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.