HC Deb 11 April 1978 vol 947 cc1255-74

(By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

The amendment has not been selected.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Sheffield General Cemetery covers an area of about 14 acres. Part of the ground is consecrated and part is not. It is situated about one mile from the centre of the city of Sheffield. It is also in the middle of a built-up area. It is derelict, overgrown, vandalised, used for dumping rubbish and is in a dangerous condition. Children play around in this area, but there are broken vaults and fallen gravestones. There have been accidents and there are likely to be more in the future unless something is done about this area. I want to dispel any illusions that any hon. Member may have that this is a well-kept country churchyard. It is an eyesore. It is a vandalised area. It is dangerous.

The purpose of the Bill is to transfer the ownership of the cemetery from the Sheffield General Cemetery Company Limited to Sheffield City Council. An Act of Parliament is required for this purpose, because the effect would be to extinguish burial rights and to cease the use of the land as a cemetery. I understand that an Act of Parliament is required for that purpose.

I want to make clear that the city council and the company jointly are promoting the Bill. It is not a takeover. It is not a question of the city council's exercising compulsory purchase powers, or anything like that. This is a joint exercise by the present owners and the city council. The fact is that the cemetery company does not have the resources to maintain the cemetery in a decent condition as we would expect in this day and age. For its part, the council is prepared to take it over, but it does not need it as a cemetery. There are already a dozen civic cemeteries in the city and there is no necessity to add to that number.

The number of interments in this cemetery has fallen to about half a dozen a year. It was running at about a dozen a year up to 1977, but fell to only six in 1977. Since there is still space for about 13,000 burial places, if the matter were left as it is we could go on for another 2,000 years with this rather unhappy situation.

The plans of the city council for this 14 acres of strategically situated ground are as follows. The eastern part of the cemetery will be landscaped as a public park. So far as possible, graves will be left undisturbed, although memorials will have to be removed and there will have to be a considerable amount of tidying up and change of layout. If human remains are disturbed they will, of course, have to be reburied properly as provided by the law.

The western part of the cemetery will be restored as a setting for certain listed buildings and will be laid out as an example of a Victorian cemetery. It is not intended that the character of this area should be totally changed. A portion of the existing ground will be retained as a historic example of the layout of a Victorian cemetery.

There are seven listed buildings altogether, including a gateway built in 1836. There is quite an impressive old chapel in grey granite, which was also built in 1836. There is a monument to Mark Firth, who was the founder of Firth College, which eventually became the university of Sheffield. There was a monument to James Montgomery, the famous hymn writer, but that was removed some time ago to the precincts of the cathedral, and there is no problem with that.

Part of the overgrown area of the cemetery—it is very badly overgrown—has become of ecological interest to some students in the university. The small animals and the vegetation apparently have some scientific interest. The city council is prepared to keep this small segment in its present state for the purpose of scientific study for those students who are interested in it.

The cemetery will be closed for burials. This has aroused some emotional concern by people whose relatives—perhaps parents or grandparents—are buried in the cemetery. I do not wish in any way to disparage or play down the feelings of those people. I can well understand that those who, for generations, have had relatives buried in the cemetery would be very sad to see most of it used for a different purpose. But there is a petition relating to this matter and if the House is prepared to give the Bill a Second Reading it will no doubt be examined carefully in Committee in accordance with the procedures of the House. Possibly reassurance can be given to the people who are concerned that the rights of burial in this part of the city will no longer apply.

Alternative rights of burial elsewhere, without any charge, will be given to people who can establish a legal right for burial in this cemetery.

Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)

The problem relates to those who wish to join their next of kin—perhaps the widow of a husband or the widower of a spouse—who are buried in this cemetery. Does the hon. Gentleman visualise any assistance from the city council in that instance?

