§ 1.5 a.m.
§ Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)
I welcome and appreciate the opportunity to raise the subect of paupers' graves. It is perhaps not inappropriate, when the Christian world awaits the annual celebration of Christ's birth, that we should turn our minds momentarily to the manner in which literally thousands of our people are buried in communal, unmarked, euphemistically-termed public common subscription graves—in fact, and in practice, paupers' graves.
Paupers' graves are a wretched, sad business. They are graves to which we as a society resign too many of the impoverished, the mentally and physically handicapped, and those born before a qualifying date for the National Health Insurance scheme, all of whom in so many cases have no insurance records and are, therefore, not entitled to the National Insurance £30 full benefit grant.
I seek to urge the Minister to make the death benefit grant generally available irrespective of the insurance record of the individual concerned. The tragedy is that so many of these people have been afforded little dignity in life and receive even less when they cast off their mortal coil.
While I make no imputations against the manner in which these funerals are arranged, hon. Members will, no doubt, be aware that in 1968 the National Association of Funeral Directors produced a suggested specification for public authority funerals, presumably intended both for hospital and for local authority funerals, under Section 50 of the National Assistance Act, which specifically excludes any what might be termed "extras" of this kind, thus distinguishing public from private funerals in the most visible way.
Commending this specification to the NAFD annual conference in June 1968, Mr. L. E. Stringer, chairman of the committee which produced it, said:We hope that the local authority funeral will be adopted as a reasonably standard type of funeral to differentiate entirely between the type that is supplied by a local authority 1533 and that which is supplied by Members of our Association. My personal view"—let me emphasise that—is that I think it extremely dangerous to bring this local authority funeral within any measurable distance of even a simple funeral, otherwise there is a chance, in time to come, of further municipalisation.That was the comment of Mr. Stringer.
I do not want to make too much of that point because I accept that there is little evidence that funeral directors depart from their generally high standards in arranging these funerals. What I find particularly objectionable is the communal graves' aspect of these funerals and the anonymity of the graves.
On the communal graves' aspect, I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) in his place because, provided he has the opportunity of catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will make reference to very disquieting reports of communal graves as concerns new-born children.
So far as paupers' public or common graves are concerned, as many as eight coffins are placed in a single grave. Then the grave is merely grassed over with no indication as to who is interred within.
One might ask: Does it matter? Ought we not to get on with dealing with the problems of the living rather than concern ourselves with the dead? Ought we not to accept the philosophy expressed in that jingle which I heard as a boy:Rattle his bones across the stones,He's only a pauper whom nobody owns."?It is because I reject such arguments and philosophies that I urge the Minister to examine this sad, wretched business. If I needed any support for my view, it is contained in this bulging file of letters. Perhaps the House will allow me to quote from but a few.
An elderly lady born in October 1887, anxious about her own ineligibility for the death benefit grant, writes:As my flat is opposite a cemetery looking out of my window, I feel furious at times when I think of the life so many of these people have had, many the salt of the earth and in that position through no fault of their own, to have such an indignity thrust upon them.Then there is the letter I received from a gentleman resident in Surrey who writes: 1534In this village a few years ago there died a woman of 50 who had never been able to work owing to having suffered a certain amount of brain damage in infancy. As she had never worked and had never received any income she had no National Health Insurance record. I was informed that as she had never paid a NHS stamp she was not entitled to any death grant.Then there is the correspondent from Berkshire who writes about a spinster born in 1886 who was 62 years of age at the changeover to the National Health Service scheme in July 1948 and who, therefore, again regrettably, does not qualify for the death benefit grant.
To conclude, may I remind the Minister that to many people, particularly elderly people, this subject is extremely sensitive. It is one that gives rise to appreciable anxiety and fear. In my part of the country the fears of many old people have been removed with the introduction of the Welfare State, but there are still anxieties and fears about this problem. May I urge the Minister to make his contribution to relieve these anxieties and fears and give this issue the serious consideration which it so obviously merits.
§ 1.15 a.m.
