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Burial Law Reform

Volume 462: debated on Thursday 28 June 2007

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on an issue of huge importance to families in my constituency. The Minister will know, I am sure, that I am very concerned about the lack of burial provision and have raised the matter regularly with the Ministry of Justice and its predecessor, the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Only last week in this Chamber during Questions I highlighted the plight of many bereaved families with the former Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who indicated that under the provisions announced in her written statement earlier this month, councils have additional options available to them, and that there really is no excuse for not providing the burial services much needed by local people.

I understand that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) is answering the debate at short notice, but I must impress on him how important the matter is for my constituents. My purpose today is to remedy the dreadful situation that persists in my constituency because of the unwillingness of West Lancashire district council to provide sufficient cemetery plots, a crematorium and a remembrance garden so that all local residents can bury their loved ones locally if they so choose. That is not the case at present, as many bereaved families are forced to find burial spaces in neighbouring authorities.

The lack of burial facilities facing many West Lancashire families, especially those in Skelmersdale, is unjust, unfair and morally unacceptable. People are not being treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. The situation is compounded because it affects those most in need the worst. I am aware that inadequate provision of cemetery and crematorium space is not a West Lancashire-specific problem but that it affects many communities across the UK.

The scale of the problem was recognised in the eighth report of the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs in 2001. The results of a burial ground survey demonstrate that the problem of lack of burial space will only get worse unless steps are taken to resolve it. The survey found that approximately 80 per cent. of land available for burials is already occupied by graves, with only 20 per cent. unused. The Select Committee report states that as space in cemeteries runs out, it becomes more and more difficult to ensure that families have the widest possible choice of decent affordable options for the burial of their loved ones. I agree with the report that it is not good enough just to say to the bereaved, “Sorry, you’re going to have to bury your loved one 20 or more miles away because there’s no space left in your local churchyard.”

The report was the catalyst for work subsequently carried out by the Home Office, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and latterly the Ministry of Justice. The option of introducing a requirement for local authorities to make an assessment of local needs was set out in the recently published paper “Burial law and policy in the 21st century—the way forward”. Disappointingly, the document did not make it a duty for local authorities to provide cemeteries—a missed opportunity.

Today, West Lancashire district council has a population of about 108,000, of whom 75,000 live in my constituency; Skelmersdale alone accounts for more than 40,000 people. In the 1960s, people from Liverpool and the surrounding areas were asked to move to the new town of Skelmersdale and many did. The town’s churches and their existing graveyards were meant only to serve Skelmersdale before it was developed into a new town. The graveyards are now full. As one constituent told me, “You can live in Skelmersdale and you can work in Skelmersdale, but whatever you do don’t die in Skelmersdale.”

As long ago as 1997, it was estimated that Ormskirk and Aughton had cemetery capacity for only another 12 months. At that time only 30 new grave spaces were available in Skelmersdale. The problem increasingly affects all communities across my constituency, and it is getting worse by the day; information obtained from local clergy gives an idea of its scale. A Catholic priest recently informed me that in his parish more than 75 per cent. of local people were buried or cremated outside Skelmersdale. A local vicar told me that in his parish more than 90 per cent. of burials were outside West Lancashire.

I understand that local authorities do not have an obligation or a duty to provide burial places for their residents.

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the hon. Lady. She and I serve together on the all-party funerals and bereavement group where she has raised this issue, in which I declare an interest. Does she recognise that many farmers have responded to the demand for green burials by setting up green burial sites in the countryside where there is plenty of land? Does she think that local authorities in her part of the world should smile on applications from farmers for those alternative burial spaces?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Later in my remarks, he will hear that I have had discussions with local farmers and they are offering their land. The district council should accept the offer and move with it immediately.

Although local authorities do not have an obligation, I would strongly argue that it is morally indefensible for West Lancashire district council not to give people the means to bury their loved ones within a reasonable distance of their homes, rather than 20 or 30 miles away. The council has previously granted planning permission for a private company to provide a crematorium and identified an area in which to site a cemetery. However, there has been no action and no progress on that development. That is a really sad indictment of the council.

