Category Archives: SAIF

Changes they are a’coming

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

 

                                                                                                       

The GFG was back on the road this weekend, over the border in the ancient Scottish town of Stirling. Some 720 years after Sir William Wallace led his Scottish army to the historic victory over the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, the welcome we received was significantly warmer, although the towering National Wallace Monument glimpsed through the hotel window was a constant reminder of more fractured times in our shared past.

The reason for trekking the 400 miles north was to be present at The Stirling Debate on the forthcoming regulation of Scottish funeral directors. Jointly hosted by the two trade associations, the National Association of Funeral Directors and the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors, the day was designed to give delegates the opportunity to find out about the ground-breaking powers granted by the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016.

The Act will introduce changes that will shape the way bereaved people are served and the way that the funeral trade conducts business for years to come, and throughout Scotland, funeral directors are watching and waiting, with varying degrees of concern.

With the passing into law of the Act, Scottish funeral directors will soon operate under a new dedicated regulatory framework, the first of its kind in the UK. This will include a statutory inspector of funeral directors, regulations governing the funeral trade and the possible licensing of funeral directors throughout Scotland.

Both NAFD and SAIF have been working closely with Scottish Government to ensure that the new regulatory regime is ‘effective and successful’, and consequently they were the joint hosts of the Stirling Debate, giving an opportunity for delegates to raise questions and concerns with a member of the Scottish Government’s Burial and Cremation Legislation Team.

It is the first time that the NAFD and SAIF have shared such a platform, and in acknowledgement of this momentous collaboration, the CEOs of both organisations signed a joint document which instantly became known as The Stirling Agreement – read the full version here: Joint agreement NAFD and SAIF Final version ready for signature 1 April 2017

It is a sign of the importance of the changes that are coming that the two trade associations have put aside their differences and are committed to working together to offer one voice for funeral directors – a historically disparate bunch ranging from enormous private corporate businesses to individuals working from home and hiring facilities as they need them.

As background, in Scotland 388 companies belong to the NAFD, and 240 to SAIF, with some companies belonging to both. It is not certain exactly how many other funeral directing businesses are in operation in the country that don’t belong to either association.

Members of NAFD and SAIF carry out around 55,000 funerals a year in Scotland, and when a survey was circulated by the trade associations last year, while only 42 businesses responded, these carry out 34,500 funerals a year between them. The responses therefore likely represent the views of the larger businesses, and are summarised below:

  • 74% of respondents welcome regulation of the funeral industry
  • 79% support work to improve standards
  • 95% think that the trade associations should work closely with government

Respondents felt that care of the deceased should be the first priority, and that the role of the inspector should focus on care of the deceased, facilities, service, estimates, pricing, vehicles and staff experience.

They also felt that ‘all options for sanctions’ should be on the table – currently if a funeral director does something that is in breach of the code of conduct of either association, the most severe sanction is expulsion from membership. There is nothing to stop that company from continuing to trade.

A desire was expressed for a transition period before any new regulations are implemented, to allow time for any businesses not meeting the requirements to reach any new standards. There was also a call for consideration to be given to the vast differences in funeral director business models.

An example was given of one individual in Lewis, who carries out all the funerals on the island, but who does not offer refrigeration. Lewis people who have died normally stay at home, with burials taking place within a few days, so refrigeration isn’t required. Any new regulations would need to take account of this kind of requirement.

Having heard the survey responses, delegates had an opportunity to put questions to a panel, including Cheryl Paris who was representing Scottish Government at the debate. Inevitably, it was Cheryl to whom most questions were posed, and she gamely did her best to address the many concerns put to her, although it was apparent that everything is in the very early stages and decisions on almost every aspect have yet to be reached. Cheryl spent most of her day scribbling furiously as different subjects and questions were raised, although she did give some indication of the timescale of implementation:

Decisions on cremation regulations, including the application forms, are in the consultation stage. The appointment of an inspector of funeral directors is imminent, although decisions on the scope of the inspector’s powers and how he or she will work with existing inspectors of the respective trade associations have not yet been made – these will be being put to consultation shortly.

