Measures to Reduce Funeral Poverty
The Scottish Government's Funeral Costs Plan sets out 10 actions for tackling funeral poverty in Scotland, and includes local authorities as key partners in the process.
Recognising that funeral poverty cannot be tackled in isolation from wider social issues, the draft guidance includes measures to link burial and cremation charge setting to broader strategies and duties aimed at reducing poverty and inequality, such as the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 and, where appropriate, the new Fairer Scotland Duty as set out in Part 1 of the Equality Act 2010.
The penultimate section of the consultation sought views on whether the guidance should encourage local authorities to link their burial and cremation charge setting to border strategies and duties, in order to help tackle funeral poverty.
Q17. Do you think the guidance should encourage local authorities to link burial and cremation charge setting to broader strategies and duties aimed at reducing poverty?
Although the majority of respondents agreed with this proposal, just under a third said that they either did not or were undecided.
Q18. Please explain your answer.
Strengthening Existing Practice
Several respondents, when asked to explain their answer, simply noted that they welcomed the draft guidance in principle, as they viewed it essential that every effort be made possible to try and alleviate funeral poverty. The vulnerability of those living in poverty (especially young people) when faced with funeral costs was noted by many and support for this group, in any guise, was welcomed. Others commented more generally along the lines that all local authority strategies and processes relating to poverty reduction should be integrated and managed to support communities and individuals wherever possible. A consistent and coordinated approach should also be encouraged, it was felt.
Some respondents pointed out that local authorities were already proactively engaged in introducing various different strategies and schemes to help alleviate funeral poverty and the guidance would simply strengthen action already underway:
"…we are already very involved in these strategic objectives focused on reducing poverty and are mindful of these objectives when setting our fees and charges."
One already had specific anti-poverty strategies which included actions to reduce out-going costs and the poverty premium on low income households, and which were linked to national policy. Another covered this under their Equality and Poverty Impact Assessment procedures. Two respondents questioned if this guidance may, therefore, be redundant, especially given that the Fairer Scotland Duty already requires local authorities to give due regard to the needs of disadvantaged communities in resourcing and strategy decisions.
One organisation responding on behalf of local authorities stressed that they welcomed that the wording of this draft guidance was to 'encourage' rather than 'direct' local authorities to make links, i.e. was not overly prescriptive:
"…although addressing funeral poverty may not yet be a central element of many local authority and partnership poverty strategies, the need to advise and support low income bereaved families to help them manage their costs, identify and asses lower cost options is recognised as important. The guidance helpfully encourages rather than directs poverty related support."
One charity again welcomed this draft guidance on the basis that there is disparity in funeral costs for burials and cremations across the country, with some people facing financial hardship on the basis of where they live. Following on from the Scottish Government's action on funeral poverty, it was right for councils to also recognise this as an issue which they could help to address in their local community, it was suggested.
Some individuals with experience of arranging funerals also commented that this would be welcomed, as they had experienced financial challenges themselves in trying to make necessary funeral arrangements. They felt that better links between local authority guidance options may have been beneficial.
Although several reasons were put forward for not supporting this proposal, most seemed to be linked to wider issues around public authority support for funerals, rather than directly answering the question about linking broader strategies and duties. Indeed, several provided answers here which were perhaps more in line with the subsequent consultation question and so their responses are presented in the section below.
In general, those responding on behalf of local authorities commented that making such links may place an undue administrative burden on local authorities and may place them in the difficult position of trying to reduce costs at the expense of reducing service standards, and this was something that they would not wish to see:
"We agree that funeral costs should be considered as part of local authorities' broader strategies and duties aimed at reducing poverty, however, directly linking burial and cremation charge setting to these would be extremely difficult to manage. Most authorities will review burial and cremation charges within the context of annual budgeting and… increasing charges is often seen as preferable to reducing service standards."
One local authority commented that linking commercial cremation charges and funeral costs to anti-poverty policies and strategies may be difficult per se.
One respondent noted that they did not fully understand this question, but suggested that they would prefer to see a national strategy in place to address this point, rather than local arrangements, as this may mean that support was available consistently across the country, i.e. "no matter where you reside there would be support available".
One final respondent noted that, although they agreed with the proposal, they had little confidence that linked policies and practices would be implemented, in actuality.
Again, recognising that the cost of funerals can be a significant burden for some families, the draft guidance also suggests that local authority strategies for poverty reduction should, where possible, include measures aimed at addressing funeral poverty. The draft guidance also encourages local authorities to put in place measures to assist those who may be struggling to pay for a funeral as well as to provide more general direct support, such as provision of advice to the public, or working with funeral directors to provide support to people who would struggle to pay for a funeral. The draft guidance in this respect is deliberately not overly prescriptive and allows room for local authorities to adapt or tailor their support practices to meet local circumstances and needs.
Q19. Do you think that local authorities should be encouraged to take actions to support individuals who are struggling with the costs of a funeral?
The majority of respondents agreed with this proposed measure, and only five specifically said that they did not.
Q20. Please explain your answer.
