Scotland's two Inspectors of Burial, Cremation and Funeral Directors explain their backgrounds, their work, the pandemic's impact, and how UK-wide bodies are learning from them as future inspection regimes are considered.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:04] Welcome to the Partnership Podcast. In March 2015, Scotland kicked off an era of change for the UK's funeral directors, when Bert Swanson was appointed the first inspector of crematoria, joined in 2017 on the appointment of an Inspector of Funeral Directors. During 2020, the two roles were combined into one, but two posts were created, and I'm delighted to be talking to both today. Bert Swanson, Senior Inspector of Burial, Cremation and Funeral Directors, and newly appointed Gordon Findlater, also Inspector of Burial, Cremation and Funeral Directors. I should add that Gordon has also been a Majesty's Inspector of Anatomy for Scotland for a number of years now.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:46] Between regulation and COVID-19, the funeral profession has evolved significantly in that time. So today I'll be talking to the inspectors about what their role looks like in 2021, and how they will be working with independent funeral directors. Now, whilst they both represent the Scottish inspectorates and will focus on Scotland, it will be interesting for funeral directors south of the border to hear what they are considering, as some of this may come to apply UK wide following the final report from the CMA.
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:21] So, Bert, Gordon, welcome to the podcast. Delighted to see you both. How are you?
Bert Swanson [00:01:26] Fine, thank you. Yeah.
Gordon Findlater [00:01:29] Yeah, likewise.
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:29] I know you've both come from different backgrounds, and it'd be quite useful, I think, for our listeners just to hear a little about your past experience and how you’re working together day to day. So Bert, can I come to you first just for a bit of background?
Bert Swanson [00:01:44] Right. You've probably picked up from my accent, I'm not local to Edinburgh. I was born and brought up in the far north of Scotland in Caithness. And my father there, he was the farm manager for the Castle Mey estate, which the Queen Mother had bought.
Bert Swanson [00:02:00] When my father died, when I was aged 14, way back in 1966, I initially stayed on working on the farm, an employee of the Queen Mother for a few years. And I decided in 1972, I'll make a career out of the police service. I joined what was then Edinburgh City Police. After I retired there, I served 33 and a half years, and I was asked if I could create a review unit, which would look at what was deemed cold cases.
Bert Swanson [00:02:31] At the end of another six and a half years, I decided that "no, I better retire”. So I retired. But after a matter of a few months, there was quite an ongoing enquiry at the time, concerning Mortonhall Crematorium in Edinburgh, what was termed a scandal over baby ashes. And as a result of that, Lord Bonomy created the Infant Cremation Report.
Bert Swanson [00:02:57] And one of the recommendations of that was for an appointment of an independent Inspector of Crematoria. And in March 2015, I took it on and accepted that post, which was the first one, as you said, in Scotland. So that's a crash history of my background.
Malcolm Flanders [00:03:15] Excellent. And very interesting it was too. Gordon, turning to yourself, sir, you were only recently appointed into this new role, but where's your experience and how did it all come about?
Gordon Findlater [00:03:26] Well, I'll be quick about that. I left school at 16 with minimal qualifications and became a telephone engineer. A bit like Bert, I thought I didn't fancy doing this forevermore. So I studied at home for the Highers to get to university, and remarkably, Aberdeen accepted me. And I studied anatomy at Aberdeen and then went down to Edinburgh, the vet school in fact, and completed a PhD there.
Gordon Findlater [00:03:50] And it's all about being in the right place at the right time. A job came up in the anatomy department at Edinburgh University, for which I applied, and it was during that time I became a licensed teacher of anatomy. And when I retired, Inspector of Anatomy Hugh McDougall, he was looking to retire, and I applied for it and got appointed as Inspector of Anatomy for Scotland back in 2018. I was appointed as Inspector, got to get this right, Inspector for Burial, Cremation and Funeral Directors, I think of it every time I say it, at the beginning of December.
Malcolm Flanders [00:04:22] Understand entirely. And that's actually great context. OK, well let's bring ourselves forward then to your new roles. The role has obviously expanded to involve a team of two. The Scottish Government has suggested it will grow further, I know. Could you talk a bit about the structure and the reasons for it? And I'll probably turn to Bert at this stage, if I may?
Bert Swanson [00:04:45] Yes, you're quite correct there, Malcolm. The plan is that there will be an inspectorate created, which doesn't exist at the moment. And within that, then we have clearly the inspectors for these three areas we've discussed; the burial, the cremation and for the funeral directors. We clearly need a considerable number in certain areas.
Bert Swanson [00:05:10] Funeral directors, for instance, as to how many exactly there are in Scotland, that's an uncertain issue, because as you're probably well aware, they're not licenced, they're not regulated, and therefore there isn't a master list as such. Whilst many are a member of SAIF and of the NAFD, not all of them are, and some are a member of one and the other, and some are a member of neither, and some are a member of both.