Mr. Hooley

I imagine that that could be considered. But clearly, if the purpose of the cemetery is changed and if the right of burial is extinguished, one could not physically bury persons in the same area as that in which previous generations were buried. That is part of the reason for the Act. Those rights could not be extinguished, except by an Act of Parliament. However, that is a matter which can be considered in Committee. I am sure that the petitioners will be given every opportunity to argue their case, to make representations and to make the kind of point which the hon. Gentleman has just made.

Basically the proposition is that the Bill will enable the city council to take over what is a vandalised, derelict burial ground—it could fairly be argued that in its present state it is more of an insult to generations gone by than a fair memorial to them—and to turn it into a fitting memorial combined with a much-needed space for recreation in an inner area of the city which very much needs it.

On general social grounds the case for doing that is very strong indeed. The fact is that the present company simply does not have the financial resources to manage and operate this cemetery in the way that it should be managed. I believe that discussions were held 10 or more years ago about handing it over to the council, but they foundered on a technical legal problem. If the Bill is given a Second Reading we are now prepared to solve the legal problem through Act of Parliament and through the proper processes of this House.

I would not like to give the impression that this proposal is something peculiar and unprecedented. I am advised that the deconsecration of burial grounds has been implicit in a number of private Acts—the Rochdale Corporation Act 1962, the Leeds Corporation Act 1956, the Northampton Corporation Act 1958. The Hove Corporation Act of 1966 extinguished burial rights and the Manchester Corporation Acts of 1954, 1958 and 1965 converted cemeteries into open space or playing grounds within the city of Manchester. What is proposed here is not some wildly revolutionary idea; it is a procedure that has been exercised by important cities in the kingdom before, and I hope very much that it will be acceptable here.

One of the problems that have arisen is that some people are nervous or worried that, if the cemetery is taken over, it will be used not for a park or open space and for amenity purposes but as a site on which to put up buildings. To meet this fear, the city council is quite prepared to consider an amendment in Committee to prohibit for at least 25 years any building on this piece of land, other than a minor recreation building. In other words, until way into the twenty-first century there should be no possibility of anyone putting up an unsightly or inappropriate building on the land.

The council takes the view that beyond a 25-year span it would not be fair to their successors and to ratepayers, taxpayers and inhabitants of the area to lay down stringent conditions. After all, the cemetery was originally opened 140 years ago, in 1836. To extend the span of its use partly as a cemetery and partly as an open space into the twenty-first century would seem to be reasonable, but beyond that it would not seem to be reasonable to try to bind a future civic authority or the ratepayers in the area. They might very well conclude, even after 25 years, 50 years, or more, that the excellent lay-out and the creation of a public park in the area was so valuable that they would not want to disturb it, anyway. But in legislative terms, as I say, the city council is prepared to accept an amendment providing for a 25-year span during which building development will not be allowed.

I understand that various ecclesiastical authorities and various denominations have been consulted about these plans and, to my knowledge, they have voiced no objection. Certainly no one has approached me. I have not read in the local Press of the Church of England or other denominations raising any objection to this proposition.

As I say, there is a petition by certain people who may feel that burial rights should be continued. That matter can be discussed in Committee. No one is suggesting that the personal and family feelings of people should be overridden. We have procedures in this House for discussing these matters, but in order for them to be discussed the Bill must be given a Second Reading.

7.12 p.m.

Mr. John Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)

The Sheffield General Cemetery is, in fact, almost surrounded by the Hallam constituency. It borders on to the Heeley constituency and it is right, therefore, that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) should sponsor the Bill on behalf of the Sheffield City Council. In fact, however, it rests in Sharrow, in part of the Park division, and I see that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) is present to listen to the debate.

The debate really takes place in a David and Goliath situation, because the Sheffield City Council is largely Socialist and those who are objecting appear mainly to have approached me as the only Conservative Member of Parliament in the area and the Conservative councillors.

I agree with the hon. Member for Heeley that the condition of the Sheffield General Cemetery has on several occasions in recent years been questioned in the city council and in the Press and that it has represented a danger, especially to children. The hon. Member has referred to this danger in his letters to objectors and to the Press. Much of the damage has been due to vandalism and to the fact that the cemetery has not been supervised properly, certainly during the time that I have been a Member of Parliament.

