HC Deb 05 February 1982 vol 17 cc686-701

Order for Second Reading read.

1.18 pm
Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is only a general statement of intent. It was not my intention, nor that of the right hon. and hon. Members who support the Bill, to include the detailed and necessary amendments that will be required if the death grant is fully to reflect the aspirations of all those—— [Interruption.]

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Rossi)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am trying to hear what the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) is saying. It is an important matter. I have some difficulty in hearing his remarks above the general background noise.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)

I am sorry. Let us hear the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) in silence.

Mr. Ross

It was not the intention of my hon. and right hon. Friends who support the Bill—a support that I hope will come from both sides of the House—that it should specify the detailed and necessary amendments that would be required if we were to uprate and improve the death grant. That is not and never has been the intention.

Over 1 million voices outside the House have spoken on the issue. Therefore, I hope that this Bill will be given a very speedy Second Reading in the House today. It can then move into Committee. If the Government or anybody else wish to propose amendments, they can be taken at that time. It is not our intention that the Bill should end the discussions.

The intention of the Bill is first to increase the death grant to £190 with effect from 1 January 1983; secondly, to require the Secretary of State to review the death grant on 1 January and each subsequent year in order to retain its value in relation to the general level of prices; and, thirdly, to abolish the present half-rate provided for men born on or before 4 July 1893 and for women born on or before 4 July 1898.

The Beveridge report on social insurance and allied services recommended that the new national insurance scheme should include a funeral grant to cover the necessary expenses for a decent funeral. The proposal was adopted by the Government, and it was included in the National Insurance Act 1946. On 5 July 1949 the death grant was introduced at the rate suggested by the Beveridge report.

Since then, the grant has been increased only twice. In January 1958 it was increased to £25 for an adult on full benefit, £7.50 for a child under 3 years, £12.50 for a child aged between 3 and 5 years, and £18.75 for a child aged between 6 and 17 years. In October 1967 it was increased to its present rate of £30 for an adult on full benefit, £9 for a child under 3 years, £15 for a child aged between 3 and 5 years, and £22.50 for a child aged between 6 and 17 years. The half-rate grant is still payable on the death of persons who were within 10 years of the pension age in July 1948; that is, a man born between 5 July 1883 and 4 July 1893, and a woman born between 5 July 1888 and 4 July 1898.

The fact that the British social security system lacked a funeral or death grant when the Beveridge report was published had more to do with political pressures than the assessment of need.

When the Labour Government of that day considered legislation for old-age pensions, employment benefits and national health insurance schemes, they could not ignore the pressure of the British friendly society movement. That movement was described by some as, in many ways, the most powerful single vested interest encountered by social reformers. Nor could the Labour Government of that day ignore the views of the industrial insurance industry—an extremely large, profitable and closely controlled business. Both those organisations owed much of their political significance to the provision of death benefits. B. B. Gilbert, in his book "The Evolution of National Insurance in Great Britain," said: There was no more degrading aspect of the poor law, and no greater fear among the English working class, than the fear of death as a pauper". The fear of dying in such circumstances was shared by the Welsh, Irish and Scottish working classes. Burial by the parish had always been the ultimate humiliation and the assurance of a respectable funeral was often the first motive for formation of a friendly society. Playing upon this fear, commercial insurance companies had built up a gigantic and immensely profitable business of offering funeral benefits on far less favourable terms than the friendly societies. The friendly societies at that time offered sick pay and medical care as well as enough death benefit for a decent funeral—approximately £10 to £15—whereas the industrial insurance companies concentrated on the provision of death benefit, preying not only on the fear of a pauper burial but, more significantly, on the inability of the poor to maintain their payments. For each 10 new policies sold in a year approximately nine lapsed.

Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

May I mention a matter with which the hon. Gentleman may be intending to deal? Many of us receive letters from constituents who are the children or parents of a deceased person. It frequently happens that in a moment of distress and anxiety they go ahead with what they regard as an appropriate funeral. The bills for that funeral come upon them later, and they are unable to meet them.

Mr. Ross

I shall be coming to that point. I have received many such letters, as have other hon. Members, to that effect. Much of the material before me—hon. Members will be pleased to know that I shall not go through it all—relates to the hon. Gentleman's point.

Industrial insurance companies profited not only from the fear of a pauper burial but, more significantly, from the inability of the poor to maintain their payments. While the Establishment argued that the profits of the companies were due to lack of economic self-management among the working classes, the reality had more to do with low incomes and the concern not to be buried by the parish.

As the Beveridge report made clear, the absence of funeral or death grant could not be excused on the grounds that efficient public services were being provided by industrial insurance companies. Beveridge observed that every independent committee set up to investigate industrial insurance criticised strongly both its conduct and its results—particularly the number of policies held by those companies.

For example, in 1939 there were approximately 2.25 policies for every man, woman and child in Britain.

