Friday, 6 June 2014
Cemetery Management Bill 2013: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Hogan. The purpose of the Bill is to provide a comprehensive framework for the management of cemeteries to avoid any distortion of competition where cemeteries are managed in a non-transparent manner and where cemetery authorities engage in commercial activity at their cemeteries in a manner which disadvantages commercial entities in competition with the authorities.
On the issue competition, I would like to add to that, because it will become part of this debate, and say that there is a need not only to end the distortion of competition in regard to cemeteries but to address the issue of Dublin city and county arguably having the most expensive burial costs in Europe. Some have made the case, whether it is entirely correct or not, that it is more expensive to have a burial in Dublin than in the cities of London and Paris. The lack of competition which exists in regard to burials in this city has influenced the high cost.
In regard to the provisions of the Bill, section 1 provides for the establishment of a cemeteries regulator. Section 2 provides that each cemetery authority, other than a local authority or an ecclesiastical authority, may not manage a cemetery without a licence from the regulator. The licence should only be issued if the authority complies with specialised management requirements such as that it does not engage in commercial activities other than internment at its cemeteries or, if it is a charity, in other places. Section 3 makes any trust or private Act subordinate to this Act. Sections 4 and 5 contain standard provisions. In regard to financial and regulatory implications, there are possible financial implications in that the Act would disallow cemetery authorities from charitable status if carrying on commercial activity. Furthermore, the Act will provide competition in the cemetery sector.
On the issue of competition, or lack of, all of us are familiar with the fact that historically church bodies or local authorities have provided burial facilities in this country, as in most of our neighbouring countries. However, private entities or charities are not excluded, an issue which pertains in other jurisdictions. I have no objection to that in principle provided there is accountability and a licensing framework. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that if private commercial bodies engage in burial services, they are licensed in this jurisdiction. As I said, that is the practice nationally, that is, it is either a local authority or a church bodies, with one exception in the city and county of Dublin.
In 1846, during the reign of Queen Victoria, a committee was established to maintain Glasnevin and Goldenbridge cemeteries. I am happy to say it was a very worthwhile committee given the particular problems at the time. Set up during the Victorian times, it was a trust with very special powers. Not surprisingly, the original trust was all male but what is more interesting, and was a feature of the time, was that the committee was based on perpetual succession - in other words, certain named persons and their successors. Effectively, it was a closed shop or, to put a stronger slant on it, a secret society. If someone died, the existing members decided who would replace them. All of their business, financial or otherwise, was exclusively private. That aside, it served a very useful purpose and I do not wish to take anything from the work it did.
Interestingly, the status of having perpetual succession, which was introduced in 1846, continues to this day. It might have been a feature of Victorian times but it should not be a feature of modern Ireland that we have a body or an authority which can exercise perpetual succession because of the secrecy attached to it.
The 1846 Act did its job in the 124 years until 1970 when a Private Bill came to the House. I do not question the usefulness or the cause of the subsequent Act because the situation had very much changed in the intervening years. There were many aspects to the trust. For instance, it was allowed to take donations. The Act was one of the very few Private Bills that came to the House, in other words, it was a Bill written not by a legislator or Deputy, but by a body.
I will deal briefly with two or three aspects of the Act. The Act was passed unanimously. The changes that resulted from the 1970 Act gave the committee - sometimes referred to as the 1846 committee, at other times as the Dublin Cemeteries Committee or the Glasnevin committee - powers to borrow money, which it did not have previously, and powers to invest and employ. It also gave the committee powers to accept grants, subscriptions, donations, devises and bequests for all or any of the purposes of the committee. Given the secret nature of the committee, to this day, we do not know the assets of the committee and we do not know how much property it has.
The matter should be of concern to all legislators in a modern democracy such as this. It is a legacy of the past which should be changed. Despite what was in the 1970 Act, I argue that it did not confer the Glasnevin cemetery committee with the power to engage in commercial activity. The Act does not allow the entity to go into direct competition with those providing monument works – stonemasons providing headstones and sculptures. In the 1980s the cemetery committee first established a subsidiary company, Glasnevin Works Limited, with limited liability. I argue that was not proper because the status of the parent committee is a charity. We have recently had discussions about charities, much of it unpleasant, but that is not to infer that charities do not do good work. Most charities do good and important work but that cannot be said for all of them. In the case of the cemetery committee, it was a charity with tax-free status and it engaged in setting up a private enterprise without authority, as the 1970 Act did not give any such power, and went into direct competition with companies in the city and throughout the county in the manufacture and sale of headstones and monumental works. By that stage the parent company had ownership, or in one case in south Dublin, the lease of a burial ground. That bestowed great advantages on the new company that was set up to make and sell headstones, to the detriment of all the other companies, most of which were family owned.
In the period from the 1980s to date, from the setting up of the private entity by the charity, 16 firms in the city and county of Dublin went out of business. That is proof of the need for the legislation. Further proof of the privileges enjoyed by the new monument companies is that none of the 16 companies was bought out by anyone because business was in decline as one company was taking the lion’s share of manufacturing headstones and selling them. I refer to companies such as Egans and Crowes among others. Their closure was one of the consequences of a charity setting up a private entity with all the advantages it had over other companies. In the autumn of last year three monument companies ceased trading and no one bought them due to the lack of competition in the sector in this city and county. Hilary Monuments ceased trading in the autumn of last year. Emerald Monuments of Palmerstown ceased trading in September 2013 and Farrells of Glasnevin ceased trading in October 2013. I mention the latter specifically because many people are familiar with the company, which was established in 1829. The site was a landmark one for anyone familiar with the city. If one was passing the area of Glasnevin one could not but notice the monument works there and the granite and marble pieces of work. After three generations in business the company closed down. It was on the doorstep of Glasnevin Works Limited. Despite the fact that Farrells existed since 1829 the company could not compete with the new regime and ceased trading.
