Report (1st Day)

Part of Pensions Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 24th February 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Opposition Whip (Lords) 5:00 pm, 24th February 2014

My Lords, I am not surprised, having sat through Committee, that this has been such a powerful debate. We have had some very important, moving and well informed speeches at all stages of the Bill touching on these subjects. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for sharing their expertise in these areas, as well as to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for being willing to share with us the experience of bereavement and its ongoing impact on one’s life at any age.

My noble friend Lady Hollis laid out the case very strongly at the outset. I am delighted that the Minister is interested in reviewing the impact on families with a distressed child and how that relates to conditionality in the future. It is an excellent commitment and I look forward to seeing the results of it. It is up to my noble friend Lady Hollis to make a judgment on this but I do not think that that in any way precludes the need for this amendment, which is about a very specific category of person—people who are bereaved and who may find themselves going on to claim universal credit but who would normally be expected to go out to work because they had children of school age. Both of those things are important.

I still have with me the very powerful speech made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby at Second Reading, in which he laid out his experience of pastoral care for the bereaved, something reprised very effectively today by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield. I do not need to say very much more about why this matters. Many Members of this House have had experience of bereavement in one way or another and there can be few more important issues than how a country supports its citizens when the worst of all possible things happens to them.

The Government’s case throughout this debate has been that these bereavement reforms are not really about money. From 2016 to 2020, they estimate the changes will cost an extra £110 million, because they will protect payments under the current system, but that thereafter, in total, there will be small savings. The argument is that these are reforms not cuts. The Government have said throughout that they want to simplify the system and put resources where, in their view, they are most needed: as a short-term intervention to allow a bereaved spouse or civil partner to deal with the immediate costs of the death of a partner. If support is needed in the longer term, that is what universal credit is for.

Amendments 18 to 20, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, address the question of how long bereavement support should be paid for. In Committee, the noble Baroness laid out some very moving circumstances in which families could find themselves, clearly drawing on her own clinical experience. I know that the Minister expressed sympathy with what she said, and it may be that his review of distress will address that. I would be interested to see what he has to say when he comes to speak.

Amendments 2 and 21, in the name of my noble friend Lady Hollis, quite specifically seek to relax the work conditionality requirement for those in receipt of bereavement support payment. This is particularly important for widowed parents. There is a difference between those who do not want to work and those who would like to work, or go back to work, but who have been forced to recognise that the reality of the state that their children are in is such that they have to choose—of course they will choose their children and not work, unless they have literally no choice. Some parents will need a longer period, both to adjust to their own grief and shock and to deal with the grief and shock faced by their children.

It has already been pointed out that the regulations for universal credit mean that kinship carers are exempt from work conditionality for a year from the time that they assume the care of the child. This was agreed by the Minister—under the persuasive pressure of my noble friend Lady Drake and others—in recognition of the fact that adults need time to adjust to being, effectively, a single parent. Why should the same principle not apply to bereavement? I would be very interested if the Minister could answer one question about his review: does he intend to change the regulations to allow bereaved parents specifically to be exempt from conditionality? In Committee, he said that he was reviewing this and that he wanted to change the guidance given to decision-makers in jobcentres. But that is a very different question altogether. I can see why that might be the way forward for distress in general—after all, distress comes in very different forms and some judgment would have to be made about when the family was distressed. The awful thing about bereavement is that it is horribly clear: one is either bereaved or one is not, and I therefore do not think there is a need for the kind of flexibility that might be needed in other circumstances.

I also worry because I have heard many cases, as I am sure other noble Lords have, where young jobcentre officials, with the best of intentions, ended up making bad decisions because they did not properly understand what it was like to be a single parent trying to juggle more than one child and a part-time job. That person could of course simply say, “I am sorry but despite whatever you say, I am not going back to work because I have to prioritise my children”. If that happens, their benefits get sanctioned. They can appeal, but do we really want them to have to go through that six months after losing their husband, wife or civil partner? When 58% of appeals against sanctions on jobseeker’s allowance are successful, how much are we willing to bet the farm on the effectiveness of decisions by individuals in jobcentres? In my case, it would be not very much.

At Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord German, used words such as “harsh” and “cruel” to describe the decision to force widowed parents back to work after six months. I believe that he was right. He cited the research, which he touched on again today, showing that outcomes for children very much depend on the effectiveness of the remaining parent in coping. That is partly about their availability to children. All that this amendment from my noble friend Lady Hollis does is to ask that those widowed parents who need to claim universal credit alongside bereavement support payment to make ends meet should not be required to go back to work for 12 months. After all, the Government have decided to focus their support on that first 12 months, so surely they should be willing simply to stretch this for the same period.

I have heard it said that a year is too long: since employers do not offer bereavement leave for a year, why should the state? It is because employers cannot do that that so many parents end up giving up their jobs when they lose their spouse or civil partner. The combination of burdens is simply too much to cope with. Universal credit is meant to be the safety net for those very parents, and it must be here. This amendment specifically recognises that the Government are planning to recycle all the resources spent on bereavement to be able to create this new system. All it does is to give them the power to recycle that money in whatever way they want, such that that reform should include this small change—that for 12 months after losing one’s husband, wife or civil partner a parent should not be forced back to work.

We should be clear that a decent society will not put bereaved children in the position of having lost one parent only to find that the other is not able to give them the level of care that they need at this crucial time. Many people in this House will know that losing a parent in childhood is a life-changing event: one never gets over it. We cannot protect children from that horror but when it happens, please let us at least say that we will support the remaining parent as best we can. It is clear that this House does not think that the Government have got this part of the Bill right. Amendments 2 and 19 give them the means and the incentive to go away and get this right. I urge the Minister to accept them.