Funeral Poverty — [Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:29 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys 4:29 pm, 13th October 2015

My hon. Friend is right. None of us really wants to think about what we will do when the reality presents itself to us and we have a funeral to organise. Not only do we have to process the emotions that we inevitably feel, but there is an entire series of practical steps that have to be gone through that we are probably not best placed to go through at that time. We are not acting as the informed consumer that we might be if we were going down the supermarket to make a normal purchase. This cannot be the normal purchase that we might like it to be.

The experience can be overwhelming at times and many people require a degree of practical help in trying to navigate the process. For some, yes, the need to organise might be a welcome distraction from the process of grieving, but I do not think it can ever be accepted that these things will just happen of their own accord. As Marie Curie points out, there can be quite an adverse consequence for the grieving process if the result is not the right one in the end. Above all else, the cost of a funeral can be a massive shock to the budgets of families who perhaps do not start off with a significant amount of resilience in the first place.

The fact that I organised today’s debate seems to have provoked a number of insurance companies into rushing out annual reports a few weeks early. Both Royal London and SunLife had to get a move on down the printers, and Royal London’s report, which came out on 5 October, showed once again that funeral costs continue to rise. It now estimates that about one in 10 people is struggling to meet the cost of a funeral. The other provider, SunLife, in its “Cost of Dying” report, which came out even more recently—this weekend—found that the cost of a basic funeral had risen to £3,693, with a further £2,000 spent on discretionary items such as extra limousines, venue hire and catering. That is a sizeable sum, which, if not met out of the deceased’s estate, will place a substantial burden on the family if they have few savings yet need to find the money for a deposit even to start the process. No wonder research shows that credit cards and funerals are two of the items that we most commonly find together.

For those whose financial resilience is low to begin with, the phenomenon of funeral poverty almost has a sad inevitability about it. It leaves people facing a scale of debt and a suddenness that they simply cannot be expected to prepare for, so I think that it is right and proper that we look today in particular at what the Government’s tools are for trying to deal with the problem.

The main one is the social fund funeral payment, which has been in existence since 1988. It combines an uncapped commitment to “necessary” costs such as burial and cremation fees, along with a capped amount of £700 to cover such items as the coffin, the memorial and funeral directors’ fee. With an average award of £1,347, it undoubtedly makes an important contribution to the costs of a funeral for those who receive a qualifying benefit and where no other family member can meet the bill.

It should be made clear that the benefit is designed not to pay the full amount of the funeral costs, but to make a contribution. That is the policy objective. It is worth assessing whether the benefit functions as it should against that policy objective. I am sure that we could all express views on whether it should achieve other objectives, and there might well be a debate to be had on that matter, but I want to assess the benefit against that particular objective to start with.

It is worth noting that within the average figures, there is a broad discrepancy. The discrepancy between the cost of a burial versus a cremation leads to some perverse outcomes. The amount that an individual gets will depend on which they opt for and where they are in the country. There is no inherent, internal logic in the amount that an individual will get when they are faced with meeting these bills.

The capping of additional costs at £700 has been controversial for quite a while. I first got involved with this topic when the NAFD came to see me about it. I understand why it is a complex issue. Some suggest that over time the value of the £700 has been eroded. Mathematically, that cannot be argued against. Inflation means that if we were paying that £700 now, based on the amount that it started out at when capping first took place in 2003, it would be slightly over £1,000. Perhaps the best way to think about this is not to argue whether it is too high or too low, but to look at the costs that it is designed to meet.

We have a very poor understanding of where the money from the social fund funeral payment is actually going. We understand where the capped amount—the £700—goes. It does not meet all the additional costs, many of which are discretionary and at the choice of the consumer, but the Government—rightly, in my view—seek to meet all the necessary costs, which relate to the legal requirement regarding the disposal of someone’s remains. It is right and proper that the Government should meet all those costs, and they recognise that. There can be no model in which all the necessary costs are not met.

