Tell them fully and tell them clearly

Charles Cowling

Regular readers of this blog will know of Teresa Evans and her campaigning work. If you don’t know Teresa, have a look at her website.

I’ve always admired Teresa. She is an ordinary person possessed of extraordinary singlemindedness, tenacity and passion. She is also very nice.

Teresa campaigns for better, fuller, clearer information for the newly bereaved. Had she known what she knows now, she would have done things differently when her son Boyd was killed in a car accident.

Teresa has dogged various ministry officials with probing questions and demands for years – often fruitlessly. Now she has just chalked up a great victory. Working with her local MP she won, last night, an adjournment debate in the House of Commons.

One part of this debate in particular interested me. I had always supposed that beneficiaries of a Social Fund funeral payment had no exclusive rights to a grave – that the grave they were given was a pauper’s grave, and anyone else could be buried on top. It turns out this is not the case at all. The Social Fund can be called on to pay for exclusive rights, it’s just that no one has ever been made aware of this. Teresa has secured a pledge that, in future, all applicants will be told.

Another conspicuous feature of this debate is the courtesy accorded to Teresa. A great many in the funeral industry regard her as vexatious and tiresome. It is good to see her accorded respect and gratitude.

Here are some extracts from the debate. The bold is mine.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I sought this debate following a direct request from a constituent of mine, Ms Teresa Evans, who contends that she was not given good advice following the tragic death of her 20-year-old son, Boyd Evans. I have raised the issues with the Minister via correspondence and written parliamentary questions, but they have not been dealt with to my constituent’s satisfaction, which is why I wish to raise them on the Floor of the House.

I should say at the outset that my constituent is not seeking personal recompense for her situation, but rather wishing to prevent similar problems being encountered by others. Newly bereaved people can be responsible and in control only when they are afforded sound information to make well-informed decisions.

Let me start by providing the background to the case. Teresa Evans’s son, Boyd, was killed as a result of passenger injuries sustained in a car crash in Staffordshire-some distance from his home in Milton Keynes-in 2006. Quite apart from having to deal with the emotional trauma of losing her son, my constituent also had to deal on her own with the practicalities of the funeral arrangements. She is a lady of very modest means. She had no money when she lost her son, so applied for a funeral payment and overdrew at the bank to provide a funeral. In her own words:

“It wasn’t a lavish funeral but a dignified one. In terms of distance and the cost per mile allowed from the social fund payment, I could not claim a total refund for the fee to return my son back to Milton Keynes from where he died in Staffordshire. The inescapable charge was £220, but despite an appeal to the DWP I was only paid £170. This left a shortfall of £50”.

However, she later found out that despite her son undergoing a post-mortem, she was within her legal rights to collect her son in her own vehicle and would have done so had she been aware of this at the time.

My constituent was also informed by the undertakers that the cheapest coffin available cost £680. Subsequently, she found that she could have bought the same coffin online for considerably less or buried her son in a shroud, which she had the legal right to do. In addition, had someone told her that she could still claim a funeral payment without using an undertaker, she would have done this, especially because she claims that the undertaker misled her with false information resulting in her not being able to return her son to his home to lie in wait for his burial. She would have done all these things had she been aware of her legal rights. This has led to her creating a campaign for the rights of newly bereaved people to be made known to them in sudden and unexpected circumstances.

Four years after her son was buried, my constituent discovered that no one had informed her that she could have recovered the fees for the burial rights to her son’s grave within three months of the funeral. If the system had worked properly, she would have received an additional £304 for the burial rights. Consequently, she was forced to surrender her life insurance policies to buy the burial rights, and she feels aggrieved that no one is held accountable for this action. She believes that the Department for Work and Pensions is overly reliant on the funeral industry to provide guidance to the relatives of a person who has died, specifically on what fees can be recovered. She claims to have evidence that proves that undertakers point applicants of a funeral payment to Jobcentre Plus for guidance. In addition, she claims that the National Association of Funeral Directors had no knowledge of the most technical information in existence-the DWP booklet SB16, which the Minister has stated is the most comprehensive guide. That this piece of literature is known only to some professionals would suggest that the bereaved may often not be aware of the full extent of their rights.

