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House of Commons Hansard
Paupers' Funerals
05 July 2018
Volume 644

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

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Losing a loved one is heartbreaking. Almost everyone in this House will have suffered the loss of a loved one: a parent, a grandparent, a friend, or even—the worst nightmare of all—a child. Funerals provide the chance of a final goodbye. They allow us to grieve, as a family or as friends, sharing the loss of someone close. The ability to say goodbye at a funeral is a necessary part of the grieving process, a staging post in loss. Funerals can change moods. They can lift hearts. Sharing stories and reflecting on memories keep the spirit of the one we have lost alive in our hearts, minds and memories. It is because of the importance of the shared experience of grief that the character of the last parting matters so very much.

Public health funerals, or national assistance funerals as they are called in Scotland, occur when a family cannot, or in a minority of cases refuses to, pay the cost of the funeral of a departed relative or other loved one. As we would and should expect in a civilised and compassionate country, the state, in the form of local councils, steps in to cover the cost of a basic funeral. However, recent press and media coverage has revealed the shocking reality of public health funerals, which are sometimes callous, careless or even cruel. Dubbed “paupers’ funerals”, they can be occasions on which, as an official from Bracknell Forest Council has put it:

“There’s no attendees, no keeping of the ashes. Nobody’s invited; you don’t have any say over the funeral at all…It’s literally as basic as basic can get”.

That is what modern paupers’ funerals are: the reduction of a human life to something that is

“as basic as basic can get”.

As a Christian country, we surely believe that every life has intrinsic value. I follow, or at least try to follow, the commandment to treat others as I would wish to be treated. There can be no pretence that these public health funerals fulfil our Christian duty. They are the very antithesis of what Christ taught us.

In the 1860s, Charles Dickens wrote of that ultimate manifestation of the cruel neglect at the rotten core of liberal utilitarianism, the Poor Law—which included the original scourge of paupers’ funerals—that it was

“to degrade a Christian’s duty into a charlatan’s trick”.

To the shame of our age, Dickens’s words remain an apt description of modern public health funerals.

The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) moved us all when she recounted the heartbreaking story of losing her son. She has already succeeded in changing Government policy on children’s funerals, and now I hope that I can play a part in changing it on public health funerals. There are two things that the Government can do to bring about change and to relive the pressure of funeral poverty. First, they can carry out an urgent review of the 15-year-old cap on funeral expenses payments. In April 2003, a £700 cap was imposed, and it has since remained in place. The payment is combined with help that is intended to cover some of the cost of a burial plot, cremation fees, travel, the moving of a body and death certificates. However, a maximum of £700 is hardly sufficient, even with those supplements.

The policy is simply no longer fit for purpose. When the cap was introduced in 2003, the average cost of a funeral was £1,920. Since then, the price of funerals has increased by 112%. That means that the £700 of assistance offered would, on average, cover about 17% of the cost of a funeral, compared with 36% in 2003. Given that, it is hardly surprising that the number of public health funerals has increased by more than 200% since 1997. The Government should examine whether more can be done to alleviate the financial burden of funerals. The Minister will know that the Department for Work and Pensions began to help last year by allowing recipients of funeral payments to receive additional contributions without deductions, by extending the application period for a claim from three to six months, by clarifying that the funeral payments will cover the cost of a burial with or without exclusive rights of burial, and with the ability to submit evidence electronically. Nevertheless, it is time to do more.

The heart of reform must be an urgent examination of the appalling way in which some public health funerals are routinely conducted. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) was surely right to say that

“the idea that because you are poor you should have no tangible means through which to remember and pay your respects for a loved one is appalling.”

The Government should issue statutory guidance to every relevant local authority describing in detail best practice in the conduct of public health funerals.

In the absence of such guidance, bad practice has persisted. According to The Sunday Times, a number of councils, including Glasgow and Bracknell Forest, imposed bans on family and friends attending these funerals and denied the bereaved the remains of their deceased loved ones. Who could possibly believe that grieving families should be forbidden from saying a last goodbye to those lost to the grave? I am pleased to say that my own council, South Holland, always ensures that family members can attend and are made aware of the date of the funeral, with the proper dignity and respect that such an occasion deserves. Furthermore, authorities must without any quibbling make the ashes of the deceased available to loved ones. A Glasgow City Council official was recorded telling a reporter:

“It’s us having to pay for it, so, as I say, she will not get his ashes back.”

