Undertakers’ nightmares #1 – the Social Fund Funeral Payment

Charles Cowling


Posted by Nick Gandon


Methinks that the lunatics have taken over the asylum at the Department for Work and Pensions.  Maybe lunatics is an unkind (and no doubt very non-pc) description, which on reflection, I should perhaps replace with the term “jobsworths”. 

Long known throughout the undertaking profession for their crazy deliberations over the claims for the Social Fund funeral payments, these nice people, of which there ARE some genuinely helpful souls, have hit an all-time NUL POINTS over the last 7 days. 

It would be great to know whether other funeral directors have come across these little gems before…

I found a payment into our bank account from the DWP last week.  On the statement, it included a DWP reference number, with the letters “SF” – which I decided must be a payment from the Social Fund.   Most payments are preceded by a letter advising payment and client details… but not this one! 

“Simples” I thought.    I’ll ring them up, quote the reference number, and ask which client the payment concerns.  

After searching their website to find the most appropriate contact number,  and talking with no less than 6 very nice but totally clueless DWP people,   I eventually got the right number – only to talk to the most unhelpful one of the lot. 

“I can’t discuss this with you” came back the aggressive Liverpudlian voice from the Belle Vale Benefit Centre.  “It’s against the Data Protection Act”.   So, I pleaded, with an element of reasonable rationality (or so I thought):  “You’ve paid us the money.   Can’t you at least tell me the name of the client whose account you’ve (part) paid?” 

Forget it!  Common sense way out of the window!     “I’ll have to contact the client (came the reply) and get their permission to be able to tell you that the payment relates to them.     When I’ve got their permission, I’ll call you back and let you know who they are”.   Crazy. 


Case No 2  

I got a call yesterday afternoon from (by coincidence) someone at the DWP office at Belle Vale Benefit Centre requesting information relating to a claim. (No connection with the above).    Unfortunately, we got cut off mid-call, and their phone ID does not register for callback. 

They didn’t call me back, and I couldn’t call them (no number). 

I did my best, and tried a series of numbers and, after over an hour of waiting to be answered,  BINGO! I got the right call centre. 

Yes, you’ve guessed it – my hopes were short-lived.  I explained that I was trying to give them the information they requested from me regarding a Mr X, and could they kindly take the details. 


“Even if you give me the name and address of the claimant, I can’t talk to you about them because of the Data Protection Act” came the reply. 

“To identify the claimant, I need their national insurance number, but I still can’t talk to you about them, even with that.” 

“I only want to give you the information you have called and asked me for,” I protested.    “I’m giving you the info – not the other way round.  The Data Protection Act was never meant to obstruct simple conversation like this,” I protested. 

“Call your client and ask them for their national insurance number” replied the robot woman. 

I was struggling for a professional variation of the word “BOLLOCKS” but decided on the more polite   “we’re wasting each other’s time, aren’t we?  Goodbye”. 

Anyone else had such a ridiculous wasted few hours with the DWP social fund representatives?

22 thoughts on “Undertakers’ nightmares #1 – the Social Fund Funeral Payment

  1. Charles Cowling
    andrew plume

    ……the crux of the problem, (it seems to me and from not having read of these very credible posts in detail) is that DWP solely operate at their speed and with no inkling of being commercial, when a quick commercial decision is all that is necessary – whatever the legislation may be, it vastly needs to be overhauled, so that significant delays no longer occur

    as a side note, DWP (like similar Agencies) are choc full of jobs worths who are far more interested in their own financial futures, than going out on a limb to help people – it’s all paperwork, too many Managers/line leaders or whatever and a poor way to treat familities, imo


    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    David’s comment reminds me of a funeral some years back, where the family claimed from the DSS. One sister, honest woman, organised the funeral. Another sister made the claim.

    To cut a long story short, the cheque had been issued in our name and sent to the second sister. She had the “front” to actually tell us that she was going to hold on to cheque “for now” whilst she thought how she could cash it.

    Her logic was, that the cheque had been sent to her, therefore it was hers to do what she liked with.

    We did, eventually, get paid.

    On a similar note, again a few years back, I went to our local post office to buy some stamps. As luck would have it, a person in the queue about four ahead of me, was trying to cash a Giro.

    You can probably guess the rest. The cashier loudly said to the customer something like “I’m sorry, but but I don’t accept that you’re trying to cash this on behalf of Mr Gandon. He’s known to me – in fact he’s standing just behind you. Shall we ask him?”

