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Children’s Funeral Fund

Volume 659: debated on Wednesday 1 May 2019

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

I appreciate that colleagues are in a state of some animation, but I would very gently point out that the subject of the Adjournment is the children’s funeral fund. This is a matter of the utmost seriousness and sensitivity, and the track record of the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) in relation to this subject is long established and widely respected. I am sure that colleagues remaining in the Chamber will wish to hear what the hon. Lady has to say and what the Minister offers by way of response.

The question is—we want to hear it; we really want to hear it—that this House do now adjourn.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Anyone who has visited my office here in Westminster will be able to testify that one of its walls is chaotically adorned with a vision of my world. There are newspaper articles, thank-you cards and notes from colleagues and constituents to remind me that I have an army of support and that campaigns can be won. There are family photos and pictures of Swansea to cheer me up on the difficult days—[Interruption.]

While the hon. Lady gets her breath back, can I just say that many Conservative Members absolutely and totally support her? We think that she has been marvellous in running this campaign, and we are urging our Government to act on her behalf.

Thank you.

On the wall of my office, there are invites for meetings, receptions and dinners—mostly to remind me where I need to be, and when. Among all that sits a letter, which has probably been pinned up longer than anything else. That letter is on Downing Street headed notepaper, signed by the Prime Minister and dated 10 April 2018. In that letter, the Prime Minister promises that she will introduce a children’s funeral fund. It hurts me greatly that more than a year after I received the letter, it still hangs on my wall as unfinished business.

I do not need to tell Members my story, because they have all heard it many times before.

My hon. Friend has been a sturdy campaigner for this cause for a long time. I am glad the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) recognises what a great champion she has been for such a great cause. I wish her every success in future.

Thank you.

What I will tell the House is that nothing prepares you for the loss of a child. The devastation is unimaginable for anyone who has not experienced it. It almost destroyed me, and if it were not for the fact that Martin’s brother, Stuart, who is now a strapping 34-year-old, still needed his mam to look after him, who knows where my life would have ended. It is almost certain that my passion, my determination and my absolute desire to help those in vulnerable positions have somehow been born out of my grief.

It was not easy standing in the Chamber and sharing my own heartbreak, but it was something that I knew I had to do. Thirteen months ago, the Prime Minister finally announced that she would be introducing a children’s funeral fund in memory of Martin, and I felt like my pain would at least benefit other people, so it saddens me to stand here today, more than a year after that announcement, to ask again for this fund to be put in place.

There are others in the Chamber who will understand the pain that I speak about; in particular, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince) will be able to relate to what I have said. I know that, regardless of political loyalty, he sees the children’s funeral fund as a desperately needed emergency provision.

The Welsh Labour Government have implemented the fund. The Scottish Government have implemented the fund. Councils across Northern Ireland have implemented the fund. I really do appreciate that the Minister has been supportive of my ask, and I actually feel quite sorry for him that he has to respond to me and explain why England has not followed the rest of the UK.

Let me describe two incidents that have happened today. I have had an email from parents not 100 miles from here whose three-month-old baby is in a mortuary, and they are unable to take the baby out of there because they do not have the money to pay the local authority fees. To make the comparison with Wales, I also had an email from Tŷ Hafan, a Welsh children’s hospice, to tell me that because of the Welsh children’s funeral fund, parents can now afford headstones, which would not have been affordable if they had had to pay for the funerals. That is the difference that the fund makes.

The hon. Lady’s bravery is remarkable and it is a privilege to be here to show support for the cause that she has championed. We should not have to be. The example she gives is that of just one of many families who have suffered the extraordinary pain and trauma of losing a child, with many of them having suffered financial sacrifices because their children had long-term conditions. Then, to add insult to injury, they are unable to pay for a funeral. That is why this change must come in urgently and Conservative Members will do everything on our side to make sure that that happens.

Thank you very much.

In the press release last year when the introduction of the fund was first announced, Downing Street estimated that around 4,350 children die under the age of 18 each year in England, leaving grieving parents facing thousands in council fees for burial or cremation costs. That same press release went on to quote the Prime Minister saying:

“No parent should ever have to endure the unbearable loss of a child—a loss that no amount of time will ever truly heal. But in the raw pain of immediate loss, it cannot be right that grieving parents should have to worry about how to meet the funeral costs for a child they hoped to see grow into adulthood…That is why I have asked for the Children’s Funeral Fund to be set up in England. For Carolyn, in memory of her son Martin, and in support of all those parents overwhelmed by such harrowing loss.”

