DWP announce changes to funeral payments

The Department for Works and Pensions, DWP, announced today, 17th July 2019, that there will be changes made to the way it handles funeral expenses payments, which should help grieving families get help to meet funeral costs.

The press release states that "Previously, a Funeral Expense Payment claim could not be processed without a confirmed date for the funeral to take place, which could lead to longer waiting times for payments to be processed. Today we’re announcing a change, where families will now be able to make a claim with an estimated funeral date, providing that other key information is supplied."

It goes on to add "Recent improvements mean that instead of a final invoice – which is usually received after the funeral – families can instead supply a funeral director contract as an indication of funeral cost. This evidence can be submitted to the Bereavement Support team in advance of a funeral, therefore ensuring earlier access to financial support."

More can be read about the changes on the Governments website - DWP Funeral expenses changes

This change may help local authorities to assist families in making funeral arrangements instead of the Council having to take on those arrangements as a statutory funeral.

David Lockwood, Public Sector Development Manager from Finders International welcomed the move as long overdue and added "this is a positive step forwards but the case remains that many cannot afford a basic funeral for their loved ones and that duty is passed on to hard pressed local authorities, surely it is time for Government to consider a mandatory contribution to National Insurance that pays a sum of money towards a basic funeral for each person?"

Finders International support local authorities in cases where a person dies with no estate and no next of kin via their charitable Funeral Fund. This fund is only open to public authorities to claim fom. Details can be found on the Finders International website here.

Public Health Funerals - Property and Squatters

Several authorities have recently remarked about issues surrounding properties occupied by Squatters when having to undertake a Public Health Funeral.

Since 2012 it has been a criminal offence to squat in residential properties, with a fine of up to £5000 and a six month prison sentence being the maximum fine imposed. Squatting in a non residential property is not illegal, though it is a criminal offence to cause damage to that property.

Advice on the Government Website - Gov.uk - is that anyone who originally enters a property with the permission of the landlord/Owner is not a squatter. For example, if someone is renting a property and falls behind with rent payments they are not squatting if they continue to live there. Seperate legal action under housing legislation will need to be taken.

If a case has been referred to the Council and you go to search a property finding it is occupied you must establish if they have a tenancy agreement. If it transpires that they are squatters, you have the right to demand they leave. Usually a call to the Police for assistance to remove them can be made. Given how stretched the Police are, it may not be treated as a priority. You must not try to evict the squatters yourself, if they refuse to move you have a few options open to you. Apply for an interim possession order if it has been less than 28 days since they were discovered. An authorities legal department should be able to organise this. Once received it ust be served on squatters within 48 hours of being issued by the Court. Once an IPO has been served the individuals have 24 hours to vacate or face prison.

Unfortunately, properties can end up being left in a poor state, should you need help to clear and secure the team at Finders International can assist. For details you can visit the Finders International Website or speak to Finders Property Sales & Service Manager, Saida Abasheikh on 020 3859 4418.


PHA Funerals - "Unfit for purpose"

The legislation that gives local authorities the statutory powers to carry out funerals is not fit for purpose.

That’s what council officers told us at the second Finders International Public Health Act Funerals conference, which took place on 2nd May this year, and was attended by representatives of councils from all over England and Wales.

The legislation, which has been in place for more than thirty years, does not consider how attitudes have changed towards funerals in society and how we carry out funerals. Families are more fragmented and don’t necessarily feel obliged to make funeral arrangements for next of kin they may have had little or no contact with. Given recent rises in the amount of funerals undertaken by local authorities, it is only set to increase in the near future.

Minimum standards

Council officers at the conference felt that any reform should set out a minimum standard, although they could not agree on how this might be enforced. Some local authorities opt to cremate whilst others bury, but there is no standard practice. Should legislation make sure a deceased person’s wishes are adhered to (if they are known) and how would this be done?

As the Competition and Markets Authority is carrying out a review of the funeral industry in the wake of rising costs and is proposing a funerals regulator, perhaps the role of ensuring standards could be placed with them?