    Charles Cowling
  3. The Good Funeral Guide – Who are the real rotters here?

    […] Nick Gandon, in this blog, sparked discussion about the way the Funeral Payment is administered – here. If funeral directors were to come together and refuse to take on applicants to the Social Fund, […]

  4. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Your last point is an especially telling one, David. What a paradox that middle class folk, who can best afford a funeral, are the ones most comfortable with a plain and simple one – would probably rate anything more than a couple of limos ‘common’.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    Hi Nick,

    I’ve also had difficulties with the social fund for similar reasons, payment without letters to confirm who they are paying. Very frustrating.


    Unfortunately we cannot rely on all members of the public to be as conscientious as yourself and deliver the payment to the funeral director concerned. In fact I know of some cases where the payment has been cashed by a cheque cashing service.

    The social fund funeral payments system relies on funeral directors to take on these funerals. So it makes sense for the DWP to make the process as easy as possible for the firms concerned. As the cheque was paid to the funeral director anyway direct payment removes the risk of the client not delivering the cheques or alternatively trying to cash them.

    As you say if the family wish to carry out the funeral themselves they can submit receipts and the DWP will refund those expenses.

    With respect your suggestion that families should accept hospital funerals is unrealistic. They would simply not accept it as they would associate it with a paupers funeral. Earlier this year I tried everything I could to persuade a client to have a different style of funeral, his wife had died and he wanted to have a burial with an expensive coffin and a lot of limousines. No matter what I said he wouldnt budge and his family who I appealed to for some common sense agree with him. The cost is irrelevant and to be frank I would rather the clients borrow the money off the DWP Than get it off the local loan shark.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    I agree 100% Norfolk Boi.

    Direct pre-payment to the chosen undertaker is surely not beyond the ability of the “largest office” in the UK.

    Leaving things until after the funeral has taken place – and only then saying NO is a cynical and arguably unforgivable way of “doing business”.

    Over the past couple of years, I’ve encountered what I can only describe as an increase in “aggresive response” from the DWP. Just my perception…..

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      it night mare way they treat you when u call just been trying dicusss funeral payemt guy on other end was really rude not helpfull what so ever i dont no why social fund dont employ more help full staff it night mare cant fine out any thing att all

      Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Norfolk Boi

    If all funeral directors required an advance payment then this situation would not happen. The DWP would have to solve the situation they have created.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    I thought that this topic of discussion was about undertakers nightmares with the social fund funeral payments…and not whether all undertakers are good or bad. I simply added my thoughts about how an undertaker could avoid tangles with data protection if the DWP was to revert to making payments to a claimant, and not direct into an undertakers bank account. I agree that when the DWP makes a payment this way that it should reference it so that the undertaker knows what funeral it is for, however I don’t believe that the system should operate this way.

    I am reliably informed that only recently the DWP sent someone a cheque payable to the undertaker to assist with the funeral. This would indicate that this practice is still in place, though I don’t know why there are two systems set up to ensure that someone receiving the payment cannot simply spend the payment on something other than the funeral.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    I stand humbly corrected when I wrote “the vast majority of FDs”.

    I, of course, should have referred to “the majority of FDs that I know” AND (hopefully), their counterparts across the UK who profess to uphold even the most basic professional standards.

    Undertakers, on the whole, are a very caring bunch of folk, but there are exceptions, as in any trade or profession. I guess (with respect to yourself), that over the last 40 years I’ve met a good few more than you have.

    The impression I have gained leaves me confident that the majority will personally “go the extra mile” to get things right for a family, where they are able.

    That was what I was trying to convey.

    If that’s not been your personal experience, then I’m sorry, but there are plenty of decent undertakers out there.

    However, you quite rightly point out, I can’t know them all personally.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    Nick, I do not believe that you can speak for the vast majority of undertakers…unless of course you know them personally. I would hope that many are sincere and look to limit the distress of arranging a funeral.

    In acting as agent for someone newly bereaved, I would hope that a customer would be oblivious to what an undertaker does behind the scenes…this is why people hire them. That said I am persuaded that there are many undertakers who prefer it this way so that people become dependent on them.

