HC Deb 29 November 1955 vol 546 cc2269-78

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Godber.]

10.46 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel J. K. Cordeaux (Nottingham, Central)

The long proceedings of the Committee which have just ended have been concerned very largely with the question of the cost of living, and the matter which I am asking the House to consider now is largely concerned with the cost of dying. It is also concerned to a large extent with those people who, during their lifetime, have been looking after a dear husband or wife or parent, and being faced, later on, with the possibility of not being allowed to look after their graves when they are dead. This is a problem that is at present causing a great deal of distress to people in Nottingham, and it is likely to arise in any town or city where commercially-owned cemeteries exist.

The legal position with regard to these cemeteries is undesirable. Arrangements can be entered into with members of the public to sell to them rights of burial and, having done so and sold as many as is physically possible according to the size of the cemetery, they can go into liquidation and renounce their obligations, leaving a filled cemetery to be looked after by anybody who is willing to assume the responsibility. In the event of nobody being prepared to undertake such an onerous task, the unfortunate people who have purchased their burial rights will be faced with the loss of their money and having to buy burial rights elsewhere. Worse still, they are denied the opportunity of finally resting by the side of somebody whom they love. Likewise, those people who, for years, have made a weekly pilgrimage to put flowers on a grave which they have come to look upon as their own property, may arrive there one day and find the gates locked against them.

I am not making indiscriminate allegations against all private cemetery companies or tarring everybody with the same brush, but I hope I have said enough to suggest that such cemetery companies may develop into about the worst example of private enterprise that could be found anywhere.

I believe that the first time this question came to the notice of this House was on 5th May, 1953, when the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Coldrick) asked a Question about the Ridgeway Park Cemetery, in Bristol. In the course of three short answers my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs described the case as "difficult," "intriguing," "extraordinary," "obscure," "curious," "macabre" and "almost unique." All those adjectives may have been applicable in this case, except the last. It was not a unique case and the Town Clerk of Nottingham wrote to the Ministry and pointed out that exactly the same sort of thing would happen in the case of the Nottingham Cemetery.

The cemetery was started by a corn-many in 1836 by Act of Parliament, which laid down certain obligations from the point of view of maintenance which the company had to observe, but said nothing at all about the possible liquidation of the company, or what was to happen when the cemetery was filled. At first, the cemetery was extremely profitable. Large profits were made and big dividends were paid to shareholders, but no reserve was built up. Bodies were buried as close as they would lie together and by 1923, when 150,000 had been buried there, the corporation stepped in and promoted a Bill to restrict further burials.

After that, some money was put to reserve, but by then it was too late. The cemetery was rapidly filling up and, in fact, money was lost, with the result that the very small reserves became seriously depleted. In 1949, the company asked the corporation to take over the cemetery and all the company's obligations and also offered the whole of its accumulated reserves, but as, by then, they amounted to no more than £10,000 and maintenance costs of the cemetery were £3,000 a year. very naturally the corporation decided it was not entitled to burden the ratepayers with the upkeep of a filled cemetery merely because it was no longer profitable to its private owners.

The corporation continued to stand firmly by that decision and in 1953 the company applied to go into voluntary liquidation. The corporation knowing nothing about it and, therefore, not opposing it, the company went into liquidation in May of that year. I do not wish to weary the House with a long list of the legal proceedings in the course of which Nottingham Corporation did its best to prevent the liquidator disclaiming the cemetery, but eventually the liquidator obtained leave to disclaim and a disclaimer was issued in July this year.

Some distressing results followed. The special manager appointed by the receiver was discharged; the cemetery was swiftly closed and the gates locked. Immediately there were such events as protest meetings organised in the town and at the cemetery gates and wreaths were tied to the railings outside the cemetery. There was a case of a man who committed suicide and was said by his widow at the inquest to have done so because he was distressed at the closing of the cemetery. As is usual in such cases, the most heart-rending result was the pain suffered by the inarticulate majority who wished to carry flowers to the graves of relatives lying in the cemetery by whom they had hoped to lie when they died.

In fact, the results were not quite so tragic as they might have been because a caretaker who worked there previously opened the cemetery unofficially and since then access has been obtained, although unofficially. The position, nevertheless, remains a most lamentable one. I am not a learned Member, but the legal position appears to me to be exceedingly obscure. It seems certain that when that disclaimer was issued the cemetery did vest in the Crown as a bona vacantia. I understand that there is a distinction in this case as being seized in law and seized in fact. If one is seized in law in a case like that one has no obligations as regards the cemetery unless one takes the legal possession of it, and that the Crown has made very clear it is not prepared to do.

I put a Question to the Minister of Housing and Local Government on 25th October and I will read the relevant part of the reply. The Minister said: In the circumstances, it would seem appropriate that the Nottingham City Council should assume control of the cemetery. Should the Council decide to do so, I would be prepared to make a contribution towards its expenditure. In answer to a question asking whether the cemetery would be taken over by the Corporation as a cemetery or in any other capacity, such as an open space, my right hon. Friend said: What I have in mind is that the council should take it over naturally as a cemetery and not for any other purpose."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th October, 1955; Vol. 545, c. 9.] Those replies caused a certain feeling of modified relief in Nottingham, but I am afraid it does not appear to have been justified, because from recent conversations between the Ministry and the Nottingham Corporation it has appeared that the Ministry are not prepared to grant any financial assistance unless the cemetery is taken over as a public open space, when it would attract grant under the 1906 Act. I hope that may not be the case, but it begins rather to look as though it is.

