Funeral Poverty — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:13 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Scottish National Party, North Ayrshire and Arran 5:13 pm, 13th October 2015

I pay tribute to Paul Maynard for introducing this important debate, which has inspired uncharacteristic consensus around the Chamber. Everybody in this room agrees that there is a problem and that funeral poverty is a huge issue affecting every constituency and every part of the United Kingdom, a trend shown by the 80% rise in funeral costs over the past 10 years—or higher in some parts of the UK. In the past year, the cost of a funeral has risen by more than 7%. Household incomes are simply not keeping pace.

As many Members have said, at an already difficult and stressful time, families are being forced into credit card debt and unwise access to money. They do so in desperation, to cover funeral expenses. Everybody understands that when a loved one dies, we want to give them the dignity and respect of a fitting send-off. What families are left with at the end, as well as their grief, is debt anxiety, which does not allow people to grieve properly as they ought to be allowed to do. There is also wide disparity in pricing. People can find out that in another part of the country, the funeral might not have cost quite as much as they paid for it.

Far too many families on low incomes face the brutal reality that they simply cannot afford the sudden death of a loved one. Of course, there is the option of life insurance, but to people struggling to put food on the table for their family, it too often seems like an unnecessary luxury. In certain circumstances, local authorities step in to provide a public health funeral, but recent research shows that the demand for such funerals is rising and many local authorities are struggling to cope. Funeral plans have been mentioned, but we have evidence that some companies offer over-50s plans to provide for their funeral, which can lead people on low incomes to pay thousands upon thousands of pounds without their families ever recovering the full amount paid in, because they paid in more than the funeral costs.

It is unacceptable for a bereaved family coming to terms with the loss of a loved one to have to go through the turmoil of worrying how to afford a funeral. Many Members have spoken about Scotland. The power to deal with funeral payments is due to be devolved under the Scotland Bill. Currently, the social fund is the mechanism that can, where conditions are met, help individuals in such circumstances with certain one-off payments, but as we know, the social fund has become another victim of the Government’s austerity cuts, and more pressure is being placed on families. The fund has failed to keep pace with the true cost of funerals, leaving some families with substantial debts. To illustrate further, the social fund reported a 35% increase in the number of clients facing funeral debt in the year 2013-14.

Tribute has been rightly paid to the social fund in this debate, but the issues I have raised have led some groups to take a more direct approach. I hope that we can all pay tribute to the Quaker Social Action group which, along with a network of not-for-profit organisations, has established the Funeral Poverty Alliance, dedicated both to raising the profile of funeral poverty as a social justice issue requiring the attention of Government decision makers and to ensuring that the public and the funeral industry alike are aware of the options available and the wider challenges. Such developments further elucidate the seriousness of the issue of funeral poverty.