Nearly all of us at some stage of our lives will come into contact with a funeral director, and this year heralds the beginning of a new chapter in the profession with the introduction of a national Inspector of Funeral Directors, appointed by the Scottish Government.
Part of the Inspector’s role will be to assess the current issue of regulation in the sector, and after that decide whether or not the Government has to introduce some form of regulation.
Funeral directors do not have to be regulated, although 80 per cent are members of a trade body such as the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD), which has strict regulatory controls as a condition of membership. All NAFD member firms – and our members carry out around four-fifths of all funerals in the UK – abide by a Code of Practice and Code of Professional Standards. The NAFD also offers a number of training options and qualifications, including a Diploma in Funeral Directing.
They are regularly assessed and the Association helps any members falling short of the required standards to improve. An independent arbitration scheme exists to help members of the public who have a complaint they feel they cannot resolve through the usual channels.
All of which underlines the importance of successful industry-led regulation, and the NAFD and other organisations within the funeral sector are working closely with the Government to underline that if ministers want to bring in regulation, a perfectly good system already exists that it can work with and adopt.
In any move to regulate, it is vital to not ignore all the tried and tested methods already in place simply to usher in something new. While any profession is constantly striving to improve, there is a lot that exists that works, and works well.
Of course, a major issue at the moment is funeral affordability, and it was encouraging to attend the first national conference on funeral poverty in Edinburgh in November. There were representatives from the Government, NHS, funeral directors, Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), charities and other public bodies.
The consensus in the room to help bereaved families was incredibly strong, and some new multi-agency agreements made on the day in terms of training and information sharing will only be a force for good. For example, CAS staff will soon be able to offer expert advice to the public on funeral planning and affordability, and the NAFD has pledged to assist CAS with their training.
The encouraging sign is that the Government has been very approachable and willing to take advice from and work with partners to best use their expertise. The Inspector of Funeral Directors, we hope, will be a natural extension of that and we welcome his or her appointment shortly.
The Inspector’s appointment forms part of the Burial and Cremation Act (Scotland) 2016, which was first discussed by the Burial and Cremation Review Group – chaired by Sheriff Brodie and which met between 2005 and 2007 – on the basis that burial ground legislation had not been updated since 1855 and cremation laws since 1952 and that some of the laws were not relevant or useful to modern society.
The legal process was accelerated following recommendations by the Infant Cremation Commission, chaired by Lord Bonomy, and the National Cremation Investigation, chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini. Both were formed in the wake of crematoria in Scotland misinforming parents of infants about their baby’s ashes, and which also shone a wider light on some outdated practices.
The initial role of the Inspector will be to spend time getting to know the industry, and the NAFD looks forward to helping introduce that person to all facets of the funeral industry. It is crucial that if the public is to benefit from improved systems and any regulation the Inspector chooses to introduce, all parties work together for the greater good. No doubt he or she will want to see what Angela Constance, the social security minister, described to the funeral poverty conference as funeral directors presenting prices in a more “consistent” way, “so people can compare easily and make a more informed decision”. The NAFD is encouraging all members to display prices online to help them do precisely that.
That also includes the Government’s outdated Social Fund Funeral payment, which is designed to provide financial assistance to those who cannot afford a funeral, and which the Scottish Government is in the process of taking over from Westminster.
The payment has been capped since 2003 and while the Government has continued to meet the cemetery and crematoria charges in full in the face of sharp local authority prices rises, the £700 payment for “other expenses” has not changed and so no longer assists the bereaved in the way it was designed.
We hope that the wide-ranging review of social security in Scotland, which is currently being undertaken, will provide a fairer and quicker system and, with politicians in Westminster watching closely, a successful model that can be followed south of the Border.
Paul Cuthell, National Association of Funeral Directors