Beveridge also strongly criticised the administrative cost, because the real administrative expense of funeral grants as social insurance could be no more than 2 or 3 per cent. of the contributions, whereas the companies' actual figure was 37.5 per cent. of contributions. Beveridge concluded: There can be no justification for requiring the public who need insurance for direct funeral expenses to pay the heavy tax involved in industrial insurance". Beveridge was sufficiently concerned about the operation of the industry to recommend the incorporation of a funeral grant in his new social insurance scheme. The proposal was adopted by the Labour Government and included in the National Insurance Act 1946.

The rates suggested by Beveridge were based on figures provided by the Undertakers' Association to the Cohen committee in 1932 and the then current costs of local authority funerals. The figures were the following: for adults, £20; for those between 10 and 20, £15; for children between three and nine, £10; and for those under three years, £6.

It is interesting to note that part of the Beveridge recommendation was based on the current cost of local authority funerals. When my hon. Friend the Member For Kilmarnock (Mr. McKelvey) spoke to his local district council, Kilmarnock and Loudoun, he was informed that when the council had to bear the cost of a very basic funeral—because the deceased's estate would not bear the cost—the cost to the council in October 1981 was £328.50.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

If the death grant were to be raised to, say, £190, it would still be only about 60 or 70 per cent. of the cost of an average funeral. When the figure was £20, it was about the same percentage of the: average cost. If we are to set a base figure—the Bill clearly contemplates that we should—should we not set a base figure higher than £190, so that the whole cost of the average funeral would be met?

Mr. Ross

If I thought for one single instant that the Minister would agree with the suggestion just made by his hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), 1 would immediately accept such an amendment to the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman supports the Bill, he is welcome to propose such an amendment in Committee—

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

And not to talk today.

Mr. Ross

I am sure that such an amendment would be welcomed by everyone on the Committee.

That is the background to the introduction of the death grant. What is it worth and why is there so much concern about it? The Act of 1956 introduced for the first time a national insurance benefit for funeral expenses. Even at that stage, the figures were not right. While the full rate of £20 was the same figure that Beveridge had recommended, his calculations were based on a cost of living assumed to be about 25 per cent. above that of 1938.

By 1948, when the benefits were introduced, the cost of living was about 40 per cent. higher than it had been in 1938. While most benefits were raised to take account of the differences between Beveridge's estimate of the cost of living and the actual rise in price levels since 1938, this was not the case with the death grant. Not only was the new rate below the sum of £22.50 needed to keep it in line with the figures that Beveridge suggested, but the death grant was denied the smaller increase allowed to most other benefits. If we were to implement the Beveridge proposals today the effect would be, as of August 1980, a death grant of £194.35.

There has been a failure on both sides of the House. Successive Governments have failed to increase the death grant, and that is not a party political point. I remonstrate equally with my party as with the Conservatives for failing to increase the death grant when in office.

What concerns us is the plight of the bereaved and their struggle to meet the cost of the funeral. The Department of Health and Social Security instituted a report into the matter. Their report, "Families, Funerals and Finances" concluded that the payment of funeral expenses was no longer the major social problem that it had been in the past. The report was published in 1980 but refers to a survey conducted in 1974. In the sample used for the survey the average cost of a funeral was £168. By August 1980, when the report was published, the equivalent figure should have been £392. Thus the death grant was contributing 18 per cent. of the total funeral costs in 1972, was still contributing 18 per cent. in 1974, but by 1980 was contributing a mere 7.4 per cent.

The author of the report commented that whereas people might accept help from the State with expenses such as housing and fuel bills without question, they could experience misery and guilt if it became necessary to ask for help in a funeral bill. He concluded that the difference lies in the emotionally overloaded meaning that the bill has for the person concerned. It may be paid to the undertaker, but it is for someone who is dead and for whom they can do no more.

Sir Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

Like other hon. Members I have had letters about this and I have found that the Supplementary Benefits Commission pays the funeral bill. As far as I can see, the mechanics of the system are that it pays the bill, less the amount of the death grant. It gives direct instructions to the undertaker and pays the bill direct, leaving the undertaker to recover from the family the amount of the death grant. I am not suggesting that that is a satisfactory arrangement, but I would welcome, as would other hon. Members, the comments of the hon. Gentleman if that is the case.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The hon. and learned Member is talking about a pauper's funeral.

Mr. Ross

I will come to that point later. There are many hon. Members on this side of this House who would wish to comment, but I hope that they can restrain themselves—

Sir Ronald Bell

And on this side too.

