I beg to move,
That this House has considered Social Fund funeral payments.
May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David? I look forward to what I hope will be another constructive debate on this topic. Before commencing, it is appropriate to place on record my appreciation to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), and the hon. Members for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who have all campaigned on the huge disparity between people’s profound need at a sincere time of grief and the support that Government are prepared to offer them.
I am also greatly indebted to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who as Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions compiled an important report on this subject, “Support for the Bereaved”, which was published in March this year. I know that he wished to be here this morning but, due to scheduling, the Committee is taking evidence for an inquiry this morning, so its members are unable to do so. May I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery, the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), to her place? I have not thus far engaged with her as a Minister, but I know her to be a compassionate Conservative. I know she is well placed to respond appropriately, and I trust that when she does, this debate will have a tangible outcome.
When the Select Committee’s report was published, Citizens Advice in Northern Ireland commenced its work, motivated by a desire to assist those in society who often struggle to find the right information, let alone access the help they require. I believe that its quest should be ours today. While we should always strive to provide dignity in life, we must also ensure that people have dignity in death.
The problem can be summed up as curtly as this. SunLife’s cost of dying survey puts the average cost of a funeral at £3,700. The average payment for the preceding year from the social fund was £1,347. That is a shortfall of 62%. We know that eligibility for the payment is confined to those in receipt of income support, housing benefit, tax credit, universal credit, pension credit, jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. We therefore recognise as a society that any recipient of this payment is already in need of Government support to make ends meet. Starkly, we are forcing individuals for whom every penny counts to accept a financial burden of £2,300.
I am listening very carefully indeed to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, as ever. I invite him to take this opportunity to put on the record his appreciation for the contribution made by armed services charities. In Northern Ireland, and I expect throughout the United Kingdom, those charities have been very good at helping the families of veterans when they fall on hard times and are unable to meet their funeral expenses.
I am indebted to the hon. Lady. She is entirely right. At a time of grief and sorrow, pride sometimes gets in the way of people seeking the support they most earnestly need. While quietly and under the surface there are many membership organisations that, through benevolence, step in to support, they should not have to.
We are burdening those in receipt of benefits with a 62% deficit of £2,300. I know that the Government’s position—indeed, it was accepted by the Select Committee—is that in all these instances people have a choice to make. They have a choice as to what type of funeral they have, whether they engage the services of a funeral director and whether they assume additional costs. We accept that people have choices.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He talks about choices. Does he agree that one of the invidious choices that some families have to make is going into considerable debt from a variety of sources in order to pay for a funeral? At a time when immediate relatives and next of kin are grieving tremendously and finding it very difficult to make ends meet, this added burden sometimes leads them to go to money lenders or other sources to get the resources.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When the Government talk about choices, they also express a desire for the ideal situation that people make provision for their own end of life. Ideally, that is what we should do. Ideally, it should come from our estate and from our savings, but those who are most in need are recipients of benefits from this society because we recognise that they cannot pay for themselves.
I ask this question of the Minister—I do not do so glibly, but it starkly illustrates the difficulty we have. Take JSA as one example. A recipient of JSA gets £73.10 per week. How much of that £73.10 do Government believe should be set aside for funeral provision? I do not wish to be facetious: that is the serious concern of many people who struggle by themselves and do not get enough from Government. We are saying, “Really, you should be saving for after life as well.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate. Does he agree that there is a degree of humility when it comes to folk who cannot afford to pay for a funeral? They also need more help when it comes to the form filling and the process itself.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come on to some of those issues later in my speech, as well as recognising the particular difficulties we have in Northern Ireland when it comes to those choices. The Select Committee did a good bit of work on the application process and the SF200 form, which I will refer to later as well.
The Minister will know that the social fund payment is broken into two categories: what is considered to be a non-discretionary award and what is considered to be a discretionary spend. The Committee has canvassed this issue. The Members I mentioned previously—the hon. Member for South Shields and others—have recognised that the £700 award, which was formulated at a time when it met discretionary spend needs, was frozen in 2003. The Bank of England’s calculator suggests that that £700 is now worth £495.68, yet the costs have not frozen; they have risen exponentially. That figure was set at a time when Government said they would meet the costs, but I am afraid this policy is now compounding the debt and the pressure on families who look to Government for support. That is 13 years of diminished spend, and the cost of discretionary items has risen exponentially, at more than three times the rate of inflation year on year since 2003.
Let us consider what is discretionary. I do not find it comfortable that the provision of a representative of the clergy or an officiant at a ceremony is a discretionary spend. I know that people have different views on faith, but for me it is not a choice. I recognise that there are many in our country who do not live a faithful life but who, when they approach the end, build that relationship for what is to come. I do not believe that that spend—whether it is a faith-based clergyman or someone who will simply officiate at an ordinary funeral—should be discretionary, nor do I believe that the hiring of a place of worship should be. We cannot expect it to be a discretionary cost for people at a time of grief and sorrow to sort out a place aside from their home to welcome family and friends who want to pay their respects to their loved one.
Discretionary cost is also associated with a cremated remains plot or storage space. Cremation is a non-discretionary spend, so its cost is covered; burial is also a non-discretionary spend and interment is covered. Burials cost substantially more than cremations and the Government will cover the cost of interment of a body in a burial, yet providing a plot for ashes or a safe place for them to be kept is non-discretionary. Given that there is a huge saving for the Government in the discretionary element of cremation, the provision of a cremated remains plot or storage space should be moved from non-discretionary to discretionary.
Embalming is a discretionary spend. The Government say a family choose whether a body will be embalmed. It is not required scientifically, but is most important, should a family choose to have an open coffin or to spend time with their deceased loved one. As part of that categorisation of non-discretionary spend, the Government are making the choice more difficult for those in receipt of benefits or who can ill afford it. They are saying, “We will pay £700”—which in no way represents the cost of the non-discretionary items added together; indeed, it has been frozen since 2003 and is now worth less than £500—“but you choose: are you going to use it to have an officiant at a ceremony, to have a place to put the ashes of your loved one, to embalm the body before disposal or to mark their final resting place with a memorial?” It is appropriate to spell out these aspects of the end of life sincerely and earnestly, to illustrate some of the choices that the policy is asking people without sufficient means to make.
In an evidence session during the Select Committee’s inquiry, an official from the Department for Work and Pensions said that, ideally, eligible claimants should know what their entitlement is before a funeral. It is sensible and plausible that people do not go to a funeral director and ask for these discretionary items, amassing a substantial cost that they can ill afford. That is sensible and, when I consider the delay in having a funeral in England and Wales, it is also practical. People may wait two, three or four weeks for a funeral. That is not so in Northern Ireland, where traditionally people are buried two or three days after death. So at a time of sorrow and grief, we not only ask people to come to terms with loss and their inability to provide for their loved one and to make arrangements, contact family and friends, but to contact DWP’s advice line to see whether support is available. Three weeks sounds practical, but three days is less so, yet the constraints are the same across the country. Colleagues from other parts of the country may wish to add their experience, but in Northern Ireland the short time frame does not allow people to do what the DWP official described as ideal.
