Understanding Local Authority Charges
Local authorities are a key partner for the Scottish Government in making affordable funeral options available and trying to tackle funeral poverty.
Historically, it has been noted that local authority burial and cremation charges vary between areas and the Funeral Costs Plan includes a commitment by COSLA to work with the Scottish Government to understand the reasons for variation in charges and look at whether the way this information is presented can be made more consistent. To bolster this, the draft guidance sets out specific recommendations for local authorities in four areas, namely:
- transparency of the charge setting process;
- desirability of ensuring that charges are affordable;
- publication of information about income and expenditure; and
- sharing of best practice.
Transparency of Charge Setting
In relation to transparency, the draft guidance specifically sets out that local authorities should consult the public when developing charging proposals as well as explaining the reasons for any proposed changes to charges in order to help the public understand the drivers behind the cost of these elements of a funeral.
Q13. Do you think these measures will help improve the transparency of, and public engagement with, the local authority charge setting process?
Over two thirds of respondents agreed with this measure and only six said that they did not. Seven respondents said that they were unsure and just three did not answer the question.
Q14. Please explain your answer.
Increased Public Confidence
Almost all who supported the proposal did so on the basis that it was relevant to all and was necessary to maintain and increase public confidence, building on good practice already in the field. Indeed, it was noted that many local authorities already engage with the public on many areas of charge setting and that this was an accepted inherent part of their budget planning:
"Customer feedback is a powerful tool, not only for understanding customers' experiences and satisfaction, but also for developing strategies to improve and re-shape those services. Councils already engage with the public as part of the annual budget setting process."
Councils and others also noted that their processes for such engagement are already publicly available for scrutiny but that ensuring a consistency of approach across councils in this regard was welcomed (although may be difficult in practice).
Third sector advice and support organisations in particular welcomed this proposal on the basis that it was something their users had long requested, and that it would increase the overall level of transparency around funeral costs, if done correctly:
"Transparency is key when developing charging proposals, and local authorities should ensure that their consultation with the public goes beyond a tick box exercise, and strives to embody the principles of co-production when producing, or changing, the charge setting process."
One funeral director noted that, although information is routinely made available on local authority websites around charges, this is not always accessible or comparable between areas and there remained some ambiguity for consumers:
"In our experience, we have found that local authorities have not actively notified the public about changes to their charging, only publishing the changes on their website which, as we have raised above, may not be accessible to all consumers. We sometimes become aware of the revised charges through word of mouth and communicate the charges to consumers as and when they come to arrange a funeral."
While welcomed, therefore, the measure would work best in practice if it resulted in comparable outputs between areas, it was felt. Another respondent noted that clarification may also be needed around how the implications arising from the proposed guidance would link to the existing core statutory legislative instrument, and its fees sections.
One faith organisation suggested that, in addition to improving the transparency of, and public engagement with the local authority charge setting process, this proposal may also encourage more active dialogue around funerals in general, which they welcomed:
"Consulting with the public will also provide an opportunity for people to have direct conversations about paying for a funeral, and could go some way towards challenging the taboo our current culture has with discussing funeral costs. This will improve funeral literacy, and will go some way towards encouraging people to think about their own funeral plans."
One third sector advice organisation suggested that specific organised groups (e.g. local groups, faith and belief groups, community councils and bereavement support charities) also be included in any consultation on charge setting, i.e. widening the consultation beyond the public alone. One funeral service provider similarly commented that, in addition to consulting with the public on developing charging proposals, local authorities should also consult with:
- industry bodies such as the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) and the National Society of Allied Independent Funeral Directors (SAIF);
- Inspector of Funerals;
- consumer bodies such as Citizens Advice;
- local funeral directors;
- clergy; and
- care homes.
One private funeral provider also commented that the benefit to consumers from this proposal would be dependent on the reach and range of the public consultation undertaken (although others urged that local discretion should always be afforded on the consultation format adopted):
"In this process of consultation, local authorities should consider a range of ways to engage with the public, such as public meetings, and provide the opportunity for members of the public to provide a written response. Ideally, consultation with people with direct experience of poverty and disadvantage would be a central part of any consultation programme. This may require proactive outreach as part of the consultation process."
A small number of individuals commented based on their own experience, that this additional transparency would be welcomed and may have assisted them in understanding costs that they had incurred:
"I think that any charges need to be transparent so the bereaved know what they are paying for…I was told it was more expensive to bury my father on a Friday, but wasn't told why."
