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A couple of thoughts

Those additional observations on the FSCSR consultation we mentioned in our previous post this week:

1. At the GFG, while we welcome any improvements in the funeral industry Codes of Practice, we despair at the length of time it has taken NAFD and SAIF to come up with revisions to existing industry codes to make them remotely fit for purpose.

Ten years ago, on 14 June 2010, Charles wrote a blog post ‘Chasing the money’: 

Here’s an excerpt:

“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.”

So, in 2002, in response to public criticism, the NAFD showed willing to improve their code of practice. 18 years later, they are still working on it.

NB It’s not clear if the quote from Helen Parker was made before or after the role of Funeral Ombudsman was axed by the funeral trade bodies – that happened in 2002 too.

2. The FSCSR appears to be recommending that the two funeral trade associations should be an integral part of a proposed interim regulator before a statutory body is set up. (Details on page 10 of the FSCSR consultation document. It’s entitled ‘Recommendation that government should work with the industry to establish an interim regulatory body’.)

In brief, having recommended that a regulatory body be appointed to regulate the funeral sector, recognising that there would likely be a significant delay in bringing forward the necessary legislative work, the FSCSR is ‘minded to recommend’ that the two funeral trade associations, NAFD & SAIF work with the Chartered Institute of Trading Standards to create an ‘independent’ interim regulator. Albeit one without a mandatory remit or statutory powers.

Um, that will be a big NO from us.

The role of a trade association is to represent their members’ interests.

We believe that this role is incompatible with the role of a regulator, interim or not. 

And we’re not the only ones. Remember the Funeral Ombudsman, whose role was axed by the funeral industry almost twenty years ago?

The late, highly respected consumer academic lawyer, lecturer and author Professor Geoffrey Woodroffe was appointed Funeral Ombudsman in 1994. His tenure lasted until 2002, during which time there were two critical reports about the funeral industry by the Office of Fair Trading and a third damning report by the Consumers Association.

Let’s hear what Professor Woodroffe thought about the involvement of trade associations:

Ombudsmen are impartial. How on earth can anyone expect regulation processes set up by trade bodies to be impartial and fair? People are extremely vulnerable when they are arranging funerals for relatives or partners. Independent regulation is vital.”

Pay attention at the back!

It’s a busy time in funeralworld.

Last week, the Competition and Markets Authority uploaded a whole suite of working papers and other documents (21 in total) to the website providing information about their ongoing Market Investigation into funerals, seeking comment on their findings so far by 27thFebruary.

On the same day, with impeccable timing, the Funeral Service Consumer Standards Review* published the first of their own consultation papers and requested feedback within a similar timeframe to the CMA, with a deadline of midnight on March 1st.

This is a surprising coincidence, given that the original FSCSR indicative timetable last July indicated that their documents would have been drafted, approved and signed off by October / November last year, with recommendations made to government bodies, industry bodies and policy makers at the same time. All out there in the public domain, months before the CMA published their working papers.

Instead, the timetable for publication of the FSCSR draft documents has slipped by several months, resulting in a confusing juxtaposition of two sets of publications on standards in the funeral industry, both seeking comment from any interested parties within the next four weeks.

Here at the GFG we have limited time to read and digest reams of information, and we presume that busy funeral directors and others with interest in the subject will feel the same. There is a huge amount of essential reading in the 20+ CMA working papers and providing considered comment will take significant commitment on our part. Without question, our priority for all of our free reading time is the once-in-a-generation opportunity offered by the CMA investigation into funerals.

The CMA has the authority to recommend remedies to issues they may identify, and have already set out a range of possible remedies that may be effective in addressing possible competition issues they may find in the provision of funeral director services at the point of need:

(a) The introduction of a quality regulation regime;(b) measures to promote greater information transparency;
(c) price controls; and
(d) local authority procurement of funeral director services.

One can almost hear the collective sharp intake of breath as the implications of these potential remedies sink in across funeralworld.

If you’re someone interested in the potential changes that are on the horizon, then we urge you to find the time to read through the CMA papers, and send your thoughts by e-mail to funerals@cma.gov.uk

As for the FSCSR consultation? Well, if you’d like to help the trade associations get their house in order, then they’d very much like to hear your thoughts. We will be focusing on responding to the CMA and don’t have capacity to give comprehensive feedback to the FSCSR as well.