All this—the question of discretionary or non-discretionary and the cap in 2003—has led to a crisis of funeral poverty in this country. The Local Government Association has highlighted its concern. In 2009-10, there were 2,200 public health funerals, at a cost of £1.5 million to local authorities. In 2010-11, there were 2,900, at a cost of £2.1 million. The BBC survey of all local authorities in this country had a response rate of three quarters. It is estimated that there will be 3,500 public health funerals this year.
We know what they are. Paupers’ funerals have been described as funerals for which there is simply no one to pay, no family support and no ability to give someone a send-off from a loved one, so the state steps in. The number of such funerals has risen exponentially to 3,500 this year. That has led the National Association of Funeral Directors to ask why, if funeral poverty is rising, social fund funeral payments have decreased. The social fund payments of £40 million in 2016 represent a 10.9% decrease from £44 million in the previous year. The number of public health funerals is rising and funeral poverty is rising, yet Government support is falling. With a fall of £4 million between last year and this year, we are returning to 1993 in real terms, when the Government spent £90 million on social fund funeral payments.
Last year, the social fund proudly stated that it had reduced outstanding debt and returned more than £150 million to the Treasury. The number of public health funerals is rising, spend is decreasing and the cost to local authorities and funeral poverty are rising; rather than proudly stating that they are handing £150 million back to the Treasury, the Government have the choice to use the money more appropriately and to provide the support that is needed.
To be fair, the Government gave a timely response to the Select Committee’s report. The Minister has had the chance to consider some of her narrow brief—DWP is not a narrow Department and has many considerations—and today gives her the opportunity to add some meat to the skeletal response and skeletal commitments that were offered.
The Government have talked about dialogue between funeral directors, interested third parties and stakeholders. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says to update the discussions that have been taking place since 2015. We should have an appropriate response from the Government today on how those discussions are progressing without just placing the onus on funeral directors.
There was much in the Select Committee’s report about funeral directors doing this and that. The Government could define what a simple funeral is. There are choices, as I have outlined, about what is discretionary and what is non-discretionary. I will be interested to hear not just what stakeholders, funeral directors and their association are prepared to do, but what the Government are prepared to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating this debate and on how comprehensively and eloquently he has introduced it. In my experience as an MP, people do not necessarily want to talk about funerals, but as they get older the issue becomes more of a burden and a worry. We have a new Prime Minister and a new direction in a Government who are not for the privileged few but for the many. This is an opportunity for the Government to take a new approach and relieve this burden from many elderly people—often widows living alone—who are worried about passing on debt to their families. This is a real opportunity, as my hon. Friend said, to have a new, fresh start.
I agree entirely. In 2004, six years before I was elected, I was assisting in one of our advice centres. A lady came in and said she had nothing, but that she had been turned down for pension credit. When we looked at the reasons why, we saw she did have something. She had very few savings, but she had a lump sum of £4,000, which brought her total savings above the threshold for pension credit.
I asked her about the £4,000 and her response was, “That’s not mine. That’s Wilton’s.” Wilton is a funeral director in my constituency. For her in 2004, the consequence of doing what the Government asked of her—to take responsibility for herself and to take pride at the end of her life knowing that no one else would have to step in—was to be ineligible for the Government’s pension credit when she needed it most.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s relaying that story to the Chamber; I am sure that many of us have similar stories. Just a few weeks ago, I dealt with a constituent who, to get out of that predicament, has paid for their funeral in advance so that the money cannot be held against them in their benefit claim. That is an awful situation in which to put constituents, especially elderly and vulnerable people living alone.
Absolutely right. I am grateful for that intervention. It is also important, when someone makes that choice, that they tell their family or loved ones that they have done so; if they do not, it is perfectly plausible that a family member, doing their best for their loved one, will go off and engage someone else, not knowing that that financial provision had been made. The period of three days makes that a more likely proposition in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom.
We are talking about simple funeral costs and simple funerals. The Select Committee report considers what a simple funeral is. I believe—I hope that the Government will listen to this earnestly—that the £700 at which the amount was capped in 2003 not only needs to be increased to reflect the cost today, but should be index-linked. It should rise with inflation so that we are today taking a decision that will not just change the situation for people in this financial year, but have a long-lasting positive impact for anyone who finds themselves in the position that we are discussing.
The Minister will know that one consideration was about the SF200 application form. Having had a chance to consider the matter following the Government response in May, can the Government say whether they will accept the recommendation and ensure that the form indicates clearly the conditions associated with who pays and who applies? That is very simple, but it means that when someone gets to the end of the process, either before or after the funeral, they do not find that Government support is not there for them and they are left with a debt.
The Government said that they were conducting their own direct research with users. I am keen to know where that is at and what it has uncovered. Additionally—I am sure that Scottish colleagues will raise this—there was a proposal that we should follow the Scottish model of indexing funeral payments with inflation. There was some criticism of that model in the Government response, but I would be keen to hear about that.
A particular issue that arose during the Committee’s consideration was the situation in Northern Ireland with bereavement benefits. The Government have considered bereavement benefits and decided that it is inappropriate for cohabiting couples with children to be eligible. That is the Government’s position. They have considered the Committee’s report and decided to stick with that position, but in Northern Ireland we cannot, because the High Court found against the Northern Ireland Executive, so in Northern Ireland there is eligibility for cohabiting couples with dependent children.
Given that we administer what is a Government scheme in Northern Ireland—it is not a Northern Ireland Executive scheme, but the wider social fund of this country—I am keen to find out from the Minister, who may need to write to me, whether the money required to meet the additional burden in relation to bereavement benefit comes out of the Northern Ireland Executive’s money or whether the Government are making up that shortfall even though they are unprepared to do so in the rest of the United Kingdom. We have found ourselves in this position because of the judiciary, and the courts may well step in in England as well.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate and on the very effective way in which he is putting across his case. Does he agree that in the interest of compassion at a time of bereavement, that judgment is actually right and the Government ought to look at the matter again in England and throughout the United Kingdom?
I do agree, although the Government flag up what I think are important associated considerations. Could we see two individuals, one a married spouse out of the home and one a cohabiting spouse in the home, applying and have the difficulty of deciding who is entitled and who is not? The Government have flagged that up. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the matter needs further consideration. There is the particular issue for Northern Ireland, and I think that the wider impacts are worth further reflection.
