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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 3, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 03 November 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Burial and Cremation Charges, Digital Strategy, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


Burial and Cremation Charges

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-01511, in the name of Alex Rowley, on the cost of saying goodbye—burial and cremation charges in Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges the recent Citizens Advice Scotland report, The Cost of Saying Goodbye 2016; understands that 2016 has seen the basic cost of burial fees, not including undertaker charges, increase on average by 8% to £1,373 and that cremation charges have increased by an average of 11%; further understands that the costs levied by councils can increase for a number of reasons, including because of substantial investment in new crematoria and graveyards and as a result of tighter budgets; considers that more must be done to address the rising costs of funerals across the country, and recognises what it sees as the high level of anxiety and worry that many people in Mid Scotland and Fife and across Scotland feel about the cost of saying goodbye.

12:49  

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I thank all the members who signed my motion to allow the debate to take place.

One evening last year, I attended an event in the garden lobby that brought together members of many forums for the elderly throughout Scotland. As I spoke to those who attended, I asked them what the big issues for pensioners were. To my surprise, the cost of funerals came up time and again.

A few months later, I attended a similar event at which the then Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, Alex Neil, spoke. He announced a review of funeral costs, to a warm reception from those who were in the room. I am pleased that he is here to participate in the debate, and I acknowledge the action that he took to kick off a review and steer the work in a direction in which I believe good progress has been made.

I lodged the motion on the back of the Citizens Advice Scotland report, which highlights the latest increases in cemetery and cremation charges across Scotland. This year, on average, there have been increases of 8 per cent for a burial and 11 per cent for cremation.

I highlighted the issue when I was an opposition councillor in Fife Council because, at that time, the increase in local charges over five years had been horrific, yet Fife remains one of the lower-cost areas in Scotland for burial and cremation. At that time, there was no doubt in my mind that the hikes in charges were linked directly to cuts in council budgets.

As we saw from the research that was published earlier this week by the Scottish Parliament information centre, the University of Glasgow and Heriot-Watt University, cuts in public services disproportionately hit the poorest and those who are on the lowest incomes. That is also true for service charges that people do not have a choice about: they have to access the service and yet the costs continue to go up.

I acknowledge that some councils have had to make significant investments, but the key point that I ask members to consider is whether it is right to expect those who are least able to pay to bear the brunt of the costs to fund future investment in cemeteries and crematoriums. Future capital investment must be met from general funding, as burial and cremation should be considered to be a public service. As well as acknowledging Alex Neil’s role in progressing the issues, I acknowledge the important work of Citizens Advice Scotland in highlighting the levels of funeral poverty and offering solutions.

It is worth taking the time to emphasise what funeral costs can mean. For those who are on the state pension, it takes seven and a half months of their pension income to pay for the average funeral. For those who are on jobseekers allowance, it takes 12 months of the benefit to pay for the average funeral. Approximately 10 per cent of people struggle to pay the cost of a funeral for which they are responsible.

The average debt that people in Scotland take on to pay for funerals is £1,573, according to Royal London, which notes that the level is expected to rise in coming years. The increasing cost of funerals has resulted in the gap between the contribution from the social fund funeral payment and the actual retail funeral costs more than doubling from 2004 to 2015, which has left claimants with an average shortfall of more than £2,000. As the report from the CAS working group states,

“If an individual is unable to pay the cost of the funeral, there are two possible outcomes. Either they take on a level of debt which may create a distress that can interfere with the grieving process, or they may seek to reduce the expense and provide ‘less of a funeral’ in which case guilt and stigma may interfere with grieving.”

The current Department for Work and Pensions grant is described by Royal London as “weak and flawed”. Of the 66,000 applications to the social fund in 2012-13, only 53 per cent were successful. Families can end up in a lot of debt when they have borrowed in the belief that they will get support that they are then refused.

Control over this part of social security is now to lie with the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. Although some elements of the new powers that are being devolved to Scotland will take time to set up, I hope that social fund funeral expenses payments can be transferred sooner rather than later, so that we can design a better system in Scotland to support people when they are in need.

I note that the Government’s “Fairer Scotland Action Plan”, which it published last week, highlights funeral poverty in the final action point. Action 50 states:

“We will improve the current system of Funeral Payments, so it helps more people, is more predictable and provides help more quickly.”

That is welcome, I support that and I hope that the Government can now put a timetable on when the powers will be transferred.

