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Bereavement Services

Volume 801: debated on Thursday 13 February 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent assessment they have made of the services offered by public and private sector organisations to bereaved people.

My Lords, I know that this issue is very close to the noble Baroness’s heart, and I am pleased to have been able to meet with her to discuss it. It is absolutely right that we provide people with easily accessible support to help them through the difficult period following bereavement. The Tell Us Once service was introduced to develop effective partnerships and deliver linked services across local and central government. Noble Lords will be pleased and interested to hear that a survey showed that 98% of people who used the service were willing to recommend it to others, and that 98%, again, had an overall good experience.

I thank the Minister for that reply and for kindly meeting me beforehand, but I do press for real action. People who have lost loved ones—who are emotionally low and needing good, compassionate support—are too often faced with inefficient and slow services, increasing their stress at a time when many are prone to depression, as the charity Sue Ryder reports. The charities Cruse and Macmillan include in their reproaches financial firms with their disparate documentary demands, utilities firms and, I am afraid, the DWP. HMRC makes you fill out an inheritance tax form even when there is no such tax to pay. Should there not be one department or Minister to take responsibility, get a grip on all this, work with the campaigners I have cited, insist on slimming down and streamlining “bereavement bureaucracy” and deliver a much better deal for grieving people?

I fully appreciate the impact of a bereavement on individuals; I am sure that all noble Lords have had that at some point in their lives. We have talked about the Tell Us Once service. The noble Baroness—I am saying this respectfully—in true spirit raises a challenge. It is not one that we should dismiss, although people are saying that it cannot be done. I talked to Cruse yesterday after our meeting. It has a campaign called Bereaved Customers First, and it is trying to get banks, building societies, utility companies and other organisations to collaborate and to have what my pension friends would call a dashboard. I would like to speak to Cruse further. I urge the noble Baroness to carry on with this thinking. If it would help, I would be very happy to meet with her to take that forward.

My Lords, in the Pensions Act 2014 the Government rather controversially reformed bereavement payments to families who had lost a parent. However, last Friday they lost a case in the High Court in which the court ruled against them, saying that the policy was in conflict with the Human Rights Act because it did not extend bereavement support payments to fathers who had been living with the mother of their children for many years but were not married. I am interested in what the Government are going to do about this. They lost an equivalent case on the old system, Widowed Parent’s Allowance, 18 months ago and we have been waiting for a response to that court case ever since. Yesterday at PMQs, the Prime Minister had this case raised with him. He described the latest case as an injustice and said that

“we will do all we can to remedy it.”—[Official Report, Commons, 12/02/20; col. 852.]

When are we going to get a review both of the new bereavement support arrangements and, crucially, of the position of cohabiting couples?

I am not one to contradict the Prime Minister, and I am not going to try to do that. [Laughter.] I was really trying hard not to make fun of today, given the subject matter, but noble Lords are spot on. We have the judgment on the Jackson case, and officials are considering it. The Prime Minister has said more than I have been allowed to, so let us just let what he has said stand. The McLaughlin case that the noble Baroness has referred to is a bit more complicated—this is not an excuse—and our officials are working with Northern Ireland officials to see what can be done.

My Lords, the number of pauper public health funerals has risen by 70% since 2015. Churches perform half of all funerals in the United Kingdom and offer ongoing bereavement support to all. Recognising that other faiths also offer bereavement support, will the Government commit to encouraging local public health departments to work with faith communities to improve bereavement support and ensure that every person receives adequate funeral provision that includes care for the bereaved, who are often excluded?

We must pay tribute to the Church of England and faith organisations, which come into their own in these very difficult times and provide invaluable support. I will take the right reverend Prelate’s request to officials and write to him with a response.

My Lords, will the Minister use her good offices to ensure that the public are more aware of the bereavement support payment, which I do not think is widely understood at present?

Again, it is important that people understand the support that is available to them. I will go back to the policy officials and see if we cannot do something a little more robust to up the ante on the campaign.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on doing exactly what a Lords Minister should: listening to what Members of this House say and then taking it back to her department and asking it to consider that. Could she give some advice to those sitting around her?

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned the charity Cruse Bereavement Care. Is she aware that in October 2019, Cruse commissioned research from YouGov about people’s experiences on being bereaved? Some 44% described their experiences as time-consuming, 39% stressful, 30% upsetting, 24% complicated and 16% traumatic. In the light of this and the experience of my noble friend Lady Ludford, will the Minister commit to taking a lead on addressing the needs of bereaved people? Will she provide some form of practical support for Cruse, a charity with very limited resources, in its campaign to treat bereaved customers first?

I thank the noble Baroness for reminding us of those statistics, which should give us cause for concern. I have already pledged to go with the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, to talk to Cruse; we will take up the points that the noble Baroness raised.