Rising inequalities in bereavement and funeral benefits

Bereavement is one of the most common risks that we all have to face – each year about 220,000 people in Britain lose a partner (see p3 of this report), it is claimed 24,000 children lose a parent, and there are about 550,00 deaths in England, Wales and Scotland in total.  And while ignored by most writers on the welfare state, benefits associated with bereavement still play an important role – 38,000 Funeral Payments were awarded in the Social Fund in 2011/12, 65,000 people are in receipt of Bereavement Benefits. 

It’s therefore great that Inequalities has a special guest post by Hannah Rumble, Christine Valentine and Kate Woodthorpe about their current research on funeral payments, in the context of changes to the Social Fund and a new DWP consultation on changes to Bereavement Benefits.

Proposals for reforming bereavement benefits were published by the Government on 11 July 2012 (a full version of Bereavement Benefits for the 21st Century can be read here, and the DWP press release here). This follows a public consultation earlier this year. Both the consultation and the current proposals try to address concerns that the current system is too complex and ‘out of sync’ with the needs of bereaved people.

The Government says it remains committed to providing financial support after spousal bereavement, but ministers believe that bereavement benefits should provide immediate financial support instead of longer term income replacement, which can discourage rehabilitation into mainstream life, and harm long-term job prospects.

However, whilst the reform of bereavement benefits has been recently reviewed by the Government there is no intention to review the Social Fund Funeral Payment (FP) that is crucial to assisting people in receipt of benefits in paying for a funeral.

Understanding funeral and bereavement benefits

The historical origins of financial assistance for funerals today can be found in the introduction of the Death Grant in 1949 as part of the then government’s visible commitment to ‘the grave’ component of the welfare state. In 1988, the FP was established as part of the Regulated Payments section of the Social Fund to replace the Death Grant. It offers a retrospectively paid financial contribution towards the total cost of a basic funeral for those on qualifying benefits.

Earlier this year a research team within the Centre for Death and Society conducted an independent qualitative study into the process and experience of applying for a Social Fund Funeral Payment. Funded by Sun Life Direct, the research involved interviewing claimants, funeral directors and stakeholders in order to examine and evaluate the way in which state support was being organised and administered. To contextualise the research internationally, and to enable the development of a cohesive set of recommendations, the study was complemented by a comparative analysis of state support and provision for funerals in 18 other capitalist countries.

The cost of a funeral

Compared to other countries, there is considerable disparity in the UK between the rising cost of a funeral and contributory funds available from the state. With fundamental changes to the organisation of the welfare state currently taking place, alongside mounting concerns about social care and pensioner poverty, our report suggests that being able to pay for the funeral of a family member needs to be included in these discussions.

The research findings indicate that the issue of accessing state support for funeral costs is ever more pressing. The current arrangement of provision of state support in the UK for those people who cannot afford a funeral lacks coherence. This has the potential for creating confusion and frustration as well as emotional distress, which many of the participants reported. Moreover, the FP does not cover the full cost; it is only a contribution towards the cost of a basic funeral. The average award is around £1300, whereas the average funeral costs in the region of £3000.

Supporting people at a difficult time?

The emotional distress that claimants reported in relation to their experience of the current system of support was the outcome of a number of interwoven issues.

  • There was much confusion regarding awareness of and eligibility for a FP, the amount that the FP scheme awards successful claimants, the order in which the funeral is organised and FP application administered, and the way in which familial relationships are assessed and how decisions regarding responsibility for the funeral costs are made.
  • Drawing on international comparisons, these issues are compounded by a culture of individualism in the UK that regards death as a private event, alongside a reliance on a free market economy to regulate funeral costs and a political narrative of welfare dependency rather than entitlement. A narrative of welfare dependency in the case of the FP overlooks the cost of social care at the end of life and pensioner poverty, and the impact these can have on the ready availability of finances for a funeral after an individual has died.

The above findings are further complicated by a cultural expectation in the UK that, for the most part, a funeral takes place 7-10 days after death. A consequence of this is that funeral arrangements and their funding need to be put into place very quickly.

This swiftness often does not provide sufficient time for people, particularly those from low income backgrounds or in receipt of benefits (and thus potential FP claimants), to make informed decisions about how much they wish to spend and how they can fund a funeral.

Final thoughts

At a time when the death rate is predicted to increase in the next 20 years, having sufficient resources to hand to pay for a funeral is set to become an issue for a growing number of people. This is likely to be impacted by the current reform of the way in which the welfare state is organised. The issue of state support for people who struggle to pay for a funeral therefore needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency by the DWP and the funeral industry, as well as key stakeholders such as charities, the third sector, commercial organisations, and local authority representatives.

To learn more about their research report, “The Cost of Dying Special Report: ‘Affording a Funeral’ Social Fund Funeral Payments” go to: http://www.bath.ac.uk/cdas/research/index.html

For other recent related research, see this project at the Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at York, including their own response to the DWP consultation.

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