Members present:


RT HON PAUL BOATENG, a Member of the House, Minister of State, MR ROBERT CLIFFORD, Head of Coroner's Section, Home Office, RT HON HILARY ARMSTRONG, a Member of the House, Minister for Local Government and the Regions, MR JOHN ROBERTS, Divisional Manager of Regeneration Division 1, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, examined.


507    Can I welcome you both to the Committee. Can I ask you to identify yourselves for the record, please?

(Mr Boateng)  Paul Boateng, Minister of State at the Home Office.

(Mr Clifford)  Robert Clifford.

(Hilary Armstrong)  Hilary Armstrong, from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

(Mr Roberts)  John Roberts, from DETR.

508    Do either of you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight into questions.

(Mr Boateng)  We are quite happy to go straight into questions.

Mr Blunt

509    Mr Boateng, have you read the transcript of the evidence given by Mr Clifford?

(Mr Boateng)  No, I have not.

510    Do you share the view of Mr Clifford that it is yet unproven that there is a serious problem facing our cemeteries?

(Mr Boateng)  I am increasingly of the view that the concerns that are out there in terms of the industry and in terms, increasingly I think, of users of some historical conservation groups, are such as to throw into stark relief a real question as to whether or not the time has come for us to look again at the powers available to central government in this area. I say that whilst respecting the importance of ensuring that this, essentially, local resource is one that is subject to proper local control and accountability, and an input from the locality. It is increasingly clear to me, however, that we are reaching a time in which the degree of central oversight and capacity to intervene where things are going wrong needs to be strengthened. Historically, I think, we have tended to see this, in government, as a local resource that is best left local and managed locally, but I think there are issues that are now coming to the fore that require us to look again at that.

511    What do you see?

(Mr Boateng)  In terms of a cemetery where there are issues of neglect and repair, for the Home Office to intervene it is necessary for us to proceed by way of ordering council. That does, actually, strike me as being somewhat anachronistic and that we ought to be looking now at whether or not there is a need for a change in the substantive law. That is my view.

512    This is the law and central government's role relating to simply the upkeep of cemeteries, or do you see it as across the board in terms of provision of sufficient cemetery space?

(Mr Boateng)  I think it goes wider than that. As you know, we prepared a draft consultation document some 18 months ago and it dealt with various proposals for maximising the use of existing burial grounds. However, there are other issues concerning cemeteries that are beginning now, I think, to come to central government attention, around the problem of old, private cemeteries, the limitations of Home Office powers (as I have indicated), the training and qualification of cemetery staff, the need to address environmental and cultural policy issues and the inflexibility of existing legislation. I am increasingly of the view that we ought now to look at the sufficiency and adequacy of powers and policy in relation to all those issues.

513    Is that an element where you say you do not agree with the evidence Mr Clifford gave at the beginning of this inquiry; that you believe there is a serious problem facing our cemeteries?

(Mr Boateng)  I believe there are causes for concern that we need to address. Whether one chooses to describe it as a serious problem or as a crisis I am not sure is particularly pertinent. What I am convinced of is the need for us to take a fresh look at a range of issues around cemeteries, crematoria and burial grounds.

514    Mrs Armstrong, can you add to that from the DETR perspective?

(Hilary Armstrong)  The local government perspective is very clear. There is work going on within local government at the moment in order to address the issues of both cemeteries and crematoria. Authorities do have responsibility over the next five years to renew all of their services under best value, and they will be doing so ----

515    I am sorry, it is really simply on the issue of whether, at ministerial level or departmental level, you believe it is established that there is a serious problem facing cemeteries, or whether you believe there is not, or whether the jury is out.

(Hilary Armstrong)  I was trying to get to that. We know from some authorities that they do believe that they have a serious problem, other authorities feel that there is not a serious problem. I think it is, therefore, difficult to come to the conclusion that there is a problem everywhere. I agree with my colleague, Paul, from the Home Office that we do need to take a look which gives us better information about what is gong on throughout the country and, therefore, gives us a better feel for what we ought to be doing nationally, whilst still maintaining the planning regime and so on as, essentially, a devolved regime of the responsibility of local authorities.

516    At this stage it is your view that it is not established that there is a serious problem facing cemeteries. I do not say there is not, I said not established.

(Hilary Armstrong)  What I am saying is that one of the problems is there is not sufficient knowledge nationally of what is going on everywhere. Our best value regime will, through the audited inspections regime, give us more information, but at the moment there is patchy information. What we hear about here - what you hear about and what I hear about in Parliament - are where there are real problems. We do not know exactly what is going on everywhere because it is, largely, an issue that is dealt with locally.