The inspector will consult widely across the funeral industry, and make recommendations to Scottish Government, with regulation of funeral directors expected to be introduced from 2019. At this point in time, however, according to Cheryl, “We are not at a place where we even know if licensing of funeral directors is appropriate.”

Five questions were put to delegates, who split into groups to discuss them.

  • How would funeral directors operating across the Scotland / England border ensure compliance with any new regulations?
  • What would you recommend as the minimum standard for the profession?
  • If licensing is introduced, should it apply to the individual or to the funeral home?
  • What role should the NAFD and SAIF have in ensuring compliance with a new code of practice for funeral directors?
  • If the new code of practice had five sections, what would they be?

The responses from the discussions indicated the complexity of the challenge ahead to get regulation of the funeral industry right – the issue of cross border compliance with any new regulatory regime is one that resulted in more questions in response than answers. Could this include purchase of a license by English companies carrying out funerals in Scotland? Would repatriation companies also need a license? What type of insurance products would need to be introduced to cover cross border execution of funerals? Should there be a compliance officer appointed? How would regulation in Scotland affect the choices available for families bereaved in England where the funeral takes place in Scotland and who might wish to appoint an English (unregulated) funeral director?

The question about minimum standards elicited some interesting answers, not least a suggestion of a mandatory requirement that every funeral director should belong to a trade association. Other responses included common inspection standards between the two trade associations, a requirement for all staff to be trained, a diversity of training to be available, with tiered qualifications, a definition of adequate premises for care of the deceased, a need to establish the fitness or calibre of the business owner, accountability to be vested in one nominated individual, transparency of ownership of the business, indemnity insurance to be compulsory – and an ethical basis for all business practice.

The question about whether any licensing should apply to an individual or a funeral home, was met with the response of ‘Both’ from all the tables that discussed it. It was proposed that all premises should be assessed as fit for purpose, and all funeral directors should be qualified to a standard to be agreed, or certified as competent. The regulation used in the care quality commission was cited, and it was suggested that sanctions should be introduced for both an individual and a company that breached any new code of conduct.

On the question of the roles of the trade associations in ensuring compliance with a code of practice for funeral directors, it was proposed that both should be closely involved in developing and drafting a new code of practice, and that both trade associations should be consulted in an advisory role to Scottish government during the decision-making stage. It was also noted that there should be consultation with members before any new code of practice is introduced. Discussions about levels of sanctions available, whether trade associations should be held responsible if members are not compliant and what shape a complaint system should take were all raised, and the role of existing trade association inspectors was proposed to evolve into an advisory role, auditing businesses pre-inspection to ensure that they were at the required standard.

Finally, suggestions for the proposed new code of practice included premises being fit for purpose, individuals holding adequate qualifications or education, standards – i.e. being a ‘fit and proper person’ – DBS (formerly CRB) checks, continual professional development, an arbitration and complaints scheme, transparency, confidentiality and establishing standards of care of the deceased, insurance, Health and Safety, advertising, and so on.

The discussions were animated and lively, and the involvement and engagement of everyone attending the debate was very evident. The introduction of regulation of the funeral trade in Scotland will have huge consequences, not just for the people who work in the funeral industry, but far more importantly, for their clients, the bereaved families who will be using the services of an undertaker in years to come.

It is far too early to tell how things will develop as work continues towards implementation of regulation, but from an interested observer’s viewpoint, Saturday’s Stirling Debate was a positive step towards cohesive and constructive changes that were first called for by Henry Sherry in 1898, when he urged the British Institute of Undertakers do ‘all in its power to petition or otherwise to get parliament to make some form of compulsory regulation.’

What the shape and form of that regulation will take in Scotland is something that we will be reporting back as things develop. Watch this space.

                                                                                       

Trade association carrots and sticks

Monday, 1 October 2012

 

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

 

The annual subscription renewal request has arrived in my in-tray for the media association to which my publishing company employer belongs. What do we get for the membership fee? Aside from a glitzy awards ceremony and occasional parties enabling us to ‘network’ with amicable rivals, the association aims to support by giving tips on current practices that might boost revenue.

