Funeral Director Services Regulation Debate

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Department: Home Office

Funeral Director Services Regulation

Tom Pursglove Excerpts
Wednesday 17th November 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tom Pursglove Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Tom Pursglove)
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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.

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.

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.