HC Deb 12 June 1984 vol 61 cc748-50
8. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services when the death grant was first set at £30; and what is its present real value.

Dr. Boyson

The death grant was increased to £30 in 1967, and would need to have been increased to about £165 in November 1983 to restore the 1967 value.

Mr. Dubs

Is the Minister aware that many elderly people are fearful about what is to happen to them because the death grant is so inadequate, and that many would like to face death with dignity? That is being denied to them at present. When will the Minister do something to raise the level of death grant to a figure commensurate with the present high cost of funerals?

Dr. Boyson

To increase the level of the death grant to what it was in 1967 would cost about £120 million a year if it were paid to all people. I appreciate the concern of older people in this regard. The last Labour Government, like this Government, did not find a solution to it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in April that we shall want to consider the death grant together with the whole of social security over the coming years, along with the other surveys that we are doing.

Dr. Mawhinney

Does my hon. Friend realise that the majority of those who do not need the death grant would be happy for their contribution to be given to the minority who do need it? Do not that minority need the grant to be increased quickly?

Dr. Boyson

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. Three schemes put out for consultation two years ago involved transferring money to those who were most in need. However, no agreement was reached. I remind my hon. Friend — [Interruption.] There are means tests, income tax and many other things in Britain.

I agree that most people would like the money to go to those who desperately need it. I believe that that view is shared on both sides of the House. I remind the House that last year the DHSS paid £2.6 million to 13,000 people who could not afford funeral expenses. That grant covered about half of the funeral costs.

Mr. MacKenzie

Does the Minister remember that about four years ago we were promised an answer to the whole question of the death grant? Even the most patient of us are now finding that patience wearing rather thin. Is not the cost of a modest funeral for ordinary working people between £300 and £350? Should not the Minister find some solution to the problem at the earliest possible opportunity?

Dr. Boyson

I appreciate that the cost of a funeral can be between £300 and £600. However, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that inflation has been a cause of the drop in the real value of the grant, and that of that drop 47 per cent. occurred under a Labour Government, compared with only 35 per cent. under the Conservative Government. The last Labour Government did nothing to solve the problem—they did not even consult about it.

Mr. Fry

I appreciate the Government's problems, but will my hon. Friend look at the assistance given by the DHSS towards funeral expenses? Do not many people often give permission or instructions for a funeral which, quite frankly, they cannot afford, and then find themselves in great difficulty trying to pay for it?

Dr. Boyson

I take my hon. Friend's point. We shall study that matter and I shall discuss it further with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

How much does it cost to administer the issuing of the death grant, and what proportion is that of the grant paid? Do the Government now hold the record for putting off a decision on the death grant, or is there another area of decision-making in which they have taken so long to reach a decision?

Dr. Boyson

The cost of administering the death grant is £12 million; the cost of the death grant itself is £17 million. I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the speed with which the Government works and is therefore disappointed in this case.

Mr. Dickens

Is my hon. Friend aware of the discomfort and grief not only of the bereaved but of the officers in his Department who have the embarrassment of explaining the death grant to the bereaved? Can we not either get rid of the stupid £30, which hardly covers the price of a wreath, or make new arrangements? We must do one thing or the other, because the present system is absolutely stupid.

Dr. Boyson

I note the point that my hon. Friend puts so elegantly. No doubt we shall deeply consider his view.

Mr. Hugh Brown

Does the Minister's earlier reply mean that he has legitimised the permanent delay in making a decision by including it in the comprehensive review?

Dr. Boyson

That is not the Government's intention. However, as the whole of social security is being reviewed, it would be odd to deal separately with one part of the whole.

Mr. Meadowcroft

Can the Minister give the global figures more succinctly? What proportion of the cost of the death grant is applicable to administration?

Dr. Boyson

I thought that I had replied to that question earlier. However, I shall help the hon. Gentleman, who is obviously too far away to hear. The overall cost of the death grant—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman will listen, he might understand. The overall cost of the death grant is £29 million. The cost of administration is £12 million.

Mr. Eastham

If the hon. Gentleman genuinely wishes to give assistance, particularly to old people, with the cost of funerals will he consider excluding funerals from VAT, as such people have the terrible burden of paying VAT even on the cost of burial?

Dr. Boyson

That is a point for the Treasury, and I am sure that it will have noted with interest the hon. Gentleman's comments.