HL Deb 02 June 1938 vol 109 cc853-66

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I do not think it will take very much of the time of your Lordships for me to say what is in my mind in connection with the Bill which stands in my name on the Order Paper. The Explanatory Memorandum which was printed with the Bill sufficiently describes its purpose, which in brief is to set up a statutory Board to control the training and admission to a register of those persons who carry on the business of an undertaker or funeral director. It is believed that it is in the public interest that the necessary services which are rendered to the public by these persons should be protected and their status raised by such a Board.

I need not perhaps remind your Lordships that between the moment of death, up to which point the doctor is responsible, and the point at which disposal ultimately takes place by burial or cremation, where the Church again takes responsibility, there is a period during which no one is responsible. That period is a variable one, as we know. It is in order to remove the anomaly that during that period—an important period both from the point of view of the public health and from that of sentiment—no one is responsible, that the clauses of this Bill have been framed.

There has been, as I think your Lordships will admit, a great advance during recent years in scientific knowledge in matters of the common health, and at the same time there has been, as those of us who are brought into contact with the profession of funeral directors know, a considerable advance in the knowledge, ability and capacity of undertakers. It is thought by those who have given attention to this matter that there is some urgency in regard to making it possible to advance still further the knowledge, capacity and status of funeral directors.

I am claiming your Lordships' support for this Bill in my capacity as President of the Council for the Disposition of the Dead, a body which was formed in 1931 and was incorporated three years later. The Vice-Presidents of this body are Lord Salvesen, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, Sir Holburt Waring, and Major-General Sir Wilfred Beveridge. The chief objects of this organisation are the revision and the codification of the law governing the disposal of the dead and the improvement of the status of those whose profession this is. Quite a large number of associations and societies are affiliated to this body: the National Association of Funeral Directors, which is the largest organisation in the profession of funeral directors; the Federation of Cremation Authorities in Great Britain; the British Institute of Embalmers; the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons; the Corporations of the City of London and of Liverpool; the Coroners' Society, and the Royal Institute of Public Health. It is therefore obvious that this Bill is backed by a large number of responsible bodies outside as well as inside the profession of funeral directors. In short, registration is desired and is pressed for by all these responsible associations. I might add, perhaps, that the Chief Rabbi is represented on the Council, so that Jewry, which, as your Lordships know, has its own particular practice in regard to burial, is entirely sympathetic with this measure.

The Bill provides for the registration of funeral directors under the statutory Board. Ample time is allowed for those persons who are now engaged in the work of funeral direction to conform to the Board's requirements. The Board will have the power of imposing penalties, but these are only to be inflicted after full inquiry, and there is the usual right of defence and of appeal. It is suggested that the Minister of Health should appoint the first Chairman of the Board and should also appoint three of the members of a panel of seven. The remaining three members of the Board, it is suggested, should be appointed by the main bodies of funeral directors which now exist. The Board will initiate and control the teaching of all those subjects which are of importance in the efficient carrying-out of the work of funeral directors. It will satisfy itself, by examination or otherwise, of the ability and competence of all those whose names are entered on the register. I have confidence that your Lordships will concur in the need for this Bill, and I beg to move the Second Reading thereof.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Harder.)


My Lords, I regret very much that I shall have to offer opposition to this Bill on behalf of the Labour Party. The noble Lord who introduced it in such a very illuminating speech was good enough to write to me personally asking me to support him. I appreciate the honour he did me, but I am unable to do so, for the reasons which I will explain as briefly as possible. This Bill is of the greatest importance because of the subject with which it deals. It is a matter which the Labour Party have had under examination for some considerable time, and I hope to be able to explain our view briefly. I am sorry that a Bill of this importance should have come on this afternoon when your Lordships are waiting to hear my noble friend Lord Olivier deal with another question of very great importance. Nevertheless, I am bound to make these observations on this Bill.

