Bereavement Support Payment (BSP) is the Government’s main bereavement benefit. When someone dies BSP is paid to their surviving spouse or civil partner. It is made up of a lump sum payment followed by up to 18 monthly payments. BSP has two rates, depending on whether the surviving spouse or civil partner is eligible for child benefit (higher rate) or not (lower rate).
Bereavement Support Payment provides vital support for people at a difficult time in their lives, which often creates financial pressures. The BSP lump sum is often used to meet one-off costs such as a funeral, or to pay off a mortgage or debts, and the monthly payments to help meet new daily living costs.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP/the Department) told us that it plans formally to evaluate Bereavement Support Payment when it has sufficient data. The Minister could not tell us, however, when this was likely to be. It is not clear to us why, given that according to the Department’s own estimates there have been almost 100,000 BSP claims since the benefit was introduced in 2017, the Department thinks that the evidence base is not yet adequate. The Department should begin to evaluate Bereavement Support Payment at the beginning of 2020.
The Government has argued that extending eligibility for Bereavement Support Payment to bereaved cohabitees would create complexities, arguing that cohabitation is “not a straightforward concept” and could lead to “multiple claims”. Cohabitation is, however, already a familiar concept in the benefits system.
Bereaved cohabitees with dependent children face similar costs of bereavement to other families—exactly the sort of costs that BSP is intended to mitigate. Losing a parent or a partner is devastating regardless of whether the surviving parent was married or cohabiting. There is no good reason to deny Bereavement Support Payment to families with unmarried couples. The Government needs urgently to rectify this injustice.
The Government has not yet responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the McLaughlin case—which found that the Government’s policy not to pay Widowed Parent’s Allowance to bereaved cohabitees with dependent children was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights—over a year after it was given. The Minister told us that the Government was committed to resolving the incompatibility but that it had not yet identified a suitable solution.
The McLaughlin ruling did not apply directly to Bereavement Support Payment, but the same central principle applies. The fact that BSP is paid at a higher rate to those with dependent children must be because the Government assumes those families face higher immediate costs as a result of bereavement. The financial cost of the death of a parent to families with dependent children is no less because their parents were not married. The Government should respond by making cohabitees eligible both for Widowed Parent’s Allowance and Bereavement Support Payment having failed to come up with any alternative to this practical solution.
There are several possible ways to do this. One option would be to make bereaved children directly eligible for bereavement benefits, which can then be claimed by the surviving partner on their behalf. This is common in European countries, although the Minister told us he was not currently considering this option. This option would resolve the issue of marital status but would exclude bereaved cohabitees without dependent children. The Government could alternatively simply recognise cohabitation, for example, as it has done in its proposal for a draft Remedial Order to the Fatal Accidents Act 1976. However, each option may have potential unintended consequences.
The Minister told us that the delay in responding to the ruling was necessary to “ensure that we make the right decision” given the potential for unintended consequences. We regret that the Department has not shown this caution in its approach to the introduction and rollout of Universal Credit, the Government’s flagship reform of social security. An obvious option would be to consult on the best way to make cohabitees eligible for bereavement benefits, which could bring any unintended consequences to light, and allow the Government to draw upon the widest base of expertise. It is unclear why the Department has not yet produced a consultation on this issue given it claims it is very difficult to solve.
The monthly payments of BSP are paid for 18 months. The Department told us that the benefit was not paid for longer because it was designed only to meet the immediate costs that would arise from a bereavement and was not intended as a longer-term replacement for income. However, 18 months is not long enough for many bereaved families to adjust to their new circumstances. The costs arising from a bereavement can continue for a long period—in many cases longer than 18 months. The Department should consider extending the period for which BSP is paid.
Bereavement Support Payment must be claimed within three months of the death to receive monthly payments for the full 18 months. Claims can be made up to 21 months after the death, but the payments will then be reduced. The short time limit for applying for BSP means that it is too easy for potential claimants to miss out on vital support at what can be a very difficult time to manage for many people. The Government should increase the time limit for full entitlement to at least six months and take further evidence on the most appropriate time limit for making an application during their evaluation of BSP.
The duration for which BSP is paid recognises, to some extent, the devastating impact that the death of a parent or carer can have on a household and the time needed to adjust. Universal Credit claimants whose partner dies are usually required to look for work after six months. For some this may be appropriate but for many people, this will be far too short. It may fail to take account of individuals’ different circumstances and the potential effect of bereavement on their lives. We recommend that Work Coaches are given the discretion to lift work-related requirements for bereaved Universal Credit claimants for up to 18 months after the six month “easement”.
1 Widowed Parent’s Allowance is a bereavement benefit paid to a surviving spouse or civil partner of a person who died before 6 April 2017, where they are eligible for child benefit for at least one child and the person who died was their parent. BSP replaced Widowed Parent’s Allowance (and two other bereavement benefits) from 6 April 2017.
Published: 22 October 2019