This advice comes in various guises. We’re sent a magazine focusing on industry news and media developments. Ironically, this publication was beaten by NAFD’s Funeral Director Monthly in the Magazine of the Year category of the Trade Association Forum’s 2012 Best Practice Awards. TAF is a trade association for trade associations!

Information is also forthcoming via forums where speakers lecture on new media trends, or via more practical tip-offs: I once had a call informing me the Masonic Association of Grand Lodges was inviting pitches from publishers for the tender of its membership journal. We politely declined as it wasn’t a natural fit with our existing portfolio and skill sets!

The point I’m leading to here is that trade associations can be in a tricky position if they’re expected to discipline rather than nurture their paying members. They tend to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, hoping members strive to follow the good examples. The media has a separate body for penal action, the Press Complaints Commission. And like the funeral industry, the media is largely self-regulating as bad practice should be bad for business.

But while any consumer of the media can lodge a complaint, what’s the best approach for consumers of the funeral industry? Their MP, the media, Citizens Advice? Or a UK equivalent of the US Funeral Consumers Alliance, a not-for-profit consumer advice and advocacy service? One good reason why GFG resists any tribal name-calling of the ‘I wish these conventional funeral directors weren’t here, this should only be for progressives’ variety. Whatever the consumer chooses, how they are served comes first. Go forth and multiply. 

 

 

University of death

Wednesday, 7 December 2011


Image by Sean McManus whose website you can find here.

 

Hardly anyone buying a funeral pauses to consider whether or not an undertaker is formally trained. Consumers are trusting people. They suppose that he or she is. Well, it ain’t necessarily so.

Training for funeral directors is presently in something of a dark, even unstable, place. The foundation degree course at the University of Bath is to be discontinued. Numbers of applicants for the Diploma in Funeral Directing (Dip Fd) are falling. There’s been a falling out between two providers, the NAFD and the BIFD. The NAFD course is under review. Meanwhile, the independent funeral directors’ trade body SAIF offers some training through its virtual college, the Independent Funeral Directors College.

There’ll never be a consensus about whether or not a Dip FD is worth having; a great many funeral directors reckon not, for reasons good and bad. Some say the training’s not good enough, others that you learn on the job. But an unregulated industry has to look to itself in this matter. If it is to rebuff criticism of its resistance of regulation it needs to demonstrate that regulation is unnecessary. One of the best ways of doing so is to be able to point to high levels of industry training.

As repositories of industry codes of conduct, the NAFD and SAIF might be reckoned to be the best bodies to roll out training courses at all levels. It has been suggested that this is the reverse of truth, but we can’t pin down why. Perhaps someone will tell us.

We have been aware of outsiders surveying the funeral industry recently with an eye to supplying the sort of training that forward-looking funeral directors need. There’s a pretty broad consensus that there is a business opportunity here, with the potential for considerable benefit to the industry. Dip FD courses have been strong on mechanics, less so on those areas of the job requiring emotional intelligence, a quality in greater demand now than ever. We get too many complaints here at the GFG about rotten customer service.  Down at the undertaker’s that becomes ‘total lack of empathy’. We had one on the phone yesterday (complaining about the People’s Undertaker, you guessed). 

Just when we were wondering what would happen next, along comes Green Fuse together with the newly-formed Chester Pearce Associates offering their own Dip FD course. At first glance it looks a bit heavy on mechanics: “Caring for the body and mortuary practice – Removals from different places – Dressing and presenting for viewing – Safe handling and health and safety” but industry insiders will probably reckon these to be hallmarks of credibility. Less reassuring may be that the course is not externally accredited. But Green Fuse has an excellent track record as a training provider with an emphasis on developing emotional intelligence. They are well placed to offer themselves to the industry. If this leads to competition among training providers, that would seem, from the consumer point of view, to be no bad thing. Can’t see the NAFD and SAIF having much time for it. Strategically they need to occupy the high ground; they need to be the go-to people. But Green Fuse has always handled the politics of the industry graciously and with good manners. They have the potential to do well.

Enough from us. Find out more here.

Let us know what you think.

Thanks!

