Labour and Lib Dems urge DWP to overhaul funeral help as student forced into debt to pay for dad’s burial
Cerys and her father William, who passed away in May this year. (PA)
The Department for Work and Pensions is facing calls to ramp up the help it provides to people who have lost loved ones after a student was pushed into debt to pay for her father’s burial.
Twenty-year-old Cerys Evans from Cardiff said she had had to rely on a credit card, her student grant and money from friends when her dad William unexpectedly died in May.
Labour and Liberal Democrat frontbenchers are now calling on the Government to widen access to the ‘Funeral Expenses Payment’ scheme amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the current set-up focused on offering help to people claiming state benefits.
William Evans, 51, left behind three children when he passed away in May after contracting sepsis and pneumonia.
His daughter Cerys, who is a full-time student at the University of South Wales and works in Boots to top up her income, reached out for help to meet the costs of his funeral.
But she was informed that the DWP payment scheme — which can provide up to £1,000 of help which must be paid back if a person inherits money — is only open to those on benefits.
Despite earning less than £9,000 a year from her student grants and retail job, she told PoliticsHome that the rules meant she had been left with “nowhere to go”.
And she warned that other students could “fall into the middle” of the Government’s support schemes without a change in the rules.
“It was awful trying to plan Dad’s funeral,” Ms Evans said.
“We knew what music he wanted so we had that. But especially with coronavirus, you could only have ten people in the funeral and it was a very, very basic funeral.
“I had some student grant left over which I put towards the funeral.
“But other than that, it was borrowing off family members and credit cards and just trying every way possible to cut corners.
“We had a family friend do the flowers so we didn’t have to pay. But it just wasn’t the funeral we thought Dad deserved.
“Especially for my younger sister as well — we wanted to make sure that he had the best possible send-off in the conditions that we had.
“We just couldn’t do a lot of the things that we had planned to do.”
'VITAL FINANCIAL SUPPORT'
Under the DWP’s current rules, a Funeral Expenses Payment can be made if a person receives benefits and tax credits such as income support, jobseekers’ allowance, housing benefit and Universal Credit.
The Government this year increased the maximum amount that can be paid out under the scheme by £300, the first rise since 2003 and a move the DWP said would offer “vital financial support to families grieving the loss of a loved one”.
But Ms Evans — whose father died before his life insurance plan that would have helped meet the costs became active — said the “loophole” for students could leave others struggling amid the pandemic.
“I feel like I should have the same chance as everyone else at accessing the grant,” the psychology and criminology student said.
“I don’t feel it should be taken away from people on benefits because they are the most financially vulnerable. My dad was on benefits too.
“But I just think students should either be brought into the eligibility criteria — or make it easier for them to claim benefits if they need it as well.”
She added: “It’s been really stressful for me trying to complete my first year of uni. I can’t imagine it happening to someone who’s halfway through their dissertation.”
LABOUR AND LIB DEM CALLS
The call to widen the scheme’s scope has now been backed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Reynolds told PoliticsHome: "It is a particularly tragic consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic that there will be more bereaved people trying to meet costs for funerals while being in financial difficulty because of the crisis itself.
"Labour has asked the Government to consider widening eligibility for the payment and look at where it was falling short in meeting costs.
“People should not be pushed into hardship for putting their loved ones to rest in this difficult time."
Liberal Democrat acting leader Sir Ed Davey told this site: "For anyone, losing a close member of their family is a tragedy - one that has happened all too often during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is heart-breaking that for many the cost of a funeral is just too much. Nobody should be forced to miss an opportunity to celebrate a loved one’s life because of money."
He added: "The decent human thing to do would be for the Prime Minister to review the Funeral Expenses Payment to ensure those in need don’t fall through the gaps, especially at this difficult time.”
A government spokesperson said: "Losing a loved one is incredibly distressing and our hearts go out to anyone experiencing bereavement.
"The financial assistance we offer is targeted at those on qualifying benefits to ensure that the most vulnerable are supported with these costs."
Full-time students are not normally able to meet the criteria for claiming Universal Credit, meaning that the Government views the student support system as the primary way for people in difficulty to access help.
A Whitehall source said higher education providers had hardship funds in place to support students in need, with the Government working with the Office for Students to boost these funds and support disadvantaged students during the Covid-19 crisis.
Extra funding worth around £23m per month has been handed to universities to boost hardship funds and help people struggling amid the pandemic, they said.
'NOT BEING ABLE TO SAY GOODBYE'
The Money Advice Service estimates that the average cost of a funeral, before flowers and catering, runs to around £3,989.
Although councils are able to arrange a ‘Public Health Funeral’ if somebody dies without enough money in their estate to pay for it, these arrangements mean local authorities are left to determine the time and date of a funeral, while costly extras such as flowers and cars are not included.
Ms Evans said that while she had considered a council plan, coronavirus restrictions meant the the family would not have been able to visit William in the chapel of rest.
“We just couldn’t face that, especially for my younger sister because it was so unexpected,” she said.
“Not being able to see him to say goodbye, after we’d not seen him for two weeks because he was in the hospital — we just couldn’t go through with it.”
Calling on DWP ministers to adjust the scheme, the 20-year-old said: “Students are in education full-time more or less and they’re going to be the ones contributing the economy when they’re going into jobs.
“Even healthcare students, a nurse or a doctor, could be the ones who are struggling and putting themselves into debt.
“It could be anyone. We’re the ones who are encouraged to go to university — and to be written into that eligibility would protect us.”