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Mr. Burns: The community charge.

Nigel Griffiths: The community charge; indeed. There are no easy solutions to this issue; if there were, they would have been adopted. The Liberal Democrats are thinking seriously about the policy that they put forward and I shall not criticise them for that, but it shows the difficulty of formulating a policy and getting it to stick for a length of time. Obviously, we await the outcome of the Lyons review with considerable interest.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) said that the key to democracy was more effective participation of citizens in elections. I very much agree with what he said about our duty as democrats, and I agree that the agencies that are responsible for ensuring that every citizen can vote must register all voters. I hope that his message will be communicated to the appropriate Ministers as effectively as he communicated it to us. It is important that we do not continue to hear the tales, which I think all Members have heard, of people who should have been allowed to cast a legitimate vote at a polling station finding that they were not on the electoral register, in spite of being UK citizens.

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) raised the issue—pending recommendation, as I understand it from him—of the Gloucestershire ambulance service. It will of course be studied in some detail. I hope that Zak has made a full recovery, but having heard the hon. Member's account of what happened under the present system, I must tell him that if he thinks it satisfactory that two ambulances should be skidding around, and that an off-duty GP who was merely passing was able to intervene and perhaps sustain life and certainly help, I can understand why a review has been taking place. I hope that he will not pray that example in aid, but will muster the evidence once he has had a chance to read the report, rather than pre-empt its judgment. I am sure that that is what he will do.

I shall ensure that my ministerial colleagues are aware of some of the issues that I have been unable to cover. I know that the speeches made here today will be the subject of debates both in the House and outside it. I believe that we are all here to serve. We all have an aim to create a better society, and certainly to leave society better after our modest contribution in this legislature than we found it. May I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, wish you and all hon. Members a relaxing Whitsun recess? I look forward to seeing people return a week on Monday, reinvigorated after that recess.

It being six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
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Burial Grounds (Cumnor)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

6 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to raise the important issue of the closure of burial grounds and, in particular, the controversy about the proposed closure of the burial ground—the churchyard—in Cumnor in my constituency.

I welcome the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Harriet Harman), to her place and congratulate her on her appointment.

I am conscious of the fact that this Adjournment debate is the last business before the brief recess, so it is just as well, given that this is such a controversial issue, that there is a time limit on the debate, although I hope that we will be able to cover all that needs to be covered in that time.

The debate relates to the application by the parochial church council, the vicar and the churchwardens in Cumnor for the Privy Council, on the advice of the Home Office, to declare the churchyard there closed. There is a long-standing disagreement between the local residents and, in particular, their representatives on the Cumnor parish council and the vicar. I happen very much to understand the point of the concerns raised by my constituents and Cumnor parish council, but no personal criticism is intended or meant to be implied in what follows of the vicar of Cumnor, who has to balance a number of issues. I have had a chance to speak to an officer of the diocese about its perspective, and I hope to speak to the vicar in due course.

I want to cover some background issues that relate to the shortage of space for burial, to the suggested changes to the law and in the way that we should look for more burial space and, indeed, to the timetable of action, or inaction, on this matter. I shall then come to the specific case of Cumnor parish council and its concerns about the proposed closure of the churchyard at the local parish church.

I am pleased to say that I have had the opportunity, albeit only today, to pass on to the Minister the details of my concerns and to raise with her in advance some of the questions to which I seek answers. I hope therefore that we can made progress on the substantive issues, but I am the first to recognise that the law involved is complicated—that may be why it has taken so long to make progress towards solving the problem—and that some of the issues raised by this case are also complicated. Nevertheless, I think that we can make progress because there is clearly a need to do so.

As the Government identified in their consultation document issued in January 2004, some seven years ago, in 1997, the London planning advisory committee, working in conjunction with the relevant burial authorities and their representatives in London, carried out research into the existing capacity for burials in Greater London. In summary, they raised the concern that there was only seven years' burial capacity in inner London and 18 years in outer London. Clearly, as those
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figures were averages, some boroughs would be very short of capacity. There is no reason to believe that the situation outside London is significantly better. Indeed, in some cases, it may be worse.

The long-standing view of those with an interest in such issues is that the best approach to take, if we are to prevent the acquisition of land for more burial space and the associated cost, is to consider further, and then to implement, a form of the lift-and-deepen practice, whereby bodies in existing graves that are either more than 75 years old or more than 100 years old, for example, are exhumed to be reburied at a lower depth, so that further new burials can take place on top.

Progress has been very slow. Clearly, sensitivities are involved, and where cultural sensitivities, perhaps moral sensitivities and spiritual matters are involved and where people have deep-seated views and various religions may differ, it is important that the matter is handled sensitively. Of course, I accept that, but that does not mean that such issues should not be handled at all and that there should be endless delay. Indeed, that may exacerbate the problems caused to people facing bereavement and the need to bury in the meantime.

Successive Governments have acted slowly. For example, an article in The Guardian of 13 May 1999 stated, although I do not know on what basis:

on the reuse of space in crowded cemeteries. That was the summer of 1999. No such document was produced, but an article in the Edinburgh Evening News of 26 April 2000 discussing a proposal made by Tam Dalyell, the then MP for Linlithgow, stated:

However, we still did not have even a Green Paper.

