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Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2021

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

I would like to point out that a number of hon. and right hon. Members wished to speak or intervene in this debate, but due to the constraints of virtual participation that has not been possible. However, I did say I would mention my good and hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), who sadly lost his grown-up daughter last year when she passed away. I offer my condolences and respects to him, and indeed to everyone who is suffering such grievous loss and seeking to cope with it.

I thank the charities Settld, Cruse Bereavement Care and Sue Ryder, which helped me to prepare for this debate. They are leaders in their field, supporting people to cope with bereavement and the loss of a family member or friend. As you reminded us, Madam Deputy Speaker, at 6 o’clock the whole nation mourned the passing of Captain Sir Tom Moore, but more than 100,000 deaths have occurred because of the pandemic, leaving thousands to cope with the challenges of bereavement. These issues have never been more pressing.

I want the Minister to respond to three specific points. The first relates to the bereavement standard, the second to digital death certificates, and the third to statutory bereavement leave. These are the three issues that the charities supporting grieving families have identified as the most important, but currently we lack cross-governmental co-ordination and focus on them. Issues to do with bereavement run across several Government Departments, including the Departments of Health and Social Care, for Work and Pensions and for Education, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

I thank the hon. Member for giving way; I spoke to him beforehand about making an intervention. This is an issue that grieves us greatly. Does he not agree that in these dreadful days, when people cannot attend wakes or go through the normal stages of grief, there is more need than ever for support and care for those who grieve in these awful dark days, for those who are losing their loved ones from covid, from cancer and through accidents, and for those who cannot bear it any more? There really is a need to do better.

I am grateful for that intervention, and I absolutely agree. There are some specific things that we in this House can do and that the Government can do in relation to the bereavement standard.

I will give way to the hon. Lady, who also indicated earlier that she would like to intervene.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. Does he agree that although work is being done in the private sector around the bereavement standard and we have the Government’s Tell Us Once service, we are still getting too many clumsy mistakes when we are dealing with grief? I had a constituent who received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions addressed to his wife to tell her that she was no longer eligible for employment and support allowance because she had died. Does the hon. Member agree that we need to do more?

I am willing to take one more intervention, but I want the Minister to have time to respond. I give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

I wanted the hon. Gentleman to get all his interventions in at once, so his flow can continue. He will know that I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for funerals and bereavement. I wonder if he could add to his list of demands for the Minister the provision of vaccinations and personal protective equipment for frontline funeral staff, and a clearer line about the policing of funerals. There are some suggestions that funeral directors are being held liable for enforcing sensible rules on funerals. We need greater clarity on that, too, and I am very grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to make those points.

As always, the right hon. Gentleman makes eminently sensible points born out of his experience with the all-party group. The three suggestions or demands that I have put forward are those that are identified by the three charities I mentioned earlier, but certainly personally I do agree with him on vaccination, funeral arrangements and so on.

I would like to ask the Minister to look at the issue of cross-governmental co-ordination and improved focus on these issues. I understand that the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) is often identified as the Minister for bereavement. I am delighted that we have the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) as the Minister today, but we certainly need a clear ministerial lead on bereavement to ensure there is proper co-ordination on the issues raised by the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) and others. Otherwise, bereaved families will continue to slip through the net and be passed from pillar to post, which is distressing and frustrating.

A bereavement standard would benefit business and the bereaved by providing a clear, concise and consistent process to close accounts when a loved one dies. A bereavement standard would establish, first, an agreed timeframe for companies to respond to bereavement enquiries and settle outstanding customer balances. Members will be aware that the existing arrangements, the Tell Us Once service to which the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) referred, applies only to the public sector, and not to private companies, utilities and banks. Secondly, a bereavement standard would establish a dedicated bereavement customer care direct email channel for each company to handle such cases and avoid customers waiting on calls. Thirdly, it would establish the standardisation of paperwork needed to close an account, with a view to accepting—this is a really important point in the age we live in—digital documents wherever possible.