§ Mr. Ernie Money (Ipswich)
The hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris) has been right to raise this matter, and he has done so most movingly and with considerable moderation. I am grateful for the opportunity to intervene briefly.
There are many matters concerning the burial of those who are on small incomes which still cause concern. The question of the increase in the Parochial Fees Measure this year is one, and the whole system of the payment of death grant in certain circumstances to the next-of-kin rather than to the funeral director is another source of concern to the elderly. As the hon. Member said, there is one specific matter which I would seek to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend, and that is the situation applying to stillborn babies who are too young, in the sense of being pre-natal, to qualify for a death grant.
I was peculiarly shocked by an account which appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times on 21st November 1972 dealing with the remarks made by the parents of a stillborn child about 1535 the circumstances in which they had visited their son's grave. The father said:in the grave there could be about 15 burials before it is filled in.The article continued:He protested that boards which cover the grave 'move' and the green imitation grass placed on top of the boards is faded and ' should have been thrown away years ago'.The father said:The parents can lift up the covering—that is if the wind has not already blown it half off—and see the open grave.He added that people could then look into the grave:and know that your child's coffin is only covered by falling earth, some of which has been washed in by the rain. … To us it is the mass burial of human beings. If it were animals suffering from diseases or pets the authority concerned would ensure that their grave was completely covered.The reply of the superintendent of the Ipswich Cemetery—I make no complaint of the otherwise admirable service which the municipal authorities supply there in many ways—was simply this:We dig a normal size grave and after they are buried they are covered up with earth but we do not fill the grave right up to the top. We ensure that the coffins are covered up so that all that people see is earth. It has been a system which has been in operation for over 20 years. It is not inhuman at all. … I should think in this grave there would be 20 stillborns.I ask my hon. Friend to look at this carefully. Although all of us are aware that there is a long tradition here, not flattering to humanity, in that Mozart and many others of our greatest people went to a pauper's grave, in an age when we now feel, proudly, that perhaps we are living in more civilised circumstances this is a situation which hits hardest at those who are least able to do much to protect themselves.
§ 1.20 a.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Alison)
I should like to begin by congratulating, the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris) on the fluent and heartfelt style in which he addressed the House on this sadly unseasonable topic as we approach the period of festivity, birth and new life.
I should like, first of all, to question the title of this debate, as given on the Order Paper. There is no such thing as 1536 a pauper's grave. This was an expression under the old Poor Law, now long since superseded. We are talking of common graves, by which we mean graves in which no exclusive right of burial has been purchased.
Having said this, I should begin with an explanation of the powers under which burial by statutory authorities may be arranged. Under Section 50 of the National Assistance Act 1948 local sanitary authorities—borough and district councils—have a duty to arrange the burial or cremation of any person who has died in their area in any case where no other arrangements for the burial of the body have been made or are being made. Hospital authorities have power, as occupiers of premises in which a person has died, to arrange and pay for burial or cremation of patients dying in hospital, but the local authority's duty under the National Assistance Act overrides this.
The Secretary of State has authorised hospital authorities to arrange and pay for the burial or cremation of patients who die in National Health Service hospitals where for various reasons arrangements cannot be made by their relatives. There are a wide variety of cases in which this can occur. They have also been asked to do so where either relatives cannot be traced—for example, in the case of patients in long-stay mental hospitals—or where the relatives have been traced but are unable to obtain death grant and cannot otherwise afford to arrange burial.
There may be exceptional cases in which the relatives are unwilling to arrange for burial, although the hospital authority has reason to think they can afford to do so. Hospital authorities have, in these cases, been asked to call upon the responsible borough or district council, which is the authority in whose district the body lies, to carry out its duty to arrange burial under Section 50 of the 1948 Act. Most hospital authorities arrange with local funeral contractors for burials to take place in what are known as common graves.
