“We’re very sorry, you can’t claim – you’re ineligible.”
This is what Anna Hedge was told from across the desk at a benefits office, a few months after she lost her partner Paul in 1999. He had been killed just after New Year in a car crash; the person driving him was drunk. Hedge, then 27, was three months pregnant with their first child.
What she didn’t realise at the time was not only had she lost her loved one, but also one half of her imminent family’s income.
“I assumed there would be something,” she recalls. “We’d both paid tax and national insurance so I thought there must be something. And it very rapidly became apparent to me that there wasn’t. It’s precisely that kind of situation that the Widowed Parent’s Allowance [WPA] is supposed to help with.”
Hedge received nothing from the state after her partner’s death simply because they weren’t married. They lived together, shared a bank account, both worked, but her grief meant nothing to the government.
Excluding unmarried couples from this assistance continues today. Married couples, by contrast, are eligible for payments until their youngest child leaves school. Or they were, up until this week. From Thursday, all widows and widowers – married or not – will receive a much lower level of help from the government.
The cut to the bereavement benefit takes effect on 6 April, and it will limit payments to bereaved married parents to 18 months. And where the Widowed Parent’s Allowance used to reflect the individual departed parent’s national insurance contributions, its replacement – the Bereavement Support Payment – will now be a lump sum. Claimants with children will receive £3,500, and then £350 a month on top of that for just 18 months.
So if your family loses a married parent on Thursday, you will only be eligible for a year and a half’s worth of financial help.
The change is part of former Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity measures to cut the welfare budget by £12bn this Parliament, a promise made in the Conservative manifesto in 2015 and announced in that year’s Budget.
Georgia Elms, chair of the charity Widowed and Young – which supports people aged 50 and under whose partner has died – calls this a “new low” for the Conservatives. She has been fighting against it for six years, since the consultation on the change began. “It’s just despicable; ‘Nasty Party’ is actually being kind to them,” she says.
In 2006, her husband Jon died suddenly from meningitis two weeks after their daughter’s first birthday. The day after his death, Elms discovered she was pregnant with their second daughter.
“I know what it’s like – I had my whole planned life taken away from me when my husband died suddenly. It just happened so quick. We had a happy family life,” she tells me. “The government is just not thinking about us. For these people, everything’s gone, and to suddenly say, ‘right, we’re going to take money off you as well’ – it’s just a real kick in the teeth. Suddenly you go from a two-income family down to one, and you’ve got to bring your children up.”
Elms relied on WPA, saying the money “put food on the table, paid for school shoes and things like that. Eighteen months is just too short.”
It also meant she could leave her full-time sales job to working part-time. “As they grow up, children’s grief comes in waves,” she explains. “They don’t understand the concept of death until they’re about six. With my children, long after the 18 months the government is now paying money for.
“My girls got very upset, worrying I wasn’t going to be around to pick them up from school. Because I worked part-time, I was able to pick them, I was there for them. I was able to take them to bereavement counselling.”
She says the government cut will “take away their [bereaved families’] choices”, and says her charity is concerned that people “are going to have to go back into full-time work” after their partner’s death. “They need to support their children, at a time when they themselves are grieving. We’re worried about their mental health.”
The allowance only makes up a quarter of 1 per cent of the welfare budget, but reducing it could have a drastic financial effect on families who are already suffering emotionally. The Childhood Bereavement Network calculates that a bereaved parent will on average be £12,000 worse off due to the cut, and the Guardian finds that some families could miss out on more than £100,000.
“It’s an utterly tone deaf response,” says Hedge. “It makes me angry on an emotional level because it has brought back that rejection I suffered at the time, and got swallowed up into the immensity of my grief.
“But it also makes me angry on a policy level, because this isn’t free money; these benefits are calculated on the basis of the national insurance contributions people have paid, and the pension that they could’ve expected to receive had they lived.”
Now 45, and working for the NHS, Hedge tells me her family suffered without WPA. It was impossible to stay in her demanding research career in London as a single parent, and she moved to Essex a couple of months before her son James was born.
“It’s something I’ve got crosser about as time has gone on,” she says. “Because James is 17 now, and as children get older they need things, and sometimes they need their parent around a bit more. That option to calibrate my working hours in response to James’ needs has been minimised by [having no assistance], because I don’t have that choice. It just wasn’t an option.”
The Department for Work & Pensions defends the reform by saying it is merely an update of an outdated system, which assumed that “a widowed parent relied on their spouse for income, and would never work themselves” and no longer reflects reality.
This reasoning jars with the failure to “update” the overhaul to take in unmarried parents – after all, the proportion of children born to unmarried parents has grown over the last decade to nearly half last year.
“It’s grotesquely unfair that this government has said it’s modernising and all the rest of it,” says Hedge. “The same government that says it doesn’t want to interfere with business people, keep its noses out of people’s lives, is very judgemental when it comes to what it deems to be a ‘proper family’. I’d say the government is having its cake and eating it, because it’s posing as modernising whilst not really modernising at all.”
The government will save £100m a year with this cut – at the cost of widowed families, when they need the greatest support. Theresa May claims the new bereaved family payments are “fair to taxpayers” – in spite of them no longer reflecting the tax payments of those leaving their partners and children behind.
“To take that away from a family when they need it the most, and to paint this as somehow correcting an injustice, is almost surreal,” says Hedge. “Because there you have a family who’s just suffered an awful injustice at the hands of fate or disease or whatever it may be. And there’s a government minister taking money off these people because it’s ‘fairer’. It’s just absolutely inhuman.”