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Funeral Payments

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the issue of funeral payments and to seek some answers from the Minister.

I sought this debate following a direct request from a constituent of mine, Ms Teresa Evans, who contends that she was not given good advice following the tragic death of her 20-year-old son, Boyd Evans. I have raised the issues with the Minister via correspondence and written parliamentary questions, but they have not been dealt with to my constituent’s satisfaction, which is why I wish to raise them on the Floor of the House.

I should say at the outset that my constituent is not seeking personal recompense for her situation, but rather wishing to prevent similar problems being encountered by others. Newly bereaved people can be responsible and in control only when they are afforded sound information to make well-informed decisions.

Let me start by providing the background to the case. Teresa Evans’s son, Boyd, was killed as a result of passenger injuries sustained in a car crash in Staffordshire—some distance from his home in Milton Keynes—in 2006. Quite apart from having to deal with the emotional trauma of losing her son, my constituent also had to deal on her own with the practicalities of the funeral arrangements. She is a lady of very modest means. She had no money when she lost her son, so applied for a funeral payment and overdrew at the bank to provide a funeral. In her own words:

“It wasn’t a lavish funeral but a dignified one. In terms of distance and the cost per mile allowed from the social fund payment, I could not claim a total refund for the fee to return my son back to Milton Keynes from where he died in Staffordshire. The inescapable charge was £220, but despite an appeal to the DWP I was only paid £170. This left a shortfall of £50”.

However, she later found out that despite her son undergoing a post-mortem, she was within her legal rights to collect her son in her own vehicle and would have done so had she been aware of this at the time.

My constituent was also informed by the undertakers that the cheapest coffin available cost £680. Subsequently, she found that she could have bought the same coffin online for considerably less or buried her son in a shroud, which she had the legal right to do. In addition, had someone told her that she could still claim a funeral payment without using an undertaker, she would have done this, especially because she claims that the undertaker misled her with false information resulting in her not being able to return her son to his home to lie in wait for his burial. She would have done all these things had she been aware of her legal rights. This has led to her creating a campaign for the rights of newly bereaved people to be made known to them in sudden and unexpected circumstances.

Four years after her son was buried, my constituent discovered that no one had informed her that she could have recovered the fees for the burial rights to her son’s grave within three months of the funeral. If the system had worked properly, she would have received an additional £304 for the burial rights. Consequently, she was forced to surrender her life insurance policies to buy the burial rights, and she feels aggrieved that no one is held accountable for this action. She believes that the Department for Work and Pensions is overly reliant on the funeral industry to provide guidance to the relatives of a person who has died, specifically on what fees can be recovered. She claims to have evidence that proves that undertakers point applicants of a funeral payment to Jobcentre Plus for guidance. In addition, she claims that the National Association of Funeral Directors had no knowledge of the most technical information in existence—the DWP booklet SB16, which the Minister has stated is the most comprehensive guide. That this piece of literature is known only to some professionals would suggest that the bereaved may often not be aware of the full extent of their rights.

My constituent has also commented to me that a bereavement charity, the Alice Barker Trust, identified the same problem a long time ago. She is calling for much clearer guidance to be made available on the options open to relatives, particularly given that they will be in a highly emotional state. As the literature for the applicant may be understood only by those with technical knowledge, it needs to be written in plain language more readily intelligible to anyone. At present, the DWP relies upon undertakers to explain the rules to eligible claimants, resulting in the sort of problems experienced by my constituent. This generates unnecessary mystery and dependency, when we should be promoting education, self-help and self-reliance. A very simple and no-cost solution would be to amend the available literature in both print and online formats, making obvious what fees can be paid by the DWP in relation to the funeral, costs for opening the grave and burial rights for a fixed number of years.

I have already raised Teresa Evans’s case and her request for action with the Minister, but she has been dissatisfied with the response and with what she claims to be a lack of urgency in addressing the situation. She has therefore asked me to pose the following questions to the Minister. First, can he state, from records for the last financial year, how many claimants received payments for burials and what proportion of that number also received payments for what are technically known as burial rights, so they did not use what are known as pauper graves? Secondly, will the Minister consult the Alice Barker Trust to revise the wording of the advice that the DWP produces for printed, internet and other information? Thirdly, does the Minister agree that had the wording suggested by the charity been used before Boyd Evans was killed in 2006, his mother would have received her full entitlement to a funeral payment and would not have had to cash in her life insurance policies to cover the burial rights to her son’s grave? Fourthly, when it comes to the big society and developing strong communities, does the Minister agree that it is essential to empower all claimants in order to help them act independently and responsibly?

