Support for Bereaved Children

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 21 May 2024.

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Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford 11:00, 21 May 2024

I would like to inform hon. Members that the parliamentary digital communications team will be conducting secondary filming during the debate for its series of procedural explainers.

I will call Andy Carter to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. As is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered support for bereaved children.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating the debate. I want to talk about a subject that has affected almost all of us at some point or that will do so in the future: grief, and particularly the grief experienced as a result of being bereaved of a parent. Grief is unique; it is both an experience and an emotion, and it comes in many forms, whether it be for the loss of a family member, a friend, a colleague or even a beloved pet. In fact, the only commonality shared between people when they grieve is the pure uniqueness of that experience.

Like many colleagues, I know that it is difficult, to say the least, to lose a parent. It is something that we will all experience in our lives, so we can only hope and pray that it comes later rather than sooner. Tragically, for some people, that is not the case. They lose their mum or dad during childhood, and that is the area I want to focus on.

Bereavement is a complex challenge to navigate at any stage in life, but going through it during childhood has its own unique challenges. The raw wound of loss carries a heavy burden, and we must ensure that it is handled with delicacy and in the manner that best suits the grieving child.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue to Westminster Hall. It is certainly one we all are or will be affected by. Is he aware that the voluntary Barnardo’s advice line is available on Mondays and Tuesdays from 10 am to 1 pm and on Fridays from 10 am to 12.30 pm? It is for adults concerned about bereaved children, and we thank the charity for setting it up. However, a helpline for bereaved children does not go far enough, and I think the hon. Gentleman will be asking for Government action. Through the education system and the NHS, the Government must set up a statutory body to provide permanent, accessible support without people having to search that out.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the work that many charities do. He is absolutely right, and I will come to his point shortly.

I want to put the issue into some context. The Childhood Bereavement Network provides statistics on the number of children bereaved of a parent every year. The figure currently sits at about 46,000 annually. To put that in context, it equates to a young person being bereaved of a parent every 20 minutes. However, we know that that figure is inaccurate, and we have tried to estimate the total number of bereaved children. That is because grief can come with so many types of loss, and the figure we have applies only to children who have lost parents. Crucially, we lack the statistics that charities and service providers need in order to ensure that bereavement support networks, schools and professionals can support children.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am delighted the hon. Member has brought this subject forward. As he probably knows, it is very close to my heart and I have been doing a lot of work on it. The figures he brings up for this problem are the tip of the iceberg, because although we know that children are bereaved every day, we do not know where they are and the charities do not know how to get in touch with them. That is why I have brought forward a private Member’s Bill—the Bereavement Support (Children and Young People) Bill—to create a protocol for putting children in touch with organisations and vice versa. Is that something the hon. Member thinks he can support?

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

I pay tribute to the work the hon. Lady has done with colleagues on her private Member’s Bill. I absolutely support its aims, and I will talk a little more about it in just a second.

This debate is largely down to the experience of a young man called Dan Walsh, who I am pleased to say is able to join us in the Chamber today with his friend Finn and his teacher Alice. Dan is currently studying at Priestly College in my constituency, where I had the pleasure of first meeting him a few months ago during a visit. He gave me a heartwarming account of his experience of loss, how it impacted him and his family and how he not only overcame that terrible and tragic event at such a young age, but was empowered to become involved in campaigning to help others who, sadly, find themselves in the same position.

I would like to share the speech that Dan has written for this debate. He writes:

“Nearly five years to the day, I lost my father to a shock brain aneurysm. He was a fit and healthy man, and we had absolutely no warning of what was to come. At the time I was 12 and in Year 7, and little did I know that when I left school that day, my life was about to change forever in a way that I could never have anticipated.

The journey that followed was rough, my world had been turned upside down. At 12 I struggled to grasp the permanence of death. I let the guilt and anger consume and stop me from being able to properly process his passing.

Throughout that difficult time, I was reminded constantly that I wasn’t alone. My own family and school always made sure that I knew that they would always be there.

Yet it was at that point when I felt most alone.

Mark Lemon, an author, captured this feeling brilliantly when he wrote ‘grief is feeling lonely in a room full of people’. I knew full well that I was supported by loving and caring people, but nothing could ever stop me from feeling so isolated, nothing anyone could do would ever make me feel any different.”

