings later but it is always important, in all matters relating to benefits, to keep an eye on the overall costs.

My Lords, I too signed the letter to the Secretary of State. I fully accept that the system needed reform, but those of us who spend a lot of time looking after people in bereavement know that a widowed parent may sometimes have to spend several years giving considerable extra time, attention and care to the children. In practice, that may necessitate working only part-time for a number of years while children are still at home. Previously in this House there was an assurance that income-related benefits would be there to support such parents, but under universal credit that is not so simple. Can the Minister reassure us that bereaved parents will not be subject to the in-work conditionality requirements that apply under universal credit?

My Lords, those requirements were explained, I think, by my honourable friend Caroline Nokes when the regulations were dealt with in the Commons. They are complicated but the simple fact is that universal credit and other income-related benefits are there to fill the gap after that 18-month period. We believe that, with a contributory benefit such as bereavement support benefit, it is quite right to make that very generous initial payment, to then provide some support for those with children for 18 months and thereafter to let people seek help from income-related benefits.

My Lords, we understand the Government’s need to reduce the benefits bill; however, we believe that this is not the right place to do it. Given the spotlight that has recently been shone on the devastating impact of children suffering bereavement by the programme on Rio Ferdinand, I ask the Minister to talk to his colleague, the Secretary of State, and ask him to reconsider this policy and the devastating impact it will have.

My Lords, I have been trying to explain that I believe that this benefit is an improvement in offering support at the initial stage, which is where it is important. I do not believe, and I do not think that the noble Baroness would believe, that any sum of money is going to deal with the problems of bereavement suffered by the surviving spouse or the children, but I believe that appropriate support ought to be offered for a period. That is what we have done, that is what we consulted on, that is why we made changes after that consultation, having listened to what people said, and that is what this new benefit will do. I think that that is the right way forward.