My Lords, I have Amendments 18, 19 and 20 in this group. I am grateful to the Minister for informing us of his proposal to hold a review of the level at which conditionality is set in relation to considerable distress in bereaved children. I appreciate his concern and the time that he has spent with me and others in looking at the problems of bereaved children.
However, I must point out that bereaved children express emotions differently from adults. Indeed, the most distressed children often appear almost blunted to the death of the parent and are simply quiet, withdrawn and can even appear disinterested. I hope that there will be no attempt to assess an individual child’s distress because I can foresee the problem of some families blaming that child for not caring enough, and therefore blaming that child for somehow not falling into a group that could have had more benefit. Sadly, transference occurs in bereavement and sometimes bereaved parents project their anger at the death on to the way in which the bereaved child is behaving and are on a very short fuse with the child, which compounds that child’s isolation. These are complex situations and there are serious long-term sequelae.
When a parent dies the support that the state offers must be easy to understand. It must support the widowed parent in providing support to their grieving children. Noble Lords are well aware that the death of a parent places enormous pressure on the rest of the family. The surviving parent has to both provide stability to children and adjust to life as the sole carer and earner while dealing with their own grief as well as that of their children. Quite often they have had no time to begin to adjust to impending widowhood—for example, in any sudden death, whether it is through a road accident, manslaughter, murder, suicide or whatever—and yet their children’s need for stability following the death of a parent makes it vital that the surviving parent is available to them, is present and is able to respond to their needs, which may change almost from minute to minute, hour to hour.
Stopping payments after only one year will have a significant impact on family finances but the major disruptions include the widowed parent often having to increase their working hours to replace lost income, thereby being less available to the children at the time when they are most in need of support. Amendment
18 seeks to increase the period of time that the bereavement support payment is payable to at least three years or until the youngest child has reached the age of seven, whichever is the longest period.
Can the Minister clarify the cost analysis that underpins the decision to end bereavement support payment after only one year, because one year is much too short to address a family’s needs? Removing the payment at the first anniversary of the death adds an additional pressure on the family at a time that is already very emotionally difficult when they often relive the acute episode surrounding the bereavement. Many families report that the second and subsequent years following bereavement are even harder than the first because support from friends and family tends to disappear and children can experience late effects of dealing with grief and bereavement.
The current allowance is paid until the youngest child leaves full-time education. The proposal to reduce this to a period of just one year is a dramatic change. Data provided by the Childhood Bereavement Network suggest that only one family in 28—that is, 4%—claims for less than one year. Most families would therefore receive payments under this Bill for a much, much shorter time than they would under current arrangements, especially if the children are younger. In Committee I described the shortening of this period of time as cruel. A year is a very short time in the life of those bereaved, whether adult or child.
The current benefit is paid until children leave full-time education in recognition partly of the complex emotional needs of young children. Removing the payment when the dependant children are very young is particularly worrying. Pre-school children become very clingy when they realise that one parent is no longer around. They require stability and security. The grief of losing a parent is challenging enough without compounding the disruption caused by the stress of worsened financial hardship for the surviving parent with the premature ending of a bereavement support payment.
Amendment 19 seeks to clarify that the bereavement support payment will be payable to a widow who is pregnant at the time of her spouse’s death. Can the Minister confirm that when the spouse of a pregnant woman dies the allowance would be payable to her? Amendment 20 seeks to clarify what support would be offered in the tragic event of both parents dying. Can the Minister confirm that in the event that both parents die, the guardian of the surviving children under the age of 18 will be eligible for any bereavement support payment which would have been paid to a surviving parent had that parent not died, and that the guardian has six months in which to lodge the claim? Can the Minister also confirm that the changes to the bereavement support payment do not affect the guardian’s allowance? Finally, can the Minister confirm that changes to the bereavement support payment do not affect child benefit?