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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered funeral poverty.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. While few things are certain in this world, we can be sure that almost all of us will have to go through the unbearable, gut-wrenching pain of losing a loved one. Since death does not work to a strict timetable and can often come without warning, even at the end of a long illness that final passing can still take us by surprise. The support and help that people need at this time must surpass all normal standards. Sadly, it does not, which is why I secured this debate.
I am deeply frustrated that the debate is one in a long line I have contributed to on this subject. Over the past four years, I have faced a multitude of Ministers and met numerous organisations and groups in an attempt to press the Government to make much-needed reforms to how funeral services and, crucially, social fund funeral payments, administered by the Department for Work and Pensions, operate. The measures I have pressed for, and which I proposed in a Funeral Services Bill some years ago, would ease the burden of those who want to give their loved ones a fitting tribute. That I am here again to ask the Minister the same questions is evidence enough that, despite warm words from the Prime Minister as recently as last week, when she said that
“it is important to families and individuals to be able to give their loved one a proper funeral”—[Official Report,
Vol. 646, c. 160.]
the reality is that, on her Government’s watch, more and more people are simply unable to do just that.
One key ask in my Bill, and from many other people at the time, was for the Government to carry out an over- arching review of funeral affordability. Back in 2014, more than 100,000 people were estimated to be suffering from funeral poverty. A Co-op survey earlier this year revealed the number now to be 4 million. That is 4 million people who have experienced financial hardship as a result of a loved one’s death.
The gulf between incomes and living costs continues to rise as the Government’s agenda, coupled with punitive welfare and benefit reforms and inaction on low-paid, insecure work, has led to a record 8 million working adults living in poverty.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her tenacity and determination in taking on this terrible scourge. Is she aware of the exploitation that people face when trying to bury a loved one, with local authorities doubling, tripling or quadrupling burial fees for someone who did not live in the borough at the time of death, even if they own the grave and lived in the borough almost their entire life?
One measure in my Bill was to look across the board at what local authorities and the market were doing in relation to funerals, because people are being exploited at such a sensitive time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Is she aware that the average cost of a burial nationally is £4,561, yet the average social fund funeral payment is £1,427—about 35% of the cost? Given the rising cost of living in other respects, that is quite a burden on a lot of families, and a lot sometimes have to sell goods to pay for funerals. Does she think that there should be an investigation into funeral charges, and also into the scope of the social fund itself?
It should come as no surprise to my hon. Friend that I will address all the points he raises.
As I was saying, a record 8 million working adults live in poverty in the UK, with 14 million people overall living in poverty. It is little wonder that, for someone living day by day and hand to mouth, the final act of giving a deserving tribute to their loved ones is heartbreakingly out of reach. An estimated 81% of people have been unable to save for a funeral. Funeral poverty in the UK has now reached a record high of more than £160 million in 2017—a 50% increase in the last three years alone. There has also been an increase in people having to wait more than a year to bury family members.
The cost of a basic funeral is now £4,078, yet this can rise in some London areas to as high as a staggering £12,000. Around a quarter of families that cannot afford funerals borrow from friends or relatives, a quarter put costs on a credit card, and the rest take out loans or work out an instalment plan with funeral directors. Some even sell their belongings. It has been revealed recently that people are increasingly turning to crowd- funding websites to raise money for funerals, with JustGiving showing a 400% increase in people asking for money from friends, families and strangers to fund funerals for their loved ones. I cannot imagine having to seek support from strangers on a faceless website to pay for a loved one’s funeral.
My Bill and the “Support for the bereaved” report by the Work and Pensions Committee both called on the Government to negotiate a simple funeral service and to establish with the sector a reasonable cost for items required for a simple funeral. The Government claim that doing so would interfere with people’s choice but that they are working with stakeholders to agree what might be included in a standard package funeral. I hope the Minister can advise us what stage he is at after two years of discussions.
For those struggling to afford a funeral, there is state support in the form of the social fund funeral payment. It is accessible to those on certain benefits, but it is in absolutely dire need of reform. In 2017, out of the 41,800 applications for the fund, 16,900 were declined. Considering that the fund can be accessed only once funeral costs have been committed to—once a debt exists—that leaves almost 17,000 people struggling to pay. The DWP’s target to deal with claims is 16 days, yet the average between a death and a funeral is 13 days, and much less for some religions and cultures.
Those payments also categorise certain aspects of a funeral. The provisions refer to “other expenses” as being funeral directors’ fees, ministers’ fees and a coffin. These apparently optional extras have been capped for 15 years at £700. If the cap had kept up with inflation, it would be £300 higher today. However, funeral costs have far exceeded the rate of inflation, more than doubling since 2003.
I acknowledge the Government’s changes in recent years, such as allowing recipients to receive contributions from other sources without deductions, extending the claim period from three to six months after the funeral, and introducing both a shorter application form for children’s funerals and the electronic submission of forms. However, the stark reality is that, without exploring the regulation of the market and funding demand and establishing eligibility for the social fund before people commit to costs, the number of those in funeral debt will continue to swell. In 2016, the then Minister rejected calls for an eligibility checker, saying that that would cause more “confusion”. I find it absolutely impossible to see how someone knowing whether they are eligible to afford a funeral for their loved one before committing to one can cause more confusion than not knowing and being saddled with debt.
The hon. Lady is making very important points about the social fund funeral payment system. Does she agree that it not only is confusing but adds considerable emotional stress for those going through the system if they wait so long for a decision as to whether they will get money, bearing in mind that the grant itself does not even meet some of the basic costs of a cremation, for example?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The process is indeed distressing and complex for many people. I think the forms that need to be filled in number 24 or 26 in total. When someone is grieving and trying to find the money to pay for a funeral for a loved one, filling in 20-odd forms and trying to have a clear head while doing so is nigh on impossible.
Today the Minister may well refer to budgeting loans as an option for helping families to pay for funerals, but I am sure he knows as well as I do that the figures for how many people apply for those loans for funerals are not recorded or kept centrally and that the average amount of a loan in the past year was only £420.
