Local authorities failing bereaved

Ten out of forty local authorities in the study were exposed for not carrying out their legal duty

A major report by Quaker Social Action (QSA) into public health funerals reveals that bereaved people are being pushed into unmanageable debt due to councils abdicating their legal duty and responsibilities.

The damning ‘mystery shopper’ report ‘An Abdication of Duty?’ has laid bare the failings by councils in England and Wales in helping low-income families struggling with funeral costs to access public health funerals.

Ten out of forty local authorities in the study were exposed for not carrying out their legal duty, turning people away when they do not have the funds to pay for a funeral and need their council to take responsibility.

Under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, councils in England and Wales are required to provide public health funerals to bury or cremate the body of anyone who has died alone in poverty, or whose relatives cannot afford a funeral. Many council websites were also shown to have misleading or incorrect information, despite good practice guidance for England and Wales stating that ‘it is helpful to have a written policy on public health funerals which can be shared publicly on the local authority’s website’.

A survey of the websites found that at least sixty-five per cent are not following government guidelines. Fourteen had no information available online. Of the twenty-six that did have information, twelve had no contact details to register a death requiring a public health funeral, and over half contained incorrect or misleading information. Almost a third misrepresented the circumstances in which someone can access a public health funeral.

When telephoning the local authorities, the charity’s researcher was misdirected to the wrong departments and said he was ‘astonished’ by the lack of compassion and knowledge, and the unwillingness to help.

The charity is calling on councils to act now ‘to help avoid the bereaved being pushed into unmanageable debt’ It also pushes for the government to take urgent action to review its ‘severely lacking’ guidance in consultation with QSA and with other specialist organisations.

‘What our research has revealed is a lack of knowledge or understanding of the Public Health Act legislation and the duty it imposes on local authorities’, said Lindesay Mace, Down to Earth manager for QSA. ‘It raises concerns that in some cases councils are abdicating their duty, and if the snapshot we have taken is indicative of wider practice then it means people who need help are falling through the cracks and quite probably being pushed into debt they cannot manage.’

Steven Wibberley, chief executive officer of Cruse Bereavement Care, said: ‘This important report highlights the many weaknesses of the current system. It is disappointing that so many councils are not following the guidance on public health funerals.’

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