517    In terms of dealing with policy towards cemeteries - or, indeed, all matters relating to cemeteries - are you content to take your lead from the Home Office?

(Hilary Armstrong)  That is the legal position. The legal position was changed where responsibility was transferred to the Home Office for important provisions around burial and cremation, and we work with them. By saying they are in the lead does not mean that we seek to abdicate our responsibility, but clearly we work within the legal framework as it has been established.

Mr Cummings

518    I can understand the frustration in not having evidence, because we do not even have a register of the number of cemeteries in the United Kingdom. Would it be your intention to embark upon such an exercise?

(Mr Boateng)  It is certainly my intention to launch a consultation on the wider issues that goes beyond the draft document that I have made sure is available to the Committee. One of the areas where we will need to come to a policy decision is whether or not we should have such a register. In my view, this is an area where you have a classic example of inadequacy of powers, because at the moment the Home Office has no statutory power to require information to be provided. It is actually quite incredible that that should be the case. However, historically, that is our legacy. I think it is true to say, both in relation to the DETR, when they had full responsibility for this area, and in relation to the Home Office, that the past has been characterised by a degree of laissez faire which in the current circumstances I do not think is appropriate any longer. We need to be more pro-active whilst recognising, however, the dangers of being overly prescriptive.

Mr Blunt

519    I think Mr Clifford would be proud of that last remark. Will the best value process produce the information that you are seeking over the next five years, given that the vast majority of cemeteries are within the public sector?

(Hilary Armstrong)  What that will do is within each area produce an assessment of what the authority, through its review, believes service to be like, what needs to happen in order to improve it, and so on. That will be available publicly. So the public information will be available to the electorate. For example, I noted that in Sir Paul's area the authority has already completed their best value review of cemeteries and crematoria and, indeed, war memorials. Now we do not collect all of that information together, but what it will do is give us public information that we can draw upon - and, indeed, the auditors will also be looking at those reviews and seeing whether they are upholding the principles of best value.

520    Should the DETR make a commitment to ensure the continued availability of burial?

(Hilary Armstrong)  There is no evidence at the moment that burial is not available to people, or that authorities are not dealing with that. At the moment that is an issue through planning guidance, and within the planning guidance it is anticipated that through their development plans they will be addressing the social needs of the area, and that includes the provision of cemeteries.

521    In Tower Hamlets and Hackney, residents do not have a burial service provided by the borough available to them.

(Hilary Armstrong)  That would be the decision there locally saying, "Does there need to be a cemetery within the boundaries of this borough or have we got access that is experienced by people locally, admitting their needs, in the neighbouring borough?"

522    But the fact that they go to a neighbouring borough or go to a private cemetery means they get charged double or triple the equivalent fees for the largely subsidised services they would get if they were parishioners or electors of their own borough. Is that a satisfactory state of affairs as far as the DETR is concerned?

(Hilary Armstrong)  This is about devolution and about local decision-making, and I do believe that there are things in this country which are best decided locally, and I do believe that central government has the responsibility to ensure that local people have the means whereby they can put pressure on their own authority if their needs are not being met, and that is what we have been seeking to do.


523    If we are specific about Tower Hamlets and Hackney, it is Government policy which is making it virtually impossible for either of those local authorities to do anything about it, is it not?

(Hilary Armstrong)  In what sense?

524    In that you are not looking at things like re-burial, re-use of graves.

(Hilary Armstrong)  There is consideration of how we use cemeteries effectively, and that very much is what Paul and I were discussing in preparation for this.

525    I do not want to press that specifically but when you say it is a devolved service I want to be clear that although it is devolved they have to do it within the framework of national rules and regulations?

(Hilary Armstrong)  They certainly do.

Mr Blunt

526    But the fact is they do not have to do it. In the end it is not a commitment of the DETR on behalf of Government saying, "There will be a burial service provided", it is entirely a matter for the local people or their elected representatives?

(Hilary Armstrong)  Yes.

527    How do the problems facing cemeteries and the measures needed to address them, differ from those facing parks and other open spaces?

(Hilary Armstrong)  Clearly there are some authorities that are looking at parks and open spaces and cemeteries in the same review in that they see these as open spaces, and I know in many areas the cemetery is somewhere that people go for quietness, for reflection, for really being able to get away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the area they live in, so in that sense they have a close relationship. But, on the other hand, they are not somewhere for playing ball games and all of the other things which we often associate with parks. We do encourage authorities to look at all green spaces in their area and think about how they are managing those, how they are managing, if you like, the public realm, but we would hope they were not simply looking at them as being the same as parks or cemeteries.