Photo of Andrea Jenkyns Andrea Jenkyns Conservative, Morley and Outwood

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this speech to the House. I also thank his constituent—it is very brave of him to do this. My son, Clifford, was just five years old when he lost his beloved nana, my mum Valerie, who was like a second mum to him. A few months later, he lost his dog as well. We got through that with faith. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Church has an important place in helping with this issue, and that schools need more guidance on how to spot if a child is grieving and on understanding the stages of grief?

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those points, and particularly the role the Church can play in supporting families. I say to anybody going through grief that there are people out there they can reach out to. The challenge is knowing where to reach out, and this debate is about helping people to find places they can go when they need support.

I will return to the speech written by Dan:

“It was a cruel realisation, but necessary. It allowed me to begin the process of healing, because grief is a bittersweet feeling;
whilst you’re suffering your own loss, you get to share each other’s love and compassion for the person that you lose.

After months of not being able to cope and agonising over the loss I was finally directed to a charity called Child Bereavement UK.

The months following my dad’s death I experienced a communication breakdown. I was unable to talk about him and felt completely overwhelmed. I sought relief in my own solitude but to no avail. Feeling trapped in this sensation of anguish.

The charity then became a lifeline for me. It was the only place where I could feel safe to express my own feelings and where I was able to begin that complex journey of navigating through emotion.

What counselling did for me was allow me to talk openly and freely about my dad;
however, the most helpful aspect of my time at Child Bereavement was the group meetings where I could speak to young people who had also been through what I had. The groups offered a comforting presence and with their guidance I was able to acknowledge my own feelings of grief.

It gave me the opportunity to talk about my own experiences but also to console those who had similar experiences. In doing so it created a sense of solidarity between myself and other grieving young people.

I had one particular issue when first attending Child Bereavement and that was not being able to comfortably talk about my dad openly. For months I had suppressed my own feelings, but now I cherish the moments that I had with him and I’m always keen to listen to the impact that he had on everybody else.

I would go once a month to one-to-one sessions and a group for young people, yet after a few months I felt comfortable talking about the memories that I built with my dad and the struggle that followed his death.

Looking back at this time it gives me great self-pride to be able to talk about my own experience openly and to know that to have been able to do that I overcame the most painful time of my life.

No one should ever face this journey alone.

And, having experienced this first hand, I feel an obligation to make sure that young bereaved people across the country have the accessibility of these services and are able to secure the level of support that I did.”

Dan is only 17 years old, and he tells a story that is all too common for people of his age. Too many young people are unable to access what they need, as Christine Jardine said. For those who do lose a loved one, it is imperative that they know they are not alone and that they know where to turn.

Photo of Alistair Strathern Alistair Strathern Labour, Mid Bedfordshire

I thank the hon. Member for sharing such powerful testimony from his constituent, which shows that young person’s bravery in not just getting through that experience but sharing it to motivate change. I am privileged to work with some fantastic kinship carers in my constituency, who look after young people who have gone through real trauma and often deep bereavement. Those carers are not always able to access the adoption support fund, which provides access to therapeutic care, if their young person has not formally been through the care system. Does the hon. Member agree that removing the looked-after status requirement for the fund would be a powerful way to ensure that every young person can access the therapeutic support they need?

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

The hon. Member has eloquently taken one of the asks that I was going to put to the Minster, so I am grateful for his intervention.

The issues that Dan’s speech provokes allow me to make one or two requests of the Minister. Will he look at the steps the Government can take to ensure that much-needed data on children who have lost loved ones is collected and released to help bereavement support practice? Last October, the Department for Education responded to an e-petition calling for a proper record to be kept of the number of bereaved children, to ensure that they are supported, and for responsibility to fall to the General Register Office, which oversees the recording of deaths. I would be grateful if the Minister could expand on that and look into what other routes are available for recording information, separate from death registration by His Majesty’s Passport Office. I would also be grateful if he could comment on what further steps the Government are taking to ensure that young people who are unaware of the support services being offered are properly informed about where they can seek help and advice.

