The consultation generated a wide range of responses from individuals and organisations representing the public, private and third sectors, ensuring that a diverse mix in views and experiences were captured. Detailed feedback was provided for all sections of the consultation and many respondents also provided additional comments to support the onward development of the guidance. The consultation was successful in engaging a full range of partners, therefore, in discussing all of the areas covered by the draft guidance.
Despite some difference in opinion across the consultation, some clear themes emerged for each of the separate sections of the draft guidance, as follows:
Use of language and terminology: Most respondents supported the need for a clear glossary of terms and welcomed its publication to improve understanding among the general public, and to encourage consistency in communications within the industry. There was agreement that any guidance produced must be accessible and available in a wide range of formats to maximise its use and also calls for further engagement and consultation with those in the industry, as well as with communities, before any glossary is finalised.
Display of pricing information:There was near absolute support for proposals for private cemeteries and crematoriums and funeral directors with a website to display their pricing information online. This would increase transparency and parity in the market and improve the consumer experience, it was felt. No views were asserted directly against this proposal, although some caution was warned that consumers may be more likely to make decisions based on cost alone if they looked only at pricing information, and this may result in some not purchasing what they intended or required. Publication of information online should not be considered a substitute for face-to-face and personal communication, it was suggested, although giving some families time and space to consider costs remotely, and without the need to visit providers directly was welcomed. To strengthen the measure, and ensure that like-for-like comparisons could be made between providers, it was suggested that some form of benchmarking may be required. Calls were also made for off-line equivalent information to be routinely made available.
Transparency of cremation charges: There was some disagreement around the definition of the standard cremation service, with less than half indicating that the definition set out in the draft guidance captured all necessary elements and almost a third suggesting that additions/edits were required. The main areas where greater clarification may be required were around the treatment of ashes, the provision of music services at cremations and time allowed in chapels/service rooms at crematoriums, as well as time allowed at crematoriums, in general.
Definition of a simple funeral: This area of the consultation attracted a large volume of feedback with a clear split in opinion. Among those who were not content with the definition, the main concerns were that there remained some ambiguity for service descriptions which may result in some elements still being differently interpreted by service providers, and the bereaved alike. There was particular concern about whether the definition needed to more clearly define the provision of different transport options, specify when viewing of the deceased may occur, make clear what level of memorial or religious service was included and what level of support for the bereaved should be offered. There were also comments that the definition may be redundant in light of other existing guidance, and concerns that it may constrain what funeral directors are able to offer, to the detriment of private competition and consumer choice.
Transparency of pricing at point of sale: The majority of respondents welcomed measures to improve transparency at the point of sale, including around care of the deceased. This was an area that was not well understood by consumers at present, and an increased understanding would allow people to make more informed choices. Many respondents noted that discussions around care of the deceased and associated costs would need to be sensitively handled and there were views that information in this regard should be offered on an 'opt in' basis, perhaps, rather than being routinely provided (as some individuals may find the information overwhelming).
Burial or cremation without using the services of a funeral director: Most respondents supported that the guidance should include a provision encouraging burial and cremation authorities to make reasonable efforts to accommodate the wishes of a person that does not want to use a funeral director. The main caveats to support were that local authorities should not be liable for any associated costs of doing this, as well as care being taken not to proactively encourage business away from the private sector or duplicate their offer. Authorities would also need to ensure that they were adequately prepared to provide the support which would inevitably be required in such cases, and there may also be scope for a wider role to be played by religious and community groups to support this function. Provided that measures were in place to minimise public health risks, this proposal was welcomed on the basis that it would widen consumer choice even further and allow some families to take a more personal (and potentially more satisfying) approach to funeral arrangements.
Understanding local authority charges: Over two thirds of respondents agreed that consultation with the public would help to improve the transparency of, and public engagement with, the local authority charge setting process. Several respondents commented that local authorities were already reasonably clear in their charge setting, although further guidance may lead to more consistency across the country. While the information being suggested was already publicly available, it was not always readily accessible, it was felt. Similarly, almost two thirds of respondents indicated that the annual, online publication of information from local authority LFRs may help to increase public understanding of the costs associated with provision of services. While some aspects of the local authority guidance were perceived as potentially being redundant, most welcomed that any efforts by local authorities to increase transparency further would improve public confidence and understanding. Ensuring that the information published was comparable by area, and easily accessible (including being presented in a clear format), was seen as key.
Local authority measures to reduce funeral poverty: Almost two thirds of respondents agreed that the guidance should encourage local authorities to link burial and cremation charge setting to broader strategies and duties aimed at reducing poverty. Similarly, the majority of respondents agreed that local authorities should be encouraged to take actions to support individuals who are struggling with the costs of a funeral. Respondents mainly expressed that local authorities already have many systems in place to support those experiencing funeral poverty. National measures, such as the introduction of Funeral Expense Assistance by the Scottish Government were also seen to be a step in the right direction to strengthen measures delivered at the local authority level. Financial assistance alone, however, is not sufficient to tackle funeral poverty, it was noted. Although broadly welcomed, there was a sense that a partnership approach, which involves national and local government, as well as private and third sector organisations (including faith groups) may be a more appropriate way of providing the breadth and depth of support that is required for those most in need. The financial implications of these measures, as well as impacts on business, were the main area that may require further consideration, it was suggested.
More general comments received across the consultation highlighted that some religious and cultural groups may be discriminated against unless the guidance is redrafted to introduce more flexibility to meet a diverse range of preferences and needs (especially in relation to the definition of a simple funeral and the speed with which services can be delivered). The draft guidance was seen, in most other respects, to have no equalities impacts. In relation to business impacts, there were concerns that the draft guidance may restrict or limit innovation and competition in the market and some were concerned that it was biased against private providers. Although most respondents welcomed that the draft guidance was non-directive, several commented that it may place unnecessary pressures on some providers which could inadvertently increase the costs of funerals, rather than reduce them. Concerns were also expressed that the guidance, as drafted, was more directed at those in the industry rather than at consumers and this may not be the most appropriate audience.
The findings from the consultation, presented above, will be considered by the Scottish Government before a final draft of the funeral costs guidance is produced. It is expected that the finalised guidance will be published alongside a document that will include additional context and information about the issues that the guidance addresses. The guidance forms part of a wider range of activities currently being undertaken by the Scottish Government to tackle funeral poverty, and learning from this exercise will feed into wider action planning, alongside continued engagement with relevant stakeholders.
The consultation shows that there is much interest across different sectors in achieving transparency around funeral costs and trying to alleviate some of the pressures experienced by those who face the need to arrange funerals. The responses received across the board show a desire to provide financial as well as emotional and wider support for those who need it most, and for consumers to be made aware of the full range of funeral options available to them, in order to make the most informed choice possible.
While there were underlying concerns about who the draft guidance was targeted at, and whether it had been appropriately tailored, there was support for most of the measures presented, and very little split in opinion that was measurable at the quantitative level. Defining what constitutes core service provision for cremation and a simple funeral is the main challenge that remains, it seems. What does seem clear, however, is that stakeholders are keen to continue to engage with the Scottish Government to ensure that the final guidance is fit for purpose, achieves parity across the industry and is accessible to all.