Families who cannot afford a funeral for their loved ones could be charged by Harrow Council to receive the ashes – but only in “exceptional circumstances”.

Responding to a Freedom of Information request, Harrow Council told insurance group Royal London it sometimes charges when returning ashes following a public health funeral. These are funerals paid for by the local authority when families are unwilling or unable to pay for them.

However, a spokesman clarified this is only in exceptional circumstances and is done to recoup significant costs to the council.

He added it is only when the deceased’s family or friends live abroad and the cost of sending ashes is much higher than in the UK.

Public health funerals are carried out by local authorities when someone dies, and a service cannot be arranged. This can be due to a lack of family or financial means to arrange a funeral.

Harrow Council spent almost £7,000 on such funerals in 2018/19 and, according to Royal London, was one of 18 councils to charge – in one way or another – for returning the ashes.

Louise Eaton-Terry, funeral cost expert at Royal London, said laws should be in place to fully support those who have to make use of public health funerals.

She said: “It’s incredibly sad when bereaved families have no choice but to seek a public health funeral.

“But when some families are refused the ashes of their loved ones or are not even allowed to attend the funeral, it is clear that they are being treated unfairly.

“It’s about time the system was overhauled, and we’re calling for legislation on minimum standards for public health funerals to ensure everyone can, at the very least, attend a funeral and collect their loved one’s ashes.”