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Graveyards (Health and Safety)

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2008

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

I wish to declare a triple interest. First, my constituency Labour party receives finance from the Unite union, which organises vicars who are specifically affected by the issue that I am raising tonight. Secondly, my constituency Labour party receives money from the public sector union Unison, and I will be proposing to the Minister that work in respect of health and safety in graveyards should not be contracted out to the private sector, but brought into the public sector and thus given to Unison members. Thirdly, I am the only qualified and competent topple- tester in Parliament today, so I have a vested—some might argue pecuniary—interest in health and safety in graveyards.

I became a qualified topple-tester courtesy of the National Association of Memorial Masons, following intensive training at the Royal Brompton cemetery in Chelsea, precisely in order to ascertain the health and safety issues relating to graveyards across the country. Numerous constituents have come to me complaining about the practices of Bassetlaw district council.

Having carried out a little research on the internet, I saw instantly that the problem was not confined to the constituency and district of Bassetlaw, but constituted a scandal with major consequences throughout the country. In February 2007 a programme of inspections was carried out by the private contractor on behalf of the council, and 1,848 headstones in two cemeteries were deemed unsafe. I made inquiries about the company that had carried out the inspections, Independent Memorial Inspection. I could not find any details about the company as it was not registered at Companies House, but I found two statements on its website. The first was:

“Within the last five years there have been three deaths directly caused by falling memorials and numerous injuries. Surveys have shown that as many as one in ten monuments are dangerous”.

The second referred to today’s “climate of litigation”.

I began to realise what was going on. According to IMI’s website, 15 to 25 per cent. of Victorian memorials and 40 to 70 per cent. of lawn memorials are liable to be unsafe. As the vast majority of memorials in local authority cemeteries are lawn memorials—that is certainly the case in the Bassetlaw district—for 40 to 70 per cent. to be unsafe would be a major issue. I investigated further: I did my topple-testing, examined the science involved and received training at Brompton cemetery, an historic Victorian cemetery. I concluded that the idea that large numbers of memorials were unsafe was entirely fallacious. I know that that is true, because I have tested them. I have been to see memorial after memorial that has been deemed unsafe, but is in fact safe. What we are seeing is an over-zealous interpretation not of legislation, but of perceived guidance that does not actually exist.

Bassetlaw district council wrote to me stating that it was following Health and Safety Executive guidelines that had been sent to it. I challenged Ministers to produce the guidelines, and found that the letters in question did not exist. I shall quote from the guidance that has been issued, but I concluded that 95 per cent. of headstones in the Bassetlaw cemeteries were safe.

This is how topple-testing works. A pressure of 35 kg must be exerted on a headstone. If the headstone topples over, it is obviously unsafe. If I leant against a memorial, exerting 35 kg of pressure—slightly less than half my body weight, but half the average body weight—and it toppled over, there would clearly be a potential danger for the gravedigger and for others in the cemetery. I found that the headstones rarely toppled over. They wobbled occasionally, but the test is not to establish whether there is any movement, but to establish whether the headstones topple over. If there is the slightest suspicion of movement a headstone is deemed unsafe, and if it is deemed unsafe it is staked. So my constituents who visit their loved ones, perhaps at Christmas, may experience the indignity, embarrassment and humiliation of a staked headstone. The stakes are pile-driven into the ground—to hold the allegedly unsafe headstones that are not unsafe at all—to stop them toppling over. However, they should have toppled over in the first place if the topple test had been carried out properly; they should have been laid flat and dealt with.

The stakes themselves are a hazard, in two ways. First, they are a trip hazard. Obviously, putting hundreds or thousands of stakes at an angle in an area through which the public walk creates a trip hazard. Secondly, more dangerously, the stakes have to be above the height of the memorial stone. If one falls on to a memorial stone, one could do oneself some serious damage. But if one falls onto a much narrower stake, one is likely to lose an eye. Slipping and falling there is a bigger risk; in other words, staking increases the hazard and does not reduce it.

What is going on in our graveyards? There is IMI’s myth of three deaths, but Peterborough council’s website says that there have been six deaths. Where did these deaths happen? I have asked Ministers many questions. I have asked how many complaints there have been about unsafe gravestones in the past 20 years. The Church Commissioners say that there have not been any. But we are talking about Victorian headstones of huge weight, which would be dangerous if they fell on someone. There have been no complaints to the Church Commissioners, who therefore do not fear the insurers chasing them.