I use the example as an illustration of the need for the Bill. We must have regulation because if we do not deal with the issue there will be a monopoly in the city and county, namely, a company operating under the auspices of a charity. I appeal to the Minister to consider the Bill. It is not perfect but I urge him to give the Bill serious consideration and to accept it.
I thank Deputy Maloney for publishing this Bill, availing of the Friday facility for Private Members' Bills and for providing the opportunity to discuss important matters such as this one. The provisions of Deputy Maloney's Bill have been closely examined by the Department. It presents an earnest attempt to deal with the issues he has discussed. The Deputy has raised other issues as well with which I will deal. The Government does not propose to oppose the Bill.
Deputy Maloney is correct that the financial expenses in the Dublin area for funerals and matters relating to burials are far too high. In spite of various investigations by the Competition Authority, it is difficult to get evidence of collusion between funeral undertakers or anti-competitive arrangements to the detriment of the consumer, but there is scope for investigation into those matters in the context of the consumer given that the Dublin area is becoming the most expensive place to have a family burial.
There are a number of shortcomings in the Bill which I will outline, with a view to being constructive and to improve the proposed legislation earnestly put forward by Deputy Maloney. The main point made by him is that the Glasnevin Trust is engaged in commercial activities and competing in an unfair way with existing companies in the monument business and thereby contributing to what he perceives as a monopoly.
The Bill may not be able to deal with these issues but nevertheless the Deputy has raised important issues in the context of competitiveness or, in the Deputy's view, anti-competitive practices.
I draw the attention of the House to a number of issues about the Bill. It does not fully provide for the establishment, operation and powers of a new cemetery regulator. For example, there is no reference in the Bill to allow a Minister give directions to the regulator on policy matters. There is no provision for financing or staffing the regulator. We are trying to reduce the number of agencies and devolve more functions to local authorities. The Bill does not refer to offences, fines or other penalties that would arise if an operator of a cemetery operated without the approval of the regulator. These are not major issues of principle but are details of the Bill I wish to bring to the attention of Deputy Maloney before we proceed.
Perhaps local authorities should be represented on all cemetery boards dealing with matters of burial because of issues relating to planning which affect local authorities, and the HSE should also be represented in the context of public health. It is important to have assurances on these matters from the point of view of the public good. Perhaps strengthening these provisions should be examined.
There are no specific requirements to be met for an operator's establishment to be approved by a regulator. The Bill makes no reference to guidelines or further regulations which would or should be produced to ensure the consistent and effective operation of such establishments. There is no provision in the Bill for a regulation-making power to set out the standards which must be complied with.
The Deputy spoke at length about matters relating to Glasnevin and he detailed the history of its establishment going back to 1846. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, those were different times and there is a need to reform the manner in which we deal with issues, particularly given the increasing number of people opting for crematoria. Approximately 50% of people in the Dublin area opt for cremation rather than traditional burial.
A notable difficulty with the Bill is the ownership of cemeteries which are also national monuments, for example, Clonmacnoise, the Rock of Cashel and the Hill of Tara. For the purposes of this legislation these are owned by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Deenihan, while the Minister for Finance has a statutory duty under the National Monuments Acts to maintain them through the Office of Public Works. As my two ministerial colleagues are neither local authorities nor ecclesiastical authorities, and I would not say they themselves would subscribe to the view of being ecclesiastical - they would come within the definition of "cemetery authority" as set out in this Bill. I am informed the two Ministers are corporations sole constituted under the Ministers and Secretaries Acts and clearly could not reconstitute themselves to meet the requirements the Bill would impose for eligibility to obtain a licence to operate as a cemetery authority. I am using these examples to show it is not all as straightforward as we would like, but this does not cut across the principle of what Deputy Maloney is trying to do in the legislation.
I have made these observations in the context of not opposing the legislation. I thank Deputy Maloney for bringing forward this important legislation and the opportunity to discuss the Bill which we have carefully analysed. While it is clear there are some legal and other shortcomings, we look forward to improving the proposals to meet our objectives.
Fianna Fáil is opposed to the Bill. Establishing an additional quango while local authorities already have the capacity to undertake this role is a duplication of scarce resources. However, the proposals hit upon important issues in managing burial grounds and ensuring adequate space is provided for them. The high costs of funerals place pressure on families at a deeply sensitive time. The Government's heartless decision to remove the bereavement grant has made this even worse. Local authorities taking the lead in reducing burial plot costs is an important step in driving down the price of funerals.
The creation of a new quango in the shape of a cemetery regulator is an unnecessary additional expense to the consumer and taxpayer. This work should be given to local authorities who have on the ground knowledge and are adequately placed to carry out the duties included in the Bill. The core aim that must underpin end-of-life management, including cemetery oversight, is the right to a dignified burial. End-of-life management is a costly industry in Ireland. Approximately 30,000 people pass away each year in Ireland with approximately 3,000 being cremated. This means 27,000 are buried in cemeteries.
Burial plots in Ireland are very expensive. The average cost in the State is approximately €1,100, with an additional administrative fee of €120. There is a wide disparity of prices throughout the country, with a plot in Glasnevin costing up to €20,000 for a premium space and a local authority plot in Offaly costing €400. Despite the significant expense involved, the Government ruthlessly scrapped the €850 bereavement grant payment that alleviated the financial pressure of funerals on vulnerable families. There is significant pressure in urban areas with regard to acquiring suitable additional land for burial. Local authorities are in charge of cemetery oversight and have to identify and negotiate land purchases for future burials.
