Rosie Cooper (PPS (Rt Hon Lord Rooker, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, West Lancashire, Labour): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on an issue of huge importance to families in my constituency. The Minister will know, I am sure, that I am very concerned about the lack of burial provision and have raised the matter regularly with the Ministry of Justice and its predecessor, the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
Only last week in this Chamber during Questions I highlighted the plight of many bereaved families with the former Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who indicated that under the provisions announced in her written statement earlier this month, councils have additional options available to them, and that there really is no excuse for not providing the burial services much needed by local people.
I understand that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) is answering the debate at short notice, but I must impress on him how important the matter is for my constituents. My purpose today is to remedy the dreadful situation that persists in my constituency because of the unwillingness of West Lancashire district council to provide sufficient cemetery plots, a crematorium and a remembrance garden so that all local residents can bury their loved ones locally if they so choose. That is not the case at present, as many bereaved families are forced to find burial spaces in neighbouring authorities.
The lack of burial facilities facing many West Lancashire families, especially those in Skelmersdale, is unjust, unfair and morally unacceptable. People are not being treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. The situation is compounded because it affects those most in need the worst. I am aware that inadequate provision of cemetery and crematorium space is not a West Lancashire-specific problem but that it affects many communities across the UK.
The scale of the problem was recognised in the eighth report of the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs in 2001. The results of a burial ground survey demonstrate that the problem of lack of burial space will only get worse unless steps are taken to resolve it. The survey found that approximately80 per cent of land available for burials is already occupied by graves, with only 20 per cent unused. The Select Committee report states that as space in cemeteries runs out, it becomes more and more difficult to ensure that families have the widest possible choice of decent affordable options for the burial of their loved ones. I agree with the report that it is not good enough just to say to the bereaved, "Sorry, you're going to have to bury your loved one 20 or more miles away because there's no space left in your local churchyard." The report was the catalyst for work subsequently carried out by the Home Office, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and latterly the Ministry of Justice. The option of introducing a requirement for local authorities to make an assessment of local needs was set out in the recently published paper "Burial law and policy in the 21st century—the way forward". Disappointingly, the document did not make it a duty for local authorities to provide cemeteries—a missed opportunity.
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