Mortonhall ashes scandal: Council apologises

Sue Bruce and Lesley Hinds have promised to act on the report's findings. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Sue Bruce and Lesley Hinds have promised to act on the report's findings. Picture: Ian Rutherford
3
Have your say

THE chief executive of Edinburgh City Council has “unreservedly apologised” to the parents affected by the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal.

Sue Bruce, along with Councillor Lesley Hinds, whose remit covers the controversial crematorium, said they were sorry for what “parents had endured” after the revelation that babies’ remains were buried in a mass grave rather than be returned to their grieving families.

Speaking to the Evening News as the findings of Dame Elish Angiolini’s 11-month long inquiry into the secrets of Mortonhall were made public, they said the report contained 22 recommendations which would have far-reaching implications for all local authorities, the Scottish Government and other public bodies.

The report comes almost a year-and-a-half after the Evening News first revealed how, for more than 40 years, parents who had lost a baby soon after birth, as well as those who had delivered a stillborn, had been wrongly told there were no ashes. In fact, the remains were collected and buried in unmarked ground.

“Enormous sorrow for the parents”

Ms Bruce and Cllr Hinds said that everyone who was asked to give evidence – including former crematoria staff – had spoken to Dame Elish. They also apologised for the length of time the inquiry has taken, stressing that Dame Elish’s report was “forensically detailed and thoroughly professional”.

“As a council we will have to reflect on past practices and policies and always have the people affected at the heart of what we are doing,” said Ms Bruce.

“Above all we have to really consider what parents are going through.

“The council absolutely and sincerely and unreservedly apologises to the parents for what they have endured during the course of discovering that something was amiss and the long period during which the report was being written.

“It is a very detailed document but the overwhelming sense I have had from reading it is enormous sorrow for the parents who have discovered things were not the way they thought and have had to relive the loss of a baby.”

Cllr Hinds added: “We said straight away when the information first came to light that it was shocking and we apologised then and we unreservedly do so again for all the upset this has caused then, now and even in the future. Both to those who are directly affected and to other parents who have also suffered from similar experiences.

“The inquiry has probably taken longer than we expected but the report is very detailed and methodical, although it still might not give every parent what they are hoping for.

“I have not read individual parents’ own findings, just the main report, and I can say it will affect every individual, and affect every individual differently. It is obviously harrowing, as the loss of any baby is.”

Dame Elish was appointed to conduct the inquiry independently of the council in January 2013, a month after the scandal of Mortonhall was first revealed. However a police investigation into the actions of staff at the crematorium prevented her from beginning her inquiries until May.

Help and support

Her report, delivered on April 14 to the council is around 600 pages long and “very technical and detailed”.

Referring to changes in how society reacts to stillbirths, miscarriages and neo-natal deaths, Cllr Hinds said: “There has been a change of culture in society and that’s something we have to recognise. How people reacted 30 years ago is very different to how they react now.

“What they are offered in terms of help and support are also very different.”

According to the council more than 200 cases are addressed in the report – and each parent affected will be sent their own confidential findings, separate from the main body of the report.

One section of the main report which does deal with individual cases has, said Ms Bruce, some material redacted to protect the identities of parents.

“Not every parent wants their details to be made public and we have to very careful of data protection laws,” she said.

“However absolutely nothing about the council has been redacted as we want to be very open about all of this. We have no interest in hiding anything.

“When people see the report they will see it’s not just an issue for Edinburgh, but for Scotland and in fact the UK,” added Hinds. “Obviously there are specific recommendations for Edinburgh, but we have not been sitting waiting for the report. We have already changed things, including staff training and purchasing a specialist infant cremator.

“There are recommendations which are more for the Scottish Government to address and for other public authorities and I believe there will be a collective will to address them,” said Ms Bruce.

“I would expect a range of public bodies will read it, including the Procurator Fiscal service, and take what action they deem necessary.”

Legal advice

According to the council, the reason it’s taken a fortnight for the report to be published was due to the need to receive legal advice on data protection from lawyers and the Information Commissioner, the Easter break, and the logistics of getting more than 200 copies of the report printed and then couriered to parents.

Asked if parents are still likely to want a full-scale public inquiry once they’ve seen the report, Ms Bruce said: “That will be up to them, and up to the Scottish Government but I would be surprised if there is more to discover than what she [Dame Elish] has been able to uncover.”

Asked if the council is expecting compensation claims, she added: “We are aware that a number of parents have indicated that they want to take legal action and it’s entirely reasonable for parents to look at the full range of 
resolutions open to them, but that is something we will have to deal with if it happens.

“Going forward we have to make sure that we act in terms of the report and make sure we know what’s going on at our crematorium without being intrusive.”

Cllr Hinds added: “You can never change the past but you can learn from it and ensure that parents don’t ever have to go through this again.

“People feel they have been betrayed and we now have to make sure this report doesn’t just sit on a shelf but that it changes things, as quickly as possible.”

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

DAME Elish Angiolini’s inquiry into the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal has been limited to Edinburgh despite having nationwide implications.

As it was carried out without full government backing, it was also limited in its powers to compel people to give evidence although everyone asked is understood to have done so.

There have been calls for a Scottish Government-commissioned public inquiry to cover the whole of the country and those calls could now grow.

Demands for such an inquiry have been so far resisted, with First Minister Alex Salmond, below, saying he will “reflect on and review” the results of Dame Elish’s inquiry before making a decision.

It’s likely that parents affected in the same way by other crematoriums throughout Scotland will step up the campaign for a more wide-ranging investigation so they too can find out the truth about what happened to their babies’ ashes.

A petition organised through Change.org by Glasgow mum Lorraine Marshall calling for a public inquiry has already attracted hundreds of signatures.

Further to Dame Elish’s report there could also be legal action taken by Edinburgh parents who may desire financial compensation from the council given their emotional pain and upset.

There may also be further lines of criminal inquiry by Police Scotland, although in April last year, after investigating whether there had been breaches of the 1935 Cremations Act, the police said there was no basis for consideration of prosecution.

Prior to the report’s publication, Edinburgh City Council revealed it had spent £25,000 on a special infant cremator – believed to be the first in Scotland – to help ensure all ashes are retained

at future services at Mortonhall.

See also:

Mortonhall scandal: baby bones ‘survive cremation’

Mortonhall scandal: Grieving parents refused babies’ ashes as mass grave at Crematorium revealed