Although we may have a couple of observations.

Thoughts from an unaffiliated funeral director (v)

We continue to publish the very important observations from funeral directors in response to the invitation from the Funeral Service Consumer Standards Review to make contact, and have great pleasure in adding the contribution from Jo Williamson, of Albany Funerals.

 

Dear Mr Shand Smith,

It has come to my attention that on 22nd August you issued a call to non-trade association affiliated funeral directors to share their views with the Funeral Service Consumer Standards Review you are currently conducting.

Sadly, as you have only allowed a very short timescale for busy funeral directors to respond (8 days – was this an afterthought?), I have missed the deadline but I would still like to take this opportunity to put forward my views.

We are independent funeral directors based in Kent, in our 10th year of trading.  For the first 7 years we were members of SAIF but were left feeling largely unsupported and unchecked, and therefore made the decision to remain non-affiliated for a few years.  However, we have recently begun the process of joining the NAFD, mainly due to fierce local competition and we felt that we might be viewed as lacking ‘legitimacy’ if we were not members of an association, and there is no other real alternative. 

I cannot agree, however,  that I feel represented by these organisations ‘seated at the table’, as in my experience they do not always seem to be led by the interests of the bereaved person, or the person who has died, but more so in protecting their members, whose practices are sometimes questionable at the very least. 

Although I welcome any initiative to improve standards, I do feel confused that this is being run simultaneously with the Government CMA review, which is a completely independent review as opposed to an ‘industry initiative’ which yours claims to be, and I would also be curious as to how this will be implemented in conjunction with the findings and recommendations of the CMA report?

I have also looked at the Scottish Government Code of Practice Consultation in detail and was alarmed to see that the proposed regulations do not offer any real solution to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerability of bereaved people and the lack of transparency of the funeral industry, which are the two main areas of concern highlighted by the CMA. 

Moreover, some of the regulations proposed fall incredibly short, for example, although the Scottish Government ‘believes that the use of refrigeration is a critical element of caring for a deceased person in a dignified, appropriate and respectful manner’, they concur with SAIF’s recommendations that a mere ratio of 1:50 is acceptable (1 refrigerated space per 50 funerals)! 

This does not fill me with confidence going forward, particularly as your working groups are heavily represented by these trade associations and large corporations, that obviously benefit from such loose and misleading regulations.  It is very clear to me that any regulation of the industry should be entirely independent and not decided by stakeholders.  For a start an independent ombudsman should be reinstated so that when things do go wrong, consumers have somewhere to turn to.

My recommendation would be the following: to focus on the protecting the bereaved and their families/friends and not the funeral director

Instead of regulations, I believe it would be more productive and successful to produce an ethical code of conduct.  In 7 years, SAIF did not once inspect my mortuary or any of our funeral processes or procedures.  The inspection would consist of a cosy chat in the office and the advice to ensure that a ‘no smoking’ sign is displayed somewhere visible. 

Because of this lack of scrutiny, it has become easy for funeral directors to act to suit their own interests.  These are a few examples of things that happen ROUTINELY in many businesses, that we see and hear about on a DAILY basis:

  • families given funeral dates 4/5 weeks after death to suit the diaries of the funeral directors
  • routine embalming (often without permission) to avoid having to use refrigeration
  • moving bodies about without permission from families to off-site storage units or for viewing purposes
  • inadequate or no refrigeration at premises
  • embalming taking place with inadequate facilities (bodies on the floor)
  • overselling of funeral products
  • huge mark ups on products
  • funeral directors giving funeral quotes based on the type of car the consumer has
  • tacit agreements with care homes/hospices to provide services for free in return for referrals
  • limited time set for funeral arrangements (sometimes 40 mins)
  • rewards/penalties for funeral plan or memorial selling
  • clothes intended to dress the person who has died placed in the coffin still in the bag presented by the family
  • THE LIST COULD GO ON…..

I can only hope that as you are independent as chair of this committee, that my letter might lead you explore some of these concerns and take them seriously.

