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Cremation of Infants (England)

Volume 598: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of the cremation of infants in England.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. Speaking as a father, I do not think that there could be anything worse in life than the loss of a child. I wanted to raise with the Minister and fellow parliamentarians the tragedy that some of my constituents have faced when they lost a child in infancy and were told by Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury that they would not receive that child’s ashes. Rather than the traditional burial, the parents decided to have their child cremated and were told that there would be no ashes. I am sure hon. Members appreciate that when families have been through such a traumatic experience as losing a child—just a few days previously in some cases—it was not an optimum situation for them to be robust in challenging that information. Some families went along with a cremation under those circumstances. There was a lack of clarity in some instances, which is clearly unacceptable.

I pay tribute to BBC Radio Shropshire for its tremendous work over the past year. I was first notified of the tragedy a year ago, and I pay particular tribute to Nick Southall, the Radio Shropshire senior reporter who has doggedly persevered with this story, not only in Shropshire but across England. We are starting to hear anecdotal evidence from other places where similar situations have occurred. This situation is not peculiar to Shrewsbury; we hear evidence of it happening in other parts of England. I look forward to hearing the perspective of other hon. Members.

One of the first things I did when I heard about this case was to contact the leader of the council, Keith Barrow. We have a new unitary authority in Shropshire that has taken over the running of our council, and the difficulties with the crematorium in question predominantly occurred under a previous administration and before the change to a unitary authority. Keith Barrow has done a superb job, and he called for an independent inquiry into the whole tragedy.

I will come on to some of the report’s findings later in my speech, but I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

I thank the chairman of the report, Mr David Jenkins, who has a lot of experience in local government and is an independent expert. Mr Jenkins and his research assistant, Mr John Doyle, have spent an inordinate amount of time engaging with many of my constituents with great sensitivity, professionalism and care. They heard at first hand some of the trauma that my constituents have experienced. Before the general election, I met some of my constituents in a church in Shrewsbury, and it was one of the most emotional meetings I have experienced in my decade as a Member of Parliament.

I made those parents certain promises. I promised them that they would have a meeting with the Minister, that there would be a formal parliamentary debate in the House of Commons on this issue and, most importantly of all, that if there were aspects of the report that I considered relevant for Parliament to investigate and scrutinise with a view to changing, updating and modernising legislation, those considerations would be aired and we, as parliamentarians, would have the opportunity to debate those points and make recommendations. I am pleased to be trying to fulfil my three promises to those parents.

I pay tribute to the Minister. She is new to her post and, if I may say so, the Prime Minister made a very good decision in appointing her. I brought some of the parents—some from Shrewsbury and Shropshire and some from other parts of England, too—to meet the Minister last week, and she was genuinely interested in hearing what they had to say. I am sure she will speak for herself, but I think she was moved, and I was extremely impressed with the way in which she interacted with those constituents. I thank her very much for her and her officials’ time and consideration. Following our meeting, the parents and I went to No. 10 Downing Street to present a petition signed by more than 63,000 petitioners from across our country.

My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), is a Minister and is therefore unable to participate in this debate, but he has taken an interest in the issue because the Emstrey crematorium also serves his constituents in south Shropshire. One of the babies whose remains were not returned to her parents was baby Kate. She suffered a tragic, avoidable death in 2009 following a complex midwifery delivery at Ludlow community hospital. My hon. Friend supports the campaign to prevent similar suffering for other parents. He feels as passionately as I do about this issue, and he wanted me to put that on the record for him.

Other hon. Members wish to speak, so I will concentrate on some of the recommendations that I have picked out from the report and some points that have been specifically reinforced in my mind by my interactions with my constituents. Other parliamentarians may have other points of view, but these are the specific points from the report that my constituents from Shrewsbury want me to raise. First, they believe that there should be an inspector of crematoriums throughout England and that it should be a full-time position. I understand that there is a part-time inspector of crematoriums in Scotland, which has only 50 crematoriums; we have more than 250 in England. Many of my constituents believe that we should have a formal, independent inspector of crematoriums. We live in a society with ombudsmen and regulators, and many aspects of Government activity are rightly regulated and overseen by independent inspectors. My constituents believe that if we are to have a uniform level of service and professionalism across all crematoriums, we need an independent inspector who is able to investigate by going to see crematoriums to ensure that they comply with expected standards.

