Friday in the Commons ended with an adjournment debate on the provision of burial spaces. In a fairly brief speech, Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con) pointed out that in 1997 it had been estimated that there was only nine years’ supply of burial space in Inner London and that six Outer London boroughs would run out of space before 2016, though some had sufficient burial space for the next 100 years. The London Local Authorities Act 2007 had given London Boroughs power to disturb human remains in a grave where burial rights had been extinguished and where the intention was to increase the space for interments in the grave; however, no London Borough had yet adopted those powers. The supply of burial spaces had already been regarded as problematic in the mid-1990s; but he was concerned that local authorities appeared not to have adopted permitted grave reuse measures.
The Office for National Statistics had indicated a fairly steady projected decline in deaths in London from 57,400 in 2010 to 46,700 in 2031. But mortality projections alone were an insufficient basis on which to calculate demand for burial space. For example, it was not possible to estimate the number of deaths of migrants whose bodies were then repatriated, or cases where deaths might take place outside London but result in a cremation or burial in the capital. In addition, though ONS data for 2008 had suggested a crude cremation rate of 75 per cent, data from the Cremation Society of Great Britain indicated that between 1997 and 2009 the number of cremations in crematoria located in London had dropped from 48,275 to 36,736—a fall of 24 per cent. In addition, part of the issue was religious preference. Almost three-quarters of Christians and 80 to and 90 per cent of Sikhs and Hindus could be expected to opt for cremation, while only four per cent of Jews and one per cent of Muslims would do so.
He perceived the present situation as problematical. When the Delegated Legislation Committee considered the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure, Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con) had stated that in one part of her constituency there were only 16 burial plots left; and the Second Church Estates Commissioner had agreed that she had identified “… something of a lacuna in the legislation about who is responsible for making provision for new cemeteries and new burial ground places” [Official Report, Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee 12 May 2014; c. 5].
In reply, Simon Hughes, Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, started by pointing out that Government responsibility for burials was shared between the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Communities and Local Government: MoJ had responsibility for burial law and policy and DCLG for local burial authorities.
Burial space had increasingly become a matter of concern in some parts of England and Wales; and one of the issues was whether this was a national problem or a local or regional one. In 2013 the University of York’s cemetery research group had published an audit of burial space in 2013 which concluded that the situation in London was more critical than elsewhere but that that was not true for all London burial authorities. The most recent national figures showed that just over 70 per cent of all disposals of bodies after death in England and Wales were by cremation; but many people had a strongly-preference for burial over cremation. For many people their faith meant that burial was the only acceptable option. In addition, relatives—often husbands and wives—sometimes wished to be buried together, no matter how long apart their deaths had occurred.
There were three separate issues to be considered:
On projections of demand, though the ONS and the GLA data predicted a decline in death in London it was nevertheless correct to say that as faith groups changed as proportions of the London community the demand for burial would also change: the London cremation rate in 2008 had been 75 per cent and only 27 per cent of Christians had opted for burial, while 91 per cent of Buddhists and 96 per cent of Jews and Muslims had done so. Hindus and Sikhs, however, had a strong preference for cremation. The logic was that those Boroughs with larger proportions of certain faith communities were likely to face increased pressure for burial space and greater reluctance to reuse graves. The GLA 2010 survey had shown that, of the 33 London Boroughs, current burial spaces then available were full in eight of them: Camden, City of London, City of Westminster, Hackney, Islington, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth and Tower Hamlets. Southwark figures were not given.
The second issue was reuse of existing graves. The reuse scheme available to London burial authorities under s 74 of the London Local Authorities Act 2007 empowered them to extinguish the burial right in graves where no interment has taken place for 75 years, and then to reuse the plots by re-digging, lowering the existing burial, capping and putting in new bodies on top. Take-up was almost non-existent. Though the City of London had reused just under 900 graves in the four years up to 2013, in nearly every case it did so using the powers in ecclesiastical law under which reuse of graves may be permitted by faculty:
“A number of those who are calling for something to be done have asked that access to the reuse scheme in the 2007 Act that applies in Greater London be extended to apply to the rest of England and Wales. There must clearly be reasons why London councils are not generally making more use of these powers, and before the Government consider legislation to extend the scheme more widely, we need to make sure that we understand the reasons why they have not been used significantly in London”.
The third issue was the potential for collaboration between local authorities and differing policy in local authorities, including adjacent ones. The data shows that there are some adjacent authorities where one is full and the other has spare capacity; and it would be helpful if those with spare capacity collaborated with those that did not have space. There was also the issue of differential charges applied according to whether, at the time of death, a person was living within the area in which he or she wished to be buried. Charges were often considerably higher for those living out of area; and the relatives of someone who had lived in one place and moved, for example, to a nursing home in a different local authority area might discover that the price was five times what it would had that person not moved beyond the local authority boundary:
“That is clearly not just, and I am determined that, with local government, we deal with it”.
He had had meetings on the matter with representatives of the National Association of Funeral Directors, with some constituency funeral directors and with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Funerals and Bereavement. The Chief Coroner, HHJ Peter Thornton QC had arranged a bereavement event in the summer and had provided guidance to coroners on dealing with out-of-hours requests to facilitate timely burials. He was due to meet a group of MPs who were concerned about the availability of burial space in their constituencies. In conclusion:
“The position I inherited was that the Government had said for some time that they wished to keep this subject under review. In the weeks ahead, encouraged by people such as my hon. Friend, I want to be in a position to move forward from that holding position. This debate and the coming meetings will help us properly to consider whether, for example, it would now be appropriate to discuss enabling legislation that would permit other local authorities outside Greater London to permit the reuse of graves in their areas. That would of course have to be after full consultation on the idea and on any proposed legislation with the communities affected, and democratic deliberation and decisions by the local councils in question. There may also be other things we need to do in Greater London, and beyond, that Government can either facilitate or enable.
I am determined not only that the Government should be active in anticipating the problem and dealing with it but that we act in the right way. I offer the House and colleagues, and all those professionally involved, a clear commitment to continue working on and engaging with this issue to make sure that we come to some conclusions on the way forward over the next few weeks and months”.
This has been an issue that has ebbed and flowed; and ministers of all political persuasions have tended to regard it either as a low policy priority or, perhaps, as a sensitive issue on which they risked offending as many people as they pleased. Last Friday’s debate seems to indicate a positive move towards resolving the problem of shortage of local authority grave-spaces. That said, however, given that we are coming to the end of the current Parliament, it would be over-optimistic to expect a resolution of the problem any time soon.