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New Southgate Cemetery [Lords]

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2016

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill relates to New Southgate cemetery, which serves local residents in my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers). The cemetery is sited in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. She supports the Bill, but she told me that she had a long-standing commitment and could not guarantee her attendance here at a particular time. It is excellent to see her in her place now along with other hon. Friends who have neighbouring constituencies.

The cemetery serves constituencies in the north London area. In particular, it serves the religious communities in the area, including the Greek Cypriot, Roman Catholic and Caribbean communities. It also has a unique section, which is administered and owned by the Baha’i community for their loved ones.

The cemetery was opened in the 1850s by the Great Northern Railway Company as a more cost-effective north London alternative to the better known London Necropolis Railway, which carried corpses and mourners to the cemetery. Indeed, in 1854, the largest cemetery in the world was designed to accommodate all the deaths in London for centuries to come. That has not come to pass, which is why there is a need now for this Bill. In eight or nine years’ time, there will not be sufficient space in this cemetery to deal with the demand.

There is a history behind the railway company’s involvement. At the time, it set different charges for first class, second class and third class burials. In fact, I am due to go to a public meeting involving Govia, which will address issues of space that will affect the railway, and it is that issue of space that we are concerned about in this Bill. I am sure that, with support from across the House, we can make good progress tonight, which will enable me to get to my public meeting and to see this Bill on its safe passage.

The larger part of the cemetery is administered and owned by the private company, New Southgate Cemetery and Crematorium Ltd, which is the promoter of the Bill. The remaining part, which is administered and owned by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom, has particular cultural importance for the Baha’is as their spiritual leader, Shoghi Effendi, is buried there. The cemetery was near the place of his death in 1957, and it therefore has particular importance for the Baha’i community. The cemetery as a whole extends over 60 acres, with well-tended sections dedicated to different faiths.

The issue at the heart of the Bill is simple: there are roughly 44,000 grave spaces in all, and 180,000 interments have been carried out in the 160 years for which the cemetery has been open, which means that there are now only 1,700 available spaces in the main part of the cemetery and a maximum of 100 spaces left in the Baha’i section. There is, however, demand for about 175 burials a year in the main part of the cemetery and about 10 a year in the Baha’i section. Space in both sections is likely to run out in nine or 10 years’ time, which causes problems for the local community and for the Baha’is and other groups that use the cemetery.

Attempts have been made to address the issue, and the local authority has not been willing to go down the route of acquiring additional land, which is why there is a problem. The Bill seeks to deal with the problem by allowing the reuse of areas of the cemetery where a burial has not taken place for at least 75 years, enabling the promoters to extinguish existing rights of burial and reclaim graves that have not been used for 75 years. In addition, a method to create extra space known as lift and deepen—that is fairly graphic, but it is the term used in the trade—would also be allowed, through which graves are excavated to their deepest depth, with all the remains placed in a casket and re-interred at the bottom of the deeper grave. That creates additional space above the re-interred remains.

In the last Parliament, I asked the then Minister about the number of graves for which permission had been considered for lift and deepen. He replied that local authorities were able to do that, but none had. Will my hon. Friend please explain why we need to do this now when we have the London Local Authorities Act 2007, which permits lift and deepen?

My hon. Friend is right. Parliament granted local authority-run cemeteries in London the power to reclaim graves in the 1970s and the power to lift and deepen in 2007. I understand that the City of London has made good use of the powers to reclaim and to lift and deepen in a cemetery in Newham without adverse reaction, while providing a sustainable future. In reality, the powers are available to cemeteries run by local authorities, but not cemeteries in the private sector. This Bill would seek to put the promoters on an equal footing with municipal cemeteries, which I would hope that Government Members supported.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber for the beginning of his speech. Is it not right that the 2007 legislation has not been used by any local authority other than the City of London and that the cemetery in Newham is on consecrated land, where special rules apply? As I understand it, this Bill will not apply to consecrated land.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest. Time will tell how many will take up this opportunity; this is a particular issue that affects London, and although successive Governments have not said that it needs to be a universal power across the country, there has been recognition of its critical importance in London. Newham has taken up the power and I understand that Kensal Rise is looking at the progress of this Bill and considering taking the powers further.

My understanding is that most of the land in New Southgate cemetery’s ownership is consecrated and that the safeguards that ensure proper consultation with the diocese will apply. They will be particularly pertinent to this Bill. The difference with municipal land is not whether the land is consecrated but the fact that it is in different ownership, and we want an even hand.

