There’s an awful lot of talk just now about the inadequacies and iniquities of the Social Fund Funeral Payment. There’s also a lot of lobbying and campaigning going on to try and fix it.
And a new term is born: funeral poverty.
That the Funeral Payment is presently inadequate and its administration iniquitous is a matter on which all agree. The debate about where we go from here is being held in the context of a social security system which has always been there for people at a time of bereavement.
Until 1988 everyone who had paid their National Insurance stamp got a death grant. Then John Major’s Conservative government brought in the Social Fund Funeral Payment set at a level high enough to ensure that the poor and the disadvantaged could go out and buy themselves a decent funeral.
In 2008, by which time the value of the payment had been devalued by inflation, the Labour government announced, not an increase in, but a redefinition of the payment. Henceforth, the capped sum of £700 was to be seen as a ‘substantial contribution’ only; it was not intended to be sufficient to pay for the entire funeral.
That £700 is now wholly inadequate. Worse still, applications take too long to process and have no certainty of approval. The bereaved now suffer precisely the shame and degradation that the original payment sought to prevent — not to mention the attentions of loan sharks. You’d think that an organisation like Co-operative Funeralcare (founded by working people for working people) would be doing all it can to mitigate the distress of those in difficulty, but it coldly carries on extracting top dollar — far more than most independents.
The present government wants to reduce dependency on the state. Well, if there’s a dependency culture around funerals, it is of the state’s making.
Which isn’t to say that fecklessness does not play its part in bringing about the predicament that so many bereaved people find themselves in. If people started saving earlier for their funeral, most, probably, would be able to salt away enough to pay for it. But they don’t. They don’t even think to do that. Many don’t save anything at all. And no one’s terrified any more by the ignominy of a pauper’s funeral into stashing away a sum for the simple reason that a pauper’s funeral is not ignominious.
Though it matters not how much debt a person dies with, their next of kin cannot be held responsible for any of it. And yet failure to make provision for funeral expenses transmits to next of kin a responsibility which has the full force of a debt for which they are responsible. Any person who dies in old age without having made provision for their funeral is wholly spared the consequences. It’s their nearest and dearest who suffer.
We cannot expect people to save for the funerals of those members of their family who have been unable or have failed to do so.
So: we should not subject them to the humiliations they presently undergo.
If a simple sense of duty is not enough to impel people to provide for their own disposal, perhaps an element of compulsion is required, together with a radical approach.
The state has already diversified into moneylending. It lends money to young people to enable them to go to higher education. Why not extend this to funerals? Try this for size:
When a child is born, it is automatically lent, say, £3000 in the form of an untouchable loan which grows at the rate of funeral costs. When that child starts work, repayments are collected via HMRC calculated according to the person’s level of income. Should their income fall below a particular level, repayments are halted. The debt is cancelled when it is discharged or when the borrower reaches a particular age — retirement, perhaps. The sum goes on growing. When they die, the matured sum is immediately made available to their executor/administrator.
If anyone should die before their loan is paid off, their executor/administrator would receive the matured sum in full. Everyone would get a decent funeral. Children’s funerals would, of course, be paid for in full by the state.
The cost to the state would be far less than it is today.
We’d have no longer have any need of funeral plans.
People would live with an enhanced sense of their mortality and the awareness that death can happen at any time.
Spot the flaw.