Fianna Fáil welcomes the opportunity to discuss this issue, which ultimately affects all citizens in the State. Cemeteries are an important part of the local infrastructure that require management and supervision to ensure a dignified burial for all citizens who chose this option. The proposal for a new regulator is an overly bureaucratic response to the problems involved. Establishing a new quango amid the Government's broken promises on its so called quango cull is an unnecessary expense to the taxpayer and consumer. The Government has steadily eroded the powers of local authorities in its local government reform agenda. Its needs to give local authorities responsibility over local issues that are best suited to their on-the-ground knowledge. Cemetery supervision should remain as part of the local government remit, and licensing of cemetery operations by other bodies should be included in its powers and responsibilities. This would help encourage competition while keeping down costs to the taxpayer and avoiding further fees being levied on the families of the bereaved.
Local authorities have to take the lead in identifying suitable graveyard sites for future burials. This is particularly acute in urban areas where scarcity of land is driving up plot costs. Establishing a regulator detracts from the responsibility of the local authority in ensuring there is sufficient land provision. The promotion of competition in the sector is a welcome step that will help drive down the escalating costs of funerals and help make passing a more manageable process for the bereaved.
Funeral costs in Ireland have risen over recent years, with the average price in the country approximately €3,000 to €5,000, but this can rise to up to €10,000 in Dublin. The significant rise in costs associated with funerals and burials has put major pressure on vulnerable families at a deeply sensitive time. The Government's heartless decision to abolish the bereavement grant exacerbated the pressure faced by families. The bereavement grant of €850 was paid to an average of 22,000 families per annum who were eligible for help to deal with funeral expenses. The Government is now chasing the elderly with cuts all the way to the grave. This final cut in budget 2014 was the deepest for bereaved families. The bereavement grant was paid to people who made PRSI contributions over their working life and was vital to help ease the burden of a close family member passing on. This modest grant gave many families peace of mind and was a welcome respite at a time of grief and stress.
By abolishing it, the Government again demonstrated its ability to measure the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
One of the major drivers of the cost increase is scarce burial grounds. This has also encouraged the ever-increasing switch to cremation as a form of final rest. Increasing competition in the provision of burial grounds will help address this problem with new operators coming on stream in providing and maintaining cemeteries. This should be conducted under the auspices of the local authorities' planning powers and overall responsibility for cemetery management. The hidden expenses of funerals demand a response led by local authorities in addressing burial space issues and the re-introduction of the bereavement grant by the Government to families who need targeted support to help in distressful situations.
Ultimately, the underlying goals behind policies toward cemeteries and end-of-life issues are simple. They should enable people to celebrate and commemorate the lives of the departed loved ones in a respectful and meaningful way. Reasonable costs, suitable space and appropriate location are a key part of that. Proper planning, fair competition and adequate land will help to enable this and ensure the protection of people's right to a dignified departure from the world.
I support the Cemetery Management Bill 2013 being proposed by Deputy Maloney and commend him on its introduction. I have been contacted by a number of businesses in my constituency that have been involved in the erection of headstones and monuments. They have outlined to me how the 1970 Act places them at an unfair disadvantage in respect of the provision of headstones and monuments and how many of them have been obliged to let people go recently. Deputy Maloney has outlined some of the companies that went out of business because of the operation of the 1970 Act, which confers an advantage on one particular business that is involved in this activity. I support the proposal in Deputy Maloney's Bill to provide a regulator who would regulate this area, which is common sense.
I also wish to refer to the question of the cost of burials, which has been raised by other Members, as it also is relevant to the subject matter of the Bill. It is well known that funeral costs in the city of Dublin are four or five times what they are throughout the rest of the country. This is a problem for families, particularly those with low incomes, who are obliged to borrow substantial sums of money to pay for funeral costs. In many cases, they must approach the HSE to get an exceptional needs payment to meet some of these costs. The question of the withdrawal of the bereavement grant has been raised but, in effect, that grant went directly to the funeral undertaker in most cases. There is a strong argument to drive down the cost of the funeral undertaking business within the city of Dublin. In the past, there was a number of firms of undertakers that were household names but they all have changed. There is an allied funeral undertaker company, I cannot recall its precise name, but there now is a company that encompasses the previous businesses that were providing funerals in Dublin. In some ways, it is almost like a cartel and this is a matter that must be looked into and is an issue a regulator could examine.
The Minister also mentioned the changes in the patterns of funerals in recent years, which is true. It was the custom - this is particularly noticeable in Dublin - that the remains were brought to the church the evening before and then there was a mass and burial the next morning. That is not happening, perhaps because the churches no longer have the clergymen to handle it, but in most cases, the remains stay in a funeral parlour overnight and then go to the church the next morning for a ceremony and burial. This is increasing the cost and it is noticeable that a number of undertakers have opened funeral parlours in areas where they never existed previously such as, for example, one in Kilbarrack and another in Edenmore. These funeral parlours are being used overnight whereas in the past, the remains would have been in a church and this is a matter that should be considered.
As has been stated, a burial is a traumatic occasion through which a family must go. There is an Irish saying, "He was buried decently", and people like to bury their relatives decently. People sometimes go overboard in this regard and one might see a number of limousines at a funeral leading one to wonder why it is necessary to go to such an extent. Perhaps this is an Irish characteristic and funerals are something we have celebrated the past. Perhaps they sometimes were over-celebrated but, nevertheless, this Bill addresses this issue of the cost, as well as the lack of competition, which is another matter. As some of my colleagues have asked me to share time, including Deputy Eric Byrne, I will conclude.
