NAFD welcomes Social Fund debate but remains concerned at Government reluctance to reform benefits

The National Association of Funeral Directors attended the debate on the Government’s Social Fund Funeral Payment in Westminster Hall on Wednesday 14 September.

It was extremely encouraging to see MPs from across the UK debating this nationwide issue and we would like to thank Gavin Robinson MP (East Belfast) for calling the debate. It attracted a greater number of MPs than on previous occasions, a sign that parliamentarians are heeding the calls of the funeral profession and organisations such as Quaker Social Action and Cruse Bereavement Care that this issue is growing in importance in communities across the UK.

There was much to be positive about in the statement by Caroline Nokes MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions, during the debate, particularly her commitment to work with all parties to address this issue.  She also showed understanding that a dominant factor driving up the cost of a funeral were those third party charges (such as burial and cremation fees) that are outside a funeral directors control. We also welcome the Minister’s comments that she wants to “work with the industry rather than dictate prices” and the NAFD remains committed to playing its part in helping the DWP find a solution to support and help the 10—12% of Britons for whom any major unexpected expense in life, including an unplanned funeral, would be impossible to meet.

A key concern of the NAFD remains the inadequacy of the funeral expenses payment which has remained a pitiful £700 for thirteen years and has to cover 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. The current payment is no real help to the bereaved people who need it and no compensation to the funeral directors who end up providing their support, services and facilities effectively for free. 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.  It was particularly concerning that the Minister pointed to it being the most generous arrangement in Europe aside from Norway which shows a lack of understanding of alternative systems used across Europe that are very different to the Social Fund model.

However, the NAFD was encouraged that Mr Robinson and other MPs echoed our calls for it to be reviewed and at least index-linked as a first step to fairness and we hope to see the Government take this call seriously.

It was also disappointing to hear that the Minister seemed unwilling to improve the mechanism for applying for a Funeral Payment to include a free online eligibility checker. The current system grinds painfully slowly with funerals almost always taking place before families know if their application is successful, leaving funeral directors to carry the financial risk. We believe that there should be a simple online eligibility checking process which will help to avoid the current system where families are left in limbo and funeral directors often left in debt.

However, the NAFD was encouraged to hear Ms. Nokes acknowledge that bereaved families often prefer to talk to someone when arranging a funeral. Whilst there is certainly more that the funeral profession can do to make information accessible, whether that be online or on paper, in our experience families almost always prefer to have a conversation. For the funeral director this enables them to respect each family’s wishes and work within their constraints – financial or otherwise. However, to support this, Ms. Nokes also called for all funeral directors to offer pricing information to take away. Given that the NAFD already requires its members to provide transparent price lists, the Minister’s statement serves to emphasize the importance of choosing a reputable funeral director that is a member of a recognised trade association and therefore bound by its rules.

At a time when Government support for bereaved families is falling, with Social Fund payments down in both value and volume in the past year, we hope that this debate helps to engender real action within Government and look forward to the next steps by Ms. Nokes and her team.

To support bereaved families and the funeral directors who care for them, the NAFD will continue to campaign with Government for four simple steps to fairness:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  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 funeral – which makes it easy to compare costs between funeral directors for those people for whom price is a key concern and is flexible enough to accommodate regional variations in needs and costs. Funeral directors will also continue making their traditional commitment that no other retailer makes, which is to provide their 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.