Amendment 292E

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

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Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Non-affiliated 10:15, 22 November 2021

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.