However, despite five years of trying to achieve that—without any luck—it is very hard to track through the Department for Work and Pensions where those necessary costs are going. Different local authorities charge different fees for cremation and burial. There is no consistency across the country. There are some perverse factors, such as the growth of private crematoriums driving up local authority crematorium costs as well. I have asked on a number of occasions, as other hon. Members have, for more information on what the money is going on. It makes it very difficult, I think, for both the Department and interested observers to make an accurate assessment of whether the benefit is performing adequately and reaching its policy objective. We need to understand what the cost drivers are, and it is important that the Government try to work out what more they can do to improve the data collection. I would be interested to know what steps the Minister thinks that he can take to improve the data collection to allow that analysis to take place.

There are various anecdotal reports that not every council runs its crematoria on a cost-recovery basis. If some are seeking to cross-subsidise, that ought to be at least transparent to the Government; that might help them to understand how the overall amount spent remains roughly the same at some £46 million each succeeding year, while the proportion spent on necessary costs continues to fluctuate. The Government need a better understanding of what is going on.

Many have argued that a relatively straightforward step in the right direction would be to index-link the capped payment—the £700—to inflation. When I put that to the Minister’s predecessor, Mr Webb, he replied:

“One risk of index-linking these payments is that prices would rise and recipients would be no better off”.

I have interrogated that statement from as many logical positions as I possibly can, and I still cannot make head or tail of it. I do not think it relates to the reality faced by funeral directors or consumers. Although I recognise that there is a need for much greater transparency on the part of funeral directors when it comes to offering itemised estimates without having been asked to do so, to my mind a £700 cap leads to some perverse outcomes. Increasing numbers of funeral directors carry a substantial amount of debt because they have to act as debt managers, and that leads some of the larger chains to turn people away when it becomes clear that they may require some social fund payments to pay for the funeral.

I ask the Government once again to look at index-linking—not merely as a spending commitment, but to help them better understand the cost drivers from local Government and to use whatever savings they achieve to pay for the index-linking that would allow funeral directors to cover more of their costs. That would also give the Government an opportunity to look at saying to funeral directors, “Right. We have index-linked, so now let us look at how the industry can improve its delivery of services and act in consumers’ interests to get a fair outcome.”

I ask the Government to consider balancing the need to fund necessary costs with the need to ensure that those costs are constrained on the part of local councils—there can be no blank cheques—and that additional costs are not squeezed merely to ensure the funding of necessary costs, of which we do not have a full and proper understanding. There is a danger that, as debate on and public interest in the subject grow, we may get some perverse demands for change that will not lead to any improvement in the experience of the bereaved. We need robust, coherent data to judge the right way forward, and at the moment we do not have that information. Many observers in the sector strongly believe that to be true.

We also need to look at how the benefit works. From my time on the Work and Pensions Committee, I know that it is important to be quite forensic on each individual benefit. What is its policy objective? Is it delivering that objective? How is it being managed? With some 51,000 applications for the social fund funeral payment, some 41% of which were rejected, I wonder what scope there is to improve the pre-eligibility scrutiny of those applications, because 41% is quite a large number. I suspect that many will be quite transparently not eligible at an early stage.

There have been numerous meetings about how to improve the process, but we still seem to get roughly the same number of rejections. I would welcome the Minister’s view on what more could be done to improve that. The bereaved should not be left disappointed by going through the process of arranging the funeral, only to be rejected later. That can be quite devastating, and it causes many of the financial problems that I have mentioned. In turn, it leaves the funeral directors out of pocket, and they have to chase the debt.

Will the Minister address the situation of people who are awaiting a decision on a qualifying benefit? They are trapped in two DWP holding circles: a decision on their own benefit, which will have consequences for their entitlement to the social fund funeral payment. The form is very complex. Virtually every Work and Pensions Committee report that I have been involved with asks the Department to improve the layout of the form and to subject it to the test of the behavioural insights team. No DWP form can ever not be improved, and I think that this particular form would defeat even me if I tried to fill it in.