My constituents also expect that crematoriums should have to report to the inspector when they are not confident that ashes have been created in a particular case. That is important because it is a proactive step that the facility in question—Emstrey crematorium in our case—would have to take if, for one reason or another, ashes had not been or could not be produced. If a crematorium believed that to be the case, it should have to be proactive in informing the inspector so that the inspector had it on the record.

I spent an afternoon inspecting Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury, and it has subsequently invested a lot of money in new machinery and better practices. Procedures are now in place to ensure that babies are cremated later in the day, rather than when the machine is first switched on and is at optimum heat. The procedures ensure that babies are cremated at the end of the day, when the ovens are at their coolest, to maximise the possibility that ashes are delivered.

My constituents also want a national cremation investigation team that is able to investigate historical cases. If the Minister agrees about the need for an inspector, and if an inspector is created, he or she will be busy ensuring uniformity of best practice across the country. My constituents want an independent team that will help families like Mr Perkins and his partner, and the other families in Shrewsbury who have suffered in the past. They want more information and need more help to come to terms with what has happened. They also believe that greater transparency is needed with regard to cremation paperwork. I will not go through all the details now, because there simply is not time, but in some cases paperwork has been lost, destroyed or not kept for the appropriate amount of time.

I would be grateful if the Minister told us how we could update legislation and regulations for crematoriums on paperwork and other matters. The Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but we have had no legislation on the running of crematoriums for a long time, so this is an optimum time for us to discuss these concerns. The families believe that the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs need to co-operate on changing the regulations and conditions on emissions from crematoriums at times when infants are being cremated—that is a technical point. I hope that the Minister has read the part of the report about how emissions and such things are regulated and is aware of that point.

The answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), is in the report commissioned by Shropshire Council, published last month, which says that poor training and out-of-date equipment were mainly to blame. I am pleased that more than £3 million has now been spent on new machines at Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury; I have inspected them and seen how the ovens operate. I hope that this tragedy will ensure that training for staff at crematoriums, whether run by the Co-op or councils themselves, is reinvigorated, and that all crematoriums in all areas are supervised to ensure that they are investing appropriate time and money in bringing new equipment to the fore.

About 60 families are believed to have been affected by failures at Shrewsbury’s Emstrey crematorium between 1996 and 2012. I do not yet know the final figure, because more people are coming forward all the time. To those Salopian families, I can only take this opportunity to express my sincere condolences for the loss of their children and my sincere sadness that they have had to go through this extraordinarily painful experience in their lives. Having spoken to them, I know that their main goal is to ensure that such a travesty does not happen again, so that no other family in England has to go through what they went through. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to those points.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate today and on setting out so clearly the background to this very distressing matter. I pay tribute to all the families affected, who have to come to terms with and perhaps relive some painful and distressing circumstances. We should also pay tribute to the Action for Ashes group, led by Glen Perkins, who led the delegation to Downing Street with the hon. Gentleman last week. I wholeheartedly agree that we should thank the investigative journalist Nick Southall; he should be commended for ensuring that there has been a lot of attention on the issue. It is important that the media have played a very responsible part in this.

My contribution today will be about my constituents, Tina and Michael Trowhill. They contacted me earlier this year, and I commend them for their bravery and persistence in trying to find out what happened to their baby son William. William Michael Brian Trowhill was born on July 5 1994 at Beverley Westwood maternity hospital; very sadly, he was stillborn. He was cremated on July 12 1994 at Chanterlands Avenue crematorium in Hull. Tina and Mike were told that there would be no ashes from the cremation. They also told me that they were not required to sign any forms. It appears that the forms that were required at the time were signed by an administrator at the hospital. That the parents did not sign, and were not given written information about what was to happen, is one of the shocking things about the situation.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing this important debate. Does the hon. Lady agree that the report’s authors were struck by the lack of authoritative national guidance or policy outside environmental protection? In other words, we are more bothered by emissions than the feelings of parents who have sadly lost children.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is shocking that there was no nationally applied guidance on how parents should be involved, treated and made to feel part of the process at an obviously very distressing time. It should have been there.

Moving forward many years, my constituents were alerted to possible concerns about what had happened to baby William when the Mortonhall inquiry in Scotland started. That report was published in April 2014. In October 2014, Mike and Tina contacted the bereavement service in Hull and asked it to see what it could find. It took until 3 November for the service to return the call, and the parents were told that an investigation was under way.

