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Local Authority Funeral Charges

Volume 630: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2017

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered local authority funeral charges.

In particular, I hope that the House will consider the exploitative fees faced by non-residents of a borough at their time of grief.

I will start by setting the scene faced by thousands upon thousands of families across the UK, before moving on to consider the specific cost of burials and then the disparity in charges between local authorities. Around one in seven families across the nation simply cannot afford to pay astronomical funeral costs, with the staggering cost of funeral poverty now at a record high of £160 million. The average cost of a funeral in Britain now stands at a remarkable £3,897, a figure that is up 5.5% in the last year alone. Funeral costs are rising faster than inflation, wages or pensions. In fact, the cost of even a basic funeral doubled between 2004 and 2014, and it has risen even faster, year on year, since 2014.

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case about funeral poverty and I congratulate her on securing this debate on the subject. Does she agree that the UK Government should do all they can to help local authorities to remove these fees and follow the lead set by my own local authority of Torfaen, which has abolished child burial fees all together?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I am sure that, like me, he would like to congratulate our hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for all her work in that regard; I will refer to her again later.

The rising cost of funerals has left a huge number of families trapped in a state of funeral poverty, which manifests itself both financially and emotionally, with University of Bath research identifying depression, anxiety and insomnia as funeral poverty’s common associates. It is no wonder, therefore, that funeral services were the most common item for credit card usage in the UK in 2013, with one in 10 people having to sell belongings to cover funeral costs. Grief leads to exploitation, exploitation leads to debt, and I personally cannot think of many worse debts to hang over a person than that arising from a family member’s funeral. I even hear that the Select Committee on Work and Pensions was told of a sobering case of a mother who was reportedly unable to afford a funeral for her son. Consequently, she was forced to freeze his body for months on end while she saved the necessary money to pay the funeral fees. That is just one of the terribly tragic human stories behind the facts and figures of widespread funeral poverty.

Such extortionate costs are not only faced by individuals but by local authorities. I am particularly disturbed to hear that several councils, including Monmouthshire County Council in Wales, carried out multiple public health funerals using shared graves last year, identifying a shortage of land as the reason for such an inhumane practice.

Despite the wide-ranging issues in relation to funeral poverty, it is the specific problem of burial costs and their widespread disparity across local authorities that led me to call this debate. A constituent of mine, Rachel, experienced the problem at first hand. When Rachel’s grandfather died in 1976, her family bought a plot for six graves in Honor Oak cemetery, which is in the London Borough of Southwark. In 1988, her grandmother passed away and was subsequently buried in the family plot. Rachel’s family now live in my constituency of Mitcham and Morden, in the London Borough of Merton, which is just a few miles south of Southwark.

Sadly, Rachel’s mother died in July this year. When Rachel and her family applied to open the plot in Southwark so that Rachel’s mother could be buried alongside her own mother and father, Rachel was advised that the charge to do so would be trebled, just because her mother was not a resident of Southwark at the time of her death and despite the fact that her family owned the grave space. The cost for Rachel’s family was a staggering £3,977.

I believe that was unfair; Rachel knew it was completely unfair; and, fortunately, after a little hesitation the head of the cemetery also agreed that it was unfair. Five days before the funeral, he accepted that Rachel’s family could bury their mother in the plot for a resident’s fee, which, at £1,326, is already expensive.

Rachel’s story of that anomaly is a story about the widespread national exploitation of grief. I, for one, do not think that Rachel or her family should ever have been put in that position in the first place. Rachel believes that the varying costs that families face from borough to borough is both unjust and unfair, calling it an

“extortionate death payment that is decided by the borough”.

Rachel has also said:

“Although we eventually managed to avoid paying the non-resident charge, there are others who are less able to fight the injustice, especially at a time when they are at their most vulnerable and grieving the loss of a loved one.”

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for bringing this very important issue to Westminster Hall for consideration. In Northern Ireland, the average cost of a funeral is £3,000 and the funeral grant scheme should be available to more people than it is currently. Does she share my concern that the age and number of dependents is not a condition, when it should be, and the reality is that someone with five children just would not have a spare £3,000 to pay for a funeral?

The position of families should certainly be considered at that desperate time.

The compassion shown by the head of Honor Oak cemetery was an isolated incident in what is a national problem—a rule for one that has not been the rule for all. For example, my constituents, Ann and her brother William, came to see me at my weekly advice surgery. Ann and her husband are joining us today to hear the Minister’s response to the story of the turmoil that their family have been through.

Just like Rachel’s family, Ann’s family have owned a grave space for decades—in their case, since 1965 in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. It holds both Ann’s grandmother and her father, who died in 1992. Before Ann’s mother passed away, she owned the grave space, which resulted in a £95.50 charge for Ann to transfer the ownership of the grave to her and her brother.

