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Funeral Poverty

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:10 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:10 pm, 11th September 2018

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Clarity is what we hope to achieve through this debate. There are occasions when someone has passed away and their families have not had the financial capacity to pay for the funeral, which is why we have paupers’ funerals, where no one is there to help. During my time as an elected representative—as a councillor, as a Member of the Assembly and now as a Member of Parliament—I have had occasion to be involved with families who have had no financial assets at all. The system has changed now, but it used to be the case that if no one in the family was working, or if someone was old or disabled or on benefits, at least some of the fees for the funeral could be provided. I know that the system has changed in Northern Ireland, and probably elsewhere.

To go back to the lady who passed away, when my parliamentary aide asked for details of a time so that she could attend and read a psalm, she was told that she would have to ring back closer to the time, but they could not guarantee that the lady would not already be buried. My hon. Friend referred to clarity. My goodness me! We did not even have the detail of when the funeral would be held. The lovely council official—I want to be clear that they were trying to work within the system—reassured the girls that often the undertaker used by the council would pray before the burial. Although that eased some of the angst, the girls were upset that that was the way things had to be done. I wish to thank the undertakers who, in their own time and as a mark of respect, ensure that there is a brief prayer or reading. They are not paid to do that, but they still do it, and we thank them for that. There are a great many people of good will and intentions who wish to help.

We understand that local authorities simply cannot afford to foot the bill for a full funeral, but a pauper’s funeral is a terrible way to be laid to rest. I am a firm believer, as are others in the Chamber, of “absent from the body and present with the Lord”. There is something to be said for a respectful interment. I am in no way saying that the bodies are treated with disrespect, but could changes not be made to ensure that people can at least attend the interment of the body? It is important to have a send-off.

Some cases have been fairly prominent in TV programmes. We have had occasions when people die alone, and perhaps there is some money to bury them, but they do not have anyone to go to their funerals, and it is important to have someone to pay respects and to be respectful at a funeral. Could a change not be made to ensure that people can at least attend the internment of the body, so that those who could not be expected to pay directly for the funeral, such as social workers and church families, can at least pay their last respects?

I should have said at the beginning—it was remiss of me not to do so—that I welcome the Minister to his post and wish him well. I said that to him in the Chamber last week and I have now said it again publicly. He contributed greatly in his previous ministerial post at the Department for Work and Pensions. I wish him well.

Funeral poverty reached a record £160 million across the UK last year, and one in six people say they struggle with funeral costs. That goes back to how the financial pressures associated with funerals can make an already difficult time overwhelming for bereaved families and loved ones, causing additional stress on top of existing grief and leaving a lasting negative impact on their health and wellbeing. Those who are on benefits can apply for help with the funeral costs of a loved one, but “help” is the operative word. They can receive some money towards burial fees and the rights to burial in a particular plot, and money towards cremation fees, including the cost of the doctor’s certificate, and up to £700 for funeral expenses, such as the funeral director’s fees, flowers, a coffin and travel to the funeral. The estate will be liquidated and any money will go towards the funeral. However, bearing in mind that the average funeral in Northern Ireland costs just under £3,000, there is a large discrepancy and a large debt for a grieving family to pay off over time.

I read in the press this week that the Co-op is offering a cheap funeral—in no way does that take away from its commitment—for about £1,900. It would be fairly basic, but none the less it helps some families. In her introduction, Carolyn Harris, who has been involved in the issue of funeral costs for some time and had an Adjournment debate in the main Chamber on this very issue. She is not here today, but her story is incredible. For those who have not heard it, I gently suggest that if they get the opportunity they listen to or read her story. That lady had nothing when it came to paying for a funeral, and the community came together to help and support her at a time of need.

Many funeral directors have started a system that enables families to contribute to payment schemes—I have them in my constituency and I very much welcome them. They take away the need to make a financial commitment all at once and have helped some people. Everyone in this Chamber knows that we are sure of only two things in this world: death and taxes. The costs of a funeral have certainly risen over the past 15 years, so I join the hon. Member for South Shields and other hon. Members in asking for an increase in the social fund funeral payment, to ensure that people are not having to go to food banks in order to pay for a loved one’s service. Many organisations, such as Christians Against Poverty, can sometimes assist. The churches also help, and some funeral directors cut their costs to the bone to make a funeral happen.

There has to be a better way of doing things. I am asking the Department to consider upping the funeral grant in line with inflation and allowing people connected to those who have the indignity of a pauper’s funeral at least to get friends or connections to say a few words as the remains are interred. That is important. We have to have more compassion for people who are in dire circumstances, and believe in the fact that no person would allow a loved one to be buried in an unmarked grave if they could possibly help it. We can do something small, such as providing for a set time of interment if requested, to allow some dignity and marking of the occasion. We all understand why councils cannot and should not put on fancy funerals, but allowing people the opportunity to pay respects cannot cost that much, can it?