There are a number of issues on which the Government hold no information, and I will go through them quickly. The Minister may or may not get a chance to take them down, but I know that many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. The Government hold no data on the number of people unable to afford a funeral, on the average cost of a funeral or on the types of funeral chosen. The Government have no idea of the number of people plunged into debt. The Government hold no data on the number of local authority or public health funerals and have no proportional breakdown in their accounts as to how the £40 million paid out of the social fund breaks down into discretionary and non-discretionary payments.
I refer to all that because those are the answers that hon. Members who have doggedly pursued this issue over many years have received. Having highlighted all that has been highlighted in this opening part of the debate, and in expectation of what is to come from colleagues, I think that answers to those questions must be the starting point for a Government who wish to deal appropriately with the disparity that people face and the debt that people are plunged into.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to introduce the debate and, as I said at the start, I commend all those who have done much more work on this issue than I have. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, with a new Government, a new Minister and the stated ideal of standing for those who need it most, this is one good opportunity for the Government to deliver.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to serve with you as our Chair, Sir David. I am privileged to follow the eloquence of the hon. Gentleman. I completely agree with all the points that he made, but I would like to bring my own perspective to this matter. I welcome the debate and feel that the fact that I unfortunately had to arrange my husband’s funeral a few months ago has given me a close insight into the issues raised here today.
The death of a close family member or friend always comes as a terrible shock. Whether it was expected or unexpected, the emotions and feelings that immediately come to the surface are grief at the loss of the loved one and the knowledge that one’s life has changed for ever. It should not be a time to have to worry about finances; it should be a time to grieve and come to terms with that loss. However, in the society we live in today, we find that in many people’s lives finances are uppermost in their minds as they struggle to make sense of the situation that they find themselves in.
My first point is that the necessary practicalities of arranging a funeral have to start almost immediately and the impact of that is that poorer families may quickly fall into debt. Although there may be some support for those on low incomes, it is becoming apparent that the grant of £700, which has been frozen for the last 13 years, can no longer cover the cost of a basic funeral. Those on low incomes may be able to claim the grant, but they still need to find the additional funds. As evidenced by the Work and Pensions Committee, many can run up huge credit card bills that spiral out of control or fall into the hands of payday loan companies or, even worse, loan sharks, causing long-term financial hardship that will be very difficult for some ever to get out of.
My second point is on the lack of openness about the cost of funerals. In my own case, it never occurred to me to shop around or do a price comparison. In the aftermath of a death, people are vulnerable and not always thinking straight. I just contacted the funeral director who I knew was very local, and I must add that they were extremely helpful, kind and respectful throughout the process, but it does seem to me that we should give this issue more thought and seek to persuade funeral directors to be open about their costs and make them available online, so that we can all make better informed choices. When I return to my constituency, I will be contacting the funeral directors in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and urging them to do that.
Thirdly, I am exercised by the various tragic situations in which vulnerable low-income people, some found in my constituency, may find themselves following the death of a family member who they may have cared for. As we all know, an estimated 6.5 million people in this country are taking on the absolutely important job of looking after, and caring for, someone in their family or friendship circles. It is possible that during that time such a carer may be eligible to claim a carer’s allowance, but following the death of that relative they will find, obviously, that the carer’s allowance will cease to be paid to them. That may put them in a position where they need to claim for employment and support allowance. If they are found eligible, their income will be significantly reduced.
Even worse—I have to bring this up—some three months later, that person, perhaps one I have spoken to in my constituency, may have to pay the bedroom tax. That has the knock-on effect of their suddenly seeing their life, income and quality of life completely reduced. How many of us in this Chamber would be able to live on less than £50 a week? I hope the Minister will take that on board when she looks at the wider issues of bereavement in low-income families. The Government would have us believe that moving to a smaller property will deal with that issue, but we already know that we do not have enough properties anywhere to put people who are paying the bedroom tax into—we certainly have not got enough available.
I heard the hon. Member for Belfast East tell us that the Minister is a “compassionate Conservative”—not a phrase we often hear up in the north. I urge the Minister to take heed of the recent findings of the Work and Pensions Committee and launch an urgent inquiry into the industry, to tackle the causes of funeral cost inflation and to address rising funeral poverty. Everyone, whatever their means, should be able to say goodbye to their loved ones with respect and dignity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) for bringing this very important debate forward. I recall speaking on funeral poverty around this time last year, and was deeply encouraged by the consensus around the Chamber that the current situation was simply not sustainable. It is a sad and inescapable fact that far too many people struggle to put food on the table and keep body and soul together. They cannot afford to live and now we learn that they simply cannot afford to die. It is a very cruel fact and a cause of deep shame for all of us; it is a burden for too many families.
I was moved last year, following the debate, to support the Fair Funerals campaign. I wrote to every single undertaker in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran to ask that, as a matter of course, grieving families are offered the cheapest and most affordable option when they come to bury their loved ones. One would think that this might be offered automatically, but apparently, sadly, it is not. I simply cannot understand why it is not automatically offered.
Let us not forget that the families in question who are grieving are only thinking, naturally enough, of giving their loved ones the best and most fitting send off. Cost is not the first thought in their minds. For too many families, it is only after the event that the practicalities of payment truly hit home and leave so many struggling to pay off very high costs, saddling them with debt for many years in the future.
Social fund funeral payments vary depending on the particular circumstances of those seeking to bury their loved ones. However, for those already on benefits or low incomes, the payments are simply inadequate in the face of rising costs for even very modest funerals. They are simply not keeping pace with costs. The average award from the UK Government for help with a funeral in 2014-15 was £1,375, less than 40% of the estimated average cost of a funeral. Alongside that, burial and cremation charges continue to rise—80% over the last decade. This leaves grieving families struggling with grief, but unfortunately also struggling with debt. There is also some evidence to suggest that often people on benefits or low incomes do not even know that they qualify for the modest help that is available.
Of course, as has already been mentioned, we could encourage those who are able to afford them to take out monthly funeral payment plans. To those thinking of doing so, I urge caution. I suggest they either take careful advice or read the small print extremely closely, because over time many individuals end up paying much more than the cost of the funeral itself and the balance is not refunded to grieving families.
I say to the Minister that, to protect the public, the time has come for an official regulatory body to investigate capping the costs of funerals and, importantly, to compel funeral directors to inform clients of their lowest-cost options. That is so those who are grieving and will struggle to pay back the high costs can make a more informed decision about the cost of funerals, with all the relevant information available to them.