On 4 November, they were told that William’s ashes had been scattered in a children’s garden of remembrance near the crematorium. On 5 November, the parents were told by the funeral director at Frank Stephenson & Son that it was not normal to receive ashes from a child’s cremation. On 6 November, they were told that the funeral directors had a document that stated “cremate and strew”; it appears that at that time the funeral directors had a blanket contract with Beverley Westwood maternity hospital to undertake cremations of babies and were given that instruction. On 6 November, my constituents called the NHS complaints line, but given the many NHS reorganisations, copies of the procedures or policies in use at the time were not available.

The family then came to see me. We wrote to the chief executive of the Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust to find out what current policies are being used. We also wrote to and had a meeting with Councillor Stephen Brady, leader of Hull City Council, and asked for a local inquiry to be held in Hull. Tina particularly wants that to happen because she knows of several other families who have had similar experiences, and they also want to know what happened to their babies’ ashes.

I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for calling the debate and I apologise that I have yet to be so involved in the campaign. Does my hon. Friend agree that families have been left heartbroken and ignored in their bereavement for far too long? The Turnock family, who are constituents of mine, have sought answers about their son’s cremation at Bradwell crematorium for 22 years. That shows the scale of the issue, which is geographically disparate, as well as heartbreaking.

My hon. Friend makes the very important point that this has happened all over the country. In a few moments, I will say a few words about local inquiries and how they might fit into a broader national inquiry. However, these families deserve to know what happened. I know that many of these cases happened a long time ago, but local authorities and the Government should do whatever they can to find out what happened.

The Trowhills and I met Councillor Brady. At the time, we were waiting for the outcome of the Shrewsbury report, and Councillor Brady said that although he was sympathetic to the request for an inquiry, he wanted to see what the Shrewsbury report said.

Obviously, a few weeks ago we had the Shrewsbury report, and since then I have written again to Councillor Brady. Yesterday, I received a response from him and I will just read briefly from his letter. It says:

“As Mr & Mrs Trowhill reflected at our meeting in March, they believe that there can be no resolution for them in relation to William’s ashes and therefore, given that the information given to Mr & Mrs Trowhill at the hospital was that there would be no ashes and that the Council acted in accordance with the instructions received from the funeral director, I do not intend to hold a local independent inquiry.

However, the Council fully supports the call for a national code of practice to provide consistency in the way in which the cremated remains of babies and infants are dealt with across the UK and for a single government department to be responsible for the regulation of crematoria and their operations. The Council also supports many of the recommendations of the Bonomy and Mortonhall Inquiries and we will write in support of such recommendations to the Cabinet Office.”

He concludes:

“I therefore feel that a meeting with yourself and Mr and Mrs Trowhill could add nothing further at this time, but I can assure you that I will lend my support and that of the Council to lobbying for a national commission for England to be created.”

I am very disappointed that we have not had the opportunity to have another meeting with Councillor Brady to discuss this matter. Although that letter is very much about the Trowhills, many other families could be affected by these issues and local authorities must try to find out what has happened in these cases, and be as transparent as possible.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham talked about many of the very sensible recommendations made by the Shrewsbury report, and I particularly support the recommendation of a national inspector of crematoriums —that is an excellent idea—and national guidelines and training. Because more and more cases are coming to light around the country, there is a case for local inquiries to be held, so that families can find out what happened in their area, if possible. Nevertheless, the proposal from Action for Ashes for a national crematorium investigation team, which was also mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, is certainly worth considering.

Such a team could deal with the issue in two ways. First, it could investigate the historical cases that have been mentioned. Secondly, it could work alongside individual local inquiries to pull together the common themes and threads that I am sure will become apparent; the issue of training seems to be a key one. While my constituents and I fully support calls for a local inquiry in Hull, we also want to see a national inquiry.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. When we had our own inquiry in Shrewsbury, it was very difficult and painful for the parents to relive their experiences, but it was also a very cathartic moment for many of them, and they really appreciated that, instead of a national inquiry, somebody in Shrewsbury was dedicated to their cases, spending time with them and hearing their experiences. I am very disappointed that in her area that has not been the case, and I reiterate that my constituents and other people concerned have really benefited from the independent local inquiry in our area.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is very helpful to know that we have his support in that regard, and we will continue to see what we can do to change the mind of Hull City Council.

