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Children’s Funeral Costs

Volume 617: debated on Monday 28 November 2016

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

On 5 June 1989, my little world blacked over and nothing was to be the same again. My eight-year-old son, Martin—a bright, beautiful and wonderful little boy—stepped out onto the road and was tragically knocked down. Much of what happened over the following weeks was and still is a blur.

The pain is so acute and the sensation incomprehensible. The tragedy seems almost surreal. At times I felt I was floating above the room where all this grief was dwelling and that I was not really a part of what was going on. It was a dream—I wished.

Mostly, I felt my life was a bank holiday when shops shut and mail was not delivered and the milkman did not come, so seeing people outside my little world going about their normal everyday business just did not seem right. I asked myself, did they not know that the world had come to an end? I always felt that my brain and my senses were full of cotton wool or clouds and nothing I saw, or I sensed, or I heard or I experienced resonated. It did not hit a hard surface—nothing registered; it just floated around in my head.

I have a vague recollection of chatting with my vicar and the undertaker about the kind of service I wanted. I may well have been given prices at that time, but considering I needed to be told to wash and eat and sleep, it certainly did not register in my brain. I understand retrospectively that a cremation would have been cheaper than a burial, but I had to bury my son.

At the time I was making a decision on the funeral, I was actually deciding whether to join my son on the other side or not; or to stay for Stuart, my then three-year-old who really needed his mam. I calculated—and I use that word deliberately—as I actually sat in the bath and assessed which of my two children needed me the most. I eventually reasoned that Stuart, who was only three, could not lose his mam and brother all in one go. My much loved grandparents were buried together in Morriston cemetery, now in my constituency, and I felt that putting Martin in the grave with them meant that my nana, who loved him dearly, was there to look after him until I could be with him again. 

I had to bury my little boy. At least that gave me some peace of mind. Later in life I went on to have another child, Tomas, who is now 15. Stuart, my three-year-old, is now 31, and he and his wife have given me a wonderful grandson, Liam, so I made the right decision in not joining Martin and staying with Stuart, but mothers will understand the position I was in. We all live for our children: when you lose one, you have to decide who needs you the most.

We all want to give our children the skills to help them build good lives. We want to give our children the latest toy, the latest gadget. We want to give them the best of everything. As young parents, we save for Christmas and birthdays to allow us to do that, but when you lose a child, the only thing you can give them is a funeral and a grave. I am told that my son had a wonderful funeral. I cannot remember much about it because my world was black and nothing had resonated in my mind. I could not function, as I have said. I could not do simple chores like washing my hair or cooking a meal.

When the undertaker was explaining to me what the plans for my little boy’s funeral were, I just wanted to hold my little boy, not bury him. I remember the day the bill arrived and that fear in my stomach as to how I would pay it. My husband David and I come from a community who reacted to loss in the only way they knew how—they had a whip-round, a collection. Out of the blue two of David’s mates—I can see them now standing at my front door, not knowing whether to come in or run away—turned up with an envelope of money. Thank God for my community and thank God for my friends, because that collection was enough to cover three quarters of the funeral cost. The following day my husband went to his bank and asked for the other £750 and the bank said yes, so I had the money for the funeral.

I have chosen to share my story at this time because I am in a position to be the voice of bereaved parents.  Approximately 5,000 babies and children pass away each year in this country, and it is not something any parent can or could be prepared for. No one expects to bury their children; it is completely in the wrong order. So when that tragedy happens, parents will be totally unprepared, both emotionally and financially. Since I first spoke out on this issue, I have received support from colleagues across the House. I have received emails, calls and letters from other parents who are in a similar position to me.

A member of the House staff stopped me to say that he and his wife lost an 18-month-old baby and his local authority charged him for an adult funeral. He had to battle that local authority to get the cost reduced. Another gentleman wrote that he had lost two children, a one-year-old and a 17-year-old. This man told me that he was ashamed to ask for help to cover the funeral costs as he had wanted to give that to his children. Today I learned of a couple who had a very premature baby who passed away after four weeks in special care. When the parents weighed up the cost of a funeral, they just could not afford it so they had to leave the baby for the NHS to deal with. That is not uncommon.

A teacher told me that when her school lost a pupil, it held a non-school uniform day to help parents pay for the funeral. Just tonight CLIC Sargent, the cancer charity, contacted me about a survey that it has undertaken in connection with issues that most concern the parents of children with cancer, and many say that paying for the funeral is a very big worry. I was told of one family whose little boy’s football club undertook fund-raising to help them cover the cost of a funeral.

Across local authorities, fees for children’s funerals vary greatly. On a more compassionate note, I have heard from a mum who lost very, very premature twin babies, and Rhondda Cynon Taf, an authority in Wales, not only covered the local authority fees but absorbed the total cost of the funeral. To Rhondda Cynon Taf, authorities that currently do not charge and those that are planning to scrap fees, I say from the bottom of my heart thank you.

It is a very small amount of money that I am asking the Government to put in. For £10 million, the fees for children’s funerals could be covered right across the country. This is an easy and a small ask, but it would impact greatly on the cost of a funeral and in no small way give comfort to bereaved parents. At Prime Minister’s questions recently the Prime Minister suggested that the social fund could be used to help, but I say to the Prime Minister that at the darkest moment of a parent’s life, I could not even fill a kettle, let alone fill in a 35-page application form. I have subsequently written to the Prime Minster asking that she consider my request, but I have not yet received a reply.

