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10.30 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire): I thank the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) for allowing me to speak, and congratulate him not only on securing a debate on an important issue but on the strength with which he put his constituents' case.

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In my part of north Warwickshire there is similar concern about headstones and the disturbing of graves, although the circumstances are slightly different. The church in the village of No Man's Heath is redundant, but the cemetery has been used in recent years—indeed, in recent months. The Church of England is proposing to sell the church, which may go to a commercial buyer and may be used for a number of different purposes; but it will keep the cemetery.

However, a number of gravestones and indeed graves abut the church. Apparently the Church of England is not prepared to give any reassurance that the graves will not be disturbed. It is possible that some gravestones will be removed, and that the contents of graves will be disinterred. That is causing great distress to relatives, some of whom may have buried their loved ones very recently.

Could the Home Office re-examine cemetery law to establish whether relatives' concerns about people buried in cemeteries where the abutting church has become redundant can be given priority over the need to make a commercial sale for the Church of England's benefit? Obviously the Church of England must deal with its redundant churches properly and sensibly, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, we should also be aware of the feelings of those whose relatives are buried in the cemeteries.

10.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes): I too congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The subject he has raised is important and emotive for families who may think that their feelings and needs have been ignored.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) drew attention to circumstances that differ slightly from the general circumstances described by the hon. Gentleman. The current law states that any buried remains to be removed must be removed in accordance with Home Office directions. That will not be allowed unless the Home Office is satisfied that any remains will not be disturbed by building work. If he gives me the details in writing I will pursue the matter, but we have instituted a process of re-examining the law and the advice and guidance in relation to cemeteries and burial, and I shall ensure that the issues raised by both Members are taken into account.

Although the Home Office is responsible for burial law and the law regulating cemeteries, it is not responsible for every statutory provision that may have a bearing on cemeteries. Cemetery authorities must comply with a wide range of other laws regulating their activities, including those relating to planning, environmental protection and health and safety.

The existing legislative framework of burial laws is designed primarily to ensure that certain minimum standards are observed. For example, there are powers to inspect burial grounds and to require health and safety measures to be undertaken. Individual burial authorities are given considerable freedom as to how they manage their cemeteries on a day-to-day basis. Among other things, that means that it is a matter for each authority to determine how to discharge their various responsibilities.

I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes that current legislation is in need of reform. It is uneven and inconsistent, and it does not give the Government the

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powers that they need to address some of the problems. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Environment Committee, which came to much the same conclusion on completion of its inquiry into cemeteries last year.

In the Government's response to the Committee's report, we announced how we would take forward the various issues identified. First, we undertook to set up an advisory body, which would include the Health and Safety Executive, as well as representatives of the industry and others. It will consider the issue of testing that the hon. Gentleman raised. Secondly, we would undertake research into cemetery management, training and maintenance standards. Thirdly, we undertook to conduct a survey of all burial grounds; and, fourthly, to carry out public consultation on the issue of law reform.

The advisory body has been set up. The researchers' report will be received shortly and we have now begun planning for the burial ground survey and for the consultation exercise. We aim to make substantive progress during the course of this year.

Burial authorities must also have regard to their wider responsibilities. As the hon. Gentleman said, cemeteries can present a real safety hazard. Open graves can be dangerous. Many older cemeteries contain tombstones and memorials that have become unstable. As he also pointed out, newly erected tombstones can also—astonishingly—be unsafe. That has resulted in a small number of injuries and even deaths. Health and safety practice must be at the forefront of any cemetery manager's mind. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not disagree.

Burial authorities must take action if there is an immediate risk of a headstone falling, but it would be equally wrong to lay down all or most of the headstones in a cemetery simply as a precautionary measure. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to learn that in one recent case the local government ombudsman found a local council guilty of maladministration because adequate prior notice of their intentions was not given to the families concerned.

Burial authorities must seek to get the balance right. Public safety is paramount, but the rights of memorial owners, who want to visit cemeteries to remember their relatives, cannot be ignored. I well understand the concern that the public will have if memorials appear to have been laid down as a precautionary measure or without due consideration of the other issues.

The legislation that governs local authority cemeteries sets out detailed procedures to be observed before memorials can be levelled in normal circumstances. Those procedures include requiring notice of the authority's intention to be placed in the cemetery, in local newspapers and, where appropriate, sent to those who have exercised a right to place a tombstone or memorial on the grave. The hon. Gentleman asked whether bishops should also be notified. I do not know the answer to that question immediately, but I shall obtain it for him. I also understand the feelings of his constituents who, given the situation in Lewes, want to know who is responsible for replacing the tombstones. Again, that is not a Home Office matter but I will try to ensure that another Department provides the hon. Gentleman with the answer.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the deaths of three children. Partly as a consequence, research was carried out on behalf of the Confederation of Burial Authorities and, in the light of the findings, guidance on memorial

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management was published in 2000 by the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration, which is the relevant professional body. That guidance recommends regular inspections of headstones and practical measures to make dangerous memorials safe. Laying down memorials is not the only option. Memorials may also be supported, cordoned off or repaired.

Lewes council, like any council, has a duty to ensure that tombstones and memorials are safe. There is no dispute about that. Last May, the council approved a code of practice and programme of testing memorials. In doing so, it drew upon guidance recently issued by the industry. Notices of its intentions were posted in the cemeteries shortly beforehand.

That exercise revealed that a proportion of the headstones were unsafe and presented an immediate danger. The council decided to lay them down and to contact the owners as soon as possible. Clearly, memorial owners and the general public seem not to have been prepared for that action. I am sure that there are lessons to be learned by the council and indeed by other burial authorities about providing more effective advance publicity. I understand that the council has asked the relevant sub-committee to look again at its code of practice and is considering the practicalities of notifying individual memorial owners in future.

As the hon. Gentleman said, it is important that the inspection of memorial safety be undertaken in a competent and technically proficient manner. The institute's guidance recommends seeking advice from structural engineers or other appropriate sources. Although testing equipment is available, the Health and Safety Executive has advised, as the hon. Gentleman said, that that may not be suitable for all types of memorial. The National Association of Memorial Masons has produced its own advice and guidance, which it keeps under review.

There is also the issue of who should undertake any survey of safety. Some will consider that memorial masons may not be sufficiently independent, but that must be a matter of judgment for the burial authority. It certainly seems sensible for the testing to be undertaken by an appropriately trained person. Training on removal and replacement of memorials is already provided by the institute.

Nevertheless, the way in which the various representative and technical organisations have responded in addressing the problems has been positive. In addition

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to guidance to their members, a cemetery safety awareness campaign was initiated to bring home to the public, particularly children, the dangers that are posed by memorial headstones.

This is quite a difficult thing to say but we have to remember that, although we are talking about families who are grieving for someone whom they have lost, they have an important share of the responsibility for ensuring that the memorials are put up safely in the first place and indeed that they are maintained. I recognise that for older memorials the loss of contact with the owners is a real difficulty for the burial authorities.

The hon. Gentleman asked quite a large number of technical questions. Although I could theoretically answer him because I have all the detail here in terms of weight, measures and distances, I do not think it appropriate to plough through that. However, I assure him that I will write to him on all those technical questions.

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