Has my hon. Friend topple-tested anywhere else other than his own constituency? Does he think that the lack of danger to which he is alluding applies outside his constituency?

I have not had the opportunity to topple-test outside my constituency, although perhaps that interest could be pursued. This is a scandal across the country, not simply in Bassetlaw. I would estimate that between 500,000 and 1 million headstones in Britain have been wrongly staked by over-zealous burial authorities. They usually contract out to people such as IMI, who are staking not by the dozen, but by the hundred or the thousand. It is technically wrong, but they are making good money and doubtless charging by the headstone stake, as well as for the materials and time.

The local authority is then telling my constituents that they have to fix the headstone that is not unsafe in the first place at their expense because they are the owners. The decent people of Bassetlaw—for example, the widows in their 90s who have been to see me—feel obliged to pay because that is what they do. They are respecting their late husband or their family plot. I know of cases where people have paid over £1,000 for headstones that were not unsafe. This is a major national scandal and I hope that the Minister will consider two things.

First, does he agree, as officials have, that the staking of headstones should not be allowed because it creates a greater hazard than leaving them untouched? If this were not happening in graveyards, it would be like a comedy show. This should not be permitted, as it is against good risk assessment in health and safety. Also—I am assured this will be happening before the summer—guidelines on proper risk assessment must be issued to burial authorities, because there are risks that private contractors are not assessing, such as those involving iron railings. Near my constituency, in the past two years two youths have impaled themselves on iron railings, one fatally. The risks associated with poor car parking also need to be addressed, and the state of the pavements in graveyards needs to be risk assessed, too.

Irony or ironies, in the Worksop cemetery slates on the roof of the building are liable to fall off. That is a far greater and more obvious risk that needs to be assessed and addressed than the perfectly safe headstones. I found caskets 3 or 4 in high with yellow stickers on them saying they are unsafe. I have also found headstones 6 or 12 in high that are deemed to be a risk to the community. That is entirely outwith the terms of the guidance that is repeatedly given by Ministers and the HSE, which states categorically—I ask the Minister to confirm this—that there should be not over-zealous health and safety, but a rational assessment of risks.

If a burial authority is inspecting, it also ought to tell the individual concerned so that they are able to be present if they wish—Bassetlaw has, of course, failed to do that. That would mean that we would not have to go through the ridiculous number of court cases that arise, such as those I am bringing now and will have to bring in future, in which people have not been able to witness the risk assessment taking place, or the headstone has been wrongly staked, or they have, mistakenly instructed by the council, paid out of their own money to fix things. In my book, the council is liable in such cases for repairing the damage and sorting out the issue on their behalf.

The guidance issued by the HSE and Government Departments states precisely that there should be balance in health and safety. The guidance says, “Take reasonable efforts, but, as with every other aspect of public safety, don’t go overboard, because we want to ensure that there is a rational assessment of risk.” The National Association of Memorial Masons training achieves that. I have done the training. It gives a rational assessment of risk and an understanding of weaknesses in structures—of what is likely to fall and what is not, of what is safe and what is not safe.

I therefore propose that the best thing councils such as Bassetlaw can do is bring this matter entirely in-house and train the council gravediggers, who are more at risk than anybody in terms of health and safety and whose families are likely to be buried in the same graveyards. They will make a rational assessment of risk, and people in my constituency and others will then be able to go about mourning and paying their respects in the proper way.

Let us get these stakes removed, and let us do so this year. That would be good news for the whole country.

Traditionally, the Adjournment debate is the graveyard slot in the House of Commons day, so I am glad my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has been able to make a lively contribution to it. I congratulate him on securing the debate, as this is a serious issue. I know that the topic causes a great deal of local concern and anger.

It is undeniable that cemeteries can hide safety hazards—uneven kerbstones, trees, and the risks associated with unstable memorials. Since 2000, 21 serious incidents caused by falling gravestones and memorials have been reported to the Health and Safety Executive, including three fatalities, two involving young children. Indeed, since 1978, there have been eight fatalities, but I shall refer to the three of them that have occurred since 2000.

