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Funeral Director Services Regulation

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 17 November 2021

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the regulation of the provision of funeral director services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, I think for the first time. Over recent years, I have had more to do with funeral directors and the service they provide than I would have liked. I start by placing on record my thanks for the work that they do, particularly during the covid pandemic, when they have dealt very sensitively with families in very difficult situations. Funeral directors are in charge of assisting families at some of the most difficult times in our lives, and the vast majority of them do so with an exceptional level of service and sensitivity.

I want to talk about an unfortunate case—an example of how it does not always go right—that happened to a family from Darwen, in my constituency. The family came to me with a complaint against K.C. Funeral Services, following an incident that happened at the burial of their uncle in Darwen cemetery on 22 January 2021. The incident was caused by the snapping of the straps used to lower the coffin into the grave. After the straps snapped at the mouth of the grave, the coffin fell more than eight feet into the open grave, resulting in the exposure of the remains of the deceased. Understandably, many family members and other mourners immediately left the funeral. The family had been led to believe by K.C. Funeral Services that enough members of staff would be in attendance to assist at the graveside, but the family did not believe that was the case. They felt, understandably, very distressed about the situation.

The family also noted that, in any event, even if they had not snapped, the straps used to lower the coffin into the grave were not long enough. In fact, if they had had to lower the coffin into the grave themselves, because of the lack of assistance from the funeral directors, they would have ended up lying on their stomachs at the graveside, lowering the coffin to the floor. It was a three-person grave, so it was very deep, and my deceased constituent was the first person to be interred.

This was an appalling incident, and I pay tribute to Father Brian, who is a well-respected and widely liked parish priest based at St Joseph’s and St Edward’s in Darwen. He assisted the family, arranged for the majority of them to go home, sent away the mourners who had come to pay their last respects, and organised the removal of the deceased’s body from the grave, which had to be undertaken by cemetery workers and the remaining family members. The body was then returned to the funeral directors and another coffin was sought. The body was cleaned, having been at the bottom of the grave, and a team of pallbearers completed the burial the following day, which was Saturday 23 January.

It is absolutely apparent to my constituents that K.C. Funeral Services had been lacking in many areas. Given the distressing story I have just recounted, I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members can see why they would come to that conclusion. It is their view that the minimum standards required by law, or by decency in many cases, had not been met. The incident was exceptionally traumatic for the family, who were already grieving the loss of a well-loved family member. Following the incident, they went back to see Emma Childerley at K.C. Funeral Services on 28 January, in order to ask her some questions about the normal operating practices of her business. They were made aware at the meeting that K.C. Funeral Services was not a member of the National Association of Funeral Directors or the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors. She confirmed to the family—it was the first time they had heard it, and I must admit that it was the first time I had heard it—that both registration schemes are voluntary. Some funeral directors, including the one I have mentioned, do not join such schemes, largely because of the cost burden of doing so.

In what I hope will be a relatively brief contribution, I want to address the gap in the regulations that enables some providers to operate with limited or no regulation. The regulations do not enable families who have suffered in this way, or who have any other grievance, to pursue the funeral directors through a professional body. That is what I hope the Minister will address as we move through the debate.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I spoke to him beforehand, and the case that he has outlined is absolutely horrific. It beggars belief what happened. There is a need for regulation, and not just for those who are not members of funeral directors organisations. Does he agree that although it is welcome that funeral services are bringing in greater regulation of funeral provision, the date of July 2020 will potentially leave thousands of people with no redress, and this should also be retrospectively applied? Although there are independent funeral directors who are not members of an organisation, there are others who are members of an organisation and who pay into that, and they are not getting redress either.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention highlights how complicated this space is. There are competing interests trying to become the regulator of choice. I am not proposing, and do not intend to propose, the introduction of state regulation, but a strong indication from the Government on the direction of travel in relation to regulation would assist the funeral sector.

Let us be absolutely clear, as per my opening remarks, that the vast majority of funeral directors provide an exceptional level of service. The reason the story of what happened to the family in my constituency is so shocking is that it is so rare. Many of us who have had interactions with a funeral director, maybe when burying a family member or friend, can understand that having to deal with an appalling incident of this kind at the moment of maximum grief is a terrible thing.

