Laura Banks: Bereavement benefit inequalities more striking now than ever

Laura Banks
Laura Banks

Laura Banks, solicitor at Francis Hanna & Co, highlights ongoing inequality in the bereavement benefits system.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the government’s response to the pandemic has been how quickly measures have been put in place and laws have been passed in order to support people when they need it.

We have seen months where every homeless person has had a roof over their heads for the first time in decades; unprecedented support schemes implemented for employees and employers alike and significant changes to our benefits system.

This has been quite simply remarkable and something to take a pause to commend. Yet there is one group in society who sadly seem to have been forgotten - that is bereaved children, who continue to be discriminated against unlawfully by this government.

The exclusion of the children of unmarried, cohabiting parents from bereavement benefits was held unjustified discrimination by the Supreme Court more than 18 months ago when our client Siobhan McLaughlin won her landmark case. The unlawfulness of this policy has been recently affirmed in the High Court in England.

It has been estimated that 2,000 families throughout the UK lose out on much needed support as a result of this unlawful policy, with many children sadly being forced into poverty and hardship. The restriction has been branded as “shameful”, “deplorable” and “unacceptable”, and it has been pointed out that the UK government is one of the few throughout Europe who discriminate against bereaved children on the basis of their parent’s marital status.

Yet the government has so far ignored the court rulings and widespread calls to bring the policy in line with societal changes and human rights laws. Only weeks ago, a number of charities called for the issue to be urgently addressed and an open letter to the Prime Minister was signed by 18 organisations calling for immediate law reform.

At that time, it was pointed out that for each and every day that the government fails to act, a further five families throughout the UK are denied support. These families are being treated like second-class citizens and face the double blow of not only losing a parent in their childhood but also losing out on state support.

With one in five children now being born to unmarried parents and that figure set to rise, more and more children are suffering devastating consequences. It is, of course, hard to escape the irony that the Prime Minister’s child, born last week, is now one of these children and yet the government continues to overlook them.

In the current pandemic and as we come to grips with rising death tolls, the implications of this restriction will sadly be even more far reaching than ever, and it is unthinkable to consider those who are dying whose children will be ignored under this policy unless urgent action is taken.

At the outset of this pandemic it was said: “Let them say that when things were at their worst, we were at our best.” Time will tell what the history books will say about our government at this time, but the very least we can hope for is that human rights be afforded to all in our society, including all bereaved children.