I do not think the corporation could possibly convert the cemetery or any part of it into an open space, because people have been buried there fairly recently and it would involve moving the graves. I feel that my right hon. Friend is going back on the undertaking which he gave me on 25th October when he gave an unqualified promise of financial assistance. If that is so, it will come as a great disappointment to very many people in Nottingham. I most earnestly ask him to reconsider his attitude and to see whether he can state a general policy which would apply in the case of all such cemeteries and not merely that to which I have referred. It is my information that a very considerable number of these cases will crop up within the next few years.

In this connection, we have a close and continuing interest in the matter in Nottingham, because we are in the unfortunate position of having not merely one but two of these cemeteries. The other cemetery, to which I shall refer as the second cemetery, was originally started by an unlimited company in 1852. It was a very profitable venture at first and I understand that until comparatively recently it was paying dividends to shareholders at the rate of 25 per cent. Recently, however, the cemetery has been filling up and the profits have become negligible, and in the two recent years the company has been running at a loss. Last year this company formed itself into a limited company, and although I am not suggesting that it is insolvent or has any intention of going into liquidation shortly, the fact remains that it is now in a position to do so. It is understandable, after what has happened, that there is great fear and anxiety in Nottingham as to what might happen.

The cemetery company has already asked the corporation if it would consider taking the cemetery over and negotiations are still going on, but here again the accumulated reserves are quite inadequate to pay for the £4,000 a year maintenance.

Both these cemeteries are large, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will understand the great distress which has been caused in Nottingham and the great anxiety which is still felt. I assure him that I have no doubt about the distress and anxiety, and before I close I should like to quote three extracts from some of the letters which I have received. The first is: As I am a grave certificate holder and my parents are both laid to rest in the cemetery, I am very much concerned at the action taken by the General Cemetery Company. Here is the second: I write to appeal to you to use all your efforts to try and get the Nottingham General Cemetery re-opened. I strongly protest against it being closed as both my parents are buried there and I have always gone up once a week to tend to their grave. Finally: My grave number is 4138. My mother and our dear only son lie there. We bought the grave for ourselves. What are we going to do now? Cannot you do your best towards more burials in this cemetery for us? Us old people should not have this burden to bear. These extracts are typical of many letters and interviews I have had during the summer months. Not only am I anxious to end the distress of those people, but as far as possible to allay the anxiety of others, both in Nottingham and elsewhere, who might be affected in the future. Although it would be rather like locking the door after the horse has been stolen, I would very much welcome any possible legislation which might prevent the public from being so heartlessly exploited in future. I know I should be out of order if I were to suggest any future legislation in this debate, but it is a thing that I should like to do at some time on a proper occasion.

Meantime, I am asking the Parliamentary Secretary whether the Minister could propose to reconsider his decision, as I understand it now to be, in the case of the Nottingham General Cemetery, and also to state a policy which would apply in similar cases. If he could do that I can assure him he would earn the great gratitude of people not merely in Nottingham but elsewhere.

11.1 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) has given the House particulars of a very difficult case, one with a complicated background and one in which there are no very clear precedents to guide us. I most certainly appreciate, as does my right hon. Friend, that this is a matter of close personal concern to many people, and my hon. and gallant Friend has done a service to many of his constituents in raising it tonight.

My hon. and gallant Friend referred to the general position, but I should probably not be in order if I were to pursue what he said on that. I want to confine my remarks to the specific problem of Nottingham General Cemetery. My hon. and gallant Friend put his facts very fairly and I do not dispute anything of what he said about the background. I want, however, to give very briefly my own version of the past history of this, because it has some bearing on the attitude which my right hon. Friend now feels it proper to take over this problem.

This cemetery is, as my hon. and gallant Friend said, a private cemetery which, until quite recently, belonged to the Nottingham General Cemetery Company. It was incorporated nearly 120 years ago, in 1836, by a local Act of Parliament. It occupies just over 18 acres, and it is believed that between 150,000 and 200,000 people are buried there. Until the 1920s the company was fairly prosperous. But in 1921, the Nottingham Corporation warned the company that the time was approaching when further burials would be prejudicial to public health, and the company then started to build up a reserve fund by limiting dividends to provide against a future diminution of revenue. However, the company's financial position got steadily worse.

I am advised that it was on several occasions that the company asked the corporation to take over responsibility for the cemetery—my hon. and gallant Friend has quoted one occasion—and was prepared to hand over its reserve fund to the corporation, but the corporation. no doubt as it thought quite properly, did not regard this as a sufficient quid pro quo. In 1949, it was estimated that it would cost more than £3,000 a year to maintain the cemetery. Then we come to the position which has now arisen, where, in May, 1953, the company was wound up by order of the High Court, and the Official Receiver was appointed liquidator. In June, 1955, the Official Receiver obtained leave from the High Court to disclaim the cemetery and liabilities attached thereto, and formal disclaimer was made on 29th July.

