Martin Hannan: Truth will out at Mortonhall

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Though it is not the full public inquiry they were seeking, the parents and relatives involved in the campaign to discover the truth about Mortonhall Crematorium have seen a giant leap forward with the appointment of Dame Elish Angiolini QC to carry out an independent investigation.

I wrote in this column late last year that only an independent inquiry could satisfy the public. The council has realised that its own investigation, however perspicacious it is, will not be seen as independent, hence the appointment of Dame Elish with a wide-ranging remit to look into every aspect of the scandal.

The former lord advocate is perfectly equipped to look into the circumstances surrounding the disposal of the ashes of stillborn and newly-born babies. She will carry out a full and thoroughly independent review of all the issues, and if it takes her three months or more to do so, then so be it.

The more you think about this scandal, the more distressing it becomes. Dame Elish must find out exactly what happened and ensure that it never happens again.

It was always unlikely that a public inquiry would be ordered by the Scottish Government, though I understand it was given serious consideration at the highest levels. Had there been hard evidence of similar malpractice at other crematoria – and that may yet emerge – the Government would have had no choice but to order a full public inquiry.

At the moment, however, this is being seen as very much an Edinburgh issue, and though the parents and relatives may hail from outside the city, it is surely up to Edinburgh to examine its own mess first.

The council has so far shown commendable unanimity in wanting to tackle this issue, and I have no reason to believe that will vary. This is absolutely not an issue where party politicking should rear its ugly head, and for once our councillors seem content to leave parish pump concerns aside in order that the truth be discovered.

There is a police investigation under way, and the council’s own internal reviews will also surely uncover evidence as to what went wrong. But my money is on Dame Elish to get to the bottom of all the matters involved, and produce a definitive report that will tell us all exactly what happened at Mortonhall over many decades.

The council should also brace itself for having to pay compensation to the parents and relatives who were so badly mistreated. Yes, I know that means that eventually the council taxpayer will have to stump up, but surely it is only right that the people who have been devastated by the revelations about Mortonhall should receive some kind of payment, though nothing can compensate them for the pain and misery they have endured.

I also commend the Scottish Government for making an emergency grant to Sands Lothian, the organisation which exposed the scandal and which has been working hard with affected parents and relatives.

This is not the beginning of the end of the Mortonhall scandal, but it is the end of the beginning. Let us now leave the experts to get on with the job of discovering the truth.

Hit the jackpot

I PREDICTED some time ago that local government finances were so perilous that money for cultural activities would be squeezed. And so it has come to pass – right across the Lothians, cash for culture is being diverted into other areas of council budgets, and that is very sad.

No one would argue, surely, that vital services for the disabled and elderly people should be cut back in order to shore up budgets for theatres and libraries. But the arts and culture in general are not fripperies any more, and indeed I would argue that they are just as vital in their own way as schools and colleges.

The cuts are so deep, however, that front line services are being hammered and councils really do have to take money away from the arts to keep more vital services going.

All of these cuts ultimately emanate from the decisions of the coalition in Westminster to slash public spending budgets. And it is the UK Government which could take one immediate step to help bail out cultural activities. Funds from the National Lottery should no longer be spent on big capital projects. For a defined period of time, say until the end of 2016, the lottery’s income should be put towards revenue spending, subsidising the budgets of organisations and cultural activities which will otherwise be slashed.

The Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh is a classic example of what happens when you spend a large amount of public money – in its case, some £3.4 million – on refurbishment of the venue, only for there not to be enough money to actually run it.

The cut of £50,000 in the Brunton’s annual budget means that jobs will be lost in the theatre, and that’s just plain daft when the venue has been restored and improved.

The National Lottery was originally intended to be spent on cultural activities, so why not divert cash into those areas at this moment in time? After all, quite enough lottery money was spent on the London Olympics, so let the arts in Scotland and the rest of the UK get a temporary boost from lottery riches.