The review by John Birrell and Fraser Sutherland set out the detail of what needs to be done, and Citizens Advice Scotland has published further work on the social security powers. We are therefore well placed to make progress.

One of the first experiences that I had in understanding poverty was when, as a child, I was in a graveyard and came across an area with no headstones, which I was told was the area of the paupers’ graves. At the weekend, I watched the film “I, Daniel Blake” and heard the phrase “the paupers’ slot at the crematorium”. I thought that we had made progress and that no one would be described as a pauper in 21st century Scotland.

Let us agree to bring forward a timetable, to build on the good work that is being done and to sort out the issue once and for all.

12:56  

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

As I indicated previously to the Presiding Officer’s office, I will be unable to stay for the full debate, for which I apologise to the chamber.

I congratulate Alex Rowley on securing the debate, and I join him and other members in welcoming the Citizens Advice Scotland report. I pay tribute to the work that Alex Neil did on the subject before it was rudely interrupted by the First Minister’s reshuffle. I draw members’ attention to the fact that I was recently elected as a co-convener of the Parliament’s proposed cross-party group on funerals and bereavement, and I look forward to the group looking at the issues that are raised in the motion.

As a Lothian MSP, I was particularly concerned by the CAS report’s finding that Edinburgh city, which is in my region, is the most expensive place in Scotland for a burial. From 2015 to 2016, charges there increased by another 4 per cent to reach £2,253. That is a very large amount of money for any individual or family to find, let alone those who are on low incomes or on benefits, and that figure does not take into account funeral directors’ fees or any of the other expenses that are involved in a funeral. Having to find that money can add to the stress that families feel at what is an anxious and difficult time.

Through written and parliamentary questions, I have raised with ministers the concerns of Edinburgh constituents, who are understandably alarmed at the high cost of burial in their area, which is way above the average cost in Scotland of £1,363. They are struggling to understand the differences in basic burial costs across Scotland, which vary by as much as £1,500 between councils. We need to find out more from local authorities about the reasons behind those variations, and I hope that such discussions can take place at an early stage through the Scottish Government’s working group on funeral poverty.

There are also disparities in the charges for cremations in local authority crematoria, although they are less marked than those for burials. Given that cremation fees are about 50 per cent cheaper than burial fees, we need to recognise that further burial charge rises in areas in which those charges are already high runs the alarming risk of putting pressure on older residents and their families to rethink their funeral plans and consider cremation, even when their preference is for burial. I think that all of us would agree that that is not an acceptable scenario for constituents.

The United Kingdom Government’s funeral payment scheme has been of great assistance to many constituents on low incomes who face funeral costs, and I look forward to the Scottish Government developing a successor scheme. That has been mentioned previously in the chamber, and I recognise the work that the Scottish Government is doing in that area.

I am conscious of the concerns that have been expressed about a lack of awareness of the current scheme, and I know that ministers will want to reflect on that as they develop the new benefit. I hope that we can hear about that early so that the information gets out across Scotland.

It is important that those who are on low incomes know what support is available. I would like to know what action ministers can take to promote affordable funeral prepayment plans among people who are on low incomes, as such plans can protect family members from rising funeral costs.

I again welcome today’s debate, which I hope will help to inform the Scottish Government’s thinking and work on funeral poverty and to address the genuine and legitimate concerns that our constituents have raised. I hope that, by working together, we can find a way of addressing this growing problem and putting funeral poverty in Scotland behind us.

13:00  

Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Jessica Mitford, the red sheep of the Mitford family and the author of the extraordinary work “The American Way of Death”—a book that, more than 50 years ago, exposed the shameless profiteering exploitation of families at a time of great distress and vulnerability: the time of bereavement—said:

“You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”

I hope that, when it comes to ending funeral poverty in Scotland, we can do both.

I am delighted that Alex Rowley lodged the motion for debate. Timing is everything in politics: this debate is timed to perfection because it comes at the point when the Scottish Parliament is being handed responsibility for state funeral payments, when the Government is consulting on a new future for social security in Scotland and when the newly passed Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 is being enacted, with a new regulatory regime being established and new inspectors appointed.