Mr. Ross

——because I hope that the Bill will get a Second Reading. I am sure that many Labour Members would not share the view expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Sir R. Bell). The DHSS survey showed that low income is not compensated for by insurance in other payments from the estate. The conclusion is that those bereaved people in the lowest income group were least likely to have all their costs covered by the estate and were most likely to have to find over £100 towards the cost. In addition, although the payment of funeral expenses may no longer have been a major social problem in 1974, there is little doubt that an inflation-proof death grant would even then have relieved many individuals of financial worry and would have significantly improved the circumstances of the most disadvantaged among a group who, on the whole, are poorer than average.

Leaving aside the worry about ensuring that one's funeral costs can be met, Beveridge's straightforward financial argument remains valid. For substantially smaller contributions, the State social security system could and should guarantee everyone a benefit that is sufficient to meet the cost of a modest funeral. When I was fortunate enough in the ballot to be able to introduce a Bill that was needed and that I thought stood a good chance of being enacted with support from hon. Members on both sides of the House, many organisations contacted me. I am pleased to say that they were not only organisations with vested interests, such as funeral directors. People concerned in the best sense of the word, from the highest to the lowest in the land—whichever way one looks at society—contacted me.

I received a letter from a lady who lived in Coronation Avenue, Fishburn, Stockton-on-Tees, Cleveland. She spoke about the concern she felt for her mother, aged 84. The mother worries about the cost of her funeral and has been a widow for 51 years. The lady now shares that worry about how to bury her mother. Lady Limsrick also wrote to me. She is a member of The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths. She took the trouble to send me statistics that she had worked out. They show the burden that results from infant deaths. I was glad to receive the support of several organisations, including the Church of Scotland committee on social responsibility. It assured me of the support not only of the committee but of the whole Church of Scotland. It hopes that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.

The Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association has given its support and has asked hon. Members to support the Bill. It has given some examples of the way in which it has had to use its funds to assist with funeral costs. It states: Many of those helped are widows and Mrs. N. is sadly typical. 83, poor and independent, faced with a bill of £220 for her husband's funeral, not excessive by today's standards, she was paying off the debt at the rate of £20 a week out of a total weekly income of £26.75. Not surprisingly this was only achieved by depriving herself of food and heat. The National Association of Local Councils has 7,500 members and it is a sub-tier of local authorities for villages and small towns in England and Wales. It also argues that the death grant should be increased. The Association of District Councils urges that the death grant should be increased, particularly in order to assist the public at a time of bereavement and to mitigate the burden on local authorities, as they have a duty under the National Assistance Act to bury or cremate the dead when there is no one else to do it. Pensioner's Voice represents many pensioners throughout the length and breadth of Britain. It states: There is a great disparity in charges between the manufacturers' prices for coffin shells and the amount finally charged to the client. An undertaker enters a person's home when life is at its lowest ebb, following the death of a loved one and, obviously the family are not prepared to haggle about cost. A similar comment was made in a letter from the vicar of St. Mary's Church, Clymping. He said: When the death grant was first introduced it is thought that there was an indication from the Government that the funeral directors should provide a funeral which the grant would cover. As the grant has not been increased this is obviously no longer possible. If you are successful in increasing the grant we suggest the view is expressed that funeral directors should be required to provide a funeral at a figure which bears a near relation to that of the grant. I could continue with page after page written by people concerned with death in its full sense urging the House to take account of their concern and fears and to take some action to relieve the anxiety of those left to bury the person who has died.

Death, particularly the death of a child, remains a taboo subject. It is probably for this reason that the DHSS payment for funerals is not promoted and advertised on the same scale as free welfare milk and vitamins. People need to be aware of their entitlement, particularly at a time of crisis. A knowledge of the benefits and procedures for claiming would alleviate a great deal of confusion and distress and ensure that payments are not delayed.

Although my Bill does not lay down a minimal grant relating to children, I hope that this matter can be covered if the measure receives a Second Reading. I have received letters from the South Wales Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus expressing the anxiety felt by many parents when a child suffering from spina bifida or hydrocephalus dies. I should like to share the contents of one or two of those letters with the House. The first states: It has been my sad experience in the past in dealing with such families who have lost a child during the first few weeks of life through spina bifida and/or hydrocephalus. Needless to say no provision has been made for life assurance cover for a child so young and with the present grant of £9, one is faced with sudden financial and emotional shock. Another letter refers to a mother who had lost her young son. It states: She was recalling Mark's death and talked of the anxiety she and her husband felt over the bill for the funeral. They had to find about £168. She wondered how they could have managed this without a street collection among neighbours and a contribution from the association.

It is terrible and tragic that street collections are required to bury a child in such circumstances. There are further letters from north Wales, Southampton, West Yorkshire, Taunton, Gloucestershire, Northumberland and Greenwich. All relate the same kind of problems faced by young families when a child suffering from spina bifida or hydrocephalus dies. There is overwhelming evidence that the country at large would like to see the grant raised to a level that would answer the anxieties and fears felt by many people. I hope that the Minister will say what the Government intend to do. There seems to be some confusion.

