Last week, a letter written by my 8-year-old son Sam to our MP was read out during a debate in the House of Commons. I could have burst with pride. But my joy was short-lived when MPs went on to vote in a raft of proposals that will leave 75% of bereaved families like ours worse off at a time when they are already extremely vulnerable.
Let me explain: I was widowed suddenly in April 2013 and I receive Widowed Parent's Allowance (WPA) - an allowance based on my late husband's National Insurance payments, after eighteen years of employment. For eligible parents who are widowed on or after April 6th this year, financial bereavement support like this will cease only 18 months after the death of their spouse.
Me and Sam won't be affected by these changes. My allowance will be honoured in its current format, which means I will receive it until my youngest son leaves full-time education. Many of the people that these reforms will affect - those widowed on or after April 6th this year, do not yet know that they are going to need support. Because these people are mostly unaware of the financial implications of the proposed Government reforms, and the knock-on effect that they will have on the well-being of their bereaved children, those of us who have already been widowed are trying to raise awareness on their behalf. This is why Sam wrote to Chris White MP, our local Member of Parliament for Warwick and Leamington.
Having listened carefully to the parliamentary debate, I have now written to Caroline Nokes, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery, to help her understand a bit more about what it is like to be a widowed parent and the huge difference WPA makes.
I am sharing this letter so that you can see why the proposed changes are so worrying. This is our last opportunity to ask the Government to pause the introduction of the new Bereavement Support Payment while a further review is carried out. If you would like to email your MP about these changes, please follow this link from the Childhood Bereavement Network: https://ncb.eaction.org.uk/lobby/BSPregulations
I am Sam's very proud mum. You commented in the debate, on Monday 27th February 2017, about his moving and intelligent letter to our local MP, Chris White, about Widowed Parent's Allowance, and I could have burst with pride. My husband, Duncan, died suddenly, aged just 39, in April 2013. Having watched the debate, I feel compelled to write to you about some of the points you discussed, in order to ensure that you are as fully aware as possible of what life is really like for bereaved children and their remaining parent, and to ask you to reconsider the forthcoming legislation.
I am a teacher by trade. At the time of my husband's untimely death, I was an advisory teacher for pupils with complex needs across Warwickshire - a job I loved. Duncan and I juggled our childcare arrangements around my varying working hours and it worked for all four of us. We were 'Team Phillips'. When Duncan died, it quickly became apparent that my job was no longer tenable: my boys needed me to be there for them at the same time every day (and preferably all day). After all, their daddy had gone to play football and not returned. It is a constant worry for them, even now, that something similar will happen to me.
In the debate, you commented that many households are now dual income, and ours was, but suddenly Dunc's death meant not only the loss of his salary, but also of my own. Despite the fact that I am a determined and resilient person, there is no way that I could have found or taken on a new role earning a 'real' salary any sooner than I have done. Like many of my widowed friends, from the charity WAY Widowed and Young, I wanted to go back to work once I felt that the initial 'fog' of bereavement had begun to lift, but I knew that I would not be able to take on the responsibilities required of a class teacher. I took a role as a teaching assistant in the boys' school, earning a salary one tenth of that earned in my previous job. It was not until two and a half years after Duncan died, in November 2015, that I felt able to take on some of the responsibilities of a teacher, and I was fortunate enough to be taken on in a supply teaching role, which allows me flexibility for the boys' illnesses and many medical appointments.
You also suggested that the reforms to Widowed Parent's Allowance are necessary because growing up in 'a workless household' is known to have a detrimental impact on children. Firstly, I would like to say that I have never worked as hard as I do now, running a home on my own, whilst supporting two young children following the loss of their daddy. I go to work, as a teacher, for a break! My boys are very aware how hard I work and are learning how to do chores of their own, in order to lessen the burden on me. I would also suggest that widowed parents who are out of work for a period of time following their bereavement are, in fact, learning a whole host of new skills that might provide new prospects for future employment.