I will get on with my five minutes and see what is left.
I congratulate my colleague on going to the trouble of putting this Bill before the House. I have been a long time in politics and while I appreciate the Minister is not opposing the Bill, I imagine I might be well and truly cremated up in Mount Jerome cemetery before anything happens.
It is a very popular method of burial in Mount Jerome, where there are two crematoria. However, to cut a long story short, I was also spoken to by some craftsmen who traditionally designed, carved and erected the headstones for deceased people. A lovely memorial stands at the northern corner of Harold's Cross Park to commemorate the members of the fourth battalion of the Old IRA. My grandfather was from Harold's Cross and was a member of that particular Old IRA unit, which is commemorated there by a Celtic cross. That cross was built by a traditional family of monumental sculptors from Harold's Cross called Broe. That family is long gone and as has been pointed out already, more than 16 traditional monumental sculptures are now gone. I appreciate that technology is moving into the field and I understand one can now use computers to carry out much of the design work and that the beautiful handwork on the granite at the Harold's Cross memorial commemorating my grandfather's Old IRA unit probably is becoming a thing of the past. I do not see many such examples around the place.
However, in the brief time available to me, I wish to emphasise it is wrong that cemeteries which receive charitable status can engage in commercial activity much to the detriment of traditional monumental sculptors. Whatever about the burial costs and other aspects of the Bill, I emphasise that in thinking through what was happening, I contacted my colleague, Senator Bacik, who, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is aware, has an intelligent, bright legal mind. I did so because I was convinced that some item of legislation must be wrong and that the competition must be fundamentally flawed that could allow companies with charitable status to engage in commercial activities in an open market, thereby distorting competition in the market and putting traditional craftsmen and women out of business. The only appropriate approach I could think to take was that something could be prepared to take to Europe on behalf of these monumental sculptors. However, the Bill was introduced before Senator Bacik had been able to put together the necessary approach to Europe. Nevertheless, I ask the Minister to consider this point.
That element completely distorts the market, so to speak. It disadvantages the traditional monumental sculptors and artists. I am concerned about that element of competition and I hope the Bill would be used to deal with it.
Mount Jerome cemetery was in rag order for many years. Gay Mitchell was a famous MEP and he also represented Dublin South-Central. He highlighted the disgraceful conditions prevailing in the cemetery. When he became a Minister of State, he arranged for FÁS workers to clean it up. At one stage Mount Jerome, a place of tremendous historical importance, was in danger of closing but it was rescued at the last moment. However, it is not good enough that burial grounds can be allowed to deteriorate to the extent that they are obnoxious, with weeds and trees growing through the vaults. This is not the situation in Mount Jerome today but it has proved the weakness of the system that Mount Jerome almost closed.
I hope the Minister will agree to elements of this Bill in order to maintain the long-term sustainability and protection of the historical context of these older graveyards. I hope he will take seriously the intent of the Bill. Its proposer, Deputy Maloney, has suggested it is not perfect and he acknowledges it needs to be fine-tuned. Before it is too late for those traditional family monumental sculptors, I ask the Minister to address the question of the unfair competition created by those who run cemeteries and also produce headstones commercially.
I thank Deputy Maloney for proposing this Bill, which is an attempt to deal with the cost of funerals and burials which is an issue in Dublin in particular. I know that the costs are very significant for families, many of whom are burdened with large credit union or bank loans. However, in my view the appointment of a regulator to oversee the administration of cemeteries would be a duplication of the supervisory role of local authorities. Some 950 councillors are taking their seats in local authorities around the country and the Minister plans to devolve power to those councils. I am not often at one with the Minister but I agree with him about local authorities having the main role in local administration of cemeteries. There is an issue with how much another quango and regulatory board would cost when money is scarce. The 34 local authorities are in place and they can do that work.
Section 4 of the Bill defines a cemetery authority as "any company, committee or body (other than a local authority or a town or borough council or an ecclesiastical authority)". I ask what are the functions of these new bodies other than commercial activity. I presume the Bill does not propose that cemeteries would be competitive, rather that the ancillary services would be competitive. Other than in a few isolated instances, cemeteries are generally administered by the local authority, by the churches or by committees and that is as it ought to be. We do not want a situation as is found in some other countries where cemeteries become a private industry and funeral companies engage in often lurid attempts to attract business.
I refer to a recent planning application in Cork by an individual seeking to open a private cemetery for the reason that the local graveyard was full and that local people were being forced to bury their deceased relatives a long distance away from their home place. The application sought to have the cemetery on part of the person's own land was turned down by An Bord Pleanála on the grounds that it would constitute a threat to the local water supply and constitute a traffic hazard.
One of the reasons for the refusal of planning permission, although this was not stated by An Bord Pleanála, could be that there is a major resistance on the part of Irish people to the idea that burial grounds should become privately owned. It could be regarded as profiting from the dead as well as profiting from the living.
I refer to the cost of burials. In Portlaoise, a double burial plot costs €600 and a single plot costs €300 while the costs in Dublin are shocking. My relatives in Dublin inform me that the cost of a funeral is a significant burden for families. This Bill does not include provisions about the funeral grant but that grant of €850 was vital for bereaved families. Many constituents have asked me for advice about how to pay for a family funeral. They have to go to community welfare officers and do a round of begging. I ask the Minister to reverse the cutting of the funeral grant which was made to approximately 20,000 families every year and it is a huge loss.
As Deputy Maloney explained well, the Bill is specifically attempting to prevent cemeteries or companies allied to cemeteries from engaging in the sale of headstones, flowers, ornaments or other goods or services. This measure in the Bill is to prevent cemeteries from engaging in unfair competition, as outlined by Deputy Maloney.
