The Competition and Markets Authority’s Funeral Market Report – update

Fran Hall

“Now is not the time”

On April 7th a document published by the Ministry of Justice quietly appeared in the public domain.

It was the government’s ‘Response to the Competition and Markets Authority’s Funeral Market Report’, and it does not make for good reading for anyone who believes that the funeral sector needs to be regulated. Or for the 69% of those who responded to the CMA’s survey who assume it already is.

If, like us, you have been following the progress of the CMA, from the launch of their market study into the funeral market in 2018, you will have seen the case for regulation gradually being developed. After years of painstaking and in-depth work by the team involved, the Final Report, published in December 2020, outlined the serious concerns that the CMA has about the funeral sector. We wrote about it in our blog post in January.

Despite the pandemic having severely restricted the CMA in fully developing all of the remedies that may otherwise have been pursued, the Final Report proposed a number of ‘sunlight’ remedies, intended to improve transparency of pricing and focus on the hidden ‘back of house’ practices in the funeral sector.

In addition, the CMA made one recommendation to government – that:

“The UK government, and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland and Wales, should establish in England, Northern Ireland and Wales an inspection and registration regime to monitor the quality of funeral director services, as a first step to the establishment of a broader regulatory regime for funeral services in these nations (Scotland already has a similar regime).”

The government has had a think about this, and after a couple of weeks, it told us its decision.

It said no.

While agreeing in principle to a form of regulation and inspection and stating that it believes that ‘such a move in the long term would assist in achieving the overall objective of an improved customer experience’, the government then goes on to make clear it has little appetite to ‘improve customer experience’ in such a way any time soon – now is, apparently, ‘not the time to move to wholescale regulation’.

Instead, the response goes on to outline the next steps that the government is willing to take. Which are not exactly onerous.

Apparently, they will:

  • ‘Work collaboratively with the sector and user groups to develop an agreed set of quality standards (such as a voluntary code of practice), as part of a co-regulatory model, that could be introduced in summer 2021, in parallel with the CMA’s work on price transparency, to achieve a quicker outcome for users of funeral director’s services
  • Support the sector in developing a system to encourage all funeral directors to follow these quality standards and enable users to raise points of concern through a more formalised mechanism than at present
  • Commit to evaluating and reviewing the effectiveness of this co-regulation model
  • Monitor the effectiveness and success of the Scottish regulatory system that has just launched (and which applies to organisations who provide services in Scotland but may be based in Scotland and / or England) after a year’

In the context of the ongoing pandemic,’ the government goes on, ‘we believe that this is both a proportionate and appropriate approach.’

Over on Twitter, the Quaker Social Action account noted how bitterly disappointed QSA are with the UK government’s response, “There has never been a more important time for robust action to safeguard bereaved people and ensure that the funerals market is working for consumers” they say.

A statement from Lindesey Mace, manager of the charity’s funeral costs helpline Down to Earth adds that the number of clients they supported doubled during the second peak of Covid-19 deaths between December 2020 and March 2021.

Lindesey continues, “We believe the UK government could, and should, commit far more to protect bereaved people, especially those affected by funeral poverty.”

We at the Good Funeral Guide are wholeheartedly in agreement with Quaker Social Action and share their frustration and disappointment at the government’s decision.

The position of the National Association of Funeral Directors, in contrast, is somewhat different to that of QSA – the NAFD has warmly welcomed the government response in an article on their website, saying:

“The NAFD looks forward to working closely with the Ministry of Justice to demonstrate that our revised inspections regime and comprehensive industry code of practice (The Funeral Director Code), which has been created in consultation with consumer bodies and representatives from across the sector through the work of the FSCSR, and our work to create the Independent Funeral Standards Organisation (IFSO), an independent body which will oversee standards monitoring, inspections and complaints, will provide Government with the assurance it needs that the funeral sector is committed to acting with transparency, high standards and in the interests of bereaved people.”