528    Do you believe it is acceptable to address cemeteries only on the same basis as parks and other open spaces?

(Hilary Armstrong)  I think I have said no.

529    I wanted to be quite clear about that.

(Hilary Armstrong)  I hoped that is what you understood me to say.

530    So your advice to local authorities is that they should separate out the provision of services for parks and open spaces on the one hand and cemeteries on the other?

(Hilary Armstrong)  Most authorities are doing that when I look at their Best Value Review plan.

Mr Benn

531    Can I ask you, Mr Boateng, about the consultation document on re-use? Why was the decision taken not to publish it around the time it was drafted?

(Mr Boateng)  I think our concern is to ensure that we address the wider issues I have outlined which are now coming to the fore around old private cemeteries - limitation of Home Office powers, the qualifications of cemetery staff, the need for environmental and cultural and policy issues, the inflexibility of existing legislation - and it is my intention to launch a wider consultation exercise, of which this draft document will form but a part.


532    Could I ask when?

(Mr Boateng)  My hope would be, Mr Bennett, soon after we have had an opportunity to reflect on your own contribution to the development of policy in this area, because it seems to me, not for the first time in my experience of Select Committees both as a serving member and as a Minister - indeed a serving member of this Committee - the attention of a Select Committee has focused ministerial minds on a particular issue. I would want to take on board what the Committee recommends and then launch shortly afterwards, certainly this year, a wider consultation of the sort I have indicated. It is timely, it is right to do it, and no further delay would be acceptable.

Mr Benn

533    Is it the case that you were worried about possible public reaction to the concept of grave re-use, if the document was solely about that?

(Mr Boateng)  I think one always has to bear in mind public sensitivities and sensibilities around this issue. And with good cause; I share those sensitivities, to be frank. We will need to find a way forward that maximises the use and efficiency of these important public facilities but that does so in a way which is supported by a consensual public view. I do think that is very important. Anything that this Committee and our consultation paper set in that wider context can do to promote that degree of consensus and acceptability and identify exactly what is acceptable and what would command public confidence I think will be to the better. The Home Office interest, the Government interest, is in ensuring that burial and cremation processes are carried out in a way which ensures that for the dead and their families a sense of decency and respect is going to prevail in terms of the way that this very difficult time in any family's existence is handled.

534    Have you done any research as the Home Office into public attitudes to grave re-use?

(Mr Boateng)  No, none that I am aware of, and none that is of sufficient adequacy to base any firm conclusions on. That is why I have discussed with Mr Clifford how we can put in hand the steps to obtain that sense of what the public's view is, and appropriate research, as part of the consultation.

535.    You will have seen from the evidence we have received in connection with this inquiry that that evidence is virtually unanimous in supporting re-use as the logical and sensible approach to dealing with the problem of shortage of burial place, and Crispin Blunt drew attention to the problems which exist in parts of inner London. Do you agree that is the right course of action to follow?

(Mr Boateng)  I have not made up my mind on that, to be frank, and I do not believe it would be right for ministers to go into a consultation process having formed a firm view on it. I have real sensitivities around the issue and I would want to be satisfied that it could be carried out in a way which would command public confidence.


536.    What are those sensitivities?

(Mr Boateng)  Quite frankly, the idea of disturbing graves. I find that a notion which of itself arouses a degree of sensitivity. The actual mechanics of the process do, I believe, require very careful consideration.

Mr Benn

537.    Even though in church yards, of course, that has been happening for a thousand years in terms of practice? We visited one a couple of weeks ago as part of our inquiry.

(Mr Boateng)  I do not think, Mr Benn, you should under-estimate the degree of dissention that can occur in relation to disturbing graves in church yards, it can be a very difficult thing for parochial church councils and local communities actually to accept, and for reasons I well understand.

538.    I can assure you I do not under-estimate it at all. You said in answer to an earlier question that you thought the capacity of central government to intervene needs to be strengthened?

(Mr Boateng)  Yes.

539.    Can I take it from that that you recognise there does seem to be a case for legislation relating to burials now to be reviewed?

(Mr Boateng)  I do.

540.    Do you accept that there is a case for private cemeteries to come within the purview of regulation?

(Mr Boateng)  I do.

