Funeral Director Services Regulation Debate

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Department: Home Office

Funeral Director Services Regulation

Jake Berry Excerpts
Wednesday 17th November 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jake Berry Portrait Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con)
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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.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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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.

Jake Berry Portrait Jake Berry
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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.

John Hayes Portrait Sir John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
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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.

Jake Berry Portrait Jake Berry
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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.

Damien Moore Portrait Damien Moore (Southport) (Con)
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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?

Jake Berry Portrait Jake Berry
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
Jake Berry Portrait Jake Berry
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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?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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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.