Bereaved families are being denied benefits worth up to £7,700 because the government will only make payments to married couples – 10 months after the supreme court ruled that its stance was unlawful.
Bereavement support payment can be claimed by people who are widowed when their husband, wife or civil partner dies, with parents eligible for a higher payment than those without children.
But unmarried couples are locked out of the benefit – something that has been described by campaigners as blatant discrimination.
Dean Spencer lost his partner Julie suddenly in 2015, leaving him and his son, who was three at the time. The couple had been together for five years, and he was thinking about proposing when she died.
“I rang the number on the government website and was told I wasn’t eligible for any benefits,” he says. “They said ‘that’s the law.’ All because of a piece of paper.”
Bereavement support payment, which was introduced in April 2017 to replace three separate payments (widowed parent’s allowance, bereavement payment and bereavement allowance), is paid as a lump sum of up to £3,500 and then at a rate of up to £350 a month for the first 18 months after the death.
Those who lost a partner before the rule change can continue to claim the older benefits until their children leave full-time education or they move in with a new partner.
However, anyone who loses a partner who they were not married to is not entitled to make a claim. There are 3.3 million cohabiting couples in the UK, and of these about 1.2 million have children.
Last summer, the supreme court ruled that denying Siobhan McLaughlin a widow’s pension following the death of her partner breached the human rights of her and the couple’s four children. Her partner John Adams, a former groundsman, died in January 2014.
The decision was expected to trigger changes in the rules, but there has been no announcement, or even a consultation on extending who qualifies for the benefits.
Georgia Elms, a spokeswoman for the group Widowed & Young (WAY), says: “I understand that we’ve got Brexit paralysis, but I’m really shocked that nothing has been done about it.”
McLaughin’s case involved the widowed parent’s allowance, which was worth up to £119 a week and paid until the youngest child was no longer eligible for child benefit.
Before the rules were changed, campaigners had lobbied for a rethink, and for any new system to include unmarried couples. Both calls were ignored, they say.
Elms says families are suffering as a result. “There are two sides to this: the financial and the personal,” she says. “These people are grieving – they’ve lost the parent of their child, and then they are suddenly told that in the eyes of the government, because they’re not married, they don’t matter.”
She adds: “This really affects their confidence, their grieving process, their ability to build their own life.”
Elms says many parents who are entitled to the benefit spend the money on childcare, allowing them to continue in work.
Spencer had to leave his job of 13 years because the shifts were not compatible with nursery hours, and now his son is at school he works on the minimum wage during school hours. He would have been entitled to up to £119 a week if he had been married. “The person who is suffering is my son,” he says. “Holidays, days out – he doesn’t get those things. We could have saved the money and used it for holidays … you get quite angry when you think about it.”
Vicki Wollerton from Warrington, Cheshire, lost her partner Nick in May 2017. He had been looking after their son while she worked full-time as a civil servant, and the family had been entitled to a small child tax credit payment.
The couple, who had been together for 18 years, had never married. “We never even thought about getting married – it just wasn’t us,” she says.
Wollerton had set up insurance for her income, but says she had never considered what would happen if Nick died. After his death, the child tax credit payment was stopped and she discovered she would have to apply for universal credit to replace it, and that she was not entitled to any bereavement payments.
She says the payment would have made a difference – she has used up all of her savings, most of it on childcare, and because of her working hours she now has to pay for breakfast club every morning.
“I thought I was savvy but obviously I wasn’t. I had no idea my son would be treated differently,” she says. “It was quite a shock.”
MPs on the Commons work and pensions select committee have launched an inquiry looking into the support on offer for the bereaved, and say they will press the government on what has been done since the supreme court ruling.
The committee recommended in 2016 that bereavement payments should be extended to parents who were not married because “not doing so unjustly penalises innocent children, who have no say in the matter of whether their parents were married but who are equally affected by the death of one of them”.
The committee’s chair, Frank Field, has described the policy as archaic and said it was a “profound injustice” that parents were being denied support. It meant, he said, that every day the government was telling another five bereaved parents that because they were not married, their children would be penalised.
Last week the committee heard evidence from several parents: some who were eligible for bereavement support, and some who were not. The latter group included Joana Niemeyer, who was eight months pregnant when her partner David died. Their children are now three-and-a-half and seven. She said her partner had probably earned 70% of the income for the household, and they had bought a house a year earlier and had a “huge” mortgage.
She told MPs: “I think I found out just before the funeral that we were not eligible for anything … David worked for 20 years. He was always a believer in the system – the NHS, national insurance and all that. I think he would be mortified to know that we did not get anything.”
Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow in north-east London, says: “The courts were clear that children who had already suffered the trauma of losing a parent early in life did not deserve to pay the price for such an outdated view of family life, and the government had a responsibility to change that.”
It’s now been some time since the introduction of bereavement support payment, she says, yet “still this government has done nothing to help address this blatant discrimination, leaving many facing poverty at the same time as the loss of a loved one”.
Spencer says he does not expect the government to go back and repay parents like him who have missed out. “But for other people, hopefully it could change in the future.”
The Department for Work and Pensions says the qualifying criteria for bereavement support were debated in parliament before the new benefit was introduced, and that it is not taxed or included when other means-tested payments are calculated.
“We are committed to supporting people during bereavement and have widened the support available. This is in addition to help provided for cohabiting couples through the wider welfare system,” a spokesman for the DWP added.