Jowell: It Is Vital That All Families Can Bury Their Children with Dignity; THE DISPOSSESSED; MINISTERS, CHURCH, COUNCILS AND THE NHS SUPPORT OUR CHARTER TO END THE SCANDAL OF MASS GRAVES

Article excerpt

Byline: David Cohen; Miranda Bryant

THE shocking revelations published in yesterday's Evening Standard about the practice of burying poor children in mass graves have led to a huge outcry and prompted calls for radical change across London.

The Minister for London, local authorities, the NHS, the Church of England and the Ministry for Justice all lined up to support the Standard's charter of good practice to bury every child and baby with dignity, irrespective of financial means.

Our five-point charter, which we publish today, calls for the authorities to end Dickensian-like mass graves -- in each of which up to 30 pauper babies are buried. It also demands that every parent be offered the choice of a single grave, that "open" graves are secured to prevent interference by wild animals, that parents are told the truth and that they be allowed to personalise their plot.

In the wake of our horrifying story that a fox took the remains of a newborn boy from an "open" mass grave of up to 14 babies in Wandsworth, Minister for London Tessa Jowell urged councils and hospitals to follow our "blueprint of good practice".

She said: "These heartbreaking stories bring home the fragility of life and the tragic circumstances in which some families have to bury those they loved.

"It is vital that at times of death all families -- not just those who can afford it -- are able to bury their children, relatives or spouses with dignity and pride. It's also a basic right that people should be able to honour the dead properly.

"The Standard's charter provides a blueprint of good practice for councils and hospitals to follow and I urge them to do so. I congratulate the Standard for its concern and initiative."

The Ministry of Justice promised a review of guidance to councils and said it would ensure health and safety laws were not being flouted by authorities that, as we reported, leave paupers' graves "open" for up to two years.

A spokesman said: "We will look closely at the issues raised by the Standard and will discuss them and current guidance with all relevant parties. We expect burial practices to be consistent with the need to show the deceased respect at all times and to comply with all relevant health and safety laws."

Our survey of all 32 boroughs -- exposing the scale of paupers' graves in London and published as part of our campaign to highlight the plight of our capital's "dispossessed" -- has aired an issue hidden from society for decades.

But our research went further, as it also revealed that the cost of permanently eradicating pauper graves for children and babies in the capital would amount to only [pounds sterling]253,000 annually, or less than [pounds sterling]8,000 per council.

By this morning, a dozen councils -- more than one third of the total -- had endorsed our charter. They are Croydon, Ealing, Enfield, Hammersmith & Fulham, Harrow, Havering, Lambeth, Richmond, Sutton, Tower Hamlets, Westminster and, most significantly, Wandsworth, the borough where lax burial procedures allowed a fox to burrow down and take away a dead baby.

By adopting our charter Wandsworth has, at a stroke, agreed to change totally the way it handles pauper burials.

As of today, poor residents there will no longer have to bury their babies 14 to a pit. And no longer will their graves be left unsecured with just a few planks placed loosely over the top, leaving the bodies accessible to scavenging wild animals. Westminster's leader Colin Barrow said: "The burial practices highlighted by the Standard's laudable campaign have no place in a civilised society and Westminster council fully supports this cause."

Harrow's deputy leader Susan Hall added that her council was "happy to support" our charter, then later revised her response to say: "Can we change that to more than happy?"

Seven further local authorities -- including Islington, which buries more people in communal graves than any other borough, Barnet, Hounslow, Redbridge, Haringey, Hillingdon, and Southwark -- promised to review procedures but said they needed more time to "carefully consider" our charter. …

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