The debate also comes when the Government is considering its budget for next year. I make that observation not simply regarding the £4 million that was spent on state funeral payments in Scotland last year—although I would like provision for those payments to rise—but in the context of the forthcoming local government financial settlement, because local government is responsible for setting most burial and cremation charges. That subject came up when I attended the Parliament’s cross-party group for older people, age and ageing last week. Some of the pensioners’ representatives, including my old friend Jimmy Miller from the GMB union’s retired members association, rightly took issue with the enormous differences between burial and cremation charges from local authority to local authority. I can understand that—there should be greater parity. The Scottish Government representative at the cross-party group said that it is a matter of “local political choice”, which is a contentious and incomplete statement because it is also a matter of national political choice. To put it simply, the Government cannot freeze the council tax for nine years and expect local charges not to go up.

If we compare the current costs of cremation in Scotland, as Citizens Advice Scotland has done, the situation becomes clear: eight of the 10 least-expensive cremation charges are in crematoria that are owned and run by Scotland’s local councils, whereas eight of the 10 most-expensive cremation charges are in crematoria that are owned and run by the private sector. I say to the Scottish Government that we need a fair settlement for Scottish local government this year so that burial and cremation charges, which are disproportionately levied on the elderly, come down and do not go up.

I hope that the Minister for Social Security agrees that we do not simply need palliative welfare proposals to alleviate funeral poverty. We need a serious and decisive alteration of the balance of power—a structural change in our society—if we are truly to tackle funeral poverty. That is because poverty is not simply about not having any wealth; it is also about not having any power. The one reinforces the other.

It is important that Parliament says loud and clear that we will redouble our efforts to make funeral poverty history and construct a social security system that is designed to support people, literally from the cradle to the grave, and to end what R H Tawney famously described as “the religion of inequality”, which persists in this country. It is also important that we say loud and clear that we will recommit ourselves to dignity, the universal values of humanity and the goal of equality—the goal that drove many of us into politics in the first place.

13:04  

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I congratulate Alex Rowley on securing this debate on “The Cost of Saying Goodbye 2016”.

I share the concerns of colleagues about funeral poverty and the number of constituents who have difficulty in raising the money that they need to pay to bury a loved one. Losing a loved one is hard enough without any added burden. We would all agree that everyone deserves a funeral that is meaningful to the bereaved, that is affordable, so that no one is left facing financial hardship and, crucially, which allows people to grieve without financial distress.

As Alex Rowley said, the Citizens Advice Scotland report states that 2016 has seen the basic costs of burial fees, not including undertaker charges, increase by an average of 8 per cent. Although local authorities should recognise the impact that rising costs have and how they contribute to funeral poverty, we have to acknowledge that the money that they raise is invested back in local facilities and services.

Of course, the cost of burial or cremation is not the only factor that contributes to funeral poverty; there are also funeral directors’ fees and additional expenditure on flowers, notices in the paper, catering for the wake and many other things. It all adds up.

Crucially, as has been touched on, the important issue in relation to poverty of every kind is the level of personal finance that is available and the level of assistance that is available to those who cannot pay. One such manner of assistance is the DWP funeral payment, the issues around which have been well rehearsed. That benefit is being devolved to us here in Scotland, and we should endeavour to simplify and promote it when it comes to us. However, even before the benefit is transferred, we must do all that we can to ensure that low uptake of it is tackled. We know that approximately 4,000 people a year in Scotland receive a funeral payment, but the Scottish Government estimates that up to 16,000 people are in need and could apply for that benefit, if all the people who are entitled to make claims were reached.

The issue that we are discussing is not always a comfortable topic to discuss or plan for. Perhaps we need to get better at that and encourage open and honest conversations about dying, death and bereavement. If we can increase awareness about funerals and funeral costs, those who are in a position to do so can plan their finances and, more important, everyone who is entitled to assistance will know how to get it. That will mean that when the time comes—as it will come to us all—to bury a loved one, the focus can be on a meaningful send-off, not money worries.

13:07  

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I, too, thank Alex Rowley for bringing this issue to the chamber.

As you know, Presiding Officer, last week, I spoke in a members’ business debate about the condition of Scotland’s mortuaries. Like the subject that we are speaking about today, it was not something that I had given much thought to until the debate. As a councillor in South Lanarkshire—I declare an interest in that I still sit as one—I have voted on budgets that have increased the cost of burials and cremations. That is easy to do; until one is faced with having to meet that cost after the death of a loved one, it is not personal.

