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Funeral Freeze

£700 isn’t a lot of money nowadays, but that’s precisely why MPs are raising questions about it. The Social Fund Funeral Payment (SFFP) has been frozen at £700 since 2003. It’s the money provided by the government to help people on low incomes bury or cremate a loved one, but MPs on the cross-party Work and Pensions Committee say that it’s no longer adequate. The cost of funerals has risen steadily since 2003, so that many families are being driven into debt when a loved one passes way.

Some of the rise in costs is due to higher charges levied by local councils for burial and cremation, but there is also wide variation in the average cost of funerals across the UK, reflecting differences in regional incomes and expectations. In 2015, customers were paying more than £5,000 in the London borough of Beckenham, while those in Northern Ireland could pay considerably less, around £3,000 in Belfast. But it’s impractical for struggling families to travel long distances to save on funeral costs and they might end up paying more for the journey than they saved. The SFFP doesn’t cover even the cheapest standard funeral, which means that funeral companies can offer only the most basic package for the price: a hurried direct burial or cremation, with no celebrant or service and no choice of coffin and flowers.

Such a minimal funeral can impose lasting psychological costs on grieving families, leaving them with feelings of guilt and regret that they were unable to say goodbye to a loved one in the way they would have wished. That’s if they accept the minimal package: some will avoid it by going into debt, giving their loved one a proper funeral but burdening themselves with re-payments for months and even years ahead. Because families on low incomes often have several children, they are placed in a particularly unhappy position. Should they honour the older generation who are passing away, paying for a good funeral, or apply their slender resources to giving the next generation the best possible start in life?

The Work and Pensions Committee are also concerned that bureaucratic rules are aggravating the difficulties posed to these low-income families. The SFFP is means-tested and won’t be granted without a final bill from a funeral director, which means that the family must accept the funeral package on offer before knowing whether they will receive the SFFP. It is never easy to make important financial decisions when one is short of money, but it’s particularly difficult for those who are still grieving the loss of a loved one.

The Committee also thinks that the current rules are outdated. The SFFP apply to couples who were co-habiting or in a civil partnership, despite the steady rise in people who are making these life-style choices across the country. But will the government act on the recommendations made by the MPs on the Committee, who are drawn from all parties sitting in Parliament? Unfortunately, there are good reasons to be pessimistic. In an age of austerity, the government is looking to cut costs, not increase them, and the SFFP may be frozen for some time to come. However, it may be possible for the bureaucracy surrounding the payment to be streamlined and made fairer.