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Graveyards and Burial Grounds

Volume 482: debated on Wednesday 5 November 2008

Good afternoon Mr. Cook. I shall start by quoting from “SAIFinsight”, the voice of independent funeral planners. Page 20 of today’s issue contains advice about how to give a good eulogy. My speech should be seen as a eulogy to the Minister, whose appropriate and detailed response will, I am confident, transform the situation regarding health and safety in burial grounds and graveyards across the country. I hope that she will do that to a time scale. Page 21 of the magazine notes its new publication, “A Not So Jolly Christmas”, and gives advice on how to cope with bereavement at Christmas. That provides an appropriate time scale for action—which I am sure the Minister has considered—in which to reach local authorities and other burial authorities. Hopefully, when families make a Christmas visit to the grave of their loved ones, they will not be confronted with the indignity that huge numbers of my constituents have faced in recent years.

I said huge numbers. There are 859 families in my constituency who have contacted me because their loved one’s grave has been staked by an over-zealous burial authority. Those 859 families are in one constituency. I have researched the subject and have discussed it at length on a number of occasions with the kind assistance of the Minister, her advisers, officials and the Health and Safety Executive. I have also taken the precaution of finding out about health and safety myself. I am the only trained topple-tester of memorials in Parliament and one of only a few in the country. Therefore, I can categorically say that of those 859 staked graves, the vast majority—upwards of 90 per cent. if not 95 per cent.—are not unsafe at all but are perfectly safe. Those that I have tested would demonstrate that.

What is going wrong? It is not the Health and Safety Executive. In 2007, a written answer stated:

“In 2004, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission wrote to all local authorities setting out the need for a pragmatic approach to this very sensitive issue.”—[Official Report, 20 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 610W.]

The problem is that some local authorities and others have not been listening. Instead of thinking pragmatically and understanding health and safety and the concept of risk assessment, local authorities have brought in private contractors and paid them a sort of piece rate, creating a perverse incentive for the contractor to stake or lay down the gravestones, deeming them to be unsafe whether they are or not.

A fascinating comparator is the Church of England. That has as many burial grounds as local authorities but it gives responsibility for them to church wardens. Those people are volunteers—unpaid but highly professional. They are people about whom the words “common sense” and “appropriateness” immediately spring to mind in all their dealings and voluntary work. In my constituency and across the country, church wardens assess the risk of burial grounds by using common sense. Therefore, when I asked the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon.Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) a question in Parliament on 5 June 2007, he was able to say that there have been no complaints about the policy and approach of the Church of England for the last 20 years. None. That compares with 859 complaints in my constituency alone.

Church insurers say that the number of insurance claims they receive from the whole country—on any issue, not only successful claims—averages fewer than two per year. There is a small issue to address about health and safety, as there is throughout society, but it is not a big issue. As I researched the issue, I was amazed. I thought that only Bassetlaw council had decided, in its infinite madness, to stake all the gravestones. In fact, I found that it is happening all over the country—in Staffordshire, Sussex, from Herne bay to Whitley bay, Stoke, south London, Plymouth and in Blackburn with Darwen borough council. They once said that there were 4,000 holes in Blackburn—now it is more like 4,000 stakes.

(Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this issue—he has done us all a great service. He is right. Darwen council, which covers part of my constituency, has not displayed common sense. One of my constituents told me that

“it came as a complete shock to find my late husband’s memorial labelled unsafe and banded.”

That was in September 2007. Darwen council has now learned its lesson. It tells me that when it topple-tests further graves, it will use in-house people whom it has trained, and it will pay the costs of reinstatement. I thank my hon. Friend for forcing Blackburn and Darwen council to do that.

I salute the wise burghers of Blackburn. I hope that my own council will take note of their prompt and wise action and will repeat it immediately following the debate. Let me quote from one of the people who go around staking the gravestones in my area, Mr. Jack Sills:

“The industry test is designed to protect the public from headstones falling over. We have a duty of care to protect those visiting gravestones. There have been cases of people dying when gravestones have fallen on them.”