I accept what the Nottingham Corporation says. It was not aware, at the time, of the petition for winding up, and, therefore, did not oppose it. It did oppose, however, the Official Receiver's application for leave to disclaim the cemetery on the grounds, among others, that it would be for the company to promote another Bill in Parliament and that the shareholders should be personally liable for the company's obligations. Neither argument succeeded, and leave to disclaim was granted.

The legal consequence of the disclaimer is that neither the Official Receiver nor the company has now any rights in the cemetery, and under the Companies Act, 1948, the land vests in the Crown, or, to be exact, in the Commissioners of Crown Lands, as bona vacantia. This does not mean that the Crown is under any obligation to manage or maintain the cemetery. We understand that the liabilities of the former cemetery company would attach to the Crown only if the Commissioners took possession of the cemetery, and that they do not intend to do.

If we accept that the Commissioners of Crown Lands have no obligations in the matter, we think, as my right hon. Friend said the other day, that the only solution of the problem would be for the Nottingham Corporation itself as the local authority for the area to take over and maintain the cemetery. It has power to do this under Section 9 of the Open Spaces Act, 1906. Under that Act it could maintain it either as a cemetery or, as far as circumstances allow, as an open space.

Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux

It is almost impossible for the corporation to do that. The graves would have to be removed. It is almost impossible to turn the ground into open space.

Mr. Deedes

I appreciate that. I have made inquiries into that matter. I think it is true that the extent to which it could be made an open space is certainly a question which would have to be considered.

If the cemetery were converted into open space we could pay a grant—I want to go into this because it explains what my right hon. Friend said the other day—under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1954, towards the expenditure incurred by the corporation for that purpose. I think there has been some correspondence about the grant which could be paid to the council if it decided to take control of the cemetery. The Minister, of course, has no power to pay grant towards expenditure on the cemetery as such. I am sure Nottingham Corporation is aware of that.

As he explained in the further reply to the Question of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. J. Harrison) on 31st October, grant in this instance would be payable under the provisions of the 1954 Act towards expenditure incurred for the purpose of providing a public open space. I stress that, not from the point of view of its practicability, for I understand my hon. and gallant Friend's point, but to clear up a misunderstanding which may have arisen from what my right hon. Friend said in answer to my hon. and gallant Friend's Question.

Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux

The point I was trying to make was that the answers given by my right hon. Friend on 25th October did appear to give an undertaking that provision would be made without conditions being applied.

Mr. Deedes

I think that if my hon. and gallant Friend studies further what my right hon. Friend said he will see that my right hon. Friend was at pains to correct the impression which he felt my hon. and gallant Friend might have gained from the answer to the Question he asked.

Nottingham Corporation has expressed reluctance to take this course. We have agreed to give it a more precise indication of the amount of grant which might be paid on expenditure attributable to the provision of an open space, and we are now going into that in a little more detail. My hon. and gallant Friend says the legal position is obscure. I can only repeat what has already been said, that the Crown has liability to maintain the cemetery only if the Commissioners take possession. The Commissioners did not seek to acquire the cemetery on behalf of the Crown, and they did not consider it a suitable property to manage as part of the Crown estates. On the other hand, it is quite a normal arrangement for local authorities to manage cemeteries.

However, if this large cemetery, which concerns a very large number of people in the City of Nottingham, were to remain abandoned and uncared for, there is not much doubt that it would become a blot on the landscape and a subject of complaint and of great sadness for many inhabitants of the town. They would, I think, not unnaturally look to their own local authority, and not to the Crown, to put matters right, and I should add that the corporation have got the necessary powers. I accept that this is not an isolated example of what may happen. The difficulty may occur elsewhere, because there are still a number of private cemeteries in being.

I think that during the last century most new cemeteries were provided by local authorities. My information is that 30 to 40 private cemeteries were established in the first half of the nineteenth century. It may be that some fresh legislation is desired, but I think I should add that it is not certain whether this would provide any better solution.

We do not, at this point, want to force the corporation into doing anything against its will. Our concern has been to find a satisfactory conclusion to a problem presented to us, and which up to now has not lain with us at all. We have been advised that the Commissioners for Crown Lands are under no legal obligation at all to maintain the cemetery and we understand that they have no intention of assuming responsibility. My right hon. Friend has no influence to persuade them to incur such an obligation.

It does seem to us, therefore, that the only alternative, assuming that nobody wants to see this cemetery remain derelict, is for Nottingham Corporation to take control, as it has power to do. We have asked the corporation earnestly to consider this. I appreciate that it would involve the corporation in considerable labour and expense, but it may feel, weighing up the prospect of local dissatisfaction and distaste, that such expenditure might, in the long run, be the right course to take. I can only say that we will go as far as we can, although under no statutory obligation in this matter, to help to reach an amicable arrangement.

My hon. and gallant Friend knows from what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, that he will go to considerable pains to find the right answer. I have thought it right to outline as clearly as I can the situation as we see it and not necessarily as we would wish that it might be.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.