The timeliness of decision making matters. The Department’s performance on that is quite good; its target is 16 days, and it seems to fluctuate between 17 and 18 days, so it is not that far off—I can think of many other examples of where it is nowhere near its targets. Although that represents quite good performance, the target of 16 days is actually three days longer than the average time between a death and a funeral. Timeliness of decision making is still an issue, and it might be improved by a pre-application eligibility procedure, if such a thing could be introduced.

I would welcome the opportunity for relatives to know before they commission a funeral the scale of resources that they are likely to have at their disposal. Some relatives may feel that the measure of their grief and loss can somehow be proportionate to the complexity of the funeral that they commission, and although I understand why that is the case, it would be helpful for people to have a clear understanding from funeral directors at a very early stage about what the items on the bill will cost. It would help for them to know how much will be spent on each element and which elements were required, which were discretionary and which were optional. At the moment, people are not acting as informed consumers. Affordability works both ways, because if a funeral director offers a more affordable plan to the customer, they are more likely to get their money in the end. Both parties can benefit from that, and it would alleviate the levels of debt.

One interesting element of the debate is budgeting loans. Steve Webb participated in a debate on this subject a few years ago, in which he talked about budgeting loans being a solution to much of the problem. Despite repeated efforts by the NAFD to get more information out of the Department through freedom of information requests, no one seems to have evidence of any budgeting loan being taken out for the purpose of paying for a funeral. I would be interested to know whether there is any evidence that that is actually happening, because we do not have any data on it.

I will try to wrap up rapidly, because I am running out of time. I have been struck by the calls for regulation of the industry. I recognise that it is tempting to say that there should be a much greater state role, but I do not think that we have exhausted the good will of the industry. Quaker Social Action runs its fair funerals pledge, and many funeral directors are signing up to it, particularly from the younger end of the industry—the insurgents. That disruptive influence on the industry, focusing on what the consumers actually need, can only be a good thing. I am not entirely clear that the industry needs to be castigated. I know many of my local funeral directors, and they are compassionate, caring people who want to do the best on behalf of their community. I am sure that that is true in all our constituencies.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that no one goes into the process with a clear understanding of what costs they should reasonably expect. No one knows what a cheap funeral looks like versus an expensive funeral; one is merely presented with a bill at the end. It is difficult to understand how the component parts of that bill have been assembled, and, emotionally, one is probably not in a position to interrogate it. That can make it difficult to be an informed consumer, and it suggests to me that the market is not fully formed. It is hard to regulate a market that is not acting like one, and in which consumers are not making informed decisions at the point of purchase.

I support Quaker Social Action’s call for some sort of non-governmental third-party ombudsman role. When Steve Webb discussed the matter a few years ago, he talked about “Tell us once” being a possible mechanism for achieving that, but I do not think that it has lived up to its expectations in that regard. It has done a good job of reducing some of the bureaucracy, but it is not acting as a signpost to the best advice on how to navigate this complicated process. I would welcome the Government’s looking at signposting people to groups such as Quaker Social Action, and considering whether such a group could perform an ombudsman role. Yes, that would need to be funded—advice always needs to be funded—but I suspect that sufficient savings could be made in the administration of the benefit to fund Quaker Social Action to play that role.

Many would argue for some linkage between the social fund funeral payment and a defined “simple” funeral, and that suggestion perhaps causes the greatest concern. It is very hard culturally to define what a simple funeral would look like. Quaker Social Action has been cautious not to require those funeral directors signing its fair funeral pledge to guarantee to provide a simple funeral. Instead, it says that the funeral director should clearly advertise their cheapest available funeral.

We need to be careful not to go down the route of the state defining what type of funeral it is prepared to pay for. A lot of cultural elements circle around how we decide what is appropriate for our loved one. It is difficult to try to define what that simple funeral ought to look like.