I conclude by saying to the Minister please do this. Make this happen. It is the right thing to do, it is the respectful thing to do, and it is the compassionate thing to do.

I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for her work in bringing this sensitive and important issue to national attention. It is always difficult to know how others feel in such circumstances—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do adjourn.—(Heather Wheeler.)

Just to reiterate, it is always difficult to know how others feel in such circumstances, although it is always easy to say we do when we have not been in those circumstances ourselves. I am a father of two children, and I am very lucky, but losing a child must be the worst thing that can happen to a parent.

It is important that the arrangements that the state can put in place in such circumstances are as helpful in giving support to grieving parents as they can be. This is clearly, therefore, a matter of great sensitivity and importance, and it is incumbent on all public sector organisations with a role to play to ensure that they are understanding and helpful.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for setting out this issue so powerfully. It certainly cannot have been easy for her to come to the House tonight to make a speech on this subject. She has shown great strength and courage in bringing this issue to the House tonight. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

Let me start by setting out the context in which my Department and local government operate. As democratically elected organisations, local councils are independent of central Government and are responsible for managing their budgets in line with local priorities. I understand that a number of local authorities already choose to waive fees for children’s funerals. I hope all local authorities would carefully consider their policy in this area, and whether it is right to go further in the light of the concerns the hon. Lady has raised today. I note that very recently Telford and Wrekin Council and Clipstone Parish Council have decided to do just that, as the hon. Lady requested.

There is also a role that central Government can play. The Government recognise that the period following a death will have emotional, social and financial impacts for the bereaved, and people may need to draw on a wide range of support at that difficult time. It is for that reason that the Department for Work and Pensions operates the social fund funeral expenses payments scheme, which makes a significant contribution towards a funeral for families in receipt of a qualifying income benefit. The scheme meets the full necessary costs of a cremation or burial, including the purchase of a grave with exclusive burial rights. Other costs, such as the coffin, and church and funeral directors’ fees, are limited to a maximum scheme payment of £700. However, there is no restriction on the type of funeral expenses that can be claimed under this category, and applying the limit allows the bereaved a choice of how best to spend the payment.

I certainly hear what the hon. Lady has said about the social fund, and I absolutely understand her concerns about the way in which it works. It is good that we have on the Treasury Bench today my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery, from the Department for Work and Pensions, which operates the scheme, and she will have heard what the hon. Lady had to say about the scheme.

I hope that the Minister has listened to and heard what has been said. As we have heard, parents in a fog of bereavement cannot even think of filling in DWP forms, and a grant of £700 goes nowhere towards the cost of a funeral in many parts of the country—it costs thousands. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) has put an incredibly courageous case for having that cost covered by the Government. It cannot be right to make a local council choose between doing this or providing social care, and that might be the choice that it has. Will the Minister think again and not give my hon. Friend, or any of us, pat answers but really take this away and think about it?

I fully understand the points that the hon. Lady makes and the sentiment behind them. With regard to the social fund, the maximum payments for certain costs are limited to £700, but there are other funds that can be realised. I appreciate what she says in relation to how the fund is accessed. In many cases, the funding from the social fund funeral expenses payments and social fund budgeting loans offers an adequate level of support. The amount spent by the Government in 2015-16 was £40 million.

I realise that this evening I am unable to give the hon. Member for Swansea East the assurances that she has come to the House to seek and will not be able to go as far as she would like, but I recognise the very significant pain that she has articulated to the House, and the very significant pain that families find themselves in when they are in the same situation.

I commend the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for the very compassionate way in which she put her case. No one in this House would not have had a tear in their eye along with her. We commiserate with her very much.

The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) have indicated that those on benefits receive help through the funeral social fund while those who are in work do not, but those on lower incomes should be helped. The Minister will be aware that various charities such as the Child Funeral Charity can help as well. I want to put it on record that I support the hon. Lady, and all right hon. and hon. Members who are here, in asking the Government to consider this very seriously, and ask the Minister to grasp the understanding and compassion that we want him to have on behalf of the hon. Lady and all the other people out there who need help.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and certainly understand the sentiment behind it. I am aware that there are charities that support families in this sense, but I also understand what he is asking of Government, as I do in relation to what the hon. Member for Swansea East is looking for.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery is restarting a roundtable group with the funeral industry and bereavement charities, because it is important that the Government have a better understanding of how the funeral industry works in this regard and what more can be done to help.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on the incredible courage that she has shown this evening and in recent days—in fact, years.

Does the Minister recognise that for people of different faiths, this can add additional complexity and cost, particularly if a rapid burial is required? Having in mind particular cases of my constituents who have experienced funeral poverty where faith has been a dimension, may I urge him and his colleagues to make sure that faith organisations, particularly Muslim and Jewish organisations but those of other faiths as well, are represented in the discussions in the roundtable group?

I fully understand what the hon. Gentleman says. I represent many Muslim constituents and I know that when they have a bereavement in the community, they seek to deal with the burial as soon as possible, quite often within 24 hours. He makes a very good point, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has just nodded to me to confirm that she would be more than happy to include the groups that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

As I have said several times, I know that the assurances that I have been able to give tonight will not go as far as the hon. Member for Swansea East would like. I recognise the difficulty and the trouble that she has gone to in bringing the matter to the House tonight. I hope that bringing this matter to the wider attention of the House and of the public will mean that local authorities will consider their approach to charging and take their local residents’ views into account. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), who is here on the Treasury Bench, has heard what the hon. Lady said. I am sure that as a result of tonight’s debate, we will all reflect on what she has suggested the Government do.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.