I shall try to clear up one misunderstanding which still persists in some people's minds, who confuse these burials with burials in what were known as paupers' graves under the old Poor Law. But, as I have said, this notion is now 1537 long-since outdated. The common graves of a municipal cemetery are merely those which have been set aside by a local authority from the plots for which individuals or families pay either for single or for family graves. Usually where hospital authorities arrange for burial, common graves are used unless there is a family grave or the deceased or his relatives have expressed a wish for a private grave for which they are willing to pay. Common graves may be in consecrated or unconsecrated ground, and burials there are carried out in the same way as those elsewhere.
A common grave, like many private graves, may accommodate more than one coffin. Indeed, a member of my own family has a site reserved in which there are three or four plots closely linked in geographical terms to where he in due course will be placed. Therefore, there is nothing unusual in the fact that private graves can contain more than one coffin. I understand that the general practice, depending on soil conditions and the cemetery proprietor's opinion of what is required, is such that graves are deep enough to take a few coffins, buried one on top of the other, and there may be requirements in byelaws or regulations about the depth of earth between each coffin.
Common graves are used not only to accommodate those who die destitute and without relatives, or without relatives who care, but those with relatives who want to make arrangements but are unable to afford, or do not wish to purchase, a private grave. Generally, such graves are not marked by the placing of a commemorative stone, but in most cases some simple mark of identification may be placed by the grave. So they are not totally anonymous. In each case a separate and individual burial service is carried out with no less dignity and no less respect for the deceased than with burials arranged privately.
There is no stigma in a municipal funeral. People whose funerals are arranged by local and hospital authorities could have been comfortably off. They were not necessarily poor. Often what necessitates a municipal funeral may be simply that they had no relatives. We know, alas, of millions of cases of elderly single householders in this country where there may be no relatives.
§ Mr. Morris
The file I have here is bulging with the anxieties expressed by elderly people. I am grateful to the Minister for the information which he is now giving. I hope, however, that he will direct his comments to the question of the £30 death grant.
§ Mr. Alison
I wish to elaborate on this aspect because some understanding of the context in which municipal burial takes place could be a factor in relieving the anxieties of some folk who are involved on the side of financial stringency. It may help them to be aware that common graves may merely contain the coffins of deceased folk for whom no sort of financial pressure existed but for whom other factors arose.
A memorandum, which has recently been revised, has been issued by my Department to hospital authorities containing guidance about the arrangements which should be made for the burial of patients and related matters. The memorandum asks authorities that they should consider cremation unless there is reason to suppose that the patient would have preferred otherwise or that the relatives do not wish this. It also includes advice about the arrangements to be made with the undertaker responsible for the funeral, on arranging transport in certain circumstances for a deceased patient who has died in a distant hospital to be buried in his home area, and on dealing with deceased patients' property. It also asks hospital authorities to keep under review their procedures to ensure that every assistance is given to relatives. We have no reason to suppose that authorities generally do not carry out their tasks otherwise than with consideration and understanding.
The hon. Member for Openshaw and the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) recently tabled Questions on the subject which were answered by my right hon. Friend. I believe that the Questions, as doubtless was this debate, were prompted by allegations which the hon. Member had received of "mass burials" at some psychiatric hospitals in the Manchester area and that the allegations had specifically mentioned Calderstones Hospital, near Blackburn. I have made inquiries, and I understand that the Manchester Corporation arranges about 300 funerals 1539 under the National Assistance Act each year. About half are in respect of persons who have died in local authority residential accommodation or in their private homes, and half are in respect of patients who, having died in hospital, are buried under a special arrangement in which the corporation acts as agent for the hospital authority.
I am told that each burial is an individual one with a separate service for each person held in a chapel or at the graveside, or sometimes in a local church. The corporation will also arrange burial in a family grave, where there is one, or cremation if this was the deceased person's wish or the wish of the relatives. In some cases burial will be arranged in a private cemetery instead of a municipal cemetery if, for example, the deceased person was a Roman Catholic.