My right hon. Friend might not know that I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for funerals and bereavement. There are two things that I wish to draw to his attention. The first is to endorse and amplify what he has said about the funeral and bereavement sector during the pandemic, because it rose to meet what was an extraordinary challenge, as he described.

The second thing, which is highly pertinent to my hon. right Friend’s remarks, is that one of the problems—this is highlighted in our all-party parliamentary group’s annual report, which was published recently—is that responsibility for funerals and similar matters crosses several Government Departments. The Minister is in his place, but of course this issue is affected by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and the Department for Work and Pensions—several Departments have responsibilities in this field. It is important that there is a cross-Government approach to funerals and bereavement. That is something the all-party parliamentary group has called for, and it is something the Minister might want to reflect on during the course of the debate.

I thank my right hon. Friend for an excellent intervention. Picking up on both interventions, this is a very complicated space—the Department of Health and Social Care, of course, will have some input as well. In this sort of complicated space, things often get missed, so I hope that the Minister, who I know is not a believer in Government silos, will look to work across Government to ensure that we can bring some regulation to this area.

When I spoke to my constituents about this, both those affected and others, they were shocked and surprised to find out that this sector, which people access at such a vulnerable moment, is largely unregulated. We should seek to close the gap that allows people to opt out of all regulation for financial reasons—and they may have very valid business reasons for doing so—leaving people with limited redress. In all fairness, the two best known regulating bodies, the National Association of Funeral Directors and the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors, are seeking to address the issue. They have been proactive, which is good. It is not just those two bodies that are calling for regulation, of course. The Competition and Markets Authority recently looked at funeral services, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) will know from his work with the all-party parliamentary group for funerals and bereavement. We should seek more regulation in this space.

I am aware of the work being undertaken by David Heath, the former Member for Somerton and Frome, who is the chair of the Independent Funeral Standards Organisation. I understand from David, who is doing excellent work with that organisation, that it will be up and running from January, trying to regulate and work with the sector to seek further regulation. Of course, there is no compulsion on any funeral director to take part in that organisation, and there is no compulsion on funeral directors and other bereavement services to join the existing trade bodies.

I hope that the Minister will take up the excellent suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings: to seek to work across Government to ensure that we find a solution to the doubt in this area in relation to regulation. What would be exceptionally helpful for the industry—and if he cannot do it today, it may be something for another day or something on which he could write to me—is to set out a direction of travel on regulation for all of those competing organisations. They should be given a period of time to get their own house in order, but they should understand that that is a limited period of time. Different regulators have competing interests, and they need some Government direction to work together, come together and be forced to talk to one another. If they fail to find an industry-led solution, which would be my preferred route, there should at least be an understanding that the Government will keep this under review and may, at some point in the future, intervene.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that we should celebrate best practice among funeral directors and the work that they do to serve their communities in very difficult times for families?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Everyone who has spoken today understands the brilliant work that the funeral and bereavement sector does on behalf of families, and it has been through a very difficult time. On the point about best practice, a form of industry-led regulation that people are compelled to join would naturally lead to the sharing of best practice. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider what has been said today. I know he will join me in passing on condolences to a family that I have not named because of the graphic and distressing nature of the case in Darwen. They are having a very difficult time because a dearly loved and valued member of our community died, and that was compounded by an appalling graveside incident.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I will start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) for securing a debate on a most important issue for his constituents. He is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to such a serious issue this afternoon. He has highlighted an experience with which we will almost all inevitably have to deal at some time in our lives—the burial or cremation of a loved one. Very sadly, that has become a reality for many families over the past 20 months. I offer my sincere condolences to all who have been bereaved, and pay tribute to the fortitude with which they have faced a most distressing experience during the difficult circumstances of recent months.

