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Crematoria (Rating)

Volume 524: debated on Friday 26 February 1954

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn." — [ Mr. Kaberry.]

4.7 p.m.

I wish to turn the attention of the House from its discussion on industrial accidents to a subject which is even more serious and of at least equal importance. On 8th December, 1953, I put a Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer asking him to publish in the OFFICIAL REPORT a list showing the present and the proposed valuations for rating of all crematoria in England and Wales. My right hon. Friend was good enough to give an answer which appeared in column 202 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for that day.

The valuations where new proposals have been made show considerable changes from existing valuations. I wish to draw the attention of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to some of the implications which follow from the proposed changes.

First, I should say a few words about the importance which cremation now has in our national life—if that is the right setting in which to put it. There has been a considerable growth in the use or practice—again, I am in some difficulty about the right word to use—of cremation. In 1953, there were 116,728 cremations in 68 crematoria in Great Britain. That represents no fewer than 20·75 per cent. of all the disposals that took place of people who died in that year. In 1943, the proportion of those dying who were subsequently cremated was only 7 per cent. Thus, during that period of 10 years there has been a very considerable growth in the percentage of those for whom cremation, as distinct from earth burial, is chosen.

This happens in a country where there are only 68 crematoria, a very limited provision of such facilities. Those who are concerned with the problem estimate that if facilities for cremation were available conveniently for all parts of our great community, a much higher percentage of disposals of the dead would be carried out by cremation instead of earth burial. It has been said that the figure might rise to as high as 50 per cent., and I believe that that is a very probable optimum within the foreseeable future.

Cremation is held to be convenient, hygienic and economic. Those of us who are interested in the matter know that there are occasional complaints about the coldness of the ceremony, the discordance of the canned music, and so on, but I am sure that those matters can easily be remedied and that we can visualise, in due course, no fewer than 50 per cent, of the disposals of the dead being carried out by cremation. It is a subject of that comparative importance to which I wish to direct the attention of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

These cremations are carried out in crematoria some of which are owned by local authorities and some by privately operated companies. I want to speak, in the main, in the limited time at my disposal and within the limited range that I can cover in an Adjournment debate, about crematoria which are owned by local authorities and operated by them alongside the operations which are carried out in burial grounds owned by the same local authorities.

As often as not, the crematorium is part of the cemetery itself. Its function is ancillary to the function of the burial of the dead, and the population of the area exercise, quite rightly, a perfectly free and uninhibited choice of method of disposal of the dead as between cremation and earth burial. The accounts of a local authority operating the two functions are almost invariably considered together.

It is common experience among all local authorities who operate the two services that earth burial results in a considerable loss to the authority, whereas cremation not infrequently results— again, I choose the term with some hesitancy—in a modest monetary profit to the authority. I shall confine myself solely to the financial aspect, and will not waste the time of the House by talking about the waste of land and the unsightly appearance of many of our earth burial grounds.

My own City of Liverpool operates a crematorium and a number of cemeteries and burial grounds. The average deficit per earth burial experienced by the Liverpool City Council is no less than £6 17s. 3d. in an ordinary working year, whereas the average surplus in respect of each cremation carried out by the authority is £1 14s. 5d. The experience of other local authorities is similar.

Now to my subject for this debate. Mention the word "surplus" in connection with a cremation or anything else and in leaps the Inland Revenue with an enthusiasm and zeal that excites our admiration and, occasionally, our other passions. Most of the crematoria are set up by local authorities on ground which was acquired by them for the burial and disposal of the dead, mainly under the Burial Act of 1855. I wish to draw the attention of my hon. Friend to Section 15 of that Act, which reads as follows:
"No Land already or to be hereafter purchased or acquired, under the Provisions of any of the Acts herein-before recited, for the Purpose of a Burial Ground (with or without any Building erected or to be erected thereon), shall while used for such Purposes be assessed to any County Parochial, or other local Rates at a higher Value or more improved Rent than the Value or Rent at which the same was assessed at the Time of such Purchase or Acquisition."
That relates to earth burial. I further refer my hon. Friend to the 1902 Cremation Act, Section 4 of which reads as follows:
"The powers of a burial authority to provide and maintain burial grounds or cemeteries, or anything essential, ancillary, or incidental there to, shall be deemed to extend to and include the provision and maintenance of crematoria.…"
If it is right that the burial operations of a local authority exclude them from further and increased assessment for local rates, and if it is right that the Cremation Act of 1902 extended that saving to crematoria, it seems to me that the new assessments about which local authorities have been notified, ranging from small figures under the protection of the 1855 Act to fantastic figures under the greed and avarice of the Inland Revenue, are a breach of the present legal position.

