MPs grilled the government this week over their lack of progress in tackling funeral poverty.

Frank Field, who chairs the cross-party Work and Pensions Select Committee, spoke about families in his constituency of Birkenhead who had been unable to claim the ashes of a family member because they could not complete the payment of the funeral bill.

Funeral grant now pays less than “paupers' funerals"

Speaking at a parliamentary debate on funeral poverty, Field pointed out that the government funeral grant, available to some people who would otherwise be unable to afford a funeral, now pays out less than what councils pay for public health or “paupers' funerals".

When friends and family are unable to afford a funeral, councils have a legal responsibility to arrange a simple, respectful service for the deceased. They pay funeral directors on average £900 to carry out a public health funeral which is normally a basic, respectful cremation service. The funeral grant, administered by the Department of Work and Pensions will pay out only £700 to cover funeral director costs. It was set up in 1987 to cover basic funeral costs for bereaved people on very low incomes, but was capped in 2003 and now covers less than half the cost of a funeral.

Labour’s Margaret Greenwood MP said:

“With the average award now running at less than 40% of the average cost of a funeral, it is clear that the adequacy of the support provided by the social fund now requires urgent review. Will the Minister agree to look again at the question of cost and indexation, given the overwhelming evidence of there being insufficient support?”

The government acknowledged that the grant hadn’t kept up with funeral costs. But refused to budge on the need to increase the grant. Speaking on behalf of the government, Richard Harrington MP said:

“We make a significant contribution to the costs of a simple, respectful funeral.”

They said the reason for not increasing the grant was a desire to “be fair to tax payers” and a fear that an increased funeral grant would cause companies to inflate their prices.

Harrington said:

“We do not want the funeral expenses scheme to influence or inflate the prices charged by the funeral industry for a simple funeral, and it must not undermine personal and family responsibility for meeting funeral costs.”

Commenting on the government’s refusal to increase the funeral grant, Frank Field warned “the Government do not wish to present this harsh face to the public”.

Frank Field also urged the government “take a leaf out of the Scottish Government’s book” and conduct a cross-departmental review of burials, cremations and funerals. The Scottish Government has recently passed legislation to bring down the cost of funerals, and is consulting on an improved funeral grant.

There was also pressure for the government to be clearer with people about whether they’re eligible for any help from the funeral grant.

Margaret Greenwood said:

“The Government seem strangely reticent about providing people suffering a bereavement with clear and helpful information about how to access funeral provision.”

Click here a transcript of the full debate.

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MPs are strongly influenced by the concerns and opinions of their constituents and one of the best ways of pushing funeral poverty up the agenda is writing to your MP. 

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