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New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]

Volume 629: debated on Tuesday 17 October 2017

Third Reading

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

This private Bill was introduced in the other place in January 2016. It is being promoted by New Southgate Cemetery and Crematorium Ltd to enable it to use the burial space in the New Southgate cemetery more effectively and to provide greater capacity for new interment and burial in future years. The cemetery lies in my constituency, close to the boundary with Enfield.

The promoters, which I will refer to as the NSCC for brevity, are responsible for the administration of the cemetery under the terms of the Great Northern London Cemetery Act 1976. In 1990, ownership of part of the cemetery was transferred to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom. The cemetery has real significance for the Baha’i community because one of its greatest spiritual leaders, Shoghi Effendi, is buried there. I understand that the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly has expressed its support for the Bill.

People may ask why I am here today talking about cemeteries. Well, put simply, the problem is that the New Southgate cemetery is running out of space. Some 180,000 interments have been carried out there, but only around 1,800 burial spaces remain. With an average of 180 burials a year, all spaces are likely be full within 10 years if action is not taken. The Bill would address that problem by granting two new powers to the NSCC and the Baha’is. Those are based on powers already available to local authority-run cemeteries in London under section 9 of the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1976 and section 74 of the London Local Authorities Act 2007.

First, clause 3 would provide the promoters and the Baha’is with the power to extinguish rights of burial in grave spaces in the cemetery where a right of burial has not been exercised for 75 years or more. That would enable them to reclaim unused graves and make them available for new burials. Before those powers can be exercised, the Bill requires notices to be displayed in a cemetery and published in newspapers. The NSCC would also need to serve notices on the registered owner of a grave, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Historic England. The Bill provides that if the registered owner of the burial right objects, the right of burial cannot be extinguished. If anybody else objects, the right cannot be extinguished without the Secretary of State’s consent. Compensation is payable where burial rights are extinguished.

The second main power conferred by the Bill is set out in clause 4 and would enable the promoters and the Baha’is to reuse existing graves. That would involve the following process: removing remains, excavating the grave to its deepest possible depth, reinterring the disturbed remains in a casket at the bottom of the deeper grave and using the additional space above the reinterred remains for new burials.

Under the Bill, that could be done only where two conditions are met: first, that no burial has taken place for at least 75 years; and, secondly, that no exclusive burial right previously existed, or the right of burial has been extinguished using the provisions in the Bill. If the Bill is adopted, the NSCC or the Baha’is would be able to authorise re-use without the current requirement for a licence from the Secretary of State under section 25 of the Burial Act 1857.

Before exercising this power, the NSCC and the Baha’is would have to give notice, as I described earlier in my remarks. If an objection is made by the registered owner of the extinguished right of burial, the owner of a memorial on the grave or the relative of a person buried there, the powers may not be used for a further 25 years. The Bill requires the promoters and the Baha’is to keep records of any memorial removed, and a public record of the disturbance and reinterment of remains.

Prior to the promotion of the Bill, the promoters consulted cemetery users, local authorities, various religious orders and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on what they intended to propose in it, and the response to that consultation was positive. No petitions were deposited against the Bill in either House.

The Bill was given a Second Reading by this House following a debate on 29 November 2016, where it was proposed by the former Member of Parliament for Enfield Southgate, David Burrowes. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to his work on the Bill and on so many other important parliamentary and constituency matters. We miss him.

Consideration of the Bill took place in an Unopposed Bill Committee on 24 January 2017. I gather that the Chairman of Ways and Means pointed out during those proceedings that cemeteries can sometimes be important wildlife habitats—a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. Concern was expressed about a statement by the promoters regarding the maintenance of the cemetery and potential habitats, and corrections were subsequently made.

A constituent also got in touch to challenge a statement regarding the extent of tree protection orders. She believed that the TPOs referred to in Committee all related to land that had been sold by the NSCC and that no longer formed part of the cemetery. I took that up with the NSCC. I am encouraging it, of course, to do all it can to protect trees in the cemetery. It has acknowledged that, while some of the trees in the cemetery are indeed covered by TPOs, not all are. It has also confirmed that, while the TPO referred to does cover the land that was sold, it also still covers some of the trees in the cemetery. That exchange led to a further correction of the evidence.

