7.Bereavement Support Payment provides vital financial support for people at a difficult time in their lives, when they are likely to be subject to new financial pressures.
8.The Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN) told us that BSP had helped to reduce some of the immediate financial pressure following a bereavement for many families.
Figure 1: What are bereavement benefits used for?
9.The CBN ran an online survey of 326 widowed parents between April and May 2019 to find out about their experiences of bereavement benefits. Almost seven in ten parents (68.5%) said they used the BSP lump sum to meet one off costs such as a funeral, or to pay off a mortgage or debts. Nine in ten (89.7%) parents used the ongoing monthly payments “to meet their and their children’s existing (and new) daily living costs”. In some cases this involved using the monthly payments to allow a reduction in working hours or a phased return to work. CBN also found that some parents used BSP to pay for bereavement counselling. The vast majority (84%) of respondents said that BSP made it easier for them to put their children’s needs first following a bereavement.
10.The Department told us in written evidence that it plans “to formally evaluate its [BSP’s] effects once sufficient evidence is available to assess all aspects of the policy”. We asked the then-Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Will Quince MP (the Minister), when this was likely to be. He responded:
The honest answer is that it is hard for me to say, but I am working very closely with officials. As soon as we do have sufficient data—and we meet very regularly to discuss that—I want to do a full evaluation.
11.Helen Walker, DWP’s Deputy Director for Children, Families and Disadvantage, explained that a delay was necessary to give the benefit time to “bed in”, and in order to evaluate outcomes. This meant that a large number of claimants would need to have had their claims come to an end, which would take a minimum of eighteen months following a death:
Obviously, it is a benefit that lasts a fairly long time. In the evaluation, we want to look at a whole range of things, including looking at people by age, by gender, by other sources of income, how BSP would interact with other benefits, and what people’s outcomes are after they have flowed off the benefits. We obviously want to give the benefit plenty of time to bed in as well, so we are working very closely with analysts to make sure that we have the sort of numbers we need to do a very through and robust analysis.
12.The Minister explained that the data collected would seek to capture and reflect the lived experience of BSP claimants:
The key is going to be the evaluation, because that is going to give us that robust dataset, and also that lived experience from those individuals. I have been clear with officials: I want to drill down into as much detail as possible.
13.There are currently 62,000 BSP claims in payment, and 25,000 claims which have come to an end. Given that there are around 3,500 new claims per month, there will now have been almost 100,000 total claims since BSP was introduced.
14.We do not doubt the intention of the Department to undertake a full and robust evaluation of Bereavement Support Payment. We welcome the Department’s commitment to ensuring that such an evaluation uses the best possible evidence base. But BSP has now been claimed by almost 100,000 households. It is not clear to us why the Department still thinks that the evidence base for BSP is not yet adequate.
15.We recommend that the Department begin to evaluate Bereavement Support Payment at the start of 2020 and should set out its plan for doing so in response to this report. As part of this evaluation, it should consider:
We discuss these issues further below.
16.Ministers told our predecessor Committee that the introduction of Bereavement Support Payment was not designed to make savings. The Department reiterated this position during our inquiry. When Bereavement Support Payment was introduced, DWP forecast that spending on bereavement benefits would be £100m less in 2020/21 than if the reforms had not been introduced and legacy bereavement benefits (as set out in table 1 above) had continued. The Minister, however, told us that although he expected the spending on BSP to fall significantly in year three of the policy, he did not anticipate any net savings from the policy within the spending review period to 2019/20. The Department further told us that it did not have any more recent estimates of future savings, in part because the policy might be altered following the Department’s evaluation.
17.Many witnesses told us that the monthly payments of BSP should be paid for a longer period.
18.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. BSP was not intended as a longer-term replacement for income. This is a change from legacy bereavement benefits, such as Widowed Parent’s Allowance, which were paid for a longer period and were taxable.