As with other measures set out in the draft guidance, there were views that support was already offered by most local authorities, but that this guidance would help to strengthen and reinforce the need for this provision:
"Local authorities already provide support to low income families through direct services or through other providers. Principal areas of advice and support more specifically on funeral response would include signposting on making claims for funeral assistance grants, information on lower cost funeral options, but also on affordable and trust worthy credit options. Beyond this more needs to be done nationally and locally to help families plan for bereavement and funeral costs."
It was pointed out that local authorities were already delivering significantly more public health or National Assistance Act funerals (which one respondent perceived was traditionally in cases where no next of kin could be identified but was also increasingly in cases where family/next of kin was unwilling or unable to pay). The forthcoming Funeral Expense Assistance would also reach a larger number of individuals living in poverty, and local authorities had already agreed to waive all fees for the burial and cremation of children aged 17 and under, it was noted. The actions within the current guidance would increase transparency and fairness of pricing and increase the visibility of lower cost funeral options to consumers to further contribute to increased affordability, it was felt. Despite this, it was acknowledged by some, that not enough was done at present to promote or encourage uptake and so the draft guidance was welcomed as a reminder for local authorities to be proactive in this regard.
In addition to offering general support in the form of advice, and practical support through Funeral Expense Assistance, some suggestions for other practical (including non-financial) ways in which local authorities could support those in need included:
- providing easily identifiable points of contact within the authority to receive requests for support (including helplines, etc.);
- producing written guidance around funeral costs locally;
- promoting and raising awareness of all relevant grants/available financial assistance (including displaying leaflets and information about available assistance in public spaces, such as local authority waiting rooms);
- offering repayment plans, payment of charges by installments, loans and direction to credit unions;
- setting a cap for an assisted funeral and allowing families a say in how they would spend it, e.g. shorter service and more flowers, no service at the crematorium but informal gathering elsewhere, etc.;
- continued provision of simple and direct funeral and cremation options;
- careful forward planning with the burial and cremation charge setting process;
- offering part payment for memorials; and
- sign-posting to wider care, support and advice organisations.
"Local Authorities and Social Security Scotland's FEA Advisors also have an invaluable opportunity to act as a point for further support, and should able to signpost people to services such as bereavement charities, and information and advice services…"
These forms of support were seen as particularly important for those who may not qualify for Funeral Expense Assistance, but may still be experiencing financial and other challenges.
Another suggestion put forward by a few respondents was for local authorities to take a lead in encouraging individuals to better plan for funerals, to help avoid funeral poverty:
"We think that education and planning are one of the key solutions to funeral poverty. Breaking the taboo and talking about death enables consumers to plan their funeral, how they will pay for it and take the strain from their families. We believe that local authorities should also encourage the public to think about the death and their funeral wishes. Local authorities should provide information on options for paying for funerals. This may include credit unions, government support and, where planning in advance, funeral plans."
Long-term, cultural change towards better funeral planning was seen as an effective strategy in tackling funeral poverty.
Indeed, this approach was also promoted by one faith group who recommended that local authorities work with partners in the community (including those who have experienced funeral poverty) to help improve funeral literacy:
"This will include working together with community groups, schools and faith groups to conduct informative discussions on ways to pay for a funeral. This will ensure that fewer people end up with unexpected payments in future, and that they will perhaps be able to put some savings aside to ensure that their funeral is paid for."
Breaking down barriers and challenging misconceptions was also seen as important, e.g. inaccurate beliefs that people needed to be a member of a church to qualify for a funeral service.
Caveats and Reasons for Lack of Support
The main perceived limitation with the proposed guidance was the lack of mention of additional resources being available to assist authorities working with bereaved families. Most agreed that one of the most impactful ways to support struggling families with the cost of funeral care was by alleviating financial pressure, as this helped them to maintain choice, so far as possible. As one funeral provider summarised:
"By providing financial support, public bodies can empower struggling families to have a choice over funeral arrangements in a way that reflects the wishes of the deceased and those closest to the deceased. This contrasts with public health funerals, where local government support often strips families of choice and may add to the sense that the bereaved have lost control…financial support is the best method of empowering families experiencing poverty and maximising their control over their own life."
Despite this, most also acknowledged that funding was finite and that any public money used to assist bereaved families must be carefully monitored and fairly distributed:
"Whilst the aim of this is understood, the implications for resourcing both the systems for checking, administration and any subsidies would need to be identified and secured."
"…unless funding is forthcoming from the Scottish Government, then such are the financial settlements for local authorities any financial assistance/cost absorption by local authorities is simply cost prohibitive."
Some comments were also made that financial support should always be provided at a national rather than local level (i.e. the Scottish Government should assist people of low incomes bury/cremate their loved ones, in the same way that they would support people who die with no family or finances), should be means tested and that government financial support should reflect real-terms uplift to both flat payments and other expenses, to ensure that it remains appropriate. Caution was also urged that local authorities needed to be mindful of the minority who may abuse the support system or wrongly exploit low cost options (e.g. "families ask funeral directors for two invoices - one for a basic social fund funeral and a second separate, hidden invoice for the extras, which can often be lavish").
