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Funeral Poverty

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings 3:00 pm, 11th September 2018

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.