Amendment 292E

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (10th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 22 November 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Baroness Stowell of Beeston:

Moved by Baroness Stowell of Beeston

292E: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—“Crime scenes: religious rituals or prayerIn securing a crime scene where a person within that crime scene is severely injured, such that there is a strong likelihood that they might die, there is a presumption that the constable in charge will allow entry to the crime scene to a minister of religion in order to perform religious rituals or prayer associated with dying.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is intended to probe expectations of police procedure.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Non-affiliated

My Lords, before I get to the amendment, I think I can speak for all of us in saying that our thoughts are with the Amess family this evening.

Noble Lords who were in the Chamber for the tributes to Sir David Amess after the horrific crime that led to his shocking death will recall that at the end of her contribution the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, asked a question. I will quote her directly:

“Could priests be allowed to attend a crime scene so that they can give the victim their last rites, especially when they are dying?”—[Official Report, 18/10/21; col. 26.]

She posed this question, because it was reported that Sir David’s local priest had been denied access by the police to attend him in person to administer the last rites. It should be stressed that the priest accepted the instructions of the police and said prayers beyond the perimeter of the crime scene. I am not going to rehearse the events of that tragic day. None of us were there. It is not for me or any of us to second-guess the police officers on duty. I believe that the police should have the discretion to make whatever operational decisions they judge to be right, depending on the situation they are dealing with at any given time.

However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and many others, I found the news that a local priest was not able to attend to a dying man surprising and, to my surprise, somewhat upsetting, especially because he was the victim of such an horrific crime. I do not believe that this is a matter for legislation. Others who participate in this debate might think differently, including those who have put their name to this amendment. But after the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and I talked, we decided to table this probing amendment to explore whether the presumption could be that at a crime scene the police constable in charge would allow entry to a minister of religion to give the last rites or other prayers associated with dying.

Perhaps now is the moment to declare that I am not a Catholic, or, I have to say, particularly religious, but like most of us who are perhaps hatch, match and despatch types, agnostics or atheists, I respect and understand how important faith is to people who practise their religion and recognise that it can become important at times of grief and loss, irrespective of the extent of our convictions. Like most other people, I think it is right that the police and all public authorities respect all religious faith, but I do think it is reasonable to expect the main elements of the Christian faith to be understood or more familiar to the police than most religions, because while religious affiliation is in decline among today’s Britons, it is still safe to say that Christianity is the main religion in the UK. That complex picture of increasing diversity and a declining majority does not mean that we should not give the importance of Christianity a plug from time to time and should not take for granted that something such as a priest being given access to a dying man at the scene of a crime will happen just because we assume that the reason why it is important is widely known and understood.

Even though there is no evidence that this was anything other than an isolated incident, having learned that something so innocent yet important was prohibited, those of us who are public figures have a responsibility to say loud and clear that we would expect it to be possible unless there are good reasons otherwise, and that we do not want the myriad sensibilities which these days the police are required to take account of to be at the expense of timeless expectations, such as access of a religious minister to someone at their most desperate hour of need.

I am grateful to the Catholic Union, which has been in contact with me since I tabled this amendment. It has been at pains to emphasise that the Catholic Church is not looking for special treatment for priests; it believes it is important for all people of faith to have access to ministers of religion when they are sick or dying. I know that the Catholic Union and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference have requested a meeting with the Minister. Notwithstanding what my noble friend has already said at Oral Questions today—I was not in the Chamber for that, but I caught up with it and know that a working group has been set up off the back of a discussion between Cardinal Nichols and the Met Police Commissioner—I reinforce that request for a meeting, so that we can discuss the appropriate steps for the Government to communicate to the police the level of importance that Parliament has afforded this matter and to receive assurance from the police that they have understood our concerns.

If it is doable, my noble friend the Minister might also like to invite a ministerial colleague from the Department of Health and Social Care, as I understand that there is growing evidence of a lack of access for priests and ministers of all faiths to care homes, hospices and some hospitals. This too was raised during Oral Questions earlier today. I realise that this would have been difficult during Covid because of lockdown restrictions, but the fear is that social norms may have been permanently uprooted and replaced by new customs and practices which, while necessary during a pandemic, are here to stay because they are more convenient for the institutions concerned.

