The GFG slipped over the border last week to take part in one of three Round Table Discussions on Funeral Poverty hosted by Angela Constance MSP, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security & Equalities. We were in grand company – sitting round the table were a number of fine Scottish independent funeral directors along with representatives from NAFD, SAIF, Co-operative Funeralcare, Citizens Advice Scotland and the Chief Executives of Golden Charter and Dignity PLC.
It was, shall we say, slightly surprising to find Mike McCollum, Dignity CEO and beneficiary of regular and healthy remuneration as a result of the group’s successful steady growth at a discussion on funeral poverty Perhaps the pleas from this post on the blog in 2014 hadn’t fallen completely on deaf ears; maybe his diary is booked up a couple of years in advance, but at least he was there. (Albeit we didn’t notice much in the way of constructive solutions coming from his part of the table.)
Anyways, as they say oop north, the meeting was a fascinating one. Scotland is forging ahead with issues that Westminster just doesn’t appear to want to address. The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Bill has been enacted and provision has been made for all sorts of far reaching improvements, including licensing of funeral directors, introduction of a funeral director’s code of practice and guidance on the costs of making funeral arrangements. The Round Table discussions are part of a consultation process recommended in the comprehensive (and well worth a read) Review for Scottish Government on Funeral Poverty in Scotland by John Birrell and Fraser Sutherland, published earlier this year, and findings will be brought together at the first national conference on funeral poverty at Norton Park Conference Centre in Edinburgh on 16th November. (Tickets for the conference are free, to register for a place please email firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 4th November).
Much of the discussion ranged over the current inadequacies of the Social Fund Funeral Payment and the things that were needed to improve the system. An online eligibility checker was agreed to be essential, as was swifter decision making by the DWP. Simplifying the criteria required to be eligible and a simplified form were both cited as being necessary to make it easier for families to apply, and the introduction of allowing a funeral director or other body to liaise with the DWP on behalf of a family were suggestions that met with general approval.
Currently, nobody appears to know how many families are in receipt of SFFP payments, this data is not available from the DWP, but there are clearly growing numbers of people who find it difficult if not impossible to find the money to pay for a funeral. Where families are making an application to the SFFP, most funeral directors require a payment in advance to cover the costs of burial or cremation. As Lucy Coulbert pointed out, “I have to pay the local crematorium just under £1,000 per cremation. If the application is unsuccessful and the family isn’t able to find the money, that leaves me £1,000 out of pocket. I can’t afford to take that risk.” Knowing that an application would be successful could alleviate the need to require an impoverished family to come up with such a large amount of money in advance, as the funeral director concerned would be assured of reimbursement for the payment of disbursements.
The current allocation of £700 towards ‘other costs’ once the cremation or burial fees have been paid by the SFFP is the maximum amount available, and the ‘other costs’ have to include the cost of a coffin, a minister or officiant and the undertaker’s fees. Unsurprisingly, there were calls for this capped figure to be increased to a more realistic amount, and to increase in line with inflation, but this led to the old conundrum – and much discussed issue – of defining a simple funeral.
One would have thought that what constitutes a simple funeral shouldn’t be that difficult a thing to agree on, but without the will of the industry as a whole to adopt a specific standard and a reasonable (if locally varying) price for the same, it doesn’t seem to be possible. Having been scrapped by the NAFD in 2014 as a required provision in their Code of Conduct for being unworkable and unpoliceable, there is apparently little inclination to revisit the concept; indeed the idea was described as potentially being considered price fixing, or a cartel, but according to Nick Wilcocks, from yourfuneralchoice.com, the vast majority of funeral directors do offer what would be considered a simple funeral (collection and care of the deceased, a simple coffin, all necessary paperwork and conveyance to the place of committal, usually in a hearse), but the costs for exactly the same service can vary by thousands of pounds.
The subject of licensing brought further debate – licensing of funeral directors will happen in Scotland, the likely timeframe being 2018/9 for the introduction of inspectors of funeral directors and in due course, the licensing of funeral directors. In the first instance, once appointed the inspector(s) of funeral directors will scope the existing provision for funerals, engage in discussions with the trade associations and other interested parties and formulate some advice to government on the form of licensing required. Generally the idea of licensing funeral directors was welcomed by all at the table, with the caveat that it must be done by an independent body, not an existing trade association.
The recommendation of introducing a funeral bond was mentioned briefly, but not gone into in depth. Hopefully this idea will have more of an airing at the conference, as the idea of some kind of a savings scheme supported by government specifically for a straightforward simple funeral available from all licensed funeral directors is one that seems to have real potential.
There was consensus on the need for transparency in the funeral industry, something that needs a great deal of work. Only around 25% of NAFD members currently have prices online, there is no standard descriptor of what is a ‘normal funeral’, and the way that individual firms charge for their services can make it hard to compare like with like.
A representative from a Dundee social enterprise put forward a suggestion that the industry might like to consider creating a foundation or trust fund from some of their profits to be available for those in financial difficulties to apply to. We liked this idea very much indeed. We didn’t have a note of any response to this suggestion from Mr. McCollum.
Finally, we will leave you with Lucy Coulbert’s straight talking conclusion, addressed to the Cabinet minister and her colleagues in Scottish government:
“Accountability. Accountability is very, very important when it comes to licensing, and when it comes to invoicing. For example, I can buy a coffin for £120, if I give you an invoice for £320 most people will say that’s about standard, if you get one from a funeral director that’s exactly the same as mine but mine’s £320 and the other funeral director’s is £900, why would you pay that? There’s a massive gap in funeral directors’ charges, and although we’re not here to point a finger and we’re not here to say you shouldn’t be earning a profit, there is a big difference between funeral directors charges. We’re talking about a very simple funeral for very vulnerable people, and if you’re getting major discrepancies in bills for the same service then why on earth would you pay it?
And the whole point of licensing, if someone’s not doing a good job, if there are complaints about a certain funeral director all the time, look into it. If they shouldn’t be a funeral director, take their bloody license away. It’s a joke. There is no accountability in this industry whatsoever. For so long, really good funeral directors have been doing an amazing job, but there are some really bad funeral directors that have been really taking advantage, and there has got to be accountability. We are supposed to be self governing – it clearly hasn’t worked. So, if you want to regulate people, you’ve got to have the balls to stand by what you’re doing.”