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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:40 pm on 23rd March 2020.

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Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Justice) 7:40 pm, 23rd March 2020

There is no doubt in this House that the situation we are facing is unprecedented in living memory. The raft of measures we are debating this afternoon would be unspeakable in any other situation outside wartime, such is the challenge we face.

The Government have my support in implementing measures to help keep us all safe from this hidden enemy. I share the concerns of Opposition Front Benchers about the impact on the self-employed, those who are disabled and frontline NHS staff.

Time not permitting, I will make one point that has been raised with me by a number of constituents about schedule 27, which suspends protections that prevent the cremation of an individual regardless of their wishes or faith. The right to faith and dignity in death is one of our most inalienable rights and one on which we must never compromise. How our physical bodies are handled and treated after our death is a core tenet of all faiths. That is why I wrote to Public Health England some time ago to express my concerns about how the deceased may be handled during this emergency, and why I was alarmed to learn of the measures in the Bill that overrule the right to faith and dignity in death by permitting a local authority to cremate an individual against their wishes.

While I acknowledge that the Government have this afternoon taken a step in the right direction and shown that they are listening to and engaging with faith communities by making it clear in law that faith must be taken into account before a decision on cremation is made, there is still some confusion as the provisions still appear to allow a local authority to cremate an individual against their wishes where there is a lack of capacity, either locally or in the immediate area, for handling the deceased. The Government must this afternoon address that confusion and make it clear that the absolute right to refuse the option of cremation is upheld in their amendment and in Government policy.

The Government must also make clear their commitment to ensuring that all local authorities have sufficient capacity to handle an increased number of deaths. On that point, I pay tribute to the work of Bradford Council over recent days and weeks to build additional capacity to handle deaths in a faith-compliant manner, to ensure that in Bradford we never have to compromise on the right to faith and dignity in death. As the leader of Bradford Council has firmly set out:

“Those of faith where burial is a prerequisite will always have that wish respected, and that will always be Bradford Council’s position in all circumstances.”

I think that point should be put clearly on the record.

In short, our Muslim and Jewish faith communities are rightly concerned about the measures in the Bill and want firm assurances from the Government—assurances I urge the Government to provide today—that they will never compromise the rights to faith and dignity in death. Those are fundamental and absolute rights, and they are non-negotiable.