Mr. Garel-Jones

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ross

Not at the moment. I wish to press on. I have urged many of my hon. Friends to keep their contributions brief. It is important that the Bill should be given a Second Reading. There is some confusion over the Government's intentions. The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), speaking at a British Legion meeting, said that there was to be a change in the death grant and reaffirmed this in a Radio 4 interview. Throughout the Government's period of office, Ministers have made it clear that they intend to make some statement on the death grant.

There were opportunities before Christmas and again last night during the debate on the elderly which were not taken by the Minister to indicate the Government's intention on the death grant. I hope that hon. Members do not have to wait for an official leak in The Guardian to discover the Government's intentions. It seems that the Government are contemplating two, three or four options. Most of the options suggested in the leaks would be unacceptable to Labour Members, to the Dignity in Death Alliance, the all-party pensioners' group and the majority of people in the country. Those options seem to be a form of clawback or means-testing. What is even worse, the latest leak seems to imply that the Treasury is now determined to push a further option, saying that the death grant is now irrelevant and therefore should be abolished. I hope that before the end of this debate we shall be told what the Government intend to do about the death grant.

I conclude now so that other hon. Members may make their contributions, which I hope will be short. I hope that they accept that it is more important for the Bill to get a Second Reading. I urge my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Keighley (Mr. Crer) not to harass Conservative Members, but to allow them to make their speeches, which I hope will be brief. I hope that hon. Members on both sides will allow the Bill to receive a Second Reading. As the Dignity in Death Alliance says, 1 million voices have spoken. If the House fails to respond, those 1 million voices will be heard again and they may say something that the House will not like.

1.46 pm
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Rossi)

I welcome the opportunity which the Bill gives us to debate the death grant provisions. It is an issue, as the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) said—I congratulate him on the way in which he presented the Bill—which has provoked much public interest, as witnessed by the attraction of more than 1 million signatures to the petition presented to the House last year by the Dignity in Death Alliance, and by a number of voluntary organisations which have expressed concern. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a few of them today. That concern is also shown by the steady stream of correspondence on the subject which I am sure that all hon. Members receive and which they have referred to me. Many of the hon. Members who are present today have written to me or have asked me questions in the House on this subject.

I might have preferred to debate the issues before us after the Government had completed the review of death grant arrangements which has been in train since 1980. Unfortunately, that was not possible. Once the review is completed, I or my right hon. Friend will make a statement on the outcome, which I am sure will give us a full opportunity for constrructive debate. At this stage I can only assure the House that the Government are continuing to give active consideration to the matter.

In answering the many questions that the hon. Gentleman has put to me, I shall seek to show the way in which the Government are moving and the problems that we have faced in trying to resolve a matter that has defeated successive Administrations over many years. The gap between the amount of the death grant and the cost of the funeral has not suddenly happened. The gap has been wide for a long time. The Labour Government did not give the matter any priority. At least this Government have carried out an intensive review into all the problems. We hope to come back to the House as soon as possible with the results of our deliberations on the matter.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Bill relates to the death grant as envisaged by Beveridge. The Bill seeks to provide the universal coverage of death grant which Beveridge had intended, once we progressed beyond the transitional phase. It seeks to restore the level of grant in current price terms to the real value that it had in 1949, when it was introduced.

The hon. Gentleman based his case on the Beveridge report. Let us examine, therefore, the Beveridge case for a universal death grant at a level sufficient to meet a major share of basic funeral costs. On what evidence was the scheme based and how does it relate to present day circumstances? It is clear that the death grant was introduced to reflect the social and economic conditions of the 1930s and the 1940s. The Beveridge report shows that the key facts that led Lord Beveridge to his proposals were, first, the large proportion of income of the poorest families that was being devoted to life insurance in the 1930s. The report quotes survey data from the Rowntree study of poor families in York in 1936, showing that some of the poorest families were devoting one fifth or more of their income to life insurance.

The second factor is the social customs of mourning and funeral arrangements in the 1930s and the threat of the pauper's burial. The third is that the grants were determined by reference to a 1932 report by the Cohen committee with a margin added for cemetery fees. Fourthly, the importance of the contributory principle meant that no one over pension age on the introduction of the scheme could be covered by it. We still have that position today. The costs were entirely loaded on the workers' contributions with nothing coming from the employers and only limited transitional help from the Exchequer. The fifth factor is the comparatively low contribution that the working population would have to pay to cover themselves and their families for the death grant.

We must consider the scheme in that context and see how the hon. Gentleman's proposals, if added to Beveridge as we understand it and have respected it, would apply today if the Government wished to revert to worker's contributions only.