I know from my private conversations with her that my noble friend the Minister cares deeply about this topic. In her response, I hope she is able to tell the Committee what action the Government have taken to assure themselves that, in all possible circumstances, the police will give access to a local priest or religious minister. I very much look forward to hearing what she has to say. Meanwhile, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, for allowing me to work with her on this, and to all noble Lords who have put their name to this amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, for introducing this amendment. When I read about the terrible murder of Sir David Amess while he was attending his parliamentary surgery, I was very shocked and saddened. Later, I learned that his parish priest was denied entry by the police to the crime scene to administer the last rites. I was also shocked and surprised then. After the disgusting and tragic murder of Sarah Everard by a member of the police force, I hope they will show some contrition by understanding this sensitive amendment. We need kind, honest, well-trained police to undertake their vital work to keep everyone safe.

David Amess was an honourable, brave man. He will be remembered as an exemplary Member of Parliament. If someone else had been murdered instead of David, I feel that David would be bringing an amendment similar to this to Parliament.

The sacrament of the last rites, which is also known as extreme unction or anointing the sick, is for people who are gravely ill or close to death. It is the sacrament for the remission of sins, to strengthen and comfort the soul, and food for the journey. While not every Catholic will request the last rites to be administered by a priest, many do. It can be of utmost importance to some.

I would like to thank Alasdair Love from the Public Bills Office, who helped to put together this amendment. I am pleased that Cardinal Vincent Nichols and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Dame Cressida Dick, have agreed to establish a joint group to study these issues. I hope that training for police officers on this matter will be included. This gives some hope. I add that the coronavirus has made this sensitive and important matter even more complicated, but problems are for solving. I hope that providing the sacrament of healing to the dying who desire it will become more available. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and thank all who support this amendment.

Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop

My Lords, this is very sensitive territory. Dying is sacred and is part of our living. I think I am the only minister of religion here, and I have accompanied many people, including my own father, to and through their death. If you have been party to that, you will know that it is holy territory.

One could say that violent death is even more holy because of how that dying has been brought about. It seems that there needs to be religious literacy on the part of the emergency services and the police, and that the religious bodies need also to improve their literacy in relation to the nature of these events and how they are dealt with.

The noble Baroness the Minister mentioned at Oral Questions the complicating factor that this is a crime scene. The body becomes significant—I do not know what the correct terminology is, but you cannot muck about. Adding oils to the body or whatever becomes significant. But it should not be beyond the wit of man and woman to come to a reasonable accommodation.

Some 20 years ago, I came down to London to become the Archdeacon of Lambeth. I was surprised at how organised the Church of England was in south London, though not because it was south London—I had come from Leicester. There was a very well worked out arrangement with what are called ecumenical borough deans, so that each borough had a way of bringing the different faith communities together—not just Christians —working with the Met and other emergency services to ensure that, when there was a disaster, violence or violent death, there was a way of ensuring that ministers could have access to provide the ministry that the victim or their family requires.

I know that this is a probing amendment. I praise the emergency services and the police for their sensitivity in the way they have addressed this, but they are doing so within a culture that often treats religion as a private matter. I get told sometimes that Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus are all the same but just wear different clothes and have a different diet. It is not like that. Culturally, we need a deeper religious literacy—in the media, in our public institutions and public life, and in the nature of our discourse, where the language is often a giveaway.

I am glad that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Cardinal Nichols are having these conversations. I ask the Minister to urge that those conversations perhaps go wider and deeper, as we take our time to work out a more effective way of handling what is very sacred territory.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Conservative 10:30, 22 November 2021

My Lords, I have two points to raise. Following the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, I start by saying that this is a sensitive subject. I agree with him that, even though this is the day of burial of Sir David Amess, and he is in our thoughts, I do not wish to criticise the police and their conduct on that day or talk about that incident. I want to talk at a slightly more abstract level. I appreciate that anyone in charge of the crime scene on that day faced a difficult decision and it is not for me to criticise what they did at that time; that is not my point.

