The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) will appear before the Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry into Bereavement Benefits this week (Wednesday 6 January 2016) and will highlight five simple steps it believes are necessary to ensure the current system becomes fairer, more effective and easier to access.
In its role as the leading trade association for the funeral profession the NAFD has campaigned consistently for a review of the Social Fund funeral payment to ensure it works properly for both bereaved families and funeral directors.
Only 62% of the 52,000 people who applied in 2014 were successful. Under the current process applicants can wait up to 21 days to find they receive nothing or very little, leaving them with a large, often unexpected debt that they must settle. This debt is often passed onto the funeral director, unless the bereaved can arrange an alternative source of finance. Often, applicants don’t even know that their claim has failed until after the window for appealing the outcome has closed.
In written evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee the NAFD highlights the changing nature of funerals and how those unable to afford the costs of a simple funeral are no longer effectively supported by government. The NAFD believes that the current Social Fund Funeral Payment no longer provides an adequate contribution to those on a low income who are faced with the often unplanned costs of a funeral, as the £700 maximum award for ‘other funeral expenses’, which covers essentials such as a coffin, memorial and the services of a funeral director, has not been reviewed since 2003 and now generally covers less than half of the average funeral costs incurred.
In its evidence the NAFD highlights five key steps which would improve Government support for bereaved families and ensure funeral directors are treated fairly:
- The Government must start collecting at least basic information about funerals. The Government does not collect any data about funerals and the full costs of the current Social Fund funeral payment which makes it impossible to deliver effective change. For example in recent responses to Parliament DWP ministers have said:
“The Government does not collect data on total numbers of people unable to afford a low-cost funeral.” (23 June 2015)
“My department does not hold information on the average cost of a funeral.” (25 February 2015)
“My department does not collect data to monitor the types of funerals people choose.” (3 February 2015)
“What estimate he has made of the number of people who went into debt in order to pay for a funeral in the last period for which figures are available…my department does not collect this information.” (20 January 2015)
“My department does not collect data on the number of Local Authority funerals.” (2 December 2014)
- Bring the payment up to date through index-linking. Local authority costs (such as a burial plot or cremation) are paid in full. However the element of the payment which covers costs such as a coffin, memorial, a minister or celebrant and the funeral directors’ fees for arranging and conducting the funeral, has not been reviewed for thirteen years and has fallen out of step with inflation. The NAFD calls on Government to index link the payment as a first step to delivering a fairer system.
- Introduce a pre-eligibility check and claims tracking system to help the bereaved understand their position much quicker in the process. The current process – awarding a Funeral Payment only after the funeral ceremony has taken place with no prior indication over whether the social fund application is likely to be successful – creates huge difficulties for the bereaved.
- Reduce the length of the application form. It is overly long and complex (23+pages) and incorrectly completing even just one section can result in the claim failing. The form should be redrafted to make it more straightforward for recently bereaved people, who are likely to be distressed.
- Improve Government signposting and support to bereaved families. The NAFD would also like to see better signposting from the Government so the bereaved can discuss their financial situation, either with a funeral director or organisation like Cruse Bereavement Care, as early in the process as possible and can be directed to sources of financial assistance. Registry offices, hospital bereavement offices and the Coroner’s service should all be involved in providing information about sources of support.
Nigel Lymn Rose, a funeral director with more than 45 years’ experience who is representing the NAFD in the evidence session, said: “The NAFD remains committed to working with the Government to ensure that all those without the means to fund even the most basic of funerals can access financial support so they can say a proper farewell to their loved one. However it is also important to recognise that the vast majority of funeral directors in this country (more than 90% of our members) are small businesses and they deserve to be treated fairly too and not left to swallow the debts of those unable to pay.
“The NAFD is calling on the Government to act fairly in the interests of both bereaved families and the funeral firms who care for them.”