The Bill is critical because the communities that the New Southgate cemetery serves do not generally choose cremation. For the Greek Cypriots, it is not allowed, and in the Caribbean communities burial is the preference of 99%. Burial is also the strong preference of Roman Catholics, who are strongly represented around the area served by the cemetery. The Baha’i community also has a requirement to bury and not to embalm or cremate.

The Bill will enable the creation of more spaces in existing graves and ensure a sustainable future. It provides adequate safeguards; it ensures that there will be notices, that objections from relatives or owners will be heard, and that Historic England and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will be involved as regards proper respect for the heritage of those sites.

The Bill does not specify the means by which old graves may be reused. My hon. Friend referred to a process called lift and deepen; is that the specific and only process that the promoters of the Bill have in mind?

Unused graves can be reclaimed by allowing the exclusive right of burial to be properly extinguished. The alternative is through lift and deepen. If there are alternative directions from the Secretary of State, we will no doubt hear them from the Minister. It will reassure my hon. Friend to know that there are powers in clause 4(10) for the Secretary of State to provide additional direction in relation to the powers, if that is considered appropriate.

My hon. Friend may have addressed this at the beginning of his remarks. The predecessors in title of the present company that owns the cemetery sold off vast areas of land that were attached to the original Victorian cemetery. If all that land had not been sold off, the issue would not have arisen. Is this not a case of a commercial organisation, having sold off a lot of its surplus land for housing, trying to use the land it has in a different way, arguing that it has not got enough space?

My hon. Friend is trying to reach into the motivations and the history. At the beginning of my remarks I referred to the history and the involvement of the Great Northern Railway. The original aspiration was that the cemetery would serve the interests of Londoners for centuries, but that did not happen. We can go as far back in history as my hon. Friend wants, but we are where we are now. Although there is inevitably some commercial motivation for a sustainable commercial future, it is undeniably the fact that for the communities that the cemetery serves, there is an interest in ensuring that there are adequate graves available for their burials.

The consultations that have taken place have not led to any petitions. They have led to understanding and support for the in-principle situation. There needs to be a level playing field between the powers available for municipal cemeteries, which have also taken an interest in how much land is available as municipal land, and for privately owned cemeteries, which should have the proper powers available to them. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

It is great that we are having a debate about the Bill. If I had not tabled a blocking motion, it would have gone through Second Reading on the nod. It is undesirable that issues such as this are not open to debate and discussion in this House.

The Bill touches on an area that successive Governments have long avoided. In 2004, the Labour Government held a consultation on the possible re-use of graves. The consultation lasted six months, and after about three years there was a response from the Government in which they said that they were definitely going to do something about it, and quickly. Nothing has happened since. A Minister in the coalition Government, the former Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Simon Hughes, said that they were definitely going to do something about it, but, again, nothing has happened. Perhaps the Minister on the Front Bench today will seize the moment to tell the House what the Government’s plans are in respect of the cemetery.

The issue is much bigger than is reflected in the terms of the Bill. I do not intend to divide the House on it, but in such a debate it is important to be able to ask a few questions. When my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) comes to sum up, I hope he will be able to respond to them.

The cemetery has a long and interesting history. It was originally some 200 acres. Over a period of time—this is the ninth Bill relating to this land to come before the House, and there have been eight Acts of Parliament since 1855 covering New Southgate cemetery—more and more of the cemetery has been sold off. In 1976, the Great Northern transferred the ownership and management of the remaining parts of the cemetery to New Southgate. Since then, part of the cemetery has been sold off and part has been transferred to the Baha’is.

Is it really unreasonable for land set aside to accommodate the dead to occasionally be sold off to accommodate the living? That does not seem an unreasonable thing for the cemetery to have done, and it is not really a reason to oppose the Bill.

As I said, I am not opposing the Bill. What is unreasonable is that land retained to bury the dead was disposed of, and now the owners of that land, who profited from the sale of it, are saying, “We have not got enough space. We need special powers to reuse graves.” There is a difference between reusing graves in a municipal burial ground, where a local authority is accountable to local people, and reusing graves in a private burial ground, where there is no such accountability.

What worries me is that the local authority has apparently been unhelpful in allowing an extension to this area so that there is more space for the burial of the dead. More land has been sold than is needed now, but as soon as this organisation seeks to purchase a bit more land, all sorts of problems are apparently put in its way by the local authority—the very local authority that, I suspect, developed the houses on the land that was sold to it originally.