The immediate objection to the Bill that we have is that it will create, or tend to create, a monopoly of those who perform these last rites for the dead, and that already the cost of the burial of the dead is too high, and bears hardly on the great masses of the people. We fear that the monopoly which this Bill would create would tend to keep the price of burials and funeral costs up, whereas they ought to be lower. That is our short objection. But this touches a very much wider and more serious subject—a subject not often spoken about, one that is tacitly avoided, but which nevertheless is of very great importance indeed. The whole question of the disposal of the dead has been complicated by the growth of population, the increase of urbanisation, and, as regards the poorer section of the population, the decay of the guild system and the weakening of parish organisation. It might surprise your Lordships to know that in Greater London one person in every eleven who dies is buried as a pauper, in a common grave, at the expense of the rates. So far have we lost the parish organisation in this country, which was inevitable for the cause I have mentioned. The fear of pauper burial lies on the minds of working-class families, and they take what steps they can to make provision, in case of the death of a relative, to see that that relative is buried decently. It is an instinct with which we must all have sympathy, but it has led to an increase in the cost of funerals and to a very heavy burden on the masses of the people.

At the present moment there are in existence some 80,000,000 industrial death policies, and the payment on them is some £33,000,000 a year. These industrial death policies are of very great assistance to poor families, and do enable the ordinary working-class household, who usually insure young children soon after birth, that they can at any rate be certain that there will be the money for a funeral in accordance with the desires of the relatives. But the cost of funerals today is far too high in our opinion. This is an immense subject. I do not know what the attitude of the Government is towards the Bill of Lord Horder, but I am going to express the attitude of the Labour Party on this subject, and I think it is worthy of a little attention. In England and Wales alone there are about half a million deaths a year, and therefore the duty of disposing of the dead in the United Kingdom is a very great one indeed.

Just a word with regard to the cost of funerals. I am quoting from a very interesting book, of which no doubt Lord Horder is aware, by Sir Arnold Wilson and Professor Hermann Levy, entitled Burial Reform and Funeral Costs. There is quoted here the cost, under contract with the Ministry of Pensions, of funerals of war pensioners—the cost of such interments is borne by the Ministry—in December, 1932. There is no complaint about the decency or propriety of the way in which these war pensioners have been buried. The figure for the whole cost is £8 15s., and that includes cost and delivery of coffin, personal attendance, bearers, motor hearse; in fact the whole cost. That is the Government contract price. The book then says: Yet the minimum price quoted by an undertaker of repute for the burial of a young man who died in a London hospital in June, 1937 … was £18 12s. 6d." — more than twice as much as the Government contract price.

Efforts to reduce the amount by the substitution of a cheaper coffin were unavailing. Of a dozen funeral bills which we have examined … in no case was the sum charged less than £15, and in most cases it was nearer £20" — as against what must be admitted to be the fair price, which the Government allow for the burial of a war pensioner, of £8 15s. Under this Bill you make this important profession a closed corporation.




I beg the noble Lord's pardon. I have read the Bill with great care, and in our opinion it will be difficult, if this Bill becomes law, to reduce these costs. I want very briefly to state our view on this very vast question. We think that the whole question of the burial of the dead in this country is deserving of attention by the Government, and that an official inquiry, very strongly manned, is needed. There has been no such inquiry into the whole subject since 1848. We consider that the cost of burial should be reduced while, of course, preserving the decencies. We consider that dealt benefit should be automatic for all persons insured under the National Health Insurance Acts, and we consider that the Ministry of Health should set up a small department under a functionary whom we call the Funeral Commissioner, or some such term, who would watch over and advise the whole of this profession concerned with the disposal of the dead. With regard to sanitary safeguards, which I understand is one of the objects of the Bill, we consider that that is the duty of the Ministry of Health. When we touch on this subject we touch very deep cords in human nature, but nevertheless the things which I have said we consider needed to be said. The ideal which I would put before your Lordships is that of the war graves, the administration of which has received universal praise and support. There the youngest private, the colonel and the general, are all buried in graves of the same kind with the same ceremony, and with the same surroundings. We would like to see the same kind of system adopted for the burial of the dead in this country, and the heavy burden that at present falls on poor families reduced.


My Lords, I think considerable attention should be given to one point raised by my noble friend. It is a curious, perhaps melancholy, fact that the question of burials is one of the most interesting things to the human race. Many of your Lordships have no doubt had the same experience as I have had, of being asked to attend the annual dinner or beanfeast of burial clubs and of having to make an appropriate speech on the subject.