Nothing can bring Boyd Evans back, but his mother is hoping that her experience will result in the Department for Work and Pensions learning lessons, so that others do not encounter unnecessary emotional turmoil and financial hardship. Once again, Mr Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Floor of the House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) on securing this debate and on raising these difficult and important issues in a measured, succinct and sensitive way.

People sometimes say, “What’s the point of these Adjournment debates?”, because there is no vote at the end of them, or, “Does anything ever change?” One thing that these debates do is, quite properly, require Ministers to focus on the issue that has been brought before the House. In response to this debate being called, I have looked at my hon. Friend’s constituent’s website. As he well knows, her tragic circumstances and the death of her son five years ago led her to campaign on these issues. She has her own website, which I have looked at today. I pay tribute to her for the way in which she has sought to turn her tragic circumstances into something more positive, so that others do not have the same difficult experiences that she did in dealing, as I understand it, not just with funeral grants and the DWP, but with a range of other public bodies and organisations. The way Ms Evans has pursued the issues over the following years is enormously to her credit. I hope that I can offer my hon. Friend some reassurance this evening that that campaigning has led to changes, and that the situation that someone who has been bereaved now encounters is a good deal better than it was five years ago. Clearly there is always room for improvement—we will continue to look at that—but we have made changes even this month in response to the points that his constituent has raised with us, which I will set out more in due course.

It might be worth briefly putting on record some background to how the social fund funeral payments system works, because it is not always well understood. Essentially, the system is designed for those on a low income. The presumption is not that the state will pay for funerals for all people—or indeed pay for the full costs of funerals—but that it will make a significant contribution for people in receipt of income-related benefits and tax credits. The idea is to provide a contribution towards the cost of a simple, respectful, low-cost funeral. The payment is in two parts. We, the DWP, will pay in full the costs of a cremation or burial, including the purchase of a grave with exclusive burial rights. That is a point to which I will return, because I know that it was important in Ms Evans’s son’s case, and it is something that might not have occurred to any of us unless we were faced with that situation. I can well imagine that it must have been very difficult to discover some time after she had buried her son that she did not have exclusive burial rights. I fully accept that we must ensure that that situation does not arise again.

The scheme meets those costs in full, which can vary quite considerably between different parts of the country. In addition, we will make a maximum payment of up to £700 for other costs, such as the coffin, church and the funeral director’s fees, if appropriate. I will return to whether one has to have a funeral director—which one does not—and to making people aware of that fact and how we will take this forward. Over the months, I have received a number of letters from hon. Members who have been contacted by funeral directors in their constituencies who have made the point—entirely accurately—that £700 does not cover the full cost of a funeral. We accept that; we do not dispute it. The typical total amount that we are paying is about £1,200, which includes the other costs plus up to £700.

There is a presumption that many people will take out funeral plan insurance, because they want to ensure that they are covered and do not want to leave a financial burden for their heirs. If that has not happened, many families will meet the costs themselves, but we also need to ensure that a safety net is in place. We also want to ensure that there is additional provision for those people for whom the £700 cap is a barrier. We are therefore taking powers in the Welfare Reform Bill that is now going through the Commons that will, for the first time, bring funeral costs within the scope of the budgeting loans system. I raised this matter before Christmas in a meeting with the National Association of Funeral Directors, and with the all-party parliamentary group on funerals and bereavement. They very much welcomed the change, saying that it was a further provision that would help to ensure that people who were very short of money at a difficult time would have sources of finance available to help them to meet the costs of a decent burial and to ensure that funeral directors’ proper costs were reimbursed through the individuals. The measures will therefore be welcomed. We also need to ensure that the way in which we respond to people is correct and helpful, and that it makes life easy for them at this difficult time.

I shall go through the questions that my hon. Friend has raised and try to give him what information I can. I shall also tell him what we have changed as a result of his constituent’s campaigning. He asked for a factual breakdown of the numbers of people who received financial support towards exclusive burial rights. Unfortunately, the way in which the information is held does not allow us to provide such a breakdown, as I think I have already indicated to his constituent in writing. I can confirm, however, that in the last full financial year, 2009-10, there were 39,000 funeral payments at a total cost of £47 million. We cannot give a more detailed breakdown, because of the way in which the information that my hon. Friend has requested is stored.

