The soaring cost of funerals, coupled with an erosion in the value of state funeral grants, is pushing poorer families into debt and distress, a report by MPs has concluded.
The all-party work and pensions select committee called on the government to launch an inquiry into the funeral industry to tackle the causes of funeral cost inflation and address rising funeral poverty.
It said the declining value of state help with funeral costs for low income families – frozen at £700 for the past 13 years – no longer covered the cost of a no-frills funeral, which could be at least £1,200.
Grieving families often had to borrow cash from payday lenders to meet the shortfall, said the MPs. In one case, a family were denied their relative’s ashes because they could not meet the final payment.
The committee said it had been told of a case where a mother was reportedly forced to freeze her son’s body for months while she saved enough to pay for a funeral.
It said the reported rise in so-called “pauper’s funerals” – where local authorities are obliged to arrange a burial or cremation if no relative is able to pay for it – may be a consequence of the declining value of social fund funeral grants.
A BBC investigation last year found that the number of Public Health Act funerals had increased by 11% over the past four years, at an average cost of £1,720 each. The average cost of a funeral in the UK is £3,702, the committee said.
Frank Field MP, chair of the work and pensions select committee, urged ministers to ensure that social security funeral grants covered the real costs of burial or cremation.
He said: “Funeral payments for those who can prove they are entitled – and that is a very uncertain and onerous process – now fall far short of covering even a basic funeral.
“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’.”
The committee said annual funeral cost inflation had risen faster than overall inflation since 1980, while a postcode lottery in funeral costs existed across the UK. It said the market in funeral services offered a “lack of protection” for vulnerable customers, and urged ministers to review the industry.
The report called on the government to change “outdated” guidance which prevented unmarried parents from receiving bereavement benefit payments when their partner died.
It follows a court ruling earlier this year in Northern Ireland which found that the restriction of bereavement payment to an unmarried mother of four who had cohabited with her partner was a breach of her human rights.
The Department for Work and Pensions said social fund funeral payments covered the full necessary costs of a burial or cremation and up to £700 for further expenses. The average award in 2014-15 was £1,375.
It said this was a fair amount that ensured people got the help they needed with their funeral costs while keeping the system sustainable and fair to the taxpayer.
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