In 2000 in Harrogate, a 100-year-old sandstone headstone fell on to a boy aged six. It was balancing on a plinth 300 mm wide, and had been slumped at an angle for many years. In Burnley in 2003, a young boy aged nine died when he and a number of boys were collecting conkers in a cemetery and he was crushed by a falling double-sized headstone weighing more than a quarter of a tonne. In Salford in 2003, a young man aged 19 was crushed by a 1,300 mm high, 1.5 tonne headstone, described at the inquest as “huge”.

These incidents are undeniably serious, but they need to be balanced against the number of memorials across the country and the number of people who visit a cemetery each year. That shows that in reality, the risk of suffering serious injury or worse is very low indeed. So it is undeniable that there is a risk, but we must get into proportion and balance the nature of that risk. There are risks in doing many things in life and some are potentially serious, but we need to be proportionate in how we respond to them. We need to ensure that burial ground operators can make simple, sensible assessments of the risk and take proportionate steps to control it.

Let me say emphatically—I hope that local councillors in particular will hear this—that in the past, over-zealous precautions have been taken to control what is in reality a low risk. Unnecessary distress has been caused to bereaved families, and a more proportionate view of health and safety is necessary. There must be an end to “topple-testing vandalism” by over-zealous operators and some local council officials. It must stop.

Operators have a duty under health and safety legislation to take simple measures to ensure that this risk is appropriately managed. However, in recent years the Health and Safety Commission and the Ministry of Justice, among others, have taken steps to remind burial authorities of the need to manage risks in a proportionate way. As my hon. Friend is aware, in 2004, the then chair of the HSC, Sir Bill Callaghan, wrote to all local authority chief executives asking them to take a personal interest in this matter. Early last year, that exercise was repeated. I am pleased to report that since those interventions, there does seem to have been some improvement in the situation. For example, more operators have a better understanding of the need to take a more balanced and sensitive approach. In some cases, risk management is now carried out more sensitively, pragmatically and sensibly.

However, as my hon. Friend has said, there are still examples of an inflexible or insensitive approach being taken. In some cases, little or no attempt is being made to contact the bereaved before topple-testing or staking causes problems for a memorial. In others, a narrow reading of the guidance has led to over-precautionary measures, such as the laying down of very small memorials that are unlikely to hurt anyone. A few years ago in Atherstone, in my own constituency, relatives came to visit graves and found a whole series of memorials toppled. It was distressing and wrong, so I can well understand the anguish that people in Bassetlaw and in many other parts of the country have felt, particularly bereaved relatives and those who have been visiting their loved one’s memorial for many years, tending and looking after it, only to find that it has been staked or laid down because it has been deemed unsafe, without proper consultation, prior explanation or the opportunity for them to take action that might have dealt more appropriately with any concerns.

The vast majority of memorials are not in imminent danger of collapse, and a few simple tests can be used to check their safety. Often, a simple visual inspection, which requires minimal training and takes little time, will suffice. Frequent checks can offer an early warning and identify potentially unstable memorials. If the burial ground manager still has a concern, a simple hand-push of the memorial will indicate whether it is wobbly or there is a likelihood of toppling.

Those simple and unobtrusive tests enable the risk of toppling to be easily evaluated without causing unnecessary damage to memorials. If there is a potential problem, the relatives can be told about it and given a chance to put it right. One other test can be, and is, used to assess the risk—the topple test, which my hon. Friend mentioned. I shall deal with the problem of staking at more length.

The topple test should be a test of last resort. It was originally identified to enable monument masons to have a test that would enable them to know that a monument is firmly in the ground. It was not originally intended to apply to older memorials that have been in place for a long time. I know that my hon. Friend has recently become a qualified topple-tester; he is an example to all of us of a lifelong learner. In a debate on this matter back in 2005, he put on the record what the topple test involves, so I do not need to repeat that. What I can say is that the test can play a role, but that it should be used only when it is clear that it is needed and with due warning to relatives, if they are able to be contacted.

It is not necessary to have armies of testers walking around graveyards with a strain gauge checking all memorials at will—that is over-zealous nonsense. Memorials must not be toppled unnecessarily; they should be staked only when it is necessary to do so. The excess of zeal from some operators who seem to want to justify their fee must end. Many small gravestones should not need a topple test, and it is certainly very unlikely that they would need to be staked. I am told that there are cases where perfectly stable older memorials have been irreparably weakened by a topple test. When stakes are driven in by power hammers, that in itself can, as my hon. Friend says, cause the memorial to become dangerous.

