Understanding Local Authority Charges
51. The Scottish Government sees local authorities as key partners in our work to tackle funeral poverty and to make more affordable funeral options available. In developing the draft guidance, we worked with local authorities and COSLA to better understand the reasons both for increases in charges and for variations between authorities. As a result of this work, we included measures in the draft guidance for local authorities in relation charge setting.
Transparency of the charge setting process
52. Unlike other services local authorities may charge for, people may have limited alternative options for burial or cremation in their area. 'Charging for Your Services: are you getting it right?', an Accounts Commission publication, indicates that local authorities should be transparent in how they set charges and be able to explain their charging decisions to the public.
53. The guidance makes clear that under sections 20 and 63 of the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016, a local authority may charge such fees as it thinks fit for burial, cremation and other related services. Local authorities usually set these charges as part of their annual budget-setting process. The consultation on the draft guidance asked if local authorities should consult the public when developing charging proposals and explain the reasons for any proposed changes. It also asked whether such measures would help improve the transparency of, and public engagement with, the local authority charge setting process. Over two thirds of respondents (33, 68%) agreed with this and only six did not. Seven respondents said that they were unsure and three did not answer the question.
54. While many responses were strongly supportive of the need for local authorities to consult specifically on funeral charges, some argued that there are existing mechanisms for consultation as part of the overall budget setting process. Concerns were expressed about potential resource implications for local authorities and that while this might improve transparency, it would not necessarily increase engagement.
55. In response to these points, the Scottish Government has amended the guidance to clarify that consultation on burial and cremation charges could form part of a broader consultation instead of only through a specific stand-alone consultation. The guidance also sets out that the specific mechanisms for engagement are for local authorities to consider, in light of local circumstances.
Publication of information about income and expenditure
56. 'Charging for Your Services: are you getting it right?' states that local authorities should improve their use of cost information (for all charges, not only those for burial and cremation), including unit costs. The report suggests it is essential for local authorities to design charges and understand the extent to which they will enable them to recover costs.
57. Our work with local authorities and COSLA to develop the draft guidance suggests that a range of costs, including staff, travel, and maintaining grounds, buildings, vehicles and equipment all contribute to expenditure. Capital expenditure by local authorities on building refurbishment, replacing cremators or fitting mercury abatement equipment, and extending or establishing new cemeteries can also be significant.
58. Our work with local authorities also suggests that many local authorities subsidise burial and cremation services at present. Information provided in Scottish Local Government Financial Statistics, which includes income and expenditure statistics for cemetery, cremation and mortuary services (excluding capital), also suggests that this is the case for many local authorities.
59. The draft guidance suggested '… [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." Almost two thirds of respondents (31, 63%) indicated that they felt the measure would increase public understanding of the costs associated with local authorities' provision of these services. Most of the remainder either did not agree or were unsure and two did not respond to this question.
60. There was strong in-principle support for this measure but some local authorities questioned whether LFRs were the right vehicle to increase public understanding. They were concerned that although there is guidance on what should be included in LFR data, it is not straightforwardly comparable across authorities, and could be inconsistent across financial years due to one-off expenditure. However, no alternatives to LFRs were suggested.
61. We have amended the guidance to suggest that in explaining the reasons for any proposed changes or to illustrate how fees contribute to the running burial and cremation services, local authorities may wish to refer to financial data such as that contained in the LFRs. The guidance no longer suggests that this data should be published separately by local authorities on an annual basis. The LFR data will continue to be published on the Scottish Government website as at present.