That is appalling. Local authorities should have a duty to surrender the remains to the family; the ashes, just like the memories, belong to those who loved the departed. I understand that in some local authorities, such as mine, it is less expensive to bury someone than to cremate them. The problem seems to be centred on those places where cremation is the cheapest option.

Finally, it is the comforting delusion of those who regard the past with disdain—perhaps from misplaced guilt, or because they know little or nothing of it—that our age is at the apex of accomplishment. The more thoughtful here know that many things were once better. For now, in our time, paupers’ funerals ban children from mothers’ gravesides. Now, in our kingdom, some public officials refuse to inform children of their father’s cremation. Now, in this age, parents who have loved and lost cannot keep their child’s ashes to scatter or retain. This outrage must end, and the Government must make it happen.

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It is a pleasure to be responding to my first debate at the Dispatch Box with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in the Chair, who were presiding when I made my maiden speech, and to be responding to my right hon. Friend, and indeed my friend, the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes).

My right hon. Friend spoke with his famed eloquence and passion, but also with typical compassion, on a hugely important issue about which, in our compassionate and decent society, we should all care. As he said, a funeral plays a huge part in helping all of us, at one of the most difficult points in our lives, come to terms with loss and grief. This issue was also more broadly raised in a debate in Westminster Hall last October by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh).

Public health funerals are likely to become necessary when either, sadly, a deceased person dies alone with no family or friends to organise a funeral or because the bereaved family does not, or is for various reasons unable to, make funeral arrangements. In either situation, the relevant local authority has a statutory duty under section 46 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to make arrangements for the disposal of the body. To respond to my right hon. Friend’s points, it is important to highlight that the 1984 Act contains no statutory requirement for the local authority to make any arrangements beyond that, nor is it prescriptive of how they deliver on their obligation nor does it contain provision for regulations for statutory guidance or instruction on how they must do so. However, I hear my right hon. Friend’s point, and I have asked my Department to clarify and confirm that my understanding of that position is correct.

In a humane and civilised society, it is reasonable, and indeed proper, to expect that the deceased person and, where they can be involved, their bereaved family are treated with the dignity and compassion they deserve. I am sure that that is what happens in many local authority areas. For example, I have recently heard of a council where officials routinely attend public health funerals themselves—I believe that this is the case in the City of Westminster, among many others—to ensure that the deceased person is not alone in that final act.

However, the Government and I, like my right hon. Friend, are deeply concerned at the alleged practices of some local authorities, such as refusing to tell bereaved families where and when the funeral is taking place or refusing to return their loved one’s remains following cremation. Media reports—my right hon. Friend alluded to the report in The Sunday Times in May—suggest that that may be an attempt to deter future reliance on the local authority’s obligation to step in if other arrangements cannot be made. We all appreciate that local authorities should be mindful of public money, providing a decent funeral but ensuring that care is taken with that public money, but the key thing is that word “decent”. I am deeply concerned that, if true, the reports suggest completely unacceptable behaviour that would be putting bereaved families through unnecessary additional stress and insensitive treatment at an already extremely difficult time in their lives and when they are, in many cases, already managing on a low income. This is about sensitivity, decency and doing the right thing, and that should permeate the approach. I urge all local authorities to reflect on those words.

The legislation and lack of centralised control and powers to mandate is a reflection of the fact that public health funerals are a cross-cutting issue, that local authorities are best placed to determine local priorities and that this matter has sat with local authorities for many decades. It is a pleasure to be here answering on the behalf of the Ministry of Justice today, but colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government all have a role to play. Historically, the Government have not centrally collated information on the number and cost of the public health funerals that councils manage annually. However, a series of freedom of information requests in recent years appear to show a consistent rise in both elements. The most recent of these requests, published by ITV News last month, was based on responses from 300 councils across the UK. It indicated that there has been a 70% increase in the number of public health funerals in the past three years, to around 15,000 last year, at a cost to local authorities of around £4 million in the last financial year.

