Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 180 - 201)



Christine Butler

  180. Is it something an inspector would ask?
  (Mr Roberts) I think that if it is an issue—

  181. No, I mean for the local plan.
  (Mr Roberts) I would doubt if they would ask it as a routine matter, but clearly if it was known in the area that it was an issue, if concerns had been expressed by the industry, then it is certainly an issue which ought to be considered in drawing up and in approving the unitary development plan.

Mrs Ellman

  182. Would any assistance be made available for acquiring those sites, if that were an issue?
  (Mr Roberts) I think the local authority would need to look to the capital allocation system in order to get the resources to do that.

Mr Brake

  183. Mr Clifford, why is the Home Office so scared of grave reuse?
  (Mr Clifford) Why do you say that?

  Chairman: The theory is, we ask the questions.

Mr Brake

  184. Sorry, I will expand on my question a little bit. As you will be aware, there was a study of public attitudes to reuse by Professor Douglas Davies which essentially illustrated wide public acceptance for reuse, and yet in your evidence you have said that "it is not clear that the facts have been fully established and more work on this seems likely to be required. No decision has yet been taken on how consultation might be most effectively undertaken." That sounds to me as if the Home Office is sweeping the thing under the carpet or possibly burying it.
  (Mr Clifford) The situation is this: that the industry came to us with the problems, as I explained earlier. We had very useful and productive discussions on how one might conduct a consultation exercise on the basis of the issues they raised with us. We then, having constructed that draft document, thought again.

  185. How many years ago was this?
  (Mr Clifford) We are talking about 12 to 18 months or so.


  186. That is fairly quick, is it not, for a government department—18 months?
  (Mr Clifford) I do not think I would comment on that. We then took the view that although factually the document seemed a good way of raising the issues, was this a document that would properly engage with the public in such a way that we got a proper view on the issues that it contained.

Mr Brake

  187. What was wrong with it?
  (Mr Clifford) It is not a question of what was wrong with it, as much as whether one could adequately engage the public on issues which were very sensitive issues. I know we have heard evidence earlier this morning about the public attitudes to death and perhaps they are more likely to talk about these things, but one only has to think about the difficulties of getting people to provide wills, for example, because at the end of the day people do not, by and large, want to contemplate their own death. It seemed to us that some of these aspects of the reuse of graves really required people to think thoroughly about what was being proposed here. Yes, the urban studies indicated that I think 40 per cent of the public are in favour and 30 per cent had no objection, but it still left a sizeable proportion of people who did have objections, and yes, the document identified potential ways to mitigate people's concerns and that sort of thing.

  188. I am sorry, we do not seem to be getting to the point here. What concretely is the Home Office going to do? Have you simply decided "It is too sensitive, it is too complex, we're not going to do anything about it"?
  (Mr Clifford) No, what we have thought is that it is a difficult issue to raise in such a way as to get a useful, meaningful exercise running; it is an issue that can be readily trivialised or sensationalised. While we were working our way through that, other issues started to come to our attention which have been raised today about wider issues concerning the industry as a whole. This led us to wonder as to whether it was right to focus on the reuse of graves and cemeteries as, if you like, the central issue from which would flow perhaps primary legislation which would help us engage in other work, or whether there was a need to look more widely at the service as a whole, which would then pick up the other issues of maintenance and so on. So we are looking with a view—

  189. We are looking for some snappy answers here. Are you looking more widely here? If so, when are you going to report, what are the terms of reference and at what point will a decision be taken on whether grave reuse is something that should proceed?
  (Mr Clifford) It is fair enough to say we are in the foothills of planning some research in this area, and I think certainly in the light of the evidence we have seen with regard to this inquiry, this itself will inform and assist any work that we take forward in the course of, we hope, the coming year.


  190. So we are another excuse for you doing nothing for a bit? I got your expression quite nicely, but for the record we need some words, so was that an unfair comment from me?
  (Mr Clifford) As I say, we are hoping to take it forward in the coming year. Quite how quickly it can be done is difficult for me to say at this stage.

Mr Brake

  191. I think we will move on to another subject. This is a question for Mr Etkind, relating to air pollution. What developments do you anticipate in respect of emission standards for crematoria in the near future?
  (Mr Etkind) The position is at the moment that crematoria are regulated by local authorities under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and there is statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State to local authorities on the standards appropriate for crematoria. The original guidance was issued in 1991, it was reviewed in 1995 and we are currently in the midst of a second review. In 1995 the issue of mercury in crematoria came up, arising from the teeth of the deceased. To give an estimate in relation to the evidence earlier this morning, the estimate is that 3 grams of mercury arises from each body on average. That figure is used by the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory to estimate that crematoria are a source of between 10 and 11 per cent of mercury emissions in the country at the moment. That has to be looked at in the context of a reduction in mercury emissions from 47 tonnes in 1970 to 12.6 tonnes in 1997. A further context is the fact that predictions are that mercury emissions will increase from crematoria over the short to medium term, because more people with teeth will die, putting it in simple terms. In Sweden and the Netherlands the estimate is that there may be a doubling of mercury emissions from crematoria over the next 20 years.

Christine Butler

  192. Where does that fall? Is it localised? What I am trying to get at is, if you had mercury emissions in the epicentre of what might be considered an area of greenness and amenity, would it be a problem?
  (Mr Etkind) No, is the likely answer. We have had some monitoring done around one crematorium in the West Midlands. The current results we have received show that ambient mercury is below the level of detection as a result of the crematorium. The concern is that mercury is a toxic biocumulative heavy metal, and it is a trans-boundary pollutant, the emissions are transported and get into the food supply, into fish and into birdlife.