Thank you for your time,

Kind regards,

 

Jo Williamson

 

Thoughts from an unaffiliated funeral director (iv)

Today we have the pleasure of publishing a letter from Jo Vassie, of Higher Ground Family Funerals, which was sent to the Competition and Markets Authority a few weeks ago.

We thought that the Funeral Service Consumer Standards Review might also find it interesting reading. 

 

Dear Sirs,

I’m am writing to express my thoughts and worries regarding the new legislation for Scotland and am concerned that similar will follow for the England.

I am 70 and still fully occupied with work along with my husband and son. We opened a natural burial ground 10 years ago, very soon individuals were securing their plots for eventually and very many asked me if I could deal with their funeral when the time came. The answer had to be no.

Once our son joined us in the business, this became a possibility and so we set to and converted a farm building into a beautiful facility, giving us a meeting room, visiting room, mortuary and garaging for our vehicle, which is not a hearse but an adapted people carrier ( work done by son)

This has been the most incredible experience; we have received very many emails and letters of thanks from our families. We have no qualifications, we just treat people as we would wish to be treated, this includes the family arranging the funeral and of course the person who has died.

Locally we have St Margaret’s Hospice, who last year caused quite a stir when they entered into the funeral world. Their start-up costs were ridiculous and so the venture has made a huge loss and it is thought that this has had a knock on effect that they are closing their inpatient beds in their Yeovil hospice.

I am very concerned that legislation will be brought in for training and qualifications – please tell me how this will ensure that everything is exemplary in funeral homes? 

I have no objections in my premises being inspected and chose to be a recommended funeral provider by The Good Funeral Guide, this just gives the public an independent opinion. But the best recommendation comes from families whom we have served.

If it becomes compulsory for training and belonging to SAIF or NAFD, it will increase set up costs for independent people like ourselves and will not prevent bad practice.

The net result is the public will be the losers.

Kind regards,

Joanna Vassie

Thoughts from an unaffiliated funeral director (iii)

Today’s offering from a person who wrote to the FSCSR in response to the invitation for unaffiliated funeral directors to contact the independent chair was sent by us on their behalf.

The author chose not to identify themselves in the letter because it had to be sent to the independent chair via the FSCSR Secretariat, which is run by the trade associations that this individual has elected not to belong to.

It struck the writer that this meant their letter would potentially be read by others, and they preferred that their name and location not be identified in such a way.

Obviously we know who the author is, but we are preserving their anonymity in publishing their letter without attribution.

(Postscript – the independent chair of the FSCSR has subsequently been in direct contact with the author and assured them of his independence.)

 

Dear Mr Shand-Smith

Re: Call to non-trade association affiliated funeral directors to share their views

I write to you in your capacity as Chair of the Funeral Service Consumer Standards Review to explain who I am and why I no longer belong to the NAFD, and also to highlight some of the failings within the Trade Associations.

I would also say that this call to us to respond is incredibly short notice and unlikely to be a great success given the time of year. I hope sincerely that that wasn’t your intention.

I am an independent funeral director who started up from scratch 11 years ago. I had only briefly worked in the funeral profession prior to opening, our facilities were very basic and we relied on a friend (and business partner) for help with staff, logistics and vehicles.

We did not join a Trade Association for a couple of years but we (myself and my wife) studied the Dip. FAA with the NAFD as soon as we started. As time went on we decided to give our business the added credibility of membership to the trade organisations SAIF and the NAFD. We are no longer members of the NAFD, reasons for which I shall outline later, but it was our decision. We are members of The Good Funeral Guide though, a consumer guide to good funeral practice.

We knew what we needed to do to succeed, and how to do it, and tighter regulation may have prevented us from opening but would that have been a good thing? We are now as big a business in our area as all the other firms and carry out as many, if not more funerals a year as anyone else in our area, because we fulfil a need and we do it well.

It is my belief that new businesses do not start up to rip off the unsuspecting consumer but because they have identified that consumers are currently being ripped off and they can offer a better service! This may not strictly be true in all cases but a lot of new businesses start up because the old family-run firm has been taken over and things are no longer done in the way they were, much to the embarrassment of the staff and disappointment of the customers.

