I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to the maintenance of closed churchyards.
It is my intention to avoid making silly comments about how grave the situation is. All local authorities are almost in the grip of financial rigor mortis. It is that which has prompted me to seek the support of the House. Any churchyard, once there is no further room for new graves, may be formally closed by an Order in Council. Subsequently, the responsibility to maintain the churchyard
in decent order and its walls and fences in good repair
may be transferred to the district council at any time under section 215 of the Local Government Act 1972.
In general, most churchyards are notoriously badly maintained. The boundary walls are frequently in a dangerous condition, trees require urgent surgery and often need felling, and periodic or regular grass cutting between the gravestones is necessary. Nevertheless, the future responsibility for the maintenance and repair of churchyards can be transferred within weeks to the district council. Whether a churchyard is recently closed or has been closed for over 100 years makes no difference.
The initial costs as well as the annual costs often run into many thousands of pounds for each churchyard. All that expenditure counts as part of the local authority's' grant-related expenditure. Those costs cannot be avoided. There is no appeal and no chance to budget in the first year when the cost will clearly be at its highest.
The problem will grow for two main reasons. First, prior to 1975, churchyards could be handed over only on public health grounds. The average number of churchyards closed each year stood at 12 at that time. In 1975 that qualification was removed and the average number of closures over the past four years has shot up to 84 per cent.
The second reason for the growth of the problem is that recently the Act was extended to cover other religious denominations as well as the Church of England. I have no quarrel against the churches. That is not my function. However, in this one year my local authority of North-East Derbyshire has had two churchyards handed over to it. One cost £25,000 initially and the other has not yet been costed. Tameside metropolitan borough has, this year, had to accept a disused burial ground covering 10 acres and the cost of repairing it was estimated in 1979 to be £120,000. That does not include the cost of future maintenance.
A number of district councils have asked the Government for assistance, but to no avail. Members on both sides of the House, together with over 150,000 local authority representatives have written to me expressing their support.
That must be seen against the background of the Government's cash limits. The first year's expenditure cannot be budgeted for and, in complying with the law, the local authorities will inevitably exceed the cash limits imposed by the Government and will therefore have to take a cut in their programme.
Such iniquity can never be justified, but to be fair to the Minister he has suggested that he might extend the period of notice. I cannot see how a stay of execution or the putting off of the evil day can help except by giving a temporary breathing space.
I believe that the law must be changed in the following manner. Section 215(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 specifies that where a churchyard is closed by an Order in Council
the parochial church council shall maintain it by keeping it in decent order and its walls and fences in good repair.
Subsection (2) enables a parochial church council to hand over the authority on three months' notice.
My Bill will provide that the church can take advantage of subsection (2) only if it has already complied with subsection (1) until the time of transfer.
One graveyard will never be closed. That is the graveyard where we bury Ten-Minute Bills. I hope that on this occasion, in fairness to the district local authorities, the House will support my motion.