I anticipate that the Minister will, in his reply, refer to the excellent bereavement standard that already exists in the public sector. The Tell Us Once service is working well, ensuring that bereaved people do not have to go through the trauma of telling every single Government Department that they have lost a loved one, but we need exactly the same in the private sector to cover banks, utilities, insurance companies and more: a standard process across all organisations and companies, with specifically trained staff dealing with bereavement and an agreed timescale to close accounts and resolve issues. There is nothing more distressing than when such inquiries drag on for months and months.

At one of the most challenging times in life, I hope we all agree—this is a cross-party issue; I am not seeking to make a party political point here—that families should not have to spend hours going back and forth with companies, waiting months to close an account. Research from Settld and Cruse Bereavement Care shows that the vast majority of bereaved people described the administration processes as time-consuming and stressful. A quarter found it traumatic, especially having to phone so many individual companies and repeat time and again, “My husband/wife/father/mother has died.”

The single most important action the Government can take to support families would be to introduce a digital death certificate. This would enable families to close accounts quickly, initiate probate and engage specialist services such as Settld to deal with the administration following a death. When asked to introduce digital death certificates, in a written response, a Home Office Minister responded:

“There is currently no provision in law to issue a death certificate other than in a paper format.”

I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on his powerful speech. Will he join me in calling on the Government to issue clear guidance for families who have lost a loved one who suffered from industrial diseases, such as the many miners that he and I represent, to ensure that those families receive the compensation that they are entitled to?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am tempted to go off at a tangent, because it is an issue that I feel terribly passionate about, particularly given the age of many miners and their widows, who have to deal with the complications with utility companies and so on, which will not accept digital death certificates. There are complexities when the cause of death is an industrial disease such as pneumoconiosis and the complications of it. It is a very important point, and the Government could do something about it by issuing guidance to assist those families.

There is currently no provision to issue a digital death certificate. As I said, when asked, the Minister said it was not possible to issue a certificate except in a paper format. However, time and again, when concerns have been voiced about digital exclusion, we have been told that there is a policy of “digital by default”—indeed, the Government have estimated that by moving services to digital channels, they could achieve savings of up to £1.8 billion a year. Digital by default should not only deliver savings to the Government, but should help better serve the people we represent.

The Minister is, I hope, aware of the widespread support for the bereavement standard. A YouGov poll showed that 80% of the British public agree with all three of the proposed bereavement standard elements. Indeed, an early-day motion tabled by yours truly, No. 818, “Supporting grieving families through a bereavement standard”, has been signed by 53 Members of Parliament from eight political parties, including, I think, the hon. Members present today, and almost 92,000 have signed the petition by Settld, Cruse Bereavement Care and Sue Ryder. So, potentially, through the Petitions Committee we might have an opportunity for a longer debate if the Minister cannot be persuaded of the arguments tonight.

Fundamentally, this is a debate about care and compassion. Bereavement is a life experience that, sadly, will affect each and every one of us at some time. Coping with the loss of a loved one requires time and space to grieve. Some companies, to be fair, show immense care and compassion to employees at such times, but not all companies do.

Bereavement and death are the ultimate equalisers; both will come to us all. The pandemic, the scale of the loss, a nation in mourning should focus all of our minds and give us the strength to act. We have an opportunity to create a caring and compassionate system—one that can assist bereaved families at the most difficult time that they will experience in life. So, Minister, I ask for a positive response and a promise of progress on the three issues raised today—the bereavement standard, digital death certificates and statutory bereavement leave.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing tonight’s debate and on the interesting way in which he framed the three asks. I echo his condolences to the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) following the loss of his daughter. That must be so painful.