Does the Minister agree that that fee is both extortionate and unjustifiable? How can a resident in Hammersmith and Fulham be expected to pay £95.50 when a resident in Barking and Dagenham only pays £39 for the same process? And spare a thought for people in Hounslow, who would be charged £168 if they wanted to transfer the ownership of a grave.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. The average cost of a funeral in my constituency of Maidstone and The Weald is £4,900, including local authority costs, which is about 5% above the national average that the hon. Lady mentioned earlier. Does she agree that if local authorities can be persuaded to harmonise their funeral costs, they should also consider the very high additional costs?

I certainly agree with the hon. Member, but later in my speech she will hear that even that high cost is not the highest in the country.

For Ann’s family, the cost of the funeral was just the beginning, at a time when they were already grieving for Ann’s mother. As Ann’s mother was not a resident of Hammersmith and Fulham at the time of her death, Ann was faced with a cost of £682 to lay her mother’s ashes. If the burial plot had been in Kingston, Ann would have been charged just £160, which—importantly—is precisely and fairly the same cost as that faced by the local residents. However, if the burial plot had been in Bromley, the cost would have been 14 times higher than in Kingston, at a shocking £2,212. That is an example of unjustifiable extortion, which was possible just because Ann’s mother did not live in that particular borough at the time of her death.

How can such a discrepancy between charges be acceptable? These figures could not be clearer in showing that the costs associated with burial are a lottery being run by local authorities, which unfairly prey on families at their time of grief. For Ann’s family, an extra charge of £170 was thrown in for good measure when she asked to add an inscription to the headstone, even though that change involved Hammersmith and Fulham Council doing nothing at all. Logic suggests that it is the inscriber of the gravestone who should charge for an inscription. Sadly, Ann’s case does not yet have an end, and I hope that the Minister will be able to help us to establish how she can best proceed, so that she can lay her mother’s ashes and finally be at peace. Ann clearly summarises her case:

“We are certainly not equal in life, but to allow us to be equal in death is surely the fairest and only decent decision to make.”

I have contacted dozens of local authorities to compare the costs associated with burial, and I am afraid that the Government clearly do not seem to consider us to be equal in death.

I am bringing this issue to the attention of Parliament because Ann, Rachel and others have asked me for help. I have also faced this scenario myself. When my dad, Cumin McDonagh, passed away 11 years ago, my family found ourselves in exactly the same position as Ann and Rachel. In our time of grief, my sister Margaret and I wanted nothing more than to ensure that he was as close to our mum as possible. The obvious choice for our family was to lay our dad to rest in Lambeth cemetery, just a few 100 yards from our family home. The cemetery is on the border between boroughs, but it sits narrowly in Wandsworth and, as residents of Merton, our family had to pay double the cost, despite the cemetery’s proximity to our home and, most importantly, to my mum. We did not fight the cost; we were mourning the loss of our dad and all we wanted was to see him at peace.

Across the country, local authorities double, triple and even quadruple their burial fees for non-residents, regardless of how long they previously lived in the borough—nearly every council charges extra for non-residents. That multiplier applies to any burial or interment fee, plus any grave lease cost. The justification offered by local authorities is that even if someone lived in the area for the majority of their life and owned a grave space there, the authority was not receiving their council tax at the time of their death.

For a non-resident of Bromley, the already extortionate burial fee of £2,069 faced by residents is quadrupled to an enormous £8,274 for non-residents. That means that there are former Bromley-based families, just like Rachel’s and just like Ann’s, who are simply not financially able to bury a family member in their family grave. And Bromley is not alone. Local authorities right across the country are capitalising on grieving families who have no choice but to pay the staggering costs with which they are burdened. A family might move a relatively short distance across a city and find themselves a non-resident for the cemetery they want to be buried in.

What is more, the costs are rising. Local authorities have increased cremation and burial fees by up to 49% over the past year. As a headline in The Times so aptly put it, “RIP affordable funerals”. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the bereaved should not be faced with the burden of having to shop around for the best deal on burial costs. It is unsurprising that human behaviour at a time of grief is not reflective of the behaviour of a typical so-called consumer. Those of us who have faced the loss of an immediate family member know only too well that we are desperate for the process to be as easy and efficient as possible and, above all, we want to be able to honour our loved ones as best we can. The last thing we want is to appear stingy to their memory. Those setting the burial costs know that, and they are in a position to capitalise on it immorally. What is more, privately-owned cemeteries are raising costs faster than ever, and I fear that recent history suggests that local authorities will follow suit, which indicates that there will be a worsening problem in years to come.