The Citizens Advice Scotland report highlights the huge disparities in the cost of dying between different parts of Scotland. It is a rather grim postcode lottery. If the family of someone who dies in Edinburgh wants to bury them here, they will be hit for £2,200—the highest rate in Scotland. My council is also among the most expensive, at £1,944. However, in the Western Isles, the price is £701—that is still a lot of money for people to find, but it is still the cheapest, and it is quite a difference in price.

The story with cremations is much the same. Highland is the most expensive area, at £849. By comparison, a cremation in Inverclyde is £552.

However you look at it, saying goodbye in Scotland is not cheap. Therefore, it is no surprise that people struggle to pay the bills and that we have the poverty around saying goodbye that Alex Rowley mentioned.

I must be honest and say that I did not realise that we had privately run crematoriums. I see no reason why we should not, but their costs are, on average, higher than council costs. The motion calls for more to be done to address rising costs. It does not say what should be done, but Alex Rowley helpfully gave some ideas and I hope that the Scottish Government working group can come up with more.

Councils who invest in crematoriums or graveyards will want to claw back some of that investment. Tighter local authority budgets are definitely a factor, as Alex Rowley said. All councils have had to find colossal savings as the Government has put the squeeze on them. Councillors have had to make tough decisions and, even with the ability to increase council tax from next year, that will continue. It is really up to the Scottish Government to look at local government funding and make it more of a priority. Councils deliver so many of the services that really matter to people and yet they have been hit year after year by the cuts to the central grant settlement. If we want to limit price rises for burials, cremations and other services, we have to help councils.

One positive thing to come from today’s debate is that it has shone a light on the costs, which is very useful. As I said when I started, few of us will give this any thought until we have to, but it is a lesson to us all to plan ahead. I hope that something good comes from the debate and I thank Alex Rowley once again for bringing it to the chamber.

13:11  

Alex Neil (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

I congratulate Alex Rowley on securing the debate. I fully support everything that he said in his speech.

The issue requires a comprehensive response. There is no doubt that funeral poverty is a blight on our communities, whether in urban or rural areas. Sometimes the pressures in each are different.

The report that the Scottish Government produced after I commissioned it made a series of worthwhile recommendations, and I recommend that the Government pursues them, if not to the letter, then certainly in spirit.

For my money, we have four priorities to tackle. The first is financial support, including the bereavement allowance when it is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. As Richard Leonard said, the total budget is approximately £4 million to £5 million, but those in receipt of the allowance, which has been frozen for a number of years, will get only enough to pay for one third of the average funeral cost in today’s world. The allowance needs to be upgraded so that it can pay for a larger percentage of total funeral costs.

We also need to look at other ways of supporting people financially. We need to look at the eligibility criteria and, for those people who do not meet the eligibility criteria, we need to consider some other form of financial assistance, such as a loan—without having to go to a loan shark.

Given the small amounts of money involved, there is a need to increase the overall budget significantly. Even an increase of 100 per cent would cost only in the order of £4 million a year but would make a significant dent in levels of funeral poverty.

Secondly, I believe that we have to pursue the recommendations on the licensing of funeral directors. There is no doubt that the industry needs more regulation, not less. There are too many cowboys coming into the industry and too many scams; that needs to be sorted. Although some of the responsibility for that still resides with Westminster, there are things that we can do in this Parliament to tackle the problem. I hope that the minister will not be taken in by the monopoly groups who control some of the membership organisations of funeral directors. She should listen to what funeral directors across the board are saying, not just to the two big boys who control a large share of the market.

Thirdly, I am all in favour of cutting the cost of funerals, but if we go down the route that has been taken in Cardiff—albeit that it has some things to recommend it—whereby council contract funerals are available for £1,000, we must ask why poor people should have to have inferior funerals. Poor people should have the same right as everyone to a decent funeral, and it is difficult to get a decent funeral for £1,000 at today’s prices.

Fourthly, on local authority charges, although I absolutely recognise the financial pressures on our councils and the need for councils to raise additional revenue, too many local authorities see funerals as a bit of a cash cow. North Lanarkshire Council, the local authority in the area that I represent, has increased fees by 39 per cent in one year, which is totally unacceptable. It is not just about charges. Consideration should be given to a system whereby someone who is living in poverty and struggling can get some kind of discount from the local authority to help them to cover the cost.

This is an area in which we can really make a difference. I urge the minister to take a radical, comprehensive approach and to be ready, so that when the bereavement allowance is at last devolved, we can make a quick announcement about significantly increasing the allowance and extending eligibility for it, to help to deal with the problem of funeral poverty in this country.

