July politics round-up
Funeral poverty on the agenda
As election campaigning reached its end last month, ever increasing talk about funeral poverty, bereavement assistance and related later life and end of life issues helped make some big headlines.
Every major party’s manifesto made some reference to these issues, and in some cases the campaigning turned on how voters, experts and the media reacted to them. While the manifestos proposed possible future actions, in Scotland action was taken in the form of new ‘Funeral Expense Assistance’ payments, announced just before the general election.
This month’s politics pages look at what reform should look like, what Funeral Expense Assistance will mean in Scotland, and what the UK parties said about similar issues in their manifestos.
FPA ‘needs wider powers’
With funeral costs a growing issue, increased regulation of pre-paid funeral plans and wider powers for the Funeral Planning Authority (FPA) are essential to ensure continuing customer support, Golden Charter believes.
The company is supporting moves by MP Neil Gray, the Scottish National Party’s Westminster spokesperson for social justice, who presented a bill to toughen regulation at the start of this year. They suggest that a more powerful FPA would provide a more customer focused solution than through Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) regulation.
Golden Charter is backing moves at the FPA to strengthen the Code of Practice for providers in the growing market, as well as a push to ensure all companies operating in the sector are registered with the FPA. The overwhelming majority of pre-paid funeral providers are members of the Funeral Planning Authority, the self-regulatory body which exists to protect consumers’ interests.
The FPA has recently changed its legal structure to become a community interest company with an independent board appointing new directors and no ties to existing providers, as part of its focus on enhancing regulation across the profession.
Golden Charter has welcomed the moves to increase independence and is working with governments in Scotland and Westminster as well as individual politicians to support the FPA being given more powers to protect customers. Golden Charter believes this should involve regulating all planning, including compulsory licensing of all plan providers and anyone marketing pre-paid plans.
Ronnie Wayte, Golden Charter’s CEO, said: “With the cost of a funeral rising all the time, funeral plans play an increasingly important role by helping families plan for the future and freezing funeral director costs at today’s prices. Effective regulation will help ensure more people trust plans and benefit from the peace of mind they can provide.
“The Funeral Planning Authority is ideally placed to regulate this sensitive market and its recent change in structure ensures it is independent from the industry and able to support customers.”
The FPA’s review of its Code of Practice will be implemented alongside campaigns to ensure customers recognise the importance and value of using a provider who is registered. Members of the FPA board who represented other organisations resigned in June to be replaced by new and wholly independent directors.
Funeral Expense Assistance launched
Funeral costs are among the first devolved social security areas to be tackled by the Scottish Government, with a new payment – Funeral Expense Assistance – to be delivered by the summer of 2019.
The new funeral payments take on board the comments of Golden Charter and others from last year’s consultation on social security. In particular, the Government aims to process applications “significantly faster than at present” – within 10 days of their submission. Also key to the Government’s goals is making it clearer to people whether they are eligible.
Angela Constance, Cabinet Secretary for Social Security, said: “We heard through our consultation about the stress that is caused by the complexity of the application process and the time that it takes to make payments. We have already committed to the aim to process applications within 10 working days of receipt of the completed application.”
She added: “We will listen to people who have experience of the current system and we will seek expert opinions, including from the funeral payment reference group. Simplifying the process and increasing awareness will increase take-up from its current level of about 60%.”
With a hung parliament, divisions between the UK’s political parties have been thrown into even sharper contrast. Yet funeral poverty seems to be one area where there is agreement across the political spectrum that something needs to be done, as this year’s party manifestos showed.
The Conservative manifesto covered various aspects of funeral, bereavement and later life policy.
On bereavement support, the manifesto focused on children, with support including an entitlement to child bereavement leave. It also pledged to introduce a “public advocate” to act on bereaved families’ behalf during public disasters, inspired by the experiences of Hillsborough families.
Pensions was one area where the Conservatives marked themselves out from the other parties, proposing to move away from the triple lock towards a ‘double lock’ that removes the guaranteed 2.5% annual increase. However, with parties including the DUP supporting the triple lock, the Government has since committed not to implement this change.
The Conservatives also wanted to means-test winter fuel payments, investigate protections for more flexible workers in the “gig economy”, and give the Pension Protection Fund more powers to punish employers who mismanage pension schemes.
Care costs were another controversial area. Following criticism, the party said there would be an absolute cap on care costs, after proposing a “capital floor” of £100,000 which would, for the first time, include people’s homes in calculating their assets. Deferring payments for those receiving care at home was also proposed, as was a new statutory entitlement to carer’s leave.
The Labour manifesto’s bereavement proposals included scrapping cuts to Bereavement Support Payments, consulting with employers and trade unions on legislating for statutory bereavement leave, and funding child burial fees for bereaved parents.
On pensions, in addition to maintaining the triple lock and universal winter fuel payments, Labour guaranteed pension protections for UK citizens in the EU and elsewhere abroad, responded to the ‘WASPI’ (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign by pledging to explore “transitional protections” for those women whose state pension was changed, and promised a review of pension age that would create a “flexible retirement policy”.
Labour also proposed increasing Carer’s Allowance to Jobseekers’ Allowance level, increasing social care budgets by £8m over the parliament, and laying the foundations for a National Care Service for England.
SCOTTISH NATIONAL PARTY (SNP)
The Scottish National Party also addressed bereavement support in its manifesto, saying it supported the reversal of cuts to Bereavement Support Payments and the Widowed Parents’ Allowance.
It also supported protecting the triple lock, as well as opposing increases to state pension age past 66, supporting the WASPI campaign, calling for extension to auto-enrolment, and establishing an Independent Savings & Pension Commission to ensure pensions are “fit for purpose”. The party highlighted that different regions had different demographic needs.
DEMOCRATIC UNIONIST PARTY (DUP)
The Conservatives’ confidence and supply partners in Government make no specific mention of funerals. However, the party emphasises that it “has always advocated for the interests of older people”, pointing to moves in Northern Ireland like free bus passes.
The party supports maintaining the triple lock and the WASPI campaign.Tags: Angela Constance, carer's allowance, carers, Conservative, DUP, FCA, Financial Conduct Authority, FPA, Funeral Expense Assistance, Funeral Planning Authority, Golden Charter, Labour, manifestos, MP, MSP, Neil Gray, parties, pensions, Politics, regulation, retirement, Scotland, Scottish Government, SNP, social security, triple lock, WASPI