In a report by Beyond.Life into Dignity Funeral Services and their share price they show that, and I quote:

“Between 2005 and 2016 (“the historical period”) the Company delivered:

Revenue growth from £143 to £314 million (7.4% cagr)

Operating profit growth from £42 to £98 million (8.1% cagr)

EPS growth from 22.4p to 119.8p (cagr 16.5%)

There have been two drivers of this historical performance:

a 53% increase in the number of branches (3.9% cagr); and

an 81% increase in pricing (6% cagr)

Branch expansion has mainly functioned to keep customers steady and offset a collapse in branch productivity

Dignity’s market share has been static at c.12% with customer numbers ranging from 62,300 to 73,500 as a function this static market share and a variable UK death rate

Branch productivity, in terms of funerals performed per location per year, has collapsed by more than 30% from 129/year in 2005 to 87/year at H1 2017.

Acquired locations typically provide around 150 funerals per year initially, offsetting customer losses elsewhere in the portfolio.

Pricing has been used to provide constant top-line growth

With customer numbers flat over the historical period, pricing has been used as a lever to provide revenue growth

Prices increased every year between 2005 and H1 2017 from £1,699 to £3,153 at a cagr of 5.6%, in line with the growth within the Funeral Services segment cagr of 6.1%

Effectively, management have driven top line growth through large price increases across the existing portfolio, whilst offsetting decreasing customer numbers in the existing portfolio by acquiring new locations. The net result is that Dignity serves roughly the same number of customers each year but charges each of them a higher price.” The full report is available here.

This, I believe is why new start-up businesses come about, and tighter regulation may prevent them from doing so, holding the public to ransom with high charges and lower standards offered by the big chains.

As an example of this, when our local branch of Dignity was taken over in 2006 they were carrying out the vast majority of funerals in the area (circa 600 per year), now they carry out about 250. You need to be asking why!

The Co-op has never really featured locally and Funeral Partners are not in the area so Dignity is our only point of reference for this.

It is my opinion that any investigation into the funeral profession should be aimed primarily at the big groups of funeral directors, to understand why they have lost half of their customers in the years after purchasing the business, why their charges are consistently higher than that of independents, despite them having all the economies of scale that the independents do not, and why they have a high turnover of staff, certainly a feature in our area, and I would plead with you not to let this whole investigation be led by the one group of people that need to be investigated but by proper, independent consumers.

Let it be led by those who may need our services, not by those who provide them. Would you let a second-hand car industry investigation be led by second hand car dealers? The trade associations exist purely to protect the interests of their members, NOT THE GENERAL PUBLIC.

There have also been TV programmes into malpractice in the funeral profession. Dispatches, on Channel 4 in 2012 uncovered various horror stories at the Co-op, as did the ITV report The British Way of Death with Funeral Partners. I’m sure that there are some unscrupulous independent funeral directors too but stories in the media would suggest that there are more complaints with the bigger firms.

After joining the NAFD I attended several of the local branch meetings but half of the room was filled with Co-op and Dignity members and no one seemed keen on bringing them to account for their high prices or shoddy practices. Their chief concern seemed to be who was next in line to receive the Chain of Office and who was buying the drinks!

On Radio 4 one Sunday in December 2018 there was an interview/ discussion about funeral costs featuring Abi Pattenden, then President of the NAFD and Louise Winter, a new and progressive funeral director in London.  Ms Pattenden’s arguments for defending the costs charged by some of her member firms were shocking and she was thoroughly shot down by Ms Winter on all counts. She was poorly prepared and, maybe because she actually works for an independent firm, didn’t really believe what she was saying. It was for this reason that I decided that the NAFD no longer represented my views. A belief I still hold.

In summary, I ask you to take a long hard look at our profession, but from the outside. There is absolutely no point in asking the membership of the largest trade organisations what they would like to see, when they obviously want to defend their members.

This needs to start from the other end, what do consumers want, where are they most likely to get that. Look at Beyond.life’s price comparison website, it’s not that great and I’ve had my disagreements with them but you can see a guide to funeral costs there. Ask probing questions to leaders of big companies and small. FIND THE TRUTH.

I do hope that you can take my points seriously and consider the view from the other side of the arrangements table. Please do feel free to contact me if I can be of any further assistance.

With kind regards