The funeral arrangements are made with selected local funeral contractors in Manchester through the local branch of the National Association of Funeral Directors. Burials in common graves conform to the local requirements in respect of the soil conditions and depth of earth between coffins. In Manchester the number of coffins accommodated in a grave, which varies between cemeteries, is between six and eight. I understand that funerals at Calderstones Hospital are usually by cremation and that this has been the position for some years. However, on the rare occasion when cremation does not take place burial usually takes place in the hospital's own cemetery in a single grave.
I hope, therefore, that what I have said has helped to allay any fear spread by the allegations that deceased hospital patients or other persons, whatever their circumstances and the circumstances of their relatives, are not given a proper burial, and that these are not carried out with the respect and dignity which is required. If the hon. Gentleman knows of any specific instance within the responsibility of my Department where a burial has not been carried out in a proper manner, I hope that he will inform me of the details so that I can make a full inquiry.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the death grant. My right hon. Friend recently wrote to him on one aspect of 1540 the subject. The National Insurance death grant is a lump sum, normally of £30, paid on the death of an insured person or of the wife, husband or child of an insured person. There are also special arrangements to enable death grant to be paid on the insurance of a close relative in cases where the deceased was over the age of 19 but ever since reaching that age had suffered from physical or mental disability and so was unable to work and build up an adequate insurance record. That might have some relevance to the example which the hon. Gentleman gave about the lady who obviously had some sort of mental trouble before death.
Death grant is paid in respect of some 98 per cent. of deaths of men under the age of 89, and over 90 per cent. of deaths of women under 84. That is a total of about 525,000 grants a year. A large proportion of those who die now receive death grant. The hon. Gentleman asked why there should not be total coverage. The answer is the problem of priorities. In the Adjournment debate which the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) initiated last month, one of my colleagues, the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean), went into some detail about the question of priorities. The bald point which he made was that social security benefits of about £100 million a week are paid out and that resources must be concentrated, and they are not unlimited, on sustaining life for those whose hold on life may be tenuous.
As death grant was an entirely new benefit introduced under the National Insurance Act 1946, contributions towards the grant started only in 1948. Consequently persons over pension age on 5th July 1948 are not covered, and persons who were then within 10 years of pension age—that is to say, men now over 79 and women over 74—can qualify for death grant only at half rate. It is worth pointing out to the hon. Gentleman that the conditions which have to be satisfied in the case of death grants are significantly less onerous than the conditions which have to be satisfied for most of the other National Insurance benefits. At least there is the element of preference to offset the admittedly incomplete coverage.
I shall now deal with the example which was given by my hon. Friend the 1541 Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money), who raised the subject of the interment of stillborn babies in a common grave in a question to which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development replied. I think that my right hon. Friend said that there were no plans to introduce legislation at present.
I have already explained that there is nothing degrading or improper about burial in a common grave of patients who have died in hospital. I do not think that there is any need to alter that view in respect of stillborn babies. It is not uncommon in family graves for more than one coffin to be placed in the grave. There is nothing degrading or improper about the burial of several children in a municipal grave.
The description which my hon. Friend gave of conditions in one of the cemeteries was appalling. I will read carefully what he said to see whether the actions of the hospital authorities to which he has referred need further examination. Responsibility for the disposal of stillborn infants rests primarily with the parents. However, it may be convenient for the hospital, in agreement with the parents, to make the necessary arrangements at the parents' expense. My hon. Friend will appreciate that many parents who face these contingencies would much rather in such appalling cir- 1542 cumstances leave everything in the hands of the local hospital authority, which will make the necessary arrangements to recoup the costs where they can be met by the parents. Otherwise it will meet the cost itself.
I do not know whether the example which my hon. Friend gave is a common one. I must look at the precise words he used, his exact description, before I commit myself to any general comment. I understand that the practice in the Ipswich group is to arrange for stillborn babies to be buried in a common grave except where the parents arrange for, or wish, the burial to be carried out elsewhere. I do not think that there is anything inherently improper about this. It is right for hospital authorities to carry out the task in the tragic circumstances involved. It is not degrading for a grave to contain several bodies. The great majority of parents who leave the interment of stillborn infants to hospitals are content with this—
§ The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at twenty-five minutes to Two o'clock.