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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): Sour!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, no, it is not sour at all: my goodness! It is just a statement, an observation of what has been happening no later than today. In fact the Liberal Democrats have been almost more supportive of the Government than the government Back-Benchers have been. The noble Baroness the Minister will not be in the least surprised

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when I say that I am not going to be in any way critical of these regulations, because they were signed by my honourable friend in another place, Mr. Roger Evans, before the unfortunate event of the general election.

The regulations are the result of some very heart-searching discussions we had in the Department of Social Security on several occasions and more recently, when we decided on these changes to the Social Fund payments and claims for funerals. When we first looked at this issue we decided that we had to take some steps to deal with what was becoming an increasingly difficult problem. What was happening--I know that it never bothered the Liberal Democrats Benches when we were in government and I do not suppose it will bother them now that we have a Labour government--was that the cost of funerals to the Social Fund--that is, to the taxpayer--which was £18 million in 1988-89, had risen to £61 million by 1994-95. At that point we decided, as part of our general review of every part of the system, that we really had to look rather carefully at this.

The noble Viscount who has just spoken, was complaining about the Benefits Agency looking around to see if there was a close member of the family who was not receiving benefit and who should in fact be taking on responsibility. For myself, I see nothing wrong with that. It seems to me preferable to what was happening, which was that the family were looking round to see who was on benefit who could become the responsible member and therefore become eligible for the benefit. That was one of the problems and one of the reasons for the increase.

The other reason for the increase was the cost of the funerals themselves. Although I no longer have the facts in front of me I can certainly remember enough of them to remember the enormous variations from one part of the country to another, which we felt were really quite wrong. If the taxpayer was picking up the bill, it seemed to be quite unreasonable that he should be picking up very large bills in one part of the country for funerals which were exactly the same as those in another part of the country where the bills were very much smaller. We worried considerably about this and one of the reasons why the first lot of regulations was complex was indeed as a result of our concern to make sure that every eventuality was covered.

It is not true to say £600 is the end, because we were careful about that. We were very well aware that the difference in costs between cremation and burial is very considerable, and indeed the costs of burials differ between one part of the country and another, for very well understood reasons. The difference can be very considerable indeed. We therefore made the cost of cremation and the cost of burial quite separate from the item of £600, so that somebody who could not afford to bury a relative would not be forced into cremation, for example, simply because they could not afford it. The result of that, if my memory is correct, is that for burials the average was not £600 but in excess of £1,000 because of the additional cost of burials. However, I am sure the noble Baroness will correct me if I am wrong.

These issues of social security are always difficult. I have a great deal of sympathy for the difficulties that I know will face the noble Baroness, because there are

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always hard cases and the citizens advice bureaux seem to make a great habit of finding the hardest imaginable cases that exist. However, the simple fact of the matter is that the social security system has to deal with the generality. It has to be fair to everybody, and I think the system that we devised was a perfectly fair one.

As the noble Viscount pointed out, there are many people who make sure that they pay for insurance to deal with their funeral provisions. They will still have to be careful with the costs of the funeral when they come along, if in fact their insurance is modest. It seemed to us, and it certainly seems to me, that it would be quite wrong if the relatives of somebody who is not very well off but who has taken sensible insurance precautions during his or her lifetime find that the funeral they can afford is far less expensive than somebody else can obtain via the social security system and the taxpayer. Frankly, that is the position we were in. So I have a great deal of sympathy with the Government on this one.

I absolutely agree with the instrument before us. I hope the noble Baroness will not accede to any of the requests that have come from the Liberal Democrat Benches and that she will stick to the plans put forward by the last government in this regard, in order to be fair to all people in the country, both taxpayers and those poor people who need help, and also in order to prevent the abuse and escalation in this particular service that we were seeing. I think I am right in saying that as a result of the actions that we took in 1994 the costs to the Social Fund of this particular programme were reduced from the £61 million I mentioned earlier to £49 million in 1995-96. However, I may be wrong and I have no doubt that the noble Baroness knows exactly what the cost is. I can certainly assure her that if the Liberal Benches put this Prayer to a Division tonight she will not find me reversing the views which I took when I was in government.