19.However, our witnesses explained that the costs arising from a bereavement can continue for a long period—longer than the 18 months for which BSP is currently paid. Joana, who was bereaved in May 2018, told us:
18 months isn’t long enough, because the emotional and financial impact of the death of a spouse leaves the whole family in such chaos. You have to take it in steps, both emotionally and financially, to ameliorate the situation. […] Just 18 months—it took me a year to be able to face my husband’s death; it was on 23 May. Just a little bit more time would make a difference financially. Now, we have to think about November, which is when the payments are going to stop.
Baroness Altmann, a former DWP Minister who oversaw the introduction of BSP, agreed:
Most widowed parents and their children will take much longer than 18 months to adjust. Yet the new Bereavement Support Payment seems to suggest they should be fine by then.
20.We heard that the grieving process varies from household to household, which makes it difficult to set a length of time for which bereavement benefits should be paid. Scott Sinclair, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Marie Curie, observed that parents often take longer to adjust to a bereavement due to the grief of their children:
When we are talking about timelines, there is a mistake in treating grief as an injury that gets better over time. What we see a lot of now, particularly in parents, is putting managing their own grief to one side for their children during the first year, and actually it is the second year, for example, when grief will really hit.
21.Sarah Gigg, Director of Nursing at Sue Ryder, suggested that there was a need for further research and consideration in light of the factors that would determine an approach length of payment:
It is really important to gather more information about that from a variety of people in a similar need. Most people would say that 18 months is not sufficient time to overcome the challenges, and many people are not ready to go back to work after a year or two years. It takes time to rebuild lives, particularly when there are dependants in the family, be they children or other people who need caring for. People have conditions themselves and could be on medication. We know that bereavement can exacerbate conditions or lead to other conditions, such as mental ill health.
Scott Sinclair agreed:
A lot of the arbitrary deadlines and timelines that the DWP has need a much more thorough evidence base behind them—this one included.
Box 2: Joana’s story
My husband passed away in May 2018 and I’ve been getting Bereavement Support Payment for 12 months now. The payment will end in six months’ time and whilst I am sincerely grateful for this support, I cannot help but worry about further future financial strain.
My husband was a self-employed plumber and the sole breadwinner. Prior to becoming self-employed he worked as a hotel engineer for many years paying both taxes and National Insurance. He left behind a 4-year-old daughter currently being diagnosed with autism and I have been strongly recommended by the paediatrician to enrol her into a specialist nursery at a cost. I will be relying on some of the Bereavement Support to help pay for her care.
When applying for BSP I was painfully aware of the fact that there had been changes by the DWP which meant a significantly reduced / limited amount of time for this payment. My view is that in many circumstances 18 months will just not be long enough to adjust to the significant emotional changes and psychological impact in a bereaved person’s life, let alone the financial changes that come with losing someone you were either entirely financially dependent on or relied partly on.
22.BSP is paid for a maximum of eighteen months after the death of a partner. But 18 months is not long enough for many bereaved families to come to terms with the emotional and financial implications of their new circumstances. Nor too will the immediate costs of bereavement have passed by then. We recommend that the Department extend the period for which BSP is paid and consult on the most appropriate duration. This should form part of the Department’s evaluation of BSP.
23.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. This means that if potential claimants are not informed about BSP at an early stage, they can easily receive less generous payments or miss out on eligibility altogether.
24.The Department told us in written evidence that registrars routinely tell an individual registering a death to notify DWP and to consult GOV.UK, in order to access any support that might be available. The Department also said that its Bereavement Service tells people about their entitlement to any benefits when they use the Tell Us Once service.
25.The Childhood Bereavement Network asked participants in their survey how they had heard about BSP. Many had heard from family or friends (27%), or through their own research (22%), but many had also heard through Tell Us Once, the registrar, or DWP’s Bereavement Service Helpline (39%). Whilst this is broadly encouraging, CBN also found that 9% of respondents had not heard of BSP before their survey; and of respondents who had heard of BSP before the survey, 4.7% did not hear of the payment until four or more months after the death and so missed out on their full entitlement.