My first point is to stand back and ask a more abstract question: who owns a death? The assumption, especially when a death is violent or in emergency circumstances, is that the death is owned by the state—by the police and the ambulance service primarily. They are in charge, it belongs to them and everybody else must have permission to be admitted. Even the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds sort of admitted that and gave that point away by saying that police needed better training to understand why and when they should admit people to the scene.

I would go a little further and say that the claims of the police and ambulance service have to be understood and considered in the light of other claims. Those other claims include the claims of the family and the dying person themselves as to who owns what is going on and who has a say. If we simply collapse into thinking that it is just a matter of getting better police procedure, we are conceding the major point. Of course it is in the public interest that a criminal who has killed people should be brought to justice, that their trial should be fair and the evidence preserved. But that is not the only interest in a death. It is not the only subject and there are other claims we should consider.

This afternoon, as some noble Lords know, there was an Oral Question on this topic in my name on the Order Paper. One noble Lord genuinely asked: has this subject ever come up before? I think he meant: has it ever come to a ministerial desk before? The answer of my noble friend was that she thought not—that the Amess case had brought it to public attention, but it had not really come up before. However, the real answer to that question is, “Yes, yes, yes”. It has come up before, for example at the Manchester Arena, and countless times in care homes over the last year throughout this country; it just does not rise to the level of Ministers’ desks.

Here, I have to admit that I have taken some advice from a distinguished academic specialising in emergency response, and I am told by her that this is partly because there is indeed police training on this subject, but it is primarily focused on how to explain to the families afterwards why the priest was not allowed in. That is the main focus of police training, rather than training them to think of the circumstances in which they might relinquish their claim—valid though it is—in order to respect the claims of others. That is my first point, and I think we should reflect on that.

My second point is a little more practical: we can do this better if we want to. We have done it better in the past. I was told today, again by the same distinguished academic, that there are lovely pictures from the Second World War of ARP wardens going into bomb sites—arduous and horrible work—immediately after a bombing to try to rescue the dying and recover the dead. They were accompanied by clergy with “ARP clergy” written on their tin hats, because it was assumed that these people were correctly and properly embedded in any team that was going to identify, and to find and rescue, people who were dying in the wake of a bomb. Of course, in those circumstances, there was no question of identifying the perpetrator. The perpetrator was well known and was not going to be brought to criminal trial on that basis.

I am treading on slightly uncertain ground for me here, but if you go to other countries—to Israel, for example—I am told that where there are bombs and emergency responses, there are people who are again embedded with the police. They would not be clergy because Judaism operates in a different way; there is no function, as I understand it, reserved to a clergyman in Judaism that cannot be carried out by a lay person. Although the approach to death is slightly different—it is not a question of last rites for the dying, but more a case of the proper treatment of the dead—these people are embedded with the police and it is all well understood. My noble friend Lord Moynihan, asking a supplementary question earlier today, drew attention to practice in certain US states. Again, there is much better relationship, a working relationship, between the police and what are called faith groups, in exactly these circumstances.

That illustrates the two points. First, we need to ask ourselves some radical questions about who is charge in these circumstances, and who has a claim—not just as a petitioner, merely standing at the door asking—to be there at the death. Secondly, if we want to, we can do better. That is why, today, I asked my noble friend if she would at least undertake a study that looked at practice in other countries and jurisdictions to see how they do it and what we can learn from that. I think we would benefit greatly from that. I do not ask any more.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Stowell and Lady Masham, for tabling this probing amendment, prompted by the tragic and terrible murder of Sir David Amess and the inability of the attending priest to gain access to Sir David in what may have been his final moments. I am not sure if it is a declarable interest but, like Sir David, I am a Catholic. My support for this amendment is a product of my faith.