It is important to remember that the costs of the Beveridge scheme were intentionally spread over a lengthy maturity period. The exclusion of those over pension age in 1948 meant that in the early stages a major proportion of deaths were not covered. Those within 10 years of pension age in 1948 were allowed to claim the grant, but at half rate. Thus it is still a misnomer to describe the Beveridge scheme as universal. Even now, 30 years after its introduction, only about 75 per cent. of all deaths in a year attract the full grant. A further 15 per cent. attract grant at half rate or at one of the child rates. There are still about 500,000 people in their eighties or nineties who do not qualify for full rate death grant under the existing provisions of the scheme. Even with the present low grant, it would cost about £3 million a year to extend the entitlement to those people.

It must also be said that no post-war Government have ever accepted the Beveridge idea of a direct link between the death grant and the costs of a simple funeral. In 1949, the grant corresponded to no more than 60 per cent. of the cost of an average funeral and successive Governments have seen fit to allow inflation progressively to reduce the relative value of death grant to average funeral costs. The increase in 1958 left the grant at about 50 per cent. of average funeral costs and the previous increase in 1967 provided only the equivalent of 30 per cent. of the average cost. Inaction by successive Governments since then has reduced the value of the grant to less than 10 per cent. of the average cost of a funeral. Thus, even when increased in 1958 and in 1967, the grant was never fully restored to its former value.

That suggests that this is not the only Government who have taken the view that changes in economic and social circumstances have called into question the continued relevance of a universal scheme based on the Beveridge model. On the other hand, no previous Government seem to have made a serious effort to review the scheme from first principles to see whether the time has come to change it to meet present-day circumstances.

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

In making comparisons with previous Governments, the Minister is absolutely right that no Government have done enough about this, but he is factually wrong to say that no attempt was made. In March 1980 my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) attempted to increase the grant to £45 irrespective of age, but his new clause to the Social Security Bill was defeated by the Government.

Mr. Rossi

I do not think that £45 would have made much difference for the categories of people about whom the Government are most concerned. The average cost of a funeral today is about £350, and £45 will go nowhere if the person has no money at all to pay for the funeral. The Government's concern is therefore to see how we can direct resources in such a way that it is those people who are helped.

The matter must be seen in context, as we are dealing with a fundamental reappraisal of Beveridge in present-day circumstances. We have to consider how thinking has developed and how social and economic changes have taken place in our society so that any new scheme may be tailor-made to be relevant and appropriate to today's circumstances. As I have explained, the Beveridge death grant scheme was based upon research data from the early 1930s. These raised queries as to its relevance even in 1949.

Major factual contributions to the Government review have been the 1977 Price Commission report on funeral charges and the 1975 DHSS research team survey into the circumstances of bereaved families and funeral costs incurred, which was eventually published in 1980 as "Families, Funerals and Finances". It is published as DHSS research report No. 6, HMSO 1980, if hon. Members wish to study the matter further.

The Government have also considered death grant provisions in other countries, information from the probate registry and from banks and insurance companies about the level of estates, and the working of the existing scheme to help recipients of supplementary benefit when they are responsible for meeting funeral costs. We have also examined the detailed working of the present scheme. On average, every death grant claim involves an administrative cost of £13 for a maximum payment of £30. [HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful."] I agree that it is disgraceful, but that is the position into which successive Governments have allowed the matter to drift.

Mr. Skinner

At this rate we shall never get this Bill either.

Mr. Rossi

What are the key facts which emerge from that welter of information?

Mr. Skinner

The Minister is filibustering.

Mr. Rossi

If the hon. Gentleman interrupts, he will make me take longer.

Mr. Skinner

The Minister is doing that deliberately.

Mr. Rossi

I resent that. This is a serious matter which requires serious debate. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not like debate. He likes to bully people to his will. I will not be bullied by him. I intend the matter to be properly debated and I shall put the issues before the House. If the hon. Gentleman does not like it, he can go outside.

Mr. Skinner

The Minister is trying to kill the Bill.

Mr. Rossi

I am not trying to kill the Bill. I am trying to deal with a serious subject of intense importance to millions of people outside the House, to put before them the problems and to show that the Conservative Government are doing something which the Labour Government never attempted to do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If there are interjections of that sort from seated positions, I must tell the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that they will undoubtedly lead to more delay.

Mr. Rossi

What key facts emerge from this welter of information? First, voluntary insurance no longer has the importance it once had in meeting funeral costs. Evidence remains that under-insurance is the main problem in this area, particularly for older people who took out life cover long before the inflationary pressures of the 1960s and 1970s. However, it is also clear that most families are able to draw on a much wider range of disposable income now than was likely to have been the case in the 1930s, which was the Beveridge point of reference. There is now vastly more occupational provision for death in service benefit or for lump sum or other payments in retirement. There is also vastly increased home ownership.

The proportion of income put aside for savings is now of a level undreamt of by most families in the 1930s. Real incomes have risen significantly since the 1940s, for pensioners as well as for the working population, as the Opposition reminded us only yesterday when they told us of the great strides they made in that field.