As I have alluded to, local authorities are independent from central Government in providing their services and are responsible to their own electors and for managing their budgets in line with local priorities. That is how it should be and, as a former councillor, I recognise the importance of that local accountability and local decision making. However, that does not obviate the need for those local authorities to reflect on their obligations with the moneys they have given to them to ensure that this area is not neglected. It is absolutely right that local priorities should determine local spending, but I urge local authorities to reflect on my words about decency.

As my right hon. Friend alluded to, the Government have acted to address the financial pressures that death and bereavement can put on both families and local authorities. On 1 April, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced her intention to establish a children’s funeral fund for England, which all Members would warmly welcome, with the intention that, at such an incredibly difficult and distressing time in their lives, bereaved parents will not have to worry about the essential costs of burying or cremating their child. As the House will know, arrangements for similar funding have already been put in place by the Welsh Assembly Government, and the Scottish Government have recently announced their intention to do the same.

This difficult but important issue has, of course, been championed by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). Although she is not in her place today, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to her for her work, for her tenacity and for her courage in doing so in the light of her own tragic experience. She is an hon. Lady of great decency, commitment and compassion. This House is the better for her presence, and her constituents are lucky to have her representing their interests.

The hon. Lady has continued in her work to support those for whom death and bereavement bring unmanageable financial pressure. On 8 June she co-ordinated and sent a cross-party letter to the Prime Minister, supported by a significant number of hon. Members, calling for the establishment of minimum standards in the provision of public health funerals by local authorities. This action was prompted by concern about the media reports that gave rise to today’s debate, and I understand my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is responding to that letter.

Public health funerals are not needed in the vast majority of deaths. I have mentioned the figure of 15,000 public health funerals a year, which represents around 3% of the total annual number of deaths in the UK. It is right that, where a family are in a position to take responsibility for the cost of funeral arrangements, they should do so. However, there are times when state support is appropriate and necessary, and we are committed to supporting vulnerable people going through bereavement who, depending on their situation, may need to draw on different elements of support.

That support, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings alluded to, includes the provision of funeral expenses payments to help people on qualifying benefits with the cost of arranging a funeral. Such payments make a significant contribution to the cost of a simple, respectful, decent funeral, covering the necessary costs of burial or cremation and in addition up to £700 for other funeral expenses.

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I am sure the Minister is just about to announce it, and I do not want to steal his thunder because he is a fine new member of the Government, but I called for the cap to be lifted. He may want to make that announcement now and make a big impact, or he might want to reflect and write to me about it very soon.

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My right hon. Friend is typically beguiling in attempting to persuade me to announce changes to policy from the Dispatch Box. However, the funding offered from the funeral expenses payments scheme and the social fund budgeting loan—he has referred to other measures taken by the Government, such as changing the rules so that additional contributions may be received without deductions being necessary from that fund—provides a level of support while, crucially, maintaining a fiscally viable fund.

I hear my right hon. Friend’s comments about the 2003 cap on that second element, and I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse)—the Department for Work and Pensions administers the fund—is made aware of my right hon. Friend’s comments and of the case he has made today. I sense my ministerial colleague may well be writing to him in response to that specific point.

In conclusion, I wish to thank my right hon. Friend for providing this hugely valuable opportunity to discuss, once again, such an important and sensitive issue. It is of course a truism that death touches us all. For many of us, the funeral arrangements are something that can be planned for and managed, but for some they are something for which the local authority and local government must take on responsibility, in a sense representing the local community. I believe that many councils do so honourably and carry out their duties with utmost respect for the dignity of the deceased person and their family. However, as I have said, it is of deep concern that some allegedly do not. I conclude by exhorting those few to show the compassion and sensitivity any of us would wish to be shown were we to find ourselves in those circumstances. I also reiterate the clear commitment of the Prime Minister, this Government and myself, as a Minister, to work with colleagues to ensure that the system of public health funerals continues to provide that decency and decent send-off we would all wish for.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.