That is what is going on; the private contractor who profits from the staking is overstating the case. Of course there have been occasional deaths, but there were none between 2004 and 2008 since I started campaigning on this issue.

It gets worse. A statement from the Crewkerne and west Crewkerne joint burial committee reads:

“When people visit and tend graves, they kneel down and normally pull themselves up by the headstone, elderly people in particular…Each time this causes the headstone to tilt over and become more unstable. We don’t want them to fall down as they could cause considerable harm.”

That is the nonsense on which councillors are making decisions to spend large amounts of money staking or laying down headstones. It is total nonsense for us to envisage thousands of elderly people across the country pulling themselves up and pulling the gravestones down. In my topple-testing capacity I have visited many graveyards, and I have not yet witnessed any incident of that kind.

The reasons for the minute number of accidents that have occurred are, first, playgrounds. Graveyards are sometimes seen as playgrounds and people playing in them occasionally have accidents as they do playing anywhere that is inappropriate. Secondly, alcohol. On occasion, inebriated people crossing graveyards late at night—whether or not they are fleeing from the police—have managed to come into contact with a headstone and injure themselves. I am aware of one occasion when that was fatal. That has happened in the last 20 years, but it does not happen only in graveyards. There have been no deaths in the last four years.

Let me mention railings. Many graveyards have railings around them. Take last year: Derby, death, railings, impaled; Rotherham, death, railings, impaled; Coventry, death, railings, impaled. I could go on. In Wycombe, there was a death from impalement on churchyard railings and in west London, someone was impaled on churchyard railings after a car accident. In fact, there have been more deaths from impalement on the railings of church or local authority graveyards than from the headstones. Of course there is a risk that young people who climb up trees to collect conkers will slip and fall. If there is something underneath, they could hurt themselves. If they fall on railings, they could kill themselves. Does that mean that we should remove every railing in Britain?

Walls collapse. In the 2007 storms, two people are known to have died from collapsing walls on the same day. Do we therefore knock down every wall in Britain? On the same night, people died from falling trees, roofs and sheds. These things happen. We absolutely should have appropriate health and safety and standards in construction and maintenance, but not the nonsense that we have had around the country. I could give huge numbers of examples, but I will not because of time.

We can imagine the distress caused to my constituents when they turn up and find the contractor staking their family grave or, as in one case, pulling and testing it with their hands until it moved, and then deeming it unsafe, because it finally moved.

What is the remedy? The remedy is good, clear guidelines, which I believe and hope have now been completed, that give a real risk assessment, not of the headstone, but of the whole public space, from the car parking to the railings and the path that people might slip on. As with any public space, there should of course be a rational risk assessment from time to time to ensure that it is properly maintained.

In Worksop cemetery in Bassetlaw, on my risk assessment—I am trained more widely as a risk assessor—the biggest danger is slates falling on someone’s head and damaging them from the roof of the local authority building that has not been properly maintained. That is what needs repairing, not the headstones.

In Langold cemetery, the danger is not fallen stones—there are none, because they have all been staked. The danger is that, because car parking has not been properly addressed, there is no proper turning circle, so a small child could be run over at the end or beginning of a funeral because a car has not been parked properly. Those are real risk-assessment issues.

In the guidance that I hope to hear, there would be nothing about staking, and all stakes would be removed. The stake at an angle is a trip risk; the stake higher than the headstone is a slip risk; and the stake that splinters because of weathering is a risk on both counts, and it carries a greater risk of impaling someone. The stake itself is a health and safety hazard.

We need proper consultation of families.

May I suggest that my hon. Friend look at the work of the Ford Park Cemetery Trust on its website? If he does so, he will find an example of how the community has become involved in taking care of a huge cemetery. I am sure that the trust will be grateful to him for the work that he is doing to draw attention to this very serious problem.

I shall have a look at that site.

Finally, local authorities and other burial authorities need to negotiate with the stonemasons regarding the tiny number of headstones that need some work. That way, the masons who make money from putting them in inappropriately fix them at their own expense, and the local authorities can fix the unknown ones that need a bit of work. We could then all move on.