The Government should note that putting their head in the sand does not make this problem go away; it simply moves it around. A freedom of information request via ITV revealed that a 70% increase in public health funerals over the past three years has cost local councils up to £4 million. Historically referred to as paupers’ funerals, they are the last option when there is no one available to pay. It was also revealed that some local authorities were not allowing families even to attend those services. In short, taxpayers are paying for funerals one way or the other. Surely, making the fund fit for purpose is preferable to the scenarios I have outlined.
I am pleased to say that, where the Government are failing, others have stepped up. The Fair Funerals campaign—Fair Funerals is no longer in operation, but I thank it for its co-operation over the past few years—successfully managed to persuade one third of the industry’s members to display transparent, honest prices on their websites. The Co-op announced that it would invest a further £6 million in lowering funeral costs by introducing a best-price guarantee, reducing the cost of its cheapest funeral to £1,895, and the Competition and Markets Authority announced a review of the £2 billion funerals market earlier this year.
“the funeral expenses payments do continue to cover the necessary costs involved with funerals and cremations”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 646, c. 160.]
That is completely wrong and contradicts the DWP webpage, which clearly states that the payment
“will not usually cover all of the costs of the funeral.”
It is also at odds with what funeral directors themselves are saying, with 95% reporting that Government funeral payments no longer cover even the very basic costs.
I appreciate that, in the past, Ministers have been unable to comply with all my asks on funeral poverty, so today I have only two main asks: a commitment to raising the social fund funeral payments and a commitment to introducing an eligibility check. Those two simple asks would make a world of difference.
Funerals are not a choice. Death shakes us and changes us forever. No one ever wants their loved one to pass away, and the debts associated with the funeral—or the memory of not being able to give them a decent send-off—loom over people for years. In austerity Britain, people are not just struggling to afford to live; they are also unable to afford to die. The Minister has an opportunity today to make some very small departmental differences that would ease this enormous burden on people in their darkest days. I just hope that, this time, he will.
I congratulate Mrs Lewell-Buck on introducing the debate and on the contents of her speech. I entirely agree with her on the two issues that she drew to the House’s attention at the end of her speech, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to address them. I also join her in congratulating Carolyn Harris. She is a formidable lady and led a brilliant campaign—it was an all-party effort. I am delighted that the issue of funerals for those under the age of 18 was addressed.
Some people do not like talking about death, but it is the one thing that none of us can avoid. All of us here will have been to many funerals. We are asked to give eulogies. On a number of occasions, I have been asked, even though I am not a vicar, to take the funeral. And we all deal differently with the moment of saying goodbye to someone. My wife wants no fuss whatever; she wants a cremation and she wants her ashes scattered off the end of Southend pier. Her husband wants to be buried—that will give people the pleasure of lining up just to screw the lid down on the coffin. We all want to say goodbye in different ways, but the hon. Member for South Shields is absolutely right; with all the stress that people have at the time of someone dying, the last thing they want is the added stress of wondering how they will pay for the funeral.
A number of my points have already been made, but there is no harm in repetition. New research from Royal London puts the average cost of a funeral at £3,757, which represents a 6% increase over the past five years. Some people might say that that is not a big increase, but it is really, and it has had a knock-on effect, with people taking on an average debt of £1,744. The impact of funeral poverty can be financial, in the form of a legacy of debt, because of all the insurance policies that people are signing up to. Many of us, in our constituency surgeries, are coming across any number of elderly people who have taken out those policies, and they just pay peanuts. Although families struggling with funeral costs could be entitled to help from the Government to pay for necessary costs, research has found that that support goes only so far.
This is what I really want to address to the Minister. The average social fund funeral payment award—Mr Cunningham brought this issue to our attention—was £1,429, about 35% of the average cost of a funeral. As a result, even people awarded a grant are left with a substantial shortfall, which often leads them into unmanageable debt, because they are stressed and very vulnerable. Even if any award such as that average provided some relief to claimants, there are other important factors to be noted. The social fund funeral payment is all well and good, but up to £700 can be paid for other expenses and the cap for that payment has remained at £700 since 2003. It is absolutely ridiculous that for 15 years it has remained at £700. I would like the Minister’s response to that.
The Department for Work and Pensions will pay out a grant only once the funeral has taken place. That in itself is an issue, and I know that one or two of the Scottish National party Members will want to say something about that. Again, the situation is not very satisfactory. Funeral directors normally require a deposit of more than £1,200 before a cremation can go ahead. That is a lot of money, and it rises to more than £3,000 for a burial, which is what I want.
People find themselves having to raise that money fairly quickly, before they know whether they will receive anything from the DWP. Unfortunately, family members of the deceased are often expected to have sufficient savings to afford a funeral, but that is rarely the case, as death often occurs unexpectedly, or after a period when savings have been depleted as a result of healthcare costs or long-term illness, leaving a stressful financial situation.
This is not just about the Government providing more funding to help families afford funerals; a number of steps could also be taken to improve the accessibility of low-cost funerals to family members. After a house, a car and a wedding, a funeral is the most expensive purchase that anyone will make—although, I am beginning to find that one’s children’s weddings should be at the top of that list. In spite of that—I say this as a member of the all-party parliamentary group for funerals and bereavement—there is little consumer scrutiny of the funeral industry. That can largely be explained by the fact that bereaved people are vulnerable consumers who are understandably reluctant to shop around. If someone has died, the bereaved are expected to make three or four phone calls and go to the lowest bidder, but life is not like that. Most consumers do not realise that there is a huge difference in funeral charges. Additionally, the funeral industry is not subject to mandatory state regulation and there are no rules governing what funeral directors can charge for their goods and services, which is surprising.
The United Kingdom’s funeral industry is worth an estimated £2 billion—that is big money. Although there are 1,600 funeral directing companies across the country, the market is dominated by three big companies: Dignity, the Co-operative Funeralcare and Funeral Service Partners. My family tends to use two wonderful family firms—it sounds as if we are dying all the time, but this is over a number of years—because east-enders have what we like to call funerals in style, with horses and a carriage, which is expensive. Those firms, Cribbs and Stibbards, which can do the funerals in a wooded area or just a simple funeral, are absolutely magnificent. Combined, however, the funeral industry is making quite a big profit, with annual growth of around 3% between 2011 and 2016.
Despite the various issues with the funeral industry and the Government’s efforts, I am delighted that the Government responded positively to what the hon. Member for Swansea East said and that the call for action on funeral poverty has gained political momentum over the past few years. Quaker Social Action’s Fair Funerals programme, which ran until earlier this year, set out a number of recommendations, which will provide much needed relief to family members while they are grieving. The first recommendation is to raise the social fund funeral payment to cover basic costs. Within the funeral fund, the amount of money available for funeral costs should increase in line with funeral cost inflation from £700 to £1,377.
Secondly, I am asking the Government to create a plan to tackle funeral poverty. It would be highly effective for different Government Departments to work together—I know that is not always easy—to set out how best to deal with the situation. Little is known within Government about how different state bodies cover and interact with bereaved people on low incomes. A Government inquiry should take place, so that recommendations can be made for improving the situation for people on low incomes arranging a funeral. I do not want an inquiry that will go on and on, but a short inquiry followed by some action.
Finally, a third-party advocate scheme should also be created to provide a solution to several of the factors that result in funeral poverty. The scheme could quickly determine for people their eligibility for SFFP, and other state and charitable grants, and it could help them find a funeral that meets their needs at a reasonable price. Such a scheme would likely save the DWP time and money, as state funds would be channelled towards funeral directors charging a reasonable price, rather than those with inflated costs. That could have the overall effect of bringing prices down across the industry.
I do not want to live in a country where someone who is short of money, in this day and age, has to resort to crowdfunding a funeral—that is ridiculous. As a Conservative, I embrace the spirit of enterprise, but this issue affects everyone. The people who are left behind, who do not always know the circumstances of the person who has died, have to deal with the situation. I hope that the Minister will say yes to the hon. Member for South Shields, yes to the hon. Member for Southend West, and yes to anyone else who will make a point.
I thank Mrs Lewell-Buck for the constructive and informed way she opened the debate. Funeral poverty remains a pressing issue, which affects far too many of our constituents. I have spoken in debates on this matter on every occasion it has arisen since I was first elected in 2015. I have spoken to far too many constituents who have been deeply distressed by the costs of burying their loved ones. As Sir David Amess pointed out, there is a rare consensus on this issue, because we all recognise that it cuts across party boundaries.
The matter I keep returning to in these debates is that when a family loses a loved one, a bereaved person’s human instinct, through the shock, fog and bewilderment of grief, is to give the person they have lost the best and most dignified send-off they can. There is nothing else they can do. Often, understandably, thoughts about the cost of the funeral do not factor into their considerations at that time of grief, and only later—albeit when the grief is still raw—does the reality of the debt and the cost of that send-off become apparent. Too often, for too many people, the anxiety over this debt works against and interferes with the entire grieving process.
We can agree that, for those on benefits and low incomes, help with funeral costs has not kept pace with the cost of funerals. That must be a cause of great concern to all of us. In our constituencies, we have all witnessed the anxiety of those struggling to meet funeral costs for their loved ones, as they battle through their grief.
As we have heard from the hon. Member for Southend West, it is important to remember that, as well as the huge variations in the cost of funerals, funeral plans are not realistic for those struggling week on week to put food on the table. The over-50 plans we hear about can also mean that those on low incomes pay thousands upon thousands of pounds over many years, with the full amount paid never recovered by families, despite the deceased having paid in more money than the funeral actually costs.
Now that responsibility for funeral payments has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament, I look forward to a much more well-rounded and compassionate approach to support for bereaved families struggling with these costs. The Scottish National party Scottish Government plan that the funeral expense assistance benefit will replace the current DWP funeral payment by summer 2019, with an additional £3 million to support another 2,000 people each year who would have received no support at all from the DWP under the old scheme. They are also looking at uprating the flat-rate part of that payment to take inflation into account, unlike in the rest of the UK, where, as we heard from the hon. Member for South Shields, the payment has been frozen since 2003 at £700, which is a help, but is woefully unequal to the task of helping families with these costs. The SNP Government will also ensure that guidance is provided on funeral costs, funeral planning and strengthening consumer protection with regards to funeral plans. They will make a real effort to tackle funeral poverty by working with credit unions and delivering a social innovation fund.
Funeral poverty is a cruel and bitter obstacle to grief. Coping with the loss of a loved one is bad enough, but 12% of people report that they got into debt trying to pay for a loved one’s funeral. It is simply not acceptable that, in the increasingly unequal society in which we live, people often cannot afford to live and now, it seems, cannot afford to die, as I have pointed out in every single debate on the subject since 2015.
I am heartened by the Scottish Government’s measures. I urge the Minister to at least carefully study their proposals and try his best to match the commitment to supporting bereaved families at their most vulnerable time.
The inevitability of death and the recognition that life is temporary grow with the passing years. Death begins as a distant destination, but as the years go by, it becomes a nearby place that one does not want to go to, and ultimately, a near neighbour that one does not like. That realisation is less and less prevalent in our society, however, as we have become more frightened of death. I suppose that is to do with the decline in belief in an afterlife, which has made death so terrifying for people. The lack of preparedness might reflect that—people just do not anticipate or prepare for death in the way they once did.
My ancestors took out insurance policies of a farthing, a ha’penny or tuppence a week—we are going back to years gone by, of course—to raise enough money to pay for a simple funeral. These days, however, it is a simple fact that people do that less, and funeral costs have risen, as we have heard repeatedly. People’s expectations of funerals have changed too. They want the send-off to be a more significant affair, and that is not unreasonable. Why would they not want that, when they have lost someone whom they love?
As several hon. Members have said already, that time of grief is horrible, frightening and bewildering, and while feeling bamboozled by all that has occurred, people are faced with the business of organising that last goodbye—the final passing. As has been said by Mrs Lewell-Buck, whom I congratulate on bringing the matter to the attention of the Chamber, in those circumstances, it is unsurprising that sometimes people do not know where to turn. They are vulnerable.
I had an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber on the subject and raised it with the Prime Minister last week. The number of public health funerals has grown immensely, by about 200% since 1997, as has been said already—I do not want to repeat what other hon. Members have said, except to amplify points that need to be made. I have a simple request: the Government need to issue guidance to all local authorities that those funerals should be conducted with decency and dignity.
It is appalling that some local authorities forbid next of kin—the nearest and dearest—from attending those funerals. I was with representatives of the funeral industry yesterday, in anticipation of this debate, and they told me that several local authorities do the right thing, including my own in South Holland. You would expect that from a well-run Conservative local council, would you not, Mr Streeter? It is not actually a matter of party, and I do not mean to make light of it, but there are local authorities that refuse to return the remains of the departed to the family; refuse to notify the family of the time of the funeral, which is so extraordinary and shocking that it is almost beyond belief, yet it is true; and refuse to allow them to attend. That is intolerable and it should stop straightaway.
I do not expect the Minister to do anything about it today—let us give him reasonable notice, because I have been a Minister, as he knows—but he should do something about it by the end of October. By then, every local authority should have learned from Government that that practice cannot be allowed to continue. The local authority highlighted by the funeral director I met yesterday was Derby City Council—that is a start. I was told that that practice happens there. I would like that to be checked, and if it is true, for action to be taken immediately. Other councils have already been highlighted in the national press.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that people should be able to have any funeral they want with numerous cars and bells and whistles at an unlimited cost. That would not be responsible and I do not think people would expect it. I am told by the funeral industry that they can conduct a perfectly dignified funeral of the kind that we have all been to, and which we might expect for ourselves, at a reasonably limited cost, where people can be invited and there can be a minister or some other person to conduct the service in a decent and dignified way. Some councils will not allow them to do that, however, and will not even allow them to have a minister there. As I say, it is bizarre. Let us get it sorted by the end of October.
The funeral expenses payment scheme, which was frozen in 2003, represents a smaller and smaller proportion of the total cost of a funeral, as has been said, and has become less meaningful than it once was. I have suggested that fewer people prepare for funerals. Of course, some people are not given that luxury, because death might be unexpected. If someone dies suddenly or at an early age, how can they be expected to have prepared for that eventuality? Given that, it is right that we raise the payment to a reasonable amount. The Prime Minister generously invited me to write to the Chancellor to suggest that he did just that in the Budget, and he can expect a letter from me that makes exactly that case without delay—indeed, I am meeting a Treasury Minister later today to discuss it.
The challenge is actually a bit more complicated than that, however. It is not just about the size of the grant, but the business of applying for it. About 30% of people who apply get no money at all, because the system is complicated and there is a big problem with who can apply. Complicated family rules mean that only a nearest member of the family can apply, so there are all kinds of complications with stepchildren, second wives, first husbands and other things of that kind that need to be clarified. The process needs to be smoother and simpler, because people are bewildered, in grief and confused. That must be understood and the matter must be dealt with sensitively.
I accept that not all of what I request is within the Minister’s purview, so I hope he will forgive me. One of the problems is that this matter crosses several Departments, which is always a difficult business in Government. We need to act on the recommendations of the 2016 Work and Pensions Committee report, which called for a simpler and more streamlined process, for the reasons that I have suggested. Let us do what the Select Committee asked to make it a straightforward affair and make the grant meaningful.
I want others to be able to contribute, so I will finish now by saying this. It is sometimes said that there are no noble causes left—nothing worth fighting for; no wrongs to be put right—but there is no more noble, virtuous battle than this one, and I will fight for those cruelly dubbed “paupers”, as they have been described as in the press. “Paupers’ funerals” is a cruel description. People who are poor and are looking to bury those they have lost and loved deserve to be treated with dignity, decency and discretion. The Minister can make sure that happens. In his response today, he can see to that. If he does not, and if the Government fail to act, I will make sure they do.
I congratulate Mrs Lewell-Buck on securing the debate. She has spoken on this matter before. Indeed, I think that everyone who has spoken today has spoken on this before. It continues to be a bugbear for us all, which is why we are here to make our contributions. I thank all those who have spoken in the debate, including the hon. Lady who introduced it, for their valuable comments.
This is a sensitive issue. I can remember dealing with such issues when I was a local councillor, so I have some knowledge of how the system back home seeks to address it. I want to tell a story that clearly illustrates the issues. In my home, a pauper’s funeral happens more than I like to think, unfortunately. The very name “pauper’s funeral,” as Mr Hayes indicated, encapsulates what happens.
A lady that my staff and I had sought to help had no family—we were not aware of any relatives, to be truthful. As an elected representative, I and my staff had a relationship with her though our office. We heard that she had passed away and the girls in the office rang the council to find out the funeral arrangements, because they wanted to pay their respects. They wanted to make sure she was not buried alone, because they were aware that she had no immediate family. They were not aware of all the circumstances until she died. They were sensitively told by the council that as no one had claimed the body, the funeral would take a number of weeks to arrange. In Northern Ireland we have a tradition of people being buried three days after they die. A week is an awfully long time to wait. I know that here on the mainland it can sometimes take even longer, never mind a few weeks.
The girls were taken aback when they were told that there would be no funeral service. They could not understand why that should be the case. The remains would be taken from the undertakers in the cheapest coffin and laid to rest in the council-allocated paupers’ grave section, where there would be no funeral service as such. That was probably our first introduction to what it really meant to have a pauper’s funeral, although in my capacity as a councillor I was aware of it happening once or twice before.
Whenever someone passes away, a catalogue is drawn up of all the items in their house, if they have a house, or the car or whatever it may be. Unfortunately, in the cases that I have been aware of, there has been nothing of value in the house. Everything was taken out and disposed of.
To go back to what my hon. Friend said about Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the UK, with the much shorter time between the demise of the deceased and the burial, is that not all the more reason for clarity at a very early stage, particularly given that in most cases some members of the extended family will be in other parts of the country, or possibly overseas? It is a very short period in which we need clarity and certainty about the extent to which family members, if there are any, will have to contribute to the funeral costs.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Clarity is what we hope to achieve through this debate. There are occasions when someone has passed away and their families have not had the financial capacity to pay for the funeral, which is why we have paupers’ funerals, where no one is there to help. During my time as an elected representative—as a councillor, as a Member of the Assembly and now as a Member of Parliament—I have had occasion to be involved with families who have had no financial assets at all. The system has changed now, but it used to be the case that if no one in the family was working, or if someone was old or disabled or on benefits, at least some of the fees for the funeral could be provided. I know that the system has changed in Northern Ireland, and probably elsewhere.
To go back to the lady who passed away, when my parliamentary aide asked for details of a time so that she could attend and read a psalm, she was told that she would have to ring back closer to the time, but they could not guarantee that the lady would not already be buried. My hon. Friend referred to clarity. My goodness me! We did not even have the detail of when the funeral would be held. The lovely council official—I want to be clear that they were trying to work within the system—reassured the girls that often the undertaker used by the council would pray before the burial. Although that eased some of the angst, the girls were upset that that was the way things had to be done. I wish to thank the undertakers who, in their own time and as a mark of respect, ensure that there is a brief prayer or reading. They are not paid to do that, but they still do it, and we thank them for that. There are a great many people of good will and intentions who wish to help.
We understand that local authorities simply cannot afford to foot the bill for a full funeral, but a pauper’s funeral is a terrible way to be laid to rest. I am a firm believer, as are others in the Chamber, of “absent from the body and present with the Lord”. There is something to be said for a respectful interment. I am in no way saying that the bodies are treated with disrespect, but could changes not be made to ensure that people can at least attend the interment of the body? It is important to have a send-off.
Some cases have been fairly prominent in TV programmes. We have had occasions when people die alone, and perhaps there is some money to bury them, but they do not have anyone to go to their funerals, and it is important to have someone to pay respects and to be respectful at a funeral. Could a change not be made to ensure that people can at least attend the internment of the body, so that those who could not be expected to pay directly for the funeral, such as social workers and church families, can at least pay their last respects?
I should have said at the beginning—it was remiss of me not to do so—that I welcome the Minister to his post and wish him well. I said that to him in the Chamber last week and I have now said it again publicly. He contributed greatly in his previous ministerial post at the Department for Work and Pensions. I wish him well.
Funeral poverty reached a record £160 million across the UK last year, and one in six people say they struggle with funeral costs. That goes back to how the financial pressures associated with funerals can make an already difficult time overwhelming for bereaved families and loved ones, causing additional stress on top of existing grief and leaving a lasting negative impact on their health and wellbeing. Those who are on benefits can apply for help with the funeral costs of a loved one, but “help” is the operative word. They can receive some money towards burial fees and the rights to burial in a particular plot, and money towards cremation fees, including the cost of the doctor’s certificate, and up to £700 for funeral expenses, such as the funeral director’s fees, flowers, a coffin and travel to the funeral. The estate will be liquidated and any money will go towards the funeral. However, bearing in mind that the average funeral in Northern Ireland costs just under £3,000, there is a large discrepancy and a large debt for a grieving family to pay off over time.
I read in the press this week that the Co-op is offering a cheap funeral—in no way does that take away from its commitment—for about £1,900. It would be fairly basic, but none the less it helps some families. In her introduction, Carolyn Harris, who has been involved in the issue of funeral costs for some time and had an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber on this very issue. She is not here today, but her story is incredible. For those who have not heard it, I gently suggest that if they get the opportunity they listen to or read her story. That lady had nothing when it came to paying for a funeral, and the community came together to help and support her at a time of need.
Many funeral directors have started a system that enables families to contribute to payment schemes—I have them in my constituency and I very much welcome them. They take away the need to make a financial commitment all at once and have helped some people. Everyone in this Chamber knows that we are sure of only two things in this world: death and taxes. The costs of a funeral have certainly risen over the past 15 years, so I join the hon. Member for South Shields and other hon. Members in asking for an increase in the social fund funeral payment, to ensure that people are not having to go to food banks in order to pay for a loved one’s service. Many organisations, such as Christians Against Poverty, can sometimes assist. The churches also help, and some funeral directors cut their costs to the bone to make a funeral happen.
There has to be a better way of doing things. I am asking the Department to consider upping the funeral grant in line with inflation and allowing people connected to those who have the indignity of a pauper’s funeral at least to get friends or connections to say a few words as the remains are interred. That is important. We have to have more compassion for people who are in dire circumstances, and believe in the fact that no person would allow a loved one to be buried in an unmarked grave if they could possibly help it. We can do something small, such as providing for a set time of interment if requested, to allow some dignity and marking of the occasion. We all understand why councils cannot and should not put on fancy funerals, but allowing people the opportunity to pay respects cannot cost that much, can it?
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate with you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. I congratulate Mrs Lewell-Buck on securing this important debate, and on the way she presented her argument. I pay tribute to her for the work that she has being doing on the issue for a number of years. She mentioned a review of funeral affordability, and what she said is right. I will touch on the Scottish Government’s action with reference to that. She also said that, alarmingly, 81% of people are unable to save for a funeral. That is why I hope we shall soon get to a place where funeral plans become more attractive to consumers. She criticised UK Ministers in relation to social fund funeral payments, and other Members made similar calls to the Minister. Perhaps that will form part of his Budget submission in the negotiations that will no doubt take place between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury in the coming months.
Siobhain McDonagh intervened to raise the issue of council-based costs for funerals—burial and cremation fees—and she was right to do so. Without doubt some local authorities, including the one covering my constituency, North Lanarkshire Council, have used burial and cremation fees as a cash cow, to mask cuts in other areas. It is extremely worrying. The hon. Lady was right to pay tribute to the Fair Funerals Campaign for exposing some of that behaviour and campaigning for greater transparency from funeral directors. I am sorry that that campaign no longer exists.
Part of the problem, which I did not highlight in my speech as I did not want to go on for too long, is that currently there is a separation between what is known in the industry as the disbursements—the cost of the cremation, burial and so on—and other costs. The current statute refers to necessary funeral costs, and that needs to be revisited. A minor amendment, through secondary legislation, would enable us to make it much clearer what the funeral grant pays for. Simplification is required.
I appreciate that intervention. Clarification is also required in the context of the funeral plan market. The criticism and the furore about consumer rights issues in relation to funeral plans has in part been about that very issue—what people should expect the plan to pay for. Many people have redeemed a product but found that they were still liable for burial and cremation fees that were substantially more than anyone would expect to budget for.
Sir David Amess made a very good speech. I have had the pleasure of working with him on the issue and, as ever, he was constructive and helpful. He was right to draw attention to the fact that the £700 additional expenses have been frozen for so long. I hope that his intervention, and that of Mr Hayes, will influence the Minister to strengthen negotiations with the Treasury about the upcoming Budget. I do not think that dealing with that would cost an awful lot of money, but it could make a major difference to people’s lives. On that issue, and the regulation of funeral directors, which the hon. Member for Southend West also touched on, we are doing something different in Scotland. I know he is aware of that, and I hope that the Minister’s attention can be drawn to it.
My hon. Friend Patricia Gibson made a good speech, having also campaigned on the issue since her election to Parliament in 2015. She is known for being consensual, so it was to be expected that she would draw attention to the rare consensus in the Chamber today—and she was right, as there has been a great degree of consensus. My hon. Friends and Labour colleagues were nodding along sagely to the speeches of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and the hon. Member for Southend West. I hope that Ministers will take that consensus into account. My hon. Friend also raised the matter of people’s overwhelming, understandable and natural desire to give their loved ones the best possible send-off, and the reality of the debt that sadly results from that natural desire. She spoke of several areas in which a greater amount of action could be taken—and is being taken, north of the border—to alleviate some of the pressures felt at the sad time of a death in a family.
The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings spoke about some people’s lack of preparedness for death and the understandable reasons for that, which were well documented in his speech. He touched on something I have already spoken about, which could solve that problem: funeral planning. I think that we have the answer there, if we can get the regulation right. I reiterate the call that the right hon. Gentleman and Jim Shannon made for more dignity in what have been termed “paupers’ funerals” —social or council-run funerals—and that is right. There have been examples of what they mentioned in Scotland, too. Having a dignified funeral for a loved one should not be the preserve only of people who can find thousands of pounds at the drop of a hat. We should all expect that for our loved ones, and for ourselves. We never know what circumstances we shall find ourselves in. It was right to draw attention to that matter, and to the fact that we should honour our loved ones with dignity.
It would not be a Westminster Hall debate if I were not, in summing up, reflecting on a speech by the hon. Member for Strangford. As always, he made a constructive and considered speech. It was disturbing to hear the personal example he gave of a pauper’s funeral in his constituency. There are no two ways about it; we need to do much better for people in that regard.
Having heard the speeches made across the Chamber today, we can be in no doubt that there is a considerable problem. According to a 2018 report on national funeral costs, one in eight people who had to pay for any type of funeral expense had to take on debt to do so. I suspect that in many areas, including Airdrie and Shotts, that figure will be far higher. As has been touched on, many funeral directors go above and beyond to do what they can to help people who are clearly struggling, but we need to do more on a structural basis.
The hon. Member for South Shields called for changes, and she could look north of the border for a Government who are making strides in some of the areas she described. The Scottish Government have set out a 10-point action plan to help tackle funeral poverty. Their funeral costs plan, published in 2017, included launching a new funeral expense assistance benefit by next year, publishing guidance on funeral costs by the end of this year, strengthening consumer protection in relation to funeral plans, delivering a social innovation fund to help tackle disadvantage such as funeral poverty, and giving more options for saving for a funeral, including a funeral bond pilot. That is not the entirety of the Scottish Government’s action on the matter, but it is something that I hope Ministers will reflect on.
Another area is planning. In December 2016 I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill that considered the regulation of funeral plans, and Ministers have now—very helpfully—issued a call for evidence. I welcome that and look forward to hearing the outcome. We can also debate whether it would be best to strengthen the Funeral Planning Authority, or merely to move regulation to the Financial Conduct Authority. There is no doubt that since my Bill the FPA has made welcome changes to many of its practices, and it has done a lot to bring about greater confidence in the industry and strengthened its regulation. I welcome that and congratulate the FPA. My only caution about moving to FCA regulation would be whether we have too big an umbrella trying to cover the problem, and whether the problems with funeral plans would get lost among the myriad issues that the FCA has to consider. That is my only caution—we must ensure that the regulatory model that comes forward is right. We obviously cannot move from a model that has not been working well or encouraged consumer confidence to one that is no better.
In conclusion, this is my first opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his return to office. I have always enjoyed debates with him—some have been constructive and some not so much, but he is always helpful in his response. I hope that today he has heard the agreement among all parties about the need for change and for greater action by his Department and others, and I hope that he will take that message away in the spirit of consensus mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran. The Minister has allies in the SNP to help drive that change, and not just for funeral payment assistance but for the regulation of funeral plans. Let us get it right and allow people to give dignity to their loved ones at times of bereavement.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I thank my hon. Friend Mrs Lewell-Buck for securing this important debate, and for all her work over a considerable period. There is consensus on both sides of the Chamber on securing change.
As we have heard, funeral poverty affects many thousands of people, and all families and friends should be able to mark the death of someone they love through a funeral. A funeral is a chance to remember those who have passed away and an important part of grieving after someone has died. Being unable to provide a funeral for a loved one can cause real distress and make grieving much harder. Support must be available for bereaved families to provide dignified funerals, regardless of income. In the media, across the House and across all parties, we talk a lot about the cost of living, but we probably talk a little less about the cost of dying.
The Government must recognise that the problem has grown under their watch as a result of the rising cost of funerals and their failure to increase the level of support to keep pace. In the words of the then Minister, so-called “difficult choices” about welfare spending meant that the Government refused to increase the £700 maximum for funeral-related expenses provided by the social fund—that point was raised by Sir David Amess. That figure has not gone up since 2003, although funeral costs have. According to SunLife Insurance, funeral costs have risen by 70% in the past decade alone, and the average cost of a funeral in Britain now stands at almost £4,000.
The Minister’s difficult choice is nothing when compared with the difficult choices faced by those forced to find money elsewhere—for example, by crowdfunding. There are even reports of mortuaries keeping bodies for several months until a family could afford the cost of a funeral, and it is almost impossible to imagine the distress that that must cause.
Public health funerals, sometimes called paupers’ funerals, have risen by 70% in the past three years. If the phrase “paupers’ funeral” sounds Dickensian and outdated, that is surely because it is. What could be more Dickensian than having no option but to rely on charities or to beg and borrow simply to afford the most basic of dignified funerals? Dickensian as that is, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that funeral poverty is the only problem for those forced to access the last resort of public health funerals.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields stated, a recent YouGov survey found that 4 million people in the UK had suffered hardship following the death of somebody close. Research has shown that people are taking on an average of £1,744 of debt to pay for a funeral—an all-time high. That is the reality of funeral poverty today in our country and in the 21st century. That is the reality we heard about earlier from my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh and Chris Stephens, who spoke about the distress caused by having to fill in a 23-page application form. Things must change.
I ask the Minister to listen to those stories and take action so that local authorities are no longer underfunded and struggling to meet the costs of providing even the most basic funeral. As has been said, if we are to allow local authorities to get things right and offer a dignified funeral, we need to take action so that the founding principle of our welfare state—the offer of security from cradle to grave—lives up to its name. As hon. Members have said, we should follow the recommendations in the 2016 Work and Pensions Committee report “Support for the bereaved”, which called for support through the social fund to properly reflect the cost of a funeral.
Will the Minister take action to shorten and simplify the application form—I think all Members have raised that issue—to prevent people from falling further into debt through a lack of understanding about eligibility and process? Will the DWP introduce a clear eligibility checker—that point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields?
The Government must take action to reduce regional inequalities in the cost of funerals. According to recent research by Royal London, the average cost of a burial funeral in some parts of London is almost £12,000, compared with a general average across the UK of £3,757—it is rare to hear a northern MP pleading for more equity between the north and south, but this is in reverse gear, and that wrong must be righted.
Bereaved families should not have to rely on a Supreme Court judgment to get fairness for children, as the inspirational Siobhan McLaughlin recently had to do in relation to the widowed parent’s allowance. I make these asks of the Government not to score party political points—this issue goes across the parties and deserves better than that. These points are not only being made by politicians in this Chamber, but have been raised for some time by charities, voluntary organisations and the Work and Pensions Committee.
Labour Members ask these things because when it comes to tackling the hugely sensitive issue of Government support for the bereaved, we can do better by working together. Indeed, at times we have done better. Earlier this year, my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris fought an incredible campaign to get funeral fees for children waived by local authorities. To the Prime Minister’s credit, the Government listened and set up the children’s funeral fund. Other partners can also play their part. Halton Borough Council in my constituency has just begun to offer a fixed-cost funeral package for under £2,000—that local authority is putting its principles where its mouth is. Also, as a Co-operative party Member, I am pleased to see that the Co-op has just reduced the price of its low-cost funeral by £100.
However, as welcome as those steps are, affording a funeral should not be dependent on the postcode lottery of being fortunate enough to live, and die, in a local authority area that is able to offer a fairly priced funeral service, and we should not be reliant on the market or a so-called price war between providers to have access to an affordable funeral on the open market.
People on both sides of this Chamber have stated that it is time for the Government to act—to review the broken market, to make sure everybody gets a dignified funeral when the time comes, to ensure bereaved families and friends can focus on the memories of their loved ones and not the cost of their passing, and to make sure that our welfare state truly offers support from cradle to grave. The Minister today has the power and the opportunity to do those things. I urge him to act for justice and dignity now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in today’s very important and very timely debate.
First of all, I pay tribute to Mrs Lewell-Buck, who has been a long-standing campaigner on, and is highly respected in, this incredibly important area. Honestly, I am new as a Minister and I must stress that despite the plea of my hon. Friend Mr Hayes that I should be allowed a power grab, this is an area of responsibility that is split across the Department for Work and Pensions, where I am a Minister; the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government; the Ministry of Justice; and the Department of Health and Social Care. So I am afraid that I personally cannot commit to all of the asks today.
Nevertheless, I will set out and make very clear—I do not have a pre-written speech; I have been listening very carefully to what has been said—some of the things that are being done, some of the things that are in train, where I think we can go further, and what we need to do as we work together on this incredibly important issue.
In her very measured speech, the hon. Member for South Shields made a number of key points, which were also made by many others, particularly on the lack of clarity in discussions around eligibility, the whole stress of the process and the actual value of support that is available.
My hon. Friend Sir David Amess, who has been another tireless campaigner in this area, also highlighted the stress involved in the process, particularly around the eligibility criteria, and then the potential gap between the support that is available and the costs for things that many people feel are required. He also expressed some concerns about the pre-plans and the scrutiny of the industry. Again, I will cover those issues later.
As for the hon. Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), I am genuinely very interested in the changes that the Scottish Government will potentially make. I will look very carefully to see whether lessons can be learned there and again they made valuable points about funeral plans and scrutiny, which I will cover when I am further along in my speech. Also, the Scottish National party’s spokesman—the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts—highlighted the fact that we have worked together and we are in mutual agreement in many areas, and I hope that this issue will be one that we can continue to work on.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings for the question he put at Prime Minister’s questions last week; that was advance lobbying, even before we begin our lobbying in particular areas. He was right to highlight that expectations have changed; I spent much of the summer making visits, including to funeral directors, and that message very much came through. Actually, as part of some of our long-term solutions, that also presents an opportunity, because there has been a change in expectations and there is now much wider scope for people to pay their respects as they wish to. He was also absolutely right to highlight concerns to do with funerals and public health; again, I will come on to that point later.
I thank Jim Shannon for his very kind words. As ever, he contributed by giving a measured and sensible summary of the situation, which shows what a proactive campaigner he is here in Parliament in reflecting the views of his constituents. However, he made a mistake by saying that two things are certain in life—death and taxes. In fact, three things are certain: death; taxes; and his contributing to a debate. [Laughter.]
By the way, Mr Streeter, I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship as I contribute to this debate, and I should have said so earlier.
I will forgive my hon. Friend the Minister for not calling me “right hon.” if he will agree to meet me to discuss this issue further. Would that be a fair deal?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that request, in response to which I say, “Fear not. Hang on”; I will be covering it as part of the things that I will address going forward.
We have discussed the three elements of support that are available. First, and predominantly, there are the funeral expense payments for the necessary costs, which can be accessed by those who qualify for benefits such as income support, state pension credit, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, the disability or severe disability element of housing benefit, income-related employment support allowance, the element of working tax credit, universal credit and support for mortgage interest. As I had to read out that list, I absolutely accept the point about what is often the confusion over eligibility; again, I will come on to that.
Secondly, there are the funds available for the additional expenses. However, it has been highlighted that the figure involved has not changed since 2003, so a number of Governments have had to wrestle with that decision. Nevertheless, I understand that that is an issue that has been raised by all those who contributed today. Thirdly, there are the social budget loans. Support is also available to working-age people through the bereaved payment support, a new benefit whereby we increase the initial payment with the potential for that money to be used for funerals, if claimants needed or wished to use it in that way.
As I have said, this issue is cross-departmental, but work is already going on. In June, the Competition and Markets Authority announced its investigation of this industry. I think we all welcome that. The CMA will look at the whole process, including its transparency—or lack of it—and fairness. Actually, I learned through my visits this summer that there is no regulation at all in this area—any one of us could set up as a funeral director tomorrow. I am not sure that that is a great thing.
On that point, the Minister will recognise that in Scotland there are moves afoot to change that situation, and the regulation of funeral directors will ensure that it can no longer be the case; that is my understanding.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and that is on the list of things that I will look at.
We must also focus on the quality and the standards of funerals. I accept the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings made, when he said that people do not necessarily shop around for funerals. Again, on my visits this summer, I was told that it is often the case that people go to the same funeral director that everyone else in their family has ever used, so that the relationship is built up. In this area, it is not necessarily an empowered consumer shopping around and using their buying power—I 100% get that.
Nevertheless, the CMA investigation is important as it will shape our work going forward. We expect the interim report in November and the final report next May. This investigation will be integral to our work in the future, because it is a comprehensive review of what is happening out there in the market.
Also, the market is responding, which is a good thing. Both Dignity and the Co-operative, two of the biggest players in the market, have started to offer more affordable basic funeral packages; that is a great step. Following the CMA investigation, the onus will be on us as to how we can make such basic packages more of a given and build on them; that is a really important area for us to look at. The Royal London national funeral cost index has also been doing lots of investigations, and I will meet Royal London later in the year.
We have already made some vital improvements.
I thank the Minister for giving way and I am sorry that I did not welcome him to his new position; it is hard to keep up with things here these days, with reshuffle after reshuffle. Before he moves on to say what is coming in the future, can he update me in relation to a point I made in my speech? I asked what had happened to the discussions that I was promised two years ago about working with the sector to develop a simple funeral.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. That is ongoing work, but we felt that we needed additional evidence. I understand the importance of getting these things done, although I am relatively new to this role. However, we needed the information from the CMA to give us the ability to make informed asks, in respect of what we expect of the industry and what more we can do to empower the industry to deliver more affordable options. Perhaps then we can see areas where the Government can consider the public health aspect of funerals, as was raised in the debate, and also what local government can do. I understand the frustration, I absolutely do, and my commitment, as I am trying to demonstrate, is that we will do a lot more.
We have extended the claim period from three to six months. That is a welcome measure. We have exempted contributions from relations, friends and charities, which is also welcome. On the key bit about people not understanding, we have already made a start by introducing a helpline, about which we have had fantastic feedback. It is really important to try to give people more information and there is a lot more to be done in that area. People do not receive the ultimate decision until they have either signed a contract saying, “This is what I want to do”—but it is people’s nature to often change what they want—or until the funeral has taken place, so I understand the important point that more needs to be done on that issue. I will continue to meet and work with the industry, utilising its expertise and that of any colleagues here who wish to be engaged following both the interim and final CMA reports. I would welcome such contributions.
I can tell from the Minister’s tone that he really appreciates the issue and is determined to do something about it, and I thank him for that. I probably complicated my question earlier. Will he meet a small delegation of colleagues—he clearly knows the people concerned—perhaps following the interim report, to look at how we take this further?
I am absolutely committed to doing that and am happy to do so. The Treasury is investigating pre-planned funerals. The matter is not in my area, but we welcome the work and will carefully consider the outcomes. We absolutely need to continue to make the forms simpler—we have done a lot on that but there is more to do—and the whole process quicker.
The benefit is to be devolved to Scotland and rolled out next year. We are looking at eligibility for funeral payments but it is still to be firmed up. Is the Minister considering the eligibility criteria concerning those relatives who have the capacity to pay but with whom the next of kin, who gets the funeral bill, might not have any relationship? That is certainly something that has prevented someone in my constituency from being able to access funeral assistance. It is a complicated matter, but Ministers need to look at it.
Part of the main reason why the issue is so complicated is because it is to do with qualifying relatives’ next of kin, and we are constantly looking at that. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman will be part of the roundtables as we further consider the matter.
On the children’s funerals front, I join the tributes paid to Carolyn Harris. I have enjoyed working with her on this and a number of other campaigns. She is a real credit to Parliament, on this and other matters, and I think we all welcome the improvements that have been made. It has been demonstrated that where the Government have been able to look at the matter practically and constructively we have responded, and rightly so. In addition to the ongoing work with the forms and the helpline, and with providing information, we are also supporting the private Member’s Bill on parental bereavement leave and pay for parents.
I understand the concerns raised about public health funerals. I too have heard stories about people not being able to pay their final respects, and about the length of time taken and the confusion during what is an incredibly distressing period. Although that is not a matter for the DWP, it is all part of the same thing, and I am keen, as we get all that information back from the Treasury and the CMA, that we drive forward really important changes.
I thank all the speakers in what has been a really helpful debate. It is also very timely, with the report due soon, and I look forward to working with many Members here on this important subject in the future.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part and for their thoughtful contributions. It is unusual to have members of four different parties all asking for the same thing.
I thank the Minister, and I welcome his tone and his openness towards moving forward, but I am a little disappointed because it would not have been difficult to guess what I would be asking for today and it would have been nice if he could have given at least some assurances or had promised that we would see some change soon. Ultimately, the only thing we will leave here knowing as an absolute certainty is that more and more people will join the thousands who struggle to provide their loved ones with this final act, and that is not good enough. The matter is an urgent one, and I press the Minister to get cracking.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered funeral poverty.