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Burial Space (London)

Volume 585: debated on Friday 5 September 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

Burial provision is not something that many people wish to discuss, but I believe that as a consequence of such reticence the need to create additional space in London will require that hard decisions be made.

Much of what I have to say this afternoon draws heavily on the work of Julie Rugg and Nicholas Pleace and their report produced for the Greater London authority. I make no apology for that, as I believe their conclusions need the widest possible circulation. Way back in 1997 it was estimated that there was only nine years’ supply of burial space in inner London. In outer London supply was uneven: six boroughs would run out of space before 2016 but some had sufficient burial space for the next 100 years. The significant change introduced to address the lack of provision was the London Local Authorities Act 2007, under which burial authorities in the capital were given power to disturb human remains in a grave where burial rights had been extinguished and when the intention was to increase the space for interments in the grave.

The provision relates to graves that are at least 75 years old, and it was anticipated that the ability would facilitate what has been termed a “lift and deepen” approach to grave reuse, whereby any disinterred remains from a particular grave would be placed in another container and reinterred deeper in the same grave, freeing the desired depth for reuse. The change in the legislation therefore offers local authorities the option to reuse purchased graves when the right has been extinguished and the necessary faculty has been secured. The regulation does not apply to unpurchased or common graves as no rights exist in those graves.

Back in June, I asked the Secretary of State for Justice what estimates had been made of the number of local authorities that had adopted those powers and what the estimated number of grave spaces introduced as a result was. The Minister responded that no estimate of the number of grave spaces created or of the number of local authorities that have used powers under the Act to reuse graves has been made. He also said that he was keeping the issue of burial space under active review, including considering what legislative changes might be necessary to address a shortage of graves.

It appears that as yet no London borough has adopted these powers. In many respects, this was just a sticking plaster in addressing the underlying lack of burial space, but a combination of my asking the parliamentary question and securing this Adjournment debate seems to have hastened concern within the Department. I am grateful to the Minister for organising a meeting next week.

This brings me to my area of concern. The supply of burial spaces was already regarded as problematic in the mid-1990s, but how have local authorities overcome the problems as all burial authorities appear not to have adopted permitted grave reuse measures?

The Rugg and Pleace report asserts that supply has been underpinned by the creation of graves in areas of cemeteries where burials were not originally anticipated, but, as we know from the old adage about God not creating any more land, that is not sustainable. The use of this initiative will also prevent future capacity as the 75-year expiration will be extended to additional parts of cemeteries, rendering them unusable.

One reason I have become interested in the availability of burial space was pressure within my constituency. In recent months, Barnet council received an application for the construction of a mausoleum next to Westminster cemetery in Mill Hill. The application was dropped following opposition from many local people. I met the applicants and they explained the rationale behind the application. Although the application was dropped, I believe that a new application will be made, and I expect the planning committee on Barnet council to consider the possible merits.

To ensure that Barnet council considers the application appropriately, I asked the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what guidance the Department had published for local authorities in determining planning permission applications for the creation of cemeteries. The former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), replied that applications are considered on their own merits, and by law must be determined in accordance with the development plan for the area, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. But I ask, do we need more space?

The Office for National Statistics indicates a projected decline in deaths in London between 2010 and 2031. It is anticipated that total deaths in the city will fall from 57,400 in 2010 to 46,700 in 2031, with decline being fairly steady throughout that period. But mortality projections alone are insufficient data on which to calculate demand for burial space. London has a great deal of economic in-migration, and the outward migration of households following retirement. It is not possible to estimate the number of deaths in this city of migrants whose bodies are then repatriated, or where deaths may take place outside London but result in a cremation or burial in the capital.

The extent of demand for burial space will be influenced by the incidence of cremation. In 2008, ONS figures indicated that there were 50,476 deaths in London, which resulted in 37,700 cremations in London crematoria —a crude cremation rate of 75%. But data supplied by the Cremation Society of Great Britain indicate that in London cremation numbers have been falling. Between 1997 and 2009, the number of cremations in crematoria located in London dropped from 48,275 to 36,736—a fall of 24%. In the years between 2001 and 2009, the falling number of cremations was proportionately higher than the falling mortality rate, at 15.9% versus 10.7%.

