Report (1st Day)

Part of Pensions Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:34 pm on 24th February 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour 4:34 pm, 24th February 2014

I am grateful to the noble Lord, as this allows us to have a substantive discussion on bereavement—which I know concerns many of your Lordships—in good time and not in the late hours this evening. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to the situation of distressed children and widowed parents. I hope that I can refer generally to widows, as there are three times as many women who are bereaved with children as men—and I know that the Minister means well by them. I hope that the House will agree that this is neither a party matter nor, as it is permissive, a cost matter, as the cost is almost too low to estimate.

This is a modest amendment that seeks to help widowed persons avoid additional pressure in the most stressful and distressing period of their lives. Three-fifths of bereaved parents are in work at the time of bereavement—virtually all fathers and around half or so of mothers. Most fathers with a terminally ill wife continue, or continued, to work. Most mothers, however, give up their jobs to care for their husband. Fathers would normally go back to work after a couple of weeks; indeed, they are often anxious to do so. Some mothers may feel able to do so as well, depending on the age of their children and the nature of their job. However, many widowed mothers were not in work, because they had younger children, or they had stopped working to become carers and—this is key—many mothers who were in work when their husband died drop out of work for some time while they support their children. If they return to work later, it may be to a different job, to one that is part-time or less demanding. Whereas work seems to be essential and continuous for fathers, it becomes secondary and broken for bereaved mothers.

The Government are reconstructing bereavement benefits, with more money paid as an up-front lump sum and less as a monthly payment—which, at £400 a month, will be paid only for 12 months and topped up by universal credit while the claimant is out of work. After 12 months, bereavement support payments stop and, if the parent does not return to work, she may draw her full income from UC. Being on UC normally entails work conditionality—entering or re-entering the labour market. The Minister has agreed—for which I am delighted—for kinship carers, work conditionality associated with claiming UC should not apply for 12 months after they have taken on the care of children. But—and this is the point of my amendment—work conditionality for widowed parents, unlike for kinship carers, will kick in after six months, not 12 months, while they are still on bereavement benefit. That benefit runs for 12 months precisely because the Minister, in all decency—and I respect him for it—recognises that they need that support for 12 months. Surely work conditionality should be aligned with those 12 months.

The Minister said in Committee that he thought that six months’ relief from work conditionality while on bereavement allowance, if the claimant receives some UC top-up, was “generous”. I confess that that shocked me. It is generous only by comparison with the situation of someone who is not a bereaved spouse, and I think that that is not a proper comparison. If the mother has returned to work, or wants help to do so earlier than that—and some will—that is fine, but I do not think it right and decent to require her to attend work interviews and full work conditionality and job-hunting after six months, when she has grieving children who need her more than ever.

In Committee, the Minister justified this by saying that work conditionality after six months,

“is necessary to help them adjust and regain control of their lives”.—[ Official Report , 15/1/14; col. GC 146.]

I was shocked by that as well. From my experience, the exact opposite is true. If work conditionality kicks in at six months while the woman is still on bereavement benefits and she is not ready for it, she loses what little control she has in handling her family life. Instead, that power is transferred to the DWP—perhaps to a 23 year-old young man in a local benefit office who, I expect, will be well intentioned until the pressure of targets bears down on him. He is probably a young man without children and without any experience of bereavement. It is assumed that he knows better than she does what is best for her and her children in their grief. I hope that he asks his own mother for advice, because he probably will not have a clue.

I do not think that that is acceptable. We are turning this young man at the age of 23 into her parent and treating her as the child, denying her, as a parent, the ability to look after her children in the way she believes is best. This is a sort of cruel-to-be-kind, tough-love philosophy towards a grieving widow and severely distressed children. Tough love is perhaps fine for youngsters who are on JSA and do not want to get up in the morning, but we are bullying into seeking work a widow with children who is still numb with grief and hugely distressed. We really cannot have that.

In this paving amendment and the consequential amendment attached to it I am not arguing that a widow’s benefit should be increased, although personally I would support that. The amendment is not about more money; it is about allowing widows to decide what is best for them and their family in the immediate aftermath of bereavement. For me, the immediate aftermath is the first year during which all the anniversaries occur—Christmas, his birthday and the anniversary of his death. I know, as do many of your Lordships, that that first year is the hardest.

I ask your Lordships to put themselves in the widow’s place. Her husband’s death may have been sudden, due to an accident at work or in the car, and she is still traumatised by the shock, or he may have died after an illness such as a stroke or cancer and she is exhausted through caring for him. She is wiped out and her mental and physical health is pretty fragile. It is just at this time when, although she is exhausted herself, her children are distraught and most need her. Children I know who have experienced the death of a parent have regressed into bed-wetting, nightmares, broken sleep and school phobia. They have lots of mysterious tummy aches and frequent headaches, and they display challenging and clearly needy behaviour. Irrationally, they suffer anguish that in some way they were responsible for their father’s death. They feel guilty that they had never told the lost parent how much they loved him and are fearful that they may lose their mother as well.

Older children worry about their mother’s safety if she is late back, or they fear they may lose their home. They are profoundly upset a second time over at their mother’s grief. Stoically they try not to weep, as that makes it harder for her to cope. “He is not here to hug me”, said one young girl. They dream of him and experience severe depression. Children need their surviving parent to be physically available for them. They need the trust that exists between a child and his mother to discuss their father’s death. Emotional availability follows from that. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord German, quoted very movingly from research into the effect of bereavement on children’s later lives, from delinquency to poor mental health and suicide risk, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, mentioned cases of multiple deaths.

Every family is different, as is the work status of any bereaved parent, but this amendment, at no cost, permits the bereaved parent to decide what is appropriate for her and her family. We know that currently, bereaved parents do not take all the time off that they could from work. They do not exploit the system; they do not abuse it; they do not milk it. They want to work when they feel fit enough and their children are steady enough, but only they know that, not the DWP or the local benefit office. That is the point of having 12 months of bereavement payments. Insisting on work interviews and work conditionality at six months, or even leaving it to the discretion of 23 year-olds in local offices, adds stress to the suffering of the parent and distress to the pain of the child. We really should not do that.

The amendment would give widowed parents a breathing space from work conditionality alongside a bereavement payment while they rebuild their fractured lives. This House has always looked out for widows and children and I hope that it will do so again today. I beg to move.