The Scottish Government needs to catch up with the rest of the UK on the emotive issue of making poor family pay for their child’s burial, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis
Easter brings to mind the Christian themes of love, loss, the veneration of the dead and their enduring presence. It was particularly poignant, therefore, to spend Easter Sunday looking up how much it costs to bury a child in Scotland.
The exercise was prompted by Theresa May’s announcement that England would join Wales in ending interment fees for children under the age of 18, funding the costs to local authorities through a central government fund.
It leaves Scotland as the only part of this island where bereaved parents will be asked by the state to pay for the simple act of the cremation or burial of a child’s remains.
Scrolling through lists of local authority funeral charges was a reminder that even in tragedy, everything has its price. Those prices make little logical sense. All but nine of Scotland’s local authorities have already made the moral judgement that the cost of shouldn’t fall to bereft parents.
Why it is that in the Western Isles, that cost should be just £36.30 (a truly petty sum, in every sense) while in Dundee, parents can face charges of up to £827 is a mystery. Even where burial fees are waived, the judgements seem arbitrary. Why does Angus Council think it’s right to ask for money from the parents of a 14 year-old, while Clackmannanshire respects the international definition of a child as being anyone under the age of 18? There is an ugly truth behind what should be a judgement based on humanity and empathy. ‘Funeral poverty’ sounds like an awful metastasization of the modern economy, like the appearance of food banks on high streets across the country. But the Victorian terminology of the ‘pauper’s funeral’ is no less offensive than the sanitised, official ‘public health funeral’.
The prevalence of these events, often stripped of compassion – cardboard coffins, little or no ceremony, burials carried out after hours – rose by 12 per cent between 2011 and 2016, and a brief search of popular crowd-funding websites for the word ‘funeral’ reveals many more cases of families struggling to provide dignity in death for their loved ones. Driving this phenomenon are runaway costs: according to research by Citizens’ Advice Scotland, average burial charges rose by 27 per cent between 2014 and 2017, more than three times the rate of inflation.
Scottish Governments of every stripe have taken pride in breaking new ground in social policy. That’s particularly true of the SNP, who have made it central to their brand, from tuition fees to baby boxes.
In 2019, Holyrood takes control of the benefits paid to families struggling to meet funeral costs. The SNP has promised to make what is a bureaucratic and flawed system easier to understand. But scanning the Scottish Government’s 22-page strategy on reducing funeral costs, produced at the end of 2017, uncovers no specific acknowledgement of the cost of child burials. Now that Scotland has been left behind by changes in the rest of the UK, ministers and civil servants have to accept this is an oversight.
It’s surprising that given a campaign that has been running for months south of the Border, the Scottish Government isn’t up to speed. This is by no means the first recent example – Nicola Sturgeon has personally refused to take part in the UK race equality audit, and the SNP risks being seen to be flat-footed on public sector pay. On this, the Scottish Government has to be ready to swallow its pride and follow England. The scale of the tragedy that every death of a child represents utterly dwarfs the cost. The numbers of families this affects, and the cost of supporting them, would be very small. The UK Government has set aside £10m per year, and the Welsh Government around £500,000 so a Scottish fund might cost roughly £1m per year. This would be an easy fix, although the strained relationship between central and local government might make it politically more complicated than it should be.
We accept that it takes a village to raise a child, and that in many ways, from maternal health to public schooling to tax credits, it’s our collective responsibility to support families to make the most out of every child’s potential.
When the unthinkable happens, and that potential is lost, it has to be a collective responsibility to support parents and carers in saying goodbye with dignity.