I have been aware of the cemetery since I was a boy, and when I looked at it last autumn it was untidy and unkempt. However, this winter, as part of a job creation scheme, the cemetery has been tidied by arrangement with the city council. Last Saturday, when I walked through it with a number of the objectors, I was surprised to find it in such good condition. Trees have been cut down, grass has been cut and paths have been cleared. I am certain that the ratepayers and citizens welcome the decision of the city council to clean up the cemetery, and the outcome of its endeavours is a cause for congratulation. Certainly it is not right to describe the cemetery as desolate today, as described by the hon. Member for Heeley, if it was right to do so last autumn.

The handling of the cemetery issue by the city council, especially by its Socialist leaders over the last few months, has given me no option but to use the democratic safeguards of the House of Commons where the balance between the political parties—perhaps there is an element of politics in this—is a good deal more even than is the case on the Sheffield City Council. Hon. Members here may not be aware of it, but with the exception of one year the ruling party on the city council for almost 50 years has been the Labour Party, and both its councillors and perhaps the officers serving them may not be as sensitive to the views of the objectors on an issue as would be the case if the margin between the ruling party and the opposition were closer.

Many people have written to me and have approached the objectors, and I am certain that one who will attend my Select Committee which is set up following this debate has written to me saying: In my own case I have two grandparents, two uncles, one aunt and my own parents in a small patch of graves which are close together. In fact my mother died in 1943 and my father in 1950. Every now and then I go to clean up the stones and graves and I should be very resentful if the graves were disturbed at this stage. The present plan to tidy up part of the cemetery is not objectionable to me"— and many reasonable people have put this view to me— but the wide powers in the Bill would allow the corporation to change its mind at short notice and I have no faith in the present leaders' honesty. I should like to touch on this approach to me and to elaborate on the reasons for this lack of faith. This view seems to be reflected by many who have approached me.

Another constituent approached me in connection with a letter which many of them received from the hon. Member for Heeley dealing with the hazards to children. The hon. Member said that the living should be considered before the dead. My constituent's reply is: This is most unfair. We also are living and have suffered grievously since 2nd December 1977 when the announcement was coldly made in the local Press. Many of the old petitioners have been deeply troubled, as is evidenced by their many letters. One point which has been put to me is as follows: We wonder how people throughout the country would feel if their family graves were going to be treated like this. Mr. Hooley should be asked what would happen if this were to be done in the Flanders military cemeteries and was told that that was a different matter.

Mr. Hooley

If the Flanders military cemeteries had been left in this disgusting and derelict condition, the attitude to them would have been different, but they are not.

Mr. Osborn

They are not. That is the point. We do not dispute that this private cemetery has been short of funds and has been allowed to fall into decay.

At a special meeting on 2nd November, Councillor Pinder, who happens to be chairman of the Hallam Conservative Association, seconded by Councillor Patnick, chairman of the Conservative group on South Yorkshire County Council, moved the following amendment: That action for the promotion of a Bill to authorise the acquisition of the Sheffield General Cemetery by the Council be deferred and the Policy Committee be requested to give further consideration to this matter with a view to the council acquiring the cemetery for use as a cemetery and an amenity area. The request was rejected. Time and opportunity to reflect whether action for the best was being taken was rejected out of hand.

When I was asked to oppose this Bill, I was asked to reject it out of hand, and hon. Members have been asked to come here to vote against it. But the hon. Member for Heeley put his case very carefully, and I think it right that this issue should go to a Select Committee. However, there are hon. Members who would be concerned if the findings of the Select Committee were not wise, and, of course, there would be an opportunity to vote against these proposals on Third Reading. I think it right that the Select Committee should look at this isssue.