It cannot be beyond the Government, with today’s technology, to reach out to young people when they feel most lost and to ensure that those supporting them—those around them and looking after them—can give them guidance when they need it. To that end, I would be grateful if the Minister could outline what consideration the Government have given to the provisions in the private Member’s Bill from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West to expand the requirements for specified organisations and public bodies to inform young people of the local, national and online support services available to them following a bereavement.

I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for being here to respond to the debate today. I could not have asked for a better Minister to take up this debate. I am also grateful for his spending time with Dan just before the debate. I thank colleagues who have attended, particularly the hon. Member for Edinburgh West, who has been a real champion in this area. I am very happy to support her private Member’s Bill. I pay tribute to the many brilliant campaigners and charities that Members have mentioned, which do so much to support young people who experience bereavement at any age. Nobody should go through bereavement alone.

I congratulate and pay tribute to Dan Walsh, who I met and who talked to me about his deeply personal experience and showed great maturity. In that conversation, he talked about his interest in politics—he is studying politics at Priestley College —so I asked him to write this speech, which he did. I know his dad would be incredibly proud, and I encourage him to continue to pursue his political ambitions because I think he will go a long way.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 11:15, 21 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend Andy Carter for securing a debate on this important topic. It is typical of him to bring such an important and sensitive topic to the House. I am delighted that he has been joined by his constituent Dan from Priestley College, who wrote a considerable portion of my hon. Friend’s opening speech. It was an excellent speech—he might like to start writing speeches for other colleagues, perhaps myself included. I thank him for his courage in bringing forward his story. We had a chat before the debate, alongside his friend Finn. Dan spoke movingly about his experience, and he should be proud of the way that he has sought to bring what has been a very sad experience for him to this place to help other young people experiencing grief. He should also be pleased to have a friend like Finn.

We will all experience a bereavement at some point in our lives, and it can be most devastating for children and young people because it is not the order that we expect life to go in. Just as bereavement touches us all, we all have a role to play in how we support the bereaved. We—Government, parliamentarians, schools, health professionals, voluntary and charitable organisations, and everybody, really—have a responsibility to ensure that children and young people can access the support they need when they need it.

Responsibility for bereavement sits across different Departments, including the Department of Health and Social Care, but I will obviously focus on the work of the Department for Education. What I will say is the Department of Health and Social Care continues its work to address the recommendations in the “Bereavement is everyone’s business” report from the UK Commission on Bereavement. Following that, we established a cross- Government group with representatives from over 10 Departments to improve bereavement support and ensure better joined-up work across Government. We will keep working with the commission and the voluntary sector, including the Childhood Bereavement Network, to explore how their findings could inform policy.

Schools and colleges, which I will focus on most given that I am a Minister for the Department for Education, clearly pay a key role in supporting children, including through difficult times. We are grateful for the vital pastoral support provided by headteachers and staff. Although we cannot expect those staff to be specialists in mental health, bereavement or trauma, they know their pupils best and are well placed to determine the pastoral support that they might need. To support them, we are offering all schools and colleges a grant to train a senior mental health lead to help them put informed support in place, drawing on specialists where needed. More than 16,700 schools and colleges have now received a senior mental health lead training grant, including more than eight in 10 state-funded secondary schools.

In addition, we announced £1.3 billion of recovery premium funding for schools, which, on top of the pupil premium, can be used to deliver evidence-based approaches to support pupil mental health and wellbeing, and that can include counselling or other therapeutic services. We have also been rolling out mental health support teams in schools across the country. They offer support to children experiencing common mental health issues, such as anxiety and low mood, and they try to facilitate smoother access to external specialist support. As of April, the teams covered 44% of pupils in schools and students in further education in England, and we are extending the coverage to reach at least 50% of pupils by March 2025.

More broadly, we are providing record levels of investment in increasing the mental health workforce to expand and transform NHS mental health services in England. The NHS forecasts that, since 2019, spending on mental health services has increased by £4.7 billion in cash terms, compared with the aim of £3.4 billion that was in the NHS long- term plan. Some 345,000 more children and young people will have access to mental health support by March 2025.

What is taught through the school curriculum is clearly important, too. Through the mental wellbeing topic of health education, pupils are taught a range of content relevant to dealing with bereavement. That includes recognising and talking about their emotions and how to judge whether what they are feeling and how they are behaving is normal. It is important that young people know where and how to seek support, including who at home and school they should speak to if they are worried about their own or someone else’s mental wellbeing.