I would gently urge my hon. Friend to recognise that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I have areas with great religious diversity, and the pattern of burial and cremation has changed in our constituencies over the years. Between 1997 and 2009, the number of cremations in London fell from 48,275 to 36,736, and the nature of our constituencies means that many people, for religious reasons, cannot be cremated, as people would have been previously, when the land was disposed of.

I take very much the point my hon. Friend makes, and it is symptomatic of the change in the character of large parts of our country and particularly, for the purposes of this debate, of London. There is now a much increased number of members of the Muslim faith, for example, living in the United Kingdom. However, that is surely an argument for the local authority to facilitate the making available of more land to meet the religious needs of this very important part of the community, rather than an argument for saying, “We are so short of land that we are going to reuse the graves of those who were previously buried in the New Southgate cemetery.” I can understand why the Bill is being promoted, but I cannot understand why a sensitive local authority would not help to provide more land.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s interest in the Bill, but the crucial point is that the promoters are not the company that sold the land before 1976, but the company that bought the cemetery to run it, as set out in the recital. The only sale that has taken place in relation to that company is to the Baha’is.

As I understand it, part of the cemetery was sold to the Baha’is because one of their religious leaders died while he was visiting London in 1957, and he was buried in the cemetery. That is why it is a place of particular pilgrimage and interest to people of the Baha’i faith. However, as my hon. Friend may have said earlier, it is not just Baha’is who are buried there. Our great hero Ross McWhirter is buried in the cemetery—it is some 40 years since he was cruelly murdered by the IRA. A lot of distinguished people have been buried in this cemetery. If Ross McWhirter has now been buried there for some 50 years, under the proposals in this Bill it will be only another 25 years before his remains can be disinterred. That puts these issues into perspective. I expect that members of the Freedom Association, which was founded by his twin brother, with whom he established the “Guinness Book of Records”, will still be going there for a lot longer than 25 years. It may well be that the grave of Ross McWhirter becomes a place to which people would wish to conduct pilgrimages, in the same way as, I think, many years ago, Ross McWhirter discovered in deepest France the burial site of the person who made the first rugby ball, and following that discovery, that grave itself is now visited by rugby enthusiasts.

We must not deal with these things lightly—I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate is doing that—but there is a potential solution to this if there was more co-operation from the local authority.

One of the reasons I support this Bill is that using our existing burial space more efficiently will relieve the pressure to create new cemeteries elsewhere in my constituency—something that is likely to encroach on green-belt land, substantially detracting from and damaging the local environment.

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Not only in her constituency or in this area of London, but throughout the country where there is pressure on land, it is important that we have a properly worked-out policy for whether, and if so in what circumstances, graves can be reused.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said, the London local authorities gave themselves powers in this respect that they have hardly used. With the exception of the cemetery in Newham, no local authority has started to use the powers given to them because of the sensitivity around them. That was indeed the conclusion that the Government reached when they went out to consultation on this issue more than 10 years ago. They accepted that it was a very sensitive issue and there was a lot of public concern about it, but no conclusions were reached. It was said that about 30 years’ worth of land was available for burials, and more than 10 years have gone by since then, yet nothing is being done. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will put this in the wider context of what proposals there are to address this problem, particularly in the light of the very significant changes in the character of much of our population and the very significant increase in the number of Muslims, for whom burial is a religious requirement that cannot be substituted with cremation.

Like all these things, when one starts to lift the stones and look at a bit more of the detail, one becomes aware of gaps in the proposed legislation. This Bill is defective in that it does not specify the means by which the graves may be reused. As I said, lift and deepen is one method, but there are others that could be much less sensitive.

Under lift and deepen, the remains are removed from the existing grave and put further down in the same grave; in other words, they remain in the same location. Less sensitive methods might be the cause of some offence. Once the decision has been made in a private cemetery, there is limited opportunity for public opinion or any individual to influence what happens.

The problem does not arise with consecrated land, because such land is subject to control by the Church of England authorities. Clause 4(11) and (12) give particular recognition to the status of consecrated land. Quite rightly, the Bill also makes exceptions in relation to Commonwealth war memorials.

It seems to me that a Bill such as this should be tightly drawn and subject to a lot of proper parliamentary scrutiny. My final point is that a commercial organisation is running the process, so how can we be sure that it will comply with all the requirements in the Bill to record the details of the graves that will be disturbed and the memorials that will be removed? Why has the company promoting the Bill not already recorded those details for posterity? Where will those records be kept, and who will maintain them? If this was a publicly owned activity, we might have a bit more control over it. That is why I have concerns about it.