Mr. Fitt

The hon. Gentleman cannot say that when there are 3 million unemployed.

Mr. Rossi

What is the effect of this real increase in disposable incomes? For the most part, it makes it much easier for people to put aside money for their funeral. In the 1975 survey, nearly half of the families met the full costs of the funeral from the deceased's estate. At that time, the death grant represented barely one-fifth of the cost of a funeral. Of the remainder, about four out of five families reported that they experienced no significant difficulty in raising the balance of funeral costs not met from the estate. These facts cannot be ignored by those who argue for a substantial increase in death grant in respect of all deaths. That is the proposition in the Bill.

Mr Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

In those circumstances, could the Minister tell us how much extra money the Government are prepared to allocate to the scheme? What would be the cost compared with the scheme put forward by the proposer of the Bill?

Mr. Rossi

That matter is still under consideration and I am not in a position to advise the House on it. When the Government have decided that matter, a statement will be made. I am sorry that I cannot help the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) at this stage.

Sir Ronald Bell

I intervene because I think that there is a respectable argument, not for the Bill, but for the proposition that the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) advanced and it would be a pity if the Minister concluded without answering it. What objection is there to covering the cost of funerals by an insurance benefit provided that the whole cost of financing it is put on the contribution? Does that not deal with the case, not of the unfortunate, but of the person who had the opportunity of putting aside money during his working life but did not and who now has to be helped out of his difficulty by receiving supplementary benefit at the expense of the taxpayer?

Mr. Rossi

It is possible, of course, for people who want to do that, to obtain private insurance. The purpose of the Beveridge scheme was to take it out of the private sector and have a national insurance scheme. If we were to follow Beveridge and, at the same time, uprate the funeral grants to the extent that the hon. Gentleman proposed, that would cost the national insurance fund about £100 million a year in addition. Following Beveridge, that sum could only be put on employees' contributions and, given the difficulties that we had in the House only a few days ago, when there was an order before us seeking modestly to lift the employee's contributions to meet the cost of some other benefits——

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

At lest 1 per cent.

Mr. Rossi

This would be at least 1 per cent. and is a question that the House and country must consider in the context of the Bill. The hon. Member for Dundee, West took almost 30 minutes when addressing the House. I wanted to take less time, but that seems to be impossible.

The survey data also showed that for the minority of cases where the funeral costs caused real difficulty the £30 grant—less in many cases—was nowhere near sufficient help. However, there was no strong discernible pattern in the groups facing the most difficulty. Low income could be a factor, but many families on supplementary benefit did not consider it necessary to seek further help from the State and reported little difficulty in raising the money required.

People with the highest average incomes often spent less on the funerals than people whose main income was a retirement or widow's pension. Widowers were said to encounter more difficulty than widows, and in some cases of difficulty the problem was not so much lack of resources as a delay in securing them.

The survey also found that the average cost of a funeral does not greatly exceed the cost of a basic funeral. Cremation is now more popular than burial and tends to be less costly because of the high cost of burial plots and memorial stones. Funerals tend to be smaller and simpler and the custom of wearing mourning clothes has almost passed away. That is a sign not of poverty caused by the low death grant but of a considerable change in social attitudes since the 1930s and 1940s.

In the light of that, we must call into question the priority that should be given to the Bill. A death grant of £190 for all, would cost £100 million a year extra. It is not sensible for the hon. Member for Dundee, West to present a single proposal which would cost £100 million a year extra. I am sure that other hon. Members would like a £190 death grant payable to all, but we must consider priorities. If we gave that grant to all, would it be right for people who have been left substantial estates which more than cover the cost to benefit? When £30 is an insignificant sum to a person, is it right to give him money out of the national insurance fund?

Sir Ronald Bell

That is financed by contributions.

Mr. Rossi

That is so, but would employees be prepared to increase their contributions to provide the extra £100 million? The Government must consider these matters. Is it suggested that we should break the contributory principle, redistribute the money and ensure that it goes to the families in need? If we decide to do that, how do we identify those in need? The last thing that I want is a means test on the date of bereavement. If we have to identify people in need, some form of passporting will be needed. All these matters exercise our minds. There is no lack of conscientious effort to try to arrive at a conclusion.

If the House decides, in its wisdom, that we must payout another £100 million and that it is not right to raise the contributions, is it right to pay that money to families with no real need?

If I were presented with a windfall of £100 million by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I should like to spend it on many things other than on families who do not require it—especially when an inheritance of thousands of pounds might be involved—and deny others who are in need of help.