My constituent has also commented to me that a bereavement charity, the Alice Barker Trust, identified the same problem a long time ago. She is calling for much clearer guidance to be made available on the options open to relatives, particularly given that they will be in a highly emotional state. As the literature for the applicant may only be understood by those with technical knowledge, it needs to be written in plain language more readily intelligible to anyone. At present, the DWP relies upon undertakers to explain the rules to eligible claimants, resulting in the sort of problems experienced by my constituent. This generates unnecessary mystery and dependency, when we should be promoting education, self-help and self-reliance. A very simple and no-cost solution would be to amend the available literature in both print and online formats, making obvious what fees can be paid by the DWP in relation to the funeral, costs for opening the grave and burial rights for a fixed number of years.

I have already raised Teresa Evans’s case and her request for action with the Minister, but she has been dissatisfied with the response and with what she claims to be a lack of urgency in addressing the situation. She has therefore asked me to pose the following questions to the Minister. First, can he state, from records for the last financial year, how many claimants received payments for burials and what proportion of that number also received payments for what are technically known as burial rights, so they did not use what are known as pauper graves? Secondly, will the Minister consult the Alice Barker Trust to revise the wording of the advice that the DWP produces for printed, internet and other information? Thirdly, does the Minister agree that had the wording suggested by the charity been used before Boyd Evans was killed in 2006, his mother would have received her full entitlement to a funeral payment and would not have had to cash in her life insurance policies to cover the burial rights to her son’s grave? Fourthly, when it comes to the big society and developing strong communities, does the Minister agree that it is essential to empower all claimants in order to help them act independently and responsibly?

Nothing can bring Boyd Evans back, but his mother is hoping that her experience will result in the Department for Work and Pensions learning lessons, so that others do not encounter unnecessary emotional turmoil and financial hardship.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): In response to this debate being called, I have looked at my hon. Friend’s constituent’s website. As he well knows, her tragic circumstances and the death of her son five years ago led her to campaign on these issues. She has her own website, which I have looked at today. I pay tribute to her for the way in which she has sought to turn her tragic circumstances into something more positive, so that others do not have the same difficult experiences that she did in dealing, as I understand it, not just with funeral grants and the DWP, but with a range of other public bodies and organisations. The way Ms Evans has pursued the issues over the following years is enormously to her credit. I hope that I can offer my hon. Friend some reassurance this evening that that campaigning has led to changes, and that the situation that someone who has been bereaved now encounters is a good deal better than it was five years ago. Clearly there is always room for improvement-we will continue to look at that-but we have made changes even this month in response to the points that his constituent has raised with us, which I will set out more in due course.

… … …

We, the DWP, will pay in full the costs of a cremation or burial, including the purchase of a grave with exclusive burial rights. That is a point to which I will return, because I know that it was important in Ms Evans’s son’s case, and it is something that might not have occurred to any of us unless we were faced with that situation. I can well imagine that it must have been very difficult to discover some time after she had buried her son that she did not have exclusive burial rights. I fully accept that we must ensure that that situation does not arise again.

… … …

The information and guidance that goes to relatives is at the heart of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. In Ms Evans’s case, the information that came to her from the funeral director was incomplete, for whatever reason, and led to her making choices that, had she been fully informed, she would have made differently. I have made some inquiries into where the right information should come from, and the key is the fact that, on becoming bereaved, the family or its representatives will register the death. That is the point at which we aim to ensure that people get the relevant information. We will not have to rely on funeral directors to provide it. Indeed, there might not be a funeral director involved. The Government as a whole want to ensure that the information gets through to people at the point at which they register the death.

