Some of the poorest families in Britain are being barred from attending their own relatives’ funerals due to a Tory-led Council’s ‘sickening’ cost-cutting measures, an undercover investigation has exposed.

Officials from Bracknell Forest council – which has 42 Conservative councillors, and one Labour Councillor – were recorded telling family members that they could not attend so-called ‘public-health funerals‘  – that is, where the local council pays for the funeral because the family cannot afford it.

In the investigation [paywall] by the Sunday Times, a reporter posing as a family member was told:

“There’s no attendees, no keeping of the ashes. Nobody’s invited; you don’t have any say over the funeral at all.”

In another case, a woman was told [paywall] she could not attend her own brother’s funeral. She said:

“It’s like my brother didn’t exist. I asked if I could come. They said, ‘Don’t bother.’ There was no way to say goodbye. It was awful. The council said that if no one could pay for a private ceremony, they would have to collect his body and just ‘slot him in’ at 8.30 one morning. They said that families weren’t allowed to attend.”

Around 4,000 people are given a public health funeral, or ‘paupers’ funeral‘ each year in the UK. It is the statutory duty of local councils to provide funerals for people who die without family, or whose family cannot afford the funeral. A BBC investigation in 2015 found that costs to councils of such funerals had risen significantly in the previous four years.

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Families receiving benefits may be eligible for a funeral expenses payment to help towards the cost. This covers the cost of a basic burial or cremation. In addition, families can claim up to £700 towards the cost of other expenses including funeral directors’ fees and a coffin. However, the £700 payment – which is discretionary – has been frozen for the last fifteen years, whilst the average cost of a funeral in the UK is now over £4k.

One funeral director from Harrogate is currently on a ‘poverty march‘ to London, to highlight the problems that poor families have paying for funerals. Jonathan Robinson says the payment needs to be reviewed as funeral directors often end up picking up extra costs which the family can’t afford. He says:

“I care about people and am not about to say ‘if you can’t pay, I won’t arrange the funeral.”

Frank Field, chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, described the incidents in Bracknell Forest as “sickening”. He told the Sunday Times [paywall]:

“Even [Charles] Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind would have been hard placed to justify such treatment …This would make red-faced even the worst of the Poor Law commissioners of the 19th century.”

Whilst Tory-led Bracknell Forest council said their policy of banning poor families from their relatives’ funerals was ‘fair and appropriate’, going on to state:

“We have no desire to deny anyone, with a reasonable right, the opportunity to say farewell to a loved one… however Bracknell Forest Council does not fund a formal funeral service as standard.”

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