Section 2(3)(f) proposes that if a cemetery enjoys charitable status, it should not be allowed to engage in commercial activity other than selling grave plots. I can see the argument in favour of allowing competition for those whose livelihood is based on selling flowers or making gravestones, for example. Businesses have gone out of business, such as a firm in the Glasnevin area.
There is also an argument to be made against cemeteries being allowed to sell flowers within the cemetery itself. These matters can easily be addressed by the local authority. Some of the larger cemeteries sell flowers and such like inside their gates but I have not heard of cemeteries actually selling headstones. Deputy Maloney has explained very well that umbrella companies attached to the cemeteries are selling the headstones. This presents a challenge to legitimate companies. I question whether this legislation, if passed, would stand up under competition legislation. Would the fact that a cemetery was selling headstones and flowers be considered to be unfair on other businesses seeking to provide the same? It may be an unfortunate comparison but Croke Park sells food and drink in its grounds but this is not considered to be unfair competition with pubs and takeaways in the vicinity. Is there a need to examine the legal basis for preventing cemeteries engaging in commercial activity within their own precincts? Perhaps that is something that could be examined if this Bill proceeds to the next Stage and is subject to closer examination.
While I question the need for a cemeteries regulator and new cemetery authorities, I support practical measures in relation to cemeteries, in particular the obligation on cemeteries to ensure the sanctity of the graves under their responsibility and the safety of visitors. There have been numerous reports of cemeteries being used for drinking and drug-taking and also incidences of vandalism and people being mugged in graveyards or mourners' cars being stolen. There is an obligation on the Garda Síochána, local authorities, cemetery bodies and the public in general to ensure that cemeteries do not become centres of such activities. Unfortunately, criminal elements have identified cemeteries as targets so the problem needs to be faced. Given that the Bill proposes to set up what in my view would be another quango to duplicate the functions of local government, I will vote against it. I recognise that the Bill is an earnest attempt to address a particular problem. It proposes a licensing system and the basis for another quango in order to halt commercial activity.
In some counties graveyards are administered by the churches, the local authority or by burial boards known as joint bodies. I suggest that cemeteries not administered by local committees allied to a church body should be brought under local authority control. During my time on a local authority, we passed by-laws relating to cemeteries, some of which were controversial, such as by-laws preventing kerbstones being used in lawn cemeteries, to provide for easy maintenance. County councils have significant powers in this regard and the Minister sitting across the way can give them more powers. It is a significant problem in Dublin.
People in country areas also have problems in this regard. We had a cemetery mass in my locality last Sunday. Issues need to be addressed in the main cemetery in Portlaoise town, which is in great condition and operates under the control of the local authority. The council provides a local committee that helps run the facility with some staff to assist it.
The buck should stop with local authorities, which should be empowered to manage cemeteries. Local authority members would then have a vested interest in ensuring cemeteries were managed properly. Constituents become exercised about the places in which where dead relatives are buried and how well cemeteries are looked after and regulated.
The costs of burial have become a major issue. As Deputy Seán Kenny noted, people like to give their relatives a decent burial. Working class families, in particular, spend large amounts of money burying relatives because they feel they have an obligation to give their loved ones a good and decent burial. I can understand this attitude but the flipside is that families incur large debts which take years to repay. I ask the Minister to raise with his Cabinet colleagues the issue of the funeral grant. While the grant can be as large as one likes, it is of little value if action is not taken to prevent the costs of funerals from increasing. The cost of a funeral in Dublin and certain other areas has spiralled out of control and the issue is not being addressed.
While I understand Deputy Eamonn Maloney's reasons for introducing the Bill, the solution to the problem rests with the new local authorities and municipal districts, which will meet for the first time in the coming weeks. The Minister's party and the Labour Party have the numbers required to ensure the matter is addressed and Sinn Féin will work with them to achieve this. This will require bringing cemeteries under the control of local authorities. Under the 2001 Act and older legislation, local authorities already have the power to pass effective by-laws, as some have done. The way forward is to have by-laws introduced democratically in order that they can be stood over.
I thank Deputy Eamonn Maloney for introducing the Bill. I also thank the previous speakers for their contributions, with the exception of the Fianna Fáil Party spokesperson who dealt with the matter very unsympathetically, and the Minister for his response. While Deputy Maloney and I accept that certain improvements are required in the Bill, the important issue is that the broader issue it raises is tackled.
I first became interested in this issue when a constituent, a woman whose husband had died suddenly in his early 60s, had to quickly purchase a plot in which to bury him. While she understood it would cost her approximately €3,000, the final cost to emerge was approximately €9,000. As a result, the lady in question had to deal not only with her bereavement, but also a substantial financial weight around her shoulders. The most distressing part of her story was that she was not presented with the full picture and the facts emerged only gradually.
When I started to inquire into the matter and, having discussed it with Deputy Maloney and others, I realised there was much more to the issue than first meets the eye. Previous speakers noted that restrictive practices have resulted in businesses closing down. I do not propose to rehearse the arguments they made, which I support, and will instead concentrate on an important element of the Bill, namely, the provisions dealing with The Dublin Cemeteries Committee Act 1970. The 1970 Act should be repealed and I ask the Minister to carefully consider doing so. The Act makes the Dublin Cemeteries Committee, which controls several large Dublin cemeteries, including Glasnevin, Newlands, Palmerstown and Dardistown cemeteries, both a corporate body and a charity, which is a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. It is apt that the Dáil is discussing this issue at a time when the entire charitable sector is under scrutiny. As previous speakers noted, it is important to recognise that the majority of charities do extremely good work and operate in a perfectly acceptable manner. Unfortunately, unacceptable practices have been identified in a number of cases, including in this particular case.
