MPs to debate funeral poverty today, yet Government support has fallen again

Funeral payments from the Government’s Social Fund peaked at over £90 million in 1994-95. In 2015-16 only £40 million was paid out.

Parliamentarians will meet to debate funeral poverty in the House of Commons this morning (Weds 14 September), seeking ways to help the 10-12% of people for whom any unexpected expense in life, including the cost of a funeral, is impossible to meet.

Yet a growing case of double standards is frustrating efforts by the funeral profession to support the changing needs of bereaved people and address those in poverty. The Department of Work and Pensions’ Social Fund accounts for 2015-16, quietly released on 7 July, indicates that the Government spent 10% less than the previous year supporting those in funeral poverty and gave out 12% fewer grants to cover funeral expenses.

The funeral expenses payment itself remains at a pitiful £700, unchanged for thirteen years, whilst at the same time the Government continues to paying local councils in full for their burial and cremation fees.

The Social Fund funeral payment was launched in 1987. According to the House of Commons library, funeral payments from the Social Fund peaked at over £90 million a year in 1993-94 and 1994-95 which is more than double the figure paid out last year. In fact, last year the Government spent more paying local councils for their burial plots and cremation slots than it did supporting those bereaved families whose loved ones would be using them.

Jeremy Field, President of the National Association of Funeral Directors, who represents the NAFD on a Government-led industry round table looking at bereavement benefits, said:

“More than 90% of our members are small independent businesses and they are already plugging the growing gaps in government support for the poor, often taking on unsustainable levels of debt as a result and are frequently been criticised for not doing more.

“Despite this we are playing our part in helping to address the needs of those people for whom any unexpected expense, such as a funeral, is something they cannot afford. However, it is galling to discover that the Government tried to bury the bad news that it is spending less and supporting fewer bereaved families by releasing the information in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit result. Shortly afterwards, the Office for National Statistics announced that the death rate in the UK had risen by 5.9 per cent, the largest annual percentage increase since 1967-68.”

“If we’re going to work together, then let’s work together, but that means the Government playing its part too. The NAFD continues to call for four simple steps to fairness and asks MPs debating this issue tomorrow to press the Government for:

  1. A system that works better for bereaved families including a shorter and less complex application system, with clear eligibility criteria which would speed up decision making and an early indication of likely success to avoid uncertainty, which is key to ensuring the funeral can proceed without undue delay and distress to the family, which is so often the case at present.
  2. A long overdue increase in the £700 cap on “other funeral expenses” which has been in place since 2003 and covers almost everything relating to the funeral including the coffin, flowers, celebrant or minister’s fees and the services of the funeral director in making all of the arrangements.
  3. A cap on what the Government pays to local authorities for their burial plots and cremation slots (referred to as disbursements or third party costs). Allowing these to remain uncapped – despite the often rapid rate of annual increases to these fees – is a major issue skewing the Social Fund’s ability to be effective.
  4. Better signposting of bereavement benefits to vulnerable families by Social Services and other government bodies.

“In return the profession will create a nationwide framework for a simple, respectful funeral – flexible enough to accommodate regional variations in needs and costs. It will also continue making its traditional commitment that no other retailer makes: providing services to everyone, often with little or no payment required upfront for services and sometimes even if the families acknowledge they will struggle to pay.

“Funeral directors put families first. The vast majority of our members carry out funerals each year without knowing if any payment, government or otherwise, will be forthcoming. They are willing to do so as part of their determination to help those who have lost someone close to them, despite the increasing levels of unpaid debts that they are having to swallow as a result.

“We accept this risk as part of the work we do. We only ask that the Government carries its fair share of the burden too.”

Encourage your member of parliament to add their voice to the debate using our MP’s briefing pack.

The Social Fund accounts can be found at this link: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/535981/social-fund-account-2015-16.pdf