The majority thought that the word ‘paupers’ should not be used, with some officers reporting they found it to be offensive. Officers felt that the word does not show the deceased dignity and respect.

Little to no funding

Another point raised at the conference is that there is little or no funding within authorities for the provision of statutory funerals. Further discussions took place about a national funeral fund, with a radical suggestion that there should be a state grant paid from National Insurance contributions.

Certainly, everyone agreed that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) Social Fund is not fit for purpose, and a new way of state assistance needs to be found. The vast majority reported how difficult it is for people to claim and how little they receive to pay towards funerals from the DWP.

Staff have called for better awareness of their role by financial institutions. Once a person dies, GDPR does not apply to the deceased. Many officers reported their experiences where banks and other institutions make it extremely difficult for them to discover if the deceased left any assets.

Access to online accounts

They also said it was difficult to access the deceased’s emails and social media accounts, as sometimes emails and social media accounts can help officers trace families easily and quickly.

David Lockwood, Finders International Public Sector Development Manager and a former Public Health Act Funerals Officer, said: “It’s clear how dedicated council officers are in providing the best service possible despite the severe financial restrictions in place.

“These officers deserve the recognition for the service they provide to their communities and their continued dedication. We at Finders International do everything possible to support them with our free events and the advice we offer on our website, and we will continue to do so.”

Finders International has a funeral fund that can be used by public sector bodies to subsidise public health act funerals in cases that meet the criteria. Find out more about our service here.

New National Assistance for Funerals?

Funding a funeral assistance programme through National Insurance contributions was one suggestion from council officers whom discussed the ongoing issues with Public Health Act Funerals at the Finders International sponsored conference in Birmingham.

Delegates discussed the subject of service provision and what should or shouldn’t be provided by local authorities. It was clear that practices differ across the country with some authorities opting for cremation, whilst others undertake burials. It was also obvious throughout the discussions that council staff care deeply about the service they provide.
The most recent legislation, written in the early 1980’s, only applies to England and Wales with legislation for Scotland dating back even further, to post-war Britain. The current legislation does not take into account social factors or set minimum standards for councils to follow. Officers at last week’s event were particularly concerned about the lack of clear guidelines, and they voiced a desire to see minimum standards introduced, so that there can be parity of service across the country.

Funding for the role is sparse and erratic, and with some authorities reporting that they have no budgets for Public Health Act Funerals, many officers would like to see new legislation that facilitates access to revenue for this important social service.

One of the suggestions discussed at the conference was for a national scheme, funded by increased National Insurance contributions, to pay funeral expenses once a person dies. This would ensure that each individual gets a basic, dignified funeral. This would need to be administered from a national perspective, perhaps replacing the current means tested contributions delivered by the Department for Works and Pension's Social Fund.

David Lockwood, Finders International conference host, said that this “was the beginning of a process for council officers to influence legislation.” He continued, “Finders International will support staff through the process, encouraging other organisations to join in the conversation with councils.” He concluded, “We are committed to helping local authorities as they continue to experience the effects of funding cuts. It’s important that councils get support to provide this often overlooked but vital service, and it is evident that councils across the country implement their statutory duty in a number of different ways…practice is so varied because the law is far too vague.”

Finders have confirmed their commitment to the sector and will hold another conference for Local Authorities in 2020 in London.

CMA to carry out further investigation of Funeral market

The Competition and Marketing Authority have announced that they will be undertaking an "in-depth" market investigation into the Funerals sector.

This follows the publication of its interim report in November 2018 and it's subsequent public consultation as reported on this site in early March. The CMA report that the vast majority of responses were positive but they still have their concerns over the effectiveness of competition. The investigation will focus on the supply of funeral and crematoria services.

A number of large companies responded to the investigation along with many members of the public. The responses from individuals can be read here on the CMA website. Individuals responding noted price discrepancies between crematoria, the practice of charging more to a non-resident, that the information provided on the GOV.UK website was poor, that restrictive practices were in place in certain creamtoria and that GP's shouldnt be charging for Death Certificates.

