I entirely agree. As I said earlier, it was a case of too little, too late. More people need to be aware of these plans and what they may mean. I look forward to the FCA’s introducing that regulation at the end of July, which is not too far in the future.
For customers of Safe Hands, there is the potential for some support in the form of Dignity plc, one of the UK’s largest providers of plans. Dignity has put a plan to the administrators which would allow them to step up and cover some of the shortfall left by Safe Hands, providing immediate support where it is needed most urgently, and planning to work with other customers and their families in the longer term to find solutions that will not leave customers with nothing in place. Dignity believes that, because of its business model as a plan provider with a wide network of funeral directors, it is uniquely placed to offer that support. It has already fulfilled in full the funeral plans of all Safe Hands customers in the four weeks following the collapse of the firm.
Dignity is also already preparing for the regulation requirements that will come into effect, but even as of last night, at my last check, the information offered by the administrators through the frequently asked questions page on the Safe Hands website was insufficiently clear or reassuring. They make numerous references to Dignity’s offerings, but reiterate that customers should consider their plans cancelled with no guarantees around how much money customers will see returned, if any at all. There is a lot of “options being explored”, and “updates will be provided”, but a disappointing lack of commitment.
My constituent, Mr Hughes, really only has one immediate plea, and that is for some clarity and some willingness to proactively engage with customers. Maybe it is impossible for administrators to provide reassurances in the true sense of the word—maybe the financial realities of the situation just will not allow for that—but how difficult can it really be to ensure that the victims of this unfortunate situation are kept abreast of updates and to let them know periodically how the work is developing and that they are not being overlooked or forgotten? Mr Hughes has explained that there is so much information, so much speculating and so many customers shouting in the hope of being heard that he struggles to cut through the noise. What he needs is reliable, clear information to enable him to understand what has happened, why it has happened, and what might happen next, not only for him but for his family and his children. He worries about the worst happening while all this remains unresolved, and about the additional distress that this uncertainty will cause.
When people decide to invest in a prepaid funeral plan, it is often on the back of an event in their life that has made them come to terms with their own mortality. Maybe they are just reaching old age, maybe they have had a worrying medical diagnosis or maybe they have recently lost a loved one. That means that they are emotionally vulnerable and that they need to be sure that their investment is protected, particularly when the majority of those that choose a prepaid plan are doing so because their estate might not leave much more for their children or family than the cost of a funeral, and perhaps not even cover that.
We are in a cost of living crisis. At a time when people are struggling with the stress of paying their energy bills, putting food on the table or meeting their general living costs, it is unthinkable that, resulting from the collapse of Safe Hands, some of those people will face the added stress of trying to finance the funeral of someone they care about—a funeral that, as far as they were concerned, was already paid for, either partially or, in many cases, in full. I understand that any business needs to turn a profit. That is the nature of the game, but in this emotionally charged market based on one of the few guarantees we have in life—death—sensitivity is required. To prey on that customer base is absolutely disgusting.
While Safe Hands certainly does not represent the standards of the industry as a whole, we know that, intentionally or not, other firms have put their customers’ money and funeral plans at risk by not seeking approval ahead of the regulations. For reasons I hope Dignity understands, I am cautious about enthusiastically throwing my support behind any company in the currently unregulated pre-paid sector at the moment, but I would like to thank Dignity for proactively reaching out and sharing some information with me ahead of this debate. I would also like to thank the all-party parliamentary group for funerals and bereavement and its chair, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). I know that it continues to engage with the Treasury on this matter to try to ensure that dignity is maintained. I also want to thank the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), who organised the cross-party letter to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy last month. This provided a co-ordinated display of the feelings held by constituents.
I hope the Minister will be in a position to provide the assurances that Safe Hands and its administrators have been unable to provide, and I urge him and his colleagues in the Treasury and across Whitehall to find a way to ensure that these people who have lost hard-earned money do not miss out on a dignified goodbye when that time sadly comes, for the sake of Mr Hughes and the 46,000 others like him, their families and friends and the people who love them most in the world.