My Lords, might I crave for further information on this subject before we give this Bill a Second Reading? I had hoped that the noble Lord in the speech with which he introduced the Bill would have made some reference to its incidence on the agricultural community. For instance, what is going to be the position of those who carry out burials in small hamlets and secluded parishes? Are they in future to be registered, to pass examinations, and finally to receive the approval of a certain group situated in a big town which they hardly know anything about? I can see that this may cause very considerable difficulty in country places, where burials are at present carried out to the satisfaction of everyone concerned. Might I ask what are the qualifications which will be called for in the case of funeral undertakers in these country districts? What training will be required? And will it add in any way to efficiency or to the burials being carried out any better than they are to-day? Above all, will it add to the cost? I see the Bill suggests a £50 fine, which would be an impossibly large fine for anybody in a small country village to pay because he has presumably infringed some regulation made by a Board who are responsible for carrying out these duties. This is very definitely an attempt to create a monopoly. It is necessary that we should obtain further information about the proposals of this Bill, for it is an attempt to corner the carrying out of the last sad rites which in due course will be inescapably associated with each one of us.


My Lords, I rise to give your Lordships the views that His Majesty's Government hold on the Bill which has been introduced by my noble friend Lord Horder. I understand that a substantially similar measure was introduced into the House of Commons as far back as 1925. The main object of that Bill, as is indeed the main object of this Bill, was to control the work of undertakers by requiring the registration of funeral directors, and to prohibit the carrying on of such work by unregistered persons. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary attaches considerable importance to the public health aspect of this matter, and it is from that point of view that I wish to make my remarks.

My right honourable friend is advised that there is no cogent medical reason for the proposals outlined in this Bill. There are various sections of the Public Health Act, 1936, which give immense powers to local authorities. Section 163 of that Act gives power to the medical officer of health for the district to restrict the movement of the body of a person dying in hospital of a notifiable infectious disease. Section 167 enables regulations to be made imposing conditions and restrictions which appear desirable in the interests of public health and public safety with respect to the means of disposal of dead bodies otherwise than by burial or cremation, or for fixing the period of time the body may be detained after death on any premises. There are other sections of that Act, which I need not go into, dealing with the disposal of the dead.

I am not aware that there are any grounds of public health which make it desirable to support this Bill, and it is necessary before we do so that strong reasons of general public interest should be given to justify the stringent regulations proposed under the measure. I want to refer to the book mentioned by the noble Lord opposite, in which Sir Arnold Wilson and Professor Hermann Levy call attention to the high and growing cost of burial. The authors strongly oppose the attempt to establish State registration for funeral directors on the ground that this would tend to create a monopoly and to enable undertakers in a larger way of business to raise their prices and to drive small men completely out of business, since the professional body would have power to regulate entrance into it. I have no doubt that considerable hardship might thus be inflicted upon poor persons living in outlying areas, who under these proposals would be involved in considerable expense in bringing a funeral director from a distance for the burial of a deceased relative.

I notice that in the Explanatory Memorandum of the Bill it is stated that there is a need for securing that undertakers have proper qualifications, and that touting for orders and similar practices, which would naturally cause pain to relatives, should be brought to an end. If these undesirable practices are in fact causing widespread annoyance, the remedy would appear to be that undertakers should be required to register with the local authority and comply with such regulations or by-laws as might be made. But I am advised that, on the contrary, common experience has shown how efficiently and decently these duties are carried out. His Majesty's Government know no reason which would warrant the conversion of this trade into a close corporation, and therefore they are opposed to the Second Reading of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, raised various questions concerning the administration of war graves and the burial of the dead generally. He w ill recollect that this Bill is one which comes within the province of the Home Office, and I have no doubt that the information he seeks could be best obtained by putting down a Question, to which the noble Lord who represents the Ministry of Health in this House would reply. In view of the facts I have mentioned I hope that my noble friend Lord Horder will be prepared to withdraw the Bill.


My Lords, I am sure you cannot fail to have been impressed by what has fallen from the representative of the Government, and, furthermore, the contention advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Eltisley, is undoubtedly one that will carry weight. A great proportion of the funerals in this country are of course conducted by persons who are not, so to speak, whole-time funeral directors, but who are builders or village carpenters, or who combine some other occupation with occasional service at a funeral; and the effect of a Bill such as this upon the customs of the village community must be considered. Further, there are very important considerations that have been advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi.

