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Funeral Expenses (Prisoners)

Volume 574: debated on Thursday 30 January 2014

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

I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise an important and sensitive issue of which I have become aware due to a case in my constituency. In dealing with that case, it appears that I have stumbled on a gap, at the very least, in how prisoners who are transferred from England to Scotland are treated with regard to funeral expenses. The process of trying to secure answers from the Scottish and English authorities has been less than satisfactory. I understand that the Minister’s responsibilities cover the English authorities, not the Scottish authorities, so I do not expect him to respond on behalf of the Scottish authorities, but I hope that he can clarify some issues that are relevant to the English authorities, which was why I ensured that his private office was given a précis of the case before the debate.

Before I outline the case, it is important that I point out that my concern is for my constituent, who is a cousin of the deceased prisoner. I make no judgment or comment about the prisoner’s offence or sentence because they are immaterial to the points that I shall raise.

My constituent, Mrs Margaret Coyle, had a cousin, James Campbell, who was convicted and given a custodial sentence for an offence committed in England. He began his sentence in an English prison. Part of the way through his sentence, his elderly mother was close to death, and following contact by my constituent, a restricted transfer was arranged whereby the remainder of his sentence could be served in a Scottish prison—first in Kilmarnock prison and later in Greenock prison. The process was instigated by my constituent out of compassion for her cousin’s elderly mother and a desire that they should be in contact before the end of her life. Because my constituent was dealing with the process, she became her cousin’s next of kin.

Later, towards the end of his sentence, my constituent’s cousin developed cancer and became seriously ill. At the point my constituent contacted the Scottish Prison Service to seek guidance on whether her cousin could secure compassionate release. She was informed that although he was serving his sentence in Scotland, because he was on a restricted transfer he was effectively an English prisoner and the matter should therefore be taken up with the English authorities. She understood that and accepted it.

My constituent’s cousin died while still serving his sentence. He had been provided with a handbook by the English Prison Service. Its section on funeral arrangements makes it clear that:

“Prisons must offer to pay a contribution towards reasonable funeral expenses of up to £3,000. The only exceptions where the family has a pre-paid funeral plan or is entitled to claim a grant from other government departments”.

My constituent had discussed the matter with her cousin prior to his death. It meant, they thought, she would be entitled to call upon that support because he was an English prisoner. She was well aware that she would be unable to afford the funeral expense and knew that her cousin was sadly likely to die before the end of his sentence. She was also advised by a social worker she had been engaging with that she would not have to bear the funeral costs. That is the basis on which she proceeded.

After my constituent’s cousin died and she had arranged the funeral, she contacted the Scottish Prison Service and was told that it was a matter for the English Prison Service. She contacted the English Prison Service but was told that it was a matter for the Scottish Prison Service. At that point, just before the end of last year, I became involved. As I am sure the Minister can appreciate, those are sad circumstances, but there is also a degree of confusion in the case. I sought, on behalf of my constituent, to get some clarity on the matter. It was for that reason that I eventually sought this debate.

When I contacted the Scottish Ministers responsible for the Scottish Prison Service in early December, I was told that they would pass the matter on to the Scottish Prison Service and provide me with a response, for which I was still waiting. However, they told my office by phone that it was indeed a matter for the English Prison Service because of the prisoner transfer. At that point I raised the matter in the House during business questions. I also corresponded with the Ministry of Justice, but my correspondence was automatically passed on to the Scottish authorities without my having received a response. My sense is that this is being passed backwards and forwards between authorities, which means I am unable to get a clear answer on where responsibility for the situation properly lies. It is for that reason that I sought this debate. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some clarity.

I would like to make two further points. First, the way in which my constituent and I have been advised and passed between authorities in these circumstances is unacceptable. I realise that the matter is not completely the responsibility of the Minister and his Department—it also involves the Scottish authorities—but something should be done to ensure that in future similar cases are dealt with more appropriately and sensitively.

Secondly, because my constituent was provided with advice and worked on that basis, she has now been left responsible for a bill for funeral expenses of about £2,000, which she cannot afford. The Government should therefore show sensitivity and deal with this matter by using their discretion to ensure that she is not left in her current situation. She is unable to pay a bill because of the conflicting advice that she was given in good faith, after she sought to support a dying relative and showed her personal compassion by getting involved after the prisoner’s mother became seriously ill.

My first concern is that the appropriate authorities have not dealt with the case well, and my second is for my constituent who, in relation to her income and resources, faces a severe financial problem in dealing with the costs. Different conditions appear to apply in English as opposed to Scottish prisons, but with the transfer of my constituent’s relative between them, it almost feels as though he was an English prisoner while he lived but became a Scottish one when he died. Passing such cases backwards and forwards between authorities is not acceptable or appropriate. I hope that the Minister will clarify the situation and provide some comfort to my constituent, who faces not only the trauma that comes with the loss of a relative, whatever the circumstances and background, but a severe financial penalty as a result.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing this debate, and I thank him for giving my officials notice of the details of the case.

