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Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I rise to present the petition of 370 residents of the village of Kensworth in Bedfordshire, a number of whom believe that they have experienced health problems since the siting of a mobile telephone mast in the village.
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to take such measures as are within his power to have the mobile telephone mast removed and to prevent the siting of any such mast within residential areas of Kensworth.
And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.
Norman Baker (Lewes): I am very pleased to have this opportunity to raise an issue of considerable importance to my constituents. I have learned over the last couple of weeks, if I did not know it before, that national issues are not always the ones that exercise local opinion. The question of cemeteries is undoubtedly the most important issue for my constituents at the moment, as my local papersthe Seaford Gazette, the Sussex Express and The Leadercan demonstrate, as they feature this issue on their front pages regularly.
The reason for this is that safety tests have been carried out by one of the two district councils in my constituency, Lewes district council. Those tests, notably in graveyards in Seaford and Lewes, have led to huge numbers of headstonesmore than 500, in factbeing knocked over by the council, which has caused considerable distress and anguish to relatives of the deceased, who have described the actions as desecration and vandalism. It is clear that, for many, this action has brought back the pain of bereavement, and my sympathy goes to all who have seen the headstones of their loved ones toppled.
The situation has been made worse by the fact that inadequate warning was given by the council. Small notices were posted on site only about two weeks before the tests were carried out, although many people visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried only once a year, perhaps on the anniversary of the death of the person they cared for. Many people, even now, may still not know that the next time they visit the cemetery in Seaford or Lewes, they will find that their loved one's headstone has been knocked flat. I am sorry to say that no effort was made by the council to contact the surviving relatives before the action was taken. I am pleased that the council has at last apologised for the distress that has been caused, and that members of the council are now involved. A group has been set up under Councillor Eddie Collict, a diligent and competent councillor, to investigate the circumstances that led to these events. That action is belated, but very welcome.
A number of issues have arisen as a consequence of this episode, and I want to address them tonight with the Minister. I hope that she will not mind if I ask some very technical questions, because they are the questions that my constituents are asking me. I entirely understand if she cannot answer them all tonight, but perhaps she will be so good as to write to me afterwards if that is the case.
The council was concerned that the headstones were potentially unsafe. I ask the Minister to confirm that this councilevery councilhas a duty of care and is obliged to ensure that headstones are not unsafe, and that it was therefore acting within its rights in carrying out these tests. The point was made in a report by the then Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and the Regions that there have been three fatal accidents involving children and falling memorials in recent years, so it is understandable that the council should want to carry out the tests.
I would be grateful if the Minister clarified whether there is to be a British standard safety test, or whether there is already one of which I am unaware. Is there one coming? When will it be adopted? Will it be a push test or a rig test? If it is to be a rig test, what is her response to the council's objections to such a test? I apologise for the fact that these questions are rather technical, but they are the questions that are exercising many of the constituents who have written to me.
The council says that it applied the only existing European standard that it could find: the German standard, technically called UVV 4.7, which applies a 50 kg push test to headstones. Does the Minister know whether that is the only standard in the European Union? Do the Government consider it appropriate? Pending the adoption of a UK standard, are councils advised by the Government to follow the German standard, or is there no advice as to which standard they should apply? The council says that the German standard has been approved by the Association of Burial Authorities.
The method of testing was the subject of considerable controversy at a public meeting that I attended in my constituency some two weeks ago. The testing involves the use of a device called a topple tester, which applies a force of 50 kg to a headstone at the height of 1 m. Clearly, if the headstone fails, it falls over; if it does not, it is deemed safe.
Do the Government have a view on whether that is the appropriate method to test headstones? I understand that Health and Safety Executive guidance states that it is not suitable for war memorials, crosses or angled headstones, and that it is suitable for use only with memorials that are more than 1 m high and in tablet form. Is that correct? If so, has the guidance been properly applied by the district council, so far as the Minister can tell? More to the point, how is a council expected to test other memorials for safety, if they do not fit that description?
I understand that the National Association of Memorial Masons recommended, as recently as 11 February, a test called a hand technique test, followed by a final assessment with a topple tester set at 35 kgin other words, considerably less pressure than the 50 kg implicit in the German model.
