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Funeral Poverty

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:45 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 2:45 pm, 11th September 2018

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.