Inspector of Funeral Directors: building relationships

words: Colin Cardwell /  photo: Mark Jackson

The word “unique” – like sterling – has been somewhat devalued. So when Natalie McKail says she has taken on a unique and pivotal role in Scotland she’s being refreshingly accurate.

The job, Inspector of Funeral Directors in Scotland, is the very first of its kind in the country – and the UK – and she was appointed to it in April by the Scottish Government for a two-year term, during which she will consider potential regulation and a possible funeral licensing regime.

“I’ve made contact with a number of key stakeholders such as SAIF and the NAFD to find out what they would like to discuss, and I’m arranging to make introductory visits to funeral directors,” she says.

Her first impressions of the sector have been profoundly positive.

“I’ve been very pleased to have been warmly welcomed into the role and have received several contacts from independent funeral directors and people who are part of the representative organisations saying that this is an ideal opportunity to discuss and explore areas where change could benefit the sector.”

SAIF and the NAFD concur, saying in April that: “We believe appointing an Inspector of Funeral Directors is in the public interest, and believe Natalie’s appointment will help keep standards high in the profession, as well as strengthen public confidence, and we look forward to forming a close working relationship.”

The two organisations also signed a joint agreement that sets out a series of guiding principles for both to follow in the development of regulations. This was submitted to the Scottish Government as a formal commitment to work with Scottish Ministers to develop regulation that will benefit bereaved people. Which is good news for Ms McKail.

“Any efforts to ensure that we are working to share best practice and work collaboratively can only be to the good. The profession is engaging in its own debate over self-improvement. And whether that is propagated by my appointment or an internal desire for those improvements, if it ultimately benefits the customer then that can only be a positive thing.”

Accentuating the positive is a recurring theme. Coming from a regulatory background, her closest alignment with the profession resulted from her being appointed by Edinburgh City Council to lead the Mortonhall Improvement Programme.

“I spent two years working with the affected parents and helping to repair the breakdown in trust, taking on operational responsibility for the crematorium and the mortuary, which is one of the busiest in Scotland, and the 42 burial grounds in Edinburgh.”

While looking forward, she is quick to recognise that funeral directors have served the community well for many years.

“The role of Inspector has not been introduced because there are any specific, identifiable concerns. With any sector, though, you can learn lessons and improve. Among the key areas of my remit are to ensure best practice – and I’ve seen evidence that many funeral directors already share that – but it’s also about supporting and complementing that. And where people are showing innovation and enterprise it’s about creating an environment that allows that to flourish.”

This is a busy time for the funeral directors’ profession: responses are soon expected giving views on a consultation based on the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 on draft regulations made under the act. The results would certainly impact on Ms McKail’s role, though she says it’s too early to speculate.

“At the moment I’m involved in voluntary visits but there are inspection powers proposed and proposals to review documentation. If these were to be agreed there would then be an enactment period but we first need to see what the feedback is from that consultation.”

The prospect of dealing with the diverse range of sizes and business models represented in the independent funeral director sector is one that Ms McKail is comfortable with.

“I think back to parts of my career, including the regulation of health and safety matters, where you could have a large multinational financial services company and a one-person operation but look for the same outcome – where people were safe at work or in the service of that employer.

“It’s all about clarity on the outcome that you are trying to achieve. And there must be room for creativity and innovation, as funeral directors, as in all other sectors, have to be able to respond to customers’ expectations and needs.”

As well as positive input, she concedes that there will be some natural concerns regarding the prospect of future regulation.

“I absolutely acknowledge that there are questions around matters of potential concern: what would regulation mean for the sector, how would that operate in practical terms, what the cost impact might be… so it’s important for me to listen from the outset but I’m encouraged by the fact that I’ve already had several approaches for face-to-face meetings. We’re not looking for a one size fits all solution; there will be different ways of delivering those services.”

She stresses the words listening, participation and collaboration.

“I want people to know that they have the opportunity to shape and influence the future of the sector. In some cases, the business has been in the family for many years and I understand people have a vested interest in what that future holds.”

The challenges she identifies include harnessing the ongoing debate and ensuring that as many funeral directors as possible take part in it.

“As with any change there are early adopters, but I want to hear all the voices, including those of people who may have concerns or are reticent about change.”

The other is purely a logistical one. “With some 800 funeral directors in Scotland, I don’t think I’ll manage to get to see them all by Christmas this year,” she laughs.

Don’t discount how many she will see: as an enthusiast for the great Scottish outdoors, whether cycling or Munro bagging, she’s used to daunting prospects and will put a lot of energy into tackling a truly unique task.

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