Today Frank Field MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee announced an inquiry into benefits that support bereaved people. The safety net for bereaved people, in particular the Social Fund Funeral Payment has been letting them down for some time, but until now the issue has been overlooked by government.
This announcement comes after years of complaints and frustrations from funeral directors, MPs but mostly from the tens of thousands of family and friends who have suffered from the misery of this poor service.
Only last month a Westminster Hall Debate led by Conservative MP Paul Maynard (@PaulMaynardMP) reflected widespread anxiety about the Funeral Payment. He was joined in his concerns from MPs in the Labour Party (Emma Lewell-Buck MP had introduced a Ten Minute Bill the year before), the SNP, and DUP.
Among many stories MPs had heard from constituents who were denied the ashes of their loved ones because they were unable to pay for the funeral.
Scope of the inquiry
The Work and Pensions Committee is inviting submissions on the policies and processes which relate to the Social Fund Funeral Payment and the Bereavement Payment, Bereavement Allowance and Widowed Parents Allowance.
The committee is looking for recommendations for improvement, particularly in the following areas.
· What are the costs of a funeral, and how does this compare with payments from the Social Funeral Fund?
· Do funeral homes offer less expensive funeral options for people on low incomes?
· Could improvements be made to the application process for Social Funeral Fund payments?
· What is the impact on families and individuals when they cannot meet the cost of a funeral for a friend or relative?
· What is the impact on funeral homes and directors when the cost of a funeral cannot be met?
· What arrangements do Local Authorities have for Public Health Funerals?
· Have LAs seen an increase in Public Health Funerals and what is the cost to LAs?
· What is the level of awareness about bereavement benefits, amongst those who may be eligible to claim?
· Are bereavement benefits targeted at those who need them? Should eligibility criteria be reviewed?
· Are there any problems with how bereavement benefits will interact with Universal Credit?
· Is communication and guidance about bereavement benefits sufficient?
Written submissions are to be made to the inquiry page are by 5 January 2016.
Heather Kennedy, Fair Funerals campaign manager says:
We are delighted by today's announcement. The Funeral Payment has been overlooked by government for too long and we look forward to working alongside the select committee to improve the way the Funeral Payment supports bereaved people on low incomes. However this isn't a problem the DWP can solve on their own. We need a cross government inquiry following the lead of the Scottish government, that looks at the different problems the combine to produce funeral poverty including funeral inflation, pressure on local authorities and the use of burial space. We'd like to see the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health now stepping up to their role in tackling funeral poverty.
What the Social Fund Funeral Payment is for
The Funeral Payment used to cover the cost of a basic funeral for people on qualifying benefits where there were no other funds available through relatives or the estate of the deceased. Over the past 12 years the value of the Payment has been seriously eroded.
The average award in 2012-2013 was £1,225. This covers around 35% of the price of a basic funeral. As a result even people awarded a grant are left with a huge shortfall, often leading them into unmanageable debts.
The lack of an adequate state safety is one of the main reasons why funeral poverty has increased by 50% in just five years.
Today’s announcement follows efforts by our Fair Funerals campaign and other members of theFuneral Poverty Alliance to highlight problems with the Social Fund. Earlier this year we wrote to the Work and Pensions Select Committee drawing their attention to the financial consequences and distress caused by delays and mistakes with applications which can be hugely painful to bereaved applicants.
Fair Funerals recommendations to improve the funeral payment
Making a claim can be a complex process and can leave people confused and frustrated at a very stressful and disorientating time. Bereaved people struggle to absorb information so navigating the SF FP system becomes particularly challenging.
Down to Earth our project that supports people in funeral poverty, frequently encounter problems in the way the Funeral Payment is administered. Application forms are frequently lost and inaccurate information around eligibility is given by Department of Work and Pensions staff.
Paul, 62 from Leicester applied to the Social Fund but his form was lost
I had been caring for my mother at home when she died. I was able to arrange a relatively simple cremation funeral costing £1,500 but was still dependant on the outcome of a social fund application. I became anxious when I hadn’t heard the result of my claim. I was told by the DWP that the form had simply been ‘lost’. With Down to Earth I was able to put in another claim quite quickly which was then successful. They helped me mediate with the funeral director during the delay so the funeral could go ahead.
For the next step of the campaign to tackle funeral poverty, we need your help! Write to our MP calling for a cross-government inquiry into funeral poverty. For a template letter to send to your MP, click here.