In almost any situation in which someone has suffered a terrible injury, there is the possibility that a crime has been committed and therefore, of course, the location of that injury will become a crime scene. Current police procedures are very specific about the management of such scenes and actions taken in those first minutes may be critical to resolve any crime that has been committed. The responsibility lies with the first officers to attend. Access to such a scene is necessarily limited. A scene log will be created to manage and record all the activities within the crime scene. However, a variety of people do gain access. They include ambulance and medical personnel, undertakers, photographers and scene of crime officers. They all have a legitimate purpose in being at the scene, but not all these purposes relate to the maintenance of the integrity and provenance of any material that may be recovered from the scene. Crime scene officers are required to ensure that persons entering the scene are wearing suitable protective clothing to prevent contamination of the scene, and to ensure that they are protected from any hazards present. So, it is possible to provide safe access for clergy that will not in any way contaminate or inhibit an investigation. The question then must be: is it desirable to do so?

Northern Ireland has seen the cost and the benefit of the presence of a priest on many occasions. The PSNI has worked with very well with clergy of all denominations. Perhaps I could remind your Lordships of the terrible murder of the two corporals, Derek Wood and David Howes, by the Provisional IRA on 19 March 1988 in west Belfast. Father Alec Reid of nearby Clonard Monastery attended them as they lay dying. His prayers—his intervention at that most savage moment—were enormously important to so many.

Two Belfast priests died during the Troubles attending their parishioners who had been shot. Father Hugh Mullan died in 1971, going out into gunfire knowing that he could be shot. Another, Father Noel Fitzpatrick, died in 1972 when accompanied by a parishioner, Paddy Butler. Waving a white handkerchief, he attempted to reach wounded men during sustained and heavy gunfire. These were brave men living their call to minister. It has long been a tradition in this country and many others that there is recognition of the value of spiritual and pastoral support. For this reason, chaplaincy services are publicly funded in many situations. However, at the present moment, attending an emergency scene as a priest can be a daunting experience, as the response of police and ambulance personnel is not certain. It depends on a decision made by someone who may have no religious faith and who may see absolutely no justification for permitting access by a priest.

To be able to receive sacramental spiritual support in the event of a death, or possible imminent death, is of profound meaning and importance to Catholics. Indeed, the support of a priest or other minister of religion is of great importance to those of other denominations and faiths. As your Lordships have heard, Cardinal Nichols and the Commissioner of the Met have agreed to establish a joint group to study the access given or refused to Catholic priests at scenes of traumatic violence and to consider whether any changes are required to the guidance issued to officers facing such a situation. This is a very positive initiative that will inform the national debate. There can be no doubt that many factors will be considered but, given that safe access, with protection against any crime scene contamination, can be secured, the primary question must be whether such access should and can be managed in a way that will enable the celebration of the sacraments at this most sacred moment, the moment when we believe a soul is passing.

Undoubtedly, any future guidance will require processes for the identification, training, et cetera, of clergy who might be granted access in such situations, but these are practical issues which can be resolved. I put my name to this amendment because I believe it can be done, and it should be done, for the support of the dying person and for their family and friends, who may be enormously comforted by the fact that a priest was allowed to attend someone at this most sacred moment.

Photo of Baroness Newlove Baroness Newlove Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I support this amendment. I appreciate the time, but as somebody who has lost somebody to a violent act and has been in a crime scene, I reiterate the words of my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. I am a Roman Catholic, but actually I am speaking about the procedures that the police had in place on that night. I was in a crime scene and I had to wait for permission to leave that crime scene and to be able to go and see Garry, who was dying. He died on the ground—he came around and then they rushed him. It may have been only minutes but it was hours in my mind. You have to wait for police procedures. I fully respect that the police are doing what they are doing, but it did feel at times that it was about the process and not about the dying man on the ground and my three daughters, who were covered in blood, being whisked away as victims of a horrendous, horrific crime. Even the priest in the hospital had to step away with anger at seeing how vicious a scene it was.

I support this probing amendment, not out of disrespect for the police officers, but I do believe that there are a lot of processes that go on. Even the Home Office is on the phone to see if things are flagging up. So, with respect, to make this procedure a lot better, we have to look at how we help victims and their families. My heart has gone out to Sir David’s family, because the shock of those seconds of losing somebody is something you will never, ever get over.