Mr Donohoe

541.    Do you think that local authorities should be debarred from the fullness of the ceremony towards burial? We have heard evidence from Carlisle where the local authority are advanced in terms of burial procedure and it seemed they were debarred from certain elements of the commercial side of the burial. Do you think that should be continued or, as the Minister has mentioned devolution, do you believe local authorities should be given the right to move into the commercial side of burial itself?

(Mr Boateng)  I think that is a matter where I would defer very much to my Rt Hon friend.

(Hilary Armstrong)  I think you are referring to the issue of memorials, are you?

542.    Memorials is part of it, but the whole question of the supply of coffins, for instance?

(Hilary Armstrong)  I think you are really then talking about the ability of the authority to trade. We have discussed this in the Committee before and there are limitations on that although the Government has recently changed the regulations; just in fact last week in Committee we did begin to change some of those things. It really is how we are looking at the powers to charge for goods and services and we did consider this during the passage of the recent Local Government Act and also the whole issue of charging is one that we are in the middle of carrying out another consultation on, because legally it is true authorities cannot charge at the moment for some of these things although some of them are doing it. We are reviewing that but we have to do that within the context of the rules from the European Community on competition and on the private sector being unfairly dealt with if the local authority sets up a trading sector which is not totally separated from its council taxpayers' money.

543.    But you would concede that there are major concerns being expressed, as we have heard in this Committee, towards the cost of funerals and that in many ways would go a long way towards avoiding this problem of almost a rip-off perceived in people's minds as far as burial of people is concerned?

(Hilary Armstrong)  I also do know that some authorities have established fairly effective ways of bringing down the price of funerals, where they have done a lot of negotiation with particular funeral operators in order to get, if you like, competition for funerals and pricing brought down. Certainly I know of authorities which have been very successful in doing that.

Sir Paul Beresford

544.    Is there not another side of that, as was pointed out earlier today, that some services provided are restricted to local authority services only and the private sector are out, which would in fact ultimately perhaps have exactly the opposite effect?

(Hilary Armstrong)  That is precisely the road we try to tread, that there are some who think it should be dealt with exclusively by the public sector, there are others who think it should be dealt with exclusively by the private sector, so we want to make sure that there is the opportunity to get services delivered at a cost that people are able to pay but at the highest quality possible. So we have been moving the legislation to enable that to happen more effectively but we also are not prepared to move as far as cutting out the private sector, partly for the reasons you say but partly because we want to make sure that this is done in each area in ways which are appropriate to that area. But I do understand that the Office of Fair Trading have a current study on funerals going on, so that will be something else to bear in mind.

Mr Donohoe

545.    Can I take you to another point as far as evidence is concerned? Both your officials have indicated to us the research on cemeteries will take place in the coming year. Is that a pledge which will be met?

(Mr Boateng)  Yes.


546.    Do you think that the research that has already been done by Professor Davies into the re-use of graves was not valid?

(Mr Boateng)  I do not know it in sufficient detail to comment. I defer to Mr Clifford who presumably knows it better than I.

(Mr Clifford)  It made a very useful and important exposition of the situation, we thought it was very valuable.

547.    So you think the survey of 1,600 people was not really sufficient to form Government views on it?

(Mr Clifford)  The questions being asked were of the nature of were people content with the idea of graves being re-used in the way set out. I think what we would like to do is to be sure that we are really asking the question in relation to individuals, "Would you be prepared to have your relatives buried in such circumstances" at a time when they are really engaged on that point and understand the implications of it all. I am not too sure that was as fully brought out as it might have been.

Mr Donohoe

548.    Will the research itself cover areas other than just the re-use of graves?

(Mr Boateng)  Yes, because as I have indicated it seems to me that if we are, and we are, going to consult on the wider issues then we should take advantage of the opportunity for some research and look at some of those wider issues too. The local/central balance I think is one of them. The Committee itself has raised in the course of its questioning, and Hilary has touched on this, the extent to which burial grounds and cemeteries are themselves depositories not just for the deceased but also of historical, cultural and natural significance. If I speak of my own most local burial ground, Kensal Rise Cemetery, it is a fascinating depository of history and an important area of natural and environmental significance itself. How we use such places is, I think, something upon which the public will have a view and I would like to involve them in that.

549.    Following the Sub-Committee's report into the parks and open spaces, your Department gave something like £10,000 towards the examination of that. Just exactly what are you going to give to cemeteries for any research and evaluation of cemeteries?