If I quote again the experience of the Liverpool authority it is with a proper modesty, but I cannot help feeling that my own local authority is one of the most important in the country. Our crematorium was previously rated at £23 under the safeguard of the 1855 Act. The new assessment is no less than £1,755 and similar increases, some of them even greater, have been notified in various parts of the country. This is bad in itself and bad in law, but I am content to have that legal position tested in the courts in due course, and I have no wish to say anything, or to invite my hon. Friend to say anything, that might prejudice or tend to prejudge a legal action that may or may not be initiated later on. Here is the point to which I wish to direct the attention of the House.

The Government are at present trying to solve the whole of our rating muddle. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government said in the House:
"The Government recognise that the rating system is in a muddle, and they would like to put it right at the earliest possible moment; but they would like to do it as fairly and uniformly as possible. The Government consider it would be wrong to do it in a piecemeal fashion."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th November. 1952; Vol. 508, c. 945.]

The hon. Member is now treading on dangerous ground, because, obviously, the remodelling of the system would involve legislation.

I have no wish to trespass against the rules of order and I bow, as I must do, completely to your Ruling, Sir. I was hopeful that I might manage, without transgressing the rules of order, to lead the Financial Secretary into supporting what the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government said about not tackling this question in a piecemeal fashion.

The new assessment notices which have been served on local authorities in relation to crematoria are doing precisely what the Parliamentary Secretary said would not be done, ending the rating muddle of the country in a piecemeal fashion. If we do that in relation to crematoria, it seems to be wrong in law and contrary to the declared policy of the Government as well as to the public policy of the nation. It is desirable that we should go to considerable lengths to encourage rather than discourage cremation as a choice against earth burial, on almost every ground — economy of land, financial economy, hygiene and convenience.

In view of the fact that these increased assessments will result in higher operating costs, higher Income Tax charges and higher charges to the public, are we not doing an injury to a desirable cause, instead of doing the best we can to make this preferable alternative more widely accepted? I hope that my hon. Friend will be good enough to look at the arguments which I have put before the House and to give us guidance about the policy of Her Majesty's Government in this matter.

4.23 p.m.

I want to add my voice to the very fair plea which has been put by the hon. Member for Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Very special consideration should be given to the case of local authorities who own crematoria. One case has already been put very strongly, that of Camberwell which, under a new assessment, was to pay an enormous sum of money in comparison with its original estimate. As I was born in Camberwell I suppose that I have a very special interest there.

It may be so, in good time. I am expecting to be cremated, and if it be decided that Camberwell shall be the place, well and good; let it be at Camberwell.

The original estimate on the crematorium at Camberwell was £50 gross and £47 rateable. It went up to the colossal figure of £3,525 gross and £2,350 rateable. When Camberwell challenged the assessment, the valuation officer, I am pleased to say, rather than that the case should go to court, decided to withdraw the assessment, so the question is in abeyance for the moment. This does not apply to other local authorities, who are now having to pay considerably increased amounts. It is affecting their finances.

I support the claim made by the hon. Member for Walton that the activities of a local authority, as far as the disposal of the dead is concerned, should be considered as a whole. This matter usually comes under one committee of the council and its finances are reported to the council as a whole. If it can make a surplus of one side, so much the better for the side which makes a loss.

It has been computed that if this assessment is to continue at the rate proposed, at least £1 will be added to the cost of every cremation. The Secretary of State for the Home Department has already decided, with the doctors, that a charge of £2 shall be made for certification in the case of cremation. If a further £1 were to be charged on account of this reassessment it would make cremation a very expensive thing, and would, in my view, act as a deterrent.

If we take the long view of this matter, it is in the country's interest that as many people as possible who wish to be cremated should be cremated. That is not the position today. Already, there are 200 local authorities which have schemes for the erection of crematoria, but because there has been a ban on building only very few crematoria are built each year. I have every reason to believe that if the 200 were completed, the figure of 50 per cent, cremations would be very easily reached. Indeed, in one city where the facilities are adequate, that figure has already been reached.

There are many reasons which could be advanced for the reconsideration of this question, but I do not want to stand in the way of the Financial Secretary in making his reply to the first-class case put forward by the hon. Member for Walton.

4.28 p.m.

As I think hon. Members will appreciate, it is certainly not for me on this occasion to say anything at all of a general nature on the merits or demerits of cremation. As I understand it, we are concerned here only with the administration of the existing law by valuation and assessment by the Board of Inland Revenue. I am not sure, off the cuff, which of my right hon. Friends is administratively generally responsible for cremation. I am perfectly certain that I am not. My hon. Friend the Member for Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) gave me notice of this very properly on the basis of the valuation work at present being undertaken by the Board of Inland Revenue for whom, under my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I am responsible to this House.

I must say at the outset that I cannot, of course, say anything on the general merits of the matter, and I am sure that both hon. Members who have spoken will appreciate that. I might add, however, if only to establish my complete impartiality on the matter, that the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, which I represent in this House, has a very fine modern crematorium, and I hope that I shall not be misunderstood if I invite my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Reeves) to visit that crematorium, but only, I assure them, for a very brief spell.