Unmasking the wolves

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Over in the US, Service Corporation International (SCI) the multinational deathcare conglomerate which, here in the UK, begat Dignity, is in hot water. Again. One of its funeral homes, trading under the name of Stanetsky Memorial Chapels, mixed up two bodies. When they realised what they’d done, it seems that they illegally exhumed the one they’d already buried (it had enjoyed a good Jewish funeral first), and reburied it in the right place. Read the story here.

Were we to generalise from this in the light of our experience in Britain we might easily reach the conclusion that big chains of funeral directors are especially susceptible to Wrong Body Syndrome. Not all, mind. I’ve never heard of our Dignity making that mistake.

Yet I think we might agree, nonetheless, that even when they don’t make egregious mistakes, big chains are systemically incapable of giving the grieving public what they want. They know this, of course. It’s why they trade under the names of the families they’ve bought up. It’s the vital point the financial journalists always miss when writing about the trading position of Dignity, talking up the attractiveness of its shares. The market, they say, as if it were an unravished bride, is ripe for consolidation. Orthodox economics teaches us that consolidation’s what’s best for markets. But funeral consumers want small, intimate, private and personal. They want boutique. If they can have that at a lower price than the big beasts charge, they who enjoy economies of scale which they do not then pass on to consumers, it’s win-win for consumers all the way. Dignity shareholders urgently need to know this.

Again over in the US, “At least seven funeral homes say Robert Christiansen, director of Christiansen Funeral Home in Greenville and a cremation service in Wyoming, engaged in “cybersquatting” by registering variations of their Internet sites.” He then had all traffic to these sites redirected to him. Darkly devious. Read it all here.

If we are to generalise from this, those of us who know the funeral industry would probably agree that over here in the UK we, too, are aware of some pretty dark arts in the matter of marketing. And I use two examples of US malpractice simply to show that there’s nothing peculiarly British about the British way of undertaking.

Let’s come home, now, focus on the matter of transparency of ownership and celebrate the victory on 22 September 2010 of Daniel Robinson and Sons over LM Funerals trading in Epping as DC Poulton and Sons. Daniel Robinson complained to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) about three press ads:

The first press ad stated “SERVING THE LOCAL COMMUNITY SINCE 1888 … DC Poulton & Sons is one of the area’s longest established funeral directors, proudly serving the community for over 120 years”. The ad also featured an image of Howard Poulton.

The second press ad stated “Serving the local community since 1888 … DC Poulton & Sons is one of the area’s longest established funeral directors, proudly serving the community for over 120 years!”.

The third press ad also featured an image of Howard Poulton and stated “The Original and Traditional Funeral Directors Caring for families since 1888 …With over 70 years combined experience, Mr Howard Poulton, his Funeral Director Peter Wright and their team of funeral professionals are available to assist you”.

Daniel Robinson & Sons Ltd challenged whether:

1. the claims “Serving the local community since 1888” in ads (a) and (b), and the claim “The Original and Traditional Funeral Directors Caring for families since 1888” in ad (c) were misleading because they understood that the company that owned Poulton & Sons was established in 2003; and

2. the image of Howard Poulton gave the misleading impression that the business was still family run because they believed that Howard Poulton had retired.

The ASA upheld 1 (above). “The ASA noted that the certificate sent by DC Poulton showed they had provided services to the residents of Epping since 1890, but noted it did not state the type of services being offered. We considered, therefore, that it did not constitute evidence to demonstrate that they had been in business as funeral directors since 1888 as claimed. We also noted that the company had been acquired by LM Funerals in 1997 and that they had continued to operate under the name DC Poulton since that time. We considered that the claims “DC Poulton & Sons is one of the areas longest established funeral directors” and “The Original and Traditional Funeral Directors Caring for families since 1888” implied that the company was still owned by the Poulton family, that ownership was “original” and unchanged, which was not the case. In the absence of a prominent statement making clear that the business was owned by LM Funerals, we concluded that the ads were likely to mislead.”

The ASA did not uphold 2 (above): “We noted that Howard Poulton was still employed by DC Poulton and involved in the business and had not retired. We therefore concluded that the ads were not misleading.”

The ASA directed: The ads must not appear again in their current form. [Source]

For all that, DC Poulton continues to make this claim on its website: “D. C. Poulton & Sons was founded in 1888 as a builders and undertakers”.