The Scottish Government are doing much work on this and have commissioned a report in preparation for the devolution of funeral payments to the Scottish Government, but I think much more needs to be done. This issue confronts those on low incomes in Scotland and across the United Kingdom. I know that there is a level of consensus in this Chamber and I am interested to hear the Minister’s response. I will finish where I began: it is to our shame that too many people cannot afford to live, and now simply cannot afford to die.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on setting the scene so movingly and thoughtfully. His speech was easy for us all to follow and appreciate and, more importantly, for the Minister to respond to. The funeral payment scheme that is currently in place is complex and certainly does not adequately cover the associated costs of a funeral. I am also pleased to see the Minister in her place and congratulate her on her elevation to the position she now holds. I understand that in the past the Minister has had a similar debate in Westminster Hall on this subject. I think I came along to support her and added a contribution at some point—which was uncharacteristic—and I very much look forward to her response.
I have had a number of cases in my office regarding funeral payments. One of the main problems is that people have to commit to the funeral without knowing whether their claim will be upheld. I have had people in my office who have had to take out payday loans—I would not recommend it—believing that the funeral will be paid for, only to be refused or given an amount of money well under what was needed to carry out the actual funeral. They are then left with truly massive bills and debts, because they believed they were eligible and wanted to respect the memory of their loved ones. The scheme was set up to prevent families from having to allow their loved ones to go through a pauper’s funeral service, which is not a nice thing for a loved one.
I also commend what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred to. In many cases when people come to my office I say, “Were they members of the services or any of the army regimental associations? Because there is help available through the Royal British Legion and the army associations as well.” In some cases they can step in, but not always.
I was a councillor for 26 years and can well remember the odd time when a note was brought to the council saying that someone was to be given a pauper’s funeral in that section of the graveyard. It is unbelievably sad to sit in a chamber when a name comes up and to think, “There must be some family or someone who knows them.” All of a sudden, they are in the paupers’ section. It is a very cheap funeral, but it is unbelievably sad that there is no one to claim the body and, worst still, that no one can afford to claim it.
My office regularly fills in forms, as lots of people come along for help and assistance. They are asked who their next of kin is, and there may be three or four children. Who is on benefits? If three are and one is not, that means they will not get any help. The person who passed away may have four children or two children, whatever the case may be, and then somebody will come along and say they are estranged from their mum and have not spoken to her for many years, but they have to prove that. It is a very complex system. This is not something that any compassionate person would like to see.
In my opinion, unless there is reform of the scheme, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East has referred to, we will see many more people put into the unmarked sections of council graveyards, as it used to be in days gone by. There will be even more people getting themselves into massive debt using extortionate lenders, and then the desperation takes over. I am not being dramatic in saying this. The cost to councils and health trusts of paupers’ funerals in Northern Ireland has risen by almost 50% between 2010 and 2015. More than £180,000 has been spent in Northern Ireland since 2008 on funerals for people who die alone or without relatives able or willing to pay. Health trusts and councils have carried out about 90 funerals since 2008, and in 2013-14—the most recent period with the most complete statistics—around £32,600 was spent. The figure is about 46% more than the £22,200 recorded in 2008-09. However, spending fell a wee bit, to £25,500, in 2014-15.
Across the UK, the cost to councils of paupers’ funerals has risen, as the Minister will know, by almost 30% to £1.7 million in the past four years, whereas the number of funerals has also risen by 11%. It shows the dire situation that people are in that they would allow a loved one’s body to remain unclaimed for two weeks in a morgue and then allow them to be cremated or buried in the paupers’ section. My hon. Friend referred to the £700 of state help available, but a no-frills funeral today costs £3,700.
I will conclude with these comments. A quick browse online on the likes of Macmillan Cancer Support, CLIC Sargent or other websites makes it very clear that people cannot rely on a grant to help them with the cost of a funeral. CLIC Sargent’s website says:
“We can’t give full details and exclusions here, so please don’t take it for granted that you will get everything listed above”,
and refers to “necessary” or “reasonable” costs. It also states:
“Many people find that the Funeral Payment doesn’t cover all the costs”—
that is very clear—and that it
“can also be reduced by the value of some of your child’s estate…It is important to remember that if you do receive a funeral payment, it may not cover all the funeral costs.”
That is aimed at grieving parents. Surely there is a better way that we can handle this. Therefore, I support a simplified approach, as my hon. Friend and colleague said. I also believe that the amount available must be uplifted to recognise the changing times we live in.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I give thanks to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) for bringing this debate to the Chamber and for his kind comments towards me.
Members will know that back in 2014, I introduced the Funeral Services Bill. This Bill called for the Government to carry out an overarching review of funeral affordability. At that time, more than 100,000 people were estimated to be suffering from funeral poverty. That means, simply, that they were unable to afford to bury their loved ones or had incurred significant debts in doing so. Since 2004, funeral costs have risen by a staggering 80%, with the average funeral generally costing just under £4,000. In this climate of rising costs, the only payments that have not increased are the Government-administered social fund funeral payments, for which, between 2014 and 2015, the Government turned down 24,000 applicants.
I am really proud that my Bill started a national conversation and gave this issue the prominence it needed. I have continued to campaign on behalf not just of those we know about who are struggling with funeral poverty, but of all those who have stayed silent, or who have stopped me in the street, written to me or sent me deeply personal messages stating that they would never want anyone to ever have to go through what they have—the stress, shame and indignity of not being able to offer their loved ones the one final goodbye they wanted. The pressure of that while trying to grieve is immensely distressing for so many people. In a country where we do not readily talk about death and dying, I have been heartened to see in the past few years a diminishing of the last great taboos of discussing dying and death.
I am not going to spend the time I have today going over how the social fund operates; I think hon. Members have done that justice already. I would like to use the short time I have to share my efforts, and those of other interested organisations since December 2014, in trying to seek some long-needed reform to the social fund payments through the introduction of an eligibility checker, as proposed in my Bill.
In late 2015, I, along with the National Association of Funeral Directors, Citizens Advice and others, attended a roundtable with the then Pensions Minister, Baroness Altmann. There was broad agreement that the introduction of an eligibility check would stem the tide of people committing to costs before they knew of any award, thus avoiding debt. At that roundtable, the Minister gave a cast-iron assurance that she would explore the eligibility-check option.
Correspondence between myself and the Minister continued. She advised me that research into the issues raised was ongoing, as were discussions with stakeholders. In April this year, I wrote to her dismayed that she had not mentioned the eligibility check in her recent correspondence. I pressed her for an update on the research and discussions with stakeholders that the Department had undertaken. I also asked for clarification that, as a wealth of research had already been conducted in this area, her Department were not simply duplicating existing work.
Two months later, I needed to remind the Minister that she had failed to respond to my letter. In that reminder, I also asked that the Government’s response to the Work and Pensions Committee report on bereavement benefits, which also asked for an eligibility check, was corrected, as the Government falsely said in their response that an eligibility checker already exists. It does not and the record has still not been corrected.