I am a Sussex MP, so, again, I am a long way away from the hon. Lady’s constituency, but I know of another case—that of baby Jordan—in which a family was treated very similarly to the way that she has described.

One of the other advantages of having a local inquiry, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) referred, is that it enables many other cases to be considered. I fear that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg here and that, despite the wonderful work of Radio Shropshire, many other cases have not yet come to light. I suspect that local inquiries would enable a lot of other people to be helped in the way that my hon. Friend described.

That is absolutely correct.

I welcome the written ministerial statement that was published this morning. It suggests that the Government are looking at the recommendations from the Shrewsbury inquiry, and I hope that they will be able to act sooner rather than later. I also hope that the Minister might be able to give us some idea today of how long it will be before we have a final announcement from the Government on their intentions.

Order. I will start calling Front Benchers from about 5.10 pm. If the two Members who still wish to speak could be mindful of that time scale, I would be grateful.

Thank you, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under you, and I will be as quick as I can.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing a debate on this important issue. On average, almost 20 very small babies die around the time of their birth every day in England and Wales. This issue is clearly significant for many families, and indeed for society as a whole.

I also have a constituent’s story to tell, which raises a related but slightly different problem. In 2009, my constituent gave birth to a baby girl who, sadly, did not survive. My constituent was told at the time by the funeral directors that there would not be any ashes, because the body of her baby was too small.

Following the media attention on this issue, which has been mentioned by several Members today, and the campaigning by Action for Ashes, my constituent was moved to contact Banbury crematorium in June. She hoped to find out details of their practice at the time when her baby was cremated. Imagine her enormous surprise and distress when she was told that her baby’s ashes were still at the crematorium, some six years on, waiting for her to collect them. She immediately went to pick up the ashes, as any mother would, and there was no difficulty in identifying them or in the crematorium handing them to her.

I understand that this is not an isolated case. I have written to crematoriums, because I understand that there are more babies whose remains are waiting to be collected; their families are simply not aware that their ashes are in crematoriums. Clearly, that is not acceptable—at the very least there has been a major breakdown in communication between the funeral directors, the crematoriums and the families. It is to be hoped that we can use these sad cases to inform debate and to consider how we can prevent such incidents from happening again.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice for meeting my constituent last week, and for the interest and sensitivity that she has shown in dealing with this difficult issue.

It is no longer necessary to have personal experience of the loss of a young baby to understand their importance in the eyes of their parents, grandparents and wider family. With recent advances in medicine, whereby some babies survive after only 22 or 23 weeks’ gestation, the perceptions of the whole of society towards these very important members of society have altered considerably. We may not be good at discussing death, but we all know that it matters how the bodies of these babies are treated.

The Scottish Government accepted all the recommendations of the Infant Cremation Commission and have established a national committee to ensure that they are implemented. I am keen that we learn from that work and move speedily to ensure that the rest of the UK does not lag behind in its provision for infant cremations.

I understand that both the leading professional organisations in the UK have adopted the wider definition of “ashes” to include remains from clothes, coffins and soft toys. This is good progress, but work must be done to ensure that the definition is applied in practice, and that small babies are always cremated in individual trays. A standard definition, and clear guidelines, would really help in this regard.

Clearly, work also needs to be done to ensure that funeral directors, crematoriums and families know exactly what is going on at each stage of the process. Care must be taken to ensure that both parents are involved in decision making. Obviously, many of the mothers who have given birth to these babies are unwell at the time, and enormous stress is placed on the families. It is very important that everybody is very clear at every stage of the process where the body of their baby is.

My hon. Friend is setting out the case most sensitively and powerfully. I am extremely grateful to her, as will be my constituents, Mr and Mrs Jones of Wigston Magna, whose son, Nicholas, died over 30 years ago. They have been living for the last 30 years with exactly the sorts of problems, traumas and distress that my hon. Friend is outlining. I am most grateful to her, on their behalf, for what she is saying.

The pressures on the couple, dealing both separately and together with the loss of their child, are enormous, as all hon. Members know. Clearly, specialist staff training is needed to make sure that parents are helped in the best way. Many of us, whether we have lost children or other relatives, know that the actions of funeral directors and crematoriums can really make a difference in helping the living survive a bereavement.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today’s business and thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing such an important debate.

