The support available to bereaved families is ‘outdated’, while the funeral industry may not be operating in a way that serves vulnerable people well, a report published by the Work and Pensions Committee has claimed.
The Committee says it heard “distressing evidence” of one mother who was forced to freeze her son’s body for months while she saved enough to pay for a funeral, and of bereaved people who were denied their relative’s ashes because of a shortfall in the final payment.
Currently those on certain benefits can claim help from the state for funeral payments.
These payments can help to cover the cost of burial fees, cremation fees and travel costs, while an extra payment of up to £700 is also available for funeral expenses, such as the funeral director’s fees.
But the Committee’s report raises concerns that while the £700 limit has been fixed since 2003, funeral director fees have risen “well above the rate of inflation”. As a result of this, the report says the £700 no longer covers the cost of a simple funeral.
Royal London, for example, recently estimated that the average cost for a funeral in the UK was £3,702 in its 2015 National Funeral Cost Index Report.
In addition, the Committee says the application process for funeral payments from the state must be simplified – it says the application is 23 pages long with 12 pages of guidance.
The report also flags that the bereaved currently have to commit to funeral expenses without having a clear idea if any payment from the state will be received.
On the separate issue of bereavement benefits, which are based on the deceased’s nation insurance contributions, the Committee says the approach to support for the children of widowed parents – where the benefit is only paid if the parents were married, not co-habiting or in a civil partnership – is “particularly outdated” and “should be addressed urgently”.
Funeral costs are ‘leading’ people into debt
Frank Field MP, chair of the Committee says: “We heard clear evidence of the distressing circumstances and debt this is leading people into, at a time when they are grieving and vulnerable. We do not want a return to the spectre of miserable ‘pauper’s funerals’.
“We urge the Government to conduct a cross-departmental review of burials, cremations and funerals, with outcomes that will address the factors driving up funeral director fees and work to reduce funeral poverty.”
On bereavement benefits Mr Field adds: “The support for widowed parents is also badly outdated, with benefits denied to cohabiting parents. Penalising a child on the grounds of their parents’ marital status is as unjust as it is anachronistic.
“The costs involved to right this wrong are small and the Government should do so as soon as possible."
What does the Government say?
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says it will respond to the Committee’s report in due course.
However, it does confirm that while the bereavement benefit system is being changed from April 2017, it has no plans to extend eligibility for bereavement benefits to those who are not married or in a civil partnership.
It adds that the extra £700 currently available to cover funeral costs is a fair amount.
A DWP spokesperson says: “We are modernising bereavement benefits, introducing a simpler and fairer scheme that will better assist people in what can be an extremely difficult time.
“The planned new Bereavement Support Payment will provide a higher lump sum payment than currently is offered and more people will be able to claim this full support now we have removed the lower age limit.”