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Funeral Poverty

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:20 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 3:20 pm, 11th September 2018

I appreciate that intervention. Clarification is also required in the context of the funeral plan market. The criticism and the furore about consumer rights issues in relation to funeral plans has in part been about that very issue—what people should expect the plan to pay for. Many people have redeemed a product but found that they were still liable for burial and cremation fees that were substantially more than anyone would expect to budget for.

Sir David Amess made a very good speech. I have had the pleasure of working with him on the issue and, as ever, he was constructive and helpful. He was right to draw attention to the fact that the £700 additional expenses have been frozen for so long. I hope that his intervention, and that of Mr Hayes, will influence the Minister to strengthen negotiations with the Treasury about the upcoming Budget. I do not think that dealing with that would cost an awful lot of money, but it could make a major difference to people’s lives. On that issue, and the regulation of funeral directors, which the hon. Member for Southend West also touched on, we are doing something different in Scotland. I know he is aware of that, and I hope that the Minister’s attention can be drawn to it.

My hon. Friend Patricia Gibson made a good speech, having also campaigned on the issue since her election to Parliament in 2015. She is known for being consensual, so it was to be expected that she would draw attention to the rare consensus in the Chamber today—and she was right, as there has been a great degree of consensus. My hon. Friends and Labour colleagues were nodding along sagely to the speeches of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings and the hon. Member for Southend West. I hope that Ministers will take that consensus into account. My hon. Friend also raised the matter of people’s overwhelming, understandable and natural desire to give their loved ones the best possible send-off, and the reality of the debt that sadly results from that natural desire. She spoke of several areas in which a greater amount of action could be taken—and is being taken, north of the border—to alleviate some of the pressures felt at the sad time of a death in a family.

The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings spoke about some people’s lack of preparedness for death and the understandable reasons for that, which were well documented in his speech. He touched on something I have already spoken about, which could solve that problem: funeral planning. I think that we have the answer there, if we can get the regulation right. I reiterate the call that the right hon. Gentleman and Jim Shannon made for more dignity in what have been termed “paupers’ funerals” —social or council-run funerals—and that is right. There have been examples of what they mentioned in Scotland, too. Having a dignified funeral for a loved one should not be the preserve only of people who can find thousands of pounds at the drop of a hat. We should all expect that for our loved ones, and for ourselves. We never know what circumstances we shall find ourselves in. It was right to draw attention to that matter, and to the fact that we should honour our loved ones with dignity.

It would not be a Westminster Hall debate if I were not, in summing up, reflecting on a speech by the hon. Member for Strangford. As always, he made a constructive and considered speech. It was disturbing to hear the personal example he gave of a pauper’s funeral in his constituency. There are no two ways about it; we need to do much better for people in that regard.

Having heard the speeches made across the Chamber today, we can be in no doubt that there is a considerable problem. According to a 2018 report on national funeral costs, one in eight people who had to pay for any type of funeral expense had to take on debt to do so. I suspect that in many areas, including Airdrie and Shotts, that figure will be far higher. As has been touched on, many funeral directors go above and beyond to do what they can to help people who are clearly struggling, but we need to do more on a structural basis.

The hon. Member for South Shields called for changes, and she could look north of the border for a Government who are making strides in some of the areas she described. The Scottish Government have set out a 10-point action plan to help tackle funeral poverty. Their funeral costs plan, published in 2017, included launching a new funeral expense assistance benefit by next year, publishing guidance on funeral costs by the end of this year, strengthening consumer protection in relation to funeral plans, delivering a social innovation fund to help tackle disadvantage such as funeral poverty, and giving more options for saving for a funeral, including a funeral bond pilot. That is not the entirety of the Scottish Government’s action on the matter, but it is something that I hope Ministers will reflect on.

Another area is planning. In December 2016 I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill that considered the regulation of funeral plans, and Ministers have now—very helpfully—issued a call for evidence. I welcome that and look forward to hearing the outcome. We can also debate whether it would be best to strengthen the Funeral Planning Authority, or merely to move regulation to the Financial Conduct Authority. There is no doubt that since my Bill the FPA has made welcome changes to many of its practices, and it has done a lot to bring about greater confidence in the industry and strengthened its regulation. I welcome that and congratulate the FPA. My only caution about moving to FCA regulation would be whether we have too big an umbrella trying to cover the problem, and whether the problems with funeral plans would get lost among the myriad issues that the FCA has to consider. That is my only caution—we must ensure that the regulatory model that comes forward is right. We obviously cannot move from a model that has not been working well or encouraged consumer confidence to one that is no better.

In conclusion, this is my first opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his return to office. I have always enjoyed debates with him—some have been constructive and some not so much, but he is always helpful in his response. I hope that today he has heard the agreement among all parties about the need for change and for greater action by his Department and others, and I hope that he will take that message away in the spirit of consensus mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran. The Minister has allies in the SNP to help drive that change, and not just for funeral payment assistance but for the regulation of funeral plans. Let us get it right and allow people to give dignity to their loved ones at times of bereavement.