Siobhan McLaughlin case discussed at Westminster, Government again pressed for update

Laura Banks

13 February 2019

 

Almost 6 months since our client Siobhan McLaughlin’s landmark judgement on entitlement to bereavement benefits for children of cohabiting parents, the case has for the second time been discussed at the House of Commons.

Liz Saville Roberts MP said she felt compelled to raise the case, particularly wishing to highlight the issue on behalf of her constituent, Mr. Arwel Prichard and his family. Mr Pritchard’s partner of 24 years died from cancer. Mr Pritchard and his children are now being disallowed bereavement benefits, which Liz Saville Roberts describes as “callous” and “heart-breaking”.  

She added: In many ways, Widowed Parent’s Allowance has been around in one form or another since the inception of the modern welfare state. Society recognises that the death of either parent causes great trauma in a family and seeks to alleviate that distress with financial support. But although the names and conditions of bereavement support payments to widowed families have evolved since the days of Beveridge and Attlee, the requirement for widowed parents to be in a legally licensed relationship —either married or in a civil partnership—is a throwback to the social mores of the 1940s.”‚Äč

The Beveridge report of 1942 acknowledged, in a very different social context, the “problem” of unmarried couples being discriminated against, but none the less recommended limiting widow and guardian benefits to “the legal wife of the dead man.”  That principle has remained enshrined in certain aspects of our social security system ever since.

That discrimination on the grounds of marital status was challenged in Northern Ireland by, Francis Hanna client, Siobhan McLaughlin, whose appeal was ultimately backed by the UK Supreme Court last summer.   Ms. McLaughlin’s partner, John Adams, died in 2014. The couple were not married, but they had lived together for 23 years. At the time of his death, the couple had four children, aged between 11 and 19. The late Mr. Adams had made sufficient contributions for Ms. McLaughlin to be able to claim Widowed Parent’s Allowance had she been married to him.

The Supreme Court ruled by a majority of four to one that denying those payments to Ms. McLaughlin was incompatible with Article 14, in conjunction with Article 8, of the European Convention on Human Rights. Its judgment also sets out incompatibility with Articles 2 and 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Essentially, the Court reasoned that although the promotion of marriage and civil partnerships as a policy goal is a legitimate aim for any Government, denying Ms. McLaughlin and her children the benefit of Mr. Adams’s contributions simply because they were not married was not a proportionate means of achieving that policy goal. In other words, privileging marriage and civil partnerships with tax breaks is one thing, but denying money to grieving children simply because they come from unmarried households is quite another.”

Liz Saville Roberts asked when the Government planned to implement the changes to end the unlawful restriction and treatment of children who happen to hail from unmarried parents.

Mr. Justin Tomlinson, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Work and Pensions, responded by saying that:

“The Government’s focus is very much on appropriate and immediate support…. However, the issues are complex and there is no quick fix. As Lady Hale, herself, noted in her judgment:

“It does not follow that the operation of the exclusion of all unmarried couples will always be incompatible. It is not easy to imagine all the possible permutations of parentage which might result in an entitlement to Widowed Parent’s Allowance.”

He added that the government are “not pushing this in to the long grass”, they are taking it very seriously and there is extensive and comprehensive work going in to it.

Liz Saville Roberts responded with concerns that if discrimination against children is being facilitated on the grounds that it is bureaucratically too difficult to resolve the issue, that is not making the interests of the child a priority.

She, like our client Siobhan and many other thousands of families, eagerly await Governments changes with interest.

The full transcript of the debate can be found here.

For any bereavement benefit or Social Justice query, please contact Laura Banks on lbanks@fhanna.co.uk or phone 028 9024 3901 for a no obligation discussion.