7.9 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I have listened with interest to the points made during the debate and I believe the entire House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, for giving us the opportunity to explain the Government's position regarding the provision of help to meet funeral expenses and in particular to explain the changes contained in the amending legislation, the subject of today's debate, the Social Security (Social Fund and Claims and Payments)(Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1997. I suppose I should be even more grateful for the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, setting out the previous Government's views on an item that we have inherited and which he defended with considerable enthusiasm--an enthusiasm which I would find difficulty in matching, and I shall not seek to do so.

Your Lordships will be aware that the Government inherited policy changes in a number of areas. I do not necessarily defend those changes. However, your Lordships will also know that savings from those policy changes, including the measures within the amending regulations which are the subject of today's debate, were

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built in to the previous Government's expenditure plan. We need to take that into account in considering the issues before us today.

Before I talk about the changes, I should like to refer back to the purpose of Social Fund funeral payments. They are to provide help with funeral expenses where someone has been awarded a qualifying benefit and has good cause for taking responsibility for the costs but has insufficient funds to meet such an expense. Help goes to people on income-related benefits namely, income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, family credit, housing benefit, council tax benefit or disability working allowance.

As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, the scheme covers the necessary cost of specified items, including burial and cremation charges, which can amount to over £2,000. In addition, the scheme provides £600 to meet the funeral director's charges, a minister's fee or donation and possibly an organist's fee or a floral tribute. The total cost met by the DSS could exceed £3,000 under the regulations.

A number of changes have been made in recent years to the way the scheme works. Taking into account all the changes introduced, planned expenditure for 1997-98 is £40 million, helping an estimated 50,000 people.

The changes to the provisions we are discussing today were first announced on 1st November 1996. The proposed amendments were referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee. The committee conducted a consultation exercise, to which 51 responses were received; its report and recommendations were given to the previous Government, who decided to proceed with the changes as originally planned. The amending regulations came into force on 7th April 1997.

The package of measures within the amending regulations being debated today include the introduction of an additional test to help determine whether someone has good reason for taking responsibility for the funeral expenses. Where there is a surviving partner, they will automatically be regarded as being responsible for the expenses, and help will be available provided the other qualifying conditions--for example, being in receipt of income-related benefit--are met. The same will apply in respect of a child's death, where the parents will be deemed responsible. In all other cases, details of any parent (including absent parents), son or daughter of the deceased will be considered. Where at least one member of the immediate family exists and neither they nor their partner, if they have one, have not been awarded a qualifying benefit, no help will be given.

Where a parent, son or daughter of the deceased is able to meet the costs, it is right that they should do so, rather than the taxpayer. The balance needs to be struck between providing help to anyone in genuine need and the taxpayer being asked to meet the cost when someone else should do so.

The advisory committee was concerned about the degree of questioning at a difficult time for families, but the regulations introduce some provisions to disregard certain categories of immediate family members not

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awarded a qualifying income-related benefit. They include children, full-time students, fully maintained members of a religious order, prisoners or hospital in-patients who had been awarded a qualifying benefit immediately before entering prison or hospital, and where the person was estranged from the deceased prior to death. The point in relation to estrangement is that it was meant to be helpful rather than the reverse. The Government will keep the position under close review and consider changes if it becomes clear that help is not reaching those in genuine need.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, pressed me on what would happen where a family member not on an income-related benefit lives overseas. They would not be eligible. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, asked what the situation was for same-sex couples. The survivor of a same-sex partnership may well be eligible for help under the regulations, provided he or she has good reason for taking responsibility. But so would any parent, son or daughter and it would have to be determined who might be regarded as the responsible person in that situation. I accept that it is a sensitive issue and respect the problems that may arise. We will obviously keep the matter under review.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, asked what would happen if no one was available to take responsibility. The local authority takes responsibility if there is no person in the immediate family who is liable to do so.

The other major change within the amending regulations relates not to who in the family may be responsible, but to the removal of the specified provision for funeral director's fees, which was capped at £500. That capped amount included a list of what was allowable for the funeral director's fees, and a number of additional items, including minister's and organist's fees, have also been removed as specified items. However, both have been subsumed within the higher figure of £600 for "other funeral expenses". That gives more flexibility to the family in disposing of the money.

Before April this year, up to £75 was available as a separate provision for additional requirements arising out of the religious faith of the deceased. Monitoring of funeral payment awards showed that that provision was very rarely used. In addition, the Social Security Advisory Committee reported that it had received no comments in the responses to its consultation exercise on the proposal to no longer specify that provision.