The city council has made reports to Members of Parliament, and the hon. Member for Sheffield Heeley has outlined the background, although I find some contradiction in the information given to me. In 1962, a company called Bowden Development Ltd. acquired 980 out of 1,000 shares in the original cemetery company. Approaches were made to the former city council to secure the redevelopment of the cemetery by coverting part of the land into a peace garden and using the rest of the land for a block of flats. It could be said, perhaps, that the advice given to the company at the time was bad advice, but the proposal did not proceed because of local opposition from members of the public, particularly those with burial rights and a personal interest.

Subsequently, Bowden Development Ltd. has approached the present and former councils to ascertain whether the council would be prepared to take over the cemetery, or to what use the company could put it. Earlier last year, the company approached the city council saying that it was prepared to convey the cemetery and associated buildings to the council free of charge, subject to an existing free tenancy held by an employee of the company being maintained. The company said that if this proposal were not accepted it would have no choice but to put the cemetery company into voluntary liquidation.

Anyone can accept that this would put any city council in a position of having to take a decision. I have reason to believe from assurances given by officers of the city council and by the number of letters that have gone out to known-grave-holders that the necessary statutory obligations have been carried out by the legal department of the city council. Unfortunately, its rate of success in receiving replies to letters that have gone out has not been high, and there have been problems because the records of the cemetery probably are out of date.

The acreage involved is some 17½ acres—although the hon. Member for Heeley said that it was 14 acres—with some 20,000 grave plots and 330 vaults. I understand that the interments so far total 77,834, and I confirm from one source that the number of interments has recently been about six a year.

The cemetery was incorporated under a Private Act of Parliament in 1846 which set aside part of the cemetery as consecrated land to be used for burial in accordance with Church of England rites and part of the cemetery as unconsecrated land to be used for interments of persons who were not members of the Church of England—mainly Nonconformists.

A useful introductory history to the cemetery has been prepared by a Mr. J. R. Welch and the fifth-year history group of Carter Lodge School, and he has supplied me with some additional information. He said that until recently there was an average of one burial a month but that no plots had been sold since 1955. This cemetery was started, and some of the buildings originally built, in 1836. There is no doubt that the cemetery was used as a prestige one and that it served a useful purpose until the turn of the century.

The Select Committee may be interested in establishing whether the acreage is 14 or 17½ and whether the number of interments has been 77,000 or 87,000. The Conservative councillors and the general public have felt that a decision to purchase the land and to pass the Bill was rushed too quickly, for reasons which the Conservative opposition could only guess at, after a delay going back to 1962 and 1964. There have been no opportunities for the Conservative opposition to ask questions about the minutes of the policy committee of the city council. That is why the public and the opposition were very uneasy at the action taken by the council in this case.

Many of the past leaders of industrial Sheffield, the steel masters, the cutlery masters and others, have been buried in the cemetery and many of them lived in the Hallam constituency. It has been inevitable that some of the great names, including Mark Firth and Cole, are buried in this cemetery. Among them were many devout churchgoers of a variety of denominations.

The constituents, when doubting the honesty and purpose of the council, expressed their views to me because they believe that too many councillors from areas other than Hallam may be too insensitive to the religious sensitivities and traditions of those in the area of the cemetery. This may or may not be correct but these people feel that it is, and the objectors fall into two categories. The first is those who live nearby and who want to preserve the cemetery on environmental and other grounds.

The local environmental action groups and the local Conservative branches of the Hallam Conservative Association have tackled me about the importance of keeping this area of land as an open space near the city. It is close to one of Sheffield's most picturesque water mills, and the ornithological and wildlife is worth preserving. Above all, these people want this area as an open space but would not object to seeing an open space comparable to that across the valley known as the botanical gardens.

The second group of objectors have appointed their parliamentary agent—a Mr. Byron Wright, who is assisted by Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher and a Dr. Fletcher. These people have lodged their objections in the Private Bill Office and have held close consultations with their local councillors, as well as making their views known clearly to me.