The CMA's headline concerns included the rising cost of funerals, the vulnerability of people when organising funerals, reluctance of some firms to publish clear pricing and the rise in Crematoria charges.

The investigation will further examine the concerns identified, the CMA has the power to make legally binding orders requiring changes be made. A group chaired by Martin Coleman will investigate. No date has been set for the panel to report back.

More on this can be read on the CMA website.


Still referring to the GLD?

Barrister disagrees with legal analysis in Anglia Research Local Authority Report on referrals by Local Authorities to the GLD

Advice obtained by Finders International from Barrister James Neill of Landmark Chambers, finds that:

  • Local authorities have the power to refer details of an individual who has died intestate without known next of kin to probate research company;
  • There is no obligation in any guidance issued by the BVD which requires local authorities to refer unclaimed estates to the BVD

This follows a document published in 2018 entitled "Local Authorities and Heir Hunters: Myths, Misunderstandings and Unintended Consequence". The legal opinion obtained sets out, in detail, why Local Authorities have every right to refer cases to a Probate Genealogy Company, such as Finders International, and that guidance issued by the GLD (Government Legal Department) or BVD (Bona Vacantia Division) does not require the authority to refer cases direct to them.

The document goes on to look at implications for contracts under tendering and procurement legislation and concludes that

  • Any such referrals if made on an ad hoc basis and informally without payment are unlikely to be considered public services contracts or concessions for the purposes of the 2015 PCRs or CCRs

Danny Curran, MD of Finders International, said that "this document provides clear advice to all Local Authorities who wish to work with Probate Genealogists". He went on to add "we believe that by using the services of a company such as Finders International, it not only saves time for Local Authorities but can have significant cost savings too. At a time when Local Authority budgets are being stretched to unprecedented levels we are here to help ease the burdon on the public purse".

Copies of the advice are available on request from Finders International.




Why are Local Authorities lumbered with caretaking properties?

With housing stock in short supply and Councils’ budgets under pressure, Danny Curran of Finders International says the Government is sitting on hundreds of empty dwellings while leaving local councils with the bill of maintenance.

In my line of business, as a professional probate genealogist, I am often asked: What happens to ‘ownerless properties’ i.e. when there is no next of kin to inherit them? In these situations the property reverts to the Crown, or in reality to the Bona Vacantia division of the Government Legal department. According to the Government Legal department website, “if an asset becomes bona vacantia it belongs to the Crown. The Crown does not have to deal with it in any particular way, but normally an asset will either be disclaimed or sold for full market value.”

The issue that my team at Finders International has uncovered in recent years is that some local councils seem to be lumbered with the on-going maintenance costs of these empty ownerless properties despite alerting the Government Legal Department’s Bona Vacantia division that the property has reverted to the Crown. This period of ‘inaction’ by the Government Legal Department appears to be expanding with some councils left to maintain ‘empty, ownerless properties’ for up to two years.

In November 2016 Harrow Council notified the Bona Vacantia division that the ‘ownerless’ property of the late Pamela Smith* has reverted to the Crown. However two years later, Harrow Council is still bank rolling the maintenance of the empty £600,000 property including paying the insurance for the property.

Ms Y Subotic, Client Finance COP/POP Officer at Harrow Council said: “These empty ownerless properties create an inevitable cost on the council’s already stretched resources. Although we are legally bound to monitor and maintain the upkeep until the Crown’s Bona Vacantia division takes steps and deals with administering the deceased’s estate, it comes with unavoidable costs for service provision and staffing that are levied at the council. In this particular case, Bona Vacantia’s administration of the deceased’s estate has lasted over two years. We now find ourselves in a unique uncertain state that is highly improper and unsuitable. The current wait time for Bona Vacantia’s administration of a deceased’s estate is unreasonable and ambiguous at best, costing our local authority in excess of £3,000 a year.”

Norwich City Council reports a similar situation. It is currently tasked with maintaining a property of the late Mr. Good*, who died intestate (no Will) and has no eligible next for kin to inherit it. Almost two years on, the Bona Vacantia division has still not dealt with this property, valued at around £160,000.