The information and guidance that goes to relatives is at the heart of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. In Ms Evans’s case, the information that came to her from the funeral director was incomplete, for whatever reason, and led to her making choices that, had she been fully informed, she would have made differently. I have made some inquiries into where the right information should come from, and the key is the fact that, on becoming bereaved, the family or its representatives will register the death. That is the point at which we aim to ensure that people get the relevant information. We will not have to rely on funeral directors to provide it. Indeed, there might not be a funeral director involved. The Government as a whole want to ensure that the information gets through to people at the point at which they register the death.

This is already being rolled out more or less nationwide, and we will continue to develop this “tell us once” service. The idea is to allow customers to report a birth or a death to multiple central and local government departments, agencies and services just once. This will help to reduce some of the complexity for customers at this particularly difficult time. The service is currently offered on a face-to-face basis by a number of local authorities, and we expect it to become a national service covering about 90% of local authorities by the end of this year. The remaining authorities will, in many cases, be remote ones for which this might not represent the right mix of services, but it will be pretty much a national service by the end of the year.

The idea is that a person can have a face-to-face session with someone from the local authority, or, if they are a DWP customer, as many people are, they can have a telephone session with someone from the Department. That one conversation will enable us to end benefits that no longer need to be paid, as well as triggering the possibility of applying for other benefits, including bereavement benefits and funeral payments. That is the crucial point. In the phone conversation with our bereavement service, for example, all the questions about what is covered and what payments are available can be answered. Our member of staff will have the latest information.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the technical information relating to what is covered and what is not, and we will have all that information to hand. In fact, the bereaved person will not have to fill in a form at all. They will be able to give all the information over the phone, which will constitute a claim that can be progressed pretty quickly. Speed is obviously of the essence, because people need to feel confident that, if they are eligible, the payment will be made. We want to do anything we can to remove delay or anxiety at this difficult time.

The “tell us once” process is being rolled out, as I say, across the country. To clarify, with the informant’s consent, information about the deceased, a surviving spouse or partner and the people dealing with the estate can be shared with up to 24 different benefits and services. It is going out far and wide. At the moment, 43 local authorities offer a service, and I believe my hon. Friend’s local authority, the Milton Keynes unitary authority, is due to offer its “tell us once” service from July this year. That will be an important step in the right direction.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of forms and paperwork. I can tell him that this month, in response to some of the points that his constituent raised with us, we have made a number of changes to the claim form for the funeral grant. Let me briefly run through them, as she would be interested to know what those changes are.

There are two documents. The first is a note sheet that accompanies the funeral payment application, and we have made three changes to it. On page 6 of the form, we have added a bullet point that says people can send

“evidence of the costs incurred if the funeral arrangements were made without using a funeral director”.

That is one of Ms Evans’s points—that people do not always realise that they do not have to use one and do not always realise that they can get their costs reimbursed if they have not used one. We have made it explicit that evidence of costs can be provided if a funeral director has not been used.

On page 7, we say, and it is worth reading into the record:

“Although most people use a funeral director to make the necessary arrangements, you may have chosen to make the…arrangements without using a funeral director. A funeral payment can be made whether or not you have used a funeral director. If you have arranged the funeral independently, you will have to provide evidence of the costs you have incurred.”

Anyone reading the notes will get the message quite quickly that they have choices and can choose how they want to proceed.

The third change we made to the explanatory notes is in the bullet point list of what can be included in the funeral payment. The second bullet point refers to

“the cost of opening a new grave and burial costs”,

and we have now added

“including any exclusive right of burial fee”.

That deals with Ms Evans’s point that she did not get the money because she did not claim it at the time because she did not incur it at the time because she did not realise the distinction. We hope that if we can get that information out at the start, the figure of about £300 or so, which my hon. Friend mentioned, would be covered in full and not be subject to the cap. We make that explicit in the notes to the form.

As to the form itself, we have made a couple of changes. On page 15, we inserted a new question:

“Have you used a funeral director to arrange the funeral?”;

and on page 20, the wording about making a payment has been amended to cover payments to claimants

“if you have not used a funeral director”.

I hope that those incremental changes—I know that Ms Evans has corresponded with my officials and others about this for some considerable time—will help. The forms are changed up to twice a year—we try not constantly to change them—and the April change has just taken place. It incorporates the important points that my hon. Friend’s constituent raised.