To solve the problem of the invalidity trap would cost £15 million. I am anxious to deal with that problem and if I were given £100 million I would consider spending it on that. There is a capital cut-off point of £2,000 for people on supplementary benefit. If I were given £25 million I should spend it on that. I should love to be able to introduce a general disability allowance. I should like to have £50 million for the restoration of the 5 per cent. abatement on invalidity pensions. I should love another £100 million to extend the long-term rate of supplementary benefit for the unemployed. I could carry on pointing out areas where there is a high call for extra resources, and the list would still not be exhausted.

There is no significance in the order in which I have mentioned the matters that concern me. I have not mentioned improvements such as price-protecting all social security benefits, or increasing the supplementary benefit rates and family income supplement in real terms, or enhancing the value of child benefit. Therefore, I am more than reluctant to accept a Bill which would involve payment across the board of a death grant of £190 for every estate in the land. That is not the right way to deal with the matter unless people are prepared to face a substantial increase in national insurance contributions.

Mr. Garel-Jones

I was a little confused when my hon. Friend said, in reply to a question from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Sir R. Bell), that contributions needed would be 1 per cent. Did my hon. Friend mean to say 0.1 per cent?

Mr. Rossi

I apologise to my hon. Friend. He is correct. It was a slip of the tongue.

There is a much stronger case for seeing whether the resources that are already available for death grant can be redistributed more effectively to the families who need help, but a selective approach can take many different forms, and there is an added difficulty in trying to ensure that the process of selection picks up the families in greatest need. The matter is still under active consideration and it would not be proper for me to anticipate a statement which will follow as soon as the review is complete.

The Government recognise the difficulty of establishing any new means test at a time of bereavement, and recognise the concern of the House to bring forward positive proposals that give effective help where it is most necessary. We are more than conscious of the cases that are brought to our attention where hardship is experienced, because of the ever-widening gap between the level of death grant and the basic cost of a funeral. I assure the House that we shall come forward with our proposals as soon as possible.

2.12 pm
Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

I should dearly love to reply to all the points made by the Minister in what I considered to be an unnecessarily long speech, considering its content. I am sure that most of those points can be dealt with in Committee. I shall be more than happy to deal with them then.

Mr. Rossi


Mr. Stallard

In view of the shortness of time, I am happy to sacrifice my speech and wait for the Committee stage because it is important that the Bill should go into Committee so that all the points raised in this debate and others can be dealt with on behalf of the millions of people who are waiting for a resolution of the question of death grant.

2.13 pm
Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I support the principle of the Bill. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) on bringing it before the House, having had the luck to draw an appropriate place in the ballot. I congratulate him especially on the manner in which he moved the Second Reading. He said correctly that his party had no particular credit to claim in respect of this matter any more than the Conservative Party has. It is a delusion to say, as the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) said, that motions brought forward by the Opposition and then turned down by the Government reflect credit on anyone. Responsible Governments take decisions on such matters and the attitude of the Opposition of the time does not necessarily reflect credit on them as to the merits of the case.

Although the Welfare State has largely abolished poverty, acute poverty still exists in some areas, including this one. We should take steps to alleviate it either through the contributory principle or through taxation. The principle was accepted in the Beveridge report.

It is a pity that voluntary insurance for this purpose has declined. In the 1920s, in the area of London where I was born, it was customary for mothers to insure newly born children in case they had to pay for an early funeral. It cost a penny a week. I still have such an insurance. It is worth about £67 now. That sum would not pay for my funeral. I hope that f shall not need one soon.

I am not certain about the financial aspects of the Bill, but we can discuss them in Committee. The council of the London borough of Bromley has asked me to support the Bill. Its own charges now exceed the death grant.

The question is how to find the money needed to increase the grant. It is a matter of priorities as always. The DHSS could adjust its budget. There could be a contribution from the national insurance fund and from the tax revenue. The cost to the Exchequer of free contraceptives and free slimming tablets now prescribed by doctors amounts to millions of pounds. Such things should have a priority far below the need to give a measure of justice to people who fear dying in poverty and suffering a pauper's grave. That is why I am strongly in favour of the principle of the Bill.

2.17 pm
Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

Time restricts our remarks. I am glad to hear that at least one Tory Member is in favour of the Bill.

The concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) vividly reminded me of why I support the Bill. I agree with every clause, word and coma in it. I have scores of letters not from relatives of people who have died but from aged and infirm people who have known that they were dying and were fearful of the cost of their funeral. I also have a petition signed by 33,580 people in Northern Ireland—one small part of the United Kingdom.

The Bill is one of the most important Private Member's Bills to he introduced in this Parliament. The Government's humanity and compassion will be measured by their acceptance or rejection of it. Technical points, the question of where the money is to come from and what should have priority can be hammered out in Committee.

2.18 pm
Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)

I support the purpose of the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) in introducing the Bill. Successive Governments have failed to deal with the problem, which has increased over the years. In recent years, no Government have properly addressed the problem.