Under that 1970 Act, 20 members of the Dublin Cemeteries Committee hold positions for life. They are paid and have their expenses covered and the Act explicitly provides that they may enter into contracts with the committee, for example, for the provision of headstones. What we have, therefore, is a charity providing lucrative employment for its members. Similar practices were revealed in the cases of the CRC and Rehab. The Act also provides for the functions of the committee.
I will put a series of questions to the Dublin Cemeteries Committee, also known as Glasnevin Trust, and it is vital that I receive answers to them. What are the sources of the committee's finance? Why should it have charitable status? Who are its members and how are they chosen? What is each member paid and what functions does he or she carry out? How does the committee decide who can or cannot work in the cemeteries for which it is responsible? Why does it not publish annual accounts and when will it do so? Does the committee receive bequests and, if so, for how much and for what are they used? Does the committee own land other than cemeteries and, if so, where is this land and for what purpose is it used? Will it make charges for all burial services absolutely clear to those burying loved ones? I also ask the Minister for a response because these are serious questions on which clarity is needed, especially in light of the general focus on the charitable sector. Light must be thrown on this issue.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak to this Bill and thank Deputy Eamonn Maloney for introducing it. The purpose of the legislation is to address serious anomalies in The Dublin Cemeteries Committee Act 1970.
The death of a loved one is undoubtedly the most traumatic experience any of us will ever encounter. While the ways in which we say goodbye to members of our families have drastically changed in recent years, unfortunately the rules that apply to burials have not. It is glaringly obvious that in the areas of local government, business and charity law the management of cemeteries has been unregulated, uncompetitive and, in the case of Dublin, completely non-transparent.
People who lose a family member take great consolation from visiting the graveyard. The location and organisation of cemeteries, way in which they are kept, inscriptions and shape and size of grave markers are all important in remembering and respecting loved ones who have died.
The purpose of the Bill is to provide a framework for the management of cemeteries, which will bring transparency to the operation of cemeteries and prevent distortion of competition among commercial suppliers in the cemetery sector. Such distortions are evident in the sector today, particularly in Dublin.
Deputy Robert Dowds noted the existence of a committee of what I can only describe as salubrious gentlemen. Despite enjoying charitable status, the committee blatantly carries out commercial operations that provide its members with distinct benefits and advantages vis-à-visother people who are trying to run family businesses, some of which have been operating for generations. It is outrageous that it is not possible to ask questions of this group of gentlemen, as is the fact that they are not responsible to either a Minister or the Oireachtas. The committee appears to have carte blancheto continue to operate as it has done for many years. This must stop immediately.
The Bill provides for the establishment of a cemeteries regulator. This will mean that it will be necessary for cemetery authorities to obtain a licence to operate from the regulator. The licence will only be issued if the cemetery authorities comply with specific management obligations, for example, that they will not engage in commercial activities other than interments in their own cemetery.
As Deputy Stanley alluded to, the Bill also obliges the board of management of cemetery authorities to have at least one third of the members of the board nominated by members of the local authority for the area in which the cemetery is situated. The Bill will lead to greater competition, an overall reduction in burial costs, which is important given the economic circumstances in which the country finds itself, and, most important, greater transparency and accountability.
The proposed reforms will bring the laws up to date to meet the modern Irish experience of death without over-regulating, which would stop funerals being able to adapt to cultural changes and diversity within this country. Like most things, the art is to strike that balance.
The recent increasing commercialisation of the funeral and burial sector has brought with it increasing concern about cost, with the average price of a funeral now at €6,000. In some areas, it is far higher. In Dublin, the price for opening a new grave, including the interment fee, monument application fee and foundation costs, is usually in excess of €4,000. Of course, these costs can be significantly higher depending on where or how one is laid to rest.
With burial plots in Dublin costing as much as €16,000 each, it is no wonder charities such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul state they encounter a high number of people getting into financial difficulties arising from funeral expenses. The cost of a burial plot is usually the single biggest funeral expense, particularly in Dublin, with plots in Deans Grange Cemetery costing up to €16,000, and even those in Glasnevin costing €4,500. On top of that, there is the cost of interment, which is typically between €900 and €1,000. Many Dublin cemeteries discourage advance purchase or set the scene so that one physically cannot do so because it makes it more difficult to manage the graveyards. Glasnevin, for example, charges double for advance purchase grave and interment. This means the advance purchase of a grave could soar to more than €9,000, with burial costs of an extra €2,000.
At any other time in a person's life, the norm, if one is making large purchases, is to seek out a couple of quotes, perhaps gather recommendations from friends and family, and think about it. However, funeral purchases are made under emotional, stressful circumstances.
It is clear we need to introduce modern management structures to provide greater transparency in the operation of cemeteries. The Bill should deny charitable status to those cemetery authorities who are engaging directly in commercial activities, and it will also modernise the legal infrastructure under which cemeteries operate.
These combined reforms will provide greater choice and make the task of bereaved family and relations easier and clearer at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. I hope the Bill will help make one of the most difficult times in people's lives a little easier. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I warmly commend Deputy Eamonn Maloney's initiative in bringing forward this much-needed Bill. It is typical of Deputy Maloney's original and thoughtful contributions to this House.