Transparency of ownership is a hugely sensitive issue in the funeral industry. Independents rage about it, the big beasts chuckle at their impotence, and all the while funeral consumers are, basically, conned. They find out too late, if at all.

Some local authorities, bless them, try to warn consumers with this no-holds-barred text on their websites: “There has been a decline in recent years of the local family operated funeral director. Few people notice that large firms now own many family funeral directors throughout the country. The new owners may not be disclosed on shop signs or Letterheads. These firms may continue trading upon the inference of the caring qualities and local connection of the old family firm. Similarly, older people tend to reflect upon the past socialist principles of the “Co-op” funeral services, which may no longer apply.” [Source] I especially approve of the way they consign the Co-op’s socialist principles to history.

On 14 August 2008 Birmingham Trading Standards officer Derek Hoskins, in a letter to SAIF, detailed the laws concerning transparency of ownership:

“from 26th May 2008, the true ownership of a business must be conveyed to a consumer before he makes a transactional decision. I.e. if a company is trading as “I’M A SOLE TRADER FUNERALS LTD.”, is owned by “NATIONAL FUNERALS UK LTD”. The customer has the right to know whom they are really dealing with BEFORE they make their choice.” [Full text here]

It’s only fair and right that they should, of course. But is the law working as Mr Hoskins thinks it ought? No. The wolves continue to parade themselves in sheep’s clothing.

How do the big funeral chains get away with camouflaging themselves as they do? I hope a reader with a good legal brain will enlighten us.

At the same time, I very much hope that the ASA judgement above will renew the determination of independent funeral directors to look very closely at the ads of their wolf competitors and take them on with renewed zeal. You don’t just owe this yourselves, you owe it to consumers, too.

And should you need any more impetus to do that, consider this: Marks and Spencer are thinking about entering the market. Read and despair here.

Indy undertakers on the counter-attack

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Saif’s  IPSOS-Mori price comparison survey published in February 2010 was dynamite. It showed that independents are generally cheaper than two big beasts of the industry, Co-operative Funeralcare and Dignity. Had Saif got the message out to the funeral-buying public it would have hit the big beasts’ bottom line bigtime.

But the message never got out, not in a big way – an eyebrow-raising non-occurrence considering the price obsession of British funeral consumers. Saif didn’t bang the drum and blow the trumpet. A number of its members are cross about this. All that money to create a weapon of mass destruction only for it to hastily hidden under a bushel. What a waste, they said.

Is Saif dumb or did it have its tongue cut out? The story cannot be told for fear of litigation. There was a rumour swirling that one of the big beasts put pressure on Saif’s suppliers to take sides: either you ditch your indies or we’ll ditch you. I don’t think we can attach any credence to that.

The advance of the clunking conglomerates has been inexorable. They have circumvented the nobody-does-it-better claim of the independents and fought the war instead on the unpropitious battleground of financial planning, employing expert messagemakers to seduce consumers with sweet-talk about empowerment. As a result, the future now belongs to the big beasts: they’ve got the paid-up pre-need plans to prove it. It’s been a strategic masterstroke. Who wants today’s car, phone, anything tomorrow? No, we want the upgrade, next generation, as-yet-undreamt of. And yet… the funeral planners have conquered obsolescence . Hats off!

How to reverse this? By playing the big beasts at their own game? Golden Charter is fighting the good fight pluckily enough, but is beginning to look like the British army in Basra. In any case, there are far, far better ways of making provision for funeral expenses, ways which do not disempower those left behind.

No. The way forward is to get back onto the battleground of value for money, quality assurance and individuality. At a time like death people want to be looked after by a brilliant boutique business, not Funerals R Us. It ought to be easy enough.

It will need concerted action, though. Ay, there’s the rub.

So it’s really good to see a togetherness initiative come out of last week’s discussion of the new Co-op website MyLocalFuneralDirector. It was sparked by Nick Armstrong. He spotted that the Co-op had failed to buy mylocalfuneralservice.co.uk and yourlocalfuneralservice.co.uk.

