OPPRESSIVE FUNERALS DOOMED TO CONTINUE UNLESS YOU RESPOND TO THIS PUBLIC CONSULTATION

If you find funerals depressing, strange or even oppressive, this may be your one and only opportunity to help turn things around.

You only have until 11:45 on the 21st August.

Help make the world a better place, by reading and responding urgently to this public consultation document.

It is short, easy to understand and looks harmless enough. However, as you will see below, the dangers are in what it doesn’t say.

If we can bring the Department for Work & Pensions into the modern world, that would have a knock-on effect with the NHS and other public services. The information which they hand out would then be very different, when those we are close to have died and we have to struggle with the intensity of our grief.

Pasted below is the full length version of summary details, which John Bradfield of the Alice Barker Trust circulated to a number of organisations. If you find his approach too technical, just do a word search for relatives, friends and daughter in what he has written. You will see how much we could all achieve, if provided with practical information, on how to pursue our full range of lawful options.

JOHN BRADFIELD’S CALL TO HAVE YOUR SAY

Note.  Apart from specific mentions of Scotland, most if not all of what follows, is essentially about England & Wales.

What matters more than anything else, is meeting the urgent needs of those who are facing the first minutes, days and weeks of struggling with devastating bereavements.

That cannot be achieved by the public consultation, as long as their needs are seen through the ever dominant business prism of the “funeral industry”.

Please make a strong call for the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) to adopt instead, a perspective which is designed to robustly protect and promote emotional and social wellbeing.

Unless the notion of joined-up or seamless public services has been abandoned, there cannot be a credible reason to carry on resisting a health and welfare approach, e.g. because of the legal duty on the NHS to protect and promote both physical and emotional wellbeing. That is especially so during times of emotional crises, such as the immediate impacts of devastating bereavements.

Crucially, that legal duty means having to empower us when we are facing personal and social crises. That includes a legal duty to outline our options with nothing other than accurate information. Given the determination of relevant government Ministers and other MPs., that is something the DWP could so easily help achieve, by outlining what we can all do and how we can do it. That in the long run is cheaper for the public purse, because prevention is more cost effective than cure or protracted care.

Other than a lack of foresight and wisdom, what possible reason could there be to resist that? The Health & Social Care Directorate within the Scottish government has studiously resisted it, so may have the answer.

On the 3rd August 2017, I emailed the government’s Cabinet Office in London, to request that a correction on law be added to the details within the DWP’s public consultation, to comply with the government’s consultation standards.

I also asked that those standards be strengthened, e.g. there isn’t one which clearly requires that information in formal public consultations be accurate. The NHS and adult social care services have had a legal duty to provide accurate information since the 1st August 2016. Other public services could and should do the same, without any necessity for them to have a legal duty to do so.

The legal flaw in paragraph 4.5 of the DWP’s consultation, is that contrary to the wording of the current DWP Regulations, it is impossible for anyone to become the owner of a grave or “burial plot” in a public burial place. That was drawn to the attention of the DWP on a number of occasions in recent years. Consequently, it is all the more surprising that the same error has been written into this public consultation.

What had been the ability to purchase perpetual “burial rights” to control who could and could not be buried in what were loosely referred to as “family graves”, was ended by law in 1964 (Church of England) and 1974 (local authorities in England & Wales). Even then, the landowner still owned the graves.

It is still possible to purchase perpetual burial rights in public cemeteries in Scotland. That may change, as the Health & Social Care Directorate within the Scottish government, held a related public consultation in 2015. It is currently moving forward on the basis of pseudoscience and trying to solve problems which do not exist, whilst ignoring those which do. In short, Scotland still has the opportunity to set world class standards, by being the first within the UK., to adopt a robust health and welfare perspective. It has been and may still be, at serious risk of losing the plot and demonstrating creeping authoritarianism, with the intention of removing ancient civil rights, without sound justification. By contrast, it was and may still be avoiding the issue of storing up future risks to life and limb, by not insisting on gravestones which cannot become unsafe. Its consultation closed on the 24th April 2015 and 8-year-old Ciaran Williamson was killed by a gravestone in a Glasgow cemetery on the 26th May 2015. Did his untimely death change the priorities of the Scottish Government?

Now, in local authority burial places within England & Wales, in addition to paying to have a grave dug and filled, it is only possible to pay to have use of a grave, for a specified number of years. The maximum length of time anyone can own the “burial rights” is 100 years, but usually 50 and sometimes fewer are offered.

The whole point of that is so graves in those public burial places can be emptied and used again when burial rights expire. That guarantees a continuous flow of income for the continual running of the services but for temporary rather than permanent burials.

Temporary protection of individual burials can be extended, for as long as money keeps being paid, to renew the “burial rights”, immediately before they expire, on each and every occasion. Sooner or later there will be no-one to renew those rights and the graves will be emptied and used again.

Despite what it is legally able to do, the Church of England rarely sells “burial rights” in its new graves. “It is not possible” to purchase burial rights in graves owned by the Church in Wales. The Church in Scotland appears to own very few burial grounds and it may be, that none remain active. It has its own laws on a range of subjects but its legal department was not aware of any relating to graves (lairs) and burial rights.

Paragraph 4.5 in the public consultation is potentially very serious. What is proposed, could end up forcing some who are eligible for Funeral Payments, to use what were referred to as “pauper” graves, if only those are offered in some local authority areas. Those are where burials have already taken place in the graves. Increasingly, they will include those where burial rights have expired, if they still have room for one or more extra burials.

When only used graves are offered to those claiming Funeral Payments, they currently have the option of using “new” graves in adjacent or even other local authority areas. Their charges would be covered by the DWP., up to a cap on the amount which can be paid. Will that option remain, with changes to come in the DWP Regulations?

