The government have ignored calls from bereaved people, MPs, charities and the funeral industry to raise the funeral fund to cover the cost of a funeral.
Over the summer, following mounting pressure on the government to reform the broken funeral fund, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) consulted on a range of modest reforms. These included extending the time a person can apply following a funeral, and allowing people to keep contributions from friends and family rather than having these deducted.
Charities and groups supporting the bereaved commented that the reforms fell far short of addressing the benefit's biggest failings; that it covers less than half the cost of a basic funeral and most people who need help don’t get it.
A shrinking safety net
- The funeral fund was introduced in 1989 to cover the cost of a basic funeral for families who wouldn't’t otherwise be able to afford one.
- Since then, the fund has shrunk and now covers less than 40% of a basic funeral. One in six families facing debt and financial distress after arranging a funeral.
- Last year the Government spent £38.9 million on the fund – this is the lowest figure for ten years.
This forces families into serious debt and poverty as they try to raise the money to say goodbye to their loved one.
Desperate families left without help
Eligibility for the fund is very narrow. Many families who desperately need financial help will get nothing. People in low paid work, including on zero hour contracts tend not to be eligible for the fund. Students, under 18s and people on basic state pensions are also turned down in normal circumstances.
Bereaved people, charities and representatives from the funeral industry responded to the consultation, urging the government to go further and fix the fundamental problems with the fund, specifically that it covers less than half the cost of a basic funeral and that most people who need help are ineligible.
The DWP have now responded to the public saying that although they received a “significant number of responses” calling for the fund to be increased and the eligibility criteria extended, they have decided not to raise the amount the fund pays or extend the eligibility.
Following a cross-party investigation, MPs from the Work and Pensions Select Committee called on the DWP to raise the funeral fund to cover basic costs.
Heather Kennedy, Fair Funeral campaigns manager said:
“David Gauke at the DWP is still not listening. His department has been inundated with evidence and personal stories from grieving people, charities and MPs urging them to raise the broken funeral fund so it covers the cost of a basic funeral. It’s very disappointing that he continues to ignore them.
The inadequate funeral fund is forcing bereaved families, who only want to provide a decent send-off when someone they love dies, into poverty and debt. The government must listen to public concern surrounding this problem and create a proper state safety net for grieving families, one our country can be proud of, that ensures dignity in death for everyone.”
Last month, the Fair Funerals campaign, alongside national charities and the funeral industry, called on the government to raise the funeral fund to cover the cost of a basic funeral. A viral campaign and petition has launched urging the Chancellor Philip Hammond to #BurytheDebt ahead of the budget on the 22nd November 2017.
Alison Crake, President of the National Association of Funeral Directors, said:
“This announcement by the Government is the equivalent of putting a sticking plaster on a broken bone. The DWP’s proposals, which merely address individual points of friction within the system, do nothing to answer the fundamental failings of a Funeral Expenses Payment scheme which causes heartache for tens of thousands of people every year.
Louise Eaton-Terry, funeral cost expert at Royal London, said:
Funeral costs continue to increase above inflation year on year, with our research showing that bereaved families who qualify for the fund face a shortfall of more than £2,000 to cover the cost of a funeral. While these reforms are a step in the right direction, they fail to address the value of the award and we want the Government to go further and commit to increasing the value of the social fund funeral expenses payment.
In response to the consultation responses, the DWP has said:
“We have given careful consideration to all of these additional comments [relating to the inadequacy of the fund and eligibility]. The Government believes that the Social Fund Funeral Expenses Payments scheme makes a significant contribution towards a funeral.
The Government believes that the current eligibility criteria make sure that the scheme is targeted at those who need it most and reduces the potential for abuse of a limited resource. At this stage therefore, we will not be making any changes other than those set out in the consultation document. However, as with all of our policies we will continue to keep the Funeral Expenses Payments scheme under review.”