It was not possible during the course of the research to interrogate that reduced incidence of cremation. There may have been a growing preference among Londoners for burial, but a more likely explanation could be the religious and ethnic groupings in London. Research has been produced on attitudes to grave reuse among different religious denominations. Using that research, it can be estimated that while almost three quarters of Christians can be expected to opt for cremation, and between 80% and 90% of Sikhs and Hindus would choose the same, just 4% of Jewish people and 1% of Muslims would choose cremation. That is of great significance to constituents in my seat of Hendon, as I have large Jewish and significant Muslim populations.

There are three burial authorities operating in Barnet—the London borough of Camden, the City of Westminster and the London borough of Barnet itself. This last owns Hendon cemetery and crematorium. Twenty years ago, it was estimated that there were 1,343 graves remaining. In addition, there was half a hectare of space adjacent to the cemetery, purchased by the cemetery company but never brought into use. In 2009, the site itself still had unused areas, but had also completed an exercise to establish where space might be available between graves and where there were “half spaces” suitable for children’s interments. Overall, it was estimated that around 25 years’ use was left, but it is uncertain whether the extension was brought into use.

I think I have painted a picture of a problem that exists not only in my constituency but in other parts of London. To add to the mix are the predictions of the London Mayor’s London excessive deaths framework. That predicts the average death rate per week of 922 people in the capital. Based on a prediction of a 75% cremation rate, 230 people are buried each week in the capital. However, in the event of a situation that the document describes as “highly likely” to occur, such as a heatwave or cold weather, or a communicable disease, it is predicted that the death rate could leap to 1,980—an increase of 1,058 deaths per week. The most likely scenario for coping with such an eventuality is that local authorities would need massively to increase their mortuary space. Having visited the mortuary in Barnet, I can say that it would not take a huge number of additional deaths for the present capacity to be reached.

Consequently, I believe that the capital—and the country—is facing this problem. Back in May I was a member of the Delegated Legislation Committee that considered the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure. At that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) stated that in one part of her constituency there were only 16 burial plots. In his response, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), said,

“she has identified what I suspect is something of a lacuna in the legislation about who is responsible for making provision for new cemeteries and new burial ground places.”—[Official Report, Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee, 12 May 2014; c. 5.]

I should be grateful to the Minister if he advised on this point and explained the actions that need to be taken to address this vital issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this debate on the provision of burial space in London and on his well-informed and up-to-date analysis of the position in his part of the capital city. This is self-evidently an important issue. I am aware that my coalition colleague and former Justice Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), responded to a debate on a slightly broader but similar topic—burial space and the treatment of death—in September 2012.

Government responsibility for burials is shared between two Departments—the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Communities and Local Government. My Department, as my hon. Friend knows, has responsibility for burial law and policy; the DCLG has responsibility for local burial authorities. I am obviously responding today on behalf of the whole Government.

I shall make a few general points. Burials and funeral arrangements more widely are, of course, not just important in policy terms, but hugely important to individuals at various stages in their lives and to families. People are faced, sometimes unexpectedly, with the task of making practical arrangements, while dealing with a wealth of emotion—their own and that of other grieving friends, relatives and neighbours—and they may never have been through this process before.

Burial space has increasingly become an issue in some parts of England and Wales. One of the big questions is whether this is a national problem that needs to be addressed by central Government, or a local or regional problem—for example, a Greater London problem—best dealt with by existing or new local measures.

Back in 2005, when the Home Office was responsible for burial law and policy before the Ministry of Justice was created, it conducted a survey of burial provision that indicated that, at that time, the median remaining life of cemeteries was between 25 and 30 years. Since the Greater London authority report to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon referred was published in 2010, York university cemetery research group published an audit of burial space in 2013, which concluded that the situation in London was more critical than elsewhere, but that this was not true of all London burial authorities. Certainly, its analysis was that the position was not critical in Barnet—my hon. Friend’s local authority—because it is a borough in which the relevant authorities have planned ahead. My information is that there is enough burial space in general for what was then assessed to be at least the next 60 years, so Barnet is very well provided for.

Until early in the last century, burial was the only lawfully available option for disposing of the dead in this country. Parliament then responded to the growth of interest in and understanding of cremation. The Cremation Act 1902, which permitted cremation for the first time, was followed by the Roman Catholic Church lifting its own ban on cremation.

