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29 Jun 2005 : Column 435WH—continued


11 am

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this short debate on the safety testing of gravestones. This matter is causing great distress and anger to many of my constituents and I understand that there are similar reactions in other parts of the country.

I have been inundated with calls from people who have visited the grave of a loved one only to find that it has been desecrated, not by a group of vandals but by a gang of contractors employed by the local authority. The gravestone may have been dislodged, staked and may have a sticker on it declaring it unsafe and requiring repair. In other areas, I understand that graves are cordoned off and the stones laid flat.

The scene in municipal cemeteries is of mass desecration, which is why it is so profoundly distressing to so many people. I understand that throughout the country gravestones are being tested for safety. That follows concern about injuries and accidents in recent years, including the death of a child, caused by unstable memorials. That has prompted burial authorities, in turn prompted by the Health and Safety Commission, to test gravestones for safety.

I am aware that in recent years attention has been paid to the wider issues concerning cemeteries and burial. The report of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs in 2001 drew attention to the lack of resources for cemetery maintenance that was preventing unsafe memorials from being tackled. That report prompted the Government to set up the burial and cemeteries advisory group in December 2001 and with it a memorial safety sub-group. The latter was to produce good practice advice with

I understand that the promised good practice advice has still not appeared.

In January 2003, in a parliamentary answer, the relevant Minister said:

It is now two and a half years later, but there is still no advice. In the meantime, in January 2004, the Home Office published a consultation paper "Burial Law and Policy in the 21st Century: the need for a sensitive and sustainable approach". That identified the deficiencies of existing burial legislation and on the issue of memorial safety said that

That separate consideration is a reference to the advisory group and the closing date for responses to that consultation was 13 July 2004.

We have reports. We have advisory groups. We have sub-groups of advisory groups. We have consultation papers. What we do not have is policy or good practice guidance to inform the activities of burial authorities as they embark upon the safety testing of memorials.
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We also have the Health and Safety Commission, whose chairman wrote to all local authority chief executives on 1 June 2004 asking them to take "a personal interest" in the safety of memorials in cemeteries. That letter stated:

The letter also urged that there was a need for

and stated that

Faced with a local outcry, my own local authority, Cannock Chase district council, issued a press release on 2 June, which stated:

In fact, that is not the case.

One of the questions in the frequently asked questions annexe to the HSC chairman's letter of 1 June 2004 is:

The answer given is a capitalised, "No." It goes on to refer to information given to Health and Safety Executive inspectors but says:

—local authorities—

—burial authorities—

Indeed, the HSE website states that the circular in question —"management of unstable memorials"—has been removed:

So, we come full circle. We have local authorities saying that they are only doing what the HSC has told them to do. We have the HSE saying that it has issued no instructions, and referring people to the Home Office burial and cemeteries advisory group, which has still not produced any good practice guidance. Meanwhile, in all this bureaucratic fog, people are finding the gravestones of their loved ones officially vandalised by contractors armed with their topple testers. They are then being told that they have to pay to have them repaired, even in some cases where they have only recently paid a
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considerable sum to have them installed, and without the courtesy of prior direct consultation, or the opportunity to be present when the testing is done. It is scarcely surprising that this makes people distressed and angry.

I have some questions for the Minister about what is happening, which my constituents want answers to. If she is unable to give the answers now, I would be grateful if she could write to me subsequently. Is the way in which the safety testing of gravestones is carried out a proportionate response to the safety problem that has been identified, or are we in a territory inhabited by sledgehammers and nuts? What assurance is there that the 35 kg topple test has not itself contributed to the problem?

If, in the words of the Health and Safety Commission,

why should the responsibility and cost for restoration of gravestones lie with individuals and not with burial authorities? Why has there been no effective British standard for the design and construction of memorials, so that even recently installed memorials have failed the safety test, while many older ones have passed it?

What is the responsibility of stone masons who have erected memorials that have failed the safety test and are now to be paid again to restore them? Why has the Government's burial and cemeteries advisory group still not produced its good practice advice on memorial safety? Why have local authorities taken their own action without official advice on good practice, relying only on the various approaches contained in existing industry guidance?

What is the cost to local authorities of undertaking the safety testing programme? Why have grave owners not been written to personally, as a matter of routine, when testing is to be carried out, and given the opportunity to be present? Why have advice and assistance not been provided as a matter of course to those whose gravestones have been judged to be unsafe?

Will the Minister confirm that a local authority has no powers in law to compel a grave owner to repair a memorial or to force the owner to reimburse the cost to the authority of making it safe, as no such power is contained in the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977? Do local authorities have an obligation to maintain their cemeteries properly? In the event of an injury caused by an unstable headstone, is the council liable, the individual owner, or both?