Figure 2: How did people hear about Bereavement Support Payment?
26.The National Association of Funeral Directors told us that they had held a survey of their members’ views on bereavement benefits. Only one in ten (9.89%) of respondents agreed that “the new bereavement benefit has been promoted well and signposted clearly”; six in ten (62.63%) of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed. One respondent commented: “none of my clients have been aware of the financial help that is available to them.”
27.Widowed and Young, a peer support network for young widowed people, had come across cases where individuals had only heard of BSP through their network:
We are concerned that not everyone who is eligible for Bereavement Support Payments has heard about the support available. Several WAY members have told us that they only found out about Bereavement Support Payments after joining WAY rather than through official channels.
Joana told us that she was only told about BSP when she was applying for Funeral Expenses Payment:
I wasn’t aware of it until I called to find out about the funeral expenses. I had been given information about funeral expenses by my wellbeing officer at the GP service, so when the time came and I contacted the DWP, that was when I was made aware that I could also apply for bereavement support. I understand that at the registrar there is some information that is put in together with Tell Us Once and everything, but I think there are only links to the gov.uk website; it does not speak about the bereavement support, as such.
28.People whose partner has died only have three months to apply for Bereavement Support Payment to receive their full entitlement, at what is likely to be of the most traumatic and busy periods of their lives. This short time limit for applying means that it is too easy for potential claimants to miss out on vital support, support which can ease the immediate financial pressures on grieving households following a death. We recommend that the Government increase the time limit for full entitlement to at least six months and take further evidence on the most appropriate time limit for application during its evaluation of BSP.
29.We welcome the steps the Government has taken to promote Bereavement Support Payment. But there is still room for improvement. Given the short time limit for applying for BSP, promoting it effectively is vital to ensuring that bereaved people get the support they need.
30.We recommend that the Government ensures that registrars advise those registering a death to check if they are eligible for Bereavement Support Payment. The Department should provide leaflets for registrars to distribute that explain the bereavement benefits to which people may be entitled and signpost to the Bereavement Service and Tell Us Once.
31.BSP is not taxable. However, the Childhood Bereavement Network told us that they had come across a small number of cases of people having their BSP taxed. This may be because the change of circumstances form for tax credits requires someone to declare if they receive Bereavement Allowance, a legacy bereavement benefit that BSP replaces. We heard that some people might assume this is a reference to BSP, especially given that BSP does not appear on the list of non-taxable benefits.
32.BSP is not taxable, but in a small number of cases people have had their BSP taxed. This may be because the tax credits claim form is unclear: in particular, claimants have to declare if they receive Bereavement Allowance—a separate, taxable benefit. We recommend that the Government update the tax credits change of circumstances form to clarify that BSP is not taxable and does not need to be declared.
33.Universal Credit (UC) is the Government’s flagship welfare reform, which subsumes six benefits into one, paid as a single monthly payment in arrears. What a claimant will receive depends on their income from work, income from other sources (which includes some other benefits, or investment income), and capital (such as savings) which is converted into income for the purposes of calculating Universal Credit. If their other income increases, the amount of Universal Credit they receive will decrease.
34.Monthly payments of BSP are not treated as unearned income for the purposes of Universal Credit, meaning that those payments do not affect any UC entitlement. However, the one-off payment can be treated as capital for the purposes of calculating UC entitlement if it is not used within 12 months, which means an individual’s UC entitlement may be reduced or stopped altogether, depending on how much other capital (such as savings) they have. It is not clear to us why this is the case, given that BSP would normally be paid for 18 months. As we note above, we heard that parents may often take longer to grieve, and may therefore choose to use the lump sum to pay for therapy or other support in the second year of a bereavement.