I then received a letter simply dated July 2016 from the Minister. It said that:
“we are looking to see if a checker is the best solution”,
and that I would receive an update this summer. The Minister then resigned, saying:
“Unfortunately over the past year, short-term political considerations, exacerbated by the EU referendum, have inhibited good policy-making.”
Well, no shock there.
Although I am always keen to debate these issues, I am totally fed up with the Government’s poor response and incompetence on this issue, and the way in which this Minister’s predecessors have messed me and all these other organisations around. I welcome the new Minister to her place and have read her letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who chairs the Work and Pensions Committee. In it, she also writes of conversations with stakeholders. I imagine that stakeholders can only say the same thing so many times without getting completely fed up.
My questions to the Minister today are really simple: what research has been done by her Department? Where on earth can any of us find it? Who are these mystery stakeholders? I want to make it very clear to all those suffering from funeral poverty that even if this Government continue to let them down, I and my colleagues never will.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) not only on securing and initiating this debate, but on his in-depth analysis of the situation regarding social fund payments for funerals and its background. He said that payments in this area have been frozen for years and discussed the issue of working with the funeral industry. In such circumstances, perhaps capitalism takes over, rather than the needs of the individual.
I am particularly struck by the fact that many people on low incomes who face end-of-life issues, whether abruptly or as a result of a serious illness, are provided with additional stress because of their low income. It is something they could do without, and I immediately think of those I have been involved with. There are people on a low income as a result of their illness—for example, those with contaminated bloods—and have all the associated problems from that. It means they have no ability to work. People may have hepatitis C or HIV, which can bring on death much more quickly; as a result, their relations perhaps cannot pay for funerals. We have to be particularly compassionate and we are looking for a compassionate response today from the Minister. Above all, we are looking for actions.
It is appropriate that we are debating the social fund funeral payments and associated funeral poverty. As the hon. Gentleman and others across the House today have highlighted, although payments may be a devolved matter, the DWP is responsible for the level of payment, which has been frozen at £700 for the past 13 years.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the report published by the Work and Pensions Committee earlier this year. It identified and characterised the crux of the problem as the rising cost of funerals and the decreased value of state funeral payments, which are pushing families into debt and distress. The Minister should take that on board in her response today, in her further interrogation of the matter before a final response is made to the Work and Pensions Committee report and in her further actions, but she should also realise that the changing nature of welfare reform has had impacts that have placed low-income families into greater poverty.
The falling value of state support is exacerbated by the rising cost of funerals. The Fair Funerals Campaign estimates that the social fund now covers, on average, only 37% of an overall funeral bill. At this time of great sadness, and maybe remorse in some cases, high funeral costs are not only an added financial burden. Funeral poverty can cause great distress, and perhaps feelings of shame and stigma, as people struggle to carry out a basic human ritual. The grief and stress caused by the death of a loved one are prolonged and added to by financial worry and hardship. Those in the funeral industry try to delay sending out bills because they recognise that there are particular problems, but there is a need for greater conversation and, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) suggested, a cap on funeral charges, which could assist people on low incomes.
I support the calls from the Northern Ireland Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, and from others in the independent sector in Northern Ireland who have given so much support to people, that the Department for Work and Pensions should follow the lead of the Scottish Government, who plan to increase the payments once they obtain these devolved powers.
Funeral poverty is a problem not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the regions of the UK. The DWP should increase the level of social fund funeral payments to reflect that, and I hope the Minister will today indicate that the Department wishes to move towards a certain path or trajectory that will allow the unfreezing of funeral payments and a corresponding increase in order to relate funeral payments to the cost of living out there. Indexing the payment is much fairer than the current system, in which we have seen a 13-year freeze as funeral costs soar.
We are discussing a sensitive, sad and regretful situation for many people, and it is important that the DWP engages with the funeral industry, responds to the Select Committee report and introduces a legislative amendment to increase funeral payments whereby those on low incomes who in some instances face the abrupt death of a loved one, or a death following a long period of sickness and inability to work, are given the due solace that they urgently demand and very much deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Like others, I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on securing a debate on this delicate and emotive subject.
It appears that even the dead are subject to austerity. Real-terms spending from the funeral fund has decreased over the years whereas, as we have heard, the cost of funerals has increased and a £700 cap on particular costs has remained in place since 2003—that has been a failure of successive Governments. We have heard that the average payment covers only 40% of the average cost of a funeral.
The House has had wider debates about dignity in dying. It seems that the poorest in our society might not get the chance of dignity in death, but the reality is that they are not the ones who suffer. It is their dependants who have the stress of trying to find the money and the stress, and possibly even the feeling of shame, of not being able to send off their loved one as they see fit. Under the current system, dependants also have to live with the stress of signing up for funeral costs, then applying for a grant and then waiting to see what money they might get back.
The processing timescales can also be an issue. Earlier this year I was contacted by a distressed constituent who was advised that the average processing time was five to six weeks. In 2015-16 some 30% of applications took longer to process than the 15-day turnaround target. Such performance is almost commendable given that answers to my written questions have confirmed that the number of staff working in the social fund section of the DWP has halved from 798 in 2013-14 to 349 in 2015-16, which is shocking.
Even after the award of a grant, a family might have to suffer the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions trying to recover the costs from the deceased’s estate. With a static budget of £40 million, I question the value of pursuing estates, which last year returned a yield of only £200,000, or just 0.5%. Will the Minister advise us on the merits of pursuing such estates? What costs are associated with the recovery? The administration probably outweighs the costs recovered.
The only thing worse for families than the stress of waiting to hear how much they might be awarded is the stress of outright rejection. In 2014-15, the rejection rate was 37%, despite a massive decrease in the number of applications since 2010-11. Coincidentally, 2010-11 was the year that budget loans became eligible for funeral expenses, too—that is something else on which the Government hold no data. The Government clearly need to streamline the system to make eligibility easier to understand.
Changing tack slightly, Oxfam’s recent report found that the richest 10% of the UK population own more than half of the country’s total wealth. The top 1% own nearly a quarter, whereas the poorest 20% share just 0.8%. What have the Government done about the widening inequality in both life and death? In their most recent Budget, the Tories introduced a measure to help the families of the deceased: inheritance tax relief of some £2.6 billion. There was also a reduction in capital gains tax of some £3.4 billion. That is £6 billion of giveaways to the rich, yet the funeral payment fund stays static at £40 million. The Government could easily double funeral payments to cover 100% of average funeral costs without materially affecting the UK budget. For me, that would be the real face of compassionate conservatism.
