During the Westminster Hall Debate about Social Fund funeral payments on Wednesday 14th of September, I spoke at length about the silent epidemic of funeral poverty, adding to the grief of losing a loved one.
We are the 5th richest country in the world and we have this increase in paupers funerals. This is not Victorian Britain, it is 21st century Britain and it is scandalous. We need actions and not just words for families on low-incomes who cannot afford to pay for a funeral.
You can watch my speech here or read my contribution in full below:
“As always, Sir David, it is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I start by congratulating Gavin Robinson, not only on securing this debate but on the compassionate, sensitive and very eloquent way in which he put his case across. In particular, his comments about the importance of ensuring that there is dignity in death as well as in life really resonated with me, as I am sure they did with all Members here in Westminster Hall today and beyond.
There have been a number of memorable speeches in this debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Gill Furniss, in memory of her husband—our dear colleague, Harry—and the personal experience that she went through. She made a point very sensitively, in a speech that was very moving as a whole, about the worry that people experience regarding finances as well as having to come to terms with their grief. Almost across the board today, the point was strongly made that the issues around debt that people face as a result of funeral costs compound their grief. My hon. Friend Mrs Lewell-Buck, following in the wake of her ten-minute rule Bill, very eloquently described the issues that arise.
The Government are facing some confusion around the eligibility checker for the social fund. Does it exist, or not? Will it be used, or not? Progress in this area has been disappointing and I know that the Minister will address that in her response to the debate.
There is an issue about fair funerals. An important point was made about the need for us to consider looking at regulation of funeral services, in light of some of the overcharging that has occurred.
Although the point that the social fund for funeral payments just has not kept pace with inflation is very important, I will not labour it. The hon. Member for Belfast East has already made the important point that the figure for payments is the equivalent of £495 today; it has remained static since 2003 and it does not cover the cost of the average funeral. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what plans the Government have to uprate that figure and said whether any such uprating would be index-linked and continue in the future.
In addition to the adequacy—or not—of the social fund funeral payments, there is also an issue about people’s eligibility for support; again, that point has already been made this morning. That issue must be looked at.
We heard about the approach being taken in Northern Ireland about cohabiting couples. I will cite one of my own constituency cases, involving the father of a constituent. Sadly, my constituent’s father passed away in the summer. He was given a funeral. My constituent’s dad had been living with his partner, but for various reasons his partner did not want to get involved in the funeral and was unable to pay for it. So it fell on my constituent to organise the funeral himself, at a cost of more than £2,000.
My constituent is in a low-paid job and is supported by universal credit, so he could not afford the cost of the funeral. He tried to apply for a social fund payment, but because his father had been living with his partner he was told that he was not eligible. His father’s partner had not applied for a social fund payment, but he was still told that he was not eligible for such a payment. Obviously, my constituent will appeal that decision and he has my support for that appeal.
The eligibility issue has been raised a number of times today and consideration of it was also included in a report by the University of Bath. That report said that the Department for Work and Pensions rules take no account of the status of relationships and particularly the quality of relationships. Once again, if the Minister could examine that issue I would be very grateful to her.
The other point made consistently throughout the debate is about the issue of debt, particularly for those already on low incomes. A very valid point was made—I cannot remember who made it—about the context of all the welfare reforms that are currently going through. How on earth are people meant to save for funerals given that someone might die unexpectedly? That is a real issue. There is a scandal here. We had hoped that we had put these stories behind us. We are not in Victorian days—we are the fifth richest country in the world, and there is this increase in paupers’ funerals. As I say, this is notVictorian Britain; this is 21st century Britain and the situation is quite scandalous.
There was a report in The Guardian earlier this year that a Liverpool credit union had been inundated with requests for help, as people tried to acquire cheaper credit; the alternatives were payday loans or, even worse, going to loan sharks. Meeting funeral costs is a real worry for people. Similarly, the UK Cards Association says that payment of funeral costs is the single most placed payment that people make using credit cards. I am also worried that the Government are not collecting any data on this issue and that we cannot monitor the worsening state of affairs. Again, I would be very grateful if the Minister said exactly how she intends to address these issues.
There is a silent epidemic of funeral poverty, which, as I say, has been adding to the grief of losing a loved one. Given the Prime Minister’s very welcome words about tackling the injustices in this country, could this be an area where the Government take action? We need action and not just words.”