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.