Amendment 292E

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (10th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 22 November 2021.

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Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench 10:30, 22 November 2021

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.