My hon. Friend gave the figures for London. The most recent national figures that I have available show that just over 70% of all disposals of bodies after death in England and Wales are now done by cremation. However, for many people, there are strongly held views behind their wish to be buried, or for burial for the family member for whom they are responsible. For many people in all our constituencies, the faith that they have and hold or the views that they have and hold mean that burial is the only acceptable option to deal with the bodies of the dead.

For example, in my constituency of Bermondsey and Old Southwark, which is made up of the northern two fifths of the London borough of Southwark, we have a very diverse and constantly changing community. We have a large Christian community of many denominations and a large Muslim community. They are the largest two faith communities. We have smaller communities of Buddists and Baha’is and people from every other major world faith, as well as people of no religious faith. My hon. Friend’s constituency will have the same variety of faith views, although the numbers obviously differ in different parts of London.

In addition, relatives—often husbands and wives—wish to be buried together, no matter how long apart the deaths have occurred. The Ministry of Justice has responsibility for issuing the exhumation licences that can make that possible. None of us, I am sure, would underestimate the importance of those final arrangements and the wish of families to fulfil the dying wishes of whoever has died. There are important reasons for the fact that there continue to be 150,000 burials across the country every year.

I myself asked, what is the law on burials? Where can people be buried? It is worth putting the answer on the record for clarification. There are few regulations concerning where someone can be buried, although the landowner must give permission. The local authority will usually give guidance on any regulations that they expect to be observed. It would be wise of people also to contact the Environment Agency. However, there is nothing in law to prevent burial on private land such as a garden, as long as certain steps have been taken. The landowner has to authorise the burial, and the local environmental health officer has to be informed of the proposed burial and be content for it to take place there because, depending on the nature of the location, there may be public health implications. Woodland and green burials, which I understand to be more common, also require the permission of the landowner.

From my hon. Friend’s contributions and his questions earlier this year, and from my own constituency and ministerial experience, I know that there are three separate issues to be considered. First, on projections of demand, I shall not repeat into the record the figures that my hon. Friend gave, which are commonly available. They are from the Office for National Statistics and the Greater London authority, and they must inform our debate. They predict a decline in death in London, as my hon. Friend said, but of course he is right to say that as faith groups in particular change as a proportion of the London community, the demand for burial will change.

The London cremation rate in 2008 was 75%. The best figures that I have are that 27% of Christians opted for burial, while 91% of Buddhists, 96% of Jews and 96% of Muslims chose that option. As my hon. Friend rightly said, Hindus and Sikhs have a strong preference for cremation. Some 50% of those with no religion opted for burial. The logic of those figures is that boroughs with larger proportions of certain faith communities are likely to face increased pressure for burial space and greater reluctance to reuse graves—a point I shall come to in a moment. In my hon. Friend’s borough of Barnet, as I anticipated he would say, there is likely to be continued demand for burial space for the Jewish community, which is significant in that borough and some others in London.

Of the 33 London authorities, the GLA 2010 survey showed that current burial spaces then available were full in eight local authorities: Camden, City of London, City of Westminster, Hackney, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets. Southwark figures were not given. The other boroughs said that capacity was critical or problematic, or adequate or sustainable. I think that my hon. Friend has seen the figures, the map and the graph, but I am happy to share them and will make sure that they are published for others to see.

The second issue is whether and when existing graves should or could be reused. I have been approached by several hon. Members and by the burial and cremation sector with requests for the Government to give further consideration to the reuse of old graves. When the Home Office conducted its survey of burial provision in 2005, it also canvassed views on the principle of reusing old graves. At the time the response rate was very low, but the small number who did respond were against reuse. That said, I am clear that the issue of shortage of burial space in some areas is not one that can be ignored and therefore the question of reuse must be addressed.