This is already being rolled out more or less nationwide, and we will continue to develop this “tell us once” service. The idea is to allow customers to report a birth or a death to multiple central and local government departments, agencies and services just once.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of forms and paperwork. I can tell him that this month, in response to some of the points that his constituent raised with us, we have made a number of changes to the claim form for the funeral grant. Let me briefly run through them, as she would be interested to know what those changes are.

There are two documents. The first is a note sheet that accompanies the funeral payment application, and we have made three changes to it. On page 6 of the form, we have added a bullet point that says people can send “evidence of the costs incurred if the funeral arrangements were made without using a funeral director“.

That is one of Ms Evans’s points – that people do not always realise that they do not have to use one and do not always realise that they can get their costs reimbursed if they have not used one. We have made it explicit that evidence of costs can be provided if a funeral director has not been used.

The third change we made to the explanatory notes is in the bullet point list of what can be included in the funeral payment. The second bullet point refers to “the cost of opening a new grave and burial costs”, and we have now added “including any exclusive right of burial fee“.

… … …

Ms Evans faced a very difficult and tragic situation five years ago, which was not helped by her dealings with the Department for Work and Pensions or other Government bodies. I pay tribute to her for taking the issues forward in such a constructive way, and I hope I have reassured my hon. Friend that we have listened and responded.

Read the entire debate here. Watch the debate here.


16 thoughts on “Tell them fully and tell them clearly

  1. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    Hi Nick,

    If I have made assumptions please forgive me, but I had assumed that a family had instructed you as even a Coroner is not at liberty to instruct you to dispose of property. If on the other hand you was collecting an immediate relative of your own and chose to destroy the property then this was your decision.

    Unless the property is contaminated and an infectious risk of one of the rare infectious diseases NO ONE is at liberty to dispose of property at will, without risking the wrath of the courts. If someone did dispose of it and was legally challenged they would need to prove that it was an infectious risk to someone.

    I am confused about what you are saying to Rupert in respect of a specially licensed vehicle being required to legally carry clinical waste on the public highway. I am sure that you are correct, but someone’s personally property is not generally considered to be clinical waste.

    There has been much academic research conducted on the return of personal property. Results reflect the psychological importance of returning personal property to the family, especially when someone has died tragically and unexpectedly. Nick you claim that you do discuss clothing matters with families wherever this is physically possible. This statement would suggest that there are times when you do not. I would implore you to always consult with a client about this matter as should you make a decision to dispose of the property and upset someone, this can leave immeasurable long term emotional injury.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Nick, I didn’t know that. Neither I imagine, does our hospital. The law is indeed etc.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    Teresa said: “I believe that we have communicated before in the past about what is considered to be clinical waste. If we have not, then I am getting you mixed up with somebody else who clearly has little knowledge about what is considered to be infectious risk.”

    Yes, that would be me. Thanks for that.


    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Teresa and Rupert:

    I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t blogged on this one.

    If I answer your questions, I will possibly identify the Deceased in question to the person who instructed me – I have every reason to assume that they read this blog from time to time.

    All I can add Teresa, is that you are wrongly assuming that a family (i.e. next of kin) or executor were instructing me. That somewhat changes things.

    Rupert, as we all well know, a specially licensed vehicle is required to “legally” carry clinical waste on the public highway….. The Law may be an ass, but… (if I could private message you on this one I would).

    I was merely attempting to agree with Teresa that undertakers shouldn’t act outside their legal limits, otherwise once in a while, someone will take them to Court.

    I tried to prevent placing myself in a legally compromising situation, and received wholly undeserved verbal insults from the hospital staff for my trouble.

    Rest assured Teresa, I do discuss clothing matters with families wherever this is physically possible.

    Best regards both, Nick

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Hi everyone,
    Nick, I’m puzzled as to why you didn’t want to pick up the clothes in the first place? Presumably like us you have a contract with a hazardous waste disposal company. I learnt this lesson about not assuming to dispose of someone’s clothes early on, my third funeral in fact, which was of an extremely violent and messy suicide. Despite this the family wanted the clothes back. Our local hospitals always bag the clothes, we take them back, if the family don’t want them, we dispose of them. Simple.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Paul Hensby

    Well done Charles and especially well done Teresa Evans. It would be excellent to put an article featuring this development on My Last Song. Charles, do you feel able to do 600 words maximum?