(Hilary Armstrong)  That, again, is something we are going to have to look at. I am anxious that we do not simply lump cemeteries in with parks and open spaces, I do not think it is appropriate to do that, so the committee we are setting up and the work we are doing on parks may look at some of the aspects which relate to the green spaces and so on, but I do not think it wants to take on board all of the aspects of cemeteries you are raising. We do not have at this stage any additional funding earmarked for cemeteries, it is part of the EPCS block in local government spending, and that is expected to have an annual rise of about 1.5 per cent between now and 2003-04 which I acknowledge is not great, but we certainly will look at it in terms of research in the future although there is no specific research dedicated to this aspect at the moment.

Sir Paul Beresford

550.    You mentioned the funding, which is very important in relation to local authorities, is there a needs index related to cemeteries and their maintenance and care?

(Hilary Armstrong)  I need to come back to you on that. On SSAs, you probably know as well as I do, how SSAs deal with cemeteries and crematoria. I do know that in terms of performance indicators there is not a national performance indicator but we do encourage authorities to develop their own performance indicators. The Audit Commission along with the Improvement and Development Agency have been developing what they call a library of performance indicators because authorities were saying, "We really want to have an indicator which tells us something about this particular aspect" ---

Chairman:  Before we get into that and I know Sir Paul wants to ask some questions on that, Mr Donohoe just wants to finish his questions.

Mr Donohoe

551.    I am grateful, Chairman. It is becoming a trend now that every time I ask a question other folks want to jump in. Can I ask you, Minister, if I may, why inspectors of burial grounds are appointed on an ad hoc basis?

(Mr Boateng)  We have not yet been persuaded - the views of your Committee will be interesting - there is a need to have a standing inspectorate for these purposes. We have already carried out a number of cemetery inspections on an ad hoc basis and they have been perfectly adequate, we have been able to get together both the resources and the personnel to carry out those inspections. What I do think, however, would be useful, and I have touched on it briefly in a previous response, is for there to be available to ministers an advisory group of relevant professional and other bodies who are able to give advice on these issues as and when asked and able to keep under review the operation of the ad hoc inspection arrangements to see if we needed more. It would in the past, I suppose, have seemed rather perverse to have had a standing inspectorate given the paucity of powers available to Government to do anything about a range of these issues. That, in my view, has to change and as and when it does it may well be then time to re-visit the question of whether or not one should have a standing as opposed to an ad hoc inspectorate.

552.    How many bodies are in the inspectorate?

(Mr Boateng)  We have not got a standing inspectorate.

553.    At any one time in any one year how many people have been involved?

(Mr Boateng)  How many inspections did we have last year, Mr Clifford? I can think of one.

(Mr Clifford)  We had two last year.

554.    So there is nobody there that oversees the whole question of burial then despite all the horror stories that we read in the press?

(Mr Boateng)  If we require inspection, if we want an inspection, we bring in an inspector on an ad hoc basis.

555.    Would it not be better, rather than be reactive to situations which come to your attention, mainly through the press, to be proactive in making sure the whole question of burial is one that is going to be undertaken in a proper fashion?

(Mr Boateng)  As I say, we would be wanting to address that when we have the powers to address the faults which are exposed by such inspections. At the moment, in my view, the powers are inadequate because the historical approach, as I have indicated, has been one of seeing this very much as a local issue to be dealt with locally without central involvement or responsibility or the powers to actually address some very important and significant questions. That has been left to exceptional powers and local decision-making.

Mrs Dunwoody

556.    Mr Clifford said you had no in-house expertise, you say it is very complex legislation but we may have to wait until we get a review of the legislation.

(Mr Boateng)  I say it has to be changed, that is my view.

557.    Fine, but who then is pulling together all these urgent problems about re-use, the problem of not having enough room to bury people, the pressure on local authorities? Who is bringing all that together?

(Mr Boateng)  The Home Office.

558.    What kind of timescale are we talking about, Minister? You printed but did not issue your consultation document some time ago and then there seems to be what I would politely describe as a hiatus. When are you going to start doing all these things?

(Mr Boateng)  My determination is that we should issue a consultation paper and that we should commission research this year.

Mr Blunt

559.    Was it your determination not to issue the consultation paper 12 or 18 months ago when it was prepared?

(Mr Boateng)  No, I was not in this particular office 12 or 18 months ago.

560.    How long have you had responsibility for this?

(Mr Boateng)  I was not in this office in July 1999 when the decision was taken ---

561.    --- not to publish?

(Mr Boateng)  --- not to publish. I was not at that time responsible, in 1999, for graves and cemeteries.