Julie Rugg of York university's cemetery research group was cited in an article in The Guardian of 2 September 2000. She said:

I do not dispute the existence of such fear but it is no excuse for inaction. We should proceed with sensitivity. However, although I am alleging slow progress, I do not suggest that the Minister has anything to do with that, as responsibility for the matter has only recently been transferred from the Home Office to the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

The article quoted the Home Office as saying:

We finally received the consultation paper in January 2004, so the Home Office spokesman was right four years before—it certainly was not imminent. An article in The Times of 23 June 2003 pointed out that the Home Office had still not published its research into whether old graves should be re-used three years after the research was conducted. I do not know whether the research has ever been published, but there is certainly a feeling that not much progress has been made.
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The burial and cemeteries advisory group was set up in the Home Office following a Select Committee report of March 2001 that stated that the Government must make progress. The consultation document published in January 2004 was the result, although the report should have been made by the end of 2002. The consultation period finished almost a year ago and we await publication of the response to the document. I hope that the Government will move swiftly to make proposals for whatever legislation is required. I certainly hope that they will adopt a policy and will not allow further delay by citing the need for more research. There is plenty of research and it is time for action. There is a shortage of burial space in local communities, including Cumnor, which brings me to the need for this debate.

Why is the church in Cumnor seeking to have its churchyard closed? There are several motives although they may not be valid reasons for closure. The first is that the churchyard is full. I shall return to that point. The second could be to transfer the costs of maintaining the churchyard to the local authority, as that is what happens when churchyards close. I shall not discuss that motive in this debate, although it is known that some communities fear that a church facing financial difficulties and with various funding priorities is not keen to maintain churchyards and so favours their closure to save money.

Another argument is that the church does not want to face the difficulties of negotiating over the nature of memorials. It has been made clear that that is not a legitimate reason for the Home Office to agree a closure, but, according to the vicar, it appears to be an issue in this case. In an article in the Cumnor parish news—I understand that these points were made and recorded in the minutes of a working group seeking to find a compromise subsequent to the appearance of the article—the vicar states:

Under a paragraph with the heading "Legal Closure", the article continues:

That implies that, as well as the assertion that the churchyard is full, the one motive was that the vicar's pastoral duties would be undermined by disputes—one can see his point—with family members about memorials. If this is happening up and down the country, there may need to be clearer and more consistent rules, but it is not an argument for closing churchyards.
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The real argument is whether the churchyard is full, and this is one of the key questions. A letter that I have seen from the parish council to the Home Office of 26 November 2003 points out:

Cumnor parish council is of the view that there could be proper space in the churchyard for new graves.

One of the key questions is whether, when talking about the potential space for burials, the church is talking about reburials and the Home Office does not recognise that as an option. I would be grateful for clarification from the Minister on that. It is the view of some people to whom I have spoken that existing ground—particularly consecrated ground—that has been used for burials could be used again for reburials after a period of time. It is not clear on what basis the Home Office argues in some of its correspondence that it is not permitted, allowed or lawful for reburials to take place. The Burial Act 1857 precludes the digging up of human remains except with a licence from the Home Office, and those licences or exemptions—or a faculty granted on the ecclesiastical side of the law—are often granted when churchyards need to be changed for new road construction or development. It is not clear why such an exemption cannot be granted in the case of permission to rebury.

We have been made aware in the parish of other cases—specifically that of Brightlingsea town council. The judgment in that case referred to the fact that, in the diocese of Bath and Wells, reburial is the policy before closure is considered. It seems to me peculiar that that should be the position in that case.

I quote from the judgment:

that relates to the motive of the transfer of cost that I raised earlier.

The judgment continues:

If that is the case in that example, it seems strange that the Home Office has made it clear that it does not generally consider the possibility of reburial after any period—even in consecrated ground, and thus under ecclesiastical law in some way—to be valid grounds for resisting an application to close a churchyard.
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When determining whether the churchyard is full, we must ask the basis on which it is considered to be full. The vicar made the following point in the article in the Cumnor parish news a few years ago:

If that is the basis of the argument, I suggest, as the parish council certainly argues, that one would need evidence before asserting that that demonstrated that the churchyard was full.

After a similar contentious debate during the Brightlingsea case, the Home Office refused the application for closure because there was evidence that the churchyard was not full. I would like clarification from the Minister on a question that was put to me by a clerk of Cumnor parish council: where is the burden of the evidence?

The parish council argues:

The parish council is not an expert on the use of the churchyard, so it answered in the negative. The Home Office should perhaps have asked the parish council whether it knew for sure that the churchyard was full, or whether the church authorities, which wished to secure the closure, could provide evidence that it was full. A geophysical survey was done in the Brightlingsea case to try to identify whether there were unused spaces. I do not think that it is sufficient to consider such a contentious matter simply on the basis that there were no burials because it was judged that there were no unused plots.

The parish council has tried to identify other burial grounds in my constituency, but it has not been successful, despite quite a lot of effort. I argue that it would be      inappropriate to allow the closure while the Government—and, I hope, Parliament—are considering whether reuse would be possible, given that no one is arguing that that would not be likely to create a source of space in the existing churchyard. Indeed, previous vicars are on record as supporting that idea. Additionally, the closure would be inappropriate given that the applicant has not provided evidence that the churchyard is full.

Will the Minister reassure me that whoever is in charge of the matter—I guess that it is her Department—will not grant the closure application, at least for the time being? I urge her to press on with all speed with producing proposals for legislation to increase the ability to reuse space in burial grounds that has not been used for many decades and, indeed, for more than 100 years.

6.19 pm

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