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Bereavement Benefit

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 9 April 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had, and with whom, about the impact of the changes to bereavement benefit for parents with dependent children that were made in April 2017.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government will assess the impact of this benefit, including for parents with dependent children, once sufficient evidence is available to consider all aspects of the policy. Work has already begun in this area, but we need to ensure that we build in enough time for the reforms to fully bed in. I am sorry that I am unable to confirm a timetable at this moment, but we are committed to carrying out the assessment.

I thank the Minister. The new system may help more people, but sadly it helps most children for a much shorter period, and it certainly does not help unmarried co-habiting couples, who are shamefully excluded.

Two years ago, Mark Jaffe, a husband and father—may his memory be for blessing—spoke from his death bed. Today, as he feared, his widow, Emma, and their two school-age children, receive no bereavement support, as a result of the new policy to limit payments to 18 months. I therefore ask the Minister, who is compassionate and works in a department that cares for the vulnerable, to consider introducing a new benefit specifically for the bereaved child, whereby bereaved children’s support payments are paid until they finish full-time schooling. This would not only be compassionate but, in those tragic circumstances, the right thing to do.

My Lords, the situation to which my noble friend refers—being bereaved of a loved one—is pretty traumatic and devastating, and our hearts go out to the bereaved. I would find myself in difficulty if I gave any impression that a new policy will be developed in this field. However, I and my colleagues in the department are very happy to meet to hear ideas about how a benefit could be developed and how it might be funded. The bereavement support payment is designed to help people to re-adjust in the first 18 months after a death, and other income-based benefits are available if a surviving parent is in financial need.

My Lords, the Government said several months ago that they were considering what to do following the Supreme Court judgment in favour of cohabiting couples being eligible for the payment. Is it not now time to take action?

Indeed. The judgment was clear that the current situation remains unchanged, and the ruling does not change eligibility rules for receiving benefits. However, the Government recognise that they have an incompatible law on the statute book and are actively considering options.

My Lords, it is two years since this came in, so we have quite a lot of evidence. Will the Minister assure the House that the review is totally independent, and that we will be able to see all the working out of what is proposed and the analysis? A large number of noble Lords are deeply concerned about this. Would the Minister be willing to meet with us to discuss how we might take it forward?

I must tell noble Lords that in every evaluation I have been involved in I have been absolutely behind an independent process. I do not know whether the department plans to have an independent evaluation, but I will certainly take that point back. As always, I am very happy to meet noble Lords to explore issues and new ideas, and obviously how these are resourced.

My Lords, no one doubts the integrity of the Minister, but colleagues from around the House who have been raising this question for years are beginning to worry that the department has lost any sense of urgency in addressing it. The case described by the noble Lord, Lord Polak, was the awful situation of a man who knew that if he died before the reforms came in, his children would be supported until they left school; if he died just the other side of that line, they would not. Sadly, he died before the reforms took place. At the moment, this new payment is not even being uprated, so its value goes down in real terms year on year.

The Minister mentioned money. Although the Government said this was not about money, it was originally scored as saving £100 million a year in steady state after two years. Perhaps the Government could take that money and consider how they might invest it back into the parents of bereaved children. Will the Minister consider both those things?

I can always rely on the noble Baroness to give me my homework, so I will go straight back to the department to try to get a sense of urgency on this. She has my word on that. The situation described by my noble friend, and the noble Baroness, is tragic, and I accept their points.

On the question of uprating, the bereavement support payment is a death grant benefit, rather than a benefit paid on an ongoing basis. It is not a cost-of-living benefit; it is paid in addition to means-tested benefits to protect the least well off. I take the noble Baroness’s point that there are, on the face of it, cost savings, but it was never intended to be a cost-saving exercise. It was intended to provide support in the early days of grieving. It replaced something that was started in 1925 when women were not expected to work but their husbands were. It is right that we reviewed it, but I will take the noble Baroness’s points back to the department.

Is the Minister aware that there are a number of charities that are active in this field? One in south London, Jigsaw South East, is in constant difficulties over money to keep itself and the services it offers going. Since the Minister is doing exploratory work, would she be kind enough to look at them and see whether further assistance could be given to them?

Having run a voluntary organisation for many years, I understand the challenge of financing and the different pressures on organisations. I pay tribute on behalf of the whole House to organisations such as Jigsaw, the Church and the Salvation Army for all they do to support people in difficult times. I am very happy to look at, or indeed to visit, the project—if I am allowed to, I do not know—without making any promises about being able to conjure up some money.