Politicians from across different parties came together in the House of Commons to share their concerns about the vast swathes of people who can’t afford a decent send off, and voice their frustration at the failure of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to take action to address funeral poverty.

Early this year a damning Select Committee report called for an overhaul of the meager and inadequate system of support for the bereaved people, but so far all of their recommendations have been ignored.

Nearly all the MPs who spoke in the packed parliamentary debate highlighted the failings of the funeral grant. The grant was designed in the eighties to cover the cost of a basic funeral for those people with no other means to pay for a funeral. But the grant has shrunk at the same time as funeral costs have sky rocketed, and now only covers around a third of the cost of an average funeral. Spending on the funeral grant has declined since 2003 and last year decreased by 11%.

They called on Caroline Nokes MP, the new Minister responsible for the funeral grant, to follow the recommendations made by the Select Committee and increase the grant so it covered the price of a basic funeral.

Nokes responded by acknowledging that funeral grants don’t cover basic costs but failed to say whether this was a problem her Department had any intention of tackling.

Speaking about the government’s decision to freeze the amount paid out in 2003, Gavin Robinson (DUP) who arranged the debate said;

“I am afraid this policy is now compounding the debt and the pressure on families who look to Government for support.”

A rise in public health funerals

Robinson also pointed out that the inadequacy of and strict eligibility criteria for the funeral grant is leaving more and more people with no choice but to have a state funded public health funerals (sometimes called a ‘pauper’s funeral’). MPs questioned whether this was the best use of state funds.

Several MPs called on the government to define a basic or standard funeral. The Select Committee recommended the DWP define this then pay the funeral grant at this level.

In the dark about funeral costs

Gill Furniss MP (Labour) spoke about her experiences following the death of her husband:

“In my own case, it never occurred to me to shop around or do a price comparison. In the aftermath of a death, people are vulnerable and not always thinking straight. I just contacted the funeral director who I knew was very local, and I must add that they were extremely helpful, kind and respectful throughout the process, but it does seem to me that we should give this issue more thought and seek to persuade funeral directors to be open about their costs and make them available online, so that we can all make better informed choices. When I return to my constituency, I will be contacting the funeral directors in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and urging them to do that.”

Hopefully we’ll see a flurry of funeral directors in the Sheffield area signing our Fair Funerals pledge in response to encouragement from their local MP!

Phil Boswell MP (SNP) also spoke passionately about why funeral directors need to be open about their costs;

“I have recently been made aware of a case in my constituency of a local funeral home that, notably, had not signed on to the fair funerals pledge. My constituent had requested that a non-essential component of the funeral not be included. However, they were billed for it and later told that they owed the money, because that non-essential service was standard. Furthermore, they were significantly overcharged for services. When a family member of the deceased attempted to discuss the discrepancies in the bill with the funeral home, they were ignored and forced to pay the bill.”

A compassionate Conservative?

Several MPs made reference to the fact that Nokes is a self-confessed Compassionate Conservative.

Nigel Dodds MP (DUP) said:

“We have a new Prime Minister and a new direction in a Government who are not for the privileged few but for the many. This is an opportunity for the Government to take a new approach and relieve this burden from many elderly people—often widows living alone—who are worried about passing on debt to their families.”

It remains to be known whether we’ll see evidence this compassion in her response to the thousands of people unable to access a dignified funeral when someone they love dies.

We have a meeting with Caroline Nokes MP next month so will be asking for clear commitments about how she is planning to respond to the growing public concern around funeral poverty.

MPs who spoke at the debate
Gavin Robinson (DUP)
Caroline Nokes (Conservative)
Debbie Abrahams (Labour)
Gregory Campbell (DUP)
Gill Furniss (Labour)
Phil Boswell (SNP)
David Simpson (DUP)
Nigel Dodds (DUP)
Patrcia Gibson (SNP)
Andrew Smith (Labour)
Jim Shannon (DUP)
Emma Lewell-Buck (Labour)
Margaret Richie (Social Democractic and Labour)
Alan Brown (SNP)
Chris Stephens (SNP)
 

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