Funeral Director Services Regulation Debate

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Department: Home Office

Funeral Director Services Regulation

John Hayes Excerpts
Wednesday 17th November 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.

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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.

John Hayes Portrait Sir John Hayes
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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?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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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.

John Hayes Portrait Sir John Hayes
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I have stood in the Minister’s place many times.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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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.