One respondent indicated that the measure could be strengthened by encouraging local authorities to display information on average fees across Scotland alongside their own fees, with a justification given for any differences. Another suggested that
it may also be necessary for local authorities to explain how they cover their costs in terms of income against expenditure. Two commented that, if local authorities require to subsidise cemeteries and crematoria, in particular, then this should be identified in any consultation and published charges.
One private funeral organisation also commented that the proposal could be strengthened by the Scottish Government, Audit Scotland, and the Association of Public Sector Excellence (APSE) putting in place protections to avoid local authorities falsely benchmarking their service fees against other providers.
Among those who did not agree or who caveated their support (and who were responding mainly on behalf of local authorities) one suggested that, as long as local authorities could explain how they reach their charges, that should be sufficient while others noted that any additional public consultation measures may represent an unnecessary use of time and resources. Others still suggested that their consultation processes for charge setting were already robust, and so this was unnecessary (i.e. local authorities were already committed to this practice):
"It is vital that council's explain to stakeholders the basis of how budgets are set and the context in how decisions are taken, and seek feedback for consideration by elected members ahead of setting and agreeing council budgets, including any charging for services."
Another indicated that information could already be made available, on request, and so the measure was not necessary. Two industry organisations commented more generally that, while they supported the idea in principle, the measure may be contestable:
"Local authorities are under pressure from all sides. Whether they need to consult more about these fees is moot. Some run at a loss. Some break even and many make a profit which is subsequently distributed elsewhere within budgets. All of these are political decisions which are completely outwith the remit of a trade association. However, we would say that greater transparency with an explanation why a local authority makes those choices is no bad thing."
Both of these organisations also suggested that, if local authorities did decide to engage in a practice of a for profit service then those profits should be spent within the burial grounds or crematorium firstly, to preserve standards where possible:
"The long term and serious lack of investment in facilities and staffing for the maintenance and upkeep within many local authority burial grounds is an unspoken embarrassment for Scotland."
One organisation suggested that this was simply too much information, and
two individuals also commented that they perceived a commitment to undertake this type of activity was unlikely to result in any tangible outcomes. One of these respondents hinted that there was an inevitability that funeral costs were likely to continue to rise irrespective of public consultation and another noted that, although it may improve transparency, it was unlikely to change engagement:
"Fundamentally I think that people do not like to think about funerals unless they may have to plan one imminently. My view is that this is a cultural issue and that death is not something that is openly discussed enough - there are organisations working to change this but this will be a slow process."
This view was also echoed by one organisation who noted that the public may not engage particularly fully, being scarred by past experiences of being consulted about their views which then may be disregarded. The same respondent suggested that it may require a campaign to alert people to the consultation, if launched. One other organisation suggested that people may not engage unless they considered the consultation directly relevant at the time:
"We support asking local authorities to consult as a matter of good practice. These measures may help improve the transparency of the local authority charging process. It is not clear whether this would improve public engagement. In particular, this is the kind of issue which individuals are likely to engage with in specific circumstances (i.e. when seeking to arrange a funeral), but otherwise may not be aware of how proposed changes would be likely to impact on them."
Increased Public Understanding
The draft guidance for local authorities suggests that local authorities should publish information from their Local Financial Returns (LFRs) annually on their websites, showing income generated and expenditure incurred through the provision of burial and cremation services. Respondents were asked if this proposal was likely to help increase public understanding of the costs associated with local authorities' provision of these services.
Q15. Do you think that this would help increase public understanding of the costs associated with local authorities' provision of these services?
While almost two thirds of respondents indicated that they felt the measure would increase public understanding, most of the remainder either did not agree or were unsure. Only two did not respond.
Q16. Please explain your answer.
The main reasons for agreement were, again, that any improvement to publicly available information would inevitably improve funeral cost understanding, especially around exactly what authorities must do to ensure that funerals and cremations are executed appropriately (and the costs incurred). It may also reduce any scepticism, resentment or misunderstanding of the local authority position:
"It should be in the public domain and be clear and easy to understand. Secrecy and lack of transparency merely serve to create distrust and confusion between the authorities and the public."
Again, several respondents highlighted that, as this information was already available in most areas, the measure may not offer much additionality, but was welcomed as guidance for best practice nonetheless. Any measure which would enhance the information that was already available, or would make it more consistent, was particularly welcomed:
"Having this information readily available will allow communities to hold their local authorities accountable. This will also provide an opportunity for consistency between local authorities when it comes to charging proposals…Providing access to information on income generated through burial and cremation will ensure that this huge variation is challenged by local people, and will hopefully bring about more equity in this area."