In trying to find a solution, and as a member of the all-party group on funerals and bereavement, I have had discussions with many people, including landowners and private companies. They are interested in providing the land for the development of a cemetery or a crematorium. There is a real opportunity to produce a solution in the coming months in West Lancashire, and it is imperative that the local authority act to resolve the problem now; it needs to resolve it now.

As I have said, I have worked closely on the issue with members of the local clergy across all the denominations and I have heard many heartbreaking stories. I have heard of cases of families not being able to bury their loved ones as they would wish, and of families who, to secure any burial plot at all, have had to go to Liverpool, St. Helens or Sefton. That places a significant financial and emotional burden on families at a very difficult time.

Some families face an even more horrendous situation because they cannot find, or indeed afford, a plot. One family were told that they could have a 10-year plot in an adjacent borough. For others, cremation is forced upon them against their religious beliefs—but even then there is nowhere suitable in West Lancashire to scatter the ashes. There are many instances of people keeping ashes at home or burying them in the back garden, and I have been shown urns containing ashes of members of the family in the sideboards of homes in Skelmersdale. That is dreadful and a sad reflection of the council’s attitude to the plight of its residents.

A burial plot, if it were available in West Lancashire, would cost a resident £440, but one in nearby Liverpool could cost £1,422. That is double what Liverpool residents pay, and £982 more than another West Lancashire resident who already had access to a grave would pay. Burying a person in Sefton would cost £1,002, which is an extra £562.

West Lancashire does not have its own crematorium either. The irony is that nearby Sefton has two sites, one of which is actually located within the boundaries of the West Lancashire area. However, only last year did Sefton revise its cremation fees policy so that residents in West Lancashire did not have to pay increased fees. For cremations, Liverpool charges £844 for a non-resident, which is twice the fee for its own residents, while St. Helens charges non-residents £352 to use its cremation facilities. And after that, there is still the problem of finding a suitable place to scatter the ashes. The Minister will be aware of the practice in most local authorities of non-residents paying a much higher price than local residents, to ensure that there is sufficient provision for the council’s tax-paying residents. The question therefore arises of what will happen if West Lancashire council does nothing and the cemeteries in the adjacent areas can no longer assist.

The costs that I have mentioned are only the beginning of the higher costs and the difficulties faced by my constituents. They pay increased costs to the undertakers for funeral services, because they cross local authority boundaries and there are increased distances and more time taken. There are also transport difficulties in West Lancashire, and there is no real community transport. If families do not have a car or want to use public transport to visit the distant resting place of their loved ones, they need to negotiate a public transport system that fails them. Often there are no buses to take people to cemeteries and crematoriums outside the area. That is a problem throughout my constituency and a major problem in Skelmersdale, the town with the lowest car ownership levels in the constituency and high levels of poverty and deprivation.

To get from Skelmersdale to St. Helens is a 15-mile journey that can take one and a half hours, because there is no rail service in Skelmersdale. My constituents are obliged to take a bus to Wigan, a train to St. Helens and then the No. 358 bus to the cemetery. That is a round trip of nearly three hours. Travelling from Burscough to Anfield in Liverpool involves another three-hour round trip that also requires three changes of transport: a bus from Burscough to Ormskirk, a train to Aintree, and then another bus to the cemetery. Surely nobody can believe that that is acceptable.

West Lancashire district council can and should make a decision now, especially as the most suitable land is ready and waiting and the providers are anxious to help. The council must provide a cemetery or refund the extra costs being borne by individuals and families in West Lancashire who have suffered a bereavement. Those local residents need to be repaid.

The Human Rights Act 1998 gives a right to life, but as a local Catholic priest said to me:

“It seems that even in death some are more equal than others in our society. Surely it is a basic human right that one’s passing be marked with appropriate dignity and respect and that those who grieve be supported and comforted in a caring and humane fashion.”

A local councillor told me that in West Lancashire it is easier to bury hazardous waste than a loved one. It is time for the council to step up to the plate and make a decision. It should provide a cemetery or meet the increased costs paid by local residents. Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000, which deals with the promotion of well-being, would allow those payments to be made.