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    Hi Nick,

    You are correct that the collection of clothing once belonging to someone who has died is one of my main campaigning issues. I thought that I would let you know that this subject is receiving attention by the Department of Health at this current time.

    I believe that addressing some matters are not black and white, though it appears to me that what is in this case is the fact that it was in your capacity to consult with the family before you went to the hospital. Had you done so, and made clear that you was not prepared to collect items once belonging to the person who has died, then an altercation could have been avoided. The family would also have had the opportunity of shopping around for someone who was willing to collect these belongings.

    In respect of what hospital staff told you about future practice you do not make clear whether the family informed the hospital not to release the body without the property. If the family did, then this was their choice. In respect of the hospital telling you that you could no longer collect any body from the mortuary again, I would suggest that they have no authority to make this statement. If you are employed and acting as a representative of a family (that one would hope that you have properly consulted) no member of staff could prevent you from collecting a body, else they would be breaking the law. Do you care to mention what hospital this was?

    I believe that we have communicated before in the past about what is considered to be clinical waste. If we have not, then I am getting you mixed up with somebody else who clearly has little knowledge about what is considered to be infectious risk.

    I am certain that if arrangements are dealt with in an appropriate way at the outset of making a contract with a client, that the ‘pressures’ that you speak about could be limited or indeed prevented.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Jon Underwood

    Thank you Teresa for your fantastic work.


    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    Just to “reprise” what I take to be one of Teresa’s main issues relating to the release of clothing and personal effects following a Coroner’s post mortem.

    Irrespective of what might be regarded as “accepted historical practice”, where a Deceased’s clothing (soiled or not) is released to the care of the Funeral Director, there does exist a quandary over whether the garments have become clinical waste, and/or whether the FD has a legal right to be in possession of them in the first place, without the express permission of the NoK.

    Just to briefly illustrate the point, I removed the body of deceased male from a major general hospital in the South of England earlier this year. He had been the subject of a Coroners’ autopsy.

    All went well until I politely told the mortuary staff that I couldn’t take the Deceased’s personal effects (clothing) as I regarded them as clinical waste – plus I had no permission or instructions to take possession of them.

    All Hell broke loose, which resulted in one of the most verbally violent altercations I have ever experienced.

    Not only was I accused of not doing my job, and letting the family down, but was told that I couldn’t remove the body without taking the clothes, and that if I didn’t, I would not be allowed to remove any other body from the hospital in future.

    Needless to say, I am processing a substantial complaint to the hospital management …. but it does illustrate that FDs are the subject of some unusual pressure on occasions.

    All is not black and white!

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    Dear Gloria,

    Thank you for your support of my work and the sentiments that you express.

    I understand your views about creating a new service, but I am defiantly opposed to a commercial entity delivering what effectively is public information. I believe that public information should be created from a neutral perspective and delivered by a public body.

    I firmly believe that if regulation was implemented and control was in place that the ‘industry’ would take advantage of this, just as is the case in some states in the US. This is why I am personally opposed to regulation in the UK.

    With the utmost respect, undertakers are paid to take the weight on their shoulders both physically and emotionally, although I appreciate that there must be many that express true sensitivity that no amount of money can buy.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    I’m both moved and impressed by Teresa Evan’s persistence, determination, and her calm and thoughtful consideration of this issue.
    It is not, I hope, anti-FD to say these things:

    1) Because anyone can set up and advertise as an FD, (I could, this afternoon!) there is no control over the quality of their work, or oversight of their preparation and training.

    2)Most people go straight to a FD, and therefore they are entirely or mostly reliant on what they are then told, about all sorts of matters.

    3)Direct Gov websites and improved wording on leaflets are too remote of access for most people in a bereaved state.