Consistency could be achieved by encouraging local authorities to publish contextual information to explain how figures had been calculated, it was suggested.
One respondent indicated that having the information monitored and published by a national organisation may make it more accessible:
"We believe that income generated and expenditure incurred through the provision of burial and cremation services should be monitored centrally and published. We believe that this would identify local authorities who are using burial and cremation services to fund shortfalls in local authority budgets, under pressure from reduced public funding."
Reasons for Lack of Support
Those who did not agree, again, did so on the basis that the measure was bureaucratic, and not impactful in real terms. Some specifically felt that the LFRs alone were not the appropriate means for disseminating this information, and would not allow all of the costs incurred by local authorities to be displayed, as set out in the consultation paper itself (e.g. it would not include capital development and maintenance of grounds and buildings costs to be reflected).
A further perceived problem with relying on LFRs was that they were not comparable across authorities and may also be inconsistent across financial years, due to one-off expenditure, etc. This may make them confusing and unreliable for members of the public using them as a comparative tool, it was suggested:
"More transparency is a good thing. Local authorities explaining to their citizens about the real cost of service provision can only help educate the public. However, the accountancy reporting is also very varied and impossible to compare. Some profitable services are 'lost' within another loss-making budget which has a disingenuous feel to it, although it could simply be historical practice."
"There are a large number of factors that will impact upon the income generated and expenditure for burial and cremation services, for example, size of authority, number of burials/cremations, different operating models, urban or rural authority, proximity to other authorities, whether grounds maintenance services are provided in-house or by another service or independent contractor, etc. Likewise, differing methods of financial accounting mean that the figures reported will not always be consistent. Therefore, while publishing financial information will increase public awareness of the costs associated with the services, it is unlikely to increase understanding due to the lack of comparability of information between authorities."
Further consultation was needed on this proposal with both local authorities and with COSLA, it was suggested, including around whether LFRs should be more prescriptive and less open to interpretation.
Others again highlighted that this proposal added nothing to the existing situation and was likely to be superfluous, given that they perceived the main public requirement was for transparency of pricing only:
"Council Accounts are already published and customers also have the right to request via FOI for such information. It is unclear from the guidance as to what the aims and benefits would actually be from publishing such specific information especially as, to date, there has been very little interest in obtaining such specific information. The key information sought from customers is transparency of pricing only."
Others echoed the view that this type of information was unlikely to be read by members of the public and would also not assist in providing clarity. One individual indicated that the public would be mainly interested in knowing that any profits made could be recovered, and another noted that profits would be the main area of interests for most (as well as knowing how these were redistributed):
"While some local authorities may operate their burial and cremation services at a loss or on a break-even basis, other authorities may generate a profit. Where local authorities generate profit, some may re-invest this profit in cemeteries and crematoria infrastructure, while others may use the profit generated to subsidise other local authority budgets. However, without mandatory publication of income generated and expenditure incurred by local authority burial and cremation services, it is not possible for members of the public to access such information. By mandating the publication of financial returns for local authority burial and cremation services, the Scottish Government would enhance transparency and promote better public scrutiny of how local authorities operate these vital public services."
The same private sector respondent also urged that, where income generated has been used to fund other services, this information be included within the burial and cremation services local financial return.
One respondent questioned the equity of the proposal, given that private sector providers did not have to do the same. Another individual questioned the need for this given that some local authorities contained remote communities where choice in services would always necessarily be restricted and freedom around charges, fees and profitability would always inevitably be constrained. This view was echoed by a national funeral service provider:
"It is important for there to be transparency on income generated and expenditure incurred through the provision of burial and cremation services. However, we believe that such information may be of limited benefit to consumers. This is because there are some areas of Scotland (and across the UK) that have limited access to crematoria (for example, the Highlands). This results in some very significant drive times (impacting on price) and capacity constraints, and means that for some areas, there is no real choice between crematoria and burial providers. As such, information on cost and income may be of little interest to consumers who have no real choice."
Other more general comments included that this information should be made available in non-digitised formats, if possible, rather than "digital by default", ensuring accessibility for all. Similarly, linking the information to other burials and cremations information on websites would make the information more visible, it was suggested.
Overall, it seems that, while some perceived this may be a measure that could help to increase public understanding of the costs associated with local authorities' provision of these services, it could not be relied upon as the only method of increasing understanding.
There is a problem
Thanks for your feedback