Nationwide probe after Mortonhall ashes scandal

The report follows the Mortonhall scandal. Pic: Greg Macvean
The report follows the Mortonhall scandal. Pic: Greg Macvean
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A new national investigation team has been set up in Scotland to help bereaved parents find out what happened to their children’s remains in the wake of the baby ashes scandal.

Scottish public health minister Michael Matheson announced the establishment of the independent team, which will be led by former top prosecutor Dame Elish Angiolini.

He said: “Parents can be reassured every step will be taken in order to find out what happened to their babies.”

Mr Matheson also pledged new laws would be brought in to improve the handling of baby ashes in Scotland.

He addressed Holyrood after a new report made more than 60 recommendations to help “avoid repetition of past failures”.

The Scottish Government has accepted “in full, and without reservation” the 64 suggestions for change that were put forward by former High Court judge Lord Bonomy who chaired the independent Infant Cremation Commission.

The commission, which was established more than a year ago to look at the practice of infant cremation in Scotland and how ashes are disposed of, came in the wake of revelations that Edinburgh’s Mortonhall Crematorium had secretly buried the ashes of babies for decades without the knowledge of their families.

Other local authorities have subsequently been implicated.

Mr Matheson told MSPs Dame Elish, a former Lord Advocate, had agreed to lead the new national investigation team.

All parents who have been left with unanswered questions about the cremation of their baby will be able to have their case examined.

Mr Matheson said: “Dame Elish and her team will be able to look at every document and every record, they will interview every concerned family and will expect to speak to any officials or staff members who may hold information.”

“They will be able to investigate cremations in local authority crematoria and in private crematoria. They will be able to look at the NHS, at funeral directors as well as crematoria. Parents can be reassured every step will be taken in order to find out what happened to their babies.”

After claims last week that babies had been cremated alongside adults at Hazelhead Crematoria in Aberdeen, Mr Matheson said: “I believe there is now particular concern about practices at Hazlehead crematoria. Accordingly Dame Elish has agreed that her investigation will look more broadly at practice there.

“If issues emerge in the course of the Investigation about other crematoria, then these too will be interrogated.”

He said the publication of today’s report, as well as an earlier report by Dame Elish into the Mortonhall ashes scandal were “significant stepping stones”.

But Mr Matheson stressed: “There is much still to be done. There are new laws to make. There are procedures and processes to update. And there are individual cases and crematoria which we will now investigate.

“Sadly some parents will never know what happened to their children, but I hope that those parents will recognise that we will do all that we can for them to get the answers that are available.

“I hope all parents will recognise the important legacy of the last eighteen months is that this will never be able to happen again.”

Two “important” legislative changes proposed by the Infant Cremation Commission are a statutory definition of ‘ashes’ and statutory regulation of the cremation of babies of less than 24 weeks’ gestation

It is suggested that ‘ashes’ should be defined in law as “all that is left in the cremator at the end of the cremation process and following the removal of any metal”, and also said the cremation of non-viable babies should be the subject of ‘legislative regulation’.

Legislation should also require cremation authorities to record the cremation of each dead baby, stillborn baby and non-viable babies in a special register, stating in particular if the ashes were scattered or buried, or if they were collected.

Mr Matheson said these changes would be taken forward in a new Burials and Cremations Bill, which will go out for public consultation before the end of this year.

Families affected by the scandal had come to Holyrood to hear Mr Matheson set out the Scottish Government’s response to the commission’s recommendations.

He began by telling them: “There can be no action I take today - or words of comfort I offer - that will ever truly salve the pain of families who have not only lost their precious children, but who also had to then bear the burden of doubt of what happened to the ones they loved.

“That said, I would offer my heartfelt condolence as a minister, as a member of this parliament, and as a father.”

He announced the national investigation team is in place now, saying: “Parents can, from today, notify us if they wish their case to be investigated. They can do this by completing a simple form which is available on the Scottish Government website, or which can be sent to them by post.

“It is difficult to know at this point how many parents will come forward, but we will support this work however long as it takes.”

The minister added: “Sadly some parents will never know what happened to their children, but I hope that those parents will recognise that we will do all that we can for them to get the answers that are available.

“I hope all parents will recognise the important legacy of the last 18 months is that this will never be able to happen again.”

Labour persisted in its call for a full public inquiry, but the Scottish Conservatives and many of the families affected said the national investigation team (NIT) is the best hope for finding a resolution.

The Liberal Democrats called for the NIT to have sufficient “teeth” to compel reluctant witnesses to give evidence.

Dorothy Maitland, whose nine-day-old daughter Kaelen was cremated at Mortonhall Crematorium, said: “I think this is very positive, very good, I don’t think we could ask for any more.

“I know that some parents do feel that there is a need for a public inquiry, but personally I don’t think so.

“Most of the Mortonhall parents don’t feel the need for a public inquiry. There’s no more they can tell us.”

Linsay Bonar, whose three-day-old son Lachlan was cremated at Daldowie Crematorium in Glasgow, said: “I couldn’t be any happier. This is exactly what we wanted.

“I can’t speak for the Edinburgh parents but certainly for the rest of Scotland, all parents deserve an answer, all families deserve an answer and that’s what we’re going to get out of this investigation.

“Dame Elish has a proven track record in everything that she’s going to be looking into, so we’re absolutely thrilled.

“I don’t think a door should be closed on a public inquiry because we don’t know what answers we’re going to get, but I certainly feel that they (Scottish Government) are doing everything in their power to accommodate the parents.

“Even our lawyers say only a handful of parents will get answers with a public inquiry, so individual inquiries is definitely the way to go.”

Patrick McGuire, a partner with Thompsons Solicitors, who represents more than 200 families affected by the baby ashes scandal, said: “The families and myself welcome the publication of Lord Bonomy’s report. He has handled an extremely difficult issue with sensitivity and diligence.

“However the parameters that Lord Bonomy had to work within means that no-one will be properly held to account for the awful breach of regulations that has been commonplace in many Scottish crematoria for decades. For years grieving parents were lied to and many will never know what happened to their babies’ remains.

“So, while we welcome these recommendations for the future conduct of crematoria staff, both the families and myself want a proper public inquiry so that those responsible for years of malpractice can be held to account publicly.”