  193. So we do not know how widely it is dispersed if it is airborne?
  (Mr Etkind) Very widely. The Paris Commission on the North Sea is very exercised about mercury and is currently looking specifically at mercury from crematoria.

Mr Brake

  194. You have identified that there is going to be an increase in mercury emissions because more people die with teeth. Are you planning anything that will tend to reduce the increase or not?
  (Mr Etkind) Sorry, I was moving on to the second half of the story. In 1999, having decided that we needed to look more closely at mercury, because at that time the level of mercury emissions was 10 per cent and it is now 11 per cent. We began discussions with the Federation of British Cremation Authorities, knowing they had concerns about the impact of mercury abatement equipment on crematoria. We went to them asking them for chapter and verse on what were the real problems, because with the local air pollution control system under which crematoria are regulated, there are 80 other industrial structures, and we have always treated crematoria differently because of their particular sensitivity, it is not a conventional industrial process. Therefore, rather than entering into formal discussions of the guidance, we went to the Federation and asked them for advice on what they thought. There were discussions. They undertook a survey of their membership, which led to this 23 per cent figure. We undertook some monitoring around crematoria, and went to our technical advisers in the Environment Agency. I received final advice from the advisers on 22 December last year. In the light of this hearing, we rushed through and produced a supplementary memorandum which I hope you received yesterday, Chairman.


  195. We had better check and make sure as to whether it has arrived or not, but it is on its way?
  (Mr Etkind) Yes. That memorandum said, in effect, that given the fact that the Federation of British Cremation Authorities is now doing some further work to look at abatement options and to look at actual emissions, and given that there are a series of questions that we are not entirely sure upon—there are different sources for the mercury which is emitted, there are obviously other sources of mercury—is it most appropriate to hit crematoria to deal with the mercury emissions, is large-scale equipment which might not fit onto sites and lead to all these closures the right solution and so on? So we suspect that we will wait for the Federation's work, look at that, possibly do some more work ourselves and review the question of whether to consider setting a mercury limit for existing crematoria in the course of the next year 2002.

Mrs Dunwoody

  196. You are only going to burn bodies that have not got fillings, is that it?
  (Mr Etkind) No, there is no proposal to remove teeth before cremation.

  197. I am glad to hear that. Then how are you going to know how much mercury there is in a body?
  (Mr Etkind) Work has already been done, and the estimate is 3 grams per body.

  Mrs Dunwoody: I see. I did not realise we had a statutory rule for the numbers of bodies.

Mr Brake

  198. Could I ask Mr Etkind one specific question in relation to crematoria. I know that the building of cemeteries or provision of cemeteries within the green belt is accepted under the relevant planning guidance. Can you confirm whether the building of a crematorium within the green belt meets the relevant planning guidance? Is it an acceptable use?
  (Mr Etkind) I am afraid I am narrowly on the pollution side.
  (Mr Roberts) I think we may write in with that answer. We do not have the particular expertise on that here this morning.


  199. Perhaps I can pursue the pollution side. Are we actually totally in control and can make our own decision, or is the EU offering us advice or guidance, or compelling us to do anything on this issue?
  (Mr Etkind) Despite many reports to the contrary, there are no EU regulations or controls on this. We have also received a letter from Commission officials to the effect that human remains do not constitute waste requiring EU legislation, but there are various international agreements which do impact on this. There is the Oslo and Paris Convention, the heavy metal protocols and the EU Air Quality Framework Directive, with a daughter framework directive being prepared at the moment on mercury. There is also a potential impact from the water and hazardous substances section under the EU Water Framework Directive because of the effects of mercury going up and then coming down.

  200. Finally on this question of pollution, you have obviously described the position as far as the body is concerned. What about the ornaments that often go onto coffins? Is there any control over what goes onto a coffin as an ornament, to make sure they are not plastic which produces dioxins and things like that?
  (Mr Etkind) We have already issued guidance to the effect that there should be no lead, and guidance on things like melamine which gives rise to things like cyanide emissions, I believe. When I said we are going to defer the review of mercury emissions from existing plant until 2002, we shall now, having made that decision, move swiftly to reviewing the remainder of that guidance. That guidance, as I have said, will already contain some guidance on construction, and also in relation to coffin content, because people like to put a very wide range of things in coffins, and we will be looking at that. We will be looking at different types of coffin construction—cardboard as against chipboard, for example. One has to say that cardboard also contains resins and so on, so that may not be a more preferable solution for crematoria as opposed to burial, but we will be looking at that in terms of the current review.

  201. It is a very sensitive issue as to what people can put into a coffin, but is there a problem that people put things in there that, when they burn, do produce difficult emissions?
  (Mr Etkind) I have learnt, over several years of dealing with this subject, of some very strange and unusual requests being made which, in individual cases, could have significant effects. We have had discussions over the last several years with the Federation of British Cremation Authorities and the Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration over whether we should issue guidance to local authorities to the effect that if there is an odd occasion when something unusual is going through, not suddenly to prosecute the crematorium operator for a breach of conditions. The current position is that it is not felt that these incidents are sufficiently frequent to warrant stirring up the issue, but we do have that on the stocks if it does become a problem.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence.

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