I offer my sincere condolences to the families affected by these tragic circumstances. No parent’s grief should be compounded by the system that is in place to help them. It clear from today’s exchanges that this House and this Government must do all they can to ensure that this never happens again. Losing a child is an extremely traumatic experience and it is crucial that families are treated sensitively and given the support and information they need.

I place on the record my appreciation for the campaigners’ work in bringing this scandal to light, and hope that we can all learn lessons from the inquiries that are bound to follow. In particular, I offer my thanks to Glen Perkins, the campaigner who formed the Action for Ashes organisation and delivered a petition containing 61,000 signatures to the Prime Minister’s residence. To fight such an organised campaign in the face of such traumatic loss is commendable.

I assure the Minister that my motivation for engaging in today’s debate is not political; now is not the time for point-scoring. I offer my experience and the experience of my colleagues in the Scottish Government. If the Minister is open to learning from our experience of the Mortonhall inquiry, I may further educate the Government’s future inquiries, because it was only last year that we faced the same devastating situation in Scotland.

Stories of families losing their babies and being mistreated by local authorities were at the centre of the conversation across the country. It was heartbreaking to witness the events unfold and see how malpractice at crematoriums had impacted families’ right to grieve. The families’ pain is still real and the grief is still there, but because of decisive action from the Scottish Government, I am confident we will never find ourselves in this situation again.

The Scottish Government established the Infant Cremation Commission, chaired by the esteemed and independent former senator of the College of Justice, Lord Bonomy. The Commission’s report told us that there were variable practices across the country and that, in many cases in the past, the interests of the baby and the bereaved family had not always been put first.

The report was an important stepping-stone in resolving this problem and providing much-needed answers to the families involved. The Infant Cremation Commission made important recommendations to ensure that never again will any parent have to experience the pain of not knowing what happened to their baby’s ashes. It made 64 recommendations and the Scottish Government agreed to all of them. In fact, they implemented the proposals as quickly as they could, without waiting for new legislation to be passed.

That included establishing a national committee tasked with implementing other recommendations in the report, including the development of an overarching national code of practice; allowing parents to be represented on the national committee; appointing an inspector of crematoria, which they did in March this year, to ensure a route is in place for anyone who may have a concern about how a cremation is conducted; and consulting on a Bill to implement the legislative recommendations. The Scottish Government also established a national investigations unit led by Dame Elish Angiolini, the former Lord Advocate, to investigate cases where parents are seeking answers to questions about what happened to the ashes of their own child. Although they have never ruled out a public inquiry, a national cremation investigation will look into every individual case, delivering more for parents more quickly than a public inquiry could. Perhaps this is a route the Minister could investigate.

I direct the Minister to the comments of her Scottish Parliament colleague, Jackson Carlow, the Scottish Conservatives’ deputy leader:

“The Scottish Conservatives have previously called for a public inquiry, but in the light of the reports…we are now persuaded that, although a public inquiry should never be ruled out, the best possible hope for parents who seek a resolution of their personal circumstances lies with the independent national investigation team.”

The Scottish Government have also made up to £100,000 available for counselling services for parents affected who are most in need of support. I am sure this Government will make a similar commitment to ensuring that we do not witness a reoccurrence, and that consideration is given to the journey the Scottish Government has taken on this issue, which might help the UK find its own path in giving help and reassurance to families.

I close with a quote from one of my constituents, who lost their three-day-old son Lachlan, on the family’s reflecting on the short life of their loved one and on their experiences at Glasgow crematorium:

“This is exactly what we wanted. All parents deserve an answer, all families deserve an answer and that’s what we’re going to get out of this investigation.”

I hope the Minister’s actions and the actions of her Government will deliver the same result for the parents of William, Jordan and other children.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate on behalf of his constituents, many of whom have campaigned so hard on this matter.

We have had a good debate and have heard some powerful contributions. Some important issues have been raised. This is the least appropriate time for any kind of political knockabout. I welcome our having this discussion here in Westminster Hall. I wholeheartedly support the Minister in her endeavours to move this issue forward. I know that she will approach this in the right way. She has the complete support of both sides of the House, and I am sure she knows that.

We have had good contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). I particularly welcome the contribution of our colleague from Scotland, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley); I thank her for offering valuable insights and for the tone in which she offered them. That is very much appreciated.

I formally welcome the Minister to her post for the first time. I informally welcomed her to her post in the House of Commons hairdresser’s, but as exchanges in the hairdresser’s are not yet in Hansard—thank goodness! —I thought I should put that on the record.

