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I should like to start by thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise the subject of funeral expenses. Highlighting the vexed questions surrounding making a claim for social fund funeral expenses is not regularly debated in the House, so I am particularly grateful. I might also add in my preliminary comments that for fairly obvious reasons this is not a subject with which people easily or willingly engage, but it is none the less a serious issue that, in my view, requires Government intervention.
I have an excellent working relationship with councillors representing my party on North Lanarkshire council. Indeed, the council has introduced an outstanding best practice initiative on claiming funeral expense payments, which I will describe later. My friend and colleague Councillor William Hogg and I have had extensive discussions about how constituents on low incomes cope with bereavement and, in particular, with funeral expense payments.
Councillor Hogg represents the former mining community of Moodiesburn, and we will never forget the enormous sacrifice miners made over many decades to the economy, as their health was severely damaged and they contracted diseases such as emphysema, pneumoconiosis and silicosis. We will never forget the darkest day ever suffered by our community, the Auchengeich disaster in which 47 men lost their lives back in 1959. The people of that community will never forget that day, when so many men were killed, women became widows and mothers lost their sons.
That brings me appropriately to my introductory point: we can fix almost anything where there is a determination to do so, but death is final. When a person dies, people are saddened; when a relative or a close friend dies, we are emotional—in many cases, absolutely devastated. When we are in such a state of shock and there is no money for a burial or to pay for a cremation, we do not have time to grieve properly because we are anxious to avoid the embarrassing humiliation of a funeral without dignity. There is, of course, a safety net in the shape of the social fund, but I am sorry to say that public understanding and knowledge of that fund is not as widely known as it should be.
There are three specific areas that I aim to cover in the course of this debate: accessibility, eligibility and funeral payments. On accessibility, I want to be constructive and positive in sharing with my hon. Friend the Minister information about a pilot programme that was introduced by North Lanarkshire council. The initiative was designed to help people access social fund funeral expenses. The partnership between the Department for Work and Pensions and the council resulted in benefit packs being made available in registration offices—a perfectly reasonable proposition, given that when a family is bereaved, one of the first places it has to visit is the local registry office in order to register the death.
Customer feedback was greatly encouraging, as one woman was quoted as saying:
"Absolutely fantastic service, this partnership working helped to ease the transition of being widowed".
Another woman said that
"it was nice to know people cared".
If constituents on low incomes need to claim funeral benefit, we need to ensure that the service is easily accessible. The service provided by North Lanarkshire council ought to be seen as best practice when it comes to communication, but even when it is known that such provision exists, making a successful claim can be difficult for those who are eligible. A local funeral director told me:
"The biggest problem is when the relatives actually think they are entitled to a payment but don't qualify. It then turns out they are responsible for payment of the total funeral account. In these situations the demeanour of families can be aggressive towards Funeral services staff.".
Establishing an accurate record of the position in regard to eligibility, nationally and locally, has not been without difficulty. When preparing for the debate, I wrote to my local DWP office on
However, I wish to record my appreciation to the funeral directors in my constituency whom I consulted. I wanted to learn of their experiences in dealing with members of the public who had made applications for social fund funeral expenses. I was impressed by the professional responses that I received from Co-operative Funeralcare. Donald McLaren, a member of the National Association of Funeral Directors, Joseph Potts and Mr. Flannigan, who represents Lanarkshire and is incredibly well informed on the subject, could not have been more helpful. Funeral directors are very important: they have a wealth of knowledge as well as experience. Although I consulted them about the generality of what happens, I am certain that they have much more to offer by way of detail, which could make the process a little less painful for bereaved relatives.
Let me give just one example of what is happening to some bereaved families. According to Rights Advice Scotland, some funeral undertakers—not those whom I have mentioned—demand a down payment that can range from £440 to £675 before they will take a deceased person's remains into their care. Despite my references to my constituency and to Scottish organisations representing low-income families, my hon. Friend the Minister can be assured that I have no intention of being parochial, and I do not wish to pretend that problems associated with funeral payments are peculiar or exclusive to my constituency. The complexity of funeral payments, from accessibility to eligibility, spreads throughout Great Britain.