“I’ll give you a guess who has just bought them. I’ll get a list of independent funeral directors on there as soon as I work out how to do it. Ill post back on here when I have a template up and running.:-) … It won’t be a quick thing as I want to get it right but it will be honest that’s for certain! If anyone has any ideas on compiling the database easily please let me know.”

His challenge was taken up by Andrew Hickson:

“Nick, here’s an idea off the top of my head. Follow it up, ignore it, change or work on it, I shan’t be offended by any of them!

It seems that there’s a fair bit of animosity and dislike of the website that is being discussed here, so, how about we, ourselves, research and compile a database? By this, I mean every reader and follower of this blog, each contributing what he or she knows.

I’d be surprised if between us we weren’t pretty well-informed of the true identities of a huge number of companies.

An immense task, and one which would require every contributor to be really focussed. But, very exciting, and think of the satisfaction when it was complete.

I’d be happy to help out wherever I could, so do let me know your thoughts!

This could be big if we all made it so … the start of a collaboration of FD’s willing to challenge the boundaries of the truth with which we all contend on a daily basis?”

Nick has responded:

“Hi Kingfisher. I’m game. Any help on content etc would be appreciated as well as any help with compiling a database. Thinking of a searchable google map with premises photos and branch info might be a good start. Bit more interactive than a list.

I’ve been doing one on my website with local churches, cemeteries etc. http://tinyurl.com/2v54rzz

I’m happy to build and host the site(s) and any info would be greatly appreciated.”

So there we are then. The go-to man is Nick: office@funeralhelp.co.uk.

Let’s make common cause!

Sods’ law

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The funeral industry is right to be wary of those who claim to scrutinise it on behalf of consumers. After all, Jessica Mitford did much injury to the American funeral industry with an exposé which held it up to ridicule and focussed on price at the expense of value, and so was actually of very little use to consumers.

Jessica and her muckraking merrymaking aside, the UK funeral industry was always going to find scrutiny hard to bear both because it is unaccustomed to being held to account and because parts of it  suffer from a degree of complacency, self-importance, even, induced by customers who come through its doors, hold their hands up and say, “Tell me what to do.”

The Good Funeral Guide is guilty of having had some fun at the expense of the funeral industry. Any consumer advocate is going to be adversarial at times, and resolutely non-aligned, of course. And in the interests of readability, this blog aims not to be solemn but challenging, thought-provoking, tail-tweaking, humorous, deadly serious, thoughtful, silly and sometimes downright maverick. Entertaining. If it’s earnest you want, join me at the University of Bath on Saturday for the CDAS annual conference, entitled A Good Send-off. It won’t all be dull. Melissa Stewart of Native Woodland is speaking.

The approach I have taken to the funeral industry is to hold it to account from time to time and, where possible, engage in constructive dialogue. Where the trade bodies, NAFD and SAIF are concerned there has been very little of that. Emails are not replied to or even acknowledged. If this makes me, sometimes, waspish, who’s not to understand?

Yet my main thrust has been not to expose rottenness but to spotlight what’s best in funeral service, to sing the praises of the unsung heroes – to show consumers the way to the good guys so that they needn’t worry themselves about the bad and the awful. Those good guys are invariably independents.

For this reason I tend to be slow to respond to beastly goings on. That’s why, in the matter of Co-operative Funeralcare’s response to the SAIF IPSOS-Mori price comparison survey, I have been slow out of the blocks. I don’t get a bang out of giving Funeralcare a drubbing once in a while. It is a wearisome duty conducted on behalf of funeral consumers, socialism and the ideals of the Rochdale Pioneers.

But this latest business is as bad as it gets.

Even though the SAIF price comparison survey would seem to be 100% quantitative and 0% qualitative, even though it talks about what consumers need to know, SAIF has, along with at least three of its members, in the words of SAIF ceo Alun Tucker, “been issued with papers from the legal team representing The Co-operative Funeralcare. The documents relate to the wording in various items of SAIF literature and the content of some advertisements that members have placed in their local press. I will not comment further at this stage, as we have placed the papers in the hands of solicitors for a response to Funeralcare’s claims.”