    I established that the DWP’s computer system is not designed to make a distinction between fees paid for burial and the exclusive rights of burial (ERB). Having established this fact I formed the opinion that likely hundreds, if not thousands of people have missed out from obtaining the fee for ERB. You suggest that “there are many many more such situations that do not get into the realms of the press”…are you able to support your statement?

    I would hope that when news of events that is being discussed here hits the press, that more people would come forward and be keen to discuss their own experiences. If they did, likely the media will not be interested in old hat. Journalists look for sensation and only wish to report recent events. Many are not interested in the fact that people wish to tell their story to simply create changes in State departments.

    Steve Webb MP categorically denies my allegation that the DWP policy team are influenced by leading figures in the funeral industry when drafting literature or making changes to DWP policy. To my knowledge the changes which were made to DWP policy of making funeral payments directly into the bank account of undertakers was welcomed by the industry. Maybe these same figures in the industry did not have the foresight to see that this could create certain problems when acting as agent for the claimant of the social fund.

    I agree that the DWP policy team should be forced to make improvements, but more so for its customers. Staff at JobCentre Plus should become more personable with people, opposed to simply delivering or handing them a booklet, and expecting that they rely on their chosen undertaker for guidance. Steve Webb MP claims that the results of a survey showed that a high majority of claimants of funeral related fees were content with the service provided to them, though he does not provide any evidence of this. I wonder what percentage of these people who took part in the survey would feel the same if they established that they missed out on receiving fees for ERB, all because the undertaker did not know that this fee could be claimed and did not include it in the invoice.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling

    The vast majority of FDs will bend over backwards to help families overcome the type of distressing situation we’re talking about. Many families will be oblivious to the efforts that their undertaker will be making to “work around” the situation to spare their feelings.

    There are many many more such situations that do not get into the realms of the press.

    Perhaps the DWP might be forced to improve their act, for PR purposes alone, if even every other case got reported.

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    In respect of the story of the family in Northampton who are unable to pay the funeral costs, I can grasp why the DWP might object to making payments when a direct descendant of the person who has died is working. I would imagine that many people in this situation would look to the state to pay the expenses, when a sibling could possible pay for it. I am not suggesting that this is what this family has done, but I can understand the DWP’s policy.

    Again this subject falls back to knowledge. If this family knew the position they could, maybe reluctantly, left their dear mother (a tax payer) in the hospital and the local authority would have had to take responsibility for the funeral under the ‘household’ rule’. I accept why there may be arguments against my making this suggestion, but what is the alternative. What are genuine people who are unemployed for no fault of their own meant to do, if and when faced with this situation?

    In a speech during a Parliamentary Adjournment Debate back in April 2011, Steve Webb MP, Minister for State for Works and Pensions, declared that he was going to change legislation this year to afford people crisis loans to pay for funerals. The National Association of Funeral Directors celebrates this victory and it doesn’t take much imagination to understand why. I wrote to Steve Webb MP in July to ask if he wanted to be remembered as the first Minster since the Poor Law was abolished, to drive even more newly bereaved individuals into even greater debt. I still await a response.

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      As a responsible FD I inform all families wishing to make a SF claim of their right to ‘walk away’ and let the Local authority take over. I also go through the SF rules with them and make it clear that if any immediate descendent is working (or even not working but not in receipt of qualifying benefit) then it is likely that their claim will be rejected.

      A Simple/Basic funeral is always offered and explained as well (plus the option of DIY) … but the sad truth is that the vast majority of families with little or no money simply refuse to cut their suit to fit their cloth and expect us to pay out on disbursements, incur overhead and staffing costs and let them pay us back at £50 a month for literally years.

      It’s hard – I really feel for them and I understand where they are coming from but at the end of the day we simply can’t afford to take on the liability and we shouldn’t be expected to.

      Charles Cowling
      1. Charles Cowling
        Mark Elliott & Ann.L

        I agree with everything you say Molly very well said . I to feel for the families and will do anything I can to help them but at the end of the day the funeral needs to be paid for.

        Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    Teresa Evans

    For a multitude of reasons I can totally grasp the frustration with the Data Protection Act, but what I cannot grasp is how the DWP should even consider making a payment to assist with a funeral direct into any undertakers bank account. The qualifying applicant (customer) is the only person that the DWP needs to communicate with and make a payment to.