I appreciate that several other local authorities have found it necessary to take over and develop cemeteries that have fallen into decay and disuse. However, I do not accept the haste with which the Sheffield City Council has approached this Bill. I find that burials are still taking place in the cemetery even at the rate of half a dozen a year, let alone one dozen, as has been the case recently. From correspondence that I have received from relatives of those interred in the cemetery recently, it appears that consultation between those who have burial rights and relations buried there and the city council before the preparation of the Bill was not effective.

This shock to which I have referred has been widespread ever since the intentions of the city council were made known to the Press towards the end of last year. Powers given to local authorities where the political balance is much more even are no justification for similar powers being taken by the Sheffield City Council.

The hon. Member for Heeley, referred to the Sheffield amendment. There have been discussions between Councillor George Wilson, the Socialist leader on the council, and Councillor David Heslop, the Conservative leader, and myself about the question of building on the cemetery. The amendment was passed on 1st March, and it says: That in the consideration of the Sheffield General Cemetery Bill by Parliament, the head of the administration and legal department be authorised to indicate that the city council is prepared to agree to the inclusion of an additional sub-clause in the Bill to provide that for a period of 25 years from the passing of the Act no part of the cemetery shall be used for the erection of any buildings other than for recreational purposes. This heightens rather than relieves the concern of objectors. Any reference to building at this stage shows an utter insensitivity to those who have burial rights and have close relatives recently buried in this cemetery. If in the year 2005, after there have been no burials for 25 years, it is thought right by the next generation to build houses or flats, I would expect there to be a new Act of Parliament.

Manchester provides a precedent for this, without this being referred to in an Act of Parliament now, and I shall refer to this. There was a very good Press release issued by the city council setting out its intentions clearly. These were to restore the listed buildings in the cemetery, to leave certain areas of the cemetery undisturbed for ecological reasons, to restore the western end of the cemetery to its original Victorian form and to landscape the eastern part of the cemetery as a public park by removing the memorials but as far as possible to leave the actual graves undisturbed. All Conservatives would go along with this, and some of the objectors—namely, those objecting on environmental grounds—would agree with it, but others would not. Once the Bill had been drafted, it became perfectly clear to them that the powers in the Bill as it stands give the city council far greater powers than those required to carry out the proposals.

I accept that a Private Act of Parliament is necessary to extinguish private rights of burial on this land and to enable the city council to use the land other than as a cemetery. I do not accept the way in which the Bill, if passed, would give the Sheffield City Council totally unrestricted powers to deal with this land as it wishes.

The hon. Member for Heeley made references to other Bills. This is perhaps because those who have an interest in this cemetery do not trust the city council as constituted. The thought of having close relatives disturbed and memorials removed has greatly added to this distress. The parliamentary agents and promoters have consulted local Members of Parliament. From my own researches and the help I have had from the House of Commons Library, it seems that other local authorities have been able to promote Bills of this type. This Bill is undoubtedly based on precedents. Therefore, I am aware that the claims of some of the objectors who have approached me may not be as well justified as they would consider them to be. I do not know the exact answer. I very much hope that the Select Committee will find the exact answer for them.

A perusal of, for instance, the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1975 shows that Southwark was able to use Camberwell Cemetery land and the Nunhead All Saints Cemetery, but Section 13 of the Act restricts the use of such land to open space for use as either a nature reserve or for gymnasia or for club houses for societies having athletic, social or educational objects. It will be useful to know whether the cemetery was still being used when the Bill was introduced.

There is the Queen Road, Brighton Burial Act 1975. That concerns a privately owned cemetery which had not been used as a burial ground since 1854. Clause 4 of that Act was similar to Clause 6(1) of the Sheffield Bill. However, all burials in that place had ceased for 124 years, so building took place a long time after the last burial.

The Hove Corporation Act 1966 provided an interesting precedent. Burials were wholly discontinued in St. Andrew's Churchyard in 1956. There was provision for part of the land to be conveyed to the city council, which built a school on it. In 1972, in order to build on the land, further provisions were made in a Bill of that year, 1972.

