Social Fund payments fall to the lowest level in five years

NAFD consultation responses highlights frailties and inadequacy of current benefit

Over the summer, the Government reported that £38.6 million was paid out in Social Fund Funeral Expenses Payments (FEP) in the year to July 2017, compared to £40 million in 2015-2016 and just over £44 million in both of the previous two years. In 2012-13, the figure paid out was £43.1 million.

The number of people applying for the benefit remains the same as last year: 45,000, but the number of successful applicants has fallen with only 27,000 people receiving a payment in the last twelve months, compared to 29,000 in 2015-16. The average amount paid out, however, has risen slightly, by £17.00, to £1,427, compared to £1,410 this time last year.

This means almost 20,000 bereaved people had their application for a Funeral Expenses Payment refused and faced the burden of paying for a funeral, that they had hoped to receive support from the Government for, after the funeral had taken place.

In the NAFD’s view, this clearly demonstrates that understanding of the FEP scheme eligibility criteria continues to be low. It was therefore disappointing that improving communication of eligibility criteria was not included in the Department of Work and Pensions consultation, on proposals to reform the FEP.

The National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) has long been concerned by the narrow nature of the consultation, which also excluded other major issues, such as the ‘Other Funeral Expenses’ element of the payment, which includes a contribution to the funeral directors expenses as well as doctor’s fees and other costs, and has been frozen at £700 for more than 14 years.

In its response to the Government, the Association said:

“The NAFD is disappointed to see the lack of scope contained within the proposals. Whilst these reforms will address individual points of friction within the system for specific cases, they do nothing to address the fundamental failings of the Funeral Expenses Payments scheme. Namely, that the current system causes additional distress to bereaved families by requiring them to undertake financial commitments without information on whether they will receive an award, and that it does not adequately cover the costs associated with a funeral in 2017.

“The Association hopes that a much more fundamental review of the efficacy of the benefit will be undertaken during the course of the new Parliament. The NAFD believes that, as a matter of urgency, steps must be undertaken to drastically reduce the number of applicants who are refused awards; a reporting mechanism should be set up to explain the reason why each initial award refusal was later overturned; and ,following NAFD representatives’ meeting with the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, the FEP Scheme Statutory Instrument must be revised to make it fit for purpose.”

The NAFD set out its views on this and other issues missing from the scope of the consultation, in its response to the Department of Work and Pensions.

The Association called for a better system to screen applicants for their eligibility prior to entering into a contract with a funeral director.  In the NAFD’s view this would reduce the number of refusals, the unexpected debt faced by bereaved people and the bad debt experienced by the funeral sector. For example, the NAFD was concerned to read in the FEP report that 7,000 awards were made after initially being refused, representing 15 per cent of all applications and 25 per cent of all awards. These statistics cannot capture the distress that these bereaved families experienced whilst appealing the DWP’s initial decision.

In highlighting the inadequacy of the £700 ‘Other Funeral Expenses’ cap, the Association said that while it recognises the financial challenges faced by the Government, the cap has remained frozen since 2003 and this is a snub to bereaved families who are seeing the real terms value of the award shrinking year by year, and to businesses involved in providing funerals who are subject to inflation and the increased cost of doing business.

The Association also pointed out that this situation is grossly unfair when compared to the annual above-inflation increases in Local Authority burial and cremation fees that are paid in full by the DWP. The Government must recognise that this position is unsustainable.

In its response, the NAFD highlighted the bold steps being taken by the Scottish Government in the publication of its Social Security (Scotland) Bill 2017. “Having identified the lack of predictability about the benefit, and the distress caused by long processing times, the Scottish Government is seeking to address these fundamental failings of the current system. The Association hopes that the UK Government will monitor the Scottish Government’s experience closely with a view to implementing the successful features of the Scottish benefit,” concludes the NAFD’s submission.

Addressing the questions posed in the consultation, the NAFD welcomed a proposal to allow recipients of Funeral Expenses Payments to receive additional contributions towards the cost of a funeral from charities, friends and relatives without the Government deducting these contributions from the value of the Funeral Payment awarded, subject to further work to understand how crowdfunding would work alongside this reform.

The NAFD agreed that the DWP should not assign ‘responsible person status’ to people living in care establishments, who receive income-assessed help from their local authority with their care fees, in place of an applicant who would otherwise be eligible for a Funeral Payment.

In respect of the application process, the NAFD agreed to a proposal to extend the application period from three to six months. The Association believe this is required due to the low levels of knowledge about the FEP Scheme. The DWP must consider whether it has made information about the scheme widely available enough, in a broad range of points of contact, and whether it can do more to increase awareness. The NAFD also agreed that applicants and funeral directors should be able to submit evidence electronically although it cautioned that there should be no penalty or delay if the information is not transmitted electronically and the electronically transmitted information should be accepted as primary evidence, without the original copies being requested for verification.

The DWP asked if respondents would support the launch of a shorter application form for claims relating to children’s funerals. The NAFD supported this proposal, but questioned the imposition of an age limit. Given that an elderly parent who is responsible for the funeral of an adult son or daughter would feel equally distressed at the situation, and the relationship between parent and child would be equally straightforward, the NAFD has suggested that perhaps a claims form for parent/child or immediate biological family would be more appropriate and should be considered. The Association pointed out that a shorter form would only be effective if handled in a more timely way.

The NAFD also expressed hope that, after a shortened children’s funeral claim form is introduced, lessons will be learnt about how the claims form for adults can be shortened too.

Finally, the NAFD agreed that the proposed Medical Examiner fees, if adopted in the future, should be covered as a necessary cost. The NAFD expressed disappointment that the consultation on the Introduction of Medical Examiners and Reform to Death Certification in England and Wales was published in March 2016 and the Government has not yet published its response to the consultation. This represents a significant delay in a matter of major public interest and the NAFD would like an update as a matter of urgency.