The debate is on a pertinent issue, so I was so grateful to the hon. Member for Easington for bringing it to Parliament and continuing his work in this area. We have heard of the painful impact of bereavement on individuals and families, and we have seen it over the past year in particular. I sympathise with anyone who has lost a loved one. It is deeply painful to lose a person who has played a special role in our lives. It is a sad truth that we will all experience loss or bereavement in our lives, so the hon. Gentleman speaks of many of our personal experiences. That inevitability does not make those feelings easier to manage, and many of us will feel overwhelmed with the sense of loss, but it highlights the importance of ensuring that consumers dealing with bereavement face the minimal amount of difficulty as they carry out their necessary business. It is intuitive that we want to improve the bereavement process, to make dealing with the accounts of the deceased more efficient and streamlined. After all, that time can be better spent on handling our emotions and continuing with our day-to-day lives. I am grateful for the many companies that already excel in supporting consumers in vulnerable positions, particularly those experienced with bereavement. But the hon. Gentleman spoke from the heart, and I am grateful to him for continuing to raise awareness of the issues facing consumers.

We are all aware of the far-reaching impact that covid-19 has had on our lives and the suffering that it can bring—whether the personal loss of loved ones or simply hearing about the virus’s mortality rates in the media. The Chamber may recall that, like many in the House, I am all too familiar, unfortunately, with the heavy toll that coronavirus has taken: sadly, my mother died just before the first lockdown and two uncles have died. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) talking about industrial diseases; my father died of mesothelioma after having inhaled asbestos when he was doing his apprenticeship on the docks. That was in Yangon and Glasgow, so it was even more complicated and difficult to work through that process. It is important that in such complicated situations, we see what more we can do to help.

People around the country are supporting one another during this trying period—friends, families, charities and businesses. We must reach out and take the opportunity to thank them. It is also a trying time for many in business, yet many continue to excel in meeting the complex needs of consumers. Many firms across the sectors offer emotional training to staff, dedicated channels for the bereaved and clear access to information. I am grateful to those businesses for supporting their consumers during an already stressful time.

But bereavement is not one moment in our lives; it is a deeply personal experience. We can live with bereavement all our lives and feel various degrees of emotion at any given moment. It is important that we acknowledge that when we respond to the issues facing those who experience bereavement. Closing accounts and settling estates is a small snapshot of that experience. The Government continue to support those dealing with loss across the piece.

Due to the excess numbers of deaths, especially now that we have reached the tragic point of 100,000 covid-19 deaths, and the increasingly complex grief for many people due to the disruptions to normal grieving processes, we expect a significant increase in demand for bereavement support during the medium to long term. We are taking a cross-Government approach to supporting bereavement services as the pandemic highlights the essential work that these organisations provide and the significant strain that they are under.

When a bereavement is particularly debilitating or likely to have a longer-term impact on an individual’s mental or physical health, they have access to our excellent national health service. In May 2020, the Government announced £4.2 million of additional funding to mental health charities and charities providing bereavement support. That was part of a £750 million package of support for the voluntary sector, announced by the Chancellor in April 2020. As part of our support for those experiencing bereavement, the Government continue their commitment to improve outcomes for consumers in vulnerable positions.

Bereavement is the prime example of how we can all be vulnerable at some point in our lives. The Government frequently work with regulators to ensure co-ordinating support for those in vulnerable positions—whether the consumer is struggling to pay their bills, suffering from a medical condition or struggling to engage with the market in some way. Those regulated sectors rightly recognise bereavement as a vulnerability and regulated firms are expected to treat consumers fairly, with dignity and respect. Many of them do meet very high standards in this regard. Research shows that consumers often receive excellent, compassionate service from their providers when dealing with end-of-life administration. Numerous provisions are made by the regulators to embed that good practice across the essential service sectors.

In energy, Ofgem is committed to protecting consumers in vulnerable circumstances and has a comprehensive consumer protection framework in place. It works with a flexible definition of vulnerability, enabling a spectrum of consumers to seek the necessary support from their provider. Ofgem has explicitly mentioned bereavement as a personal circumstance that can make someone vulnerable. Firms are therefore expected to treat consumers experiencing bereavement fairly and compassionately, as many do. That is a trend across the sectors. Water companies are expected to better identify and support customers in circumstances that make those customers vulnerable, including bereavement. Telecoms companies are expected to be dynamic in their approach to vulnerability and to treat consumers fairly and appropriately, responding sensitively to changes in circumstances such as bereavement.

