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Redfern Inquiry

Volume 518: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2010

Today I am publishing the report of the Redfern inquiry, which was established in 2007 to investigate the processes and practices surrounding the analysis of human tissue that was carried out in UK nuclear facilities from 1955 to 1992. The inquiry examined the circumstances in which organs or tissue were removed from individuals at NHS or other facilities, and sent to be analysed at nuclear laboratory establishments.

To lose a family member is tragic. To find out—sometimes decades later—that tissue had been taken without consent is an unimaginable distress. That knowledge is a burden that no one should have to bear. There is no time limit on grief; nor is there on apologies. I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt regret, and to apologise to the families and relatives of those involved. I hope that the publication of today's report goes some way toward providing the closure that they deserve. The events described in the inquiry should never have happened in the first place. We have learned the lessons of the past. The law on human tissue has been reviewed, and a rigorous regulatory system is now in place, in which both the public and professionals have confidence.

I would like to thank the chairman of the inquiry, Mr Michael Redfern QC, for conducting the investigation. The inquiry has also benefited from the support of the nuclear industry and other key stakeholders, who have co-operated fully. The inquiry was established to investigate the circumstances in which organs were removed from individuals, and were sent to and analysed at Sellafield. However, as evidence came to light of similar work carried out at other sites and of studies involving non-nuclear workers, Michael Redfern QC was asked to make those additional cases part of his inquiry.

The inquiry was initially sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry, which at that time had responsibility for energy policy. The Department of Health became a co-sponsor when the terms of reference were expanded to allow the inquiry to access relevant NHS information, and to investigate the part played by hospitals in which the post-mortem examinations had been conducted. Although not a sponsor of the inquiry, the Ministry of Justice also has an interest in the inquiry's findings and recommendations in respect of the coroner's role.

The report highlights unacceptable working practices within the nuclear industry, NHS pathology services and the coronial service, and concludes that families' views were not always obtained as required under the Human Tissue Act 1961. It acknowledges that these events occurred a number of decades ago, and puts them within the context of the times and current practice. Many of the issues raised by the inquiry have since been addressed by changes to the law, including the introduction of the Human Tissue Act 2004.

The inquiry found that organs from 64 former Sellafield workers were removed by pathologists and taken for analysis at Sellafield between 1960 and 1991. In addition, organs taken from 12 workers at other nuclear sites were analysed at, or at the request of, Sellafield, giving a total cohort of 76. The inquiry also found evidence of other individuals whose organs were analysed at Sellafield. The report finds that there was a lack of ethical consideration of the implications of the research work that the industry was doing; that limited supervision was undertaken; and that relationships between pathologists, coroners and the Sellafield medical officers became too close.

The inquiry has found that organs from a small number of former Ministry of Defence employees were removed for analysis. It has been difficult to establish the legality of a minority of these removals. Also, during the 1950s and 1960s the Medical Research Council oversaw research measuring levels of strontium 90 in human bone obtained at post-mortem. It was a national survey, involving more than 6,000 people, mostly children, and was not linked to former nuclear workers.

The inquiry also considered work undertaken by the National Radiological Protection Board. Across its entire remit, the inquiry found that families' views about organ retention were not always sought, and that very few families knew that organs were taken for analysis. Research using human tissue at that time was carried out under different legislation, and within a culture that took a very different approach to these matters than we do today. That is not to diminish the distress and suffering caused to families by the events of the past. However, we have learned from the mistakes of the past, and we now have in place the legislative and regulatory framework that makes consent the fundamental principle underpinning the lawful retention and use of body parts, organs and tissue from the living or the deceased for such purposes.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I welcome the inquiry’s recognition of the changes in the law and the associated regulatory framework relating to the taking, use and storage of human tissue, which have been put in place since the events leading up to the inquiry. Since the Human Tissue Act 2004 came into force, we have seen the development of robust regulation that focuses on compliance through the provision of expert advice and guidance—and where regulatory action is taken if standards are not met.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice has the principal interest in the inquiry’s findings relating to the role of coroners. His Department is responsible for coronial law and policy, but as coroners are independent judicial office holders, it does not monitor how they carry out their functions in individual cases unless specific complaints are made. Communication between families, coroners and pathologists was, and still is, vital.

Changes to the 1984 coroners rules, which were introduced alongside the human tissue legislation, are aimed at ensuring that families’ wishes about what happens to organs and tissue retained after a post-mortem examination can be properly established and acted upon. My right hon. and learned Friend also intends to take forward several provisions in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 which address other problems that Mr Redfern identifies and aim to prevent any recurrence of the events that led to the establishment of his inquiry.

