Politics in February

Bereavement support proposal

A new Bereavement Support Payment is set to go into practice on Thursday 6 April, extending the number of people who can claim it and adjusting how payments are calculated.

The updated payment deviates from the old system in several ways. It will not be taxed and will not go towards the benefit cap, and will now be available to anyone younger than pension age with a child, or childless people over 45 whose husband, wife or civil partner has died.

Finally, the payment will now offer support for 18 months rather than 12, as recommended by the Work and Pensions Committee and bereavement support groups – although monthly payment amounts will be reduced as a result.

Caroline Nokes, the Minister for Welfare Delivery, announced the updated payment last month.

She said: “Losing a spouse or civil partner can be devastating and we want to provide people with easily accessible support to help them through the difficult period following bereavement.

“The old system could be unfair, complex and also act as trap preventing people from moving on with their lives.

That’s why we are modernising this support into a simple, uniform and easy-to-understand benefit that better reflects society and helps people through what can be a very difficult time.”

The amount of assistance offered through a Bereavement Support Payment amounts to a £3,500 lump sum (or £2,500 for those without children) followed by 18 monthly instalments of £350 (or £100).

The Work and Pensions Committee welcomed the news. In its report last year on support for the bereaved, the committee had recommended “a cost-neutral method of extending the [payment] to 18 months through a reduction in the lump-sum payment”.

Committee Chair Frank Field MP said: “We are pleased the Government has today announced an extension of the period for which [Bereavement Support Payments] will be paid from 12 to 18 months.

“This is a very important change for families at what is invariably a traumatic time; not least because it means payments will no longer stop on the anniversary of the death. The Government should be applauded for listening to the evidence that we were so moved by.”

Caroline Nokes also underlined simplicity as a focus of the changes.

She added: “The new benefit modernises and simplifies the current complex system of bereavement benefits. It shifts the focus of bereavement benefits from replacing the deceased spouse or civil partner’s earnings to helping with the additional and more immediate costs of bereavement.”

Scotland uses first new powers

Scotland is set to use its new, devolved social security powers for the first time.

While Universal Credit is still a reserved power of Westminster, the Scottish Government will use its new powers to ensure some people can receive their credit payments every fortnight instead of every month. The proportion devoted to housing can also now be sent directly to claimants’ landlords if they wish.

Social Security Minister Jeane Freeman told BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Good Morning Scotland’ that the frequency of payments was a major issue for people on budgets.

She said: “Knowing that a payment is coming to you, for the benefit that you are entitled to every fortnight, makes that budgeting exercise easier for those households and that means you can make better decisions and be more in control of your finances over those two-week periods.”

Other parties said the Scottish Government could do more.

According to the BBC, Annie Wells of the Scottish Conservatives said: “I welcome the fact the UK Government has given the Scottish Government these powers. However, the Scottish Government has now shown that they’ll only use a small portion of the powers devolved through the Scotland Act. I want to see them use more of the powers.

“They’ve asked for a hold-off for three years to take all these powers on board. It’s alright complaining and not governing, but we need to see them actually governing and using the powers they were given.”

Jeane Freeman said changes to Universal Credit was limited by the UK Government’s systems, and said the Government was in talks with the DWP about making changes, particularly to the issue of one payment being made to one household member – a situation criticised by groups like Scottish Women’s Aid, which highlighted the potential for “financial abuse”.

New plans for devolved social security powers are to be rolled out in various areas, including powers over funeral payments. A funeral costs plan is set to be published this year to outline how Scotland will deal with funeral payments.

North west tops public health funerals

Increasing funeral costs have led to a rise in public health funerals in Blackpool, with the north west surpassing London as the area with the most “paupers’ funerals”.

According to the Blackpool Gazette, Paul Maynard, Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, said: “The cost of funerals is becoming an increased burden for those families who unexpectedly find themselves bereaved and don’t have the money to pay for them.”

In 2016, Blackpool Council took responsibility for burying or cremating 62 people – nearly double the average number for the previous five years. That number rises to 110 when the number cremated by Victoria Hospital is taken into account.

Burial rights reform proposed

A Bill to ensure people’s wishes about their burials are legally binding has passed its first reading in the House of Commons.

David Burrowes, Conservative MP for Enfield, Southgate, proposed the Bill after a constituent came to him. She said she had no power to honour her mother’s wish to have her ashes scattered on her husband’s grave, because the exclusive rights were registered with an estranged sister.

Mr Burrowes said: “A grave owner should not be able to block other family members from having access to their family grave.

“Arrangements for funerals and burials have become over-bureaucratic and expensive, and in some cases contrary to the wishes of the person who has died. We can and must do better.”

He also noted that as far back as 2004, Home Secretary David Blunkett called burial law “out of date”.

The Bill would place a statutory requirement on anyone involved with arranging burial, to ensure that they “take greater responsibility for considering the deceased’s wishes”, and would also give Wills and public registers more significance.

Having passed its first reading, the Bill will be prepared for a second reading on Friday 24 March.

Before passing its reading, Labour MP Chris Bryant voiced doubts that it would have time to pass.

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