I am glad that the transfer of powers means that the Scottish Government have already stated that they plan a 10-day turnaround for applications and a more streamlined and dignified system—they are currently consulting on such matters—but the reality is that they have to manage that within an ever-tightening budget. As we have heard, the UK Government have no real data to give the Scottish Government a good starting point.
This issue is about doing the right thing, even though many people will not know the importance of such payments until they reach this point in life. The Scottish Government’s attitude in their consultation exercise is to do the right thing, and hopefully the UK Government will learn from that. We certainly do not want to see the return of paupers’ graves. We can afford greater dignity for families suffering bereavement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) for securing this debate on such an important matter. Like many hon. Members here, I participated in last year’s debate on funeral poverty and am pleased to see that the Work and Pensions Committee has since conducted an inquiry into the matter. I agree with the Committee’s recommendation that the price of a basic funeral should be agreed with the industry and that social fund funeral payments should be set at that level.
As others have noted, the level of state support via social fund funeral payments has been frozen since 2003. According to research by the Fair Funerals campaign, the average award of £1,225 covers only 35% of the cost of a funeral. For those who do not meet the qualifications to receive the payment, finding the money to cover the difference is incredibly difficult—many Members mentioned that in this debate and in previous debates.
As indicated by research conducted by the Fair Funerals campaign and others, for various reasons many do not shop around for funeral quotes. Oft times, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, they are initially offered higher-priced services by funeral directors rather than being given lower-priced services.
I have recently been made aware of a case in my constituency of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill about a local funeral home that, notably, had not signed on to the fair funerals pledge. My constituent had requested that a non-essential component of the funeral not be included. However, they were billed for it and later told that they owed the money, because that non-essential service was standard. Furthermore, they were significantly overcharged for services that, because of the circumstances of the death, would have been impossible for the funeral home to provide at all. I do not have time to go into the detail, but when a family member of the deceased attempted to discuss the discrepancies in the bill with the funeral home, they were ignored and forced to pay the bill.
In the light of that case and others that have been reported, I welcome the Work and Pensions Committee’s recommendation that an index of local funeral directors and their comparative costs for a fair funeral should be publicised. I further suggest that the industry-agreed price of a basic funeral—the price at which the social fund funeral payment is to be set—should also be publicised, with a breakdown of the services included in it, as other hon. Members touched on. Easy access to that information would be most helpful, and I would welcome the introduction of an eligibility checker.
In North Lanarkshire, the council area in which my constituency falls, funeral costs rose by 13% between 2014 and 2015 alone. According to Citizens Advice Scotland, the total cost of a funeral for those living in my constituency falls somewhere between £2,600 and £8,000. As more than half of households in North Lanarkshire have an annual household income of under £20,000, the cost of a funeral in my constituency can represent more than a third of annual household income.
The cost is particularly acute since a third of the UK population have savings of £250 or less. Recent reports have found that not only are many unable to pay for the cost of a funeral, but 40% of people find themselves forced to incur high-interest credit card debt or forced to take out a high-interest short-term loan to cover the shortfall. According to a finding published in The Guardian on 20 October 2014, Jobcentre staff have actively been encouraging individuals to take on such debt to pay for funeral costs.
A defence that funeral providers often use is that users have a choice of services. But, given the urgency of the situation, the lack of transparency in the options and costs that many funeral services provide, the cultural and social pressures to provide a good send-off and the difficulty of dealing with any administrative issue while in grief and often shock, some funeral providers are clearly taking advantage.
Given the rising cost of funerals and the number of people forced to take on short-term high-interest debts such as payday loans to pay for them, I suggest that an extension of the eligibility requirements for receiving a social fund funeral payment should be taken into consideration, to limit the number of individuals forced to take on debt to cover the shortfall. The social fund funeral payment is essential for those on lower incomes. However, it is set too low, the administration is bureaucratic and cumbersome for people at their most vulnerable, and the current qualifications for receiving it are too strict. I therefore urge the Minister to work to eradicate funeral poverty through amending the funeral payment; to take those providing funeral services to task; and to consider the recommendations of the Work and Pensions Committee and the points made by hon. Members today.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) on securing the debate and introducing it in a very effective and compassionate way.
For the sake of those watching the debate, let me start by explaining some of the issues. Social fund funeral payments cover the actual expenses of a funeral, such as the burial plot, grave-digging, cremation fees, reasonable transport costs to move the body and reasonable expenses for one return journey within the UK for a responsible person to arrange or attend the funeral. In addition, as we have heard from other hon. Members, up to £700 can be paid for such things as funeral directors’ fees, flowers, church fees and so on. The payments have been capped at that level since April 2003.
The Welfare Reform Act 2012 extended the scope of budgeting loans to include funeral costs, allowing claimants to top up the payment via loans deducted from their future benefit payments. In our view, that has allowed the UK Government to dodge the responsibility of increasing the cap in line with inflation; the grant today would be £1,027.66 if it had been increased in line with the retail prices index.
The funeral payment form can be obtained by going to a Jobcentre Plus office, by downloading it from gov.uk, or with a call to the 0345 Department for Work and Pensions bereavement service helpline, which costs up to 55p a minute from a mobile phone. I put it to the Minister that such helplines should be free to the consumer; they should not have to pay 55p a minute for them. Payments can be, and normally are, recovered from the deceased by the Department. Funeral expenses are legally the first charge on the estate.
The social fund will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament with other social security powers. Separately and in advance, after the scandals about the disposal of infant remains by hospitals and local authorities, the Scottish Government legislated to update the law around burials, cremations and funerals with an Act that was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament. The key relevant points are that it gives the Scottish Government the power to regulate funeral directors, issue a code of practice for them—although there are two voluntary trade bodies for funeral directors, around 20% are not members of either—and issue guidance on the costs of funeral expenses, and that it allows local authorities to provide travelling expenses to relevant people in case of the death of a looked-after child or adult.
The DWP social fund funeral payment application form is 23 pages long, with 12 pages of accompanying notes—a lengthy form by normal standards, but particularly strenuous when filled in by someone dealing with death of a close relative or friend. In 2014-15, 59% of applications were successful in gaining an award. The time taken to process the forms, along with the DWP policy to pay only invoices for actual incurred expenses, rather than advancing cash to pay expenses, can mean real problems for those organising funerals and reluctance from funeral directors to allow terms on tick. In contrast to the DWP policy on universal credit, for example, the form can only be posted or handed in to a Jobcentre Plus office; it cannot be done online. That leads to many extra days’ delay through posting and processing. I ask the Minister to look specifically at that issue.
