Opposition parties called on the Scottish Government to take action to end fees for the burial of children to ease financial pressure on families dealing with “unimaginable loss”.
The push comes amid growing concern at rising levels of funeral poverty, forcing thousands of families across the UK to accept paupers’ funerals for their loved ones without ceremony and sometimes in unmarked or shared graves.
The Prime Minister’s announcement follows a campaign by Carolyn Harris, the Labour MP for Swansea East, who was forced to take out a £700 loan and get donations from neighbours after her son Martin was killed in a road accident in 1998.
“In the raw pain of immediate loss, it cannot be right that grieving parents should have to worry about meeting the funeral costs for a child they hoped to see grow into adulthood,” Mrs May said yesterday.
Around 4,350 children under the age of 18 die in the UK every year. In England, their burial fees will be covered by a £10 million annual fund, starting from this budget year.
The Welsh Government has already taken a similar decision, with First Minister Carwyn Jones setting aside £1.5m until 2020 to “end the unfairness” of different burial fees in various parts of Wales.
In Scotland, Holyrood will take control of the funeral payment benefit from 2019, promising to replace it with a system that is quicker and easier to understand.
However, the Scottish Government’s funeral costs plan published last year does not make any specific commitments on reducing the cost of children’s funerals.
Analysis by The Scotsman found while the majority of councils waive interment and burial fees for children under the age of 16, parents continue to be charged hundreds of pounds when hit by tragedy.
Depending on the type of burial plot and the day of the funeral, the cost of burying a child in parts of the country runs from a few dozen pounds to more than £800.
While almost all local authorities make exceptions for stillborn babies, infants and toddlers, a handful continue to advertise fees to inter a baby running into the hundreds of pounds.
The highest fees are charged in Dundee where burial of a child between the ages of two and 11 can cost up to £408, according to the latest figures provided by councils. This cost rises to £827 for children over the age of 12. In comparison, the lowest fees are charged by Inverclyde Council, which asks for £36.30 to bury a child under the age of 16. In Perth & Kinross, burial fees for a child between the ages of two and 15 can cost up to £144.
Scottish Borders Council charges fees of up to £400 for a child under the age of eight and up to £583 for children under 16.
Neighbouring councils have significant variation in the amount they ask parents to pay for a child’s burial. Midlothian charges £435.50 in interment charges for children between five and 18, while West Lothian charges £114.31 for those between the ages of six and 18. Meanwhile, East Lothian asks for £35 for under-fives and £89 for under-18s.
Parents in the Western Isles are charged £187 in burial fees for children between the ages of six and 12 before the full adult rate of £319 is applied.
Another council, Dumfries & Galloway, has historically charged burial fees regardless of age, but despite a legal duty coming into effect last year for local authorities to publish their charges there is no up-to-date information on its website.
Among the majority of councils that waive burial fees, bereaved parents face a postcode lottery based on how old their child is when they die, with sudden and serious financial consequences for the worst off.
Clackmannanshire covers the cost of burial for every child under 18, while in Angus the cut-off is 14. Most other places charge parents of children over the age of 16. The largest opposition parties said Scotland must follow Wales and England in ending burial fees for children altogether.
Alexander Stewart, the Conservative shadow local government minister, said: “The Prime Minister’s intervention to scrap burial fees for parents that have suffered the unimaginable loss of a child will be broadly welcomed.
“No family going through such a traumatic experience should have to worry about funeral costs. The SNP government should follow the lead of the Conservatives at Westminster and explore the establishment of a similar fund north of the Border.”
Scottish Labour’s shadow communities secretary Monica Lennon said: “It is good news for families across England that the UK government will follow the lead of Wales in abolishing these charges in England and is an example of what committed, passionate campaigning can achieve.
“The next step should be the Scottish Government following suit.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We will introduce a new funeral expense assistance from summer 2019.
“We have engaged with local authorities, the funeral sector and other services to find ways to provide more affordable funerals and we will continue to support innovative measures to address the costs. We note this announcement from the UK government. We are already actively considering ways to further support families in Scotland suffering the bereavement of a child.”
In Scotland, 549 so-called “public health funerals” were carried out in 2015, costing local authorities an estimated £500,000.
Edinburgh carried out the second highest number of “pauper’s funerals” in 2015-16, with 247 people buried without ceremony because relatives could not be found or could not afford to pay for funerals.
Three Scottish local authorities are in the UK’s top ten.