The councillors who are involved in not taking a decision—the right decision—should examine their consciences. Members will not be surprised to know that there are those who believe that the memory of Dick Turpin is alive and well in West Lancashire district council, whose motto appears to be “Your money and your life.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) on securing this debate on an important matter for her. She has campaigned tirelessly on the issue of providing burial facilities in her constituency. At a local level, through the press and local campaigns, and elsewhere, including in the Chamber today, she has been encouraging the council to ensure that there are proper burial facilities for her constituents. She has run an exemplary campaign and I hope that it will bear fruit in due course.

My hon. Friend will be aware that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) had ministerial responsibility for the issue within the Ministry of Justice. As the House will know, my right hon. and learned Friend secured the deputy leadership of our party at the weekend and was appointed to the Cabinet this morning, so I am answering on behalf of the Department today, although until this morning I did not have ministerial responsibility for the area.

Burial arrangements and proper facilities for the dead continue to be matters of great importance and concern to the public. Not only my hon. Friend, but many other hon. Members continue to ask the Department to look at a range of issues, including progress on the review of law and practice.

For some 1,500 years, burial was the only permitted way in which to dispose of dead individuals and was the preserve of the Church. The place of burial was the churchyard and the protection for the dead was ecclesiastical law. The law had to change in the 19th century because of population growth and due to the fact that churchyards could not cope with demand. New cemeteries were constructed and increasingly became the responsibility of newly emerging local authorities. A framework for secular legislation was developed in the 1850s to regulate both burials and burial grounds. Those arrangements essentially remain in place today. The question that the Ministry of Justice must ask—my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire put this very clearly—is whether that legislation meets our current society’s requirements.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Environment Sub-Committee’s 2001 report, which addressed that very question. The report found that there were long-term problems with the maintenance and provision of burial space and that there was a need to examine antiquated burial legislation. Local councils have a lack of direction and priority, as is evidenced by West Lancashire district council’s lack of local facilities.

Following the Committee’s report, the Government set up an advisory group of burial professionals and others. We commissioned a research study on cemetery management and published and examined its findings. We also published practical guidance for burial ground managers and the results of a survey on burial grounds in England and Wales. As a result of that effort, we issued a consultation paper on a review of burial law and a summary of responses. Earlier this month, we published, under the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham, a response to the issues raised that accompanied a statement to the House on the way forward.

After careful consideration of the issues, the responses to the consultation paper, and subsequent discussions with burial professionals and others, my right hon. and learned Friend decided that there were a number of issues that we should take forward. Whoever, in these interesting times, is appointed to succeed her in the Ministry of Justice will be taking them forward on behalf of the Government.

The Government decided that there was a real problem in finding suitable land for new cemeteries, at least in some areas. That might be because of a lack of available land, or because the cost of land put it beyond the budgets of local councils. Burial professionals have argued over many years that old burial grounds should be reused as a way of making land available and sustainable—that is especially important in this new age—while keeping burial facilities in communities. The sensitivities of disturbing existing burial grounds are obvious. However, the Government have reached the conclusion that the balance now lies in favour of allowing old graves to be used again, subject to appropriate safeguards and sensitive handling. The policy will be about providing local authorities with a wide range of options that they will need to consider carefully and in detail before proceeding.

Our second proposal is to provide authorities with new guidance on the provision of new burial grounds and the maintenance to an appropriate standard of those that they already have. New cemeteries are now quite rare, so many authorities have no recent experience of the way in which to make a decision about the need for such facilities, or to consider the options that might be open to them. We will offer practical guidance to councils such as West Lancashire, and I hope that they will take that up. One such option, albeit a difficult one, will be the reuse of existing burial grounds.

The Environment Sub-Committee was concerned about the condition of many burial grounds. We certainly need to challenge the perception that full and disused burial grounds have no value and should not be maintained. They can provide an amenity resource for a community just as much as other green and open spaces. Authorities need to consider whether they are making the best use of the resources that are available to them. We thus aim to offer guidance on how cemeteries can be maintained affordably.

Several weeks ago, my right hon. and learned Friend outlined a third proposal. We should ensure that, when opportunities arise, we are ready to bring forward amendments to burial legislation so that we can modernise existing provisions and make them consistent with the 21st century, rather than the mid-Victorian age in which the legislation was drafted.