It is regrettable that these corrections were needed, but the NSCC has given a commitment to carry out a nature conservation assessment prior to any exercise of the powers conferred by clause 4. That assessment would comply with the standards set out in the technical guidance on the reuse and reclamation of graves in London local authority cemeteries, which is dated October 2013, or any subsequent replacement document.

I should make it clear to the House that the Bill does not give the promoters any additional powers with regard to trees, wildlife or nature conservation. The NSCC remains bound by the same rules on planning, conservation and TPOs as any other landowner. Nothing in the Bill changes that.

In response to other matters raised in Committee, three further undertakings were given by the NSCC. First, it undertook that, within three months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent, it will publicise the power to extinguish burial rights in the cemetery in a newspaper circulating in the Greater London area. Secondly, before exercising any of the powers conferred by clause 4 of the Bill, the NSCC will carry out a survey of the faith groups most affected by the Bill’s proposals, to ensure that relevant faith and cultural sensitivities are taken into account fully in exercising the powers conferred by the Bill. The results of that exercise will be published along with proposed best practice. Thirdly, the NSCC undertakes not to sell for commercial gain any memorial that is removed under clauses 3 or 4 without the consent of the registered owner.

To demonstrate its compliance with the three undertakings I have outlined, the promoters have promised to send the Ministry of Justice a copy of the relevant publication or assessment, so that Ministers can place it in the Library of the House if they feel that is appropriate. Compliance with the final undertaking can be monitored under clause 5, which requires the promoters to make a record of each memorial removed and to deposit a copy of that record with the Registrar General.

Parliament was dissolved for the general election before this Bill received its Third Reading, but the Bill was revived in this Parliament. I hope that the House will support the Bill today in order to give New Southgate cemetery a sustainable future for the benefit of my constituents and the local community. It is a sensible measure that is needed to ensure that we have more burial space in north London for my constituents in Chipping Barnet and for residents living in a wider area in the boroughs of Enfield and Barnet and beyond. The changes proposed are relatively modest and reflect the position that already applies in relation to cemeteries owned by local authorities. It is only because New Southgate cemetery happens to be privately owned that statute does not already provide the powers sought in the Bill. The promoters have given important undertakings about how those powers will be exercised. As a result of this debate, these are now formally on record, including the commitment to notify the Minister at the Minister of Justice in the relevant circumstances.

There are important cultural reasons to back this legislation. Barnet and Enfield are among the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the country and are home to people of many different faiths. Burial is preferred over cremation for many in the Catholic and Greek Orthodox communities. The NSCC tells me that its experience with the black Caribbean community has also indicated a preference for burial by many families.

Moreover, as I pointed out on Second Reading, there are important conservation reasons for supporting the Bill. If we fail to take steps to ensure that we use our existing burial space effectively, pressure will grow for new cemeteries. Establishing those on green-belt land or in other suburban green spaces would damage the quality of life for my constituents and would also see a loss of valued wildlife habitats. That is one of the reasons I am opposing such a proposal for a new burial ground on the green belt in Arkley in my constituency.

For all those reasons, I appeal to the House to support the Bill. I very much hope that it will be given its Third Reading this afternoon.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for her very full introduction to this Third Reading debate. I objected to the Third Reading going through on the nod because I thought it important that the undertakings given in Committee were recorded in this Chamber so that everybody could look back and see the nature of those undertakings.

I echo my right hon. Friend’s tribute to our colleague who lost his seat at the general election. David Burrowes was an outstanding Member of Parliament. He was a really easy-going colleague and we had many a wry laugh not just about this Bill but lots of other things. He had a great twinkle in his eye, which I am sure he has not lost as a result of his electoral experience.

I would also like to thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. With private Bill procedure, one often thinks that if the business goes to an Unopposed Bill Committee there will not really be any effective scrutiny and it will go through on the nod. The record of the role that you played in the Unopposed Bill Committee shows that you were rigorous in exploring matters and putting questions to the promoters, some of which they answered more easily than others. As a result, they wrote to you on 2 February setting out the four undertakings, which I will not repeat because my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet has already referred to them. In securing those undertakings through your expert cross-examination, you have done everybody a great service. You have also put it on record that this sometimes obscure private Bill procedure never suffers if we have proper scrutiny, whether it be in debates on the Floor of the Chamber or in Committee.