13:16  

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important members’ business debate on a topic that touches the lives of us all. I am grateful to Alex Rowley for lodging the motion, and I thank Citizens Advice Scotland for its research and its compelling report, “The Cost of Saying Goodbye 2016: Burial and cremation charges in Scotland”.

We all have to say goodbye to a loved one at some point in our lives. It is never easy and when the stress of such a time is compounded by the anxiety of ever-rising costs, the experience can quickly become emotionally overwhelming. The information that Citizens Advice Scotland has compiled on the rising cost of funerals over the past few years is nothing short of shocking.

During my recent visit to the citizens advice bureau in East Kilbride, in the Central Scotland region that I represent, I was concerned to hear that issues to do with funeral poverty and debt are being raised with advisers. One client sought advice from the bureau about assistance with the cost of the funeral of their child. The client and their partner were both employed and living in rented accommodation, and they had no entitlement to Government assistance with the cost of the funeral. They had no savings and no way of paying the funeral costs up front. They were left with no alternative but to take out a loan so that they could pay the costs in advance.

Understandably, that was causing the family a great deal of stress and would have caused great financial hardship. The parents said, “You never think you’ll have to bury your child.” The family was being thrown into complete emotional and financial turmoil, due to the worst situation imaginable—a situation over which they had absolutely no control.

During the discussion with the CAB, it came to light that one of the parents was ex-service personnel, and an application was made to the armed services advice project. As a result, I am thankful to say that an armed services charity was able to cover the cost of the funeral.

For people in a similar situation who cannot find a solution, the consequences can be bleak. No one should have to get into debt as a result of having to pay for the funeral of a loved one. The wide variation in the cost of funerals, depending on a person’s geographical location and income, is deeply troubling. As Graham Simpson said, the postcode lottery that people face is grim. I am Scottish Labour’s spokeswoman for inequalities, and I am extremely concerned that there is such a disparity in funeral costs across the country, because everyone has the right to a dignified funeral.

Alex Rowley’s motion is right to say that the rising costs that councils are charging are due to a range of reasons, from significant investment in burial sites and crematoriums to increasingly constrained council budgets. I echo Richard Leonard, who talked about the need for a fair settlement in local government.

Basic burial costs are only part of the total cost of a funeral, as Ruth Maguire stated. The many additional costs include the cost of flowers, celebrant fees and the cost of death notices, which all add to the stress and make the cost more difficult to meet for many families.

I have learned from personal experience, following the death of my dad last year, just how overwhelming it can be when so many choices need to be made in a very short space of time. We need to do more to address the rising funeral cost debts and funeral poverty that we are hearing about, and there is agreement among colleagues from across the chamber about the importance of our doing so. I hope that we can reach agreement, but it is important that, during this parliamentary session, the Government looks again at the issue of funeral poverty and works with parties across the chamber to explore in detail the recommendations of the CAS review of earlier this year.

13:20  

The Minister for Social Security (Jeane Freeman)

I welcome the opportunity to close the debate and thank Alex Rowley for bringing it to the chamber. I share his concern and the concern of the many others who spoke in the debate, and I support the motion that we are debating. For families who are mourning the loss of a loved one to be faced with mounting debt and distress because of the cost of the funeral is not only unacceptable but, at times, cruel.

Members have referred to the report that was commissioned by the Scottish Government from John Birrell, the chair of the Scottish working group on funeral poverty, and Citizens Advice Scotland. The report, which was published earlier this year, recommended action across a number of sectors. The Scottish Government is progressing activities to support people to plan ahead for their own funerals and discuss the matter with relatives; to influence relevant sectors to create downward pressure on funeral costs—I will return to that; and to put in place, when the powers are transferred to us from the DWP, a more effective safety net in the form of a Scottish funeral payment.

As Richard Leonard rightly pointed out, the approach to funeral poverty needs to sit alongside our analysis and understanding of the situation with respect to poverty and our work across Scotland on both poverty and inequalities. The situation is not assisted by the United Kingdom Government’s persistence in its ideological clinging to the economics of austerity and the welfare cut upon welfare cut that it is imposing on those who are least able to manage.