The Scottish Government have highlighted the disparity between the process for paying benefit to a terminally ill claimant and the process for paying for their funeral. Claims based on the DS1500 form take an average of six days to process—one of the few parts of the DWP system that appear to work extremely effectively and efficiently. But when death is, unfortunately, inevitable in the near future, no cognisance is taken in regard to funeral payments. The Scottish Government are examining whether DS1500 applicants or their proxies can apply for the funeral payment and receive a decision in principle before they die, allowing them and their families to plan more effectively and decrease the stress and confusion following their death.
The UK Government cannot go on ignoring the needs of people on low incomes. Funeral costs are, sadly, an inevitable part of people’s lives. Forcing people already on benefits to pick up the enormous cost of a funeral is heartless and cruel. Citizens Advice Scotland states:
“The UK Government’s funeral payments fund has failed to keep up with the real cost of funerals in the last few years leaving some families saddled with debt to bury or cremate their loved ones.”
The average award from the UK Government for help with a funeral in 2014-15 was £1,375—less than 40% of the estimated cost of an average funeral in the UK, which is £3,702. We ask the UK Government to commit to increasing spending and increasing the uptake of their social fund funeral payments, to ensure that payment meets the essential cost of a funeral and to further increase the package available in Scotland.
My hon. Friends the Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Philip Boswell) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) have already made the point that the UK Government must urgently consider tightening regulation of the funeral industry to ensure that the continuous rising cost of funerals is stopped in its tracks, so that lower-income families are not left with a huge financial burden at their time of grief.
Citizens Advice Scotland said in 2015 that there had been an increase of 35% in the number of advice sessions with clients about funeral costs, taking such sessions to their highest level ever. Within the industry itself, there is also a worrying trend for encouraging people to enrol in what are sometimes cost-inefficient funeral plans, as we have already heard from hon. Members in this debate, in the belief that it will save their loved ones money when the time comes. In many cases, it can mean that the individual ends up paying thousands of pounds more than the actual cost of a funeral.
The Scottish Government’s new powers over funeral payments provide an opportunity to set up a new benefit that is more streamlined, more predictable and better integrated with Scottish policy, as part of a wider focus on funeral costs and funeral planning. The Scottish Government have recognised the impact of rising funeral costs on families on low incomes.
We believe that a new system could help to combat funeral poverty in Scotland. Therefore, the Scottish Government have commissioned a report and recommendations by John Birrell, chair of the Scottish working group on funeral poverty, to consider what action can be taken in a number of sectors. We need to look at speeding up the time it takes for a decision to be made about funeral payments, and we also need to put in place monitoring arrangements to track funeral poverty, alongside plans to evaluate funeral payments.
In closing, I will say that this Parliament had a great debate last year on assisted dying and the consensus of all hon. Members across the House was that people were entitled to a good death. I would like the Government to consider that people are not only entitled to a good death but to a good funeral.
As always, Sir David, it is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), not only on securing this debate but on the compassionate, sensitive and very eloquent way in which he put his case across. In particular, his comments about the importance of ensuring that there is dignity in death as well as in life really resonated with me, as I am sure they did with all Members here in Westminster Hall today and beyond.
There have been a number of memorable speeches in this debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), in memory of her husband—our dear colleague, Harry—and the personal experience that she went through. She made a point very sensitively, in a speech that was very moving as a whole, about the worry that people experience regarding finances as well as having to come to terms with their grief. Almost across the board today, the point was strongly made that the issues around debt that people face as a result of funeral costs compound their grief. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), following in the wake of her ten-minute rule Bill, very eloquently described the issues that arise.
The Government are facing some confusion around the eligibility checker for the social fund. Does it exist, or not? Will it be used, or not? Progress in this area has been disappointing and I know that the Minister will address that in her response to the debate.
There is an issue about fair funerals. An important point was made about the need for us to consider looking at regulation of funeral services, in light of some of the overcharging that has occurred.
Although the point that the social fund for funeral payments just has not kept pace with inflation is very important, I will not labour it. The hon. Member for Belfast East has already made the important point that the figure for payments is the equivalent of £495 today; it has remained static since 2003 and it does not cover the cost of the average funeral. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what plans the Government have to uprate that figure and said whether any such uprating would be index-linked and continue in the future.
In addition to the adequacy—or not—of the social fund funeral payments, there is also an issue about people’s eligibility for support; again, that point has already been made this morning. That issue must be looked at.
We heard about the approach being taken in Northern Ireland about cohabiting couples. I will cite one of my own constituency cases, involving the father of a constituent. Sadly, my constituent’s father passed away in the summer. He was given a funeral. My constituent’s dad had been living with his partner, but for various reasons his partner did not want to get involved in the funeral and was unable to pay for it. So it fell on my constituent to organise the funeral himself, at a cost of more than £2,000.
My constituent is in a low-paid job and is supported by universal credit, so he could not afford the cost of the funeral. He tried to apply for a social fund payment, but because his father had been living with his partner he was told that he was not eligible. His father’s partner had not applied for a social fund payment, but he was still told that he was not eligible for such a payment. Obviously, my constituent will appeal that decision and he has my support for that appeal.
The eligibility issue has been raised a number of times today and consideration of it was also included in a report by the University of Bath. That report said that the Department for Work and Pensions rules take no account of the status of relationships and particularly the quality of relationships. Once again, if the Minister could examine that issue I would be very grateful to her.
The other point made consistently throughout the debate is about the issue of debt, particularly for those already on low incomes. A very valid point was made—I cannot remember who made it—about the context of all the welfare reforms that are currently going through. How on earth are people meant to save for funerals given that someone might die unexpectedly? That is a real issue. There is a scandal here. We had hoped that we had put these stories behind us. We are not in Victorian days—we are the fifth richest country in the world, and there is this increase in paupers’ funerals. As I say, this is not Victorian Britain; this is 21st century Britain and the situation is quite scandalous.
There was a report in The Guardian earlier this year that a Liverpool credit union had been inundated with requests for help, as people tried to acquire cheaper credit; the alternatives were payday loans or, even worse, going to loan sharks. Meeting funeral costs is a real worry for people. Similarly, the UK Cards Association says that payment of funeral costs is the single most placed payment that people make using credit cards. I am also worried that the Government are not collecting any data on this issue and that we cannot monitor the worsening state of affairs. Again, I would be very grateful if the Minister said exactly how she intends to address these issues.
There is a silent epidemic of funeral poverty, which, as I say, has been adding to the grief of losing a loved one. Given the Prime Minister’s very welcome words about tackling the injustices in this country, could this be an area where the Government take action? We need action and not just words.
It is, of course, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir David.
I add my congratulations to those that have already been offered to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), not only on securing this important debate but on the sincere and thoughtful way that he has addressed a really difficult and emotional subject. Many Members have already paid tribute to him for how he has tackled this issue, but I also thank him for the particular way that he has addressed it.