Although burial rights can be purchased at any time, it may or may not prove possible to purchase them, in a grave where those buried have no connections with each other. For example, it would give an advantage to one burial over another and that might be discriminatory.

Some years ago, claimants were restricted to using such graves. The public consultation may not signal an intention to revert to the previous system, which many saw as stigmatising but it could be the start of a slippery slope. Paragraph 4.5 looks innocuous to the uninitiated but as with many things, unintended consequences need to be considered, before any changes are made to existing law.

In more recent years, the government gave up on ensuring that Funeral Payments would cover all costs, when using commercial contractors, such as undertakers. To meet whatever charges they may be keen to make, they persuaded the government to lend additional money to those entitled to Funeral Payments. That is plunging them into avoidable and in many cases, greater debt.

That meant that the government willingly abandoned the financial ceiling below which undertakers could be urged to work. That abandonment had the support of the LibDems fronted then by DWP Minister Steve Webb MP.. He lost his seat at the last general election and became director of policy with the Royal London, which is running TV advertisements for funeral insurance.

The public consultation document states that the government doesn’t want to place, “an additional burden on the funeral industry”. With the encouragement of Steve Webb when still a Minister, the government imposed a frightening burden of debt on benefit claimants, when they are acutely vulnerable, struggling with the immediate impacts of devastating bereavements and risks to their health.

As a result, the Co-op asked one woman to borrow £2,000 to add to her Funeral Payment. She was so frightened, that her mother wasn’t buried for 4 months. The local authority stepped into the breach and arranged what would have been called a “pauper’s burial”, about which see above.

When the daughter’s time comes, it will not be possible for her to be buried with her mother. However, I discovered that the DWP Funeral Payment with the £700 would have covered all costs for a new grave, for mother and daughter, had the undertakers not been involved.

It is important, therefore, that the DWP inform benefit claimants, their relatives, friends, neighbours, voluntary organisations and others, that they can work together to do everything themselves and claim Funeral Payments. To obtain Funeral Payments, there is no obligation to involve any commercial contractors.

A question you might well ask, is why the DWP has not made that common knowledge over many years?

This consultation could change that if you stress the point.

Currently, Funeral Payments cover the full burial and cremation charges in each local area. To reflect the true meaning of those payments, it would be clearer in future legislation to refer to Burial & Cremation Payments. The additional sum payable which is currently £700, is intended to help ensure related practical arrangements can be covered. That sum is not intended to cover the high and often extraordinarily high costs of using commercial contractors, such as undertakers.

Burial charges covered by the DWP include the digging and filling and the right to retain the use of the grave, for a specified number of years, as mentioned above. Also mentioned above, is that £700 can be claimed for anything else. If a coffin is to be used, purchasing one from the internet would take a chunk from that sum.

For the avoidance of doubt, no law requires that coffins, shrouds or other special clothing, hearses or undertakers, be used for any reason at any time.

Undertakers have no powers to say what anyone can and cannot do. That is despite what some of the most lucrative undertaking businesses have been known to do and say. If law was better understood and access to the courts did not depend on having deep pockets, some undertakers could have been prosecuted for obstructing those who pay their bills. Only they have what the law says is “lawful control” over what can and cannot be done, where and when, i.e. they in law are the only legitimate directors of funerals. In law, undertakers should be humble and obedient servants and not “directors” of anything.

Before a Parliamentary Adjournment Debate about Funeral Payments on the 26th April 2011, Teresa Evans (evansaboveonline.co.uk) and I had already persuaded the DWP to make clear in its literature that, Funeral Payments can be made, without using undertakers or other commercial contractors.

Even now, the DWP doesn’t give practical information, about how to deal with things in other ways, to help avoid going deeper into debt.

The DWP must be urged to move away from unwittingly promoting the “funeral industry”.

That is contrary to not only a health and welfare perspective but also contrary to the safeguards intended in consumer protection legislation.

If nothing else, the DWP should at least appear neutral. However, that may not be acceptable in law, as there seems to be an implied duty to protect those who are most vulnerable, so they gain a sense of security, through the actions of our social security system.

The term “social” is very relevant here, where I have mentioned relatives, friends, neighbours, voluntary organisations and others. Will the DWP put them centre stage, in its future social security literature on Funeral Payments?

All public services should have as their main priority, how to help avoid the harmful financial, emotional and social consequences, for those who are dying and newly bereaved.

All must be urged to promote a robust health and welfare perspective.

For that to happen, the DWP., NHS., Social Services Departments (E&W) and what are or were Social Work Departments in Scotland in particular, must do what was recommended in an academic study in the 1930s. The same was more recently recommended by the now defunct Office of Fair Trading but has never been done. That is, provide sound information on all lawful options and how to go about doing sensitively, whatever will best meet emotional and social needs.

That would not only empower individuals but encourage and strengthen social bonds and supports within families, other groups and communities.

We have constructed and still keep propping up a culture, which unwittingly encourages the financial exploitation of grief. That is done by those on the frontline, such as NHS staff and coroners, who naively allow undertakers to influence policy makers, directly and/or indirectly. That was deprecated in the above academic study in the 1930s but hard lessons have not been conveyed, even by the proliferation of modern university education and training courses, relevant to health and welfare.

Only detailed, creative, sound and therapeutically empowering information on one credible website, would minimise those things which are most disabling, such as financial exploitation, intense fears, ignorance, mystery, harmful and often total dependence, helplessness and hopelessness.

Empowerment, by encouraging independence of thought and action would also help prevent those living in poverty from being plunged even further into avoidable debt.

Points like these are not raised in the DWP’s public consultation document, but you could raise them and flag up other important issues which are not mentioned above.

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