Peer leads fight to scupper sale of crematoria

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The Independent Online

Lord Young of Dartington is spearheading an attempt to head off the privatisation of council crematoria. The National Funerals College, which is writing to all the local authorities in Britain, claims the sale of council crematoria will lead to a mass takeover by one American funeral company.

Lord Young, a life peer and founding president of the funerals college, has laid down a motion in the House of Lords aimed at scuppering the Government's planned privatisation of Britain's 193 municipal crematoria.

According to the funerals college, the Government plans to transfer these to the private sector "on as large a scale as possible".

It will offer councils a "bribe" to encourage them to sell, the college adds. "Up to now the grip of the central government has required councils to set aside 50 per cent of any crematoria sales and use it to redeem debt. Under the new regulations they will be able to keep for their general purposes 90 per cent rather than 50 per cent of the proceeds.

"The inducement is to operate only for a period of 18 months from 1 January 1996. Privatisation is to be rushed through, it seems, before the general election."

Local authorities are under financial pressure to raise funds for the cost of meeting new environmental regulations on pollution. Under the Environmen- tal Protection Act, crematoria have to meet new smoke-emission standards, and the cost is likely to be at least pounds 450,000 to upgrade each crematorium.

The Government has also told councils that they must get money from private sector partners or buyers before seeking any cash from taxpayers for the improvements.

According to the funerals college only one private sector buyer has expressed any interest; Service Corporation International, an American funeral service company, has already acquired funeral directors covering 15 per cent of the United Kingdom funeral market.

A college spokesman said: "The Government will be helping to create a monopoly, starting with a series of local monopolies linking local funeral directors to the local crematorium. The costs of funerals are already an awful burden to some people and the burden could become much more so in the future."

This is particularly worrying, according to the college, because there will be no outside regulator to oversee the funeral companies. It warns: "If the Government refuses to withdraw its latest privatisation, the commercialisation of funerals could be taken much further than it has so far. The fundamental religious significance of a funeral could be further dimmed by an array of devices for making more money out of death."