There was also some suggestion that the draft guidance in this regard was too vague and may duplicate existing legislation:
"Local Authorities already have a duty under the National Assistance Act to provide funerals to those who have no means to pay and/or have no-one who adopts responsibility for them. It is also the Scottish Government's responsibility to take action and provide support at a national level so that everyone in Scotland is given the same support and treated equally. The 'Draft additional guidance for Local Authorities' does not provide any detailed guidance on exactly what support Local Authorities should provide. This advice and support requires to be specific and detailed to ensure there is an equal provision to all. If it is not, this may result in dubiety and complaints that the advice and support is not enough."
Others also commented that they felt a collaborative, partnership approach was more suitable for providing support to those living in poverty and that it was not appropriate to place this duty solely on the shoulders of local authorities:
"Whilst support for individuals who are struggling with funeral costs is important, it could be addressed through a combination of nationally determined benefits, local authority and voluntary sector advice and information, and credit unions, rather than being left to local authorities."
Again, respondents urged that it was important that national bodies, private sector providers, third sector organisations and communities (including faith groups) also be involved in providing support to ensure a holistic approach to eradicating funeral poverty. One stressed that this did not necessarily require 'developing new solutions', but rather re-thinking and re-energising support systems that are already in place.
One respondent suggested that the proposal was not proportionate and that the requirement should be only to provide support for the minority i.e. those most vulnerable to funeral poverty. Intervention needed to be more targeted, it was suggested. Similarly, although not directly answering the question, one respondent indicated that any support provided should be means tested. Others agreed that means testing more widely was essential in decisions around when financial support should be offered:
"The cost to the authority of providing the service must be the starting point in determining the charge for the service. Any means of reducing cost impacts on those in poverty needs to be clearly linked to the ability to assess the means of the deceased and their families, as funeral poverty is not an issue for a large sector of the population."
A more individualised approach would also better reflect that poverty is not only incurred by funeral costs and that funeral poverty will have a greater profile in some areas than in others, it was posited.
Several who did not agree or who caveated their support for both local authority linking of strategies/duties and local authority action to support individuals objected on the basis that the proposals potentially muddied and complicated the financial picture, opening up the possibility of private companies being undercut by public sector subsidies:
"It's important that any solutions that are developed do not distort the market, or limit competition by encouraging consumers to choose a particular type of funeral or provider."
Specifically, respondents representing funeral directors commented that, whilst any improvement in the funeral affordability gap should be applauded, they perceived that the draft guidance was not treating public and private service providers equally. The option of lower cost, direct funerals or cremations should be offered as just one choice available to consumers, it was suggested, rather than being promoted by local authorities as the best option to avoid higher fees:
"Direct cremation should be a choice for an individual not a magic bullet to save money for the Local or State Governments."
Respondents also noted that the guidance may inadvertently encourage local authorities to get involved in delivering a service that some may not be adept at or keen on providing.
National Assistance Act / Public Health Funerals
Where there is no next of kin or no funeral arrangements are being made, the National Assistance Act 1948 puts responsibility on the local authority to arrange the burial or cremation. A number of responses to this consultation discussed National Assistance Act funerals (also referred to in some consultation responses as public health funerals or social funerals).
Direct funding to support those living in poverty to pay for the funeral that was most appropriate to the family/circumstances was seen as a better alternative to encouraging public health funerals, as standard.
Others commented that there was currently inconsistency across local authorities with regard to what was included in a public health funeral e.g. some believe they are entitled to have a service but are not entitled to receive the ashes back, some authorities may use unmarked, shared graves, etc.). Clarity and awareness raising around what consumers could rightfully expect from a public health funeral was needed, it was suggested.
On a related note, several respondents commented here, and throughout the consultation, that the notion of public health funerals being "paupers funerals" needed to be challenged. There was, they felt, a stigma attached to public health funerals at present which could cause some secondary distress to families in poverty who have no choice other than to pursue this route:
"Public funerals can be a help to a family who have no savings or money, but there is a stigma attached to what is still referred to as a 'paupers funeral'. Again, there is often that pressure to do the 'very best' for the deceased."
It is important to note that some funeral services provided information elsewhere in the consultation about 'good practice' which they felt could be applied across the industry. This included sensitivity to funeral poverty and ways of engaging with customers to ensure that funeral poverty could be avoided, where possible:
"We have recently carried out a full training programme for our client-facing colleagues with an emphasis on price sensitivity and ways of identifying and handling client issues around money, such as key flags that a client is in financial distress regarding the funeral. We know funeral affordability is a live issue for many clients in our communities so want to ensure that our funeral directors are delivering the best client care. It is important that our colleagues are fully briefed on ways to both spot and mitigate financial issues for our clients."
Overall, respondents agreed that funerals are extremely difficult for families to handle, both emotionally and financially. Ensuring that appropriate support mechanisms are in place to allow the bereaved to fulfil a funeral which respects the dignity of the deceased was seen as key.