Bishop of Portsmouth speaks in debate on Universal Credit conditionality

On 4th February 2015, Liberal Democrat Peer Lord German led a question for short debate in the House of Lords, to ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the results of the review into the setting of universal credit conditionality when children are in distress. The Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, took part in the debate. Speaking from personal experiences, the Bishop spoke of the need to provide greater flexibility and generosity in the suspension of conditionality of universal credit payments when children are in distress, particularly in circumstances where a child has lost a parent.

14.04.09 Portsmouth maiden speech 1The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord German, for prompting this debate about the review of universal credit when children are in distress. I speak this evening particularly about the distressing and challenging circumstances of the death of a parent, carer or sibling. I speak not only because I have experience as a priest alongside parents in such situations, as do so many of my clergy colleagues, and because I now support clergy in my diocese of Portsmouth ministering to those facing such deaths, but because of personal experience in my family.

The Minister’s departmental review shows welcome easing of existing regulations, but I suggest that that easing does not truly take account of the depth and extent of the challenge facing a parent or carer bereaved of a partner or child. Bluntly, she or he must support their grieving child while coping with their own grief. The grief of each family member is hugely affected by how others in the family are doing. That challenge is exacerbated if the demand of work-related requirements is added.

In my case, the death of my wife Julia left me the sole parent of two teenaged children. I had the advantage of being in a secure post, an officeholder with understanding colleagues—not even an employee—and under no pressure to fulfil specific requirements to maintain my income. Nevertheless, your Lordships will understand the range of everyday reactions—sadness, guilt, sleep difficulties and anger, for instance—which may sound modest or even trivial but have significant consequences in combination between you and dependent children.

To those, we might add the clinical range of emotional and behavioural difficulties that arise in children, particularly in the two or three years following the death. Those are potentially debilitating in themselves and inhibit development. I also raise the likelihood, as various studies show, of depression, clinical anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, learning underachievement and even suicide—all with significant costs to society.

I know how quickly a surviving parent must try to adjust to a new role. Even for those of us in fortunate and supportive circumstances, this is a big ask. I say that not with the flippancy of a sports commentator but from personal experience. The surviving parent must be able to respond flexibly and quickly, which often includes being physically present.

I recognise, of course, that every situation is different, but I doubt if the proposal to be relieved of obligations for only six months and then for intermittent periods of one month in, at best, every six months for two years is realistic. I welcome the implicit understanding that the impact of bereavement on a parent, carer or sibling may unpredictably arise over a two-year period or longer. That is a helpful acknowledgement for which I thank the Minister. I suggest, however, that the six-month respite may be an impediment to a bereaved family’s recovery and healing. It could hang like a threat for the parent, particularly if he or she is home-based, non-earning for some time, or had withdrawn from work to care for a sick or dying partner or child. I recognise that in many—perhaps most—instances, parents will seek to return to work and to “normality”, as it is sometimes unhelpfully put.

I hope that the Minister will at the very least consider more generosity in the initial suspension of conditionality and flexibility in the ad hoc easements proposed. To monitor that and offer support—and I hope that it is not too much in those circumstances to expect a pastoral touch rather than a rigorous adherence to rules—I suggest that periodic interviews giving advice, supportive rather than coercing, would be entirely right. To expect that every widower or widow will be ready after six months to return to work or to an active monitored search for work with up to four further months, one by one, might suggest a punitive approach to those who have suffered through no action of their own.

I know the sadness and disorientation of bereavement, and I hope that the Government will acknowledge that more generously. In this of all circumstances, surely encouragement is more appropriate than compulsion. I enjoyed that, and benefited from it with my children, and I believe that others should as well.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud): …When a parent has had a previous easement, this makes it easier for work coaches to identify the need for ongoing support and, as a result, to apply discretionary conditionality easements. I hope that that will provide the flexibility that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and my noble friend Lady Miller were looking for. I echo the words of admiration of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, for those deeply personal contributions and experience in this area…


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