On Monday 7th December, the House of Lords debated the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill during its first day of Committee. The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, spoke to amendments he had tabled to exempt bereaved parents and victims of domestic abuse from the proposed two-child limit for new claimants. His speech on his amendment is included below, along with an extract of the Minister’s reply. The full debate, including speeches by other Members, can be seen at: Parliament.uk
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I highlight two particularly vulnerable groups in my Amendments 5, 6, 13 and 14, groups that I believe should be exempted from this measure. These are bereaved parents and victims of domestic abuse. In focusing so heavily on promoting personal responsibility, there is always a danger with welfare reforms that we neglect our collective responsibility to look after those who fall on difficult times, people we will probably never meet but whom we support through our taxes in their time of need so that we, too, will be supported when we need help.
It is not as simple as there being two groups in society, those who contribute and those who receive. I know that one of the most tragic events a child can experience is the death of a parent. When my first wife died, I was the sole parent of my children and a recipient of some benefits. Quite apart from the emotional upheaval, the impact on a family’s situation can be drastic, much more drastic than the situation I faced. It is common for families to require additional support in these circumstances, either because the main earner has died or because the surviving parent must give up work or reduce hours to care for the children. According to the Childhood Bereavement Network over 23,000 parents died last year, leaving around 40,000 newly bereaved children. One in three of these children live in larger families with two or more siblings and will potentially be affected by the two-child limit, if it goes ahead in its current form. It feels particularly unfair that the families who have experienced such a traumatic event should have to cope with additional financial pressures on top of it.
Likewise, parents who are the victims of domestic abuse should not be put in a position where they have to choose between staying with the abusive partner and leaving them for a life in poverty for themselves and their children. I understand that, at any given time, there are around 250 children staying in refuges for women fleeing abusive relationships and that one-third of those are from larger families. Many women remain in abusive relationships for long periods, in part due to the financial considerations. Unless this group is exempted from Clauses 11 and 12, this could prolong their abuse and put them and their children at risk, making it even harder to leave their partner.
As with kinship carers, who we considered in the last group, the cost of exempting bereaved parents and victims of domestic abuse would be relatively small by comparison with the total projected savings, and would help to address the most obvious cases of injustice. I therefore bring before the Committee these amendments in my name, seeking to reflect the circumstances of these children and their parents.
Lord Freud: [extract] I thank noble Lords again for another interesting debate, to which I have listened very attentively…
I make clear to noble Lords that most of these amendments are not actually necessary for inclusion in the Bill because we have already identified the need for exemptions to apply in certain circumstances. Clause 11(4) and Clause 12(4) provide the necessary powers to specify exemptions to the limit of two children or young persons for the purposes of calculating the child element in the two different benefits.
We already have special provisions in the benefits system for people fleeing domestic abuse and suffering bereavement, and we have already talked about kinship carers. On bereavement, to pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, we are introducing a system of paying a lump sum of £5,000, with 12 payments of £400. Those payments will be disregarded from other benefits such as universal credit.