Bishop of St Albans voices concerns over bereavement support payments

stalbans190117-bon 21st February 2017, the House of Lords considered the Government’s ‘Bereavement Support Payment Regulations 2017’ in Grand Committee. The Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, contributed to the debate. Lord Henley responded on behalf of the Government.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans I thank the Minister for his succinct and helpful introduction. I realise that we have already had extensive debates during the passage of the Pensions Bill and I do not wish to impede the progress that we are making with these regulations. Therefore I hope the Minister will not mind if I briefly raise a number of concerns, which I know are shared by my colleagues on the Bench of Bishops, in the hope that Her Majesty’s Government might keep these under review.

I have three concerns. The first is around the length of time for which bereavement support payments will be made, particularly to widowed parents with dependent children. At Second Reading of the pensions Bill, my right reverend friend the Bishop of Derby suggested that three years of additional financial support should be a minimum standard when helping bereaved families to adjust to life without a father or a mother, and I endorse his comments. If the Government are serious about this payment being about bereavement support, they must recognise that the effects of bereavement go way beyond 18 months. I realise that it is difficult to decide on what is the right length of time but I want to push the issue a little. Universal credit, with its system of conditionality, is unlikely to be appropriate for a young family still coming to terms with its grief.

My second concern is about the Government’s refusal to uprate basic support payments in line with inflation, which will see the value of the payments eroded after time, particularly given the likely rises in inflation over the coming years. Benefit support payments must be added to the list of benefits subject to annual review and be uprated in line with inflation. I hope that the Minister will encourage Her Majesty’s Government to commit to that in the forthcoming Budget.

Thirdly and finally, I have a concern about the failure to extend eligibility for bereavement support payments to cohabiting couples, particularly those with children. One might be surprised that I am making this point. As a Bishop, I of course support marriage and want to encourage everyone to consider it good for society and individuals. One would know the line that I would come out with. However, a situation that leaves one in five parents ineligible for bereavement support if their partner dies is inadequate. I recognise that determining a qualifying partnership outside marriage or civil partnership is complex but these challenges are not insurmountable, particularly when one thinks about the welfare of children, who are almost always those who take the hit and suffer most.

Benefit systems already accommodate the claims of cohabiting couples, and the Armed Forces Pension Scheme successfully uses a definition of “eligible partner” to determine who can receive a pension. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will give serious thought to this situation and see what can be done to extend support, at least to cohabiting partners with dependent children. That is my key point. Failure to do so could leave an estimated 2,000 families a year facing the future, having lost a parent, without the financial assistance of bereavement support.

Baroness Sherlock (Lab) ….The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans raised the question of cohabiting couples, and I am sure that the House was glad to hear concern for those cohabiting couples and their children, notwithstanding his support for the institution of marriage. In their consultation response, the Government said:

“The Government position on this issue is unchanged: there are still no plans to extend eligibility for bereavement benefits to those who are not married or in a civil partnership”.

No reason was offered as to why the Government had rejected this proposal. Given that the right reverend Prelate had given his blessing and feels that the institution of marriage will be safe should the Government venture into this territory, can the Minister take the opportunity to tell the Committee why the Government chose not to extend provision in this way?

Lord Henley:…On the first point raised by the right reverend Prelate about the length of time—this was also alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock—as noble Lords will remember, the original idea was that it should be for 12 months. This was extended as a result of the consultation, the comments from SSAC and the Select Committee to 18 months. One of the reasons for this is that it was considered that 12 months was not the optimum period, particularly in the light of its ending more or less on the anniversary of the death. Eighteen months fits in slightly better with that. The same could be said about three years because it also would fall on an anniversary. However, I do not use that to argue against a period that might be longer or shorter. We came to the view that 18 months rather than three years was about right and that thereafter, if necessary, income-related benefits would be more appropriate. The idea is to provide support at the time of bereavement and in the months afterwards, but there has to be a cut off at some point.

The right reverend Prelate also objected to the fact that there was no automatic top-up in line with inflation. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, also wished to address the point. She will know that bereavement benefits of all sorts have been uprated in the annual Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2017, which we will get to later on. She will also know that the basic component of bereavement allowance and widowed parent’s allowance have to be uprated annually, at least in line with price inflation. There has been no requirement to uprate the bereavement payment, which has been frozen since 2001.

Bereavement support payment is a grant paid in instalments, rather than as an income replacement benefit, so it is treated in a similar way to the current bereavement payment. That is what is behind our views on that matter. It will be reviewed annually on a discretionary basis but without expectation that the payment should automatically be increased annually. Again, I imagine that we will want to come on to that later on, when we debate the general uprating order.

The third point touched on by both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness was about extending the payment to cohabitees, as opposed to just those who are married and in civil partnerships. I do not actually know the result of the civil partnerships case that was in the Court of Appeal today.