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The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Harriet Harman): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing the debate and choosing its subject. He has clearly demonstrated that he has examined carefully the
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general issue across the board, as well as the specific case in the village in his constituency. In doing so, he has shone a light on something that hon. Members do not rush to discuss. None the less, we all know that it is of great importance.

Burial grounds are a source of strong community feeling, especially in rural areas, but also in my constituency in London. The upkeep and maintenance of our local cemetery in Nunhead is a keenly felt local issue. There were also strong local feelings when we planned to build social housing on the site of an old church, which had a churchyard with remains in it. I know well the issues that he raises.

In commenting on the general position and what the Government are doing about it, I hope to reassure the hon. Gentleman that things are happening and that progress is under way. One of his concerns is that the Government are dragging their feet and not enough is happening. I also want to deal with his concerns about the Cumnor burial ground.

The hon. Gentleman is right that in 2001 the Environment Sub-Committee investigated the country's burial arrangements and delivered its report on our cemeteries. It found a number of shortcomings, in particular the way of setting and enforcing standards, long-term problems regarding the maintenance and provision of burial space, a need to find the appropriate balance between the utilitarian and aesthetic aspects of burial grounds, and a need to review our antiquated and inconsistent burial laws.

The Government have undertaken much work since then to tackle the issues. To assist us, we set up an advisory group, drawn widely from people involved in burials, religious organisations, groups with environmental and historical interests, and others. We commissioned and published the findings of a research study into cemetery management, and last year we published a consultation paper on a review of burial law. We have initiated a survey of all burial grounds in England and Wales. We have also worked closely with those involved in burials to draft advice and guidance to burial ground operators on the management of cemeteries, and on ensuring the safety of memorials within burial grounds. We hope to issue those documents a little later this year.

We are considering the detailed comments received on the burial law consultation paper. We also need to take account of the burial grounds survey that was launched earlier this year. There is a wide range of issues to address, but the re-use of old burial grounds for new burials and other matters is one of the most significant and sensitive concerns.

For the past 150 years, that has not been a problem. Where churchyards and other burial grounds have become full, additional land has been acquired by the church or the local council, and burials have simply taken place in another location. That option is no longer so easy, especially for urban communities. There is competition from other land uses—such as housing—and the price of land has increased, if any suitable land is available in the first place. The result has been to create new burial grounds away from the focus of the
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local community. In some cases, they are physically distant and far less convenient for the community to which they relate. It is also harder to find the necessary funds to maintain burial grounds that are unused.

The hon. Gentleman questioned our approach and raised a number of the issues that came to light in response to the consultation paper. The questions include: can we can continue to create new burial grounds indefinitely; is that the best use of land in short supply; and, even if we did want to allocate extra resources to buy land to create more burial spaces, would they be too far away and do we not have better uses for the land? We were also asked whether we should be doing what the hon. Gentleman suggested—lifting and deepening, which provides more space vertically in a burial ground. Would that policy be compatible with our commitment to sustainable development?

We raised those questions in the consultation paper, which we published last year. The responses varied widely. Most of the people involved in the burial business were in favour of re-using burial grounds in some way. Most of the individuals who responded were seriously concerned about that suggestion and not so happy with it.

Many individuals want to retain their local parish churchyard as an essential part of their community life, but many others believe that respect for the dead and, ultimately, for the living demands that human remains be allowed to lie undisturbed in their final resting place. Even within a village, there are people who want to keep using the churchyard and others who feel that the respect of the community must be given to its deceased members, so the yard must not be disturbed. We have to
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reconcile those opposing views and reach a sensible way forward. That is what we will be addressing and we would want to bring forward proposals soon.

I should like now to come to the question of the Cumnor churchyard. Whether a churchyard is full is a question of fact. Therefore, there is a question of evidence as to whether it is full or not. If it is asserted and not challenged that it is full, that might be regarded as an adequate basis for the Secretary of State to accept that it is full and to accept a closure. In the case of Cumnor, the argument is that the churchyard is not actually full, although there is a desire to close it. Therefore, the question of its being full having been challenged, it is important for officials in my Department to look closely at the basis on which they will gather the evidence as to whether it is full in order to make their recommendation to the Secretary of State for him to make his decision.

I want to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that nothing will happen that will take the local community by surprise and that the evidence will be made plain and a decision taken on it. I agree that the churchyard is not, as a matter of evidence, full just because the people who run the churchyard say that there are no vacancies and that they are not prepared to make extra plots available.

In relation to the churchyard in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, full consideration of the evidence will be given and we will go about that in a transparent way. The decision will be based on evidence and will not take anybody by surprise. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman assisting me in my task of reaching a conclusion on these difficult issues as we take this forward as a matter of Government policy.

Question put and agreed to.

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