The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Family Support, Housing & Child Maintenance, Kit Malthouse MP, has this week announced reforms to his Department for Work and Pensions' funeral payment. The funeral fund was set up in the 1980s to cover the cost of a simple funeral service for those who’d otherwise be unable to afford one.
At the same time as funeral prices have risen way above inflation since, the fund has been capped and, in turn, stagnated. Now it covers less than a measly 40% of the cost of a basic funeral, the payment for funeral directors’ fees having been frozen at an insubstantial £700.
Our Bury the Debt campaign calls on the government to increase the amount the funeral fund will cover by raising this frozen part in line with funeral price inflation for the time it’s languished. The most financially vulnerable people are being excluded from having a funeral for a loved one, with our proposed improvement meaning 1000s more would be afforded this necessity at a miniscule price to the treasury.
The government has acknowledged the wealth of support for wider reforms to the funeral fund from industry experts, including raising the amount it pays out to cover the cost of a basic funeral, speeding up payments which can't be processed until after a funeral and extending the eligibility criteria. It has ultimately decided to pay lip service to these issues whilst not engaging in practical work to address them.
Change is coming
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has recently announced changes to the funeral fund that will come into play in a few months’ time. From April, applicants will be able to make an application up to 6 months after a funeral, instead of the 3 months in place at the moment. Crucially, applicants will be able to receive charitable donations and help from friends and family without this being held against what they’ll receive from the funeral fund.
These changes are hugely welcome but ultimately just scratch at the surface of a system in urgent need of wider reform. Whilst the government are finally recognising that the funeral fund is in need of urgent reform, it's a missed opportunity on their part to not engage with the problems charities, bereaved people and funeral industry experts are telling them cause so many problems for grieving people.
The amount the government spends on the funeral fund dropped to its lowest level in over 10 years, just as the amount of people in funeral poverty hit a peak of 1 in 6. When these reforms were announced, Alison Crake, President of the National Association of Funeral Directors, called it: “the equivalent of putting a sticking plaster on a broken bone", adding:
The DWP’s proposals, which merely address individual points of friction within the system, do nothing to answer the fundamental failings of a [Funeral Fund] which causes heartache for tens of thousands of people every year”.
Are the changes enough?
Whilst the DWP has been making some moves towards a fairer funeral fund, there seems to be a lack of clarity from ministers as to how meaningful the fund is in its breadth. Fair Funerals have been told repeatedly that the fund covers all “necessary costs of arranging a funeral”, ignoring the fact that coffins or transport of the body isn’t counted amongst these. If a coffin isn’t an essential item in a funeral, what is?
Worse still, the fund’s inadequacy is particularly pointed with regards to the postcode lottery that is funeral costs; a funeral in Belfast might well be covered by the funeral fund, but the fund will fall well short of the price in a place with higher funeral costs like London.
The DWP need to be straight with people and promote transparency around the funeral fund. If people are under the mistaken impression the fund is going to fully cover the cost of a simple funeral, they’re going to be left bitterly disappointed and floundering through funeral debt.
Heather Kennedy, Fair Funerals campaigns manager, says that:
“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.”
What can we do?
The Bury the Debt campaign is calling for the government to increase the amount the funeral fund pays out, not tinker around at its side-lines. Please write to your MP and let them know how important a change this could be for financially vulnerable bereaved people.