It is good to see a woman back on the Ministry of Justice team; it has been a while.

It brings me no joy to respond on behalf of the Opposition, because as hon. Members have said this is a deeply troubling topic. It is good, though, that light is finally being shed on this issue. It seems that, as the hon. Member for Banbury said, attitudes are changing to neonatal death and stillbirth, and to miscarriage. That is a good thing. It is now being recognised as grief: it is grief. However, sometimes it has been dealt with in a slightly different way. It is good that attitudes are finally beginning to change.

The availability of ashes after the cremation of an infant appears to have been dependent, at least in part, on the equipment and cremation technique used, and on how the relevant authority defined “ashes”. Neither the Cremation Act 1902 nor regulations made under it since provide a good definition. That is one of the problems that have emerged as we have discussed the issue today.

As we have heard and know from subsequent media reports, in some cases parents were told that no ashes would be recovered when in fact there had been ashes. I find this particularly shocking; those ashes were disposed of without the parents’ knowledge or consent. That is clearly wrong. It should never have happened, it must stop and I have confidence that the Minister will approach the issue and get it to stop. I am sure that all Members will share my sympathy and join me in extending our total support to bereaved parents who found themselves in that deeply unsettling position.

Members have gone through the recommendations of the various reports, so I will not repeat them, but I make it clear that Labour agrees with the Emstrey report. The Government should take steps to ensure a single and authoritative code of practice for baby and infant cremations. The Secretary of State should exercise his powers under the cremation regulations to appoint an independent inspector with powers comparable to those outlined in recommendation 63 of the Bonomy report. It is notable that that has already happened in Scotland. The inspector’s responsibilities should include the promotion of a single national code of practice on cremator technology and techniques for infant cremations so as to maximise the chances of the preservation of ashes that could be returned to the family. The cremation regulations should be amended in England, as they have been in Scotland, to give effect to the Bonomy commission’s definition of ashes. This is a bald, uncomfortable thing to say, but there is no point trying to sweeten it: the definition is

“all that is left in the cremator at the end of the cremation process and following the removal of any metal”.

The minimum standards of professional training and for continuing professional development should be introduced for crematorium supervisory and operating staff. A single official, reporting to a single Minister, should be given responsibility for co-ordinating the Government’s approach to cremation law and practice and for drawing together into a coherent whole the policies—including environmental policies—of different Departments on the subject. Arrangements should be made within Government for the Bonomy commission’s recommendations to be considered more widely for their applicability to infant cremation law and practice.

I know the Minister has studied the recommendations, and I welcome her timely statement issued today, but will she update us on what the Department is doing to implement the findings of the Shropshire report? It is important that we have something to go and tell parents following the debate.

Speaking before the election in response to the report, the right hon. Simon Hughes, the former Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and the Minister’s predecessor in her post, said:

“It is clear we need to have a much more consistent practice of burial and cremation across the country…We need to make sure we have absolutely the best standards in every part of the country and anything the inquiry recommends to me by the way of improved practice not just in Shropshire, but elsewhere, I would intend to follow.”

I have never agreed with anything he has said so much as I agree with that, and I hope the Minister agrees, too. Simon Hughes also indicated that changes would be made by the end of the year. Does the Minister’s Department still stand by that timetable? We know that a consultation has been proposed and could start very soon. Will she outline further details of the terms of that consultation? Which recommendations of the Shropshire report is she comfortable with going ahead on, possibly immediately?

In closing, I once again pay tribute to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for securing this debate. As we know, the issue was sadly not limited to Shropshire; it happened in many districts across the country. I am not sure we know how many districts and how many people have been affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North has been campaigning on behalf of her constituents for many years. She mentioned one of those constituents, Mrs Tina Trowhill, who is demanding answers after she was told that there were no ashes following the funeral of her son William in 1994. I will finish on this point, because it sums it up well. Speaking to her local newspaper, Mrs Trowhill said:

“The crematorium system has changed a lot in the past few years but I don’t want it to ever slip back to how it was. There are still some changes I would like to see made”.

I pay tribute to her and all those who have been campaigning on this issue to try to ensure that no other parent suffers the misery they have gone through. I hope that the changes can be agreed and legislated for quickly.

