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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.