It is clear what the Health and Safety Executive thinks. A letter was sent to me today, in which it states:

“The risk of harm from an unstable memorial is low, very low. Thus, control measures should be proportionate to the risk, and the assessment should aim to identify memorials that present real and immediate danger”.

That means virtually none of them, just as most railings, walls, trees and roofs in this country are not a major risk. We need common sense. Let us finally, Minister, have the common sense in time for Christmas so that, rather than having to read the funeral planners’ booklet on a not very merry Christmas, people can go and pay their respects in dignity and peace at their family grave, without the indignity of tape, stones laid down, or stakes. Let us get those things cleared, so that the world can move on rationally with decent health and safety.

It is bonfire night tonight, and I have a proposal for the Minister. A bonfire of the stakes will be an appropriate sign to the people of Britain that we take health and safety seriously and that the over-zealousness of the local authorities that have gone mad on the issue can be reined in, so that the dead can rest in peace.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) began his remarks by saying that they would be a eulogy. I must say that they were more than that: they were inspiring and overwhelmingly persuasive. It has been a joy to work with him on ensuring that what he wants to achieve—he has been working on this for some time—will soon be achieved, finally.

Clearly, how we treat our dead and those who mourn provides a fundamental indicator of the kind of society we are. As my hon. Friend said, we should therefore be treating our dead with decency and respect. Most importantly, we should be treating their families with the sensitivity and understanding that they need, particularly at the moment of bereavement.

Our policy on graveyards consists of three key principles: that the public have a realistic choice in the funeral arrangements for their relatives; that the services provided by burial authorities are professional, caring and sensitive to the needs of ethnic minorities and religious communities; and that local burial facilities provide a fitting environment for the bereaved and enhance the life of the community. Burials need to be carried out according to the relevant law and procedures, and the public need to have confidence in how their graveyards and burial grounds are managed. Cemetery services must also be consistent with our broader aims on the environment and cultural heritage.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the vast majority are owned by, and under the responsibility of, local authorities, although some are run by the Church of England and other churches, and there are some private and charitable graveyards. They each have responsibility for their burial grounds. The Government do not run or own burial grounds, but we set the legal framework within which operators must work. We can therefore influence how burial grounds are managed by providing the advice and guidance that my hon. Friend seeks, as long as they bear in mind the general principles that I have set out.

We have done a lot of work recently to take forward the policies for improving our burial grounds and the way in which cemetery services are provided. For example, we now have an advisory group of professionals who bring their expertise to the issues and problems that our burial grounds face, and we have carried out independent research into cemetery management. Additionally, we have finally undertaken a survey of burial grounds throughout England and Wales. We have also published the guidance for burial ground managers that my hon. Friend referred to, and conducted a review of burial law and practice.

Last year, we announced our response to the public consultation exercise on burial law reform. That identified a number of measures that we intend to take, including dealing with the shortage of burial space and the state of repair of some burial grounds. We intend to look at the case for modernising burial legislation. Those measures will help local authorities, and other providers, to ensure that their communities have burial facilities of which they can be proud and that will accord with the three principles. Although the provision of such facilities is an essential service, members of the public want cemeteries that provide a peaceful place for contemplation. They want a place in which they can remember the lives of local people and they want it to enhance their local community. Those are the reasons why the public are so concerned about the way in which some burial authorities have dealt with safety issues.

The safety issue is not new. It has been known for years that, very occasionally, a loose or unstable gravestone can, and does, cause injury. In a very small number of cases, the incident has resulted in death. Our hearts go out to the families of those who have died in such circumstances. Burial ground operators have a legal duty to ensure that they manage the risk of injury that can be caused by a broken or unstable gravestone. They also have a duty to manage other risks associated with the operation or maintenance of the burial ground. My hon. Friend mentioned car parking, but it can be the state of the road or the level of the kerb. Those risks can affect how safe people feel in graveyards.

Unfortunately, some burial ground operators, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Bassetlaw, have completely overreacted to the problem of unstable memorials by supporting many gravestones with stakes, or even laying them down. As my hon. Friend said, taking such steps may increase risk rather than diminish it, or may even create a new safety hazard in its own right.