Before the Minister begins, I should say that it would be helpful if she took into account that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) would like one minute to sum up before we conclude.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I begin by extending my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing this debate and for the fantastic way in which he has championed his constituents on this important issue. I also express considerable thanks to all the Members here today, who have represented their constituents so heroically and sensitively.

The issue has been at the forefront of many people’s thoughts, including mine, since David Jenkins published his report into the historical practices at Emstrey crematorium on 1 June. I have been considering the report extremely carefully and am grateful to have this opportunity to discuss his findings further and to set out the next steps that the Government will take to ensure that the tragic events at Emstrey cannot happen again.

As my hon. Friend set out, last week I had a very helpful meeting with him, along with the bereaved parents who are members of the Action for Ashes group, which was set up by the families affected by the non-return of their infants’ ashes. It continues to support them and campaign for changes in the law. I am hugely grateful to those parents for travelling to London from all over the country to tell me of their experiences. Listening to them, I was struck by how palpable their pain remains and by the fact that the ashes of their babies were either not recovered or not returned to them, often for many years and in some cases for decades. The pain has not elapsed and not diminished, and the meeting will stay with me for many years to come.

Meeting those parents has strengthened my view that bereaved parents and other family members affected by the loss of an infant should never have to experience what those families have gone through. My meeting with the Action for Ashes group, my ministerial postbag and parliamentary questions from many Members from all parts of the House have shown that what happened at Emstrey was unfortunately not an isolated occurrence, as many Members have said today. We now know that other crematoriums either did not recover ashes or did not return them to parents. Whether there were no ashes following a cremation or the ashes were not given to parents, neither of those things is acceptable, and the pain of those parents is unimaginable.

The Minister mentioned her ministerial postbag. Two of the letters in it came from me: one on behalf of the Jones family, whom I mentioned a moment ago, and another on behalf of Lisa Smith, whose daughter was cremated in the mid-1990s. Both those cremations took place at Gilroes crematorium in Leicester. Will she make a particular point of looking up those two letters so that she can reply to them as soon as possible? One of the parents of the Jones family met the Minister last week, but they would be most grateful for a personal letter from her, as would Ms Smith.

I will certainly do that as soon as I get back to the office. I will not spend too much time on the history, because it has already been outlined by a number of Members today. As the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) outlined, the Emstrey inquiry followed Lord Bonomy’s infant cremation commission in Scotland, which reported in June last year. It concluded that crematoriums in Scotland had not returned ashes to families. That report followed on from Dame Elish Angiolini’s report on the issue at Mortonhall crematorium in Edinburgh.

As we all know, David Jenkins’s report on infant cremations at Emstrey was published on 1 June this year. It established that between 1996 and 2012 the Emstrey crematorium did not obtain ashes to return to families after the cremation of a baby or stillborn child. As we all know, the report contains 12 recommendations, of which some of the important ones are: to introduce a statutory definition of ashes; to implement a national inspector for crematoriums; to make a single Government official responsible for all cremation policies; to ensure that there is one code of practice for crematoria; and to consider all 64 of Lord Bonomy’s recommendations. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) also raised the need for training for crematorium staff and funeral directors. All those recommendations are important, and we will consider them carefully before responding, but I can say now that I am determined that any regulations, both existing and future, must be followed and applied uniformly in all crematoriums throughout the country.

I am aware that many bereaved parents think that there should be a national investigation into the non-return of ashes, and I appreciate families’ wish to know. It is deeply moving to have read about and heard at first hand the experiences of such families. The Emstrey report highlighted the fact that the crematorium did not recover ashes in 51 out of 53 cases over the 13 years. In my view, not only is 51 cases too high, but one would have been too many. We are focused on ensuring that no other parent has to suffer in that way. The Government’s role is to ensure that in future two things happen: first, that there are always ashes in infant cremations, and secondly, that they are returned to parents. That would be the case whether there were thousands of affected families or one. The painstaking and insightful inquiries into Emstrey crematorium have led to very helpful reports with many important recommendations.

I am heartened to hear that some parts of the cremation industry now appear to be taking infant cremations seriously, and to hear of examples of good practice in dealing with families. There is a lot to build on. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham has already outlined the changes that Emstrey crematorium has made since 2011. Its ownership has changed and there have been changes to its machinery, and it is now working with Shropshire Council to review and progress the recommendations outlined in the report.