I hope that I have demonstrated to the Minister that there is considerable uncertainty in the minds of my constituents and the council, and in my mind, about what exactly the guidance is, in terms of what test is applied, what implements are used, what pressure should be applied and where. That may seem rather detailed and inconsequential, but the consequence is that about 500 headstones have been toppled, with the resultant grief experienced by those who have gone to visit the graves in cemeteries in Seaford and Lewes.
Is it also correct that the council needs the permission of the bishop of the relevant diocese for work in consecrated areas? That clearly was not sought in the case in question. Is it possible that in Seaford cemetery, where 431 headstones were knocked down by the council, all 431 were at immediate risk? What is the legal position if stones were laid down that were not at immediate risk? Is the council responsible for that, and has it a duty to respond sympathetically and actively to people who say that they want the headstones put back as they were, before the council's action?
There seems to be wide variation in practice across the country. I have done a little research, and it seems that some councils are knocking down huge numbers of headstones. I referred to Lewes district council in my constituency, and 431 stones knocked down in Seaford alone. The report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, to which the Minister will doubtless refer in her reply, mentions Bristol. The report states at paragraph 107:
I ask myself why so many headstones fail in Lewes. Perhaps Lewes is being assiduous and applying regulations carefully. The Health and Safety Executive, in the circular to which I referred, says that many authorities are not dealing with dangerous memorials, which presents a different problem. Presumably, some graveyards are not being looked into by councils, which is another problemit is not the one in Lewes, but may be of interest to the Minister.
I can come up with three reasons why so many headstones fail. First, unnecessarily high standards are being applied, such as the pressure applied in the topple test. Secondly, the tests were improperly carried out in this instance. Thirdly, there is possibly a problem with the method of erecting headstones, and I ask the Minister to address that in her reply. In Seaford, 22 per cent. of new headstones tested by the council failed and have been laid flat, whereas only 6 per cent. of the older headstones in the cemetery failed. It seems that new headstones are less secure than old headstones, which is perhaps a perverse conclusion because one would have thought that older headstones were more liable to fail. The HSE has also referred to the fact that newer headstones are less able to withstand pressure.
What guidance and standards have been applied to the erection of headstones? How deep must they go, and what anchorage is required? Is there any Government guidance that specifies how a headstone should be erected? If not, I suggest that there should be some. In Germany, a third of the headstones must be under ground. That was traditionally the practice in this country until the 1950s. Since then, there have been more lawn memorials with no foundations, so inevitably many of the headstones that are tested fall over.
If the test is correct and headstones fall over, should legislation set a new depth? They must be inherently unsafe if the test is correct. If not, why are councils being encouraged to test them and knock them over?
According to the Association of Burial Authorities, most accidents occur when people kneel down to plant flowers and use the headstone to pull themselves up again, whereupon it collapses on them. That requires pressure of 3.5 kg, which is a tenth of the German standard and much less than that applied by Lewes district council and other authorities.
Will the Government set standards for the erection of memorials to ensure that they are safe? If they are subject to safety testing, they should stay in the ground. It is absurd that a memorial erected less than two years ago can fail a safety test. Why should people who have had a headstone erected so recently see it knocked over and be told by the council that it is their responsibility to put it back up? Someone must be at fault: either the council for the way in which it carried out the test, or the Government for the regulations, or the stonemason for the way in which it was erected. The person who bought the headstone cannot be at fault.
I would welcome some guidance on the question of costs, because frankly I do not know where to go on this matter. There are hundreds of fallen headstones in my constituency, and the council's view is that people are responsible for re-erecting them because they were unsafe. The view of my constituents is overwhelmingly that the council has a duty to bring them back to the way they were, because its tests were responsible for knocking them down. Is there some Government guidance on that? Does the council have a duty or a power to bring those headstones back to the condition they were in before it undertook its tests? This is the key question for my constituents.
That leads me to my two objectives. The first is to return cemeteries in my constituency to their former condition as soon as possible, so that people can see the graveyards as they wererespectable places where they can pay tribute to their loved onesrather than as the scenes of violence that they are now. The second is to ensure that the necessary regulations, legislation and guidance exist nationally, so that this does not happen again in Lewes, Seaford or anywhere else.