When are we finally going to get new legislative proposals to deal with the issue of cemetery maintenance and safety? Finally, what avenues for complaint and redress are available to people who believe that their local authority has approached the issue in an over-zealous and insensitive manner? Those are the sort of questions that my constituents want answers to, which I address to the Minister today. It is a sensitive issue and it deserves to be dealt with sensitively. In too many cases, that seems not to be happening, giving rise to great distress and anguish in those who see the graves of their loved ones being violated by public authorities, which seem inattentive to the intense human sensitivities involved.
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11.15 am

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) for his generosity in allowing me a few words, and I thank the Minister as well. Topple-testing sounds more like something from Ken Dodd, my former constituent in Liverpool, Wavertree, than something that has been seriously considered by a public body. I ask whether the Health and Safety Executive has too many officials with too much time on their hands. Otherwise, can one imagine why it is asking local authorities to analyse gravestones? Have the officials nothing better to do?

Bearing in mind that there are more deaths in the home and in the kitchen than on the roads, and that there was one death, sad though it was, when a gravestone collapsed on a young man who was playing with it, surely we as a nation should not be spending hundreds of thousands or millions of pounds without a risk assessment. That would determine whether we should be spending the amount of time that we are currently spending on gravestones and their stability.

In Torbay, which is part of my constituency, the Liberal Democrat council has already spent £20,000 on checking the stability of tombstones, and it has actually stuck warning signs, rather like parking tickets, on the stones. With those stickers everywhere, the graveyard looks more like a main street with cars on it. It is an absurd misuse of public moneys. Never mind the tombstones, the Torbay unitary authority needs its head examined as to the priority it is giving to that issue. There are 70 miles of unsafe cliffs along south Devon. Are the Government going to suggest that the Health and Safety Executive tests every stone to see whether they are unsafe? The risk assessment has totally failed to keep the problem in perspective.

I ask the Minister to put the matter in proportion. Many activities are dangerous. Crossing the road is dangerous. Do we need Health and Safety Executive officials to help us to cross the road? We are in an absurd situation. The hon. Gentleman made a formidable speech, and many other Members are appalled at the amount of public money that is spent on what appears to be trivia. What are the people supposed to do? Are the dead supposed to rise out of the ground and put the tombstones in a safer position? Many of the tombstones are hundreds of years old, but some houses that are hundreds of years old are unsafe. We are becoming an absurd nation, and when we have a topple-testing measurement, the Health and Safety Executive is perpetuating nonsense.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to draw attention to that absurd situation. I hope that the Minister realises that many Members feel that it should be dealt with much more practically, and without so much public money being spent on such a trivial issue.

11.18 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) on securing the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for contributing to it. Although my hon. Friend asked 12 questions, I shall not
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answer them one through to 12. He may even have asked 13—I think that was slightly over-zealous. However, I hope that I shall be able to deal with most of the points that he made. If there are any with which I cannot deal in the short period that I have left, I shall confirm the position in writing to him.

I appreciate the comments from the hon. Member for Totnes that it almost seems bizarre that cemeteries can be a safety hazard. However, gravestones and memorials can become unstable over time. The issue is not always just about how long a gravestone has been in the ground. It can relate to the type of soil it is in. I am not sure what the soil is like in Totnes, but I know of some areas with sandy soil, where care must be taken in erecting tombstones and memorials. Gravestones may fall, but not always because of age. Even simple things such as mourners leaning on a gravestone when paying their respects can lead to instability and the monument falling on them at the graveside. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not need a helping hand up from a graveside, but some of us do.

I do not want to underestimate the impact of the injuries. They are small in number, but there have been 21 serious injuries, including three deaths, during the past six years. Obviously, it is necessary to deal with the issue, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase that the risk must be managed sensibly. I believe that in the majority of cases that is what happens. I shall come on to the specific matters that my hon. Friend raised and the way in which his council dealt with them.

I share my hon. Friend's concern about the minority of instances in which an inflexible and insensitive approach means that little or no attempt has been made to consult the bereaved, or in which a blanket approach has been taken and all headstones have been laid down as a precautionary measure. Just to allay some of the fears that he and the hon. Gentleman raised, councils have been taken to the ombudsman in some instances. Indeed, there was an ombudsman's decision against Bromsgrove district council, which not only appeared to be over-zealous but did not take measures to consult people before it laid gravestones down on the ground.

All the indicators point to improvements in the situation since the intervention of the Health and Safety Commission and the Home Office, among others. For the past few years, there has been a greater understanding among burial authorities of the need for a balanced and sensitive approach.