The loss of a loved one is a painful burden that, naturally, we prefer not to consider until we are forced to do so. When it does happen to us, we are often at our lowest ebb, so it is never easy. The pain that comes with losing someone we love or care for is something that all Members of this House will be familiar with. However, in the vast majority of cases, we are supported by the commitment and professionalism of the funeral director in whom we put our trust at this most difficult of times. They have an enormously important and significant position of responsibility at what is a very distressing time for all those involved.

As right hon. and hon. Members have done this afternoon, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the crucial contribution of the funeral sector throughout the difficult circumstances of the pandemic response, and also more generally. We can all think of examples of funerals for our loved ones or friends and associates where services have been conducted sensitively and sympathetically and with real professionalism. The sector has been central to the Government’s objective of ensuring that the deceased are treated with dignity and respect, and the bereaved with compassion. Again, I want to record my sincere gratitude and that of the entire Government for that work.

Unfortunately, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen illustrated in his speech, things can sometimes go wrong. First, may I offer my sincere condolences on the death of his constituent’s relative and say how shocked and sorry I am for what the family have been through? The events that he described are truly shocking, and no family suffering real grief following the death of a loved one should ever have to go through that. I can only imagine how difficult and traumatic the experience has been for them, without that being compounded by the events that he described. It will have been distressing not only for them, but for all the individuals in attendance. I note the professionalism of the individual in charge of the ceremony in helping all those affected to deal with it, and the professionalism that they showed in the impossible circumstances that they were presented with. I trust it was a rare and isolated incident, but that does not diminish or excuse the impact on those involved.

Quality standards in the provision of funeral director services are not prescribed by law. However, there is a broader regulatory framework with which funeral directors must comply, including health and safety legislation covering the safe handling and storage of bodies by funeral directors and their staff, and consumer protection measures, about which I will say more in a moment.

Inconsistency in quality standards was one of the issues identified in the report by the Competition and Markets Authority on its market investigation into the funeral sector, published last December. The report recommended that independent regulation of funeral director provision was needed to raise and maintain standards, and to standardise some practices, for example in the transport and storage of bodies

The Government’s response to the Competition and Markets Authority’s report was published on 7 April this year. While we accepted that there could be improvement in the sector, we did not propose moving to a full independent regulator at this stage. Given the impacts of the extreme pressure on the sector during the pandemic, the Government considered that this was not the time to implement significant changes. However, the pressures of the pandemic have undoubtedly strengthened the relationship between the funeral sector and Government, which is, of course, a good thing. We have built on this to support the sector in improving the effectiveness of its self-regulation of quality standards. In our response to the Competition and Markets Authority, we said that we would introduce a set of quality standards and principles to which funeral directors should subscribe. We planned to do so by the end of this year, and to review its effectiveness within 18 months of implementation.

The Minister is talking about a set of standards and principles to which funeral directors should subscribe. Does he mean “should” subscribe or “must” subscribe?

At the moment we are looking at a self-regulation approach to this issue. There are challenges in going down the route of formal regulation, which, of course, takes time because it needs statutory underpinning, often involving primary legislation. We expect the sector to look intensively and at speed to improve the situation. There is an onus on all those providing these services to live up to the standards that we would all expect funeral directors taking care of our loved ones or friends to live up to, for the reasons so eloquently outlined by my right hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) has done a great service to his constituents. He has been their champion and drawn this tragic case to the attention of the House. Out of the tragedy, the family will be hoping that something positive will come, and today can be the beginning of that. My right hon. Friend drew attention to the work of David Heath, who recently met the all-party parliamentary group. Will the Minister agree to meet the all-party parliamentary group to take these matters further, in exactly the spirit of my right hon. Friend’s speech?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I want to really engage with this issue in the spirit in which all Members have come to the debate. With that in mind, I would be delighted to meet the APPG and to hear the concerns of its members. In fact, my right hon. Friend has pre-empted what I was going to offer later in my remarks. As a parliamentarian, he is very good at teasing out these sorts of commitments.

