Scotland leads the way

Fran Hall

scottish-piper

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 julie.dunk@iccm-uk.com 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.”

 

 

 

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James
Guest

A good summary of the meeting Fran. It was good of you, Lucy and others to make the trip to Scotland and participate in an interesting roundtable discussion with Angela Constance MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities. Following on from the Funeral Director discussion I also attended the COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) roundtable meeting with the Minister the following week, with majority of our local authorities represented along with other interested parties. It started with a presentation from Martin Birch (crematorium of the year GFG winner) in which he shared the background and mechanics… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Admin

Fully agree with you, David, about emotional intelligence and the way that regulation can only value that which is quantifiable. It’s the unquantifiable ‘soft’ skills that make a great FD, not the newness of the fridge. Worth noting that in the US direct crem specialists and green FDs are required to have an embalming theatre, even though they never need to use it. As to what anyone needs to know about how to look after a dead person, the dead are wholly safe in the hands of amateurs so long as they (the amateurs) are up for it, for there’s… Read more »

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

Or vice-versa, other than exceptionally!

Charles Cowling
Admin

Very difficult, Lucy, to have a regulatory structure for the industry with a built-in exemption for the nok of a dead person. What would then prevent a nok from getting a mate in to help them – which, when you think about it, is exactly what happens at the moment: the funeral industry exists to do what families dn’t want to do. Remember, the buck, in law, stops not with the undertaker but with the nok, because the nok still remains responsible in law for overseeing disposal – which is why, eg, cremation forms must be signed by the nok… Read more »

Richard Honeysett
Guest
Richard Honeysett

You paint a fearful picture, Charles. You are right of course: direct disposal is the perfect solution for the bureaucrat, but how terrible if poverty imposes it irrespective of circumstance.

Charles Cowling
Admin

Worth bearing in mind that the only interest of the law at present is that dead bodies are disposed of in a manner that does not provoke public outrage or cause a hazard to public health. The law does not concern itself with funerals. So it has to be a temptation for the govt to fund only a disposal-only service for those who can’t/won’t pay. Once you start generating standards that prevent, in US terminology, ‘abuse of a corpse’ everything starts getting very tricky. Any regulatory framework for E and W has to start from square one for, at present,… Read more »

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

I am so glad the “one size fit’s all” days are gone given it is something I specialise in! What I love about being a funeral director right now is that there is no “normal.” In terms of licencing and timing, I am doing to have to disagree. I really think Scotland is leading the way and it is only a matter of time (if it works) before England follows. I think we are probably going to have to agree to disagree on the actual licencing though. If Scotland gets it right. If they don’t marginalise or make it illegal… Read more »

David Holmes
Guest

Happy to engage in debate Lucy, if you’re not offended, but I’m still not sure why you think we need licensing? Surely it makes sense for government to interfere less in our lives, not more? I served briefly on a local licensing board that dealt with taxi’s, pub, clubs and shops, as well as music festivals. All of it made sense from a regulatory perspective, the licensing objectives were very clear and reasonable. Mostly they seemed to ensure safer taxis, that pubs and shops stayed legal – to keep selling booze etc. Festival licensing was to ensure crowd safety, and… Read more »

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

Always up for a good debate David! I think licencing would not be for the funeral industry, but to protect the public essentially. At this moment in time, if a member of the public had a serious complaint they would initially go back to the company. The company would do the very minimum to try and keep them happy and not take it to the press. If they still weren’t happy, they could make a complaint to the NAFD or SAIF who would do the square route of nothing (especially in the case of larger companies) and there is absolutely… Read more »

David Holmes
Guest

Oh dear. In 1997 I bought a brand new hearse, and my first passenger was my then 10 year old daughter. I picked her up from school in it. To be honest, I often picked my kids up in a limousine too. On one memorable journey, to visit family in Bristol, we took the lim so as to have the kids noiselessly behind the division screen. I had no idea someone may now think those things made me a poor funeral director, subject to a rebuke from the licensing people.

