This Commons Library briefing looks at Social Fund Funeral Payments scheme, under which claimants of means-tested benefits and tax credits may get help with funeral costs. The adequacy of payments has long been a source of complaint. The complex eligibility criteria have also been criticised for creating confusion, frustration and further emotional distress.Jump to full report >>
Payments from the Social Fund can be made to claimants of means-tested benefits and tax credits to help meet the costs of a funeral. Payments are made from the regulated Social Fund and, as such, are not limited by budgetary constraints. 28,000 payments were made in Great Britain in 2015-16, at a total cost of £40 million. The average award in 2015-16 was around £1,400.
Successive Governments have maintained that the scheme provides a “contribution towards the cost of a simple, low cost respectful funeral,” but the adequacy of payments in relation to actual funeral costs has long been a source of complaint. Under the scheme, full help may be given with certain funeral expenses including burial or cremation. Other expenses – such as funeral directors’ fees, the cost of a coffin, church fees and flowers – may be covered but only up to a maximum of £700. The average award in 2014-15 was £1,375, less than 40% of the estimated average cost of a funeral. The rules governing access to Social Fund Budgeting Loans have now been changed to provide additional help to low income families facing funeral costs, although these are repayable.
The Funeral Payments scheme has also been criticised for creating confusion, frustration, and further emotional distress. There are complex eligibility criteria including whether the person has accepted responsibility for meeting the funeral costs, their relationship to the deceased, and whether there are others equally or more closely related who are not on benefits.
Research has flagged up a number of interwoven issues, including confusion about the rules on eligibility and the amount paid to successful claimants, the order in which funerals are organised and claims administered, and the way in which family relationships are assessed and decisions regarding responsibility for funeral costs are made. Only 59% of applications processed in 2014-15 resulted in an aware, but with DWP requiring an invoice to process a claim, applicants must commit to meeting funeral costs without knowing how much, if anything, they will receive.
In its March 2016 report on support for the bereaved, the Work and Pensions Committee recommended that the application process for Funeral Payments be simplified and clarified, with an online “eligibility checker” for prospective applicants. The Government believes an online checker could inadvertently cause additional confusion for bereaved people, but is “investigating if other, more appropriate, solutions would better address the underlying problem of people not understanding their eligibility.”
The Scotland Act 2016 devolves responsibility for Funeral payments – together with all other elements of the regulated Social Fund – to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Government is currently consulting on options for reforming Funeral Payments. It is seeking views on, among other things, what a standard, low cost funeral should include, how to make the application process less intrusive, how to simplify and speed up payments in order to make the system more predictable, and how to improve take-up.
This note complements Commons Library briefing CBP-06242, Arranging and paying for a funeral, which looks more widely at the issues around arranging funerals, and at the duties of public authorities where no-one else has accepts responsibility for arranging a funeral.
Commons Briefing papers SN01419
Author: Steven Kennedy