More generally, we need to ensure that the industry knows, in no uncertain terms, what good looks like, and that good practice must be installed across the country. I am aware that the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities felt that Lord Bonomy’s report, which came a year before the Emstrey report, had been a wake-up call for crematoriums. The FBCA and Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management codes of practice require crematoriums to recover ashes for families wherever possible. I also understand that crematoriums have been working with funeral directors to ensure good and consistent practice following both reports. The technology now allows for far more sophisticated cremation programmes for infants than 20 years ago, and such programmes increase the recovery of ashes after cremation.

We take very seriously the experiences of families who have encountered problems following the death of a loved one. They deserve services that are as sensitive as possible following a death. That is why I am encouraged that in the Budget earlier today, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a forthcoming review of crematorium facilities, cremation legislation and coroner services, to ensure that they are fit for purpose and sensitive to the needs of all users and faiths. That may not be the Budget commitment that makes the headlines, but it is very important to me.

The previous Government planned for the Ministry of Justice to amend its cremation regulations to dovetail with wider death certification reforms planned by the Department of Health. It was planned to make any changes regarding infant cremations at that time. That is not good enough for me. Bereaved families deserve better. I felt that when I first heard of the Emstrey report, and I feel it even more having met the families last week. I have been considering that timetable again in the light of the reports’ recommendations. In particular, I have been considering whether it will be possible to progress the work on infant cremations before the death certification reforms are implemented. As I indicated to the families I met last week, I believe we should act now. As I announced in my written ministerial statement this morning, it is my intention to consult on a number of changes to the Cremation (England and Wales) Regulations 2008 later this year. In answer to a couple of Members who asked when later this year, it will be as soon as possible, because I have absolutely no reason to delay.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham asked when the cremation legislation was last changed. It was changed in 2008, but we want to ensure that it does what it is intended to do, which is why we will consult on it. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) mentioned baby William from her constituency and the tragic events of 1994. That was before the implementation of the 2008 regulations. Now, parents, or another appropriate applicant, must sign an application form. Nevertheless, we will continue to look at all practices to ensure that they are being done properly. We will continue to work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Human Tissue Authority and the cremation industry stakeholders. We will consider all the report’s recommendations as part of our consultation.

I want to cover one final issue. I am aware of many cases in which parents have not received ashes even when ashes were recovered. The 2008 regulations say that after a cremation, the crematorium must give the ashes to the applicant or their nominee. If they do not want the ashes or have no nominee, the cremation authority must retain the ashes and either decently bury them or scatter them. But parents have told me that that has not been the case. Our consultation will consider further how the regulations can be improved.

I want to leave some time for my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to sum up. I welcome both the publication of the Emstrey report and the important chance to debate it today. I look forward to announcing more details of the consultation in due course, as soon as possible. I will do whatever I can to make sure that I do not hear of grieving families suffering in the future as they have in the past. Specifically, I will do all I can to ensure that, in future, any parent who has already had to endure the unimaginable pain of suffering the loss of a baby does not have to suffer in order to be reunited with their child’s ashes.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the way in which she has replied to the concerns we have expressed collectively today. I could not have asked for a better response. Families are watching the debate live in Shrewsbury. They have asked me to keep them informed of the progress we make, and, over the coming weeks and months, I will keep them updated about all the changes that we will hopefully make as a result of bringing this issue to the Minister’s attention.

The Minister has seen at first hand Members’ strength of feeling in the Chamber today. I referred earlier to my neighbour, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who was unable to be here. He asked me to read out a statement from him; many other colleagues in other jurisdictions in England have also approached me to say that they are interested in this case and that they know of similar cases. They have been looking to the Emstrey report to see what, if anything, can be done in their constituencies. I am very disappointed that the leader of Hull City Council has chosen not to conduct an inquiry. It has been extremely important for us to have one in Shrewsbury for the residents who are affected.

I would like to end by saying how delighted I was by the contribution from our colleague from Scotland, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley). As someone who believes in the Union, I do not think that we need to reinvent the wheel. If something very good is happening in another part of the United Kingdom—if they have already been through the process north of the border and started to put into place various safety measures to ensure that this does not happen there—I hope that the Minister will ensure that her advisers and officials take a trip north of the border to find out what is happening in that jurisdiction.

Thank you, Mr Howarth, for chairing this important debate. I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister in the coming weeks and months about the progress on this very important issue for our constituents.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of the cremation of infants in England.

Sitting adjourned.