Although the Government are not proceeding with the role of a chief coroner, we intend to transfer many of the intended leadership functions of the post to the Lord Chancellor, or possibly to the senior judiciary. There will be higher standards when commissioning post-mortem examinations, and in the way that coroners communicate with bereaved families. There will be more effective operational delivery, with an end to rigid, geographic boundary restrictions. Training for coroners and their staff will be maintained and improved, and coroners’ work will be more transparent so that unacceptable practices can be avoided or challenged and deficiencies can be tackled. We are also considering introducing the new, more accountable system for appointing coroners and their deputies that the 2009 Act enabled.

The inquiry has sought and received assurances from all the key nuclear industry stakeholders that the practice of retaining organs or tissue at autopsy has ceased. I hope that the families of those involved can take some comfort from the knowledge that the practices that the inquiry examined simply would not be permissible today. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State and his office for early sight of his statement on this very important matter.

Our first sympathies must be for the families. They have lived through an ordeal and had to relive or, in some cases, discover what happened to their loved ones after death. It cannot have been easy, and their forbearance has been great. I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s heartfelt apology. I, like other Members, have had only a short time to look at the report, but it is clear that it is thorough, clearly written and a credit to the hard work of Michael Redfern QC and his team. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) has ably represented many of the families over a long period, and today the families must come first.

The events in question took place some time ago, and it has been challenging to piece together the history. The issues are complex, and Michael Redfern has produced a report that not only explains what happens, but provides reassurance that such practices are no longer used. The events, let us remember, took place in a different era when there was much debate about the safety of the nuclear industry, and the GMB at the time campaigned hard for a compensation scheme for nuclear workers who had been exposed to excess radiation. Today, a compensation scheme is in place.

The report is clear that the law at the time was in place to prevent the removal of human tissue without proper consent from those who had died. Unfortunately, that did not prevent these events from happening. It is an important and salutary reminder to all of us in this House, and elsewhere, that we need to remain vigilant in our scrutiny of professional practice and of the work of scientists. Science is vital to the UK, and we have a worldwide reputation to protect. It is in all our interests to get it right.

I have some questions for the Secretary of State. Is he able to reassure the public that the events outlined in the Redfern inquiry report are historical and are not taking place today? We have the 2004 Act; we now need to be vigilant about it.

The inquiry looked into the issue of removal of organs from 76 people. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that that was the extent of the case? I am sure that he will agree that any families who are concerned should have an easy route to information about their loved ones; perhaps he could explain how they can find out more.

The Secretary of State rightly talks about the new rigorous regulatory system, but it is the Government’s intention to abolish the Human Tissue Authority and transfer its functions to other bodies. What guarantee can he give that such important functions will not be lost as a result of the Government’s proposed changes?

The Secretary of State is clear that such acts would not be permissible today, as they were not then. It is therefore particularly important that procedures are in place to uncover any practices of this nature in future. Can he further explain what contact the Government have had or are planning to have with the professions concerned, particularly pathologists and coroners, to ensure that robust procedures are in place so that this could not happen again?

This report does not stop the heartache for the families, but it lays out the facts, and I hope that that gives them some comfort.

I thank the hon. Lady. I think that this is an issue on which we can all unite, in all parts of the House, in our frank shock at the events that took place, albeit many decades ago in many cases. I am able to give the reassurance that the hon. Lady seeks, and the reassurance to the public, that these events are historical and, as far as we can tell, are not taking place today; they would clearly be illegal. The Redfern inquiry sought assurances from all the key players—and indeed received those assurances—that there was nothing taking place today that would be similar.

In the course of the inquiry, as the report makes clear, it became obvious that the removal of organs from a limited number of people in fact related to only a part of the total. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), as the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, knew about that when the inquiry was commissioned. The inquiry points out that once we take account of other cases, the total is nearly 6,000 across the country. That is a very much greater figure than we thought at the time.

The hon. Lady is right to say that the Human Tissue Authority is to be abolished by the Government and its functions transferred to other bodies. I have spoken with my colleagues from the Department of Health on this point. Those functions will be transferred to other organisations and dealt with by the Department of Health. There will be no question of any relenting on the key functions that were set out for the Human Tissue Authority.

The professions have been engaged in conversations with both the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice. I am confident that the lessons of the report will be learned and that robust procedures will be put in place to ensure that such questionable practices do not recur.

The hon. Lady asked about current safety levels in the nuclear industry. I can assure her that we have a rigorous safety and inspection regime which is kept under constant review in order to make sure that safety levels are absolutely at the highest.

I add my thanks to Michael Redfern for his very substantial report, which is far weightier and far more extensive than we anticipated when I commissioned his work three and a half years ago.

It is difficult to judge what happened over a period of 50 years—of course, standards, ethics and the law have changed very substantially—but does the Secretary of State accept two things? First, many people would acknowledge that there will be occasions when more investigation and research is necessary, but the key thing is that they should be involved in those decisions, they should know about the work, and they should be in a position to give or withhold their consent.

Secondly, although things have changed dramatically in the nuclear industry over the past few years, it does have a history of being less open than it should be. By being more open, it will build more confidence in what it does—an objective in which I believe, and in which I think the Secretary of State now believes as well.