In addition, last week, we published our revised relationships, sex and health education statutory guidance for consultation, which specifically includes bereavement. The guidance sets out that all pupils should know that change and loss, including bereavement, can provoke a range of feelings; that grief is a natural response to bereavement; and that everyone grieves differently. It is designed to enable schools to deal sensitively with the individual needs of their pupils, and we are grateful for the support we have had from charities such as the Childhood Bereavement Network and the Anna Freud Centre in developing the guidance. Before this debate, Dan told me how helpful he had found support from Child Bereavement UK. It should be commended for that.

I appreciate that Dan, Finn and his classmates, along with thousands of their contemporaries across the country, are currently in the midst of exam season. Where bereavement has the potential to affect a pupil’s ability to attend exams, the Department has published guidance that includes examples of effective practice to support these students. Regular attendance at schools and colleges is, of course, crucial to both the development and wellbeing of children and young people, and bereaved pupils need time to grieve and may understandably find it harder than others to attend. Schools and colleges should work with pupils, parents and carers to remove any barriers to attendance and work together to put the right support in place. That should include having sensitive conversations, developing good support and considering whether additional help from external partners, including the local authority or health services, would be appropriate.

Dan, Finn and I had a good conversation about data collection, and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South is quite right that Christine Jardine has been doing a huge amount in that area. We continue to talk to her and others about what to do regarding data collection. Candidly, in one sense, the simplest way to know the children who have been affected by a bereavement is for them to be recorded on the death certificate. However, we have a significant concern, as I explained to Dan, that anybody can buy a death certificate and that the information about who the children of the deceased were would therefore be accessible to everybody. That carries potential negative consequences that we do not want to facilitate. We may find that that causes other problems.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South introducing this debate, I have had a conversation with officials about whether we might add a question to the school census regarding bereaved children. That partly requires schools to know. We recently added a question about young carers, and that has been helpful for us to begin to understand how many children are young carers. That was something that charities supporting young carers have wanted for some time. I am happy to commit to exploring whether that is appropriate to do in the case of bereaved children.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

I am very grateful for that comment; it is very much appreciated. My experience of registering a death is that someone goes to the registrar, they fill in some forms and they are able to record a number of details, but they do not receive a great deal back. So would the Minister also consider exploring opportunities for registrars in county council areas and unitary authority areas to provide people with information at the point that they register a death, especially when a parent is bereaved and the child’s death is acknowledged in that process? I understand the points that the Minister made about recording information on a death certificate, but is there a process whereby some information could be handed over at that point, when the death is registered?

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I am happy to have a discussion with my colleagues in other Departments to see whether something like that might be feasible.

One of the things that we are keen to ensure—again, I had this conversation with Dan and Finn before the debate—is that we balance the need to ensure that children and young people receive support against the fact that some of them may not want certain people to know what has happened, including their school and teachers. We may feel that it is better that their school and teachers know, but it might be the case that, for a whole host of reasons, it is not something that they want to be known or to have discussed. Nevertheless, as I say, I am happy to take that suggestion away and discuss it with my Government colleagues.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Further to the point that Andy Carter just made, I agree that perhaps there is no need to put the information on the death certificate. However, when it comes to the school census, very often children will have moved from one parent’s house to another’s, if the parents have separated, or even to their grandparents’ home, so the school has no way of knowing. It would therefore be useful to inform the school, but we also have to take into account GDPR. So it might not be as easy as the schools being able to tell people. However, if the person responsible for recording the death could set the whole process in motion, that might be easier.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady makes a good and important point. These things always involve considerable practical challenges, so they often sound simpler than they are in reality. However, we will certainly see what it is possible to do, given the constraints that she just identified.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South again for securing this debate. Children and young people who lose someone close to them deserve all the support, help and love that they can get. Nobody experiences grief in the same way, but we always want to consider how we can best support children and young people in the toughest circumstances, and where support is needed the Government are committed to ensuring that it is available and accessible.

Finally and most importantly, I thank and pay tribute to Dan for bringing about this debate. It is not often that someone of his age secures a debate in Parliament, and I am very impressed by the work that he has done to turn his very difficult experience into positive change for other young people.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.