Philip Hammond has been urged to pause the introduction of a cut in benefits for widowed parents after MPs received letters from 3,200 people affected by the change in rules due in April.
The leaders of two charities that support parents and children after the death of a loved one have written to the chancellor to ask him to think again about the reform, which they say will leave 75% of people worse off in cash terms.
Georgia Elms and Alison Penny said that 91% of newly widowed parents with dependent children would receive the payments for shorter period, resulting in a financial hit when many were still suffering.
The government’s new bereaved support payment will provide a larger lump sum after a death, rising from £2,000 to £3,500, but will see the benefit time-limited to just 18 months compared with a maximum of 20 years. There is also anger that the government is not extending the payment to parents who cohabited but were not married.
Conservative minister Richard Harrington caused anger when he defended the reform by claiming the old system risked stopping people from “readjusting” to life as a single parent.
Harrington said that a societal shift in which women were more likely to work meant it was right to reduce the time over which payments were made. He justified not covering unmarried couples by saying it might be too upsetting for them to provide evidence that they lived together while grieving.
Elms, chair of WAY Widowed and Young, and Penny, co-ordinator of the Childhood Bereavement Network, asked why the changes were saving the government £100m per year, despite ministers insisting that they were not intended as a cost-saving measure.
They called on Hammond to pause the implementation and reconsider supporting unmarried couples.
“This would reassure the 3,200 widowed parents and their supporters who have written to their MP on this issue over the last three weeks, and benefit many thousand more parents who will sadly lose their husband, wife or civil partner next year and do not yet realise the relevance of these payments to their family,” they write.
It came after the Guardian received correspondence from widowed parents after reporting on Harrington’s comments. Kirsten – who describes herself as Fred’s mum on Twitter – said that she was working part-time on minimum wage to support her child.
Alicky Sussman said she was five years widowed and working part-time because her children needed her more than ever.
The issue has been raised in parliament by Labour’s Stella Creasy who told colleagues about a constituent called Ros, whose husband died in 2014 and who had given up work earlier to support him during his illness. She said the mother of two had found the allowance to be a lifeline, but would have lost out on more than £100,000 during the lifetime of her children as a result of the changes. Another case involved a woman in a loving relationship who was unmarried and received no payments as a result.
Penny argued that widowed parents would have to go back to work or increase their hours before their grieving children were ready as a result of the policy. “Most parents do an amazing job of getting back to work and building a new life around their children’s needs. The last thing we should be doing is interfering with that by putting them under pressure to find work or face sanctions,” she said, adding that children’s mental health was closely related to how well their surviving parent coped and was around.
“The sad truth is that it is the next generation of bereaved children who will bear the brunt of these cuts.”
Penny highlighted a letter written by eight-year-old Sam who said that reducing the benefit would cause “great panic and worry”. He argued that the allowance had been earned by the person who had died, and that it was unfair to withdraw it after 18 months.
“My daddy died when I was five and my brother, Tom, was three. The money my mum has received has helped us considerably. She couldn’t have gone back to work as a teacher after 18 months and probably would have ended up working in a shop, not earning the money she used to earn,” he wrote.
He said the benefit had allowed his mother to do school drop offs and pick ups and had allowed him a cuddle at the end of the day when he felt sad. “I sometimes still feel flooded with sadness nearly four years later,” he added, urging the government to change its mind. “I was devastated when my daddy died and others will be too. They deserve to be treated better when this terrible tragedy hits them.”
But a source at the Department for Work and Pensions insisted that the change was fair, arguing that the old system was set up 90 years ago when society was very different. They stressed that the lump sum was £1,500 higher and that it would be easier to claim the benefit and suggested there was no plan to back down.
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