562.    There is a slight issue here of potential double-standards and dealing with the public about the sensitivity of the issue of re-use of graves. The explanation given to the Committee by Mr Clifford when he gave evidence, and indeed improved upon by you, Minister, was that re-use is such a sensitive issue, there are all sorts of issues to be considered, yet the evidence we have taken from industry and from Professor Davies was that in fact people are prepared to face up to these issues as to when re-use should happen - whether it should be after 50 years, 75 years, 100 years - that the public and the industry are ready and need for that debate to take place not least on the basis of a Government consultation paper. Has there been a misappreciation within the Department about the sensitivity of this issue?

(Mr Boateng)  I do not believe so. I think the Departments and Government are absolutely right to be extremely conscious of the sensitivities and sensibilities which surround burial, cremation and the potential disturbance of loved relatives and friends. I think we are right to recognise those sensitivities and sensibilities.

563.    That is the issue I want to come to. This sensitivity appears to have led to a delay on the issue of the consultation paper which sits alongside your Department issuing licences on a regular basis for the disturbance of human remains in order to allow building projects to go ahead.

(Mr Boateng)  Mr Blunt, with respect, that is not what I have said. It seems to me and to Government that whilst the time is ripe for us to embark on a consultation in this area, it needs to be a wider consultation along the lines I have outlined, it needs to be informed by research, and it needs to be very up-front about the importance of respecting the sensibilities and the sensitivities which surround this particular area.

564.    But do we only consider the sensitivities and sensibilities around the disturbance of human remains when there is a lobby, if you like, either from the family or institutions, but when there is no sensitivity around human remains, they are just human remains and you are happy to give a licence to get them cleaned up and out of the way to put a building up?

(Mr Boateng)  The giving of a licence is something which is taken by the officials concerned very seriously indeed. It is not given as a matter of course.


565.    What you are saying to us, and it was confirmed by Mr Clifford, is that if you want to build a supermarket and you need to remove some human remains from an old cemetery, you more or less give permission for it from the Home Office. But if you wanted to use the cemetery again for re-use, at the moment that is an area in which you feel there is great sensitivity?

(Mr Boateng)  In all circumstances it is taken seriously, in all circumstances, and rightly so. It is not just done as a matter of course. If one were to accept re-burial, as you describe it, as a matter of course, if that were to become public policy, in my view and in the view of the Government that can only happen after there has been consultation and research into this particular area as part of that wider piece of work which needs to be done around burial and cremation, and that consultation and that research has to be carried out in a way that does recognise, as I say, sensitivities and sensibilities. The criticism may be made by the Committee that we have been unduly concerned about it, well, quite frankly, I would rather be accused of being unduly concerned about it than not concerned enough because I am very concerned about it.

566.    If you are concerned about it, can you give us one or two examples of where people have come forward with road widening schemes, supermarket schemes and other reasons for disturbing old burial grounds and you have refused permission?

(Mr Boateng)  With respect, Mr Bennett - I am perfectly happy to write to you and give you details not necessarily about where we have refused permission but how we approach these issues - there is a difference between the examples you have given and deciding as a matter of policy that we are now to embark upon the re-use of graves. I believe the public do see a difference between those two things and that difference is real.

Sir Paul Beresford

567.    If I was sitting in a local authority listening to both of you, I would feel there is a slight dichotomy of approach. The Home Office Minister is telling us he has got legal changes and regulation changes and so on and so forth in mind, and encouragement is probably the approach of the DETR which I think is probably the right approach from a local authority point of view. But if we go down this line of the Home Office point of view, does the Home Office assist the funding? Is it going to assist the funding? Would they contemplate assisting the funding of the actions which are going to have to be taken in response to the legislation changes which the Home Office will put in swing?

(Mr Boateng)  You are jumping all sorts of fences, Sir Paul, which you quite rightly, with your previous experience as a jockey in these matters - a fairly prodigious one - recognise exist, but I do not intend to bind my Department or my successors in office to any arrangement with my colleague, the Minister of State in the DETR on this issue as to future finance. Clearly financing and resourcing will be one of the issues which will have to be taken into account by both departments. There are financial and resource issues arising out of the development of policy in this area which we will need to meet and the Government will need to meet.

568.    Absolutely, and that is agreed and accepted by DETR as well?

(Hilary Armstrong)  We have been putting substantial amounts into local government ---

569.    I will hear about that on Thursday week.

(Hilary Armstrong)  Much more in my realm than your realm, one might say!

570.    One of the things I did quite like is that you are quite clearly trying to encourage local authorities and you are talking about Best Value, which is dubious as far as I am concerned as an encouragement, but also performance indicators, et cetera, what else is DETR doing?

