It is time to tackle funeral poverty in the UK
Labour's Shadow Minister for Children and Families, Emma Lewell-Buck, writes ahead of her parliamentary debate on funeral poverty and argues 'no one should ever have to endure the agony of worrying about funeral costs at the same time as grieving'.
Four years ago I introduced a Funeral Services Bill, at that time the gulf between income and rising living costs was effecting every area of people’s lives yet funeral poverty remained taboo. As a nation, with death being so final, emotive and personal, it is not something regularly talked about or discussed.
However that is now slowly changing, we often see articles, press coverage and MPs speaking about this issue. The Department for Work and Pensions Select Committee released a report on the issue, the Competition and Markets Authority announced they are looking into the funeral market, and the Prime Minister has promised to set up a Children’s Funeral Fund after the heartfelt and steadfast campaigning work of my colleague Carolyn Harris. From all these activities, the impetus for change is now very clear.
Sadly, despite there now being a general understanding and acceptance that funeral poverty exists as a reality for so many, limited changes have actually taken place and that gulf between income and rising living costs is now a gaping chasm that more and more people, at a time when they are at their most vulnerable and through no fault of their own, are falling into.
The cost of a basic funeral is approximately just over £4,000, this is a rise of over 70% throughout the last decade. £4,000 is not an amount of money that people have readily available, so it is little wonder that average funeral debt in the UK stands at £1,700.
The Social Fund Funeral Payments scheme was designed to help those struggling to meet funeral costs but it remains wholly inadequate, not only is the process complex and confusing the average pay out is a paltry £1,427 and only accessible once funeral costs have been committed to.
With almost 17,000 applications in the last year alone being refused it is easy to calculate that year on year there are thousands of people falling into funeral debt.
Worse still, bereaved individuals who simply cannot afford a formal service are faced with having to opt for a public health funeral, or what used to be referred to as a pauper’s funeral.
When nobody else is able to take responsibility for handling a person’s remains, the local authority has to step in. Such funerals have cost just over an estimated £4 million in the last financial year alone as their use continues to increase.
My Bill proposed a number of measures such as, requiring the Secretary of State to conduct an over-arching review of funeral affordability in the UK, the introduction of an eligibility check to make sure people knew in advance if they would be able to get state help for the costs they were signing up to, the introduction of a simple funeral, and much needed reform of the social fund funeral payments system.
These asks grow more urgent by the day, no one should ever have to endure the agony of worrying about funeral costs at the same time as grieving, as long as they do I will continue to campaign on this issue.
Emma Lewell-Buck is the Shadow Minister for Children and Families and the Labour MP for South Shields