The fact that there have been no petitions against the Bill suggests that people in the locality are content. Perhaps they are content in their ignorance; I do not know whether that is a fair comment. We should cherish the opportunity to debate the matter. The Government have always said that there was no time available to discuss it more generally, but I hope that they will be inspired by this evening’s proceedings to think about the public interest in public policy making on the matter. In the meantime, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate for his great courtesy in dealing with the issue and for keeping me in touch with what has been going on. I hope that some of the concerns that I have expressed will be taken on board.

I rise to urge the House to support this Bill to give new powers to the owners of New Southgate cemetery in my constituency. As things stand, within 10 years we will run out of burial space there, or we will come close to doing so. There is now a widely held view that the only way in which the public can continue to have affordable, accessible cemeteries is if we make better use of existing burial space.

As we have heard, public burial authorities in London already have some powers to lift and deepen existing graves that were last used 75 years ago, to create more space. The Bill would simply give to New Southgate cemetery broadly the same rights as those already afforded by Parliament to public burial authorities in London.

Can my right hon. Friend surmise why those powers have, with one exception, not been exercised?

I surmise that it is because the pressure on burial space is not so great as to require the use of such powers, but it is important that we equip cemeteries for the pressure that they will experience in the future.

I may be able to help my right hon. Friend because when I was a councillor in the London Borough of Barnet, I was responsible for cemeteries, particularly the one in Hendon. The reason why the legislation was not used when I was the responsible cabinet member is that alternative locations were used. The Victorian planners of the cemetery originally decided that that land would not be used for burial, so we used those alternative locations, as well as other parts of the cemetery that were not originally intended for burials.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for supplying that information from his experience in the cemetery arena.

The powers conferred by the Bill would create new space for bereaved families. They would mean that a viable and sustainable burial ground could be preserved for the long term in the heart of the community it serves in my constituency. I am sure that the owners of the cemetery would, if they could, deal with the problem by acquiring additional land. However, the adjoining space is already built up with houses or is recreational land. Rightly, Barnet council wishes to preserve its recreational spaces and would be very reluctant for such land to be sold and used for cemetery purposes.

To return to the key point I made in my intervention, unless we reuse cemetery space and use the cemeteries we have more effectively, pressure will rise for the creation of new cemeteries. I have a particular concern about the pressure for new cemeteries in the green belt. There is already a proposal to create a natural burial ground in Arkley in my constituency, which is strongly opposed by the residents. The Bill would be helpful in creating sustainable burial space in pre-existing cemeteries. It will be important in helping to protect the green belt and our local natural environment. I urge the House to support the Bill this evening. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for his great work on this legislation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on moving the Second Reading of this private Bill.

Building on the historical tone of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), I am pleased to participate in what is nowadays one of Parliament’s less-used procedures. Historically, this procedure has played an important role. Indeed, I understand that more than 37,000 private Acts have been passed since 1539. In the 19th century, most legislation was private business, which typically addressed issues as diverse as transport schemes, public works, permissions for divorce and the settlement of estates. These days, there is little need to use private Bills for such purposes. Like the Bill we are addressing, private Bills are promoted by organisations wishing to disapply or modify the general law in relation to their own powers.

The New Southgate Cemetery Bill does so to address an identified need for additional burial space in the cemetery. I should it make it clear from the outset that the Government do not oppose the Bill. As has already been explained, in addition to doing so for the cemetery company, the Bill provides powers for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom. The cemetery, part of which is owned by the National Spiritual Assembly, is an important Baha’i spiritual centre, so it is appropriate that the Bill will facilitate its continued availability as a burial place for Baha’is.

Before I address the Bill in more detail, I want to mention the issue of burial space more generally. There is increasing interest in this issue in the media, in the burial sector and, indeed, among parliamentary colleagues. Burial space is running out in parts of our towns, cities and countryside, but this is not a concern in other areas. Even within Greater London, the picture is not consistent. A 2013 York University cemetery research group audit indicated that there is acute pressure on burial space in parts of London, but that is not true across all of London.

There is already private legislation that, for almost 10 years now, has enabled public burial authorities in London to reuse graves, yet very few have done so. It is therefore not yet clear that pressure on burial space is a national issue requiring central Government intervention. Successive Administrations have kept the situation under review; I and my ministerial colleagues are considering whether that position should continue. Where there is local pressure, however, it is right for local solutions to address it. The Bill addresses the needs of New Southgate cemetery, and the Government do not wish to prevent the cemetery from remaining viable and continuing to serve its communities into the future.