Our approach to funeral poverty also sits alongside our work to develop a modern and comprehensive legislative framework for burial and cremation in Scotland. The Certification of Death (Scotland) Act 2011 allowed us, in May 2015, to remove the doctor’s fee from cremation costs, which resulted in a saving of £170 for bereaved families. The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 contains provision for the re-use of burial lairs, which will reduce pressure on burial ground capacity in the longer term. The 2016 act also requires local authorities to publish and display their fees online, so that they are easily accessible, and contains powers to introduce inspection schemes for directors—although I note Mr Neil’s point with respect to the regulation of funeral directors. I take the opportunity to thank him for his work, which has given us a strong foundation.

Our work on palliative and end-of-life care, which supports greater public and personal discussion of bereavement, death, dying and care at the end of life, chimes well with what Ms Maguire said about our general reluctance—as individuals and as a society—to discuss openly the one fact that we all know we will have to address at some point. The Government is also exploring options for a Scottish funeral bond, which would help people to save and plan ahead financially for their funeral. At the same time, as members have noted, we are preparing to take over the DWP’s funeral payment.

As for our wider work on social security powers, we have undertaken engagement with people and organisations across Scotland, through which we have heard about much that is wrong with the system. We have established a funeral poverty and funeral payment reference group, which includes funeral directors’ organisations, bereavement services, advice services and local authority representatives.

There are a number of failings with the DWP funeral payment. The eligibility criteria are complex; intrusive and unnecessary questions are asked about family circumstances; there is a range of complicated rules that make entitlement unclear; and its value does not cover all the costs, leaving many in debt—a situation that is exacerbated by very slow processing times.

Mr Rowley asked—fairly—about the timetable that we might pursue for the transfer to the Scottish Parliament of powers in relation to the benefit. Our consultation, which looked at the benefit, lasted three months but ended only on Monday. It would be quite wrong for me as a minister to pre-empt the analysis of the consultation in identifying which areas we would want to change, the improvements that we would want to make or even at this point what the timetable would be for the benefits for which we will take responsibility and the order in which we would do that.

However, I take Alex Rowley’s point about using our capacity in areas of benefit responsibility where perhaps the benefit affects fewer people to try to take over those areas earlier. We are trying to identify what the timetable might be, and I hope that we will be able to bring members up to date on that—we will certainly do so in the coming months.

Of course, the situation is made more complex because, across all the benefits that we will take responsibility for, the DWP system is itself complex simply in terms of retrieving the basic data that we need in order to know which individuals receive the benefits that we will take responsibility for. However, I am mindful of Mr Rowley’s point, and I hope that he will accept the assurance that we are actively looking at the timetable of progress in taking over responsibility for individual benefits over the lifetime of this session of Parliament.

The bereavement payment is another benefit or area of financial support that still sits with the UK Government. It is a pity that that remains the case, because it is an area that comes within the comprehensive response that we would want to adopt to the question of funeral poverty but which we will not be able to take responsibility for and use in the work that we are taking forward.

Both the application rates and the success rates for the DWP benefit are low, as has been mentioned. We know that only about 4,000 people a year receive a funeral payment in Scotland. Although the DWP fails to publish accurate statistics, we estimate that the reality is that up to 16,000 bereaved people would be eligible. That is a failure of the system for low-income families. Therefore, and this point is critical, when the funding is transferred to Scotland, it will be based on the spend in Scotland during the year before the transfer—the 4,000 people who receive the benefit rather than our estimate of 16,000—so we know that the resources that will be transferred to the Scottish Government will not come anywhere close to meeting current need or our desire to increase the benefit’s reach to all who are eligible. We therefore need to act on rising funeral costs, too, which would also help those who are not eligible for the benefit. We are looking to local authorities and funeral directors to work with us, because they, too, bear a responsibility in relation to those rising costs.

We have set up a number of round-table meetings, led by the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities. We have worked with local authorities on what is a shared agenda. We know that local authorities are considering their approach to charges and that they want to work with us on that.

On 16 November, the cabinet secretary will host a summit that will bring together all that work—in addition to work on the DWP funeral payment and the changes that we might make to it—into a more comprehensive package for dealing with the matter.

I am conscious that I have gone on—there is a lot to say—and I apologise for that. I hope that members will accept our assurances that we take the matter very seriously. It is clear that there is cross-party support for what we might do to tackle the issue and I look forward to those conversations with colleagues across the chamber. I hope that Mr Rowley and others will take my response to the debate as an assurance that we are looking at not only what we can do on the benefit payment, but the wider discussions that we must have to properly address the issue.

13:30 Meeting suspended.  14:30 On resuming—