I firmly agree with the core element of the Bill, that is, the establishment of a cemeteries regulator. I also proposed the establishment of an independent regulator dealing with funeral services in my Private Members' Bill, the Burial and Cremation Regulation Bill 2011. The regulator I proposed, however, would also have had a remit in the regulation of the operation of crematoria. It was also proposed that the regulator would be independent in its functions and would be self-financing. It is laughable when one hears Fianna Fáil talking about quangos, given that in government it set up dozens of unnecessary quangos, whereas in this area we are talking about one of the most important elements of society and human existence - the way we treat citizens who have passed away.
It is exasperating that the legal position is exactly the same as when I proposed my Bill in December 2011 and when it was debated in this House in April 2012. There is still an absence of a specific regulatory framework clearly governing the sustainability, planning, building and operation of cemeteries and crematoria in Ireland. Most cannot understand why there is still a dearth of regulation in the area.
A number of organisations have raised serious concerns about the gaps in the legislative framework. For example, the National Council of the Forum on End of Life in Ireland produced an interesting document in April 2011, entitled The Funeral Industry in Ireland: the case for reform and regulation, which made an unanswerable case that there should be a Bill, such as Deputy Maloney's, brought through this House and implemented. Separately, the Irish Hospice Foundation and the Irish Association of Funeral Directors have made recommendations concerning the Coroners Bill 2007, and it is shocking that Bill has still not been enacted. The recommendations made by all these organisations related also to the cremation certification process. Section 5 of my Bill related to this specific issue and it stipulated the conditions under which cremations were allowed and stated a cremation could not take place unless an application for cremation had been made to and approved by the relevant authorities - a new regulator.
As the Minister stated, cremation is an increasingly popular form of funeral in Ireland. In 2012, according to the figures I had, cremation accounted for 15% of funerals nationally. The Minister's figure could be correct. In the United Kingdom and countries such as Denmark, cremation accounts for 75% of funerals. Then, of course, there are countries for which cremation is part of their culture, such as Japan, where virtually everybody is cremated. Research carried out by my office for the period 2010 to 2012 showed grave concerns about the lack of a licensing and regulatory authority for cremation, including the care and maintenance of columbarium memorial walls in graveyards.
Treating deceased citizens with the dignity and respect they deserve is imperative, and when there is a failure in this regard, it reflects poorly on society. Today's debate is all the more timely in light of the publication of reports last week of the circumstances surrounding the burial of almost 800 babies in Tuam, County Galway, and the disgraceful manner in which these human remains were treated. I listened carefully to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's important contribution on this matter in the House yesterday.
From the point of view of crematoria, the Edinburgh baby ashes scandal recently also highlighted the difficulties raised by the lack of regulations covering the disposal of human remains. For many decades, staff at the crematorium in question in Edinburgh buried ashes of dead babies in a garden of remembrance where they were swept up with the ashes of adults. The recent report into this scandal raised concerns about a hands-off approach to the crematorium in question at Mortonhall in Edinburgh.
As recently as April of this year, I asked the Minister, Deputy Hogan, if he had any plans to create a licensing regulatory authority for the establishment and operation of cemeteries and crematoria, and he informed me in responses to parliamentary questions that he had no plans to create such a new authority. He stated: "The establishment and operation of such services and businesses are currently subject, where applicable, to the provisions of legislation dealing with planning and development, environmental protection and air pollution." However, the thrust of Deputy Maloney's contribution and Deputy Dowds's contributions over the years clearly shows that we need a regulatory framework in this area, regardless of whether local authorities would be closely involved in its operation.
The other major problem brought to my attention in 2011-2012 was the soaring cost of funerals. My colleagues have also covered that extensively over the years and brought it to public attention. Constituents referred to the long list of costs for plot openings, interment fees, foundation fees and application fees, and a host of other charges, especially across the four Dublin counties. Funeral costs seemed to range from more than €4,000 to €10,000 and above. I recall Deputy Dowds referring in the previous debate in this House to a funeral which cost €16,000 - an incredible figure.
In my own constituency, I have noted over recent years the increasing popularity of using funeral directors from north Fingal, Meath, Louth and even Armagh and Down, which seems due directly to escalating costs in Dublin. The training for and invigilation of embalming of remains was an issue about which many were concerned when I was last trying to address this matter. On cost grounds and the licensing of funeral directors and embalmers alone, it seemed clear then that a regulatory system is crucial for the planning, licensing and operation of graveyards, crematoria and the undertaker-funeral director sector.
I have already referred to the Association of Funeral Directors but the great majority of funeral directors are not members of that association.
Over the years, my colleague, the former outstanding councillor Peter Coyle of Fingal, has also highlighted deficiencies in the planning process for cemeteries, citing in particular the very bad drainage problems at Fingal-Balgriffin cemetery and in Dardistown. Councillor Coyle and I had one battle over a planning situation where somebody wanted to have a graveyard and crematorium just beside a nursing home. It was an incredibly crass development idea but, fortunately, Fingal County Council did not accept the proposal. It demonstrated, yet again, the necessity for regulation in that regard.
I welcome the contents of Deputy Maloney's Bill. As well as establishing a cemeteries regulator in section 1, it also deals in section 2 with the key issue of licensing cemetery authorities. In addition, section 2 includes a number of important safeguards by proposing that cemeteries cannot operate without a valid licence. Another integral and well-thought-out feature of Deputy Maloney's Bill is section 2(3)(e). This addresses an ongoing issue highlighted by members of the Irish Monumental Firms Association, IMFA, concerning the difficulties posed by the operations of the Glasnevin Trust. Other Deputies have almost unanimously referred to that matter earlier in the debate. Members of the IMFA have provided me and other Deputies with a briefing on their key concerns about what they maintain is an abuse of a dominant or monopoly position by Glasnevin Trust in its operations of providing services ancillary to interments, particularly gravestones and monumentals.
