Frank Field, the influential chair of parliament’s work and pensions committee, has accused the government of reneging on a promise not to cut funding for bereaved parents.
The Labour MP has written to ministers to complain about the policy saving tens of millions of pounds a year despite an early pledge that there would be no reduction to the overall amount spent.
“This reform started with a promise of no cuts. The government has reneged on that promise and it will now deliver £100m of cuts at the expense of widowed parents and their children,” he said.
Field’s intervention comes after an uproar about a policy change, due to come into place at midnight on Wednesday, which will lead to payments being slashed for bereaved parents with young children.
A man dying of cancer – who spoke under the name of Alan – told the Guardian he was astonished by the “callous and brutal” decision, which will mean his wife will receive £6,300 in tax-free payments over 18 months instead of a taxable benefit of £58,000 over 10 years. In an emotional interview, he said: “My death, on or before Thursday, changes my family’s wellbeing to the tune of tens of thousands. It is utterly unbelievable.”
Speaking to the Guardian after Theresa May defended the change as fair to taxpayers, Alan – who was given between one and five months to live in December – described her response as “poor” and questioned whether the government was listening.
“I never thought I would live [just] to see the day when a Conservative government behaved like the so-called nasty party. This development is truly callous,” he said, adding that he had always voted Tory and felt let down.
“The PM has no evidence and there is none to indicate that 18 months only is when support is needed. Grieving takes years and young children should continue to be supported.”
Although Alan’s case is somewhat extreme as he has a 10-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, other parents with young children will also be hit. Alan said he had followed the work of Field’s committee, which had repeatedly been told the change was not about saving money.
In a letter to the Department for Work and Pensions minister, Caroline Nokes, seen by the Guardian, Field presses the government on why the reforms are saving £100m a year and asks if that money can be used to extend the length over which the benefit is paid or to extend the money to unmarried couples.
Ministers have claimed that the changes are about modernising the system, as women are now more likely to work so are less dependent on their spouse’s income.
However, they have not made any changes to support unmarried couples with children. Alan – along with many campaigners – says the payments are in lieu of national insurance payments made over decades, and he has called the reductions “daylight robbery”.
In a response to Field, Nokes claims the savings will only be felt in the next parliament. “How to reinvest any savings which may arise from this measure is therefore a matter for a future government to decide,” she writes, although she promises to review the impact of the change to payments.
The government has suggested that other benefits could go some way to compensating lower-income families, and points out that not everyone loses. However, 75% of bereaved families with children will be worse off in cash terms.
Anushka Asthana, The Guardian