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Emergency Services: Ministers of Religion

Volume 816: debated on Monday 22 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to establish a multi-professional strategy for the emergency services concerning the attendance of ministers of religion at the scene of situations involving serious injury.

My Lords, today of all days, we remember Sir David Amess, who tragically died carrying out his duties as a public servant. Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones, as well as with all those involved in scenes of traumatic injury. Decisions regarding the management of such situations remain an operational issue for the emergency services involved. There are no plans to establish a multi-professional strategy on this issue.

My Lords, the tragic death of Sir David Amess brought to national attention a problem that experts and academics in the field of disaster and emergency response have recognised for some time—namely, the lack of a considered approach to the role of ministers of religion and their access to victims at end-of-life in disasters and emergencies. While I welcome the fact that the Archbishop of Westminster and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner have opened a dialogue on this topic, does my noble friend agree that a national standard is required? Will she undertake a study, preliminary to that, of other jurisdictions such as Israel, Italy and even Northern Ireland, where practice tends to be more nuanced and accommodating?

There are certainly lessons to be learned from other jurisdictions, as my noble friend said. I totally empathise with the situation that both David Amess’s family and the police found themselves in during that dreadful incident. Given the people who are involved, I hope and expect a sensible and pragmatic conclusion to be arrived at through the discussions.

My Lords, the noble Lord has spoken with compassion, but is there not a danger that the attendance of ministers of religion at the scene of an accident could hamper the work of the emergency services? If there are serious injuries, the victim will be taken to hospital, where they can, if desired, call on the excellent chaplaincy service, which works 24 hours a day.

The noble Lord is right that chaplains operate 24 hours a day in hospitals. My noble friend’s question, of course, was about Sir David Amess, who was at the point of death when his family wanted him to have the last rites from a Catholic priest. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is correct to point out that the criteria for the police to consider in such incidents are protection of life, the risks at the scene and the preservation of evidence at the scene.

My Lords, I greatly welcome the joint study group announced by the cardinal archbishop. Does the Minister agree that good outcomes from that study would include both further training and education to ensure that police officers understand the significance of spiritual comfort at the point of death, for the dying of whatever faith, and an increased role for police chaplaincy?

I am sure that what will come out of that group are considerations of whether any changes are required to the guidance issued to police officers faced with such situations. I know that hospital chaplains are available around the clock to cater for a range of different needs and provide comfort, both during a period of illness and at the point of death.

My Lords, the circumstances surrounding access for the local priest to be with Sir David in his final hours put everyone concerned in an exceptionally difficult position. Will my noble friend the Minister look at the US model, where emergency managers can identify and engage with faith-based groups in emergency preparedness activities, building partnerships with them to establish protocols for use at the scene of serious injuries and integrating faith leaders into emergency situations involving serious injury?

I will certainly take my noble friend’s point back. I know the College of Policing welcomes engagement with faith community leaders and others who have concerns about the current authorised professional practice to understand views and consider possible next steps for this issue.

My Lords, surely there is a difference between the perpetrator sitting at the scene of a stabbing waiting to be arrested and an explosion where forensic recovery is essential. Can the Minister not bring together faith and police leaders nationally to discuss the potential use of discretion, in appropriate cases?

The noble Lord is right, in the sense that it sounds like the perpetrator was standing there, waiting to be arrested, but there has to be a framework around these things. Of course, forensic preservation is crucial at such scenes, even where it is apparent what has gone on. I am sure that the group will consider the noble Lord’s proposals.

My Lords, I know this is incredibly difficult but, as we can carry donor cards and things, would it not be possible to consider compiling a register of those of us who would wish to receive the last rites at the point of death? I am sure that would bring great comfort to many families.

We are talking here about the point of death of someone who was killed in very unusual circumstances. My family know what I would want, and I am sure noble Lords in this House have let their families know what they would want. But there is a point there about pragmatism and considering someone’s last wishes at the scene of crime.

My Lords, in these difficult times, is it not possible that people’s spiritual needs, as well as their physical needs, could be supported, and if possible adhered to, during serious injury and illness? Could the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care work together to send out a directive advising on these matters?

The group led by the National Police Chiefs’ Council, joined by the Catholic Church and the College of Policing, will determine what such a framework looks like. It was a surprise to me that this had not come up before, and therefore it needs some thinking about, including on whether changes are required to the guidance issued to police faced with such situations.

Our thoughts too are very much with the family and friends of Sir David Amess, particularly today. As has been said, Cardinal Vincent Nichols and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner have agreed to create a group reviewing last rites access for priests at crime scenes. Presumably, there is a need to ensure that a crime scene remains protected and not disturbed, and that the person seeking access is who they say they are. First, has this matter of access or lack of it for ministers of religion been a concern before and, if so, with representatives of which faiths? Secondly, is the question of such access presently covered by College of Policing or other guidelines?

It does not seem to have come up as an issue before, and that is precisely why this group is meeting to see if there are any gaps in the guidance issued to police to deal with such incidents.

My Lords, one of the cruellest aspects of the lockdown was the denial of visits from priests to give last rites to those dying in care homes. For Catholics, at least, that was as awful as not seeing beloved family. The official advice was to say prayers by Zoom. Would the noble Baroness note that, while there is an Amess amendment as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, this is less a regulatory or legislative matter and more a deficit of cultural capital when it comes to Christian practices? Would she also note that the overtechnocratic approach illustrated by some of the replies today misses what really matters in society?

Not only do I empathise with what really matters to some people at the point of death—it made me think that, if I was in such a situation, I would want a priest there—but I am very glad that Cardinal Nichols is meeting with the NPCC. That group will consider a more nuanced approach that can be reflected in police guidance about facing such a situation.