Then there is the Liverpool Corpora-Jon Act, which again provided powers for cemeteries to be taken over. The Manchester Corporation Act of 1970, Section 22 of which empowers the corporation to use, deal or dispose of burial grounds as if they were never consecrated, is yet another Act.

Therefore, powers have been taken in the past, and I am aware that in opposing this Bill I shall have to proceed slowly. It seems reasonable to use these old disused grounds, but, frankly, as a Back Bencher, I have not yet sufficient knowledge of the circumstances in which each of those Acts was passed and how old the burial grounds were.

I might even refer to the Leeds Bill of 1956, or the Rochdale Bill which has been mentioned. In 1975 there was a cemetery at Newton Heath, Manchester, at which burials had ceased as recently as 1950, prior to which about one burial a month had occurred. The Act gave powers to the playing of games on school playing fields.

Obviously, it must be the local authorities which determine their own cemetery needs over and above those of parish churches in the region. There is an increasing tendency for citizens to welcome and accept cremation. I understand that the city of Sheffield—the hon. Member for Heeley referred to this—has more space for burial purposes than it is likely to need for decades to come.

I wrote to the Under-Secretary for the Environment in February trying to find out which local authorities had purchased and closed cemeteries which had not been used for a considerable period and which local authorities had purchased and closed cemeteries which were still taking burials, the nature of guidance given to local authorities and the number of grave sites expressed per capita of living population in the major cities. I asked Parliamentary Questions. I did not get very helpful answers. I hope that the Select Committee will look at the Questions and try to find more helpful answers.

I received a very full reply from the Under-Secretary of State, who stated that he had not authority on the points of law involved and that, in any event, it was for the promoters to satisfy Parliament of the need for a Bill. At least, I have brought the Bill to debate on the Floor of the House of Commons and I am on my feet now. The Under-Secretary's letter states: Where a council can acquire an interest in burial ground land by agreement, the Open Space Act 1906 enables operations within certain limits to be carried out for the purposes laid down in that Act. In some circumstances a council acting on these provisions may incur a liability to pay compensation. The Town and Country Planning Act 1971 contains powers to acquire land and where burial ground land has been compulsorily acquired. Section 128 provides for its use in accordance with planning permission. These enactments include provisions for the way in which consecrated land should be treated. Therefore, I hope that the Select Committee will advise Sheffield what precedents there are outside Private Bills.

The letter continues: Section 128 of the 1971 Act is also relevant regarding building on disused burial grounds. That provision creates exceptions to a provision in Section 3 of the Disused Burial Gounds Act 1884 which itself, with limited exceptions, prohibits building on such land. Subject to that, it is not easy to generalise about the time which should elapse before building is undertaken on former burial grounds; but you may like to know that Section 32 of a pastoral measure of 1968, in which an exception was also made to Section 3 of the 1884 Act, provides for a period of 50 years between the date of the last burial and putting church land to other use. In view of the fact that it has been easier to close cemeteries where there have been no recent burials than where there have been recent burials, some local authorities at first closed local cemeteries under one enactment and then passed an Act at a later date when perhaps memories were weaker. For instance, the precedent in Manchester in the case of the Act dealing with Newton Heath, Rusholme and Nunhead in 1950.

The specific powers to develop in those cases were not given until 1954, 1958 and 1965. These are precedents which should have been looked at by the Sheffield City Council. If the cemetery were to be closed now, time should elapse before any removal of memorials or disinterment took place. The difficulty is that this city council has apparently shown too little sensitivity to the needs of objectors.

I should like to see safeguards inserted into the Bill to prevent any immediate or hasty reorganisation of the cemetery. Those who have an interest in the cemetery would be prepared to see it retained as a place of quiet enjoyment—at least, some of them would—or what has been described by the city council as passive recreation similar to the botanical gardens. This is next to the home of one of my great grandparents and is one of the gardens that I visited as a child.