Initially, the various burial professionals tried to provide guidance for their members on how to deal with the problem. However, that led to inconsistencies in approach. Our advisory group agreed to consider whether national guidelines should be formulated. Such agreement was hard to achieve because there were different views about how the problem should be tackled. After considerable thought, we decided to address some of the worst aspects of the actions that were being taken. Our advice was contained in a letter signed jointly by the relevant Ministers, and the chairmen of the Health and Safety Commission and of the Local Government Association. We said that the risk of an accident happening was low and that the action taken to manage that risk needed to be proportionate. We also said that it was essential to keep the families affected informed of what was happening.

That advice still holds true, but burial professionals have told me that practitioners need further practical advice to help them achieve their responsibilities. I agreed to consider what else could be done to help assess the risk of an accident happening, and then how to manage that risk proportionately and sensitively. We have been working with representatives from the HSE to develop such guidance.

I am pleased to say that the guidance is nearly complete. I know that my hon. Friend has been assiduous in ensuring that the draft guidelines, and the more complete guidelines, were not inconsistent. He has given us very good advice on how to tighten up some of the areas. I hope that we have now responded to the issues that he has raised, and that we have included his ideas in the new guidelines.

Last week, the Burials and Cemeteries Advisory Group agreed that, with minor revisions, the guidance could be published. The guidance included adopting, as far as possible, the helpful suggestions made by my hon. Friend during this debate and during a meeting we had a couple of weeks ago. I assure him that we will publish the guidance as soon as possible. It is basically a statement of good practice. It will demonstrate that burial ground operators should do what is reasonable and practicable to manage the risks associated with memorials as the law requires. It stresses a simple and proportionate approach to inspection and assessment.

The guidance has the support of all those in the burial industry, including the authorities, the masons and the managers. They have worked hard to develop it, and once it is published we expect them to take ownership of it and promote its use among their respective organisations.

Am I correct in saying that the discussions between the various parties have now been concluded and that it is a question of publishing the guidance rather than continuing with the negotiations? Will the Minister also say whether it is appropriate for local authorities to be removing the health hazard—the stakes themselves?

I was coming to that suggestion. My hon. Friend anticipates me in a positive way. The guidance will bring to an end the distressing sights of row upon row of uprooted or pushed-over gravestones, or those ranks of ugly metal stakes. I hope that it will also reduce the number of graves that are disfigured by the hazard tape and insensitive warning signs. In most cases, there is no need for action, for special equipment or for contracting in expert advice. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) gave a good example. She ran a campaign, calling on her own local authority to use in-house expertise. The authority now trains its own people to deal with the matter sensitively.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw made an important point about gravestones that have already been staked or laid down. Obviously, the action that will be taken will depend on specific circumstances. However, we have made it clear, and it is now on the record, that the guidance is about to be published. Any local authority worth its salt will now start preparing to incorporate that guidance. There is nothing to prevent them from behaving as if the guidance is already in place. I hope that the authorities will be contacting the burial ground owners to agree on how to proceed. I expect burial ground providers to review the decisions they have taken in all of the relevant sites in the light of the guidance. Where there is no good reason for a gravestone to be staked or laid down, I urge the council to restore the monument to its previous position. The council may follow the example that was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen and pay the cost of so doing. That will mean removing the stake or re-erecting the headstone, as appropriate, at a cost to the authority rather than to the individual bereaved families.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, any death or serious injury in our cemeteries caused by an avoidable risk is a tragedy. Sadly, some of those deaths have been of children. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that those incidents are extremely rare. By contrast the number of families who have been distressed by the precipitate action of authorities to make gravestones purportedly “safe” is very large—859 in the constituency of Bassetlaw alone. If that was reflected across the country, we would see many thousands of families being distressed by this clumsy way of dealing with what is an incredibly low risk.

Our cemeteries can be beautiful places for contemplation, but they are also a working environment. I say to my hon. Friend, I hope that this Christmas, families can visit the graves of their loved ones—in his constituency and elsewhere—knowing that the memorials will remain in place in respect of their memories.