I move on now to Government scrutiny of the Bill. As lead policy Department, the Ministry of Justice wants to ensure that the legislation is fit for purpose, with appropriate safeguards, and that the views of those most affected by it have been fully considered. We have therefore consulted other Departments and arm’s length bodies. I am grateful to the New Southgate burial authority for agreeing amendments arising from that process, including requirements for Historic England to be notified of any proposals and a requirement for remains to be reburied in an earthen grave as opposed to a structure above ground. I am pleased to note that the burial authorities have fully engaged with faith groups using the cemetery. I am grateful for the information provided on that, and having reviewed it am satisfied that the issue has been properly addressed.

Is the information to which my hon. Friend referred on the public record—is it part of the Bill—and if not, how will it be put on the public record, so that people can be held to account for what they have said?

As I understand it, the relevant religious groups have all been consulted, where those groups have an obvious representative to consult. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend with further details.

I have written to the Chairman of Ways and Means confirming that in my opinion the Bill’s promoters have fully assessed its compatibility with the European convention on human rights and that I see no reason to dispute their conclusions. However, I have noted two points: first, that the burial authorities will be required to act compatibly with convention rights in carrying out functions of a public nature within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998; and secondly that I am satisfied that other methods of developing burial space have been implemented as far as is possible. I therefore agree that the Bill’s powers are both justified and proportionate.

I turn now to the series of questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch raised. First, existing burial space can be maximised by something called mounding, which involves new soil being placed over existing graves to allow additional graves to be excavated; by cramming, which is where new graves are created in available spaces such as pathways; and by reclaiming unused space in existing graves. The latter can be applied only to private graves, unless under Church of England authority—so-called faculty. Outside London, only unused graves can be reclaimed. In 2007, the then Government endorsed the principle of reusing existing graves by the lift and deepen method, which saves on the cost on new land, avoids competition for new land, keeps burial local, represents a sustainable use of resources and provides a new income stream for burial authorities, in turn reducing local authorities’ financial liability.

My hon. Friend mentioned the cemetery’s selling off of land. We have dealt with the cemetery as it currently stands throughout. There is a need for additional space now and the Bill proposes all appropriate means of addressing that need.

My hon. Friend asked whether the 75-year period was long enough, referring in particular to the grave of Ross McWhirter. The Bill provides that graves can only be considered for reuse 75 years after the most recent interment. It also provides that relatives of the deceased can object; if they do so, the grave cannot be reused for at least another 25 years. In practice, therefore, a grave in which living relatives have an interest can be protected for 100 years.

My hon. Friend also mentioned accountability. As private providers, the NSC burial authorities are not subject to the same degree of statutory regulation as local authority providers. However, that is already the case regarding their existing management of the cemetery. There is no reason to expect that, as a subsidiary of one of the UK’s leading providers of cremation and burial services, NSC’s standards of operation and service would not continue to be upheld.

Will the Minister confirm that private cemeteries are regulated and have obligations under the technical guidance on the reuse and reclamation of graves in London local authority cemeteries, as well as in municipal cemeteries?

I need to consult before I can respond appropriately and will write to my hon. Friend accordingly.

Do the Government encourage the creation of more private cemeteries, and to what extent are they committed to what was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) in a ministerial statement following the consultation? She said that it was the intention of the then Government to use powers under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 to enable all parts of the country to have reused graves.

The Government are conscious of the need to ensure that appropriate burial space is available across the country. My understanding is that need differs from region to region. We continue to consult and I expect to receive further information in the coming weeks.

On NSC accountability, the Bill provides significant recourse to users. NSC must give notice of proposals to extinguish burial rights, disturb human remains or remove memorials. Objection from the owner of burial rights amounts to a veto, and an objection from a third party is subject to directions by the Secretary of State as an independent third party. Objections from relatives to the disturbance of remains amounts to a 25-year veto. An objection from a third party is subject to directions by the Secretary of State as an independent third party. In addition, NSC has a published complaints scheme. I can confirm that the Government secured an amendment to require record keeping on the disturbance of remains and the removal of memorials.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for securing the debate. I am grateful to all who have contributed to today’s proceedings.

With the leave of the House, I thank everyone for their involvement in the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for ensuring that the Bill is scrutinised. I very much value and support that. As he said, it is inspirational, as always, to look at things in such detail.

The Bill deals with a sensitive matter with far-reaching effects, but it is particularly pertinent, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, that we have a local solution. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support and for the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord). It is proportionate and in line with other legal powers, and will be of great benefit to residents of the local area and to many religious and cultural communities, particularly the Baha’is, who will require the availability of burial sites at the cemetery. The Bill and its powers are required, as will no doubt need to be proved in the Select Committee. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.