If a memorial is assessed as being in imminent danger of collapse, action should of course be taken to minimise that risk. That should be done sensitively, with due regard for the owners, and for the relatives of the deceased. Laying a headstone flat is understandably highly distressing to relatives and to the local community, particularly when it is poorly carried out. In many cases, more desirable, remedial actions can be taken; some councils have devised better stabilisation devices that blend in with the cemetery and do not cause the sort of hazards that my hon. Friend has identified. Where the memorial is of historical importance, the authority may well direct its staff to take appropriate corrective action, and in some cases, it may be possible for local monument masons or council workers to address weak foundations.

In each case, it is better that the owner, in the sense of the bereaved family, should be consulted, where possible, before any action is taken. Sometimes they cannot be contacted and the council will then have to take a view on the safety issue, but that is what officials are employed to do; they are employed to make sensible decisions. I recognise that that requires a judgment to be made, especially in respect of older graves. Council officials sometimes think that they would rather rely on an outside body to make the decision for them, but it is their responsibility to make decisions, to take a view and to get appropriate advice.

A reasonable first step might be to contact the stonemason business that erected the memorial, if it is still in existence, or to seek the advice of another local mason. They may be best placed to stabilise the memorial, for example by repairing weak foundations, or to take temporary steps to stabilise it. That can give time to alert owners to the problem, what further action the authority wants to be taken and the time scale for taking it. If there is an imminent danger, of course action needs to be promptly taken. In other words, judgments have to be made.

A number of guidelines are available to help assess and mitigate risks, but because the bodies involved are so diverse—they range from municipal authorities and local councils to the Church of England, representatives of memorial masons, cemetery managers and various private companies that have guidelines—there is no single source of guidance. That is why the Health and Safety Executive has been tasked to work with those bodies to re-examine producing common guidance. I can assure my hon. Friend that any common guidance produced will be goal-setting, not prescriptive, and will encourage those best placed to understand fully and own the risks, to manage them effectively and to do so with a degree of sensitivity and, most importantly, with some common sense. It will aim to encourage the spread of good practice across the various organisations involved. I want to challenge a sometimes lazy, risk-averse culture that invokes inappropriate product-led solutions to complex problems that need addressing with greater care and sensitivity.

Does the Minister regard it as good practice for a local burial authority to have thousands of staked headstones? Should not such an authority move with the utmost swiftness to rectify that situation so that it does not continue for month after month, even year after year?

I have just said that I want local authorities to make sensible judgments about health and safety issues, and they will have to make sensible judgments about whether it is appropriate to remove stakes. In certain cases, it may well be, but as I also said, driving in the stakes can cause problems and make memorials unsafe. In such cases, the authorities will have to consider whether it is then appropriate to remove the stakes. The local authority involved will have to make a judgment, and it may well have to be on a grave-by-grave basis.

Staking on a routine basis is not recommended by the Health and Safety Executive. In fact, it should not be done like that. A key problem is that sometimes staking is done shoddily, in a way that damages the memorial. Power-driven stakes can create unsafe situations, so the HSE is now consulting on health and safety in graveyards and will say that staking should not be done routinely. Appropriate use of staking may be the right approach, but it should be done only where there is a perceived imminent risk and, where possible, after an attempt has been made to contact relatives. If they can be contacted, they may be able to carry out their own inspection and take the appropriate steps to deal with any concern about safety. We must remember that the graves are usually owned by the families, and it is their responsibility to ensure that they are safe. The local authority or church has some responsibility if it is their graveyard, so they also have to take appropriate action.

I do not want to see one more child—or adult, for that matter—die in a cemetery accident. Nor do I want to see bereaved relatives weeping over graves vandalised by unnecessary topple-testing or inappropriate staking. This debate has highlighted some important concerns. A cemetery is an important place and a person’s final resting place must never be treated with bureaucratic contempt. On occasion, over-zealousness has resulted in contempt being shown.

Most authorities and churches up and down the country operate procedures that manage the small hazards posed by memorials. They employ common sense in ensuring that risks are minimised—

The motion having been made after Ten o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eight minutes past Eleven o’clock.