I remember at the time thanking the Prime Minister for showing compassion and helping to provide a glimmer of light in the darkness that surrounds families when a child dies. I did not expect more than a year later to be waiting for her to honour the commitment she made. I am struggling even to find the words for how disappointed and hurt I am that we have yet to see the fund become a reality.

Every day, 12 families face this heartbreak. That means that, since this promise was made, 4,600 families will have had to find the money for their child’s funeral. Fair Funerals UK estimates that the average cost of a cremation is £3,596, while that of a burial is £4,561. That is a lot of money for families to find.

I am deeply sorry that my hon. Friend has had to call this Adjournment debate today because of the failure of the Prime Minister to keep her promise. She mentioned the cost of a burial. For some parents of particular religions, a burial is the only option for them, and they cannot move their child from the mortuary to the undertaker without having the funds in place. Does she agree that there are particular impacts on particular communities across England because of the absence of the fund?

I totally appreciate my hon. Friend’s intervention, but the pain is just as painful regardless of religion or culture.

As parents, we all want to give our children the very best that we can. In death, that becomes even more important. When a dignified funeral is the very last gift that a parent can give their child, money should not be a barrier, but sadly, at around £4,000 for a funeral, it really is.

Announcing that a fund will be introduced and then holding back from providing the money was unacceptably cruel to many parents, including to me. The up-front fees payable to the local authority and a coffin are the two necessities that no funeral can take place without. In these circumstances—without funds, but keeping everything basic—the money to cover those two essentials would allow parents to bury their children without cost. All we ask for is that every parent be given the compassion and respect that they deserve to help them through their grief. The Prime Minister has offered a vague promise of the summer, and I hope that she is true to her word. This summer, it will be 30 years since I lost Martin. Thirty years is a lifetime, yet some days it feels like it was only yesterday. The pain does not get any better; it is still very raw. I miss that little boy so much and my heart breaks that I will never see the man that he was meant to be.

The Prime Minister made a promise. She promised to deliver the fund for Martin. She needs to honour that promise for my little boy, for me and for every other parent who faces the unbearable heartbreak of losing a child.

I am pleased to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker, as it highlights the importance of this debate and—I say this having known you before you were Speaker—your interest in this area.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this hugely important debate. It gives me the opportunity to update the House and to reaffirm the commitment made by the Prime Minister on something of huge importance not only to this House but across our country.

Before I begin, I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her tireless campaigning on this important issue, which, as she says, sadly touches the lives of many families. As she has so incredibly movingly reminded us today, she has herself suffered the tragic loss of a child—her son, Martin, who I appreciate will always be her little boy—and I feel deeply for her.

It is to the hon. Lady’s outstanding credit that she has been willing and able to draw on that most painful of experiences to press for so positive and important a measure. Her constituents and this House should be incredibly proud to have someone such as her representing them and as a Member of our legislature. I am very proud to say that, having got to know her since I have been in this House, but particularly since last year when I took up ministerial office, I can begin to call her a friend as well.

I know that many hon. Members across this House have supported the hon. Lady in her endeavour. It is right that I mention my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who is now also the junior Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions with responsibility for this area—jointly with us in the Ministry of Justice. When it comes to delivering this, I hope she will accept that she would struggle to find two junior Ministers more determined and willing to deliver for her, both because it is the right thing to do for our country and because it is the right thing to do for her and for many other parents across the country. I pay tribute to the work of a number of campaigners and organisations across the country, and to bereaved parents who, like the hon. Lady, have summoned up the courage—however hard that is—to speak up and join this campaign.

The commitment to develop a children’s funeral fund for England was announced by the Prime Minister at Easter last year. As she said in that announcement, no parent should ever have to endure the unbearable loss of a child. Although nothing can ever truly heal the pain of such a loss, as the hon. Lady has shown, we must recognise that, as the Prime Minister said, in the darkest moment of any parent’s life there can still be a little light if there is the support and care that they need. The Government are committed to ensuring that that support exists for those who lose a child. I have known this Prime Minister for a very long time, and while she has many priorities, there are some that are particularly important and personal to her, which run through everything she tries to do, and I think that her personal commitment on this issue is very much there.