I first want to acknowledge that the death of a relative in prison must be devastating for the families and friends of the deceased. Their loss must of course be harder to bear given where the death occurred. I particularly offer my regret to the hon. Gentleman and to his constituent for any additional distress caused in relation to the provision of financial assistance to help to meet the funeral costs.

The hon. Gentleman quite properly asks me to clarify the position. Let me try to do so by setting out the position in relation to funeral expenses as they apply in England and Wales and, as far as I can, in Scotland. I also want to take this opportunity to express regret for the way in which the case appears to have been handled. It is unfortunate that his constituent has not been given clear information, so let me try to set that right by giving it now.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that although convicted and sentenced in England, Mr Campbell had transferred to a prison in Scotland, and it was there that he died. He will know that prisons in Scotland are a matter for the Scottish Government, and I am not therefore able to comment in detail on the support available to families in Scotland, which is a matter for the Scottish Justice Minister.

The hon. Gentleman will know that if a prisoner dies in custody in England or Wales, the governor or director of the prison in which the death occurs can offer a financial contribution to cover reasonable funeral expenses. It is reasonable and decent to do so in those circumstances, but the offer is not unlimited. A financial contribution will be offered only if the deceased prisoner did not have a pre-paid funeral plan. Families may also be entitled to claim a grant from another Department, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, or from a local authority. An offer of a contribution of up to £3,000 may be made to the family, and if they accept it, the money is paid directly to the funeral director they appoint and may be used to pay for any funeral director’s fees, a hearse, a simple coffin, and cremation or burial fees. It cannot to be used to pay for items such as a headstone, transportation for mourners or a wake.

As I have said, Mr Campbell died in a Scottish prison, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Although Mr Campbell was convicted and sentenced in England and Wales, he had elected to transfer to Scotland to be close to his family and friends there, and he had been in a Scottish prison since 2002. I understand that the nature of his transfer may have caused confusion about who was responsible for assisting the family with the funeral expenses.

There should not have been any confusion in this case; that there was is a matter of regret. As the deceased died in the custody of the Scottish Prison Service, the Scottish arrangements apply. I understand that the Scottish Prison Service does not make discretionary payments towards funeral expenses. That, of course, is a matter for the service, and the hon. Gentleman might wish to take it up with the Scottish Justice Minister. However, I understand that the deceased’s family may be able to make an application in Scotland to the social fund for help with funeral expenses. As the Minister responsible for prisons in England and Wales, I cannot comment further on those arrangements or on whether a payment would or could be made to his constituents.

The hon. Gentleman rightly indicated that Mr Campbell was convicted and sentenced in England and Wales and then transferred to Scotland on a restricted basis. It may help if I explain what that means in practice. The transfer of prisoners between United Kingdom jurisdictions is governed by schedule 1 to the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, which was intended to enable prisoners sentenced in one UK jurisdiction to transfer to another to serve their sentence close to their family and in the community into which they will be released.

The Act provides for transfer on either an unrestricted or a restricted basis. When a prisoner is transferred on a restricted basis, as in Mr Campbell’s case, responsibility for their release, supervision and recall remains the responsibility of the sentencing jurisdiction. However, for all other purposes the prisoner is subject to the rules and regulations governing prisons and prisoners in the receiving jurisdiction. That position was confirmed on 28 October 1997 when the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), set out in a written answer to a question from the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) how the new transfer arrangements would work. He said:

“A prisoner granted a restricted transfer will automatically remain, for the duration of his or her transfer, subject to the law governing release on licence, automatic release, post-release supervision and recall applicable in the sending jurisdiction…A prisoner transferred on a restricted basis will normally become subject for all purposes, other than those specified in any conditions attached to the transfer, to the statutory and other provisions applying to prisoners in the receiving jurisdiction.”—[Official Report, 28 October 1997; Vol. 299, c. 777.]

Although Mr Campbell’s release arrangements remained subject to English law, he was for all other purposes a Scottish prisoner. As such, any support to the deceased’s family, financial or otherwise, is a matter for the Scottish authorities. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that and recognise that I am not trying to pass the buck. I understand that he has received differing advice on the issue from officials in England and Wales and in Scotland, but I can confirm that the position that I have described is accepted by both Prison Services.

I am satisfied that the family of the deceased in this case do not qualify for financial assistance under the rules applicable in England and Wales. I know that the hon. Gentleman will wish to take the matter up with the Scottish authorities and discuss it directly with them.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.