I think we all know exactly what we reckon to that. There is no reason to overexcite Co-op lawyers by putting our thoughts into words. Justice is only very, very distantly related to the Law. They hardly ever see each other, never at funerals.

There’s worse. There are allegations from others in the industry that SAIF-affiliated suppliers of merchandise and services are coming under pressure to think carefully about who they do business with – a threat to the viability of SAIF as a trade body. Who is applying this pressure? And, as a writer to SAIF Insight, the trade body’s magazine, says, what if all this were to come into the public domain?

Well, it is in the public domain. And we reckon we know what it’s all about, don’t we? The funeral industry is not a hermetically sealed world like the illegal drugs trade. This is a matter which belongs to wider society; it needs to be aired; it is of material interest to all funeral consumers, the very people the funeral industry and the Good Funeral Guide together seek to serve.

It is because we share this common purpose that I believe we should talk to each other. We won’t always agree, but that’s not the point. So I hope I shall hear soon from spokespeople at SAIF and the NAFD.

My sincere thanks to all those of you who have contacted me with information and told me what you think. Where do we go from here?

If you want to leave a comment, please be very, very careful how you word it.

Co-op lawyers please note: I signed my house over to my wife when I cancelled my smile bank account. I am penniless. (It’s true, too, but I’m throwing it in also for readers who are members of the NAFD. They’ll see the joke.)

Vile and baseless rumours

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Yesterday I reported that rumours are swirling in Funeralland concerning the response of the People’s Undertaker to the release of the IPSOS-Mori funeral price comparison commissioned by the independent funeral directors’ trade association, SAIF — a survey which revealed Co-op charges to be, on average, higher than those in the independent sector despite its enjoyment of significant economies of scale.

I thank all those of you who have contacted me, confidentially, to talk about these rumours.

I am pleased and relieved to be able to report that these rumours are indeed baseless. There have been no instances of heavy-handedness concerning industry suppliers Wilcox Limousines, Lyn Oakes the clothing people, or a leading and excellent firm of funeral directors.

Just as I thought!

No official comment yet from SAIF or the NAFD. But I watch my stats. I know who’s looking. I said to them, when I emailed them yesterday, that I am only doing what any conscientious consumer advocate would do. I’d far rather sing the praises of the best, that’s where my emphasis lies, but I have to maintain an overview.

Anything in it?

Monday, 14 June 2010

Perhaps the most important recent consumer information to reach the public domain was the SAIF IPSOS-Mori  price comparison survey (26 Feb 2010) which showed that  “Average funeral directors’ charges are highest for Dignity funeral directors and lowest for independents. Co-operative Funeralcare branches fall between the two.”

SAIF wouldn’t share these results with the Good Funeral Guide on the grounds, that, though we make a better case for independent funeral directors than most, we were adjudged not to be fit and proper recipients. Good news will out, though. We soon had that clean linen being aired on this website. Since then, SAIF has quietly aired it on its own.

Why the shhh!? I’d have thought that SAIF members pay their subs to have this sort of information trumpeted at full blast. As we go into an era of cuts lots more people are going to be looking for a cheap funeral. Every financial journalist in the country would have picked up on a brightly-worded press release.

One possible reason has reached me in the form of swirling rumours. I say rumours and, for the benefit of Co-op Funeralcare’s lawyers, I repeat: rumours. Allegations. Baseless, doubtless.

These rumours centre on the response of Co-op Funeralcare to the release of the SAIF survey. They are ugly rumours.

Does anyone have any solid, verifiable information they’d like to share?

Don’t leave an anonymous comment below. I couldn’t trace you through it, but others, possibly, could. Contact me direct: Charles@goodfuneralguide.co.uk. Arrange to phone, if you prefer. You will just have to trust that I shall treat anything you say in strictest confidence.

It would be good to stand these rumours up or knock them down, as they deserve.

Chasing the money

Monday, 14 June 2010

Sometimes a google goosechase can take you to interesting places.

Where did I start? I wanted to find out the current average price of a simple funeral. I found a Guardian article which concluded with a tranche of good advice from Anne Wadey, author of the Which? publication What To Do When Someone Dies. Which?, we remind ourselves, is a consumer advocacy charity. At the foot of the article was a recommendation (not by Anne Wadey, oh no) of probate specialists Final Duties. Heard of them? You have now. Read this article about them in the Guardian here.

