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10.26 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) has raised an important issue tonight. It is coming to the fore increasingly, as a result of a number of matters, some of which the hon. Gentleman addressed in the course of his interesting speech. The debate is particularly timely in the light of the decision of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs to carry out its own investigation. The amount of interest that the topic has generated, in terms of the correspondence described by the hon. Gentleman, is an indication of how important it is for the House and the Government to deal with it.

Government responsibility for cemeteries and crematoriums in England is shared. The Home Office is responsible for burial and cremation law, including the disturbance of buried human remains, while the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has responsibility for most burial and cremation authorities, because most of them are also local authorities. Policy on land use, regeneration and environmental protection--issues which are relevant to how we plan and use cemeteries and crematoriums--is also within the Department's portfolio. It is a shared responsibility, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and I take very seriously. Indeed, we recently gave joint evidence to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee.

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The Home Office has long been responsible for cremation law and for the law on the exhumation or removal of human remains. Since 1995, we have also assumed responsibility for remaining burial legislation. This is an unwieldy, arcane and out-of-date body of law that is ripe for reform. That is why I particularly welcome this debate and the public discussion that is taking place on these issues.

Burial and cremation facilities are provided not by central Government but by local organisations in response to local demand. There are no special dispensations for cemeteries or crematoriums, and new facilities are subject to planning and other relevant laws in the usual way, mainly to compete with other demands on land utilisation. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to some of the difficulties that arise. The market is relevant here, as is pressure on land and the utilisation of land for a variety of purposes.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's description of the unfortunate juxtaposition of a cemetery and a rubbish dump. It is unfortunate--local authorities and those responsible for planning need to treat these matters with sensitivity and care. In the main, that does happen.

Public policy in relation to cemeteries and crematoriums is that provision is a matter for local and commercial decisions in the light of demand. Regulation is designed primarily to uphold the public interest in the decent disposal of the dead, to ensure that proper records are kept and preserved, to avoid public nuisance and to protect buried remains from unnecessary disturbance. Municipal cemeteries are regulated to ensure uniform provision of the grant of burial rights and consistent arrangements for the maintenance of graves and memorials.

Crematoriums and cemeteries are subject to environmental protection regulations--the hon. Gentleman mentioned mercury in that regard--while crematoriums need additional regulation in order to deter any attempt to dispose permanently of evidence of crime. Undoubtedly, issues of choice and taste should be taken into account. People should have a choice and should have their tastes respected. Graves and memorials should be maintained in circumstances that uphold the dignity of the purpose for which they were designed and built.

Day-to-day management of burial grounds, which can be a cause of conflict, is very much a matter for the operator concerned, whether public or private. It is for the burial authority to determine how its grounds should be laid out, what maintenance regime to adopt and what range of services to provide. There will be differences, and some provision falls below an acceptable standard. The setting of fees, opening hours and days for burial or cremation services are also matters for local management. One cannot imagine circumstances in which such matters should be centrally controlled. What is certainly the responsibility of central Government is the creation of a framework within which local decisions can be made in the context of dignity, choice and the seemliness of arrangements.

The hon. Gentleman approached the subject of death in a refreshing and matter-of-fact manner--in fact, in almost an in-your-face way, if I may say so. Death is one of the last taboos in our society. We take a different approach to death than that of our Victorian predecessors, who would

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have had no difficulty with the notion of jewellery or confectionery being prepared and warmed for the purpose of commemorating a death. We do not do that in our culture today, although we should recognise that there are different methods in the diverse and plural society in which we live.

In my constituency, the Irish and Caribbean ways of dealing with death are much more in tune with what our Victorian ancestors would have recognised. They would have recognised the importance of a wake, and of lying-in and visits to the house. I recently attended the wake of a much loved local councillor. People visited the house and Ann John, the partner of the deceased, over a period of days. People were able to reflect on the life of the deceased, sharing happy times and sad times with Ann, who now leads my local authority. That was how she wanted it, and we all respected it. It was entirely fitting and appropriate. Others choose to do it differently.

We have to ensure that there is proper accountability and a degree of transparency. People should know where to take their concerns about services--whether provided by the council or the company. For municipal undertakings, a local government ombudsman offers a further avenue for complaints--and rightly so.

The Home Office has statutory powers to inspect cemeteries and crematoriums. In cases of serious allegations of irregularities, or when there are suggestions that a site should be closed, an inspection will be carried out and a report made. That will help us to decide what action we should take, although our powers offer only a limited choice. We do not have the powers which, it is sometimes believed exist in such cases.

I want to make a few comments about the environment. Cemeteries offer more than just a place of burial of or memorial for the dead. They can have architectural or historical significance; for example, the Kensal Rise cemetery in my constituency has catacombs of recognised importance.

We also realise that cemeteries and burial grounds can contribute to the sum of green open spaces in urban areas, providing a peaceful oasis for quiet recreation and contemplation. They may also provide valuable habitats for trees and other flora and an important haven for wildlife. The development of the green funerals described by the hon. Gentleman makes an environmental contribution and is also important in offering choice.

Those arrangements--a mixed economy and local decision taking--have, on the whole, worked well. However, contrary to the tenor of some of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, demand for cremation seems to have levelled off, at about 70 per cent. of all deaths. Many of the cemeteries opened in the past 100 years are coming to the end of their useful life. That creates its own pressures: pressure on land space for the living puts pressure on land space for the dead.

The past few years have seen a number of important developments. Certain problems have come to the fore. There is a shortage of land for burial in London and elsewhere. The condition of some cemeteries and churchyards has deteriorated owing to lack of maintenance. Some old cemeteries are of doubtful viability. There are challenges of principle and practice regarding the removal of human remains to enable the development of old burial grounds. Regulation is inconsistent and there are variable standards of practice and management.

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The case for change is made. It is important that there should be a wider public debate to address issues such as the lack of burial space, a review of burial law and the lack of direction for the burial industry. The decision of the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs to examine those matters was helpful. Last month, I gave evidence to the Sub-Committee. Whatever recommendations the Sub-Committee may make, our aims must be to ensure that the public have a realistic and affordable choice; that the services provided by burial and

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cremation authorities are professional, caring, timely and sensitive to the needs of the whole diverse range of communities in our country; and that local burial and cremation facilities offer a fitting environment for the bereaved and enhance the life of the community.

Those are just some of the challenges. We need to make sure that the public have confidence in the way that their cemeteries and crematoriums are managed--

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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