I raised this specific competition issue with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, and he referred the organisation to the Competition Authority. I understand that the IMFA has been informed by the Competition Authority that, unfortunately, there is nothing it can do about this situation and legislative change - led by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government - is required. On 30 April last, I raised this specific issue with the Minister, Deputy Hogan, and asked him if he had any plans to reform The Dublin Cemeteries Committee Act 1970. At the time, the Minister told me that it is a private Act and he has no role or function in relation to same. That seems incredible, however. This is the Republic's Legislature and surely it is our business to regulate this important aspect of our culture.
Section 3 of Deputy Maloney's Bill seeks to get around this difficulty by making cemetery authorities managed by trusts submit proposals to the High Court to amend the trust and ensure it operates in conformity with the Act. That is an excellent proposal. The Minister has highlighted some of the deficiencies.
When Deputies attempt to bring forward Bills, we often find that the implementation structures are difficult to put together if one has not been a Minister. I do not think that would be a major failing of this legislation. I warmly commend my colleague, Deputy Maloney, on his outstanding work on this Bill. It is typical of his tremendous contribution to this House and to politics generally.
When my own Bill was discussed a few years ago, it was argued by Deputy Brian Stanley and other Deputies that regulation of cemeteries was best left to existing cemetery trusts and local authorities. We heard the same refrain from a Fianna Fáil Deputy this morning. Clearly, however, the record shows that this is not the case. The treatment of people's remains after death is a key measure of a society's culture and involves respect for all our citizens. Like other aspects of Irish life, regulation of the sector in a small State like ours requires a national response.
The Minister has argued the opposite concerning Irish Water, even though the four Dublin counties and the mid-Leinster region looked after the water supply pretty well over the years. With limited support from Government, we kept the water flowing. We did the business. The Minister is saying that it has to be national, but one could argue the same in reverse. Counties now operate under Uisce Éireann and are delivering what the Minister says is his vision for a water supply. While I am grateful that the Minister has accepted the Bill, I urge him to legislate in this area.
I thank Deputy Maloney for bringing forward this Bill. It gives everybody an opportunity to have a look at where we are. I agree with Deputy Broughan that we have been slow in dealing with some of the issues that have been raised over the years. I will certainly take a personal interest in trying to bring forward some of the issues. I have a problem with quangos being established and a new regulator for this purpose. However, I am prepared to examine how we can strengthen the accountability, permits, licensing and responsibility of charitable trusts or local authorities in meeting a fundamental requirement for people to get value for money in funeral arrangements. It is an expensive undertaking in anybody's life, apart from the trauma of losing a loved one.
Deputy Broughan has outlined competition issues which are quite complex and difficult to overcome legislatively. We will examine that matter also in the context of concerns that have been raised here by Deputies. As various speakers have said, the monuments industry has suffered a lot in recent years. If that problem arises from a monopoly position, it should be investigated.
The local authority system and the HSE have a role to play in dealing with some of the issues that have been outlined by speakers in the House. I will examine the by-laws in that respect. I understand from the Office of the Attorney General that a private Act is difficult to amend, so we may need new legislation to deal with this matter. Deputy Maloney acknowledged that in his legislative proposals currently before the House.
I agree in principle with what Deputy Maloney is trying to do in regulating all aspects of funerals. I acknowledge that this is a very expensive matter. I am prepared to examine the issues the Deputy has raised about the monuments industry.
I sincerely thank those Members on all sides of the House who have made contributions in support of the Bill and for taking the time to endorse it. Like some others, I was aghast at the initial comment from the Fianna Fáil spokesman. Times have changed so much that someone from Fianna Fáil, the republican party, can defend the oldest quango in Ireland. It is 168 years old. Above all, I am aghast that a man from the county of Seán South would find himself in agreement with Queen Victoria. My God, where are we?
I am not in agreement with Victoria, although I am sure she was a very good person. She did not do much for Ireland but nevertheless we will leave that for another occasion. It is not Victoria's fault that the oldest quango in Ireland still exists and, according to the Fianna Fáil spokesman, it will continue to exist. Will the remaining individual monument works companies that have managed to survive in this city and county also continue to exist? If I am to take as read what the Fianna Fáil spokesman said in opposing this concept, in five or ten years there will be very few independent monument works in Dublin city or county. I am certain there will be a monopoly, given the track record of the past 25 years.
There is a link between Ireland's oldest quango and the commercial entities it has established. I am referring to the Glasnevin Monument Works and Glasnevin Florists, which are private limited liability entities.
It will be no surprise to anybody that a scan of the directorships of the charity and the two private entities shows that they are almost one and the same. Deputy Dowds referred to the status of charities and how they have been punched around in recent times - for very good reasons, although not all of them. This charity is under scrutiny for bad practices including anti-competitive practices that make it almost impossible for the existing monument companies to earn a decent living and get a full week's work. Across the Chamber we agree on the principle of it.
The only way to rectify the problem is through a regulator. As Deputy Broughan said, it is a serious enough matter to be the responsibility of an appointed regulator. I do not suggest the formation of another quango. This is a very small country and there is no need to open a great office in Harcourt Street or Merrion Road. Can we not learn from past mistakes? The regulator could operate alone with no need for large amounts of staff and great appointments. There are enough gifted people around to take on the additional minor responsibility of monitoring the cemeteries of Ireland. It is ridiculous for people to make such an argument because it is not about that.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for his stewardship of the debate and the Minister for his willingness to take the Bill. Hopefully we can work together and resolve both the anti-competitiveness and the high cost of burial in Dublin. I hope also there are enough of us sufficiently interested in it to work with the Minister to bring about a resolution.