(The FSCSR is an initiative by Dignity PLC that began in 2018 and was quickly expanded to include other ‘stakeholders’ and an independent chair. The FSCSR is funded “through the funeral industry through the NAFD with additional financial support from Golden Charter, Funeral Zone and Ecclesiastical Planning Services.” We wrote about it in a blog post in 2019 here.)

The IFSO was set up by the NAFD as a ‘new regulator in a previously unregulated space’, according to the advertised role of chair of the board and was done so to ‘provide the Government with a viable solution to address the CMA’s (and our) concerns about the limitations of the current voluntary regulation of the funeral sector,’ as outlined in the article on the NAFD website.

So. In summary.

  1. The Competition and Markets Authority has recommended that government step in and regulate the funeral sector in order to protect and benefit bereaved people.
  2. Government has declined to follow this recommendation.
  3. The National Association of Funeral Directors (the trade association representing the interests of funeral directors) has set up and funded a ready-made ‘independent regulatory body’ as a solution.

We offer no comment on this generous action.

Conclusion

After years of hard work by the team at the CMA investigating the funeral sector, it is dispiriting and dismaying to see their recommendation to government being dismissed.

It feels like a missed opportunity, one that has been 20 years in coming since the Office of Fair Trading Report published in July 2001 called for more openness and transparency, warning that the funeral industry could be taking advantage of bereaved people.

We feel that in choosing not to follow the CMA’s recommendation for regulation, government are ignoring bereaved people and downplaying the vulnerability of bereaved people as consumers.

We would like to ask one simple question to government.

If now is not the time to move to wholescale regulation of the funeral sector, then when will be?

Postscript

While doing research for this article, it was fascinating to come across the new look ‘All Party Parliamentary Group for Funerals and Bereavement’.

It has a shiny new website, and has moved up in the world by including not just MPs, but also members of the Deceased Management Advisory Group  (DMAG) – a collective of organisations representing both funeral directors and those who manage, provide and work in cemeteries and crematoria. The DMAG was formed to address the challenges posed to the funeral sector by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is a very interesting and new development.

In the past, we have approached the APPG for Funerals many times, requesting that the Good Funeral Guide be allowed to attend meetings with MPs to represent the views of bereaved people (referred to in the full title of the group) but in each instance we have been turned down – although, we were assured in the polite refusals from various Chairs over the years that occasionally guest speakers were invited and one day that invitation might come to us. It never did.

The NAFD historically has been the only outside organisation involved with this particular APPG  – indeed it is referred to by a former President of the NAFD as ‘the NAFD’s APPG’ in an article commemorating the bestowing of Honorary Membership on a colleague – Nigel has been involved with the NAFD’s APPG on Funerals and Bereavement since its inception in 2002 and has worked with 6 different Chairs in that time. All of whom he has ensured have returned excellent value for the NAFD.’

In the past, the APPG for Funerals was the beneficiary of a secretariat funded by the NAFD, however, from a skim through the minutes of the new-look group, a new public affairs agency, JBP Associates appears to have taken over this role. The funding for their services is not apparent in the public register (see page 609, to save you ploughing through all 1,239 pages).

Anyway, we digress. The new ‘APPG for Funerals and Bereavement’ offers direct access to parliamentarians for members of the DMAG, which are as follows:

The National Association of Funeral Directors

The Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management

The Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors

The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities

The Funeral Furnishing Manufacturers’ Association

The Association of Private Crematoria and Cemeteries

The Cremation Society

(You might note the absence of organisations representing bereaved families among the list above, hence why we choose to refer to this particular APPG as the APPG for Funerals.)

According to the APPG for Funerals’ glossy brochure, downloadable here, the first stated intent of the group is:

‘Fair and Proportionate Regulations – We are campaigning on behalf of the sector for fair regulations and suitable legislative change.’

We offer no comment on whether this campaigning is proving effective.

 

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