The House of Lords considered the Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in Committee on 22nd November 2021. The Bishop of Leeds spoke in the debate on an amendment to the Bill from Baroness Stowell of Beeston about police procedure on religious rituals or prayer at crime scenes:
The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, this is very sensitive territory. Dying is sacred and is part of our living. I think I am the only minister of religion here, and I have accompanied many people, including my own father, to and through their death. If you have been party to that, you will know that it is holy territory
One could say that violent death is even more holy because of how that dying has been brought about. It seems that there needs to be religious literacy on the part of the emergency services and the police, and that the religious bodies need also to improve their literacy in relation to the nature of these events and how they are dealt with.
The noble Baroness the Minister mentioned at Oral Questions the complicating factor that this is a crime scene. The body becomes significant—I do not know what the correct terminology is, but you cannot muck about. Adding oils to the body or whatever becomes significant. But it should not be beyond the wit of man and woman to come to a reasonable accommodation.
Some 20 years ago, I came down to London to become the Archdeacon of Lambeth. I was surprised at how organised the Church of England was in south London, though not because it was south London—I had come from Leicester. There was a very well worked out arrangement with what are called ecumenical borough deans, so that each borough had a way of bringing the different faith communities together—not just Christians —working with the Met and other emergency services to ensure that, when there was a disaster, violence or violent death, there was a way of ensuring that ministers could have access to provide the ministry that the victim or their family requires.
I know that this is a probing amendment. I praise the emergency services and the police for their sensitivity in the way they have addressed this, but they are doing so within a culture that often treats religion as a private matter. I get told sometimes that Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus are all the same but just wear different clothes and have a different diet. It is not like that. Culturally, we need a deeper religious literacy—in the media, in our public institutions and public life, and in the nature of our discourse, where the language is often a giveaway.
I am glad that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Cardinal Nichols are having these conversations. I ask the Minister to urge that those conversations perhaps go wider and deeper, as we take our time to work out a more effective way of handling what is very sacred territory.
292E: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—
“Crime scenes: religious rituals or prayer
In securing a crime scene where a person within that crime scene is severely injured, such that there is a strong likelihood that they might die, there is a presumption that the constable in charge will allow entry to the crime scene to a minister of religion in order to perform religious rituals or prayer associated with dying.”