    So maybe we need either a central pre-FD service issuing high-quality information via hospitals, hospices, doctors’ surgeries and FDs themselves – this would actually take a lot of weight off FDs’ shoulders – or we need a proper system of training and accreditation for FDs. Or both.

    Or am I talking out of my hat?

    I’m certainly not anti-FD but I’m very much anti what people sometimes have to go through because they weren’t lucky enough to land up with someone like the best FDs that I work with.

    We really shopuldn’t leave anything to chance in bereavement situtations.

    Seems to me nothing less than a huge and heartfelt thanks is due to Teresa Evans on behalf of all the people who will benefit from her work.
    And perhaps what she says in the last part of her first paragraph above, about oppression and not knowing all the facts, should be a compulsory political manifesto for all national and local government!
    And of course thanks to Charles, as ever, for his excellent post.

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    Dear Kingfisher,

    Please believe me that no offence was taken from your comments. I believe that you raise a valid criticism. I will be writing again to the Minister about Registrars delivering information together with some criticisms of my own. One of them is the customer satisfaction that he refers to. My view is that if people are oppressed and do not know all of the facts, how can they begin to express a true account of being completely satisfied. Does this make sense?

    I should like to add that many in the industry might view me as being anti undertaker, but I am not. I simply believe that people should be well informed before making a decision that ultimately cannot be changed after a funeral has taken place. This especially applies to people that have lost someone in sudden and unexpected circumstance.

    Thank you for sharing and its good to be able to debate.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling

    Hello Teresa

    Please believe me, I have absolute respect for everything you are doing. I have spent the last hour immersed in your website and seen lots that brings our ways of thinking together.

    Perhaps I was too hasty in flagging up an obvious error in the Minister’s report, but if that report contains an error such as this, then won’t he go off and produce all this information for the registrar to give out, assume job done, and not even realise that it is the Coroner who perhaps needs to be giving the information out? As the article makes much mention of someone who has experienced a sudden and unexpected death, I thought it important to raise the issue.

    Making the information available on the Direct.Gov website is certainly a way forwards, and of course joining forces and saving money is sensible, and it is thanks to people like you that there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    Dear Kingfisher,

    I believe that you are absolutely right about what you flag up here in cases of sudden and unexpected of death, but I would imagine that the majority of people do actually die as a result of natural death.

    I had the idea some years back about Registrars delivering information opposed to simply handing out leaflets, but I am conscious that not everyone will be able to register a death before a funeral is arranged. That said I believe that Registrars are still able to play a key role in delivering accurate information which is derived from a public source and not a commercial one.

    I don’t believe that the reply given by the Minister defeats the whole object. He also makes reference to the Tell Us Once team and in my communication with him I have requested that the information be available on the Direct.Gov website.

    I believe that the ideal solution would be for the Department of Works and Pensions, Department of Health and the Coroners unit to join up public services and produce ‘one’ definitive guide and save the tax payer enormous sums of money in the process.

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling

    Er, yes, Kingfisher, you have somewhat put your finger on something here, it would seem…

    Charles Cowling
  16. Charles Cowling

    Wow, brilliant post Charles, and one which will need to be read more than once to inwardly digest.

    I know it’s not your lookout, but there is one rather large inaccuracy in Steve Webb’s reply:

    “I have made some inquiries into where the right information should come from, and the key is the fact that, on becoming bereaved, the family or its representatives will register the death. That is the point at which we aim to ensure that people get the relevant information.”

    I think in the case of a sudden death requiring an inquest (which, I would presume, was the case in the tragic death of Boyd Evans, and therefore exactly the situation in which the changes are most needed, ie the unexpectedly bereaved) then the Coroner issues the Certificate for Burial (burial order) and an Interim Certificate of Fact of Death, and the bereaved do not attend the registrar’s office until after the inquest, which can be many months after the funeral.

    Does this not defeat the whole object of the reply of the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions?

    Charles Cowling

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