    When I made an application for a funeral payment the payment was made to me by way of a cheque made out in the name of the undertaker. In turn, the undertaker only needed to communicate with me, and not the DWP. What the DWP didn’t tell me was that I could have recovered a payment if I wasn’t hiring an undertaker. For regular readers of this blog, some might be aware that I made changes to the DWP literature this year and now it makes this fact very obvious…in three places.

    When I learnt that the payment made to me would not cover the round trip journey for the undertaker to collect my son, on principal I made an appeal to the DWP. When my appeal was denied and by this time I had learnt that I didn’t need to hire an undertaker, I wrote and asked the DWP if I should have had my son parcel wrapped and delivered to me by Parcel Force.

    The DWP policy team will be familiar with the Data Protection Act, and should be mindful that by changing practice of paying undertakers directly, opposed to paying the claimant, that the type of problems described here are going to arise…likely on many an occasion. I strongly urge undertakers that subscribe to this blog to write to the policy team and ask that they revert to generating a payment direct to its customer.

    A public body dealing with public matters should only be dealing direct with a member of the public, and not an agent from a private company. This should apply to local authorities who also rely on the undertaker to recover disbursement fees on its behalf. Local authorities expect undertakers to advise “a member of the public” what its practice and procedures are when arranging a burial or a cremation. If people were more properly consulted by the local authority about burial or cremation, maybe people would be better informed about public matters than they are at present.

    An example might be a discussion about exclusive rights of burial and what it means to purchase the exclusive rights etc. With times granted in graves being reduced nationally, maybe when people learn that their beloveds may only be buried for as little as 30 years without the grave owner needing to renew the grant, more people might opt for cremation.

    To return back to what this topic of discussion is about, I doubt that many, if at all any civil servants have ever needed help to pay for a funeral. Maybe if the DWP were to employ people with direct experience of arranging a funeral and needing to make an application for assistance, the DWP will realise that the system of payments works much better. Some civil servants are clueless, which is proven by some team members at Direct.Gov who take instruction from the DWP about what information they should include on this website!

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling

    Thanks, Nick. Is this bureaucratic footdragging or is it to create awareness that if you don’t make provision for your funeral you’ll be left to rot in a fridge – the present day equivalent of a pauper’s funeral? I don’t fall for conspiracy theories, but such extraordinary insensitivity is remarkable.

    Yes, lots of cases. Here’s another http://www.northamptonchron.co.uk/news/health/funeral_delayed_by_benefit_money_row_as_woman_s_children_unable_to_afford_costs_1_3031628

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling

    Charles, the situation you highlight in Croydon is a surprisingly common “stand-off” with the DWP.

    No funeral director is knowingly going to carry-out a funeral where they have absolutely no chance of getting paid.

    The crazy situation with the funeral payment is that the DWP refuse to discuss any aspect of the case with the funeral director, even with the claimant’s express wish or permission.

    So, simply put, the DWP won’t tell the FD if they are going to pay the bill, even if they know for certain that they will or they won’t.

    They refuse to confirm one way or another until after the funeral has taken place.

    Why this is their protocol is anyone’s guess.

    It does not make sense, provides unnecessary upset for families, and puts even the most caring undertakers in an increasingly impossible siutation.

    I really wish they would get their act together.

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling
      Bill O'Bong

      Makes me sick how these social parasites expect it to be their god given right that someone undertake the funeral without being paid before it takes place.
      ‘Can’t pay won’t pay’ attitude. one doesn’t walk around one’s local supermarket, load their trolley up with goods, approach the checkout and say ‘what i’ll do is take this home, eat it, then perhaps pay you next month’.

      These people need to learn that undertakers premises cost money to run, and payment before a service is provided should not be an issue- unless of course they don’t intend to pay the bill in the first place…

      Charles Cowling
  16. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Yes Nick, we too have wrestled with the Orwellian SF. The Data Protection act is itself the most outrageous piece of double speak. As if our personal details aren’t freely distributed between supermarkets, governments, insurance providers, the police, news international, in fact anyone with an envelope of cash. Hidden in plain site. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so true.

    Charles Cowling
  17. Charles Cowling

    No, Nick, I haven’t, but I’d love to be able to say I were surprised by your experience.

    I’d have been tempted to substitute for ‘bollocks’: ‘The deceased requested his National Insurance Number be buried with him, so it’s not available.’

    Well why not? I’d have wasted my time already by then anyway!

    Charles Cowling

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