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Bereavement Benefits

Volume 791: debated on Monday 11 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of changes made to bereavement benefits on 6 April 2017 on parents with dependent children.

Bereavement support payment focuses support in the immediate months following a bereavement, when it is needed most. It is intended to meet the additional costs associated with bereavement, rather than providing an ongoing income replacement. Unlike its predecessors, it is not taken into account for income-related benefits, thus helping those on lowest incomes. We intend to assess the impact of these reforms once sufficient evidence is available.

I thank the Minister for her response. At the most welcome announcement a few weeks ago of the establishment of the children’s funeral fund, following the brilliant and emotional campaign led by Carolyn Harris, the Prime Minister said this:

“In the darkest moment of any parent’s life there is little light—but there can be support”.

While I agree with the Government’s aim of cutting dependency and making work pay, in April 2017 the law changed and I argued then, as I do now, that the support for children of school age who have lost a parent should continue throughout their schooling and not be cut and limited to 18 months. I ask the Minister to urge her colleagues to restore the full amount for bereaved children. Clearly if a child loses a parent the child will experience dark moments, there will be little light and there should be continued support.

My Lords, my noble friend asked a Question about bereavement support payment and I have the greatest sympathy with people in this situation. However, we are talking about a system that was set up over 90 years ago to support women following World War I who would never be expected to work again and support their family, and who had no other means of support. This change restores fairness to the system by focusing on the 19-month period after a loved one dies. Unlike its predecessor, it applies to both men and women. It is not taxed and is not taken into account for income-related benefits to support children when in need, thus helping those on low incomes the most.

My Lords, how will Brexit affect the payment of this benefit to eligible EU nationals living here and British people living in the EU?

My Lords, we have so far been considering the very young, but bereavement is a disabling condition that makes it very difficult for elderly people to manage their affairs. Can my noble friend assure us that people who qualify will be notified in simple language about the amount of their entitlement and the time it will last? Furthermore, would it not be a good idea to issue a warning notice or a reminder for those who may have lost track of what is happening, say a month before it ends?

My Lords, when an individual registers the death of their spouse or civil partner, the registrar provides information on how to contact the Department for Work and Pensions bereavement service. That includes giving advice on what benefits will be available, including the bereavement support payment. The time limit for claiming the initial lump sum is now more generous, at 12 months from the date of death—that is £2,500 for those who do not have dependent children and £3,500 for those who do. The time limit is three months from the date of death for claiming the additional monthly bereavement support payment, which is £100 a month for 18 months for those without children and £350 for those with dependent children. We take every opportunity to encourage claimants to make a claim for bereavement support as early as possible.

My Lords, when the Government brought this in, they said that it was not about saving money—although, as it happens, it will cost less than half what the old system did. They said that the aims were to be simple and encourage self-dependency, but we are talking about people who got married, had children and thought that they would be looking after themselves as a family until the worst possible thing happened. We end up then with somebody becoming a single parent; they are themselves bereaved and having to raise children who are bereaved. That is surely the situation for which the welfare state was pretty much invented. If the Government are going to think again, would they please think really hard, recycle some of those savings and do the right thing?

The noble Baroness will know that those in need of additional income-related benefits will receive them, as well as child benefit for those with dependent children, for example. This is not a cost-cutting exercise. We are investing an extra £40 million in each of the first two years after the reform. This is a modernisation of an outdated system, which relates to a time when women were not expected to work and, indeed, there were not jobs available for them. We are spending more than £95 billion on working-age benefits to help those in need. People in receipt of the bereavement support payment can access other parts of the welfare system if they need it. With regard to being a lone parent, it is important to add that the problem with the old system was that, if one remarried or went into a civil partnership, one lost that entitlement altogether. People do not lose it under this system.

My Lords, I understand that my noble friend has her brief from the department, but I urge her please to go back to her officials and question them about what they perceive as the fairness of these changes. Money is being taken away from families with young children, three-quarters of whom will lose out and 90% of whom will receive support for less time. That money is being recycled to families without children, while the 21% of families whose parents choose not to marry or decide to cohabit receive absolutely nothing. Overall, by 2020, the cost savings will be in the tens of millions of pounds. Before the 18 month-period expires around November this year, I urge her to look into the possibility of devising a bereavement payment specifically designed for children, so that their parents can be there for them. The damage to their mental health and educational attainment has been well documented.

My noble friend does not have the facts correct. May I make it absolutely clear that this payment is designed for people after the terrifically difficult loss of a loved one? It is not intended to be equivalent to the period of grief following spousal bereavement: it is designed to support people with the additional costs associated with bereavement rather than to provide an income replacement. Income-based benefits are more suited to provide that longer-term assistance with everyday living costs. With this benefit, the Government are therefore seeking to provide financial support through the acute period to facilitate the process of readjustment. This is nothing to do with families losing money. Noble Lords should take care before seeking to scaremonger in this way.

In reply to an earlier question, the noble Baroness suggested that Brexit would make no difference to the circumstances that have been discussed. As the Minister responsible for Brexit has failed to give us clear answers on almost every aspect of Brexit, can she now spell out for us the specific basis on which she gave the House that assurance?

I thank the noble Lord for his question, as indeed I am advised that we cannot be absolutely sure, and I therefore apologise to the House for initially saying that.

To the best of my knowledge—it was and still is my understanding—through the whole process of leaving the EU, we seek to transport into UK law all those laws that impact on EU citizens and on British citizens living abroad. During that process, there is no question of us impacting on this important payment.