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Funeral Support Payment: evaluation

This report presents findings from the evaluation of Funeral Support Payment.

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Executive Summary

Background

The Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 introduced a range of new benefits devolved to Scotland. Funeral Support Payment has been implemented using these new powers. The payment is designed to contribute towards funeral costs for people on low incomes in receipt of certain benefits, and support them through the bereavement process. It is one of ten actions outlined in the Scottish Government's Funeral Costs Plan[1] which are intended to stop people falling into poverty as a result of arranging a funeral that they cannot afford.

Social Security Scotland began taking applications for Funeral Support Payment on 16 September 2019. This report presents an evaluation of the benefit which is based on progress towards its immediate and short-term policy outcomes. However, it also considers progress towards Funeral Support Payment's medium-term outcomes, and its contribution to the Scottish Government's long-term aim of tackling funeral-related poverty. The policy outcomes of Funeral Support Payment relate to the benefit's impact on people who receive the payment (hereafter referred to as 'recipients') and funeral businesses.

The evaluation is largely based on findings from qualitative research that was commissioned and undertaken by Ipsos MORI, attached in full at Annex B. The qualitative research involved interviews with Funeral Support Payment recipients, third sector representatives who support people on low incomes, and funeral directors. However, the evaluation also draws on Official Statistics and a survey of benefits applicants which was undertaken by Social Security Scotland.

Promotion and take-up of Funeral Support Payment

People find out about Funeral Support Payment in a range of ways, including through paid media campaigns, funeral directors, support organisations, and word of mouth. However, there is a general perception amongst recipients and third sector representatives that awareness of the benefit is low, and that Funeral Support Payment is not widely advertised.

For deaths registered between October 2019 and November 2021, take-up of Funeral Support Payment was estimated to be 59%. This figure should be interpreted cautiously because: (a) take-up is based on eligibility, and there are challenges calculating how many people are eligible for Funeral Support Payment, and (b) people can make provisions for their own funeral, meaning that not all eligible people will need to apply for the benefit. However, despite these uncertainties, it is still likely that some eligible people who needed the benefit did not take it up.

Understanding Funeral Support Payment

The purpose of Funeral Support Payment and its eligibility criteria are well understood by recipients. They feel that the information provided by Social Security Scotland (either online or through contact with staff members) is sufficiently detailed. However, there is a perceived lack of clarity on what costs the payment will cover. For recipients, this is partly due to being in early stages of bereavement, and not concentrating on the specifics of the payment. However, third sector stakeholders feel that information provided about Funeral Support Payment is not enough to explain what costs it will cover.

Applying for funeral support payment

A large majority of Funeral Support Payment applicants feel that they are treated well by Social Security Scotland during the application process. The application form is also considered straightforward to complete. However, some people encounter issues when applying for the benefit. For example (a) those whose level of English makes the application difficult, (b) those with learning difficulties, and (c) those who discover Funeral Support Payment online but do not feel digitally confident to complete the application this way.

A key issue with the applications is that processing times have increased since January 2021. From submitting their initial application form, applicants typically wait more than 10 working days for an outcome – and it is increasingly common to wait more than 20 working days. This processing time includes time spent waiting to receive copies of documents or evidence requested from clients. Recipients report that waiting for an outcome makes budgeting difficult, and can limit the positive impact of Funeral Support Payment on money-related stress and grief - particularly when applications are subject to considerable waiting times. It also creates a sense of business risk amongst funeral directors. The impact of longer waiting times is compounded by a perceived lack of communication from Social Security Scotland once applications have been submitted.

The impact of Funeral Support Payment

Impact on clients

Funeral Support Payment reduces - and sometimes removes - the need for people to borrow money to arrange a funeral, and is generally perceived by recipients to be a helpful contribution towards funeral costs. People welcome the payment, and feel like it has a positive impact on their stress levels at a difficult time, allowing them to focus more on grieving rather than worrying about paying for the funeral. However, the payment does not remove the need for borrowing completely, and some recipients feel that the payment is not enough when compared with the actual costs of a funeral. The positive impact of Funeral Support Payment can be also limited when people experience considerable waits for an application outcome.

Impact on funeral businesses

Funeral directors are positive about the impact of Funeral Support Payment, and report that payments from Funeral Support Payment recipients are generally as timely, or timelier, than those from other clients. However, there are two aspects of the administration of the benefit which funeral directors feel creates business risk:

1. Not being able to access information about the progress of Funeral Support Payment claims (Social Security Scotland cannot discuss details of individuals' applications with funeral directors). This can mean arranging funerals without knowing whether applications will be approved.

2. The option recipients have of receiving Funeral Support Payment directly, instead of it always being paid to funeral directors – leading to the possibility of non-payment.

Contribution to medium and long-term impacts

Funeral Support Payment reduces the need for borrowing to pay for funerals, and leads to the timely payment of funeral directors. Respectively, these factors make it likely that positive progress is being made towards achieving the following medium-term policy outcomes: (a) reduced incidence of debt stemming from funerals, and (b) reduced business insecurity for funeral directors. They are also likely to have helped the Scottish Government meet its long-term aim of reducing the poverty arising from funerals.

However, issues with Funeral Support Payment (e.g. that application processing times have increased) are likely to have limited positive contributions towards these outcomes. It is not possible to fully evaluate progress in these areas with the information currently available, and more time has passed since the benefit was implemented.

Conclusion and policy implications

The evaluation shows that Funeral Support Payment has made good progress towards its immediate and short-term policy outcomes, and is therefore likely to have (a) progressed towards meeting its medium-term objectives, and (b) contributed positively to the Scottish Government's long-term aim of tackling poverty arising from funerals. However, it also highlights areas where Funeral Support Payment could potentially be improved. These issues and their implications are as following:

1. The most recent estimate suggests that around 40% of eligible people had not taken-up Funeral Support Payment. There is some uncertainty around this figure due to analytical challenges calculating how many people are actually eligible for the benefit. Additonally, some people make provisions to cover the cost of their own funeral, meaning not all eligible people need the payment. However, it is still likely that some eligible people who need the benefit are not applying for it. There is also a perception amongst recipients and stakeholders that awareness of the benefit is low. Steps could therefore be taken to maximise take-up by eligibile people who need Funeral Support Payment, such as further promotional work. There may also be a need to investigate whether other factors impact take-up.

2. Some people face barriers when applying for Funeral Support Payment. For example, not having English as a first language can create difficulties for applicants. Based on the barriers identified in the evaluation, options for making the application form even more accessible could be explored. This might involve increasing awareness of existing accessibility features in Social Security Scotland's application forms.

3. Application processing times are generally increasing, and longer waits for application decisions can create difficulties for both applicants and funeral directors. This this is compounded by a perceived lack of communication from Social Security Scotland after applications are submitted. Steps could therefore be taken to review processing times, and expedite the decision making process where possible. It may also be necessary to engage more with applicants during this period of waiting, especially where decisions are subject to delays.

4. Funeral Support Payment is generally welcomed and felt to be a helpful contribution towards funeral costs. However, it does not always remove the need for borrowing completely and some recipients feel that its contribution could be higher. To ensure that the payment continues to make a helpful contribution, Funeral Support Payment rates should be kept under review alongside continued monitoring of funeral costs in Scotland.

5. While the evaluation indicates that progress has been made to longer-term outcomes associated with Funeral Support Payment, it is not possible with the information available to make objective assessments in these areas. As such, more data should be sought and made available for future evaluations.

Contact

Email: socialresearch@gov.scot

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