The NAFD has its own pet probate specialist umbrella-ed under its Bereavement Advice Centre (BAC), a not-for-profit organisation. Spin Profiles has this to say about the BAC:

The Bereavement Advice Centre claims to have been welcomed by a variety of organisations from health, funeral, legal and advice sectors and their policy committee oversees development of the service and includes clergy, hospital bereavement support, legal, care home, medical, funeral undertaking and local government representations.

The BAC publishes a leaflet called “What to do when someone dies“, which is widely available in registrars, where people go to register a death, and in some hospitals. The leaflet publicises a helpline which has been accused by solicitors of promoting BAC’s commercial owner ITC Legal Services. An article in the Law Society Gazette in June 2009 drew attention to the “financial links” between the Bereavement Advice Centre and ITC Legal Services. The article says the link has “come under fire from solicitors”. Patricia Wass, a partner at Plymouth firm Foot Anstey and chairwoman of the Law Society’s wills and equity committee, is quoted in the article as saying that she is concerned that registrars ‘up and down the country’ are giving BAC’s leaflets to people when they report a death. This might imply that local authorities sanction BAC’s promotion of ITC’s commercial interests.

Over at Thisismoney, here’s what they have to say on the matter: Registrars, GPs, hospitals, churches and funeral homes are all handing out leaflets advertising the Bereavement Advice Centre. The official-looking document appears to be for a free independent advice service. But those that call a free helpline or visit the website are pointed towards ITC Legal Services, one of the biggest probate providers in the UK. ITC’s fees can be much greater than similar services offered by local solicitors. In one case, a reader was quoted £2,400 by ITC, almost three times more than a local solicitor … Despite claiming its fees are competitive with solicitors and can be half that charged by banks, ITC’s charges can be hugely more expensive than services offered by trained lawyers. This is because the firm charges a percentage of the estate, unlike solicitors, which tend to charge an hourly rate. In Manchester, this ranges between £140 and £250. ITC charges from 2.5% for estates worth between £5,000 and £19,999 to 1% for estates worth £230,000 and above … Stewart Acton, 59, was given one of these leaflets when he went to Sale town Hall to register the death of his mother, Sheila. Thinking it was an official leaflet, he phoned the Bereavement advice centre. Days later, he was visited by a woman from ITC. Mr Acton says: ‘The girl said the firm would take care of everything and that if I went to a solicitor it would take a long time and the costs could be astronomical.’ The charge for ITC’s services was £2,400. Mr Acton got in touch with his neighbour, a solicitor, who said he would charge just £850 for the same service. He says: ‘When your mum dies, your head is in the clouds and you just go with it. These people are just coffin-chasers.’

The Head of the Bereavement Advice Centre is… Anne Wadey. The author of the latest edition of What To Do When Someone Dies would hardly seem to have impeccable non-aligned credentials.

I learnt something else interesting from Spin Profiles: In 2002 Helen Parker, editor of Which, commented: “We want to see all funeral directors in the UK signed up to a standard code of practice. The code should be monitored and enforced by an independent body.” In response, Alan Slater, ceo of the NAFD gave this assurance: “We are currently mid-way through the process of improving our code … Once finalised, the new code will be sent to the OFT.” The NAFD’s Slater said this in 2002. But as of February 2009, the NAFD code of practice has not been approved by OFT. In fact, none of the funeral trades associations’ codes of practice have been approved by OFT. Approval would mean that the codes of practice would be blessed by the Consumer Codes Approval Scheme, offering a much greater degree of assurance to consumers.

In search of better news I googled ITC Legal Services. Has it cleaned its act up? Oh dear, it hasn’t. Here’s a depressing story dated 9 June 2010.

To the consumer, this all looks very murky. I must now fire off emails to the NAFD and SAIF and see what they have to say for themselves.

PS Who is the informant behind these Spin Profiles, I hear you ask? It is none other than the indefatigable Teresa Evans. Hats off, please!

Page 1 of 212