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Chair, Services Committee, Chair, Services Committee 10:45, 22 November 2021

My Lords, that was one of the most powerful statements I have heard in this House, coming from someone who knows what it is like to suffer. It is a horrible tragedy that the Amess family have suffered. I echo the noble Baroness who introduced the amendment in saying that our thoughts and prayers are with them tonight, and for the repose of Sir David’s soul.

I was not sure that I could add much to this debate, but I gave it some thought and would like to share some personal observations. Thinking about the amendment, I recalled the singing of the hymn, “Abide With Me”. I have heard it sung twice recently: first, when I tuned into a vigil mass celebrated by Canon Pat Browne, the Roman Catholic priest in Parliament, on the eve of Armistice Day, and, again, when I watched the Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall on television. What kept coming into my mind was a line in that hymn:

“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes.”

Those words express what I believe many people of the Christian faith hope for at the end of life. They emphasise how important it is to receive spiritual comfort.

For Catholics like me, the last rites are an important and spiritual passage, a sacrament, an opportunity for reflection on past failings and for seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. I bear witness from within my own family of the peace experienced by loved ones when they were supported in their faith by a priest administering the last rites.

People of faith, whether Jews, Muslims, Christians or indeed of any other faith belief, desire the spiritual support that their faith can give them at the end of life. More widely, I think that many of my friends who have no faith would always wish to be surrounded by family and friends at the end of that life. Let us ask ourselves: who among us would not hope to leave this life comforted by family and friends or, as in the case promoted in this amendment, by a priest?

I strongly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, who made it clear that this is a probing amendment and the matter does not require legislation. Rather, it requires a little bit of common sense, perhaps education, training and research, so that the blue-light services, especially the police, recognise this matter and treat a request such as the one that has prompted the tabling of this amendment in a way that will allow a minister of religion to be with a dying person at the end.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, for bringing this amendment to the Committee, particularly in such a selfless way in that she said that she was neither a Catholic nor particularly religious. Seeing the arrival of Sir David Amess’s body at the House this evening was very moving, and our thoughts are with his family. I thank the noble Baroness for saying that she was not second-guessing the police officers at the scene of that terrible tragedy, but, as she said, there was a local priest who was not allowed to give the last rites.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds gave a very moving and sensitive speech, and I agree with much of what he said. I should declare an interest both as a Christian but not a Roman Catholic and as a police officer who served for more than 30 years. Religious faith is important to people, but so is bringing offenders to justice, particularly those responsible for offences where fatal injuries or injuries expected to be fatal are inflicted. The contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, was extremely powerful in giving first-hand experience of that tension between the need to preserve evidence in order to convict those responsible and wanting to address the needs of the dying person and their family.

Securing forensic evidence is often vital to the identification and prosecution of offenders, as in the case of Sir David Amess. I agree that there needs to be a meeting of police and religious leaders—not just Roman Catholics—to ensure that both sides understand the needs of the other. Police officers should have a real understanding of the religious needs of people and the religious leaders should understand the needs of the police in these circumstances. As I said this afternoon in Oral Questions, surely there must be a role for government in bringing these two sides together, in facilitating this understanding and in ensuring that, after this understanding has been reached, operational police officers share it and know how to respond in these very difficult situations.

Interestingly, in groups of amendments that are to come, I refer to the valuable lessons from Northern Ireland to which I do not think we are paying enough attention. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, for her remarks.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, what a moving and powerful debate we have had this evening. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and her noble friend will have been moved by it as well. The real challenge that has been presented to the Minister and the Government is how to capture what has been said in this Chamber tonight in relation to the practice that takes place in very difficult and challenging circumstances.

I am not going to rush this, and I am pleased that noble Lords have not rushed this either, as this is too important a debate to be rushed. In speaking to their amendment, the noble Baronesses, Lady Stowell and Lady Masham, spoke in such a way that gave respect to the awfulness of what happened with David Amess. I pay tribute to the noble Baronesses. Out of the horror of that situation, they are trying to make something positive happen in future. We have all been moved by that. The challenge for the Government is how to do something about it.