Bert Swanson [00:05:36] From the burial side, clearly you have – the number of cemeteries runs into thousands, but many of them, of course, are no longer in use. And an amalgamation within that of who controls it. But the one thing your local authorities have, they have a duty to clearly provide a facility for burial or cremation. So as a consequence of that, in Scotland, we've got the 32 local authorities, so in theory, if we go to the 32 local authorities, we'll be able to identify and discuss each and every one of the cemeteries there are. I accept that are some private ones as well now.
Bert Swanson [00:06:19] Crematoria, we've got 31 at the moment in Scotland. We've about four that's ongoing at planning stages. Very much a growth industry. Can I say, how many inspectors will you need in each? Well, it's a wee bit of suck it and see, quite frankly, but it will be an increase, not a decrease at any stage.
Malcolm Flanders [00:06:37] Thanks for that, Bert. Now, Bert, you've touched on it actually, so my next question actually brings us back to regulation. The original remit of the inspector was to consider potential regulation, we know, and this future sort of funeral licensing regime. Now we know that things have moved on since then, so is there clarity yet, do you think, in what your remit is, in respect of licensing?
Bert Swanson [00:07:00] Yes, it's ongoing. As you're probably aware, the stage we're at at the moment is developing and working in conjunction with our sponsor team, which is the burial and cremation team, part of the Scottish government. We are not civil servants. We are ministerial appointments. Basically, they look after the legal side of putting through the legislation. And our job then is to enforce, and see that everything is being done.
Bert Swanson [00:07:28] The code of practice is probably the area at the moment… so there's a funeral directors’ code of practice. So the intention is, and it's very close, that that will become a statutory document, and it’s out for consultation, and there are some parts of that ongoing at the moment. Now that will make both Gordon and my own job a bit easier when it comes to looking at inspections for funeral directors, because what are you inspecting it against? Well, the obvious thing there is the code of practice because they've all signed up and they know the about seven different sections to it.
Bert Swanson [00:08:06] The other aspect that we do already do, in fact, is we take on board any complaints. At the moment, if somebody is not happy with any aspect, whether it be the burial, the cremation, or the funeral director, they can go to one of those. And my experience is that they prefer to have if there is an option for somebody that's independent to that, because they don't like to actually have somebody investigating their own complaint. In general, not always.
Bert Swanson [00:08:37] And so our remit also covers that. And that takes up a large part of it. The most common one is probably family disputes.
Malcolm Flanders [00:08:50] Really? Right, that's interesting.
Bert Swanson [00:08:52] The issue here, of course, is whether there is a will involved. We would encourage, quite frankly, if everybody would do that, it would be a great, great saving for an awful lot of grief that currently exists.
Malcolm Flanders [00:09:05] Absolutely endorse that, yes. And we've come across some of some of those issues ourselves in the funeral planning side of things. So, absolutely, get that. All right, well, I'm probably going to throw this next question to Gordon actually, as he's sort of brand new into the role, but in the early days when Scotland first introduced an inspector of funeral directors, a big part of the role seemed to be about getting to know funeral directors, how they worked and meeting them quite directly.
Malcolm Flanders [00:09:29] So the profession, as we know, is full of independents, and can vary enormously. So it's much harder to do under lockdown, as we've just talked about. So, do you feel like you have a good understanding of the range of businesses you're overseeing, or is it something you're keen to explore? And how might you do that, let's say if the lockdown continues for another two or three months, Gordon?
Gordon Findlater [00:09:51] That's a very good question. I mean, one of the things I thought I would be doing took on this job, would be actually going around funeral directors, introducing myself, saying who I was, just saying a little bit about the code of practice, and how things were going to be in the future. But what I have done, I've made contact through the local funeral director here, and he has put me in touch with other local funeral directors.
Gordon Findlater [00:10:10] The reason for doing that, in fact, was they were trying to establish focus groups for funeral directors to feed into the code of practice consultation process. Well, I took opportunity to get some addresses of funeral directors and contact them directly, just introduce myself as the inspector. So they've kind of got a name, some of them at least know who this guy Gordon Findlater actually is.
Gordon Findlater [00:10:32] You just need to mention Bert, and the whole of Scotland, every funeral director in Scotland knows who he is. I mean, I think things will get a lot easier when you have the opportunity to actually go around and visit people and put a face to the names. That often makes a big difference.
Bert Swanson [00:10:45] Yes, it does, and as it stands at the moment, we still have to do an inspection of every crematorium in Scotland at least once a year. Clearly, that's been put on hold. In fact, the last crematorium I was in was in March last year. So we can't really do a visual or a virtual inspection of premises.
Bert Swanson [00:11:06] As far as the industry is concerned, though, I mean, we're very fortunate, because I've been round all these 31 on numerous occasions now, and almost every time I’m at a crematorium, there's going to be funeral directors there. I end up having a conversation with a lot of funeral directors whilst I’m there to carry out an inspection on the crematoria.
Bert Swanson [00:11:29] Also, we meet all these groups now at so many of the combined meetings. And I have a very good working relationship with all the people in SAIF and the NAFD, the FCA, the ICCM, and indeed, I met with your own chief executive. We try and touch base, and initially, like Gordon, I made contacts with lots of these organisations that's involved in the funeral industry and introduced myself and took it from there.