For my own part I should feel a difficulty in supporting a measure of this kind unless it were brought forward after a full inquiry such as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi. Indeed, legislation on a matter of this sort, where a number of difficult and perhaps technical considerations are raised, is seldom advisable without having been preceded by a Committee—either a Select Committee, or a Departmental Committee or, if the subject is of sufficient importance, by a Royal Commission. I would venture to suggest to my noble friend who introduced the Bill that, in view of the attitude of the Government and the views expressed by the House generally, it might be better if he were not to press the Bill to a Division on this occasion, but to see whether the Government might not be induced to appoint a committee of inquiry into the whole subject. Then, after the result of that inquiry is known, the matter could be considered to better advantage.


My Lords, there is one alternative to the course which has been proposed by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, and that is that the Bill should receive a Second Reading and go to Committee. Then a great many of these points which have been raised could be much more fully discussed and, later on, if your Lordships thought fit, when the Bill came back for Third Reading, if the House did not wish the Bill to proceed further, it could be rejected at that stage. It is going a rather long way to reject at this stage a Bill of this character brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Horder, with his very great authority and experience. I do not think anyone would argue that the various points which have arisen have been adequately discussed this afternoon.

I listened with great attention to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and to the points he made about the very high price of funerals at the present time. But, after all, when he says this Bill will, or might, establish a monopoly, there is at present no monopoly, there is no restriction at all. Therefore I do not think his argument is one which could be accepted without further consideration. The price may be high, but it does not necessarily follow it will be any higher if this Bill passes; it is high without this Bill. I shall not follow the noble Lord into the question of industrial insurances, but it is a very astonishing fact that there are in this country, with a population of 45,000,000 people, no fewer than 80,000,000 death policies. I have felt for some time that this question of industrial insurance is one that ought to receive the consideration of Parliament. It is an enormous subject with tremendous implications and of very far-reaching importance. Therefore, I cannot follow that matter further to-day. I simply refer to it because of the astonishing figure—I knew it myself—that Lord Strabolgi brought forward. Similarly with regard to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Eltisley, about agricultural districts. These matters are very important, but they could be dealt with in Committee. We should have more information on that aspect.

The noble Earl, Lord Munster, who spoke for the Government—not, I am bound to say, very encouragingly—gave it as the opinion of the Ministry of Health, as I understood, that this Bill is not required on health grounds. I do not think I am misrepresenting him. For my part, with great respect to the noble Earl and to the Ministry of Health, I do not take that as the last word. The noble Lord, Lord Horder, has great experience of these things, and he would not bring forward this Bill and be responsible for the Explanatory Memorandum, which no doubt your Lordships have read, unless he was of opinion, for which undoubtedly he was given grounds, that the Bill is desirable, as he says, "with due regard to the public health." However the truth may be about these various matters one way or another, it is quite impossible for your Lordships to determine this afternoon, but it does seem to me in all the circumstances that there is a case for the Bill going to Committee. Then if these various points are not satisfactorily determined, or more information is needed, the Bill need not go any further, but can be rejected on Third Reading. As I have said, it is going a long way not to give a Bill of this character a Second Reading.


My Lords, I would like to support what my noble friend Lord Arnold has said, not for the reasons he gave, but because the whole of this subject needs a great deal of ventilation. One of the objects of your Lordships' House is to ventilate matters which are generally not discussed, which are generally rather kept out of sight, and which, in point of fact, might benefit from more careful examination. I do not like the measure, but we ought to know more about it. While it is improbable that there would be any Commission of inquiry as suggested by the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel—at least I imagine there would be considerable difficulties in the way of such a proposition at present—we could use the Committee stage in this House as a means of examining various aspects of the problem which have been brought up.

Take for example the remarkable figure given by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi. He tells us that for a population of 45,000,000 people there are something like 80,000,000 or 90,000,000 insurance policies. I do not understand it. Are there two or three policies for every individual in this country? There are only 45,000,000 people, and therefore it seems that there are two policies for every individual alive in this country at any given moment. Secondly, we are told that the average cost of funerals is between £15 and £30. Five hundred thousand people die every year, and that would make an average expenditure of £10,000,000 a year. Yet the value of the premiums paid on the policies is £33,000,000. In other words, we are paying £3 10s. for every £1 actually spent on funerals. That rather seems to indicate that someone is making a good thing out of it. It may be that the insurance companies spend every year an average of £10,000,000 and receive £33,000,000 in premiums. That seems to me at least a reason for some examination of this subject.

