Covid - 19 & Cremation of deceased Muslims

Amendments to Schedule 27 Coronavirus Bill 2019-2021 & cremation of deceased Muslims (now Schedule 28 Coronavirus Act 2020)

First stage:

Certain provisions contained in the initial draft of the Coronavirus Bill was to give local authorities unprecedented and unlimited power to intervene in the storage, transportation or disposal of a dead body, and to overrule the wishes of the friends and family members of a deceased individual where the local authority unilaterally took the view that burial would not be a suitable disposal of the body, requiring it instead to be cremated.

Burial and cremation issues impact all communities and by their nature are very sensitive and emotive issues. Upon publication of the initial Coronavirus Bill there was extensive alarm raised in Muslim communities and others across the UK regarding potential cremation against individual or their next of kin wishes.

 

Having considered the initial draft we could see no reason at that stage to extend the power of local authorities to intervene in core religious beliefs and practices. In particular, interfering with sensitive religious burial procedures and rituals.

We attach a copy of the letter we urged members of the Muslim community to send to their MP’s. We understand this request from members of the Muslim community was met with much success.

However, there still remained the possibility, that it be considered there is insufficient capacity to bury, that cremation could still take place.  A number of religious groups remained concerned of the potential effect of Schedule 27.

Ms. Naz Shah MP sought an amendment to this. Whilst her suggested amendment was not adopted, changes were nevertheless made to include new Part 3A “Deceased’s Wishes Etc.” as follows:

Section 13A(1) presently states;

“In carrying out functions under this Schedule local authorities and the appropriate national authorities must have regard to the desirability of disposing of a dead person’s body or other remains-

(a) In accordance with the person’s wishes, if known, or

(b) Otherwise in a way that appears consistent with the person’s religious beliefs, if known.” 

Subsection (2) states;

“In carrying out functions under the legislation listed in sub paragraph (3), designated local authorities must have regard to the desirability of disposing of a dead person’s body or other remains-

(a) In accordance with the person’s wishes, if known, or

(b) Otherwise in a way that appears consistent with the person’s religious beliefs, if known.” 

Second stage

Whilst the amendment sought by Ms. Naz Shah MP was welcomed, both her suggested amendment and the the one that was ultimately adopted, did not go far enough. It is our view that the words in italics “must have regard to the desirability” of disposing of a dead person’s body or other remains and “in a way that appears consistent” with the person’s religious beliefs does not reflect the position the government stated publicly.

Ms. Penny Mordaunt MP stated quite clearly in the House of Commons debate on 23rd March 2020, that no one would be buried or cremated in a manner that was not in accordance with their religious belief. However, on the face of the legislation, it appears to leave open the possibility of means of disposal of the body other than burial. We have explored this issue with several Muslim organisations and are unaware of any present issues around capacity for burials.

We, therefore, requested that at the final hearing in the House of Commons on 25th March 2020, the above Part 3A of the Bill should have been further revised to remove the words “the desirability of” from both subsections (1) and (2) and “in a way that appears” from part (b) so that the necessary guarantee is in place in legislative form, to provide the required reassurance to the relevant communities.

Due to a misunderstanding in the Muslim community of the consequences of the current wording, there was a lack of support for further change.  It, therefore, still remains the possibility, that should it become the case that there is not sufficient capacity for burial national and local authorities must only have regard to the desirability of disposing of a dead person’s body or other remains either in accordance with the person’s wishes, if known, or otherwise in a way that appears consistent with the person’s religion or beliefs, if known. 

Therefore, it is only desirable to dispose of a dead person’s body or other remains in accordance with the deceased’s person’s wish, or in a manner deemed to be consistent with the deceased’s person’s religion or belief.  It is very disappointing indeed, that this point lacked the public clarity that it deserves.  Despite the amendment being received positively within various communities, it is our position, that certain communities were either ill-advised or misunderstood what the amendment has actually achieved; it allows the decision of the manner of burial to be taken away from the deceased or the deceased’s next of kin, and inconsistent with his / her religious beliefs.

We attach a copy of our letter to Mr. Matt Hancock MP, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on 24th March 2020.  

The amendments that we sought as per our letter to Mr. Matt Hancock MP, were also raised by Baroness Uddin on 25th March 2020 when the draft bill was debated in the House of Lords.

Baroness Uddin on 25th March:

"My Lords, I too beg the indulgence of the Committee. I have raised this point on a number of occasions; I am raising it now with respect to the powers within the Bill relating to necessity and proportionality, particularly as regards matters of dignity in death and what may happen in the unforeseen circumstances that thousands of deaths occur among the faith communities, and cremation may be decided upon due to the lack of burial spaces and storage facilities. I am suggesting that Schedule 28 affects our human rights obligations.

I am requesting, therefore, on behalf of the many hundreds of individuals who have written to me, including faith leaders and organisations, that the Government remove from paragraphs 13(1) and (2) in Part 4 of Schedule 28 the words “have regard to the desirability of disposing” and replace them with “dispose”, and then delete from paragraphs 13(1)(b) and 13(2)(b) the words in a way that appears” so that the necessary guarantees are provided in the legislation, which will be required to provide assurance to the relevant faith communities".

Despite the requests, the amendments were not made and the bill received Royal Assent on 25th March 2020 and is now an Act of Parliament.

First letter to MP's 

Mr Matt Hancock MP -
Schedule 27 letter 

Redline Section 3A
deceased's person's wish

Schedule 28 -
Coronavirus Act 2020

Schedule 28 -
Coronavirus Act 2020

Provides important provisions in relation to powers granted to local authorities in respect of burials and cremations: 

Transportation, Storage and Disposal of Dead Bodies etc

Download Documents

www.mlpbg.com | Muslim Lawyers Pro Bono Group

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