Graves — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:23 pm on 22nd April 2009.

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Photo of The Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham The Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham Bishop 3:23 pm, 22nd April 2009

To ask Her Majesty's Government what considerations led the Ministry of Justice not to proceed with the proposal to permit the re-use of graves.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the Government announced in June 2007 that the case for re-using old graves had been accepted in principle. The matter is being kept under review.

Photo of The Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham The Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham Bishop

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but this is a country where there are widespread conurbations and a shortage of green space. On 2 April the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State wrote to the chairman of the Churches Funeral Group explaining that,

"after careful consideration, the Government has concluded that this is not the most appropriate time for taking these matters forward".

Why, after eight years of discussion, is there a shortage of parliamentary time for legislation, or is there a more fundamental reason?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, this remains a sensitive issue; that should not be a surprise to the House. Research indicates that a good proportion of individuals when asked are concerned and doubtful about the issue. I hope that the right reverend Prelate and others in the House agree that on issues such as this, it is important to take people with you to try to achieve consensus—

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Lloyd of Berwick Lord Lloyd of Berwick Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee), Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee)

My Lords, the noble Lord has said that the Government are keeping the position under review. What is there to review? What is likely to change? Does he not accept that people are likely to go on dying in London at roughly the same rate and that some of them will want to be buried in London? Why cannot the Government make the only sensible decision now?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I need to tell the noble and learned Lord that in London they can. London local authorities, after the passing of the London Local Authorities Act 2007, can disturb existing remains in the grave to create space for new interments, provided that various qualifications are met: that they have complied with earlier Acts; that they have given notice of their intentions to the family—if the family says no, that is the end of the matter for a generation—where the remains are in consecrated ground, that they have obtained a faculty from the Consistory Court; and that the family does not object to the proposed disturbance of the remains. In London, that can happen now.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Shadow Minister, Justice

My Lords, if the Government can, after eight years, find a way to resolve that in London, why cannot they resolve it in the rest of the country, especially in the other big conurbations where there are similar problems?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, it was resolved in London by way of a Private Act. Other local authorities are absolutely entitled to bring Private Bills to Parliament and carry them through, so it is not a matter for the Government in that regard.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, from what he has said, I think that the Minister would agree that graves are not just a piece of ground but a place of pilgrimage for many people. I would be grateful if he could assure us that when this matter is reviewed, a mechanism will be in place to consult families for any such re-use of graves.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I agree absolutely with the noble Lord. This is a sensitive issue that needs to be handled delicately. A possible scheme would require prior local consultation for a reasonable period. It would also have to give direct descendants and religious organisations the power to prevent the re-use of individual graves for at least a generation. What families feel is vital.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative

My Lords, forgive me for saying this, but has the Minister considered the medieval practice of burying people in shrouds? Medieval graveyards were used for 1,000 years and re-used without a problem. I will pay money to anyone who can produce a tombstone previous to about 1670 in a graveyard. Surely the public can be persuaded to follow the wisdom of their predecessors.

Photo of Lord Mawhinney Lord Mawhinney Conservative

My Lords, do the Government have a policy to support or even promote environmentally compatible burials outside traditional burial grounds or crematoria? If so, what form does that policy take?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, that is obviously a consideration. As the noble Lord knows, a case has been recently before the court that touches on the question that he raises. As I understand it, there is a reserved judgment from the Divisional Court. We would like to see the results of that case before commenting.

Photo of Lord Trefgarne Lord Trefgarne Conservative

My Lords, could not one part of the solution to this problem be to persuade more people to be cremated? What is the Government's policy in that regard?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Government Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord. How people deal with relations of theirs who have died should be their choice, frankly. If the Government were to interfere, they really would be a bullying Government. As the House knows, we are not that. I should tell the noble Lord that 70 per cent of people choose to have their relatives cremated at the moment, and about 30 per cent are buried.