A senior MP has condemned the UK Government’s attempt at defending an “archaic policy whose victims are children”, describing the policy as a “terrible injustice” that denies vital financial support to families at a time of extreme distress and financial uncertainty.
Bereaved parents who were cohabitees rather than married when a member of the couple dies are routinely denied the equivalent level of bereavement benefits offered to the families to married couples – with their children the hardest hit.
This has been labelled as a “terrible injustice” for bereaved partners and their children who are treated differently and unfairly when compared to the children of married couples.
The Government argues that cohabitation is “not a straightforward concept”, even though an identical principle is used throughout the welfare system, and has been slow to adhere to a recent Supreme Court ruling that instructs ministers to amend the policy to include unmarried couples.
The Tory Minister told the Work and Pensions Select Committee that delay in responding to the ruling has been necessary to “ensure that we make the right decision”, given the “potential for unintended consequences”.
However, the Committee is disappointed at the lack of progress and questions why the Government hasn’t produced any consultation on this issue, given that the government claims it is difficult to implement the required changes.
Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said: “Cohabiting families have been waiting 14 months for the Government to make up their mind following their defeat in the Supreme Court.
“It is risible for Ministers to claim that ‘cohabitation is a complex concept’ while applying it when it suits them in the rest of the benefits system.
“All the while, suffering is heaped on suffering for bereaved children.
“The Government has allowed this terrible injustice to go on far too long: it must make it right, and urgently.”
The WPSC says it has heard personal testimony from people about the “devastating impact” of the current policy and how the death of a parent or carer can affect the whole household for several months or even years.
The committee also argues that the three month window to make a full claim for bereavement benefits is far too short, especially during a time when a family is struggling to come to terms with the death of a loved-one and can expect to experience financial difficulties for an extended period.
Universal Credit claimants get six months “off” work-search conditions after a bereavement, but the WPSC says that in many cases this may still not be long enough and should be extended to up to 18 months.