I hope that the hon. Member for Dundee, West will not object if I mention my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden), who has played a significant role in the "Dignity in Death" campaign. It is right to place that on record today. Although I favour the principles of the Bill, having listened to the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister I am not sure that the hon. Member for Dundee, West has played his cards in a tactically correct manner. Suffice it to say that even as recently as 24 November, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) opened his question to the Minister by saying I understand the difficulty and complexity of this issue."—[Official Report, 24 November 1981; Vol. 13, c. 743.] In spite of the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), I feel uneasy about such a brief Bill that will cost a considerable sum of money being taken through the House in this manner. The hon. Member for Dundee, West would have been wiser had he followed the tactics of the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) last week when he introduced his Private Member's Bill, which I supported. It was set out in narrow terms and the House gave it a Second Reading. I understand that the Government will move admendments in Committee to extend the scope of the Bill. I regret that the hon. Mernber for Dundee, West did not confine his Bill to certain areas and await the review announced by my hon. Friend the Minister. Some credit must be given to the Government for addressing themselves to the issue in depth. My hon. Friend gave a commitment to the House that the review will proceed and that he hopes to tell the House about its outcome in the near future.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

The hon. Gentleman should put his points about the review in Committee. If he is serious about the matter being examined, he should stop trying to talk out the Bill and allow it to be given a Second Reading. Many millions of people are anxious that it should receive a Second Reading and go into Committee.

Mr. Garel-Jones

I have made it clear that I am anxious about a Bill that will cost £190 million going into Committee, especially as the Government have given a commitment—which preceding Governments have never given—to examine the matter. The Government intend to come forward with proposals. The hon. Member for Perry Barr, who speaks with great authority from the Opposition Front Bench, has recognised, as should all hon. Members, the complexity of this issue. It is not a matter for Committee stage of a Private Member's Bill. I would have been happier if the hon. Member for Dundee, West had confined his Bill to more narrow terms. For example, it is an iniquitous omission that stillborn children are excluded from the present provisions. [Interruption.] That is not an amendment. I should have thought that the lion. Gentleman would have been much wiser, if in coining to this House, as last week his hon. Friend——

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Would my hon. Friend care to consider this point? The present position is that only a half grant is payable to people born between 5 July 1883 and 4 July 1893. Is it not an absurdity that when the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) introduces a Bill he does not take the opportunity to kill that anomaly?

Mr. Garel-Jones

I agree with my hon. Friend. I had already mentioned one of the anomalies about stillborn children, and my hon. Friend has just brought another anomaly to light. If the Bill had been confined to that narrow point, the inquiry that the Government are now undertaking into these matters might well have coincided with the hon. Member's Bill, and the Government might have been able to move amendments to it. [Interruption.] Labour Members know that if the Bill—

Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that every one of his points could be raised in the Standing Committee? Is not the important thing that the Bill should go into Committee, so that any changes that need to be made can be made there?

Mr. Garel-Jones

I have already dealt with that point.

Mr. Skinner

No, it has not been dealt with.

Mr. Garel-Jones

On a purely technical point as the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals)—who is an experienced Member of the House and a former Secretary of State for Social Services—will know, the point would not be covered by the long title of the Bill. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman knows, as does his hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr that there are many issues on which we take a personal interest, and one of them is child benefit.

If I, as the Member for Watford, were faced with the choices mentioned to the House just now by the Minister for Social Security, and were given £190 million to spend, I am not ashamed to say that I would prefer to see that money devoted to child benefit rather than to death grant. [Interruption.] Therefore, as one of the supporters in this House of the whole principle of child benefit, and wishing not only to preserve the level of child benefit but see that level increased, I am very anxious when I see a one-page Bill, which envisages the expenditure of £190 million, about to go into Committee. I know and the House knows that if the Bill were to go into Committee, Labour Members would not be concerned with considering the alternatives that Conservative Back Benchers—

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that I cannot accept a closure motion, bearing in mind the time at which the debate started.

Mr. Garel-Jones

Conservative Back Benchers do not enjoy the luxury of being able to support any expenditure whatever. [Interruption.] Together with many of my hon. Friends, I am pressing the Chancellor of the Exchequer—

Mr. Douglas Hogg

Will my hon. Friend accept that he and I are anxious to see an uprating in short-term benefits? If the Bill were to go in Committee and evenuually to be passed, it might then not be possible to uprate short-term benefits.

Mr. Garel-Jones

That is correct, and I am very pleased—[Interruption.]—that my hon. Friend has made the point. [Interruption] It is no good the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) sitting there mouthing his own slogans. Since I have been in this House, I have never known him fail to support any measure entailing additional Government expenditure—provided that it was not concerned with the defence of this nation. I have never heard him put up any reasonable argument as to where the money could be obtained.

Perhaps I can return to my remarks without these interruptions from Labour Members. We have read rumours in the press about the lines on which the Government's thoughts are progressing, and I am not happy—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 12 February.