35.Bereavement Support Payment is not counted as income when calculating entitlement for Universal Credit. It is therefore difficult to see why the lump sum payment of BSP is treated after one year as personal savings or capital when calculating Universal Credit entitlement, particularly since BSP is designed as an 18 month-long benefit. People who have not spent their BSP lump sum at that point, for whatever reason, could see their UC payments reduced or even stopped whilst their monthly BSP payments continue. We recommend that BSP should not be treated as capital for the purpose of other benefits, including Universal Credit, for the full duration of its payment.
36.Anyone claiming Universal Credit must sign a “claimant commitment”. This includes commitments to undertake certain activities such as applying for jobs. Claimants who do not sign a claimant commitment cannot receive Universal Credit, and claimants who do not comply with their conditions without good reason can be sanctioned. This means some of their UC entitlement is temporarily withdrawn. Someone who is expected actively to look for work as part of their claimant commitment and is bereaved is entitled to a six-month “easement”. The easement temporarily lifts these requirements. If the claimant has children, the requirements can be suspended every six months for up to two years.
37.The Childhood Bereavement Network described applying conditionality requirements to bereaved people as “unnecessary, stigmatising and counterproductive”. Scott Sinclair, Head of Policy at Marie Curie, told us that there was no evidence base for choosing six months as the length of the easement:
There is a point here about the DWP coming up with these timeframes. I understand that they do a limited amount of research, but there just does not seem to be the evidence base to suggest that six months is an appropriate time. If you did that research properly, the answer that would come back is that it is uniquely individual.
38.Georgia Elms, Campaign Spokesman for Widowed and Young, reflected on her own experience of bereavement to suggest that six months was too short:
I was in a situation where I was on compassionate leave, but there was absolutely no way I could have been looking for a job at six months.[…] There doesn’t seem to be any compassion in this, but there needs to be. Your whole life just changes. Your future has just gone. It has just imploded. It is this big shock. Having to go to interviews and so on, that is just not fair. The benefits system is supposed to be there to help people in need, and this just doesn’t.
39.Work Coaches are frontline DWP staff who work in Jobcentres. They have a broad role in agreeing Claimant Commitments, providing advice to claimants, and helping them to seek and prepare for work. Work Coaches are non-specialists and are given some discretion to agree and suspend some parts of a Claimant Commitment. Work Coaches have the discretion to suspend Universal Credit work-related conditions for longer than the initial six months in certain circumstances. Our predecessor Committee questioned whether this discretion was the right approach, concluding that the success of UC already “rests heavily on the ability of Work Coaches to assess the individual circumstances of a claimant” and that “bereavement is yet another area in which they will need to exercise judgement.”
40.Universal Credit claimants will usually be required to look for work six months after their partner has died. In many cases this will be far too short. The six month “easement” available to claimants, to exempt them from having to look for work, may be appropriate for some but may fail to take account of households’ different circumstances and the potentially seismic effect of bereavement on their lives.
8 Childhood Bereavement Network ()
9 Childhood Bereavement Network ()
10 Department for Work and Pensions ()
16 As of October 2019.
17 Work and Pensions Committee, , Ninth Report of Session 2015–16 (HC 551), para 86
21 ; ; ; Aviva (); Ros Altmann (); Marie Curie (); Sue Ryder ()
22 ; ; Department for Work and Pensions ()
24 Ros Altmann ()
29 Marie Curie ()
30 Department for Work and Pensions (). The Tell Us Once Service is a Government initiative which means that individuals do not have to inform multiple departments or agencies of a death.
31 Childhood Bereavement Network ()
32 National Association of Funeral Directors ()
33 Widowed and Young ()
35 Childhood Bereavement Network (); Low Income Tax Reform Group ()
36 Department for Work and Pensions, , H5068
37 Department for Work and Pensions, , H2058
38 Department for Work and Pensions ()
39 Childhood Bereavement Network ()
42 Work and Pensions Committee, , Ninth Report of Session 2015–16 (HC 551), para 103
Published: 22 October 2019