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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I thank my hon. Friend Mrs Lewell-Buck for securing this important debate, and for all her work over a considerable period. There is consensus on both sides of the Chamber on securing change.
As we have heard, funeral poverty affects many thousands of people, and all families and friends should be able to mark the death of someone they love through a funeral. A funeral is a chance to remember those who have passed away and an important part of grieving after someone has died. Being unable to provide a funeral for a loved one can cause real distress and make grieving much harder. Support must be available for bereaved families to provide dignified funerals, regardless of income. In the media, across the House and across all parties, we talk a lot about the cost of living, but we probably talk a little less about the cost of dying.
The Government must recognise that the problem has grown under their watch as a result of the rising cost of funerals and their failure to increase the level of support to keep pace. In the words of the then Minister, so-called “difficult choices” about welfare spending meant that the Government refused to increase the £700 maximum for funeral-related expenses provided by the social fund—that point was raised by Sir David Amess. That figure has not gone up since 2003, although funeral costs have. According to SunLife Insurance, funeral costs have risen by 70% in the past decade alone, and the average cost of a funeral in Britain now stands at almost £4,000.
The Minister’s difficult choice is nothing when compared with the difficult choices faced by those forced to find money elsewhere—for example, by crowdfunding. There are even reports of mortuaries keeping bodies for several months until a family could afford the cost of a funeral, and it is almost impossible to imagine the distress that that must cause.
Public health funerals, sometimes called paupers’ funerals, have risen by 70% in the past three years. If the phrase “paupers’ funeral” sounds Dickensian and outdated, that is surely because it is. What could be more Dickensian than having no option but to rely on charities or to beg and borrow simply to afford the most basic of dignified funerals? Dickensian as that is, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that funeral poverty is the only problem for those forced to access the last resort of public health funerals.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields stated, a recent YouGov survey found that 4 million people in the UK had suffered hardship following the death of somebody close. Research has shown that people are taking on an average of £1,744 of debt to pay for a funeral—an all-time high. That is the reality of funeral poverty today in our country and in the 21st century. That is the reality we heard about earlier from my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh and Chris Stephens, who spoke about the distress caused by having to fill in a 23-page application form. Things must change.
I ask the Minister to listen to those stories and take action so that local authorities are no longer underfunded and struggling to meet the costs of providing even the most basic funeral. As has been said, if we are to allow local authorities to get things right and offer a dignified funeral, we need to take action so that the founding principle of our welfare state—the offer of security from cradle to grave—lives up to its name. As hon. Members have said, we should follow the recommendations in the 2016 Work and Pensions Committee report “Support for the bereaved”, which called for support through the social fund to properly reflect the cost of a funeral.
Will the Minister take action to shorten and simplify the application form—I think all Members have raised that issue—to prevent people from falling further into debt through a lack of understanding about eligibility and process? Will the DWP introduce a clear eligibility checker—that point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields?
The Government must take action to reduce regional inequalities in the cost of funerals. According to recent research by Royal London, the average cost of a burial funeral in some parts of London is almost £12,000, compared with a general average across the UK of £3,757—it is rare to hear a northern MP pleading for more equity between the north and south, but this is in reverse gear, and that wrong must be righted.
Bereaved families should not have to rely on a Supreme Court judgment to get fairness for children, as the inspirational Siobhan McLaughlin recently had to do in relation to the widowed parent’s allowance. I make these asks of the Government not to score party political points—this issue goes across the parties and deserves better than that. These points are not only being made by politicians in this Chamber, but have been raised for some time by charities, voluntary organisations and the Work and Pensions Committee.
Labour Members ask these things because when it comes to tackling the hugely sensitive issue of Government support for the bereaved, we can do better by working together. Indeed, at times we have done better. Earlier this year, my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris fought an incredible campaign to get funeral fees for children waived by local authorities. To the Prime Minister’s credit, the Government listened and set up the children’s funeral fund. Other partners can also play their part. Halton Borough Council in my constituency has just begun to offer a fixed-cost funeral package for under £2,000—that local authority is putting its principles where its mouth is. Also, as a Co-operative party Member, I am pleased to see that the Co-op has just reduced the price of its low-cost funeral by £100.
However, as welcome as those steps are, affording a funeral should not be dependent on the postcode lottery of being fortunate enough to live, and die, in a local authority area that is able to offer a fairly priced funeral service, and we should not be reliant on the market or a so-called price war between providers to have access to an affordable funeral on the open market.
People on both sides of this Chamber have stated that it is time for the Government to act—to review the broken market, to make sure everybody gets a dignified funeral when the time comes, to ensure bereaved families and friends can focus on the memories of their loved ones and not the cost of their passing, and to make sure that our welfare state truly offers support from cradle to grave. The Minister today has the power and the opportunity to do those things. I urge him to act for justice and dignity now.