Despite in excess of 200,000 long-term empty dwellings in England recognised as a scandal by Local Government Minister, Rishi Sunak, the Government’s own legal department appears to sit on empty properties around the country that could in fact be sold or used as housing stock.

Every year, on behalf of local councils, we identify around 100 cases of estates that have no next of kin. At an absolute minimum we estimate that at least a third of councils in England have at least one ‘ownerless’ property that it is currently shedding out money to maintain and insure.

We all know that empty properties can have a negative impact on communities through squatting, vandalism and anti-social behaviour. Surely these properties should be put back into circulation or sold to release finances in a more expedient manner. Come on Bona Vacantia division - you can do better!

For the latest list of unclaimed estates in England and Wales visit: https://www.bonavacantialist.co.uk/
*Names changed to protect identities/property

Statutory regulation for the Funeral Industry draws closer

As reported on the Funeral Service Times website, the National Association of Funeral Directors have given their backing to tighter regulation of the industry following the Competition and Marketing Authority's investigation into practice in the funeral industry.

However they oppose any form of price regulation as mentioned in the CMA's interim report last November, stating that "price caps will do nothing to assist funeral affordability for the poorest in society".

Read more in the article on the Funeral Service Times Website

Changes to Grants of Probate Certificates

From today (Monday 4th March) HMCTS will be issuing new style Grant of Probate certificates, old style certificates will still be valid.

The new certificates have counter-fraud measures designed to clamp down on misuse of the forms. These include the addition of a hologram, a digital seal, a digital signature and a validation telephone number for people to call.

Click on the link below to see what has changed and what to expect from the new forms.

HMCTS Guide to New Grants

Rise in Public Health Funerals puts even greater pressure on hard pressed local authorities

A recent survey of 70% of local authorities revealed that almost £5.5m was spent on Public Health Funerals in the year ending April 2018.  During this period in excess of 3,800 people received a Public Health Act (PHA) funeral from a local authority.

Almost a third of these funerals were arranged as a result of bereaved families not being able to afford the cost of the funeral.

275 of 390 authorities responded to the survey, conducted by Royal London, meaning that a further 30% of local authorities, and therefore their expenditure on public health funerals, are not accounted for in these figure.

The cost of PHA funerals has also risen by 3.5% compared to 2017. This comes at a time of decreased central government funding for local authorities - forcing them to seek alternative ways of funding the increase.

The average cost for the local authority is reported at £1,403.00, though costs can be higher or lower depending on the authority.

David Lockwood, public sector development manager for Finders International and former local government officer responsible for PHA funerals said that the rise in costs did not surprise him.

“Having spoken to many former colleagues, I knew that the number of funerals is on the rise. It’s not surprising given how difficult it is to get any state aid from the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions)”.

It’s over 30 years since the law in England and Wales was changed and legislation in Scotland dates back to 1948.  “Local authorities need more clarity on their role - what they can and cannot do.”

“Practice varies across the country with some authorities allegedly banning relatives from funerals while others strive to ensure they are inclusive. Staff undertaking these funerals are under pressure to keep costs down, but they all care and are committed to providing the deceased with a service that is respectful and dignified.”

Mr Lockwood is calling on central government to look at the problem and find solutions as quickly as possible.

While local authorities are entitled to recover costs under legislation; some struggle to do so with their workloads. Many local authority staff report difficulties in obtaining funds from banks that hold cash belonging to the deceased.

Danny Curran, Managing Director of Finders International, said: “Local authorities can turn to companies like us, Finders International, for help in tracing next of kin. We offer a free and efficient service to try and trace next of kin so that hard pressed local authorities don’t have to take on the financial burden.”

Finders International has a record of assisting local authorities. All local authorities are eligible to access the Finders International Funeral Fund, a charitable fund that supports councils when a deceased has no estate and no known next of kin. Finders also offers free conferences and website support to local authorities undertaking Public Health Act Funerals.