Let me make one more point before I turn to the main theme of the actual level of funeral payments. If I can be entirely open, people are not comfortable about discussing matters relating to death. I fully understand their reluctance to do so, as nothing is more emotive than bereavement. Making funeral arrangements is not a simple task: it is complex, but, more importantly, it is costly, and ever increasingly so, and it is that aspect that was the catalyst for this debate.
External research shows that it costs an average of almost £6,000 to die in Britain, after the cost of a funeral rose by 10 per cent. during the past year. The average cost of a funeral is now £2,390, with cremations, which account for 72 per cent. of funerals, costing about £2,160 and burials costing £2,620. The funeral is only the beginning of the costs families face when they lose someone, however, with about £229 typically spent on flowers, £98 spent on a death notice in a newspaper, and a further £149 paid for a funeral notice. On top of this, people also spend an average of £341 on catering, £612 on a memorial such as a headstone and £2,107 on the administration of an estate, bringing the total cost to £5,923.
The cost of funerals looks set to continue to rise, with charges estimated to increase by a further 38 per cent. between now and 2012 to average £3,299. Unsurprisingly, the cost of dying is highest in London, where it averages £8,020. A consultant who studied the industry said:
"Funeral prices alone have risen faster than inflation."
I cannot find a funeral director or a constituent who will confirm that the current funeral payment made via the social fund is sufficient. The Social Security Committee in 2001 cited evidence from funeral directors who said that
"they find it very difficult to offer dignified funerals to claimants at this level of the Funeral Payment".
The social fund is the main political concern within the funeral industry. Funeral directors believe that it is unfair to include their fees in a price cap that is frozen for uncertain periods of time with no formula in existence to increase the cap or reflect the increase in inflation. Moreover, the £700 price cap, which has not increased since April 2003, does not take into account the cost of a simple funeral. There is uncertainty over what "Other Funeral Expenses" includes, and the industry, together with the Churches Funeral Group, believes it is wrong for the minister's fee to be included in the £700 price cap. Allow me to cite the reasons for the funeral industry's concerns: the retail prices index has increased by 16.4 per cent. since April 2003, and the average cost of the NAFD simple funeral in March 2007 was £1,050.70.
There are a number of solutions that the Government could introduce to resolve the current situation, and I shall cite some examples. They could immediately increase the £700 price cap in order to reflect the cost of a simple funeral. They could index link the price cap to ensure fairness. They could provide clarity to the funeral industry, Department for Work and Pensions staff and the bereaved as to what is included in the price cap.
I respectfully urge the Minster to conduct a review of the present rate of funeral payments awarded through the social fund, and then to draw a comparison with the average funeral costs. It would be extremely beneficial to consult local authorities, and particularly the NAFD. Only by engaging in such a meaningful process are we likely to ascertain the true scale of difference and then, and only then, can we begin to bridge the gap in the evident shortfall.
Before I conclude, it would be remiss of me not to pay a justifiable and warm tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Olner, who is the chair of the all-party group on funerals and bereavement. His experienced and skilful leadership of the group is much admired on both sides of the House, particularly for his decorum and vision. Let me also mention Mr. Alan Slater, chief executive officer of the National Association of Funeral Directors, who is to be commended for his outstanding role in representing the valuable contribution of funeral directors throughout Britain.
This Government have an absolutely first-class record of helping people out of poverty, examples of which I will not weary the House by giving at this time of the evening, important though they are. The Government also have ambitious plans effectively to address decades of inequalities, and those plans will result in a more equal and fairer society. In that spirit, I urge them to end the shameful feelings suffered by relatives who may have had the most unfortunate experience of having a member of their own family—a loved one—who was too poor to die.
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