The standard is enormously variable. I am losing what little hair I have left in a row with a telecoms company. It is so difficult even to speak to a human being, at times. Would it not be advantageous for the companies concerned to have a simpler system that works for consumers? Some 80% have indicated in a survey that they do not think the current arrangements are satisfactory. Will the Minister consider giving free passage to a private Member’s Bill—not necessarily from me, but perhaps from a Government Member—for this proposal?

There will always be stories, and it is important that we work through those stories and the evidence with regulators. I will come back to that in a second. I appreciate the case that the hon. Gentleman cites, but we must welcome the good pieces of work from the independent regulators. The Government also welcome industry innovation, particularly when it addresses such pertinent issues.

It is important that we recognise the work of regulators and businesses to improve outcomes for the bereaved, but there is still more work to be done, as the hon. Gentleman has just pointed out. I am grateful to him for seizing the initiative. It is essential that we give these issues the time and attention they deserve. The deeper our insight, the better equipped we are to explore the most valuable options for the consumer. A hastily developed approach may mean a worse outcome for consumers. For example, pursuing standardisation whereby all sectors must meet the most stringent security requirements for account closures may be unnecessary and add hassle for consumers at an enormously difficult time. It is costly to business and harmful to consumers who are in a vulnerable position.

In November last year, I convened the regulators and sponsor Departments to discuss what work can be done around the important issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We are working with regulators, industry and charity experts—

Part of the issue is that too many services have gone online, which is to some degree a consequence of the current crisis. We need to encourage such businesses and agencies, particularly when they are dealing with older people, to have face-to-face or phone-to-phone contact. As far as e-government is concerned, we want more p-government, where p stands for people.

My right hon. Friend talks about people, and people are at the heart of any business, service or organisation. Whether it is e or p, we cannot lose the personal.

This is exactly the kind of work that I want to continue with our regulators and sponsor Departments, to make sure that we can raise these issues, develop our understanding and put in any necessary action to support businesses in delivering the caring, simple processes that bereaved people need. I assure the hon. Member for Easington that improving outcomes for bereaved consumers remains a priority for Government.

As well as talking about the standard, the hon. Gentleman spoke about digital copies of death certification, and clarity for business and consumers to allow the markets to function more effectively. The Government are working with regulators to understand what we can do to provide more clarity and confidence for firms on the use of digital copies of death certificates. For the record, and to avoid conflating concepts, it should be noted that digital death certificates do not exist; digital copies of death certification refer to the scanned copies of documents.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about bereavement leave. I hope that with me, he will welcome Jack’s law, which came into force last year, on parental bereavement leave and pay. It is a good start. I know that he wants to go further, but we should bear in mind that this is a statutory minimum. When we look at workers’ protections and workers’ rights, which have been the subject of debate over the last few weeks, we see that all these things are statutory minimums. As a former employer who has run businesses, I know that doing the bare minimum is not good business practice; we invest in our people. We will always ask employers to go further.

The Government are working to better understand what issues and problems bereaved consumers persistently face in the essential service sectors. We support and value the good work that the regulators in those sectors have done and are doing on these issues, and we know that many businesses already offer bereaved customers both compassion and efficient service.

We remain committed to improving outcomes for all consumers experiencing vulnerability, including those facing bereavement, and we will continue to work through the issues that the hon. Member has raised and carefully consider his suggestions. We encourage all businesses to treat all consumers with compassion and understanding, particularly when those consumers are faced with emotional hardship, and we thank those that are already doing exactly that.

I thank the hon. Member once again for his contribution to the debate. I also thank the other hon. and right hon. Members who intervened and contributed, and everyone who continues to work hard to raise awareness of issues facing consumers dealing with bereavement and loss.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.