In the light of discussion and consultation, there are a number of matters that we do not propose to take forward. First, it may disappoint my hon. Friend, but we do not find a comprehensive burial Bill an attractive option. Burial law has grown and developed in a haphazard way over the years, but it is difficult to argue that such a Bill is a priority. There are anomalies and inconsistencies in existing legislation, and we certainly want to reflect on that, but a comprehensive burial Bill is an option for another occasion.

Secondly, we do not intend to take forward the proposal that my hon. Friend put to the House regarding the creation of new duties and a tighter regulatory framework, including an obligation on local councils and others to provide burial facilities and to ensure that burial grounds are run in a safe and responsible way. At present, no person or organisation is under any statutory duty to provide a burial ground. All local authorities below county-council level have the power to do so, and burial grounds can be provided by the Church of England, other Churches and faiths, and indeed by the private sector. On the whole, those discretionary arrangements are working relatively well.

Most district councils operate one or more cemeteries of their own, or are satisfied that the town or parish councils in their areas are doing so. I accept that my hon. Friend says that West Lancashire district council has not done so. She powerfully made the case that they have a moral obligation to try to provide that service in the community. I am not a West Lancashire district councillor, or the chief executive or leader of that council, but I hope that those people listen carefully to the points that my hon. Friend made, because she is speaking for her constituents, and she wants such facilities to be provided.

The question that next arises is what should happen if there are no local burial facilities. There is an argument for laying a duty on local councils to make provision if no one else does, but that has significant financial implications, and in some cases it could well be impractical for the simple reason that there is no suitable land available. The absence of local burial facilities does not imply that the only answer is for someone to provide them. As we have now decided, there is the option of reuse of old burial grounds; that could be a cost-effective solution when existing burial grounds are filling up. There is no reason to suppose that the private sector could not respond to demand if there was a commercial case for doing so. In West Lancashire’s case, given the higher fees that people pay in Liverpool, Sefton and neighbouring local authority areas, there could well be a commercial case, never mind the moral case that applies to local councils, for finding sites in the council area, and providing services that are on a par with those that neighbouring authorities provide at exorbitant rates. I understand why those neighbouring authorities charge those rates; their taxpayers are not in a position to subsidise the taxpayers of West Lancashire.

Although it may not always be convenient, recourse to neighbouring facilities is a solution in some cases. I hope that West Lancashire can discuss fees with neighbouring authorities, so that it can find out whether there is a possibility of working collaboratively with those authorities, and having shared facilities with neighbouring communities. Many authorities charge higher fees for non-residents, and we understand the reasons for that. However, it should be perfectly possible for local authorities to work collaboratively to provide shared facilities for neighbouring communities. Given the options available, we think it best that local councils and other potential providers be left to decide how to respond to any local shortage of provision, and how the costs of provision should be met, rather than have solutions dictated to them.

My hon. Friend has brought an important issue to the Chamber, but it is ultimately an issue for West Lancashire district council. I hope that it will consider the moral force of her argument seriously. I think that it is best if local councils are able to decide how to determine local need, the cost of provision and what solutions are appropriate to their areas. That is better than introducing a general duty that they may or may not be able to meet because of local circumstances outside the control of central and local government.

As for the case for more oversight of the running of cemeteries, we need to consider that, but I am not yet persuaded that additional arrangements are required. Robust procedures are in place for dealing with complaints about local authorities. As my hon. Friend will be acutely aware, West Lancashire district council remains accountable to its local electorate. Skelmersdale in my hon. Friend’s constituency does not have a history of supporting the party that runs West Lancashire district council, but there will be opportunities in due course for the electorate to speak, and I hope that the debate will create an atmosphere of discussion about who is best placed to help provide those facilities.

I hope that I have been able to cover the matters raised by my hon. Friend. In summary, she has made a very strong case, and represented her constituents well. The difficulty that we face in Government concerns the way in which we address the issue, which remains predominantly one for the local council. The debate will be read with interest in Skelmersdale, Ormskirk and the other parts of West Lancashire with which my hon. Friend’s constituents and I are familiar. Ultimately, decisions must be made, because it is not tenable for individuals in West Lancashire to bury their relatives in neighbouring authorities at a higher cost than those authorities charge people who live within their boundaries. I wish my hon. Friend well in her campaign, and I hope that today’s debate has helped her to highlight an important problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Six o’clock.