My right hon. Friend has indeed. He has managed to extract that commitment from me and I will certainly look forward to that discussion. As he has described, none of us in this House wants to see any other family go through the wholly unacceptable distress that the family in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen have been through, at a most difficult time for them. We cannot allow that to happen in future. There is an enormous onus on the sector to drive forward this improvement and these quality standards. At this point, we think it is right that they take responsibility for achieving that, but we reserve the right to have a greater involvement in these matters if we do not see the sort of improvement that I think we would all expect.

In light of the Competition and Markets Authority’s recommendations, both the sector’s representative organisations—the National Federation of Funeral Directors and the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors—are taking positive steps to introduce and embed improved self-regulation and complaint-handling arrangements. Encouraged by the sector’s proactive approach to the Competition and Markets Authority’s findings, we are continuing to work closely with it throughout the implementation of its new self-regulation regimes, with a view to assessing their effectiveness once they have bedded in. I hope that that gives some reassurance as to the improvement that my right hon. and hon. Friends are seeking.

Where funeral directors are not members of these representative bodies, I would expect them to look to the standards that the bodies are developing and to adopt and advance those standards within their own set-ups. I think that that is an important point to make. Cost, which Members have raised, is of course a matter for the representative bodies, but I know that the NAFD in particular is looking to make improved regulatory structures accessible across the profession, which again is very welcome.

In addition to its findings on quality standards, the Competition and Markets Authority made recommendations to address the lack of accessible and comparable information on the products and services that funeral directors provide. In the light of pandemic pressures on the sector, the Competition and Markets Authority has not pursued remedies to address that issue fully. Instead, it has introduced a range of “sunlight” provisions to support customers in making choices about funerals, and to ensure that the pricing, business and commercial activities of funeral directors, as well as the quality of the service that they provide, are exposed to greater public and regulatory scrutiny. The remedies include an obligation for all funeral directors to set their prices out clearly and prominently so that families needing to arrange a funeral can, if they wish, compare that information before deciding which provider to use. The Competition and Markets Authority has also recommended that, once conditions are more stable, it should consider whether a further market investigation is needed to identify whether additional customer protections are needed.

To return to the regrettable experience of the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen, there are numerous pieces of legislation with which all traders, including funeral director businesses, must comply. In particular, the Consumer Rights Act 2015 sets out the standards that consumers can expect when they contract with a trader or business for the provision of services, and the remedies if those rights are breached. Where a trader or business fails to meet the standards for the supply of a service required by the 2015 Act, or the service does not conform to the contract, that could potentially be a breach of contract, and if so, the consumer is entitled to seek a remedy. If that cannot be agreed in correspondence, the consumer could then pursue a claim against the funeral director in the courts.

I want to pick up on the point made about the cross-Government nature of this issue, which again is important. I have made the point that, as a result of the pandemic, what we have seen is a stronger working relationship between Government and the sector. It is essential that that is reflected across Government, given the fact that elements of policy in this area intersect with various Departments. My right hon. Friend referred to there being silos and the fact that we do not want operations within silos. I hope that he will be slightly reassured by the fact that, as a joint Minister, across both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, I am quite well versed in ensuring that elements of Government do not act in silos. In that spirit, I would want to engage with colleagues across Government to ensure that we get this right, and that is precisely what I intend to do. He has my reassurance on that.

I conclude by again thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen for introducing this debate this afternoon. It would be impossible for anybody—any Minister or any Member of this House—not to be affected by hearing about the experience that he has described with real understanding, care and sympathy for his constituents who have been caught up in this terrible situation. I am very grateful to him for bringing this to the House’s attention. I want him to know that I am very mindful of the situation that he has described, that this is something that I want to go away and look at further, that I do want to engage with the APPG that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) chairs, and we will ensure that that happens, and that, as I have described, there is a piece of work going on at the moment around self-regulation, but we need to monitor that closely, to see whether it achieves the objectives that I think all of us wish to see, and if that is not the case, we reserve the right to look at this issue again and to take matters from there.

I hope that that will provide my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen with some reassurance. I would also ask whether he could please express my condolences to his constituents family. They have been through a terrible time, and it really is very important that no other family go through the experience that they have.

Question put and agreed to.