I say gently to the Minister that the system will respond in a bureaucratic, almost insensitive way, by saying, “It’s really difficult, Minister. It’s very tough to do something about this.” This is one of those situations that requires the system to respond. Human needs to speak to system and make it work, and that is not easy—it really is not.

The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, brought her perspective from Northern Ireland. She did incredible work there in trying to ensure that, among the terrorist atrocities, somehow or other there was comfort for the dying and bereaved, as well as the pursuit of justice. That was a beacon in that situation, and they made it happen there. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, talked about the situation in his own family. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, made a very moving, personal statement about the horror of what happened to her and the tension between trying to comfort the dying while ensuring that the police were allowed to do their work.

The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, made a brilliant speech. I am not a lawyer so, when I spoke just now, I spoke as a politician who demands that the system works. There are brilliant lawyers on both sides of this Chamber who can dissect the law; that is not me. I say to those with legal expertise, like the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, that I may not have that legal expertise, but I know what the public would expect the system and the law to do. I know how they would expect the legal system, the courts and the police to respond, and how they would expect the system to work.

The phrase that the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, used was, “Who owns the death?” Who owns it? I will talk about myself because that is easier to do. Maybe I have got this wrong, but my sense is that, if I were attacked in the street and stabbed—God forbid that this happens to any of us, but if it happened to me and I was dying—I would not want a police officer ensuring that the crime scene was not compromised. If my wife, or my children, or my grandparents were nearby, that is who I would want to come. I would not care if the crime scene was compromised; I would not.

I know that that is difficult for the police because the police will want—as, of course, in generality, we would all want—the perpetrator to be caught, put before the courts and dealt with. I am just saying what Vernon Coaker, a human being, would want: I would want my family or my friend, if they were nearby, to be allowed to come and see me and talk to me, in the way that no doubt the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds has had to do on many occasions. I would want them to give me comfort, and to give me a sense that I could say goodbye properly to my loved ones.

I do not know what that means for the law, to be honest, or what it means for the guidance, but I do not believe that it is impossible to learn, as the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, laid out, from other countries or jurisdictions, or from what is done elsewhere, to find a means of balancing those two priorities in a more sensitive way than perhaps we see at the moment. That is all that this Chamber is asking for—and that is what the Minister needs to demand from the system. The system will say, “It’s tough, it’s difficult. We need to do that, but we have also got to preserve the crime scene.” The Chamber is saying, “Yes, preserve the crime scene; yes, let’s catch the perpetrators, but not at the expense of everything else.” Let it not be at the expense of human beings knowing what is best for themselves—of individuals at the point of death being able to choose who they want to see.

I suggest that the majority of us would want our family with us, even if it meant some compromise to the crime scene. That is what I think and what I believe this Chamber is saying and demanding. The debate has been incredibly moving; people have laid out their souls. They have done it with a sense of purpose, to say to the law and the system: it needs to change; this cannot happen again. If this had happened to somebody else, I believe, as somebody else said, that David Amess would be saying the same as the rest of us. Maybe that is a fitting tribute to him as well.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker; this has been one of the loveliest debates that I have ever been privy to in this Chamber. As his family prepares to say goodbye and his body lies in the Crypt just yards away, may we all spare a moment to think about David Amess, and the tragic way in which he died. It was absolutely senseless; it has shocked us all.

As noble Lords have said, we must extend our thanks to Essex Police and the Metropolitan Police for their quick and comprehensive response, and apprehending and charging the alleged culprit. I also bring out for special mention my thanks to my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston for moving this amendment, to my noble friend Lady Newlove, whose testimony with her first-hand experience was deeply moving, and to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, who has shared such experience in this area, particularly in Northern Ireland, and how it has been dealt with day in and day out for decades.

As a Catholic, I understand the importance of extreme unction, absolution and viaticum for those close to death. However, this is not just about Catholics, of course, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said. To answer my noble friend Lord Moylan’s point about who owns a death, we have to strike a sensitive balance. Humanity and sensitivity need to be shown to families and the person who is dying. That is the balance that we need to strike here.