I totally agree with both the right hon. Gentleman’s points. The key principle introduced in the Human Tissue Act 2004 was consent ahead of time. The legal situation before that allowed researchers to access human tissue without consent if they had made reasonable efforts to obtain it. That was a fundamental change, and I entirely agree that it was important for us as a society to move with the times and reflect the key family sensitivities involved. I also agree entirely with his point about the nuclear industry. Openness is usually the best disinfectant, and transparency is thoroughly desirable.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for advance sight of his statement, to the shadow Secretary of State for her warm wards and to the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), for instigating the report in the first instance. I declare two interests, as both a former Sellafield worker and the grandson of Thompson Reed, one of the trade union officials mentioned in the report.

I hope that there will now be a dialogue between the affected families and the Government on the subject of restitution. The nuclear industry and Sellafield are extremely popularly supported in my part of the world, not least by me. One telling point in the report is the constant churn and change that the West Cumberland hospital and NHS management structures have experienced, which may have led to less than ideal practices. Will the Secretary of State commit to working with me and those in my community, with a view to seeing how we can fund the hospital outside the routine, ordinary funding systems that exist for other hospitals, given the unique nature of the work undertaken at Sellafield?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows, I am very committed to continued employment in the nuclear industry and the importance of his area to it, and I visited Sellafield shortly after I became Secretary of State. We very much want to maintain that dialogue. I am keen to take up any issues of concern to his constituents and employees in the industry about their health care or anything else. He can rely on my support on that.

The funding streams are obviously an issue for the Department of Health, but I do not think the hon. Gentleman would want us to go down the route of allying particular health funding streams to their causes—that, for instance, road accident matters should be funded by the Department for Transport or that nuclear health streams should be funded by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. However, he can be assured of my support in ensuring that the care available is outstanding.

One of the most disturbing elements is the culture of secrecy that allowed body parts not only to be taken without permission but later to be disposed of as waste in the low-level waste depository at Drigg. Many living relatives will be deeply distressed to think of their loved ones being treated in such a callous way. Does the Secretary of State agree that that culture of secrecy still surrounds the nuclear industry and can be a barrier to proper scrutiny and accountability? What measures will he take to challenge it?

The hon. Lady recognises—I hope—that there have been improvements in recent years in the openness of the industry. I believe it understands the importance of public confidence, because it is a very different industry from the one that existed during the decades in which these practices were undertaken. One way of securing and retaining public confidence is to be as open and transparent about practices as possible, and as the Secretary of State responsible for the industry, I am extremely keen that that should be the case. I want the industry’s practices—particularly its safety practices, but respect for those who work in the industry too—to be maintained at the highest possible level. If the hon. Lady has particular concerns, I would be very happy to deal with them either in correspondence or in the normal way through parliamentary answers.

Anyone who reads this report will be absolutely horrified, as I am. I dread to think what the families will be feeling at this time; our thoughts and prayers are very much with them as they go through this very difficult period. Is the Secretary of State prepared to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) and me as soon as possible to see what help and support we can give both to the families and the wider community of west Cumbria?

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his neighbour on this and any other issue. The industry is important to their part of the world, and I hope that the relationships can improve and that we can provide some reassurance to the families that such events will never happen again. We extend our condolences to those in distress.

Will the Secretary of State congratulate Dr David Lowry on publishing evidence from the 1962 report of the Medical Research Council’s National Radiological Protection Board to show that there was an experiment in which people, including pregnant women, young people under 18 and those without fatal diseases, were exposed to doses of radiation of the most long-lived type, including strontium, plutonium and caesium? Is this not a sad story of the nuclear industry being far more interested in public relations than in public health?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to identify Dr Lowry as one of the important characters in opening up this whole saga. I am happy to join him in his congratulations on that score. The key issue that we have to keep repeating to anyone who doubts it in the nuclear industry is that openness is absolutely crucial. We have an enormous continuing nuclear clean-up legacy in Sellafield and elsewhere that will require great effort for many years to come. That arises, in part, from the fact that the industry—here I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier)—was too secretive for far too long.

I should declare an interest having been brought up in west Cumbria and having worked for many years in the nuclear industry. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for Copeland (Mr Reed) and for Workington (Tony Cunningham) on championing their communities on this issue for many years. The Secretary of State said that these are historical events. None the less, the practices continued until less than two decades ago, and personnel may be still in the NHS or the nuclear industry who were part of that decision-making process. Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that no one is working today in the NHS or in the industry who was responsible for those terrible decisions?

Michael Redfern QC identifies and names a number of people in his extensive report. The criticisms that are made of those individuals are quite a rebuke to anyone who is in a professional job and who values their standing. The key figures have now retired, and would certainly not be responsible for a continuation of such practices. However, that would be true even if they had not retired, because the law has now changed. The report, none the less, is thorough, extensive and identifies those individuals who were involved but who have now retired.