It is all very well to keep it quiet. It is all very well to say very little about it, because people's feelings are said to be harrowed and so on; but there is an economic aspect of the problem which might well be gone into, and I hope Lord Horder will be able to say something about it in his final reply. There is a strong reason for encouraging monopoly in this subject and a large increase in the price of funerals. I would like to see the price of funerals put up and up until it was utterly beyond the power of most people to meet. Then people would at least use the Ministry and its methods, and the disposal of the dead would become a public charge. We should then have our funerals carried out on an average at £8 15s. or whatever may be the amount—£5 possibly—and we would not waste so much money in this way. We should get rid of the absurd waste, we should get rid of the pauper feeling, and the whole thing would be carried out in a more decent and better way. That might at least be an object of this Bill—an oblique object, perhaps, which Lord Horder would indignantly deny. But if he does carry his Motion to a vote I shall support the Second Reading, because I consider a Committee stage in your Lordships' House would do much to ventilate a matter which never receives adequate understanding on the part of the mass of the people.


My Lords, the rules of your Lordships' House are very elastic, but I cannot see that a Committee stage would tend to raise the questions referred to by noble Lords opposite. When your Lordships approve a Second Reading you accept the general principles enshrined in a Bill, and as the Government are opposed to this Bill, and as all sections of this House appear to be opposed to it, except three noble Lords, I hope your Lordships will not give a Second Reading to the Bill.


My Lords. I should like to support my noble friend Lord Eltisley. I think, too, that this Bill would give too much power to the registration authority, and I believe that it would tend to deprive small part-time burial businesses of their very useful work. That, I think, would be a grave injustice, and I would suggest that the Government might consider an inquiry into the whole matter before this Bill is proceeded with.


My Lords, I hope my sense of discretion is not so immature that I am not prepared to accept one at least of the suggestions made to me which are alternative to pressing to a Division the Motion on this Bill. All the same, if I may crave your Lordships' attention for a very few brief comments on some of the matters that have been put before the House, I would say that in the first place I never supposed that this Bill could cover all the points connected with this important matter of burial; but so much legislation is postponed indefinitely on the same plausible pretext that the particular Bill put before your Lordships does not cover everything of an ideal nature! Secondly, if I could believe that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, had either the power or the opportunity, either in this House or in another place, to press the inquiry which he suggests within measurable time, I would support him. Thirdly, in regard to this matter of monopoly which has been raised, it is very difficult for me to see how the large body of persons who, as I have reminded your Lordships, have urged me to bring forward this measure, by which they may become registered and by which they may improve their status and render themselves more efficient to do what we must always regard as an important public service, could achieve any effect by way of monopoly or the raising of prices. There is no restriction imposed in any clause of this Bill upon an undertaker offering his services for what price he wishes.

Perhaps I made a mistake in not being more explicit about some of the abuses which I know to exist at present during that interval to which I drew your Lordships' attention, between the moment of death and the moment of proper sanitary disposal of the dead body. I must not now, of course, be tempted to do so, but I could a tale unfold in that matter. I think the noble Earl who spoke for the Government minimised the significance of this interval in terms of public health. May I remind him that the Ministry of Health is rather far removed from, and is not immediately concerned with, those very anomalies which do come to the notice of medical men in this respect. As to the question of whole-time occupation in regard to funeral directions, there is no restriction imposed upon half-time funeral direction. I cannot say from my own experience that half-time funeral direction is a matter to encourage, but there is no compulsion against it. That a person should be a milkman in the morning and an undertaker in the afternoon is, I suggest, not perhaps without its risks.

Finally, I have been urged by these very persons themselves to press this matter in their interest and in the interests of the community. As I say, I might perhaps have been wiser had I been more explicit, but that was due to my feeling that I should not occupy more time than necessary, and also to a certain amount of confidence in your Lordships' experience as to the need for control of this important interval between death and burial or cremation. If, therefore, I have now at this point to choose, I do not press for a Division on this Bill. It is clear I think that I must accept a negative, if that be the wish of your Lordships' House.

On Question, Motion negatived.