(Hilary Armstrong)  We have national indicators which do not include indicators of this nature but, again, the Committee in the past has pressed on me that we use a number of national indicators, but also there are local indicators, and as I have said there have been these off-the-shelf indicators developed, and among those are indicators for crematoria, cemeteries and so on, so local authorities have had developed for them the sort of indicators that they might be able to use locally, and they will have to decide whether those indicators actually do meet what they are looking to deliver or whether they want to further develop them themselves.

571.    What else has the DETR turned to to encourage local authorities in this particular area? You have already moved on parks.

(Hilary Armstrong)  Yes, we have already moved on parks and on open spaces. We have been involved in discussions with the industry about, for example, memorials and the maintenance of memorials and the provision of memorials. I have to say that those discussions have not reached a fruitful end in that there was no agreement between the parties. But we have been engaged with them in those sorts of discussions.

572.    Is this money again?

(Hilary Armstrong)  As I say, we have increased the block of money that is going to local authorities from which they allocate spending on this area.


573.    Could you remind the Committee how much money this is and who is competing for the money?

(Hilary Armstrong)  The area is called the EPCS block, which is Environment, Protection and Cultural Services, I think. It covers libraries, waste management, it certainly covers cemeteries and crematoria, it covers the things which are not within the education, social services block really. The overall increase of Government grant to local authorities has gone up by £7.9 billion since 1997-98 and the EPCS block will increase each year by an average of 1.8 per cent in real terms up to 2003-04. What I do not have is precisely how much that block is - partly because we have changed the methodology since coming into Government and that makes like for like comparisons quite difficult - but I can certainly send you whatever other information I can dig out. EPCS is the Environmental Protective and Cultural Services block.

Sir Paul Beresford

574.    That is a block which is under heavy pressure from your Department for other areas and the requirement for waste management, et cetera, must need an up-grade because the requirement to have incinerators dotted all round the country is going to put enormous pressure on that particular block.

(Hilary Armstrong)  I do not pretend there is any part of local government finance which is not under severe pressure despite the considerable increases.

Sir Paul Beresford:  Thursday week!

Mrs Dunwoody

575.    Unless they are going to combine their waste services and their crematoria, there is not going to be a lot of money spent in this particular field really, is there?

(Hilary Armstrong)  That is going to be up to local decision and that is what they are doing through the Best Value performance plans at the moment, looking at this service along with others and seeking to find out where they can find savings in some areas in order to invest in others which have not been sufficiently invested in.

Mrs Ellman

576.    Does the Government see the provision of better services to bereaved people as a priority?

(Hilary Armstrong)  We certainly see it as important.

577.    As a priority?

(Hilary Armstrong)  It is very difficult to ask me that, Mrs Ellman, because you have then got to rank the priorities. There is no doubt that the clearest priorities for the Government are tackling education, health and crime. I am saying that it is a very important aspect and obviously if you think about health, the health of the bereaved is a very important aspect of public health policy.

578.    But could you give me some examples of what your Department and indeed the Home Office are doing to show they consider it is important to put the needs of bereaved people high up the agenda?

(Hilary Armstrong)  I do think the Home Office have been taking their responsibilities very seriously in this area. In my Department we really have responsibility for planning, for the overall funding for local government and for the health and safety aspects through the Health & Safety Executive in terms particularly of memorials and so on, and of course the other aspects of air quality for crematoria. Sometimes it is quite difficult to see those as being particularly caring for the bereaved because they are aspects which, in a sense, do not deal with that directly, but I would say that in all of those aspects we nonetheless take our responsibilities seriously.

(Mr Boateng)  Our aim is to ensure that the public have a realistic choice in the funeral arrangements for their relatives - and I would like to say a few brief words about that, perhaps in response to questions from the Committee, in a moment - that the services provided by burial and cremation authorities are professional, caring and sensitive to the needs of minority ethnic and religious groups. That is an important consideration, for instance, over the millennium period I was engaged with other colleagues across Government in making sure there was not disruption of burial and cremation services in a way which would cause affront and difficulty for various religious groups. Also that local burial and cremation facilities offer a fitting environment for the bereaved and enhance the life of the community. I regard it as important for Government to state its objectives and aims so far as policy is concerned in that respect and I would want the consultation exercise we are embarking upon to advance those aims and objectives, and I would want the research to measure the extent to which we are achieving them. But I would go beyond that, Mrs Ellman, to say in a number of other areas in which the Home Office and I have responsibility - if I can take the coroners' courts, for instance, where there are some quite interesting parallels in terms of the legislative framework and its inadequacies and its complexity and in some cases its rather arcane nature - we are working very closely with coroners in order to ensure that good quality services are provided for the bereaved by coroners at a very difficult time for the families of the deceased; that there is better sharing of information and that there is a more user-friendly approach by coroners to those required to use their services. At the same time, if I can take another area of my responsibilities in the Home Office, for the voluntary sector and for the family, there is no doubt that bereavement counselling has a proven beneficial effect in terms of enabling people to come to terms with the loss of a beloved relative and in healing some of the potential problems which can exist within a family at a time of a bereavement. I think one of the challenges for the future would be to make sure that people are able to access advice and information about what is available in a one-stop way in terms of meeting their needs at a time when families, quite frankly, are under a lot of pressure and find it very difficult to cope. What we need to do is enable people to access that help and support at that time and we still have a way to go.

