Dear Minister..

Earlier this 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 for us.


I am sharing this letter just before another debate takes place in Westminster Hall tomorrow (Thursday, March 2nd).  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.  Please take five minutes to read my letter and then follow this link (from the Childhood Bereavement Network) if you would like to email the Prime Minister about these changes:


Dear Minister,

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 Widowed and Young (WAY), 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.  A widower told me only yesterday about his new-found skills in the kitchen, while I have learned how to replace the decking.


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.  Unfortunately, this brought some very challenging behaviour, which included worrying risk-taking (such as running away in the dark, aged six) and comments about going to be with Daddy.  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.


Yours faithfully,

Mrs Beth Phillips

5 thoughts on “Dear Minister..

  1. I am a lawyer. I work for the government. In 2012 I worked full time, while my husband worked part time and raised our two young children. I regularly travelled abroad with my work and loved my role. I was the main bread winner and a manager. Everything changed when he suddenly died in an accident.

    The effects are still felt 4 years on.
    I tried to go back to work full time. However, my parents are elderly and could not pick up the reins and take the children on. More importantly, in reality my children needed me. Just as Beth describes, I had to radically re-think my life. Grief is not an 18 month process. The children will continue to grieve for a long time.

    On a practical level my children now have only one parent. There is no opportunity to share the parental duties as might have happened had I separated from their father. Nor are their two living incomes available to support the children. I have no one to claim child support from as would have been the case had I separated from their father.

    Their father is dead. He worked and paid NI contributions for 21 years which would have been available to him in the form of a pension. All we are asking is for the money to continue to be redirected to support the children as the deceased parent would have done had they lived.

    As a civil servant I am extremely grateful that I was able to negotiate hours which fit around my children’s school hours. The civil service prides itself on its work/life balance. However not all employers are as flexible.

    I could not have afforded to drop my hours without the Widowed Parents’ Allowance. I now earn much less than previously and the small wage that my husband brought in through part time work is also lost. Without the Widowed Parents’ Allowance I simply would not have been able to cope. Nor would I have been able to support my children emotionally.

    I recognise the government aims to reduce the deficit. However I believe this measure is short sighted and will cause real impacts for families which will be felt for many years. Children of school age need a functioning parent who is able to support them, both financially and emotionally. This is particularly the case in a situation where there is no alternative.

    Widowed parent are emphatically not “single parents”. We double parent. Of course there are single parents who have issues with ex partners failing to support their children. There will always be cases of feckless parents who abandon their children which is a tragedy. The difference in the case of bereaved parents is that this is not the exception. The deceased spouse is simply no longer around to provide support. It is not a choice.

    I also recognise that life insurance is available and can provide a real buffer, paying off the mortgage for example. However, not all policies apply equally and the reality is that some parents simply do not pay for life insurance, given the squeeze on incomes. If the government believes parents should in all instances take out life insurance policies it has to publicise the cuts to WPA and make sure all parents understand the risk properly – before it is too late.

    I was lucky. We had life insurance. But my children continue to need me, their remaining parent, to raise them. This is a long term role. The WPA does just that. It does not engender a reliance upon benefits or a culture whereby the remaining parent ceases to work. Quite simply it enables me to continue to work and pay my bills. And my late husband, through the money he paid into the system, continues to be able to provide for his children.

    I would urge the government to reconsider making such a cut. I recognise bereaved parents are not a group with a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act but I would urge a proper assessment of the impact of these proposed measures on vulnerable families.

  2. I have great sympathy with all the views expressed here. It seems incredible that such dramatic changes are proposed for a very vulnerable community. I do take exception, though, to the comment above about “feckless partners”. My father deserted my mother and three children when I (as the youngest) was 3 years old. He took all their life savings and never paid a penny in maintenance despite being taken to court several times over the years. My mother was left destitute and had to take a job that did not reflect her skills in order to keep house and home together. Like you say she was not a “single parent” but like all people who are on their own with children with no other support for whatever reason, she was a double parent. The strain had such an impact on all our lives and she had a heart attack in her early 50s and had to then rely on state benefits. I am only pointing this out as I do not think it is helpful to make comments about other “single parents” and assume it is different because the absent parent is not dead. I struggled with knowing my father had chosen to desert us and it did impact on my and my siblings’ wellbeing. I still support the arguments against changes to the bereavement benefits but do not find it helpful to make comparisons with other groups of single parents. Every situation is different. I would not claim to speak for other families with an absent through choice parent, nor make assumptions about their situations.

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