Today was the final live evidence session held by the Work and Pensions Select Committee to investigate funeral poverty. Across three sessions the Committee heard evidence on the growing number of people unable to afford a dignified funeral, the steep increase in funeral costs and the inadequacies of bereavement benefits and Social Fund Funeral Payments.
Bereaved benefits are payable to people of working age on the death of their spouse. The Social Fund Funeral Payment is designed to help towards the cost of a funeral for people on qualifying benefits where there isn’t enough money in the family or the estate of the deceased.
These sessions were part of a wider inquiry into funeral poverty, partly initiated by the efforts of Quaker Social Action and other members of the Funeral Poverty Alliance to highlight funeral poverty to the Committee. Here is our written evidence submission to the inquiry.
Unfair rules for co-habiting couples
Today’s session, which you can view here, highlighted the unfair rules around bereavement benefits. An estimated 7,000 newly-bereaved partners receive nothing in bereavement benefits when their partner dies, as they are not married.
Alison Penny of the Childhood Bereavement Network who has campaigned vigorously on this issue, said:
"We estimate that one in five parents raising children would be unable to claim bereavement benefits if their long-term partner died, simply because they weren’t married or in a civil partnership before the death. Losing out on these vital payments, that could be worth around £46 per week to low income families, undermines their welfare just when they need help the most."
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said:
"We are modernising bereavement benefits, introducing a simpler and fairer scheme that will better assist people in what can be an extremely difficult time.”
Benefits leading people into debt
Today’s session heard from Simon Cox, from the Royal London Group who spoke about the steep increase in costs charged by funeral directors and local authorities.
Talking about the Social Fund Funeral Payment and the fact people must commit to funeral expenses before they know if they’ll receive any financial help from the state, he said:
“This process is leading citizens into debt without a shadow of a doubt. Expecting people to commit to funeral expenses before they even know if they’re eligible for a grant is unreasonable and unfair.”
He suggested the Funeral Payment should be increased to cover the cost of simple funeral options being offered by more and more independent funeral directors.
This is the first time a Parliamentary Committee has looked in detail at the interrelated factors that are pushing more and more people into funeral poverty. The Fair Funerals campaign hope this will be a unique opportunity to improve the way government policy responds to vulnerable bereaved people on low incomes.
The Committee, chaired by veteran Labour MP Frank Field, will now take two months to compile their report with recommendations to be answered by government Ministers. If Ministers decide to overlook the recommendations made by the Committee, they will have to explain why.
In the meantime, the Fair Funerals campaign and other members of the Funeral Poverty Alliance will continue government for change to a system which is letting down our citizens, often at the worst time of their lives.