Support for Bereaved Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:15 pm on 14 September 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 2:15, 14 September 2023

The circumstances the hon. Gentleman outlines are dreadful and affect so many people in this country every day. We often do not acknowledge the amount of practical and emotional support and help that people need to get through this and, as he says, Aaron should have had support and should have been able to look after his child without having to worry about the financial implications.

I was recently privileged to meet a group of bereaved children who had come to Parliament while handing in a petition at Downing Street asking for exactly what we are talking about today. Listening to them, I could not help but be frustrated that so little has changed in the decades since I went through what they have experienced. Although there are support systems through schools and wonderful charity organisations such as Winston’s Wish, which had arranged the petition, I am told it is still the case that, unless a family is already in touch with social services, those services have no way of knowing about a child’s bereavement or that a child needs support. That means that brave children in this country must often still rely on luck and search engines to find the help they need. It is children of all ages, even those who might consider themselves, as I did, a young adult, who need support through those circumstances, but at the moment we have no official way of keeping track and matching up children with organisations.

These organisations tell me that they know the children are out there and need their help, but they just not know who and where they are, or, sadly, how to get in touch with them. Child Bereavement UK told me:

“As a service that works tirelessly to meet the needs of bereaved children, young people and families, one of the hardest things to hear someone say is, ‘I only wish I’d known you were there when this happened to our family’. Services like ours at Child Bereavement UK are there, but without knowing who and where bereaved children and young people are, they are invisible and the chances of them finding the practical and emotional support they need to navigate life after bereavement are severely diminished.”

That is a crucial point: this is about navigating life after bereavement, and not just immediately after. For children, this can be about more than that immediate period. My sisters and I were lucky, as we had support around us—mum was brilliant—but perhaps there was something more we could have had. Perhaps we could have had more support to make it easier for us and for her—something we did not know about—because it is tough and you just get through the challenges as you can, and not just then. My apologies if this seems ungrateful to anyone, but one reason why I hope the Government are able to take this on, take it across Departments and recognise that it is a cross-departmental issue is that we are dealing with a lifelong challenge. It does not go away miraculously when we hit 30, 40 or 50; I have no idea when it will go away—if it ever does, I would be grateful. More than one person I spoke to cautioned me, when I began to raise this issue, that I might be opening an emotional can of worms for myself. One group I have spoken to, Adults Bereaved as Children, tells me that anyone who loses a parent, grandparent, sibling or friend can be affected in ways that they do not recognise and can be affected later in life when this comes back. I am told that they have an increased risk of depressive symptoms and anxiety. They also have physical health symptoms and can suffer serious illness, have riskier health behaviours and face earlier mortality. Educationally, we can suffer lower than average scores. We are less likely to be employed at the age of 30 and, sadly, we are over-represented in the criminal justice system. Those are only the personal implications. For the NHS, there are ongoing costs involved in dealing with people who have mental or physical health issues as a result of not getting the support they needed when they were a child and this coming back in later life. We must also consider the economic impact of undermining the contributions that so many people could make to our economy by not making sure that they have the support they need at a traumatic time. So the ramifications of this are huge and they are much more than just personal.

In the past few months, I have spoken to people in the voluntary sector, written to the Scottish Government and sat down with the former children’s Minister, Claire Coutinho. Without exception, they have been supportive. Everyone recognises that there is a problem, wants to help and outlines the wonderful services that are available. However, pinning down the solution is the problem: how do we connect these services with children who are grieving? That is the issue that everyone seems to grapple with, but should it really be difficult?

As I have said when we have talked about this previously, we have debated the merits of a registry for bereaved children. In modern society, it should not be difficult to find people who need support, as we have registers and statistics for just about everything. A digital society makes a lot of things easier; it is often too easy to keep track of things. For example, my medical records are online, as I am sure all of ours are, in order to make it easier for the NHS anywhere in the country to know our history if we collapse somewhere away from home. I hate to think of exactly what information can be scanned from my passport or my national insurance number. But if, God forbid, anything were to happen to any of us who have children, there would be no way of checking whether they were getting the support they needed and whether they were okay—whether they were safe, looked after, coping with the trauma they were going through or whether they were perhaps just needing someone outside their immediate family to talk to. The immediate family is vital and supportive, and schools do a fantastic job in supporting young children, but that may not be the ideal way of ensuring that every child gets the right help. What happens if they move home, to a different school? Who tells the school about this? Do they tell the school or will they be too embarrassed? What happens if they do not want their classmates to know just how bad they are feeling and they need more than the school can provide? Where is the network to ensure that they get that?

That is why today I am calling on the Government to look at how we establish a new and necessary protocol to help a wide range of public bodies—the NHS, local authorities and schools—to establish where and how children who are grieving can find the support that is right for them and perhaps put them in touch with a charity organisation that can give them support. We need to make the children’s carers and the children themselves feel valued and looked after. This should be a low-cost, low-effort task to help the charities connect with grieving families, but to help them in this process would also have undeniable benefits for many people in our communities. It would help them process difficult, traumatic experiences and overcome the problems I talked about earlier. All we need to do, and all I ask the Government to do, is invest some time, thought and care into coming up with what should be an administrative solution—this should not require legislation. This might be something as simple as noting, when a death is registered, whether a child might need support, and identifying which Department can best administer it and the easiest way to do it.

When I met those children who had been brought here by Winston’s Wish to deliver the petition, it was heartbreaking to hear their stories. I have not met anyone in this place who would not sympathise with them and want to address the problems some of them faced in getting support; we recognise the significance of helping them. There is no political issue here; there is no divide over whether or not we should be supporting our children and our adults who perhaps did not get the support they needed when they were younger and perhaps did not even realise they needed it, because the advice was not there for them. We all want to do this, so what is stopping us?

Many bereaved children will not take up the offer of support, but sometimes even knowing that there are organisations out there to offer it provides the safety net that their families desperately need. They may never actually pick up the phone or send an email, but a protocol would mean that they would know that they could and they would know who they could phone if they wanted to. That would be a way of making sure that we know where those children are, that they are getting the help that they need and that they know that we are here for them. We would be making sure that we can reach out and offer that support to every single child —it is the least we can do.