Martin Hannan: Independence a must for inquiry

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Just when I thought I was beginning to get unshockable about the misdeeds of our 
public authorities, along comes a scandal such as that surrounding Mortonhall Crematorium and the treatment of the ashes of dead babies.

To learn that possibly hundreds of stillborn babies or babies who died shortly after birth were cremated and had their ashes scattered in a communal garden of remembrance while their parents were lied to about there being no ashes is enough to make you sick.

Thanks to the good detective work of the Lothian Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity (Sands), we know that Mortonhall Crematorium in particular operated this policy of lying to grieving parents. The questions remain: how many lies, how long did it go on, and why?

Let us be absolutely honest about this. If these revelations had been made 60 years ago or more, then there would have been no public scandal. Society back then dealt very differently with stillbirths. By and large, stillbirth was put down to bad luck and parents were not encouraged to grieve for their loss. The fact is, however, that many parents grieved heavily for the death of the child, and there were many instances of women in particular becoming mentally ill because they had carried the child within them for many months only for it to emerge dead.

As a mere man I can’t begin to imagine the horrible psychological pain that these women endured. Some women still do, for stillbirth occurs regularly even in this era when virtually everything is done to ensure a safe delivery.

Thank heavens we have moved on from those long-past days, though there is still public ignorance about the subject and a reluctance to talk about stillbirth. Even today there is still confusion about what constitutes a miscarriage and what is a stillbirth, but the generally accepted usage is that a baby which dies in the uterus after going mostly full term is said to be stillborn.

There is a particularly distinct definition in Scots Law, which can be found in the Acts about the registrations of births. Basically the law states that any child “issued forth from its mother” – the actual words in the Act – after the 24th week of pregnancy and which shows no sign of life is to be considered stillborn.

Interestingly, such stillbirths require to be registered, though the Registrar General for Scotland will not give out any details about a particular stillbirth, unlike a live birth, the register of which is a public document open to anyone to see.

This is yet another example of our dual morality when it comes to stillbirths.

Many Christians, for example, are unsure whether a stillborn baby can be baptised – not usually, but it can receive a Christian funeral – while the Catholic Church, for example, will in some extreme cases advise its members that if there is any doubt about the unborn child’s health, you should have a priest standing by to baptise it as soon as the child is born.

For even though Catholic teaching is that life begins at conception, there can be no baptism until actual birth takes place, which always struck me as lacking in logic.

There can be no hypocrisy about, and certainly no gainsaying, the pain of the Mortonhall parents. The council has rightly instigated an inquiry and I am sure Mike Rosendale, head of schools and community services, will do a good job in finding out what happened. He will report to chief executive Sue Bruce, and we have been promised that his report will be made public.

We cannot, and must not, prejudge Rosendale’s inquiry, but I know I’m not alone in thinking that for all the perspicacity he will bring to the task, simply by the fact that he is a council employee he will not be seen as independent.

I can see what the council is doing. There is a possibility that employees in the bereavement services section may end up being disciplined. That means the council has to follow certain laid-down procedures in order that the staff be given the fairest possible chance should disciplinary procedures be necessary.

There is nothing, however, to stop the council commissioning a separate and simultaneous investigation by an outside body. Perhaps an academic expert or a team of them from any of the city’s universities could look at what happened, interview witnesses, examine the records, talk to staff past and present, and hear the views of the bereaved before presenting what would be a truly independent report.

Yes, that will cost money, but such is the possible scale of this tragedy that we, the people, should know about every aspect of what happened at Mortonhall and any other public crematorium.

After all, if there are any legal actions against the council, then it is we citizens who will end up paying the lawyers and any damages awarded to victims.

It is already clear that what has happened has been damaging to the reputation of Mortonhall Crematorium and Edinburgh City Council. In order to begin restoring public trust in the bereavement services of our local authority, we need a truly independent investigation.

The pain of the parents and relatives of the lost wee ones demands as much.