Mortonhall report calls for funeral director licensing system

Mortonhall Crematorium. Picture: Greg Macvean
Mortonhall Crematorium. Picture: Greg Macvean
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A LICENSING system for funeral directors should be introduced “without delay”, the Scottish Government was told today in the wake of the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal.

The call came in a report from Holyrood’s local government committee on new legislation proposed after grieving parents were told there were no ashes left when babies were cremated.

The moves are also being proposed amid growing concern on rising funeral costs.

Willie Reid, chairman of the Mortonhall Ashes Action Committee, whose daughter Donna was cremated in 1988, said it was the undertakers rather than crematorium staff who had wrongly told him there would be no ashes of his little girl left to scatter.

Mr Reid said: “Funeral directors have a big part to play in this. They need to be licensed and regulated as part of this bill.”

He gave evidence to MSPs during consideration of the Bill, as one of the affected parents.

SEE ALSO: Families visit new Mortonhall memorial garden

Committee convener Kevin Stewart, an SNP backbencher, said current laws on burial and cremation in Scotland dated back more than a century. He said the Bill put forward by the Scottish Government was “a missed opportunity” in its attempt to update the industry.

The committee also complained there was a lack of detail on many of the Bill’s provisions which meant planned changes could not come under full scrutiny or public debate.

Mr Stewart said: “This Bill was a chance to fundamentally change the way the funeral industry operates and by doing so send a real signal on the issues of service standards and costs.

“It’s disappointing the decision to license funeral directors was not taken – something which is surely a missed opportunity – and why we recommend licensing should be implemented without delay.”

The Evening News revealed in December 2012 how for years bereaved parents had been told there would be no ashes to scatter after their infants’ cremations at Mortonhall. In fact, the babies’ remains had been secretly dumped in the crematorium grounds.

If implemented into law, the Bill would tighten rules on form-filling to make sure parents are properly informed and given a choice on disposal of ashes. The legislation includes the option to create a licensing scheme for undertakers, but ministers made clear they had no immediate plans to implement this.

Today’s report said a regulation and licensing scheme could also be used to create greater transparency around the cost of funerals.

The local government committee heard evidence that the average total cost of a funeral in Scotland was £3550 and that more people were struggling to afford such charges.

It also heard that between 2010 and 2014, profits from funeral services rose from £49.3 million to £66.3m, an increase of 34 per cent.

The committee said: “We note the industry realises large profits, at a time when there is an increase in the number of people who are unable to pay funeral costs.

“We acknowledge the Scottish Government’s view the Bill is not the vehicle for addressing costs. We believe, however, a more detailed bill, which specified a clear direction of travel, would have provided greater influence on services and thereby cost.” The Scottish Government was urged to investigate how regulations, licensing and codes of practice could improve the industry.