I cannot equally on this occasion argue whether the existing valuation law, which is the responsibility of the Board of Inland Revenue, should be amended. That quite clearly, as I understand, would be out of order on the Adjournment. My answer therefore must, as I understand it, be confirmed to the narrow compass of the administration of the existing law.

I was sorry that my hon. Friend—even though I am sure it was done quite light-heartedly—referred to the greed and avarice of the Inland Revenue. That would not be a really fair or appropriate comment in any context upon a devoted body of public servants whose duty it is to administer the law. It would be particularly inappropriate to make criticisms in this context, since the work of valuation which has been undertaken by the Board of Inland Revenue is of far more interest to the local authorities, who will receive the rates.

It is really a little hard that this organ of the central government, undertaking this extremely difficult duty of a general valuation on which rates shall be levied by and on behalf of local authorities should be charged with greed and avarice if its view of the relevant law unfortunately differs from that which my hon. Friend may hold.

There is no doubt at all that a burial ground, if the land on which it is situated was acquired under the Burial Acts and not under other Acts, is subject to the benefits of the provision of the Act of 1855 which my hon. Friend has already quoted. But he then built up the interesting argument that section 4 of the Cremation Act, 1902, applied the benefits of that provision to a crematorium.

Even putting his argument at its highest, it is abundantly clear that that could not apply if the crematorium was built on land acquired other than under the Burial Acts. It is not quite so obvious or easy a question as my hon. Friend seems to assume that even where a crematorium is built on land acquired under the Burial Acts it should be deemed in law to be entitled to the benefits of the 1855 provision.

My hon. Friend rather slurred over what is not quite so simple a question. As I understand it, the extension in the Cremation Act, 1902, relates to the powers of the burial authority. It is a matter of opinion, but I would not like to be thought to be accepting the proposition that, for that reason it must be construed as carrying with it also the exemption with respect to burial grounds conferred by the Burial Acts.

As you, Mr. Speaker, know better than any of us, it is certainly not for Ministers speaking from this Box to lay down the law in that sense. There are other organs of our society on whom that function falls. I understand that this particular issue is in fact likely in the near future to come before certain local valuation courts. From those, as the House knows, either party, if it dissents, can appeal to the Lands Tribunal, and from there to the Court of Appeal. It thus seems probable that this issue of law will be resolved, not by anything I or my hon. Friend say here but by the ordinary tribunals which are set up to interpret the law.

It is therefore perhaps particularly important that I should not appear to take a dogmatic view of the law, one way or the other. All I have been concerned to do is to say that here is a point of law for consideration and decision. In my view it is right, in those circumstances that the Board of Inland Revenue should, if there be a dispute on that question of law, take the necessary steps to have it resolved in the normal, appropriate way by which points of law are, and can be, resolved in this country.

My hon. Friend would no doubt have a strong point were he able to contend that there really was not any dispute, but I do not think that anyone who has looked at the two sections and considered the matter can take such an extreme line. Were I so minded I could put to the House, I believe a not inconsiderable argument contrary to that favoured by my hon. Friend. I refrain from doing so, because I do not think it is appropriate from this Box to try and argue matters of law when, as in this case, something can be done about it by the appropriate tribunals. All I am concerned to deal with is the administration by the Board of Inland Revenue.

One point remains. My hon. Friend was good enough to refer to certain observations which were made a few months ago by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. My hon. Friend sought to build on those observations the rather curious thesis that until valuation of all the properties in this country had been completed, no errors of law in the valuation lists were to be remedied. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said nothing of the sort. He was dealing with an Amendment moved from the benches opposite— I think, speaking from recollection, by the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton)—relating to a complete category of property, to wit, dwelling-houses, and suggested a certain alteration in timing of the operation of new valuation lists with respect to that category.

It was in that context that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary indicated the view of the Government, that the rating problem, which, in his own vivid way, he described as being in a muddle, should be resolved in manners other than piecemeal. But my hon. Friend neither said, nor could he have said, that he intended to mean that where those responsible for valuation say what they believed to be an error of law in the lists they were to ignore that error. That would certainly not be discharging the duty laid on all administrative bodies by this House.

It is certainly the duty and practice of the Inland Revenue, and I am sure of all other bodies so responsible, to carry out the law laid down by this House as they understand it, and if their understanding of that law differs from that of other people concerned, then that difference can be resolved in the appropriate courts and tribunals. It is simply the application of that normal principle of administration which is at issue in this case, and it really is not relevant to consider whether or not this has an encouraging or discouraging effect upon the practice of cremation.

I thought the hon. Member for Greenwich was almost accusing us, not as his hon. Friends normally do, of raising the cost of living, but of raising the cost of dying. However that may be, that is really not in issue here, and it cannot be in issue because the statutes under which we believe this state of affairs comes about are statutes which we cannot discuss on the Adjournment.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-two Minutes to Five o'Clock.