Funeral firm told to sell parlours

Jonathan Evans, minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, yesterday ordered the divestment of some of the businesses acquired by Service Corporation International of Texas when it acquired Plantsbrook, Britain's second- biggest undertaker, last year.

Between 12 and 14 funeral parlours in a swath of South-east England from Chiswick in London to Eastbourne on the south coast will have to go. An investigation by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission found that SCI's local market share ranged from 29 to 51 per cent. The trigger for a monopolies probe is 25 per cent.

But the decision by the DTI, which adopted fully the recommendations of the MMC, looked set to cause irritation in a number of quarters yesterday. An SCI spokesman claimed yesterday that "a significant number of avoidable errors have been made by both the MMC and the DTI, which had been pointed out at the committee part of the inquiry".

The report is also likely to find little favour with Barry Field, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, and a member of the family that once controlled Great Southern Group, Britain's third-largest undertaking concern before it was acquired by SCI last August. The MMC did not adopt his suggestion there was "a strong case for returning ownership [of Great Southern and Plantsbrook] to the previous operators".

Mr Evans said he accepted the MMC's findings that the merger of SCI with Plantsbrook "may be expected to operate against the public interest in respect of the supply of both funeral directing and crematoria services".

As well as requiring SCI to sell businesses in 10 designated areas, Mr Evans wants customers in these areas to be made aware of the identity of the ultimate owner of funeral directing businesses. SCI must also give prices of competing crematoria and not operate two-tier pricing in favour of its own funeral directors. The company claims these are not real issues.