by Ruth Mendel, Policy Officer, Citizens Advice Scotland.
NB This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald, 01/07/18.
Five years ago Citizens Advice Scotland published the first in a series of reports detailing the cost of burial and cremation fees by Local Authority. We did this because funeral poverty was an increasing trend in the case data we received from CABs, and yet no-one in the policy sphere seemed to be talking about it.
The Local Authority ‘league table’ in these yearly reports has always delivered a short-term headline, but it is perhaps more instructive to look at the overall trend across the period. The average cost of burial charges in Scotland last year was £1,428, and since 2014 it has increased by 27%.
Factoring in the costs of undertakers’ fees, flowers etc., the average total cost of a funeral is £3,550, and yet the average Social Fund Funeral payment is £1,375 - a shortfall of £2,175. This is not just a problem for those on low incomes – though the issue is obviously more acute there.
By publishing this research we helped start a much-needed conversation among policymakers and the funeral industry. Put simply, too many Scots can’t afford to bury their loved ones, and shedding a light on that was important.
In terms of solutions, things have moved in a positive direction since 2014. The Scottish government has accepted a number of our recommendations, e.g. developing a Funeral Bond and working with us to provide more consistent funeral advice. All Scottish Councils now have a legal duty to display their burial and cremation charges, and last year eight chose to freeze theirs.
Meanwhile the Scottish government has agreed to increase the funeral assistance payment every year in line with inflation. This is very welcome, but we are also asking that they first deliver a general increase to this allowance as well, given that it has not been increased since 2003.
And the UK Treasury is now consulting on whether pre-paid funeral plan providers should be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. We think so, and will be giving them our evidence in a few weeks time.
These changes are all good news, and illustrate the value that good consumer research can have in informing public policy.
But another key part of our message is that consumers themselves have a role to play in tackling funeral poverty. We shouldn’t just be relying on policy changes from on high.
As a society we are too often reluctant to talk about death. Funerals are the one sure cost that we are all certain to encounter at some point, and yet it is probably the one we plan for least. That doesn’t make sense, and in addition to reducing costs and increasing financial assistance, we are keen to encourage people to think more about how they can plan ahead to make their own and their loved ones’ funerals easier to afford when the time comes.