Carolyn Harris MP: Grief is a unifying force

Carolyn Harris MP

Last month, Carolyn Harris MP became the first ever Deputy Leader of Welsh Labour. For more than a year previously, she had been campaigning for a children’s funeral fund, speaking publicly about her experiences when she lost her own son. Her campaign succeeded in April when the Prime Minister confirmed that England would follow Wales’ lead in covering the cost of child burials and cremations.

Ms Harris spoke to SAIFInsight about that campaign, her local experiences in Swansea, and what the UK Government can do nationally.

Could you start by telling us a bit about your background and your journey into political activism and, eventually, parliament?

I always had an interest in politics; as a child I’d spend my weekend helping deliver leaflets for local councillors and would sit outside the polling station watching people going in to cast their vote rather than playing with all the other kids who had a day off school.

I was always that person that people would come to for advice or to help write a letter, even while I was working as a dinner lady, but I didn’t see it as political at the time, just helping people out. When I was 34, I went to Swansea University to study social history and social policy; from there my confidence grew and I no longer felt like an outsider in the world of politics.

I began working for Sian James, then MP for Swansea East, and 10 years later I was selected to defend the seat in Parliament.

You’ve been exceptionally brave in publicly sharing your personal testimony of loss, and of financial hardship. What advice would you give other bereaved parents to help them talk about their experience and seek emotional support?

We all grieve in different ways and my advice would be to cry if you want to cry, laugh if you want to laugh. Don’t be afraid of your emotions.

When I first started publicly talking about losing Martin, I felt I was experiencing the grief all over again and I just wanted to shut myself away from the world. I was fortunate to have spoken with so many bereaved families and organisations over the last 18 months and shared our stories of loss. Talking is such a powerful therapy, but for some it can be quite difficult, especially at the beginning.

It is unusual for campaigns to receive such levels of cross-party support. Was building that coalition of support challenging? What did it mean to you to have allies from across the political spectrum?

It was difficult for me initially so speak out in Parliament about losing Martin. I didn’t think I would be able to do it, but I was given so much support from my colleagues and from Jeremy Corbyn, which gave me the strength to stand in the chamber in November 2016 and tell my story.

From that day, the love and support I received from colleagues on all sides of the House was overwhelming. We have all lost loved ones and it is one of the many things that unifies us as human beings as well as politicians.

You’ve been a high-profile campaigner for reform on child funeral costs, but can you say a little bit about the role that other bereaved parents have played in the campaign? How have you supported each other, and built this campaign up together?

There have been times during this campaign when I have felt deflated, such as when the Chancellor had failed to include the fund in his budget, and I have received an email or a letter from a bereaved parent sharing their story and asking me to persist. These constant reminders of why a children’s funeral fund is so crucial have given me the drive to continue pressing the Government.

You represent Swansea East in parliament. What do you love most about your city? What sort of support have you received from your constituents, and from funeral directors in Swansea and beyond?

The thing I love most about Swansea is the people of Swansea – that and my home which I rarely get to see these days as I’m so busy.

I have had tremendous support from the people of Swansea, which was one of the first local authorities to abolish their fees for under 18s at their cemeteries and crematoriums. From the day I first spoke of my loss in Parliament I have had constituents getting in touch daily to pass on their condolences and thank me for highlighting the issue.

I have met with many funeral directors, including Co-op Funeralcare, Dignity and independent funeral directors, all of which told me of their existing policies to waive their fees for children and pledged to continue doing so.

Your campaign first had success in Wales, where you’re a constituency MP, and then in England, where you had a voice via your seat in the UK Parliament, but there is still no such central fund in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Will you be taking your campaign there?

I am already in discussions with some of my Scottish colleagues in Parliament as I would like this to be a UK-wide fund to eradicate the postcode lottery of local authority fees. I will not rest until every inch of the United Kingdom is covered by the children’s funeral fund.

Is there more the government can do, to further support the funeral sector in tackling funeral poverty?

There needs to be a review of the Social Fund, which at present is capped at £700. With the average funeral costing £4,000 and the application form being more than 30 pages long, the Funeral Expenses Payment is incredibly difficult to obtain and counts for very little towards the total costs.

Finally, you’ve just been elected as Deputy Leader of Welsh Labour; what ideas do you have for the future of Wales, and what campaigns will be next for Carolyn Harris?

I intend to visit every constituency in Wales and engage with local members, to give them a voice and motivate them to become more active in their local communities and beyond. This is a campaigning role that I cannot wait to get my teeth into.

I am already in talks with local businesses and colleagues about doing another Kid’s Lunch Club this summer, with the intention of replicating it all across Wales where families are affected by holiday hunger.

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