Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman speaks at the party's HQ on 18 May 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: A win for Harman as Cameron prevaricates over Heathrow

Labour's acting leader declared: "He's in a holding pattern above Heathrow and Boris won't let him land".

For the first time since she returned as acting leader, Harriet Harman unambiguously defeated David Cameron at today's PMQs. Labour's decision to swiftly endorse the Davies Commission's recommendation of a third runway at Heathrow allowed her to ably expose the PM's prevarication. After Cameron warned that the "legal position" meant he could not say anything before studying the report (merely promising a decision by the end of the year), Harman gently gibed: "They’re briefing it’s not going to happen. It looks like the PM has been overruled by the member for Uxbridge. He should tell him he’s not the leader of the Tory party yet. Will he stand up for Britain’s interests or will he just be bullied by Boris?"

In desperation, Cameron sought to change the subject (a tell-tale sign that he is losing) to last week's unexpectedly stable child poverty figures. Harman responded by deploying her best line: "He's in a holding pattern above Heathrow and Boris won't let him land" (likely crafted by her aide and former stand-up Ayesha Hazarika). Cameron rightly reminded the House that Ed Miliband almost resigned over the third runway in government: "I seem to remember that the last leader of the Labour Party, although we've been churning through a few recently, had a totally different position on airports to the one she has just offered" (though Miliband himself U-turned before the election). But that only highlighted why Harman was able to pull off a victory that Miliband would have struggled to achieve. The PM's lukewarm welcome for Davies means that the odds remain against the third runway ever being built. 

The other politically notable moment of the session came when Cameron confirmed to the DUP's Nigel Dodds that the number of MPs would be reduced from 650 to 600 by the end of the parliament. Dennis Skinner made his first PMQs intervention of the new term when he berated the PM for not requesting EU aid for miners. Cameron, who was previously forced to apologise after describing the 83-year-old as a "dinosaur", again deployed this charge but with greater wit than before: "Very good to see the Labour Party in full voice cheering on Jurassic Park - I would stick to the movie."

The first PMQs since the Tunisia atrocity had started on an appropriately sombre note. In response to Harman, Cameron said that a taskforce would be established to coordinate support for families and victims and grimly announced that the number of Britons confirmed dead had risen to 27.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Can’t afford to die: the rise of funeral poverty

The cost to councils of public health funerals has risen by 30 per cent in the past four years. 

Dying, as you'll know if you've ever planned a funeral, is an expensive business. If your relatives plan a service with a funeral director, they should expect to pay around £3,500*. Burial alone will cost you around £1,750 (making cremation, at £660, seem like a positive steal). And that's before they've even bought a box to put you in. So it is unsurprising that, according to insurance company Sun Life Research, one in seven families struggles to pay funeral costs. 

Families who can't pay are left with two options. First, there's the Social Fund, a centrally-managed pot of money which can offer a one-off payment to help with funeral costs (it also covers things like maternity grants and the winter fuel allowance). Councils themselves also offer "public health funerals" for either people who die with no next of kin, or whose next of kin can't afford to bury them.

Public health funerals are, it seems, on the rise - partly because of the rising costs of burial and the limited nature of the Social Fund, but also thanks to austerity measures which mean that luxuries (like burying your loved ones) are no longer within reach for the poorest families in Britain. 

Coffin up

A Freedom of Information request by BBC Local Radio found that, according to responses from 300 councils of the 409 who offer public health burials, the costs to councils of these public health services was up an average of 30 per cent from four years ago. Part of this rise is due to the skyrocketing costs of funerals, but part was down to the fact that the number of public health funerals had increased by 11 per cent.  

The assistant director of bereavement at Cardiff City Council told the BBC that when he started his job 20 years ago, the service was mostly used by "vagrants or alcoholics". However, the pool of those accessing council funds for burial has widened dramatically: 

"Over the years it has increased, and sometimes there are families but they are estranged or divorced, or there are families where they claim there's an inability to pay."

Another factor is that applying to the Social Fund, as opposed to your council, is complex and confusing, so many who are eligible for it don't get the money they're entitled to. Even if they do, they're only given £700; an amount that hasn't increased over the past decade despite the rising cost of funeral services. 

Grave policies 

Social policy academics from the University of Bath, led by Katherine Woodthorpe, recently investigated the role of bereavement in public policy. In their paper, they note that "little attention has been paid towards benefits associated with bereavement". The researchers conclude that the system needs to be simplified so families don't have to pay the costs up front, then apply to complicated systems of funding afterwards:

The most constructive change to the current system would be to re-organise the claim process so that individuals could be informed of their eligibility and (potentially) what they might receive from the state before committing to funeral costs. The current practice of submitting a claim after committing to funeral costs is counterproductive, leads to confusion and is the creator of unnecessary stress and financial difficulty for newly bereaved individuals.

When Woodthorpe's paper came out last year, the Telegraph reported its findings under the headline "Paupers’ funerals making comeback as families exploit loophole to save funeral costs", based on the fact that some families who couldn't afford services were going to councils for funeral funding rather than applying to the Social Fund. It included reports of council workers' "anger" at seeing people "who claimed they could not pay then turning up to the laden with expensive bouquets and other embellishments". 

It’s more than possible that these funds are occasionally misallocated and exploited, but we also need to remember that respectful disposal of the dead, while something we take for granted, is deeply ingrained in our culture – which is why there is a dedicated public health budget to ensure that this process isn't restricted to those with thousands of pounds in the bank.It's also worth noting that even the price of the most "expensive" bouquet wouldn't make much of a dent in modern funeral costs. 

It’s perhaps a sign of the times that a respectful burial, which is a deeply symbolic and emotionally significant ritual in all cultures, is now seen as a luxury, increasingly beyond the reach of the poorest families - and one which we bedgrudge those who are too poor to access it without help. 

*Costs are estimates from Money Saving Expert. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.