Of course, a period of bereavement is a very difficult time; bereavement is one of the toughest experiences that any individual or family will ever face. This debate has raised many very important issues and asked important questions about how the Government can best support the bereaved and vulnerable people who are going through that experience, including the practical challenges that bereavement causes.
I fully understand the importance of providing the right support at the right time. The hon. Member for Belfast East has caused me to consider the real cultural differences in different parts of the United Kingdom. His example from Northern Ireland, where a funeral will usually be conducted within just a few days, highlights that the issue is about ensuring that the support is there in a timely fashion. There is a big contrast with other parts of the UK, such as England, where the period before the funeral might be as long as three weeks. I thank him for making me think about that this morning.
An awful lot of work has been taking place on funeral payments and support for the bereaved. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), even if she asked me some challenging questions this morning. She has been most robust in how she has tackled my Department on this matter. She had a private Member’s Bill last year, and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) raised the matter in a Westminster Hall debate last year.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned that debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for mentioning the fact that I raised this issue in a Westminster Hall debate, albeit at somewhat of a tangent to this morning’s debate; I think that was two years ago. Perhaps this is an annual occasion in Westminster Hall, where we have the opportunity to raise these serious issues and to discuss—for me, from a very different position—the challenges that remain within bereavement services and how the Government and the funeral industry can help. If I remember correctly, when I raised the issue, I was particularly tackling the relationship between funeral directors and hospitals.
More recently, members of the Work and Pensions Committee—I thank them for their work; they are not here today because they are serving on the Committee—have looked in detail at the support the Government provide for the bereaved. I thank them for their insight and recommendations. In particular, I thank the Chairman for the correspondence we have shared since I came into this post.
Quite rightly, the debate has focused on the costs of funerals and on the application process for funeral expenses payments. I will respond to those points and to many of the other points that have been raised, but first, it is important to set on the record the support that the Department provides for vulnerable people at a difficult time. We continue to make a significant contribution towards the cost of a simple, respectful funeral for applicants on qualifying income-related benefits. We meet the full necessary costs of a burial or cremation, which we know can vary. Before I came to this place, I was the cabinet member in my local authority with responsibility for cemeteries and graveyards. I can remember that we constantly reviewed the costs of burial plots and compared how they varied across even one county. Those costs vary enormously across an entire country.
The cost of any medical references or the removal of active implanted medical devices will be covered for cremations, as well as reasonable costs if a body has to be moved more than 50 miles. Travel costs are covered for the applicant to arrange and attend the funeral. In addition, as many Members have said, the Department also meets other costs up to a maximum of £700. In 2014-15, funeral expenses payments were paid for around 6% of deaths in Great Britain. The average payment made has increased in value over the past 10 years by about 27%—from £1,081 in 2005-06 to £1,375 in 2014-15 —as necessary costs have increased.
Despite the current economic uncertainty and pressures for savings, we have protected the £700 limit for other costs people face. However, we know that in the majority of claims the other funeral costs exceed the £700 limit. In 2012, we made interest-free social fund budgeting loans available for funeral costs in addition to the funeral expenses payment. Last year the average award for budgeting loans was £413.
The loans can be crucial in supporting people at a difficult time by ensuring that they do not face financial pressures caused by turning to high-cost lenders or credit cards. We have heard from Members about payday loans and the use of credit cards for paying funeral costs. It is important to emphasise that we made those payments available in 2012 and that they are interest-free. It is worth noting that this country provides the most generous support, after Norway, for funeral expenses compared with other European countries. However, we know that there is more we can do, and I want to turn to the specific issues raised during the debate.
The hon. Member for Belfast East spoke eloquently and with a great amount of detail, much of which pertained specifically to Northern Ireland. He will know that the Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for the funeral expenses payment scheme in Northern Ireland. He raised a very specific matter about bereavement benefits and cohabiting couples. He mentioned the recent court case, which indicated that the Northern Ireland Executive would have to treat cohabiting couples the same as married couples. I am aware that the Executive are appealing the case, and we understand that a date for the appeal hearing has been set for 24 October this year. The Government are watching that matter closely and will consider the implications of the outcome of that appeal.
The hon. Gentleman and many other Members have mentioned the issue of eligibility checkers. We have considered the merits of an online checker, but that can cause additional confusion to bereaved people. The research we have done with service users indicates that the bereaved often prefer to talk to someone in person. That was something I discovered when talking to the banking industry.
When the next of kin has to report a bereavement to the bank, they often prefer to do it in person or by talking to someone, rather than doing it online. That is why we have a dedicated bereavement telephony service, where staff are incredibly highly trained. They are specialists in what they do. At the end of the day, we are determined to provide the best service and the service that people want in their time of need.
We are investigating other solutions, including giving claimants an earlier decision on eligibility before they commit to funeral arrangements, but we want to test that with users. Via the social fund, the Department collects and publishes comprehensive data on applicants, application and award volumes, expenditure and processing time. That allows the Department to monitor the operation of the scheme. Extra data could be generated, but that would come at a significant cost, both in money and time. Although the £700 is not index-linked, there is no cap on the necessary costs category, which is where we have seen much of the inflationary pressure. Inflation in funeral costs has been reflected in the year-on-year rise in average payment amounts. As I said earlier, the average payment has increased in value by about 27%.
In the short time I have left, I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss). She adds a very personal dimension to this issue, and I thank her for sharing her experiences with us. We are considering a systematic review with the industry on the causes of funeral cost inflation. The hon. Member for South Shields talked about round tables and discussions with the industry and stakeholders. I assure her that if Twitter is anything to go by, there is absolutely no reluctance on their part to meet me and discuss these important issues. I have meetings scheduled for next month, when we return after the conference recess.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned the consultation with the Scottish Government. As she might expect, we are watching that closely. We are having ongoing discussions with the funeral industry, academics and bereavement services to ensure that we continue to look at this important issue. We believe that the best approach is to work with the industry, rather than dictating a cap on costs, but we want to see absolute transparency on costs and the provision of price lists that people can take away from funeral directors. Through that, the bereaved will have greater knowledge of what they are paying for and how much things will cost them.
When considering the level of support for funeral costs, a balance needs to be struck. We do not want to see the funeral expenses scheme influence or inflate the prices charged by the industry for a simple funeral. The scheme cannot undermine personal and family responsibility for meeting funeral costs. I take on board the point that the hon. Lady made about payment schemes. If nothing else, the debate has caused me to think carefully about how we can best encourage people to find responsible schemes, should they wish to take out some sort of insurance policy.
I am conscious that I am very tight on time. I will draw my speech to a close simply by thanking Members for a very constructive and informative debate. The points made will certainly help my discussions with the industry.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Social Fund funeral payments.