Grieving families paid almost £25,000 over a five year period when they were charged for arriving late for burials in the Craigavon area, it has been revealed.
But a bid to extend this charge to cover the entire Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council was shot down this week.
Instead, the controversial ‘Cemetery Services’ charging policy was not approved.
More information is to be brought back but the system did not have any backers.
Local SDLP Councillor Thomas O’Hanlon said people would almost need to make an appointment to die in order to avoid a financial penalty!
The Environmental Services Operations Manager (Craigavon) had told councillors there was currently no fee anywhere across the borough and explained that it had only been an issue in the Craigavon area.
SF Councillor Gemma McKenna said this was a very sensitive issue and that a decision to charge a bereaved family for being late to a burial could lead to very bad public relations for the council.
Ulster Unionist Councillor Glenn Barr said that the situation in Craigavon was “unacceptable”. He claimed the issue seemed to be with the undertakers and that they should be contacted.
UUP Alderman Arnold Hatch, who chairs the environmental services committee, said that, rather than imposing fees, a more educational approach should be taken.
The SDLP’s Councillor O’Hanlon expressed his frustration at the recommendation.
He said it would be unacceptable to tell a grieving family that they would have to pay a surcharge and suggested that officers meet with undertakers and clergymen in the area to discuss the issue.
He said he could not understand how almost £25,000 could be incurred due to funerals arriving late.
Independent Councillor David Jones said that he did not believe that the problem was with the undertakers being late as they were guided by the families and clergymen, and he felt that the timing was outside of their control.
He said that cemetery staff ought to know the cause of the issue.
DUP Councillor Margaret Tinsley asked what the unbudgeted cost of approximately £25,000 was spent on and – was it due to staff being paid at an overtime rate and were staff in three areas on the same kind of contract.
The officer confirmed the £25,000 related to labour over the five years at a yearly average of £974.5.
He said his understanding was that in all areas staff were on a contact requiring them to work Monday to Friday, with an early finish on a Friday, and received an overtime enhanced rate for working anytime outside of this, therefore the £25,000 did relate to overtime payments.
The council had been told that the council cemetery services fee structure no longer had any provision for missed or late arrivals. This occured infrequently in the Armagh and Banbridge areas, but over the last five years, in Craigavon, there was a yearly average of £974.50 committed to conducting interments that arrive late or extend into overtime.
Historically a large number of these burials would be booked for the last time slot available, but in reality they would not arrive on site for approximately one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours after the time booked.
This had led to a number of issues, retaining staff on site and additional unbudgeted labour costs.
To address these issues and maintain a burial service for residents, an out of hours/late arrival booking service was provided.
This provision incurred a surcharge of 25% of the interment charge for the booking that day.
This service, it was stated, allowed funeral directors to avail of a more flexible service to bereaved families and the surcharge provided for an element of cost recovery.
The council considered four options but did not approve any recommendation to go forward with a late arrival fee.
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