I believe that the figure of 45 or 46 local authorities was mentioned. Is it the Minister’s intention to give this information out to all local authorities across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland? Does he also intend to ensure that the explanation given by the local authority is based on this information so that authorities can explain to people exactly what they have to do? I think that the explanation is important.

I am grateful for that question. I will clarify the point about the scope. The idea is that local authorities would respond in a way that is tailored to their local circumstances. That is why some local authorities will adopt a particular local response, perhaps if their area is strongly rural. We also think it important, however, to give people the possibility of a face-to-face encounter. I will get back to the hon. Gentleman about whether the scope will be extended to include Northern Ireland. I am certainly aware that we are talking about the whole of Great Britain, but I will write to him about the applicability to Northern Ireland. The idea is that local authority folk can, to use the jargon, “wrap around” other support services at this important time. The DWP is concerned with bereavement payments and funeral payments, but obviously people may want or need a host of other services at the time of a bereavement. We want to ensure that local authorities can provide all the support that people need through a single point of contact. That can be done face to face, but we will also deal with specific DWP issues through the bereavement service.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Alice Barker Trust, and we are grateful for its input. It has worked closely with Ms Evans on the wording of the forms. We will certainly continue to consider its suggestions, although I do not want to give the impression that all the existing literature is rubbish. We carry out surveys and ask people what they think of the literature that they were given. We have, for instance, asked people—at an appropriate time—what they thought of a leaflet called “What to do after a death”, of which many Members will have heard. We found that 97% of people considered the leaflet to be very or quite helpful in answering their questions, and 95% agreed that it was easy to find the information that they wanted in it. There is good material out there, but I accept that more can always be done.

My hon. Friend asked about the way in which information was communicated to his constituent. Obviously I cannot comment in detail on what happened five years ago, but it is clear that the £300 was not paid because it was not claimed, and it was not claimed because exclusive right of burial was not part of the funeral. I hope that I have explained how we will try to ensure that people understand that they can claim the full amount, and that the unfortunate thing that happened to Ms Evans will not happen again.

Let me say something about funeral payment law. We provide general information, and, as my hon. Friend said, SB16 contains encyclopaedic guidance to the social fund as a whole, but we also provide leaflets which, inevitably, cannot be exhaustive. We have tried to strike a balance. Although a leaflet that covers every possible combination of circumstances is very useful, it may be off-putting for people who do not receive the key messages that they need. On the Directgov website we have tried to provide a wide range of information on what to do following a death, including arranging a funeral and registering a death. The site also lists organisations that offer help and advice following a bereavement. My hon. Friend mentioned the big society. We want to “signpost” people towards the many charities and voluntary organisations that provide effective support for people at this difficult time.

If local authorities are to be involved, might it be suggested that the electoral register should be altered automatically? On Saturday I knocked on a door and found someone who had lost her husband three or four months earlier. She was still receiving letters addressed to her husband, because she had completely forgotten to let the district council know that he had passed away. Altering the register automatically would save a great deal of distress to people like that lady.

My hon. Friend is right. I think that we have all encountered such examples when canvassing because the electoral register is out of date. We may have written letters to deceased people, and perhaps caused distress to relatives. The “tell us once” system would deal with that. I do not think that local authority electoral services are explicitly part of the process, but I will convey what my hon. Friend has said to our right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who I believe oversees electoral matters.

We have come a long way. The Department’s bereavement service was fully rolled out in March 2011, and we have recently surveyed customers who have used it. They have ranked it

“above many other well known organisations that customers have to deal with when reporting a death”.

One customer said:

“I ...was surprised that a Public Service was that good and sympathetic and the staff were well trained. It really made a difference to something I was dreading. I was treated like a human being”.

Another said:

“I was impressed that it was all done in one call, it was also a huge sigh of relief for me”.

Let me give one final quote:

“We spoke about help with funeral costs and she completed the form there and then for me. I couldn’t have done this on my own.”

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South for raising this set of issues. They are clearly vital and all our constituents will face them at one point or another in their lives. Ms Evans faced a very difficult and tragic situation five years ago, which was not helped by her dealings with the Department for Work and Pensions or other Government bodies. I pay tribute to her for taking the issues forward in such a constructive way, and I hope I have reassured my hon. Friend that we have listened and responded.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.