Jonathan Taylor
Guest
Jonathan Taylor

“If they don’t marginalise or make it illegal for families to undertake the funeral themselves, if they don’t make the cost of the licence prohibitive, if the list of requirements for the licence aren’t excessive and if they have a body of people who know what they are doing when it comes to inspections…” That sounds like an awful pile of hopelessly optimistic trust in beaurocracy, Lucy! To me, funeral poverty is not about the cost of a funeral — an elusive concept in itself, as this discussion illustrates beautifully — but the willingness of so many to take for… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Admin

David, your candour compels me to confess that I once travelled to and from an undertaker’s Xmas knees-up in a lim. Being a fairly typical death-crowd night out, it was a pretty noisy lim on the way home. Why should bereaved people be quarantined from real life and compelled to travel in dedicated death cars, Lucy?

David Holmes
Guest

I find the prospect of licensing deeply troubling, and I write as someone confident that my family business would be licensed very easily, because we would tick every ‘must have’ box on any inspector’s form. As for what Charles refers to as emotional intelligence, I doubt that is so easily assessed on a form. I repeat, who are these rogue FD’s, because in my book the worst people in the country have every facility imaginable. I have met many American funeral director’s, they always have great facilities, but they’ve always been hard nosed businessmen, however compassionate they may appear to… Read more »

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

While I agree that many larger companies would obtain their licence with ease given they have every bell and whistle going in terms of equipment etc, I don’t believe there is anyone who makes them accountable….certainly the funeral associations don’t. There was a chap who was well documented on here for selling pre-payment plans and pocketing the money only to close the company down and move to another area. There have been others reported in various local newspapers for doing the same thing. A funeral director near me was convicted of scattering the ashes of one person in front of… Read more »

David Holmes
Guest

Good examples Lucy, except athletes who are convicted of dishonesty, cannot lawfully be prevented from competing forever. However badly they cheated, however many drugs they ingested, they serve but a short penance, then the law allows them to carry on regardless. I agree with Charles, the present government has bigger priorities. Crematoria are already subject to many various laws, and that didn’t help prevent events unfolding as they did. I think crematorium regulations such as distance from road prevent people like me from having a simple American style crematory on our premises – imagine how much (little) this would cost… Read more »

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

I thought they could be banned for life. Lance Armstrong for example. I can’t imagine they would ever allow him to compete again.

Lucy Coulbert
Guest

I think the point of legislation and funeral directors having to be licenced isn’t to take power away from the public at all, but rather having people with and without formal premises being vetted and who are deemed capable. I have been very clear in that even with a licenced funeral industry, it should always remain that using a funeral director should not be a legal requirement. I have also maintained that just because someone has their Dip.FD, doesn’t make them a good funeral director. It just means they can pass an exam. It is evident that licencing isn’t a… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Admin

RE “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.” First, this would in effect be a subsidy coughed up by paying clients because it would have to be built into profit margins. Any test to sort the deserving from the undeserving would be very difficult to operate. A voluntary contribution to a trust by funeral shopper would be more transparent and empowering, but still there’s the question: who… Read more »

Richard Honeysett
Guest
Richard Honeysett

Licensing will always favour the big and the corporate – because knowing what the rules are and how they can best turn them to their advantage is what big organisation are good at.

Worse, they will use the new rules as a way to squeeze out innovation, imagination and individuality. As Charles says, you only have to look at America for the worst that can happen.

Is this the first reason in a long time to be glad you are not living in Scotland?

P.S. Great reporting Fran – thanks for keeping us in touch.

David Holmes
Guest

I’m still not clear about what those who support licensing hope to achieve? I cannot see anyone controlling funeral prices, it’s just not feasible in an open market economy. Who exactly are are these rogue funeral directors, what do they do wrong? Surely we all have our own ideas about what constitutes a bad funeral director? Is it someone who we believe overcharges, or is it someone with poor facilities? I suspect the FD with few industry norm facilities thinks the high price FD is a rogue, and the high price FD who has invested in all necessary equipment thinks… Read more »

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

Ra ra, David! Good points.

Personally I find it hard to cheer for licensing in the very slippery context of funeralising. Especially as the whole business ought ideally to be returned to amateurs, anyway.

Charles Cowling
Admin

I’m with David too. How many of our best undertakers have no formal qualifications? Would they be any better if they had?

Regulation will send charges soaring – as it did in the US, which should constitute an object lesson for all regulators over here.

And then there’s the interference with individual liberty. The right of people to care for their own in death would be swept away. In its place, an officious knock at the door from some diploma-ed timeserver demanding the body be handed over. Outrageous.