Although rates of cremation are rising, many people do not see it as an option, including many faith groups who consider burial to be a religious and deeply symbolic requirement. Choosing a burial, rather than a cremation, can add up to £5,000 in certain areas of the country, bringing some commentators to call a burial a luxury that is simply out of the reach of many families. Take Highgate cemetery in north London, where a burial can cost a simply staggering £18,325, or Hammersmith and Fulham’s council-led cemeteries in Fulham Palace Road and Margravine, which come with burial costs of a mind-blowing £12,464.

I accept that the hon. Lady may well say more about this, but I wanted to mention that losing a child can be traumatic and can often lead to extreme financial hardship for the family, especially given the staggering costs to which she refers. I hope she agrees that the Chancellor should consider, in the coming Budget, setting up a child funeral fund to assist with those very high expenses in the case of children.

I absolutely agree. We have already made reference to the wonderful campaign run by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East. She has been successful in getting child burial fees wiped out in Wales, as a result of that moving campaign and the story of the death of her son.

In Wandsworth, the cheapest council-led cemetery has burial costs of £4,697. The fees have risen by more than inflation in eight out of 10 council areas, with Watford Borough Council raising them by a remarkable 49.1% in the past year alone. That could be considered an isolated extremity, but not when burial fees are rising by more than double the rate of inflation across the country. They have risen faster than overall inflation, year on year, since 1980—they rose, on average, from £1,571 to £1,755 last year alone. Perhaps there is no starker example than that of the residents of Dunbartonshire in Scotland, where a letter change in a postcode makes the difference between being able to afford a burial and not. People in East Dunbartonshire should expect a fee of £2,088, which is almost double the fee in neighbouring West Dunbartonshire. As James Dunn, founder of Funeralbooker, so succinctly puts it:

“These price hikes are the ultimate stealth tax and a hidden side of austerity, going completely unnoticed by families until their moment of need. But with such significant price differences now appearing across the UK, many will be questioning whether these fees genuinely reflect the service they are getting or are simply down to opportunistic greed.”

I could not have put it better myself. There is a stark and immoral postcode lottery for the cost of dying, from an average burial fee of £419 in Northern Ireland to one of £3,806 in London. It is absolutely abhorrent that councils capitalise on life’s two certainties—tax and death—to plug the gaps in their funding and make up for widespread Government cuts.

So, what can be done? Although it does not excuse its extortionate pricing structure, I commend Lewisham Borough Council’s decision to ensure that all costs for non-residents are the same as for residents, provided they lived in the borough for more than 10 years. Hounslow Borough Council runs a similar scheme, whereby the fees are scaled to reflect the time spent in the borough. Does the Minister agree that such schemes could be replicated across all local authorities to ensure that the situation faced by Ann’s family, Rachel’s family and thousands of other families across the country is stopped once and for all?

Debate in these Chambers has led to tangible change and action on burial fees, with the commendable campaign on burial fees for children led by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East leading to such change across Wales. If we should take away one thought from today’s debate it should be Ann’s own words:

“I ask that the exploitation of grief stops, that there is one fair charge across all boroughs”.

I understand that there is a shortage of space for burials, with 680,000 of them projected for between 2015 and 2020 and full cemeteries providing councils with little income. I understand that residents’ taxes pay for the upkeep of council-led cemeteries. I even understand that there has to be a significant cost associated with a burial. But I do not understand the exploitation of the grief faced by families who are simply not in a position to negotiate or to shop around for the best deal. I do not understand the justification for astronomical burial costs, which is that they are needed to plug the gap that local authorities face due to Government cuts, and I certainly do not understand how those same local authorities can justify doubling, trebling or even quadrupling fees for their deceased former residents whose family members just want to see them laid to rest. It is high time that this tax on grief is put to rest.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond.

May I extend my condolences to the hon. Lady’s constituents on the sad loss of their loved one? I was very sorry to hear of their distressing experience, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising these concerns today. This constituency case raises an important matter that many of us will have to face when we lose a loved one. Understandably, however, it is an issue that we may focus on only when sadly we find ourselves faced with a perhaps unexpected financial pressure at an already difficult and distressing time.

The hon. Lady has questioned the sometimes wide variation in the burial and cremation fees charged across local authorities. I appreciate that those differences may sometimes be unexpected or difficult to understand—after all, public burial and cremation authorities are likely to be providing very similar services and facilities—but local authorities’ independence from central Government means that they are responsible for managing their budgets in line with local priorities. That is entirely appropriate; central Government cannot predict exactly what the cost of a local service will be. The fact that local authorities’ money is not ring-fenced allows them to use their resources flexibly, rather than going through burdensome reporting and accounting processes.

