HC Deb 01 May 1995 vol 259 cc10-1
9. Mr. Kevin Hughes

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when he intends to publish the report by the Social Security Advisory Committee on the proposed limit to social fund funeral payments and the Government's response to that report. [20126]

Mr. Lilley

I am considering the Social Security Advisory Committee's report and I will lay the report, and my response to it, before the House shortly.

Mr. Hughes

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the huge regional variations in the cost of a funeral? Today, I telephoned round my constituency and the cheapest funeral I could find cost in excess of £1,000. Will the right hon. Gentleman now consider scrapping the national limit of £875? Has he no sympathy for the bereaved families on low incomes, or is it just another cynical attempt to raise funds so that the Government can cut taxes before the next election?

Mr. Lilley

I am aware of the differences across the country in the fees for cremation and, in particular, burial and I want to take that into account in the examination that I am currently conducting. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that the number of claims for social fund funeral payments has doubled over the past six years and the amount spent has trebled. Therefore, it is only right that we should take action to prevent abuse. Indeed, we have already taken action to stop people seeking a distant relative on income support to make the application. I thought that we had the support of the Opposition in that measure. Are they now withdrawing it?

Mr. Dewar

Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously maintaining that the growth in the number of funeral grants is the result of abuse, lead swinging and fraud? Is it not rather a direct reflection of the growth in poverty over the past few years?

Can we take it from the parliamentary answer to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) on 5 April that the £875 ceiling—a figure that is below the mean and the median award in the previous financial year—is now being abandoned? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the one essential test for any replacement scheme is that it genuinely allows for a dignified funeral for a bereaved family facing difficult circumstances?

Mr. Lilley

Since we took steps to ensure that the nearest relatives or friends with a genuine connection with the deceased undertook the funeral—rather than distant people brought in purely for the purpose of ensuring eligibility for grants—the growth in claims has stopped almost overnight. The hon. Gentleman may wish to withdraw his support for that measure, in common with the Opposition's usual practice of not taking any steps to ensure that money goes to those who are genuinely in need.

Conservatives want to ensure that those in receipt of income support can give their relatives a proper, dignified funeral, but we do not want to see the money wasted under the method to which the hon. Gentleman seems to wish to return.