Support for Bereaved Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 14 September 2023.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:33, 14 September 2023

I thank Christine Jardine for setting the scene, and for doing so from personal experience. I also thank Taiwo Owatemi for telling her personal story in this Chamber. I always believe that personal stories carry extra emphasis in illustrating what has been asked for.

As a father, I found preparing for this debate difficult, because the natural reaction is to think about one’s own children and grandchildren. That is the nature of these types of debates. “Support for bereaved children” is the title of the debate and encapsulates what we are talking about well.

I was an adult when I lost my own father in 2015, and also a father myself, yet that pain and loss was immense. I am going to give an illustration of someone who was bereaved as a child—I have asked her permission, so I know I can mention her name. A lady called Yvonne works in my office and looks after all the questions about benefits. She does that five days a week and is very good at her job: she is compassionate, understanding and able to relate to people. When we were preparing for the debate, she reminded us that she lost her mother at age nine. She described the confusion and the loss, and the feeling that she was lost for many years after.

It is clear from her story, and from the others we have heard today, that the support she craved was not available. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West said that clearly. That is why the hon. Members participating in the debate—giving speeches, contributing from the Front Bench and making interventions—are asking for that support, because there was nothing available then and no help to fill the gap through school or even the GP. The hon. Member for Coventry North West and I share a faith, and that faith encourages us in the times when we need it. However, the issue is that something needs to change, because we see children facing pain and loss. Even adults struggle to deal with it, never mind how difficult it must be for children.

The Childhood Bereavement Network estimates that some 26,900 parents pass away each year in the UK, leaving approximately 46,300 dependent children aged between zero and 17. That gives an idea of the magnitude of the issue and why it is so important to debate it in the Chamber today. Although those estimates provide an understanding of the scale of the issue, the absence of concrete data poses significant challenges in providing those children with the appropriate support.

The Belfast Barnardo’s child support bereavement system was set up in 1998. It directs therapeutic support to children, young people and their families. There are other examples of such charities across the United Kingdom, irrespective of geographic location, including Winston’s Wish, which helps children, teenagers and young adults up to the age of 25 to find their feet when their worlds are turned upside down by grief. Those charities do a magnificent job, but they need referrals as there is no automatic process in place for referring children to get the help they need.

I believe there is a role for Government to play in the matter, which is what the hon. Member for Edinburgh West is asking for. I hope the Minister can respond to that request and give us the encouragement we all seek—through personal experience, in the case of the hon. Members for Edinburgh West and for Coventry North-west; and in my case on behalf of my constituents. Those charities do a fantastic job when people’s worlds are turned upside down by grief.

The assumption is that if bereaved children do not need foster care, then their families can take care of them. Unfortunately, that does not always happen, as the hon. Members for Edinburgh West and for Coventry North West expressed. While family are important, it is clear that support may not always be there in the way that is needed. Families are not always able to see the support that a child needs when they are in the midst of their own loss, which was exactly what the hon. Member for Coventry North West said in her contribution. That is why I believe an automatic referral to support must be put in place.

We all understand the current pressure on children’s mental health services, so it is clear that the current system cannot deal with the additional pressure. Such support must therefore come with additional funding. Whether that is granted to charities to provide, directly through NHS services or through the education system, as represented by the Minister who is responding to the debate, the fact is that grieving children need at least to be given the option of speaking with someone without having to request that themselves.

I always bring a Northern Ireland perspective to debates because I like to refer to the things that we are doing. I believe that within this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland we have so much regional experience that we should be able to swap ideas, so that other regions can take advantage of their benefits. Back home, this is something that the education sector is considering; there are more than 300 teachers across Northern Ireland embarking on bereavement training to enable them to better support students who have lost a loved one. It is a fantastic initiative, but it needs to be rolled out further. Hopefully, we will be able to do that in Northern Ireland.

Training will take place at seven venues across Northern Ireland and has been designed by Marie Curie and delivered in partnership with Cruse Bereavement Support, two magnificent charities. Marie Curie is a charity that we all know and love, and Cruse Bereavement Support is known back home for its fantastic work—we love it every bit as much as Marie Curie. In my opinion, the initiative should be rolled out to each school, so that the education support system is in place. School can be a lonely place for someone who is grieving; that person could be surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of pupils and still be on their own. My thanks go out not only to all those in Marie Curie and Cruse Bereavement Support, but to the education authority, which has been determined to make this change.

I believe that we in this House must support these children to navigate their grief in as healthy a way as possible. It is so important that help is given at an early stage to enable people to get out the other side. At the minute, too many children are lost in pain and not getting the help they need—they are unable to seek the help they need. Let us have that support widely available to stop these children from having to ask. In these instances, I always think of a biblical text:

“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”

Our duty in this House is to ensure that children across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can be comforted. Support must be available. So, here in this House, I am asking the Minister and the Government to step up and deliver the support that is needed. Thank you so much.