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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.