The children’s funeral fund is being established in recognition of the fact that it cannot be right for grieving parents to have to worry about meeting the cost of burying or cremating their child. It is in memory of the hon. Lady’s son Martin, and in support and memory of all parents who experience this most painful and tragic of losses, that the Prime Minister made the commitment to establish this scheme. Under the scheme, parents will no longer have to meet the costs of burial or cremation. These will instead be met by Government funding, meaning that parents will no longer be subject to the sometimes significant variation in charges across the country. The hon. Lady also highlighted the elements that she considers the basic essentials that need to be covered: the fees from the local authority and others, and the coffin. I share her view.

I echo everything that everybody has said. I also consider the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) a friend. She has dealt with this campaign with what we Welsh would call hwyl, and she is to be congratulated on that. When these final decisions are being taken, may I just urge the Minister to bear in mind the phraseology that the hon. Lady used—that this is the last gift of a parent to a dead child? It is not just a pounds, shillings and pence coffin and headstone; it is the whole emotional issue. If we keep that in mind, we will get the right outcome.

As ever, my hon. Friend puts his point simply but eloquently, and he is absolutely right about the prism through which we should be looking at this matter.

The scheme that we are envisaging will not just bring England into line with broadly comparable arrangements in Wales and Scotland. I am keen that we go a bit beyond that where we can. The children’s funeral fund will complement other measures to support grieving parents, including the social fund funeral expenses payment scheme and the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, which was enacted last September. But I do understand that, alongside the welcome for the fund across both sides of this House, hon. Members and others clearly and rightly want to see the scheme in place as soon as possible, and to be reassured of the continued commitment to and progress towards that.

As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said on 6 February at Prime Minister’s questions, it is important that we get this right. We have therefore been working hard across Government to identify the most effective way to deliver the fund. For all the clear simplicity of what it seeks to do, it is none the less a complex and challenging policy legislatively and in delivery on the ground, bringing together a number of Government Departments, but it is a challenge that the Government and I have willingly accepted.

My hon. Friend knows—as do you, Mr Speaker—that, inspired by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), I have been a champion of this fund and have indeed highlighted funeral poverty more generally. He speaks about the complexity across Government, and I understand that, but there is an absolute need for clarity where parents are concerned. When people have lost a loved one, particularly a child, they are vulnerable, and they need a very clear indication, as does the funeral industry, of exactly how this will work in practice. Can he give us an assurance that that will be the case?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I should, in recognising the contributions made by Members across both sides of the House, recognise his contribution to this campaign and this debate, and indeed that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), who has taken a very close interest in it. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) has, I believe, just become chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on funerals, so he will continue to be active on this. He is absolutely right. We do need to get the scheme right. We need to make it effective and legal, but as simple as we can. We are working to devise a comprehensive publicity programme to ensure that both the funeral sector and, of course, bereaved families are fully informed and fully understand how the fund will work, and how they can access it, in advance of its launch.

Could not the complexity be simplified if we just asked what they did in Scotland and Wales and replicated it? If it can be done speedily in Scotland and Wales, and in local authorities in Northern Ireland, why can it not be done speedily here, after the long and fantastic campaigning of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris)?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is right that we can draw on the lessons from the devolved Administrations, and I will touch on that subsequently. However, there are different arrangements in, for example, Wales around the provision of coffins. I agree with the hon. Member for Swansea East that that is an essential part of this. We are looking to see if we can bring that within the scheme in a way different from that used in Wales. There are differences, and there is also a different legislative context given the devolution settlement—I will touch on that in a minute.

I entirely accept that for those dealing with the terrible burden of bereavement, progress has been slow. I want to reassure the House that, as the Prime Minister announced in the House on 27 February, work is on track in each of the areas I mentioned: a clear policy, a legislative vehicle to ensure that it is legal, and a strong and robust delivery mechanism to deliver the fund this summer.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for the work that she has done in this area, which is really second to none. In November last year, I sat in the living room of one of my constituents as she lay on her sofa stricken by grief having lost her 16-year-old son to knife crime. Her grief was compounded by the family’s inability to pay for the funeral that she wanted to give her son. Will the Minister accept that with every passing week, there is more urgency to this issue and to delivering this money so that it can benefit families who are facing a situation than none of us would wish on anyone?

I want to give at this Dispatch Box a very clear and succinct answer: I agree entirely with the point that the hon. Lady makes. I will come on in a moment to what I have been doing to take a close and personal interest in making sure that this is driven at pace.

