My children have lost a mother. Why must they lose cash as well?

Bereaved father's claim for his wife's benefits could end up costing the taxpayer millions
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The Independent Online
A widower launched proceedings against the Government in the European Court of Human Rights yesterday in a case which could cost the Treasury hundreds of million pounds in extra payments to bereaved fathers, who currently receive less state money than widowed mothers.

Kevin Willis, from Bristol, is bringing up two young children on his own after his wife Marlene died of cancer last June. Although a woman in his position would qualify for a one-off payment of pounds 1,000 and a weekly sum of nearly pounds 85, Mr Willis is forced to live off diminishing savings.

With the backing of the Child Poverty Action Group and the Campaign for Widowed Fathers' Benefits, Mr Willis is taking the Government to the European Court in Strasbourg. He is furious that Britain is the only country in the European Union where he, and approximately 20,000 other bereaved fathers, are illegible for benefits.

"The children have lost their mother and it seems grossly unfair to me that they should suffer financially as well just because it was mum and not dad who died," said Mr Willis yesterday. "It is completely unjust that motherless children should be worst affected."

Mr Willis gave up work to care for his wife after her condition was diagnosed in 1990, shortly after the birth of their second child. "We sat down together and talked about finances because we knew she hadn't got long to live and Marlene desperately wanted her children to have a decent upbringing," said Mr Willis. "We knew there wasn't much support available and we knew we had to save money quickly."

Mrs Willis worked as a housing officer for Bristol Housing Authority until 1993, when she had to leave because of her health. "She knew how difficult a mortgage can be for just one partner, and the relief on her face was obvious when we made the last payment the next year. She knew that whatever happened to her, there would be a house to live in for all of us."

Mr Willis previously worked for nine years as a field service engineer, which involved travelling away from home, and he is now determined to look after his children full time. Yesterday, he rushed back to Bristol from a round of television interviews and meetings in London to take his daughter to a Brownies meeting.

"While I am caring for them I will only be able to take a low-paid part- time job. Many fathers in my situation have to make a decision between losing their children or losing their home," said Mr Willis. "I am not prepared to let my family fall into that poverty-trap after what we have already been through." The family are now surviving on their savings, which Mr Willis believes will last for another four years, plus child benefit and pounds 100 a month from his wife's pension.

After his claim for support was rejected last November, Mr Willis decided to take action on the grounds that the Government is in breach of various provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, including Article 8, which concerns the right to a family life. "Marlene had been in her job paying taxes for 19 years," said Mr Willis, "and it is not right that the state doesn't provide for her children after she has gone."

Humphrey Woods, of the Campaign for Widowed Fathers' Benefits, said the situation dated back to the time when men were the sole breadwinners. "But times have changed and so should the benefit rules," he said.

The Child Poverty Action Group said that although there were other state benefits for widowers it was unfair that men such as Mr Willis are worse off than women in similar situations. "Based on recent cases we believe we have a strong case," said David Thomas, the CPAG's legal officer. "However, rather than force Kevin to take his case all the way to Strasbourg, we would like to see whoever is in power after the election change the rules to reflect the reality of modern life."