Among the headlines around Philip Hammond’s first Budget, a poorly considered policy coming into force within weeks has gone almost entirely ignored. The cut to bereavement benefit, a payout that supports families when one parent suddenly dies, is both cruel and needless – and goes against Theresa May’s stated objective of protecting Britain’s soft human underbelly.
The new bereavement benefit rules, which take effect from 6 April, significantly reduce the length of time that bereavement support is paid, from until the youngest child is 16 years old to just 18 months after the death of the parent. The Government has also refused to extend entitlement to the benefit to couples who were not married but who had children together, thus missing an opportunity to modernise the benefit and make it fit for today’s society.
In March last year, the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which I chair, published a report on support for the bereaved. In our report, we said that the financial impact of bereavement can – and often will – last much longer than one year (the shorter payment period initially proposed by DWP). We were deeply concerned that the payment would stop on the anniversary of the death, exacerbating the challenges of an already very difficult time for bereaved people. So we asked the department to lengthen the payment to, at the very least, 18 months and recommended it consider extending the monthly payments further. We also said that cohabiting couples with children should be eligible for the benefit. The needs of bereaved children of cohabiting parents are no different to those whose parents were married or in a civil partnership. We said that penalising children on the grounds of the marital status of their parents was unjust. Recent court cases show the judiciary agrees.
Is the Government listening? It's hard to say. Of course it is welcome that it was agreed to extend the benefit to 18 months – but that is not long enough. It was, we said, the absolute minimum period over which the benefit should be paid. Since then, the Government has said that it expects changes to this benefit to save £100m per year. In our debate in Westminster Hall on 2 March, I asked the Government to report on how they would spend this £100m saving. Ministers repeatedly said the reform was not designed to save money. If this is the case, there should be no barrier to channelling this money back into the Bereavement Support Payment, in order to meet the needs of bereaved parents. I have also written to DWP pressing them to keep this money within the benefit.
The money is obviously there to support bereaved families, facing so many challenges in their lives. Yet despite this, the DWP will still not consider extending the length of payment further and they will not extend it to unmarried parents. That’s simply cruel, and it is, as we can now see, entirely unnecessary.
We are not asking the Government to conjure up new money, but we are asking them to modernise this benefit in a way that justly allots the full amount available to bereaved parents and their children. And that is not too much to expect from Theresa May and Philip Hammond.
Frank Field is chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee