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Funeral Poverty

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 2:30 pm, 11th September 2018

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.