In addition to the amount allowed for "other funeral expenses", the necessary cost of specified items and services, including burial or cremation charges, will be met. The person arranging the funeral will still be able to choose between a burial or cremation. In the case of a burial, in some parts of the country--particularly where the local authority charges for a non-resident--that cost alone can be up to £2,300 before the department meets the cost of the funeral director's fees. Where the deceased lived in a remote area of the country, or died away from home, extra help may also be available for the additional transportation costs.

A number of other change measures are included within the amending regulations. Those include allowing people who marry while living in a residential

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care home or a nursing home to be treated as partners and where one dies the other is regarded as being responsible for the funeral expenses--thereby removing the need to consider other family members.

I understand that the detailed, pre-April 1997 provision was thought to be complex, difficult to understand, and led to inconsistent decision-making. Under the current arrangements, the person making the funeral arrangements is free to decide the detail, knowing the level of help available. Of course, it will be important for funeral directors to be aware that the person making the arrangements will be making a claim to the Social Fund for help. Encouragement should be given to consider the level of help available and the services which can be obtained within that amount.

I accept that it is a worrying and upsetting time for people who do not always feel able to "shop around" and obtain a decent price. I asked an official today to check the response of the three organisations of funeral directors to see whether services could be provided within the £600 cap available. Though those organisations accepted that not all funeral directors would be able to meet their costs, most of them should be able to do so. Clearly the department cannot be in the position of underwriting whatever a funeral director sees fit to charge. That would not be reasonable.

The amended provision allows someone to spend some of the available funds on fees or services not directly provided by the funeral director--something that was not possible before due to the specific and tightly-drawn references in the previous regulations.

Finally, we should note that the Social Security Advisory Committee's main recommendation was that there should be

    "a new approach to provision for funerals".
That reflected the view that the scheme had become too complex. In doing so, it put forward the suggestion of an insurance-based scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, referred to the number of people who take that on voluntarily. It is an interesting idea. One of our aims in reviewing social security is to consider how we can foster arrangements that encourage people to make provision for themselves, and which reward, rather than penalise, saving.

To conclude, your Lordships will be aware of your Government's commitment to the electorate to live within the previous administration's expenditure plan and these savings conform to it. Room for manoeuvre is limited, but, as I stated earlier, the provision will be kept under close review and if changes are thought necessary then, of course, I shall come back to the House to do so. I therefore ask the House to accept these regulations.

7.20 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I would like to pick up a couple of remarks made from the Conservative Front Bench. It is a little unfair on the citizens' advice bureaux to suggest that they make a practice of finding the hardest cases. The citizens' advice bureaux make a survey of what their branches bring into them and then, of course, they choose the ones which make the best cases, rather like the noble Lord does when

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he is making speeches from the Front Bench. It is what we all do and it is perfectly acceptable. The fact that those extreme cases do exist is evidence.

It is certainly not true of my colleagues, looking around here, and certainly not of myself that we are lap dogs to the present Government Front Bench. I spent the whole of the general election in Liverpool fighting a Labour incumbent in a constituency where I could not fight any Tories because there were not any. In fact, it was difficult enough to find a Tory voter and certainly no Tory workers of any kind were available, so I was fighting a Labour incumbent with Liberal policies, which I may say come from the left-wing of the Labour Party.

I had hoped that I would receive some response from the Minister, and I have. I had hoped that wearing carers' ribbons this week might be equivalent to a Masonic handshake across the Chamber, and although it was not quite that, at least it shows that we both think along the same lines and care in the same kind of way.

One of the reasons why I am not a lap dog of the Government is that I do not like the defence that the Government have to stick to the previous Government's expenditure plans and have to accept their rejection of necessary tax rises. We thought that was wrong at the time, and incidentally, quite unnecessary to get them elected, and we thought it was wrong in principle as well, and we still do.

I welcome the Minister's commitment that they will keep the matter under close review and will make changes if necessary. I conclude by paying tribute, largely to the small independent and really good funeral directors found throughout these islands. I regret that the whole industry appears to have been taken over by large American conglomerates which, from personal experience, I do not regard as giving anything like the same kind of service. But the good funeral director does need support. I am delighted to know from the Minister that most funeral directors think that in most cases they can meet funeral arrangements under--

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