On the first aspect of this, the duties of the police, one of the primary duties of a police constable is the protection of life, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said. Where a person is injured, the first responsibility of any police officer is to preserve life, whether by directly administering emergency first aid or supporting paramedics to do the same.

As well as the protection of life, the police need to consider the preservation of evidence at a crime scene. Forensic evidence is the crucial piece of the puzzle in many investigations, so it is vital that anything that might be relevant is properly retained and free from contamination. The College of Policing’s guidance outlines the importance of securing and preserving a crime scene and avoiding cross-contamination. It states:

“Anyone who enters the scene both takes something of the scene with them and leaves something of themselves behind … If scenes are not properly managed, this can distort initial findings and prolong subsequent efforts to identify offenders.”

These are not easy decisions, especially in situations where a victim is critically injured and likely to die. However, the presumption that any religious official be allowed to enter a crime scene has the potential to prevent the police being able to do their job effectively in catching criminals and bringing them to justice. That said, I will take back the things noble Lords have said tonight, particularly the contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan.

By the same token, no noble Lord would want to see the guilty walk free as a consequence of such unintended contamination of forensic evidence. Given those considerations, the decision to allow a priest or other minister of religion access to a crime scene must be an operational one for the officer in charge of the scene and taken on a case-by-case basis.

As I said earlier, I am pleased that, on 9 November, Cardinal Vincent Nichols announced that he and the Met Police Commissioner had agreed to work together to establish a joint group to study the access given or refused to Catholic priests to crime scenes related to traumatic violence. I understand that, in particular, the group will consider whether any changes are required to the guidance issued to officers faced with such situations. I am sure noble Lords would agree that that is an encouraging development.

I know that my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, understands that this is not a matter for legislation and that the police are in a really difficult situation in these circumstances. The priority for the police must be securing the crime scene in pursuit of the investigation and bringing the guilty to justice. With such sensible heads on this, I am confident that a sensible decision and suitable guidance will be arrived at.

Covid has put aside many norms, including, as my noble friend said, chaplains in care homes and maybe in hospitals, although I understand that chaplains are available 24 hours a day in hospitals. I am more than happy to meet my noble friend and the Catholic Union ahead of the next stage and to request a Health Minister. However, I hope that, in light of the discussions between the archbishop and the Metropolitan Police, and having had this opportunity to debate this difficult issue, my noble friend would be happy to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Non-affiliated 11:00, 22 November 2021

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister and to all noble Lords who have spoken today. First, in response to my noble friend’s last couple of points, of course I will withdraw this amendment, and I am grateful to her for agreeing to the meeting requested by the Catholic Union and for including in that meeting a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Care. Having been requested, it is important that that meeting goes ahead and provides an opportunity for a discussion on these issues from that single perspective. As she has already said, it is very encouraging that Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Dame Cressida Dick have initiated this working group to look at the issues arising from the events of that tragic day.

The debate this evening has been remarkable. I have found it quite moving. I was very unsure about tabling this amendment, if I am honest. I hesitated quite a bit about it, and then after I had tabled it, even with the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, I kept thinking, “Oh God, is this the right thing to do?”, but I thought it was important that we had an opportunity to debate these matters. As I said earlier in my opening remarks, I genuinely felt that it was important for us to stand up and say, “This is important”, rather than just accept it as something that happened and move on.

The result of that seems to have been noble Lords expressing views and raising points that I had not even thought about and elevating the importance of this issue. In addition to what the Minister has already agreed to, it would be proper for her to give further thought to how we can explore its importance even more. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, who suggested that the Government facilitate the dialogue between the various different religious faiths. As the right reverend Prelate, to whom I hope I did justice to at the beginning, said, this is not just about the Catholic faith but about how we address some of these bigger issues, which really do need to be considered. As a society, we have to make sure that the things that are really important to us as human beings and to our cohesiveness as communities are recognised and given the attention and weight that they deserve by those of us in positions of power to make these things happen.

Again, I am grateful to all noble Lords and I look forward to sitting down with the Minister and the representatives of the Catholic Union. Until then, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 292E withdrawn.