One of the amendments that I should like the Select Committee to consider is that the preamble should be altered to bring the intention of the Bill into line with the Press release issued by the city council. This would enable the council to provide a park or recreation area upon the cemetery site. I hope that it will delete Clause 4(1) dealing with deconsecration. Thirdly, it should restrict the powers at present given by Clause 6 to provide that the cemetery should be used only as a park or garden for passive recreation. Finally, I should like the Bill to come into force two years from now or well after it has received Royal Assent. This would give time to those affected to make alternative plans. After all, it is time for which people are asking.

I have discussed the timing in a letter to Councillor David Heslop outlining what I thought opponents to the Bill would like to see, and I hoped that he would discuss these matters with the city council.

I have discussed this matter of timing with those who have burial rights. Their general feeling is that nothing should be done and that it should be cleared up as a cemetery and kept as such, but I cannot go along with that and they know it. I believe that Parliament should take the burden from one Member of Parliament in this case because it is wrong that ratepayers' money should be used to benefit so few. On the other hand, one or two people have asked me why the dependants of those who are buried there cannot themselves keep the cemetery in good condition. I do not want to overstress this matter because it is a problem that faces authorities in respect of graveyards in all our churchyards, but I hold the view, as the promoters said in their Press release, that this cemetery should be a park and should be changed gradually.

I have discussed a date when work should commence. I do not think I should like to see work commenced for another seven years. I have set out my views in the letter to Councillor David Heslop. But one matter that causes concern is what provision, if any, after the passing of the legislation will be made for those who have close relatives buried in the cemetery and who when they die wish to join those deceased relatives. I do not think that the hon. Member for Heeley understood me. The only way this will be possible is to disinter the existing graves and to let those already buried there join their deceased relatives elsewhere. The cost of doing this would not fall within any of the provisions of the Bill and presumably would have to come from persons concerned or from private sources.

It is possible that certain widows will wish to be buried alongside their husbands and widowers alongside their spouses. Is it common practice when a cemetery is closed to arrange such a matter, and what provisions have been made by other local authorities?

There have been precedents where graveyards have had to be disturbed for planning purposes—including, for example, a roundabout near St. Mary's Church, less than a mile away from this cemetery. I have consulted the Sheffield Council of Churches, and it feels that something needs to be done about this environmental area of Sheffield. But it is concerned that recent interments to the cemetery should not be disturbed, and I have been asked to stress this point in my opposition to the Bill.

I have been in touch with the Church of England, including the Right Reverend Gordon Fallows, Bishop of Sheffield, and because the Church of England has its own problems with its own graveyards I have been advised from various sources to object with caution. This makes it clear that there is a much bigger problem at hand. I do not think it is right that the city council should face this burden without the issues being more widely debated. I mentioned the pastoral measure of 1968 from which the implication is that, wherever possible, the graves should not be disturbed for at least 50 years after a burial.

I have objected to the Bill first because those who wish to be consulted feel that they have not been consulted and have turned to Parliament to consider their views—views which appear to have been brushed aside by the city council. Secondly, I am objecting to it because it would be of value for a Select Committee to examine the problem facing Sheffield and to relate it to problems in other areas in a much wider context. I very much hope that the Select Committee will undertake that task. Thirdly, I object because the present city council has not had to face up to the opposition which it would have faced if the margin between the ruling party and the opposition parties was not so great.

The Star, on Friday 7th April, in an item headed "Sheffield's forgotten burial ground", reported: Councillor Jack Watson, who used to live in the area, said 'At the present time the scrapyard is ten yards away from a grave that was used recently'. City council leader Councillor George Wilson intends to stop any building development near the graveyard. He said 'It is diabolical, more respect should be shown to the people lying there.' I wish that he had said that more specifically in the city council to give assurance to the objectors to this Cemetery Bill.

