Market failing the poor

UK parliament

As the cost of dying spirals, MPs have called for an inquiry into the funeral profession and the falling value of state support offered to the poorest grieving families.

In its report on support for the bereaved, the Work and Pensions Select Committee said that more vulnerable bereaved people did not appear to be well served by the way in which funerals currently operate. It has passed evidence about how the profession operates to the Competition and Markets Authority.

Committee Chair Frank Field said: “We did not set out to inquire into the funeral industry but it soon became apparent that the interaction between an opaque and outdated public system of bereavement support and a market in funeral services which simply does not operate ‘normally’ is causing problems.

“We are concerned by the lack of protection in the market for bereaved customers, particularly those on low incomes. They are vulnerable and may not be inclined to shop around. This is not conducive to effective operation of the market.”

The Committee also examined the Social Fund Funeral Payment, which has been frozen at £700 for 13 years while the basic costs of a funeral have continually increased, and scrutinised bereavement benefits. In particular, the exclusion of unmarried cohabiting couples was highlighted as out of date.

Mr Field added: “What is clear to us is the contrast between social fund payments for funerals, which have not increased since 2003, and the costs of a funeral, which rose on Royal London’s estimate by 3.9% from 2014-15 alone, in an environment of almost zero inflation.

This means that 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’. 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.

“The support for widowed parents is also badly outdated, with benefits denied to cohabiting parents.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.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said in April that its planned new bereavement support payment would offer “a higher lump sum payment” and remove the lower age limit.

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