Funeral Poverty — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:51 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields 4:51 pm, 13th October 2015

I would definitely like to thank Quaker Social Action, which I have done a lot of work with over the past 12 months. I am aware of some of the quite startling stats about this growing problem mentioned by my hon. Friend. I really do not think it is going to go away; it is going to get worse. Worryingly, as she said, the cost of a funeral service continues to rise well above the rate of inflation and the average debt is rising.

Losing a loved one, as most of us will sadly know, is one of the most difficult experiences we face in our lives. It shakes us and changes our world forever. In the middle of that personal turmoil, the last thing that people need is money worries. People will always feel a strong duty to do right by others when they depart, which makes it especially painful for those who are not able to provide what they see as a fitting service for their loved ones. That is why we need to have a really serious conversation about funeral affordability.

Hon. Members may be aware that in the previous Parliament I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill. The aim of my Funeral Services Bill was to approach some of the issues around funeral affordability. At the centre of the Bill was a call for the Government to carry out an overarching review of funeral affordability. When researching the issue, it quickly became clear how many factors affect the price of a funeral and how many Departments have a stake in it. Making funerals more affordable is not simple and requires co-operation between the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Ministry of Justice; only a cross-departmental approach can work. I hope that the Minister can give us a commitment that the Government will begin to look strategically at funeral poverty.

I am aware that there is not enough time to cover everything, so I will focus on one thing that should be reformed urgently: the way in which social fund payments operate. Funeral payments give people much-needed support, but the system has some major flaws. A funeral payment covers all of an applicant’s necessary costs plus up to £700 of other costs. That might sound reasonable enough, but, in fact, those other costs include things such as funeral directors’ fees and ministers’ fees—things that we can agree most applicants would consider necessary. The £700 cap was set in 2003 and has not kept pace with the rising cost of funerals, so funeral payment awards are increasingly inadequate. The average award is just over £1,300 at a time when the average funeral costs £3,700. If the cap on other costs had risen with inflation, it would stand at just under £1,000 today. As we have heard, funeral costs rise even faster than inflation. Although I appreciate the comment by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys that the social fund is a contribution, the reality is that if we want funeral payments to be fit for purpose, that cap needs to rise.

The other issue is the way applications are administered. At the moment, the DWP requires an invoice from the funeral organiser before it can process a claim, which means that people have to commit to a service before they know the value of the funeral payment they will receive. Inevitably, that means that some people commit to a funeral service they cannot afford and end up in severe debt. The process is completely backwards. The DWP urgently needs to look at how it can give applicants a clearer idea of the support they will receive, which will help people to make a more informed decision about the kind of service that is right for them.