Government’s defence of “terrible injustice” to bereaved children cannot stand

Via the Work and Pensions Committee

Over a year after the McLaughlin ruling that said the Government’s refusal to pay bereavement benefits to a widowed mother—simply because she wasn’t married to her partner—was incompatible with human rights law, Committee Chair Frank Field has slammed DWP’s “baseless, risible” defence of its policy.

In its attempts to defend what the Chair has described as an “archaic policy whose victims are children” the Government has argued that cohabitation is “not a straightforward concept”—despite the fact that it is a very familiar and widely used concept elsewhere in the benefits system, and indeed other areas of public policy.

Bereaved parents who were cohabitees rather than married face basically the same costs of bereavement to other families—and exactly the recognised costs that BSP is in place to mitigate.

The Committee sets out the arguments, and several possible means by which Government could overcome its self-described “complexities”—one option, used in many other countries, would be to make bereaved children directly eligible for bereavement benefits—and concludes there is just no good reason to deny Bereavement Support Payment to families with unmarried couples. Simply, the Government must rectify this “continuing profound injustice”, now.

The Minister told the Committee that delay in responding to the McLaughlin ruling has been necessary to “ensure that we make the right decision”, given the “potential for unintended consequences”. The Committee has cause to regret that the Department has not shown this caution in its approach to any stage of implementation of Universal Credit. It is also unclear why the Department hasn’t produced any consultation on this issue—another clear option for resolving it—given its claims on how very difficult it is.

Rt Hon Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “Cohabiting families have been waiting 14 months for the Government to make up their mind following their defeat in the Supreme Court. It is risible for Ministers to claim that ‘cohabitation is a complex concept’ while applying it when it suits them in the rest of the benefits system. All the while, suffering is heaped on suffering for bereaved children. The Government has allowed this terrible injustice to go on far too long: it must make it right, and urgently.”

The Committee heard moving, personal testimony of the bewildering, devastating impact that the death of a parent or carer can have on the whole household, and that this can persist for months into years. The three-month window to make a full claim for what may be absolutely essential income after that loss is too short to expect all recently bereaved people, in what may be the most traumatic, busy period of their lives, to manage.

The Committee previously secured an extension of the duration of BSP payments so that they do not end squarely on the anniversary of the bereavement, but it says the Government’s welcome extension of the period to 18 months still won’t be long enough for many bereaved families to come to terms with the emotional and financial implications of their new circumstances. Even the immediate costs of bereavement will not necessarily have passed by then.

Universal Credit claimants get six months “off” work conditions after a bereavement: again, this may simply not be long enough in the face of the new realities confronting a bereaved household. The Committee recommends Job Coaches have discretion—and accompanying training—to waive work conditions for up to 18 months, depending on the circumstances of the claimant or family concerned.

Though the BSP has been in place since 2017, and over 100,000 people have claimed it so far (though none of them unmarried parents) DWP still can’t say how it’s working, saying they do not have enough data. The Committee says DWP must begin this evaluation at the start of 2020, and should set out how it’s going to do so in response to this report. As part of this evaluation, it should consult on what is actually an appropriate, effective duration for bereavement support payments, and further, what would be a decent time frame to allow the bereaved to make a claim for their full entitlement.

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