Malcolm Flanders [00:12:03] OK, that's reassuring. And can I just then turn it back to my world a little bit in terms of pre-planning? Because across the UK, funeral directors are preparing for regulation, as you know, for both preplanning and the broader funeral market. So in your eyes, will UK wide regulation impact or complement your own work? And how have you been engaging with it?
Bert Swanson [00:12:26] It's the same groups that are actually meeting south of the border, as north of the border. Albeit because legislation is different, as you'll appreciate, you know, we have the Burial and Cremation Scotland Act of 2016, and we have the Cremation Regulation Scotland Act, it's given us basically the powers to take forward the regulations, which is the practical way of dealing with it.
Bert Swanson [00:12:54] Now, we've got the cremation side covered. Now, working on the burial side and the funeral director side, the way I would see it is that in the not too distant future, we'll have a set of regulations which will cover the three separate areas, as well as your code of practice.
Bert Swanson [00:13:11] You're probably well aware of the Competition and Markets Authority, which, at the moment, they've come up with some sort of sunlight, as they call them, remedies for some of the areas that they feel there is a need. Now, they have been, like us all, restricted in what they can do because of the pandemic. And they are a powerful body, as you well know, and can make things happen.
Bert Swanson [00:13:35] But it's more linked into the financial side of things. Finance doesn't really come in to it during the inspections I've carried out. Crematoria charge what they feel is acceptable. And that's where the Competition and Markets Authority come in.
Malcolm Flanders [00:13:52] Got you, that's helpful. Thank you Bert. And Gordon, I suspect, certainly for you and there may be one or two other inspector appointments, you just need to keep close and tight as a team as regulation accelerates during this year and next year?
Gordon Findlater [00:14:07] Absolutely. I mean, there's only two of us at the moment. And I think, there was a meeting just a couple of weeks back, with some folk from south of the border about what was happening in Scotland, with a view to taking that forward down there.
Bert Swanson [00:14:20] I mean, that is a regular and it is an ongoing thing. And it's fair to say, we're not saying what we are doing is the gold standard for anything. But what we are saying is it works for us, and hopefully it will work, more importantly, for the public.
Malcolm Flanders [00:14:35] And we understand that. And I think in some ways, you know, it's been quite pioneering some of the work that has been done in Scotland. And it's no wonder that south of the border, they're looking very closely at the progress. OK, final question. As you know, this podcast goes straight to the independent directors. So is there anything you would like to say to them in particular, or ask of them in the months ahead?
Bert Swanson [00:15:00] Certainly, the funeral industry has really responded really well to the pandemic. Everybody has performed in excess of what would be reasonably expected of them. Yes, there will have been hiccups along the way, because not everybody has the same contingency planning for such an eventuality.
Bert Swanson [00:15:22] And then, of course, what you have is, you have the Government putting in legislation, but we also put in guidelines and advice. So there is a degree of "do we do it this way or do we do not this way?" Funeral directors will deal with several burial authorities and crematoriums, and what's acceptable at one premises is not acceptable at another.
Bert Swanson [00:15:48] The one common part of all of this has been the gatherings, the large gatherings. And how do we deal with that? And can I say, to this day that continues, because we're still seeing it. We're seeing up to several hundred people attended burials. And we're trying to collectively work out what is best here, to try and do that without putting further restrictions on the bereaved. Because when all is said and done, it is a farewell, it's horrendous, and that's what makes this so, so difficult for everybody to deal with.
Bert Swanson [00:16:25] So my message has been that what you have done up to now has been great. Don't drop your guard. Things will continue, things are easing. Gordon and myself, we're here to work with you, not work against you. Please at any time continue to do as you're doing just now; liaise with us at any point, about any issue at all you have, and we'll try and sort it out between us.
Malcolm Flanders [00:16:51] Excellent. Thank you Bert. And Gordon, anything you'd like to add to that?
Gordon Findlater [00:16:56] I think Bert has covered it pretty well. I think that one thing I would say, it is undoubtedly a supporting role. I think there must be some nervousness about funeral directors when they see inspectors coming to inspect them and they’ve not had that before.
Gordon Findlater [00:17:10] I mean, I can only speak from my experience as the Inspector of Anatomy, where the anatomy community see you as somebody you go to for advice, for help, and not in any way a threatening individual. And I like to think that is the case here, that we're here to help.
Malcolm Flanders [00:17:27] Excellent. Well, thank you both. Bert and Gordon, really do appreciate your time today. And I know I've got to let you go, Gordon, because you're getting your injection shortly, so good luck with that. Thank you for your time, I really do appreciate it.
Bert Swanson [00:17:44] Thank you then.
Gordon Findlater [00:17:45] All the best, thank you.
Malcolm Flanders [00:17:51] Thanks for listening to the Partnership Podcast. If you want to hear more about regulation, COVID-19's impact on the profession or a host of other issues, our full archive is always available on goldencharter.buzzsprout.com. You can also contact me at email@example.com if you have any thoughts on the podcast, or want to get involved. As the year continues, we'll be hearing from more key people at the heart of your changing profession. Until then, take care and I'll talk to you again on the Partnership Podcast.