Your new proposals are based around providing some limited support to (married) widowed parents for the first eighteen months post-bereavement. Whether or not I was fit to be working and earning a 'real' wage again at that stage, my difficulties in creating a new life for the boys and I have been compounded by the fact that I can only move forward at their speed. You said that you are 'committed to providing [financial] help in the difficult months following their loss'. Dunc died forty-six months ago, and I can assure you that every single one of them has been difficult. In some ways, they are more difficult now than they were in the first eighteen months. Initially, I functioned on adrenaline and with the frequent help and support of wonderful people around me. Now, I am permanently exhausted. I am not a single parent, but a double one. I am responsible for Sam and Tom 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and I rarely get more than two hours' sleep in one go, due to their nightmares of them or me dying, and their on-going physical health needs.
Tom was just three when Duncan died. He asked me every day for months if Daddy was coming back. It was only in October 2016 that he finally said, "Daddy really isn't coming back, is he?" I had been struggling to find any emotional support for Tom prior to this point because he was deemed too young to access counselling and then, by the time he was the 'right' age, it was deemed too long since our bereavement for him to be eligible for support. Once Tom began counselling in September 2016, he finally began to accept his daddy's death. The survey referred to during the debate found that 'the availability of the consistent, nurturing presence of the surviving parent was one of the strongest predictors of bereaved children's emotional health and behaviour.' I would argue that my boys need this as much from me now, nearly four years after Duncan died, as they did in the early days following our bereavement.
I will continue to receive Widowed Parent's Allowance in its current format and it helps to provide a cushion: I can manage financially without having to work five days a week (which would require leaving the boys in after-school club for many hours), and I can provide them with similar life experiences that they had when 'Team Phillips' was still a team of four. Life will never be the same, and there is nothing I can do to make up for the fact that they have lost their daddy, but bringing a smile to their faces and helping my boys to enjoy life as much as possible is one of my main aims. It distracts them from their continuing sadness too. I am very fortunate; Duncan and I had contingency plans in place, but I hear frequently about widowed friends for whom the current allowance helps to keep them afloat. My widowed friends who were not married, and, therefore, have been ineligible to claim Widowed Parent's Allowance, often struggle more financially. Providing hot meals and school uniforms for their children are a stretch.
In conclusion, I fail to see the proposed reforms to Widowed Parent's Allowance as anything other than a measure of austerity, despite having listened carefully to your comments. The reforms will save the Government many millions of pounds, whilst causing 'great panic and worry' to newly-widowed parents, as even my eight-year-old son can understand. The Child Bereavement Network suggests that 75% of widowed families will be worse off. Ultimately though, it is the potential harmful effect on bereaved children which is most alarming. If the proposed measures are implemented, many widowed parents will be forced to return to work sooner, for longer hours, and possibly in occupations that are new and difficult to learn. As a result, widowed parents will be less available physically and emotionally for their grieving children, whose future mental health may be affected.
The 'difficult months' that you mentioned in the debate continue a lot longer than the first eighteen months after a parent dies - I hope the examples I have given from my own family have helped to illustrate that for you. Bereaved children are horribly vulnerable; their grief is on-going and develops alongside their increasing level of understanding. They need their surviving parent to be as fit as possible to guide them through their grief, and that requires us to prioritise our own needs, at times, too. The complicated new system you plan to introduce will cause extra stress to parents who often feel barely able to function as it is. The pressures of being a widowed parent are vast, and unrelenting, without adding additional financial worry.
I understand that savings are required in all areas, but I believe that it is grossly unfair of the Government to reform this allowance so drastically for families at their most vulnerable point. I urge you to listen to the Child Bereavement Network's plea, asking you to pause the introduction of Bereavement Support Payment, bring forward the review to which the Government has already committed, and work across parties to build on the Work and Pensions Select Committee's recommendations. Please work with the relevant organisations to come up with a solution that mixes the best of the old and new system, supports those with children for longer, and is fair to those children whose parents lived together but were not married.
Mrs Beth Phillips