This Bill now has the support of everybody, I think. We also have a written memorandum, to which my right hon. Friend did not refer in much detail. The one I have here is signed for and on behalf of New Southgate Cemetery and Crematorium Ltd and dated 5 September 2017, but another one in almost identical terms was issued in March this year. The memorandum sets out more detail and background on the way in which the cemetery will be maintained in future. Apart from the safeguards set out in the memorandum and the undertakings, there is also the fact that the promoters will send those undertakings to the Ministry of Justice, so that the Minister may place the information in the Library of the House. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is able to confirm that that will happen, because it is important that when people look back at these proceedings years hence, they are easily able to access the documentation. I wish this Bill a safe passage.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on moving the Third Reading of this private Bill. I associate myself with her comments and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) with regard to the former Member for Enfield Southgate. In addition to all those comments, which I support, I would say that if there is one thing I remember about him, it is his core decency. As a consequence, he really is a loss to the House.

As I said on an earlier occasion, we are participating in one of Parliament’s less used procedures. It is nevertheless significant, in that it enables organisations to seek to disapply or modify the general law in relation to their own powers. Our debate here today, like earlier discussions on this Bill, has been aimed at ensuring that the promoters have put in place, or have agreed to observe, appropriate measures to ensure the proper exercise of the modifications to the law that they seek. I am grateful to all hon. Members both here and in another place who have contributed to this important process during the Bill’s passage. The result is a comprehensive and robust set of provisions that will enable New Southgate cemetery to continue to serve its communities into the future while ensuring that appropriate safeguards are in place.

As I have said before, the Bill addresses the needs of New Southgate cemetery, and the Government do not wish to prevent the cemetery from remaining viable in this way. On Second Reading, I confirmed that I was satisfied with the engagement that the promoters had undertaken with faith groups using the cemetery. In a subsequent letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I expressed my expectation that in exercising the powers conferred by this Bill, the New Southgate cemetery burial authorities would continue to ensure that relevant faith and cultural sensitivities are taken into account and would continue to have due regard to available guidance and best practice. This issue was explored further in some detail in Committee. As a result, the promoters have given a written undertaking that before exercising any powers under clause 4, they will carry out a survey of the faith groups affected to ensure compliance with my expectations, and will publish their findings and proposed best practice. I am grateful to the Committee for securing this undertaking and to the promoters for agreeing to it.

Also as a result of discussion in Committee, the promoters have given an undertaking to publicise in a Greater London newspaper, within three months of Royal Assent, the power to extinguish burial rights in the cemetery. They have also given an undertaking that before exercising any powers under clause 4, they will carry out a nature conservation assessment of the cemetery grounds in accordance with the technical guidance current at the time. Again, I am grateful to those who have proposed and agreed to these undertakings.

Of course, giving undertakings is one thing and carrying them out is another. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is rightly concerned to ensure that the promoters’ compliance with these conditions is demonstrated to Parliament. In answer to the question on tree protection, this particular cemetery will, in any event, be obliged to comply with any tree preservation orders that are in place. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet indicated, the promoters have agreed to provide to the Ministry of Justice copies of the documentation arising from the three undertakings on the newspaper advertisement, the findings of the faith groups survey and best practice, and the nature conservation assessment. They will also be publishing the documents on their website. I give an undertaking of my own to the House today that on receipt of those documents, I will place them in the House Libraries, where they will be available for scrutiny by Members. I hope that that mechanism will satisfy the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.

The promoters have given a fourth undertaking to the House—not to sell for commercial gain any memorial removed under sections 3 or 4 of the Act without the consent of the registered owner. Compliance with this condition will be monitored by means of the requirement for the burial authority to keep a record of each memorial that is removed and to deposit a copy of that record with the Registrar General. It would also be possible to scrutinise the burial authority’s accounts, which, as it is a registered company, are published.

In conclusion, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for securing this debate and for his diligence in seeking to put on record the means by which the promoters will demonstrate compliance with their undertakings to this House. I trust that the explanations provided have allayed his concerns, and I am grateful to all who have contributed to today’s proceedings.

With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to say a very few words. As others have done, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for his always assiduous scrutiny of private Members’ business. I express my gratitude to the Minister for the work that he has done to agree the undertakings, and for his promises about the work that the Ministry of Justice will carry out as a result of those undertakings. I thank my constituent who contacted me about this Bill to express her concerns about nature conservation at the cemetery. Finally, I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your careful scrutiny of the process. I am happy to commend this Bill to the House and I hope it will command a majority this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.