Local spending decisions are better made by people who understand their communities and who are therefore best placed to make the right call. For that reason, local authority spending priorities are ultimately a matter for local discretion. Councils in England will receive more than £200 billion for local services, including burial and cremation services, over the spending period 2015-16 to 2019-20. We do not shy away from saying that difficult decisions are required to finish the job of eliminating the deficit and dealing with our debts, but what we have seen since 2010 is that efficiencies can be made while broadly maintaining satisfaction with local government.

In line with the principle of local discretion, public burial and cremation authorities have the power to set their charges at levels they consider appropriate. It has been argued that one of the factors affecting the level of local burial fees is the availability of burial space, which is running out in parts of towns, cities and countryside. It is not a concern in some areas, however, so it is not yet clear that pressure on burial space is a national issue requiring central Government intervention. Successive Administrations have kept the situation under review, and we are considering whether the current position should continue.

In view of London’s particular needs in this area, the London Local Authorities Act 2007 makes special provision for eligible public burial authorities to terminate burial rights and reuse graves, subject to certain conditions. The decision on whether to make use of those provisions is a matter for individual burial authorities, taking into account all the local relevant factors. To date, however, take-up has been very low.

If the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government can find it in their hearts to look at fees for child burial, why can guidance not come from the Department for Communities and Local Government about what the Government would wish to see from English local authorities? As the major funder of local authorities, that would seem a reasonable thing to do.

Cross-Government work is going on in response to the campaign by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). I will come to that point later, but the decision on that work is yet to be made. The complexity is that the policy area sits across a number of Departments. If the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden will bear with me, we are coming to a resolution.

In exercising their local discretion, many public burial and cremation authorities have chosen to waive or reduce fees for children’s funerals. I am grateful to those that have done that, and I take this opportunity to encourage many more authorities to consider it. I recognise the Welsh Government’s commitment in that context, and I would also like to thank providers of wider bereavement services, such as Co-op Funeralcare, that have made the decision to waive fees relating to children’s funerals.

The loss of a child is an incredibly difficult and distressing experience for any family, and the costs connected with it can therefore be of particular concern. As has been said many times in this debate, the issue has been championed over the past year by the hon. Member for Swansea East. I pay tribute to her tireless campaigning and her courage in sharing her own tragic experience in order to highlight this important matter. As promised in our manifesto commitment, we continue to work across Government to identify what more can be done to support families in the very difficult circumstances following the loss of a child.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden also raised the variation in funeral costs more generally. The Government would not want to interfere with an individual’s choices for their funeral arrangements. In any event, the cost of funerals is not just an issue for Government—providers of funeral services including faith communities, funeral directors, local authorities and owners of crematoriums all have a role to play. We believe that where a family can take responsibility for the cost of funeral arrangements, they should do so, but there are times when state support is appropriate.

We are committed to supporting vulnerable people going through bereavement. The period following a death will have an emotional, social and economic impact for the bereaved, and people may need to draw on a wide range of support at that difficult time. That includes the provision of funeral expenses payments to help people on qualifying benefits with the costs of arranging a funeral. Such payments make a significant contribution towards the costs of a simple, respectful funeral, covering the necessary costs involved with burial or cremation and up to £700 of other funeral expenses. Funding from the funeral expenses payments scheme and social fund budgeting loans offers an adequate level of support, while crucially maintaining a fiscally viable fund.

We are drawing near the end of this debate. Will the Minister consider taking on the issue of the discrepancies between resident and non-resident burial costs and encourage local authorities to look at understanding the length of time someone may have lived in a borough prior to their death?

I will of course consider taking that on. As I said, the bereaved may need to draw on a range of support.

A question was raised about burial fees increasing because of austerity. We do not shy away from telling people that further difficult decisions are required to eliminate the Government’s deficit, but it has already been demonstrated that we made difficult decisions with local government finance and the public have broadly been supportive.

A number of issues were raised. A question was asked about the increase in public health funerals, which are the responsibility of local authorities. Funeral costs beyond burial and cremation fees are a commercial matter. I am grateful to those providers that already reduce or waive fees, particularly in relation to children. Transfer fees are at the discretion of local authorities. A child funeral fund was suggested, and that is a matter directly for the Treasury. I ask the hon. Lady to write to officials with details of the constituency case she raised. We will fully consider it.

I thank those Members who have contributed by way of intervention: the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden. This debate has been a valuable opportunity to discuss matters that, if not considered openly, can only add to distress at the most difficult times in our lives. In participating in today’s debate, I believe we have gone some way towards positively addressing this issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Will those not staying for the next debate please be kind enough to leave quickly and quietly? We now come to an important debate on English language teaching for refugees.