We should not be complacent, as any over-reaction has the potential to cause great distress, but I recognise that it is often far from easy for burial authorities to deal with the issue. On the one hand, they must consider the feelings of the bereaved, who want the graves of their loved ones to be treated with dignity and respect. On the other hand, if someone is injured or even killed, there is an outcry—perhaps the mirror image of the outcry that my hon. Friend highlighted. Therefore, it is necessary to strike a sensible balance.

My hon. Friend highlighted ownership, which makes the management of risk even more complicated for the authorities involved. Responsibility for the maintenance of a memorial lies primarily with theowner who erected
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it, but many owners and descendants do not appreciate the problem, or even the fact of their responsibility. They may no longer visit the grave regularly. In that instance, the burial authorities are most likely to become aware of a possible danger, and it is incumbent on them to assess the memorial and to take action if it appears to present an imminent risk.

For the record, let me explain what the British standard test procedure involves. It is not about moving around a graveyard with strain gauges, trying to knock down gravestones. In a nutshell, under the British standard test procedure, there should be a visual inspection of the memorial followed by a hand test to determine its stability. If it wobbles, immediate steps must be taken to make it safe. If it does not wobble, a mechanical device called a strain gauge is applied to determine whether the memorial can withstand 35 kg of pressure. If it cannot, the gravestone owner is notified that they need to make it safe. The procedure should be that the gravestone owner is advised. It is not a case of wandering around graveyards vandalising or desecrating memorial stones with hammers, as my hon. Friend suggested.

Ideally, the owner of the memorial will always be consulted before any action is taken, but it may not always be possible to contact the memorial owners readily, particularly in relation to older graves. If that is the case, a reasonable first step might be for the burial authority to keep their employees and the public away from the dangerous memorials.

That might be followed by an appropriate procedure to give owners notice both of the problem and the action the authority intends to take if the owners do not come forward. I know of burial authorities across the country that have used all methods possible to try to contact the owners of memorial stones. I believe that consultation is vital, and only after it has been undertaken might it be proper to take corrective action.

My hon. Friend referred to a letter sent out by the Health and Safety Commission in June 2004. The issue had by then been around for some years. Guidance on memorial management and appropriate safety standards has been published over the years by relevant professional and representative bodies, including the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, the Association of Burial Authorities and the National Association of Memorial Masons. The guidance recommends regular inspections of headstones and practical measures to make dangerous memorials safe. Laying memorials down is not the only option, as I indicated. Memorials may also be supported, cordoned off, or repaired.

By 2004, there had been instances of blanket approaches to tackling the risk and poor communication with the bereaved. The Health and Safety Commission was concerned that in a minority of instances an overly risk-averse approach was being applied, and I concur with my hon. Friend on the point. The Health and Safety Commission therefore decided to intervene. It wrote to all local authority chief executives and urged them to ensure that a proportionate approach was taken. The letter noted that in most cases the issue was handled sensitively, but raised concern that

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My hon. Friend read that extract out. There was also a question and answer brief covering the kind of issues that he raised. I hope that both he and the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the Health and Safety Commission's intervention was not the cause of the problem, but rather a step along the way to promoting a sense of balance.

I reassure my hon. Friend that other actions are in train. At present, as he indicated, there is no single source of guidance on memorial safety. The Home Office, as the Department then responsible for burial law, invited the various professional, technical and representative bodies in the burial industry to discuss and to make recommendations for an agreed code of practice. Much work has been done and much progress made.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments about the length of time that that has taken, but the diversity of the industry has made it difficult to reach universal agreement on the way forward. We have to deal with an enormous range of authorities, from large local authorities to small churches. Moving towards consensus has been very difficult and that is a matter of regret.

Responsibility for burial law recently transferred from the Home Office to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which I understand is considering what guidance may now be given to local authorities and others on these issues, including the need to consult families where preventive action seems necessary. I hope that it will be able to clarify for gravestone owners their responsibilities and make provisions for addressing maintenance costs should they arise; my hon. Friend raised the apparent legal limbo between the gravestone owners and the burial authorities as a specific issue.

I said that I would highlight issues relating to Cannock and I do not want to finish without doing so. I know that my hon. Friend has received many representations on the matter. I highlight the fact that at least two people from Cannock said in the Cannock Chase Post that they consulted the local authority and that the bereavement service of the local authority was very supportive. It offered direct contact numbers of the organisation that was recruited to complete the difficult task at the cemetery. The two women asked people to seek more information and help, because the help is there for Cannock Chase.

I do not underestimate the difficulties and the sensitivity of the issues. I hope that I have addressed most of them. If I have not, I will write to my hon. Friend. Perhaps he would allow the hon. Gentleman to see the reply.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.

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