Furthermore, the Sharrow newsletter of the branch Labour Party contains the following statement: Sheffield District Council want to acquire the cemetery so that it can be improved from its present dangerous and terrible state for recreational purposes. A Bill has been going through Parliament which would enable the council to do just that. The only problem is that the Bill is being sabotaged by the Tories … It is worth remembering that there were no objections from the Tories when the cemetery was purchased by a development company … So remember—the Tories of Hallam are preventing you from having your recreation space, not theirs! I hope that Labour Members will either condone or refute that statement, because it has caused more concern in the neigh-bourhood than has any other document emanating from the Labour Party and claiming to represent the views of Labour councillors.

Unfortunately, there has been misunderstanding on this issue. It has become political. Therefore, the objectors have turned to me, the only Conservative Member of Parliament in the area, to see that Parliament looks at this issue and gives it a proper hearing.

7.47 p.m.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

It is most unfortunate that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn) is opposing this sensible and compassionate Bill. He likened the situation to that of David fighting Goliath. I do not see the Sheffield City Council as Goliath. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Goliath in his day was seriously in the wrong, but a Labour Sheffield City Council has been elected and re-elected for 50 years. I was sorry that the hon. Gentleman impugned the integrity of that council. The people of Sheffield have elected that council because it has shown so much concern for them and has shown compassion in general over that period.

I have a particular interest in this matter, not merely as a citizen of Sheffield. I was born in Sheffield, in my own constituency, but for nearly 20 years I taught in the area in which the cemetery is situated. For 11 of those years my classroom overlooked the cemetery, which was alive with rats. When I arrived in the area in 1953, a child was badly injured and lay out in the open all one afternoon. Almost every morning at assembly we would warn the children to steer clear of this dangerous and wildly overrun cemetery. I emphasise that that occurred as long ago as 1953. It was so dreadfully overrun and so wild that not only was it an eyesore; it gave rise to a sense of shame.

It was a privately owned cemetery run by a company, and 10 years ago there were only 12 interments a year in it—a figure which now, I understand, has dropped to six. The people concerned cannot go on any longer, because money is needed to run the cemetery. Therefore, the council has examined the cemetery which is near to the main part of Sheffield, only a few hundred yards from one of the main streets.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of all this having happened in haste. I remind him that the place was in a dreadful state as far back as 1953. Therefore, the word "haste" is very much out of place. I am only sad that it has taken so long to get round to taking some action. The council has got round to it at the request of the company and the local people.

This area of the city has a vast amount of Industrial Revolution-type slum housing. I know the names of all the streets where the back-to-back houses have been cleared away by the council. There is a plan for the whole area, and the cemetery is in the middle of it.

Many of us are deeply interested in the cemetery. I am president of the Sheffield Holberry Society. Samuel Holberry was a great and distinguished Chartist. He is buried in the cemetery. For compassionate, as well as political reasons, I wanted a memorial erected to him. He had possibly the biggest funeral that Sheffield has ever seen. We would not dream of upsetting local people in a way that was insensitive or not compassionate.

Every detail of the Bill has been gone over to try to help people in a humane way. Every clause has been carefully thought out. There is the provision, for example, about 25 years having to pass after the last burial. The area would have to be cleared up in an acceptable way after taking account of the views of people who have had dear ones buried there in the last few years. All this has been carefully thought out, and I should have thought that, outside a tiny minority, everyone would want the Bill to go through without opposition.

The hon. Member for Hallam said that the matter had become politicised, but it is not the Labour Party which has done that. I was here when the hon. Gentleman was away in Europe and persuaded some of his hon. Friends, who had never heard of the cemetery, to object to the Bill. That was politicising.

We thought that such a sensible measure would have gone through with the agreement of everyone concerned. It is said that it is being opposed in this way. I have spoken to the leaders of the council and sounded out local people. I believe that it is the general will that the Bill should go ahead in order to make a better Sheffield, to do what local people want done, to provide an attractive area and for it to be looked after. It will not injure any human being.

Mr. John H. Osborn

I should like the hon. Gentleman to understand that I shall give the Bill a Second Reading. I do not intend to vote against the Second Reading.

Mr. Flannery

I am happy to accept what the hon. Gentleman says. That newfound happiness is a good point at which to end.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.