I mean my hon. Friend no criticism, because I am a huge supporter of his—I think he is doing a great job, as is the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who I am incredibly pleased to see on the Front Bench—but I just want to press him slightly on this. Having sat in government for six years and run a Department, I know that when you really want to, you can get these things done—excuse my language, Mr Speaker—pretty damn quickly, so I simply say to him that there may be something else that has been blocking this. If it sits in the Treasury, then I would hope that he might indicate that, because he will find that the pressure on the Treasury should be enormous right now. These are not large numbers in economic terms but they are large in human terms. I simply say to him that if anybody is saying that this is an unjustified cost, I promise him that I will give him every support I can, as I have before, to chase the Treasury on this matter. It should be told: do it now.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He is right to highlight that it is not about numbers; every single individual matters. I am clear that we must deliver on this commitment. This should not and will not be about the money. I hope that all Government Departments—including the Department for Work and Pensions and, I am sure, Her Majesty’s Treasury—will wish to play their full role in ensuring that this is delivered expeditiously and properly.

Since I assumed responsibility for this, my officials have been working hard to develop both the necessary legislative vehicle and a delivery mechanism to ensure that it works on the ground. That has involved detailed discussions with the devolved Administrations, which the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) asked about, to ensure that we learn from them, that we do not inadvertently create a cross-border gap in provision and that everyone has coverage.

More than that, as I alluded to earlier, this has required close working across Government to ensure that the children’s funeral fund is compatible and works well alongside other state provision and, importantly, that it fully fulfils the vision for the scheme of the Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Swansea East. To reflect that, our intention is that provision should be universal and free at the point of need.

As I mentioned, this work has been complex. However, I want to reassure the House that we are very close to putting the final details in place for all three elements. In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and others, I expect and am sure that all Departments will be equally seized of the importance of delivering this, and I reassure her that the priority I attach to this means that I have weekly project meetings with the officials delivering it and receive daily progress updates on each of the outstanding elements, so clear am I in my determination to deliver this.

I do not doubt for one second the Minister’s sincerity, or indeed that of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince). The Minister has mentioned the summer and says he is having weekly meetings, but can he set out a more definitive timetable for when this will be implemented? “Summer” could be any time from June to September. It would give some reassurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East and the families if we had a more detailed date or a month.

I cannot give a detailed date. The hon. Gentleman, as a savvy Whip, will read into this what he will. I have said that this will require a legislative vehicle, and given my determination to do this for the summer and given that the House would need to be sitting to deliver on that, that might give him an indication of my intention.

I want the Minister to know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), myself and, I hope, the hon. Member for Swansea East, will be going to see the Treasury Minister next week. I have just texted him to tell him.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East and others involved in this. What we are hearing from the Minister about how government works across England is really alarming. The fact that the Prime Minister driving a policy change is so complicated in England, whereas our friends and colleagues across the United Kingdom can make these decisions more quickly, is a lesson for Government in how England is represented in this place. I hope that lessons about the complexities through which the Minister has had to drive this will be learned for other policy areas.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but I would say to her that, as I mentioned earlier, we are not seeking simply to replicate what has been done by the devolved Administrations. We are looking at other aspects and seeing whether there are ways in which we might go a bit further. That does add complexity, so it is not exactly replicating something that is already there. However, she makes her point, as ever, courteously but forcefully.

I will not, I am afraid, because I am very conscious of time, and I want to conclude and wind up this debate properly.

I will endeavour to keep the House updated on progress—I know the interest in the House—and I will seek to provide more detailed information on both policy questions and delivery and, where I can, on the legislative timing as soon as I am able to do so. I would like once again to thank the hon. Member for Swansea East and other contributors to today’s debate. No parent ever expects to bury their child, but the sad reality is that it happens, and perhaps more often than many of us realise or wish to acknowledge. For those who suffer such a tragic loss, the emotional burden, as she has said, is unimaginable. It is simply not right that, in addition, families should have to worry about what is probably an unexpected and, for some, totally unmanageable financial burden.

My commitment, the Prime Minister’s commitment and that, I believe, of Members on both sides of the House is clear. Let us make the hon. Lady’s vision a reality in our communities. We will deliver on the Prime Minister’s commitment, we will finish that unfinished business this summer, we will give bereaved parents the support they need, and we will do it swiftly and effectively in tribute to all of them and to the hon. Lady.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.