579.    Are there any plans to do that?

(Mr Boateng)  Certainly the way in which we are seeking to work in Government between the various departments, between the Department of Health, the DETR and the Home Office, and within the Home Office in terms of the work of the Active Community Unit, in terms of the work Mr Clifford and his colleagues do not just on cemeteries and burials but also their linked responsibility for coroners' courts, is to begin to see it in a more holistic way, because it has not been seen in that way in the past.

580.    Would you say there was a leadership role for Government in the whole area of our concern?

(Mr Boateng)  Yes, I would say that, but I would also say that that will be a new role, because it has not certainly been the way the Government has approached this issue in the past, and also, and importantly, to go back to that earlier remark, about getting the balance right between local resource, local accountability, local oversight, local responsibility and a more centralised and prescriptive role in terms of setting standards and providing a common portal for these services.

581.    Who should be responsible for seeing that is done?

(Mr Boateng)  That is a responsibility which falls fairly and squarely on the shoulders of myself and Hilary, that is a ministerial responsibility.

Mrs Dunwoody

582.    Are you going to be asking for the one thing which will transform the coroners' service which is that there should be both joint medical and legal qualifications before any coroner is appointed?

(Mr Boateng)  Much as I would like to go down that particular road, Mrs Dunwoody, because I know both you and I share an interest and concern about it, I am afraid I must resist that temptation on this occasion. But I am bound to say that I would like to say more because I do think it is an important question and I think relating this discussion to the wider issues, as Mrs Ellman has invited us to do, around services for the bereaved is very important.


583.    Can I tempt you into a narrower issue then, woodland burials? Do you see problems with this?

(Mr Boateng)  No, I see great opportunities for it. I think there is increasing evidence of demand for this, whether it is called woodland or green burials. The evidence is that people want it and seek it and I think we must find ways of meeting that.

584.    Do you not think that there is some evidence that some people are jumping on to what may be a bandwagon and trying to do it rather on the cheap without taking into account the future up-keep of some of those areas which are being used for green burials?

(Mr Boateng)  I look forward to any findings the Committee has that that is the case. What I see at the moment is a public awareness of the potential of green burials, the public saying they do feel that there are environmental considerations around the use of biodegradable coffins and the like which they would like to take into account in terms of the arrangements they make for their loved ones' funerals and for the disposal of their loved ones' remains, and the sense that people want to re-engage with their natural habitat, if that is what people want to do.

Mrs Dunwoody

585.    Most people were not born under trees, were they, Minister?

(Mr Boateng)  No, but most people have a very high regard for them ---

586.    But that does not necessarily mean the same as engaging with their natural habitat.

(Mr Boateng)  Most people, if I may say so, have a very high regard for trees and one should not under-estimate the significance of trees in terms of people's necessary sense of reconnection with their natural environment, and this is something we should be welcoming and I do welcome it.


587.    I certainly do not under-estimate it but let me give an example. I understand in one area where green burial is taking place, a tree is planted over each of the internments but, inevitably, in a few years' time because of space, some of those trees are going to have to be thinned out. Now I can see considerable difficulties if the tree over your relative is one of the ones which is planned to be thinned out rather than the one over somebody else, and it does seem to me it might be an area where regulation might be better.

(Mr Boateng)  I very much hear what you say and I look forward to the Committee's findings in that regard.

588.    Is there anything else you want to tell us this morning?

(Mr Boateng)  No, except to say thank you because I do think the decision the Committee has taken to look into this matter has concentrated the mind wonderfully and public policy will be the better for it.

Mrs Dunwoody

589.    We do so enjoy concentrating ministerial minds!

(Mr Boateng)  You show an obvious relish in that regard, frequently and with great effect!

Chairman:  On that note, thank you both for your evidence.