Reform benefits for the bereaved to tackle funeral poverty, say MPs
In a report published today, the Work and Pensions Committee says the UK Government should follow the lead of the Scottish Government and conduct a broad review of burials, cremations and funerals.
Our Fair Funerals campaign fed heavily into the Committee's findings and our work is mentioned throughout.
We welcome the government's recommendations for 'fairer funerals' and reflect on the report below.
The Committee heard distressing stories from the human impact of funeral poverty.
One mother was forced to freeze her son’s body for months while she saved enough to pay for a funeral. Other bereaved people were denied their relative’s ashes because of a shortfall in the final payment.
The findings look at some key areas of concern for our Fair Funerals campaign:
State support frozen since 2003
The Committee heard that the Social Fund Bereavement Payment (the main benefit available to bereaved people on low incomes where they are no other funds available), designed to cover basic funeral costs now doesn't cover the price of a simple funeral.
The Payment has been de-valued massively since it began thirty years ago to cover the cost of a basic funeral.
The Committee says the price for a simple funeral should be agreed with the funeral industry and the Payment set at this level.
They also said the system should be simplified and clarified, beginning with the introduction of an eligibility checker and an index of local funeral directors and their comparative costs for a “fair funeral."
Funeral industry failing vulnerable people
The Committee heard evidence that suggests the funeral industry may not always be serving bereaved, vulnerable people well. This evidence has been passed to the Competition and Markets Authority.
We work closely with some excellent funeral directors who recognise the needs to be transparent about their prices and make affordable options available to people on low incomes.
15% of funeral directors have now signed our Fair Funerals pledge. However there are also funeral directors who are charging too much and not being transparent about their prices.
Outdated, unfair bereavement benefits
Bereavement benefits have always excluded couples who are not married or in a civil partnership.
This report finds that the Government specifically omitted the option of extending the benefit to cohabitees from its consultation.
Committee Chair Frank Field noted that:
"Penalising a child on the grounds of their parents’ marital status is as unjust as it is anachronistic. The costs involved to right this wrong are small and the Government should do so as soon as possible."
Frank Field MP
The Committee says the approach to support for the children of widowed parents (where the benefit is only paid if the parents were married or in a civil partnership but not cohabiting parents) is unfair and outdated.
They call for eligibility to be extended to co-habiting parents. They also made other suggestions to make bereavement benefits fairer, welcomed by the Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN).
However, they would have liked the Committee to have gone further on their recommendations for how long support should be paid after the death of a partner.
Under current plans, to be introduced in April 2017, this support will end a after year, which would coincide with the anniversary of the death.
We fully support the CBN's response to the report.
The Fair Funerals response to the report
We welcome today’s report which is the first time politicians have got together and tried to understand the reasons why so many people can’t afford a decent send off for someone they love.
We strongly echo the Committee’s call for the Social Fund Funeral Payment to be increased in line with the price of a basic funeral.
It isn’t right that this fund has been allowed to decrease in value to the point where it now covers on average 37% of the price of a funeral.
Other recommendations made by the Committee, such as an eligibility checker so people can figure out if they’re likely to get help, and introducing an accreditation scheme for funeral directors also have the potential to make a big positive impact in the lives of bereaved people on low incomes.
We now urge the Department of Work and Pensions and Baroness Ros Altmann, the Minister responsible for bereavement benefits, to implement these recommendations in full.
In the context of steep funeral inflation, an aging population and growing public concern around funeral poverty, we hope to see the UK Government now take meaningful, sustainable action to ensure everyone has access to a dignified funeral.
Frank Field's thoughts
Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
"We are concerned by the lack of protection in the market for bereaved customers, particularly those on low incomes.
They are vulnerable and may not be inclined to shop around. This is not conducive to effective operation of the market. We urge the Government to conduct a cross-Departmental review of burials, cremations and funerals, with outcomes that will address the factors driving up funeral director fees and work to reduce funeral poverty. We did not set out to inquire into the funeral industry but it soon became apparent that the interaction between an opaque and outdated public system of bereavement support and a market in funeral services which simply does not operate “normally”, is causing problems."
Frank Field MP