My hon. Friend referred to, and other Members may be aware of, the reuse scheme available to London burial authorities by virtue of section 74 of the London Local Authorities Act 2007. That provides powers for burial authorities to extinguish the burial right in graves where—this is the crucial point—no interment has taken place for 75 years, and then to reuse the plots by redigging, lowering the existing burial, capping and putting in new bodies on top. Despite that facility having been available for several years now, take-up is almost non-existent. Although the City of London, one of the 33 local authorities in Greater London, reused just under 900 graves in the four years up to 2013, it did this in nearly every case using the powers not in the 2007 Act but those under ecclesiastical law where, on Christian consecrated land, reuse of graves is permitted if the Church authorities issue what is called a faculty. The York research group report that I mentioned earlier confirmed the limited use of these powers under the 2007 Act. It suggested that the reason for this is partly the difficulties involved in establishing who owns the monuments, and similar issues, and partly the administrative complexity of identifying grave ownership.

A number of those who are calling for something to be done have asked that access to the reuse scheme in the 2007 Act that applies in Greater London be extended to apply to the rest of England and Wales. There must clearly be reasons why London councils are not generally making more use of these powers, and before the Government consider legislation to extend the scheme more widely, we need to make sure that we understand the reasons why they have not been used significantly in London.

The third issue, which my hon. Friend did not touch on but may well have come across—I certainly have—is the potential for collaboration between local authorities or differing policy in local authorities, including adjacent local authorities. Given that the figures available show that there are some authorities that are next to each other where one is full and the other has spare capacity, it would clearly be helpful if those with spare capacity collaborated with those that do not have space.

There is another issue of justice that we need to look at seriously. Often differential charges are applied according to whether, at the time of death, a person is living within the boundaries of the area in which they wish to be buried—or their family wish them to be buried. Charges are often considerably, sometimes punitively, higher for those living outside the areas in which they had expressed a wish to be buried. Somebody who has lived almost all their life in one place and moves, for example, to a nursing home, which then becomes their address, but wants to be buried in the borough—the community—in which they have lived in all their life, and perhaps where their husband, wife or parent is buried, may suddenly discover that the price is five times what it would have been if they had stayed where they were. That is clearly not just, and I am determined that, with local government, we deal with it.

I fully accept and understand the importance of this issue, as do the Government more widely. The most important factor is to be clear, with up-to-date information, as to why some councils, but not others, are finding themselves without sufficient burial space. As my hon. Friend knows, and was kind enough to indicate, I have already taken a number of steps since I took up this post to make sure that that is the case. I have met and heard the views of those interested and involved professionally in this area, including representatives of the National Association of Funeral Directors and some constituency funeral directors, particularly F. A. Albin and Sons, who are very experienced and very clear about some of the things that need to be done. I thank the association and Albins for their help and advice.

In June, I met the all-party parliamentary group on funerals and bereavement, who wanted to make sure that everything possible was being done to enable the prompt burial of those whose religion requires it—a matter of significant concern to Jewish, Muslim and some Christian communities as well as some other communities and people. I am working with the chief coroner, His Honour Judge Peter Thornton QC, who arranged a bereavement event in the summer and has provided guidance to coroners on dealing with out-of-hours requests to facilitate timely burials.

Next week I am meeting a group of hon. Members who have written to me or to my predecessors about their concerns over the availability of burial space in their constituencies. I have arranged for a general meeting to gather evidence and take their views. I think my hon. Friend is able to come to that, and I welcome him. Let me use this opportunity to put out the invitation more widely to colleagues who may not have seen it either to come to the meeting next week or to let me know what their local concerns are, particularly whether the 2007 Act is working in London and ought to be extended. I should also like to announce that in the near future I intend to invite faith leaders to share their views with me as to what ought to be done.

The position I inherited was that the Government had said for some time that they wished to keep this subject under review. In the weeks ahead, encouraged by people such as my hon. Friend, I want to be in a position to move forward from that holding position. This debate and the coming meetings will help us properly to consider whether, for example, it would now be appropriate to discuss enabling legislation that would permit other local authorities outside Greater London to permit the reuse of graves in their areas. That would of course have to be after full consultation on the idea and on any proposed legislation with the communities affected, and democratic deliberation and decisions by the local councils in question. There may also be other things we need to do in Greater London, and beyond, that Government can either facilitate or enable.

I am determined not only that the Government should be active in anticipating the problem and dealing with it but that we act in the right way. I offer the House and colleagues, and all those professionally involved, a clear commitment to continue working on and engaging with this issue to make sure that we come to some conclusions on the way forward over the next few weeks and months.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.