Baby Loss

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:02 pm on 13th October 2016.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North 1:02 pm, 13th October 2016

It is a pleasure to follow such an excellent and passionate contribution from Will Quince. This is such a sensitive and important subject. I congratulate him and Antoinette Sandbach on securing the debate in this important week, and on speaking about their own personal experiences. I also pay tribute to those other brave Members who have shared their personal experiences so eloquently today: my hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft, Patricia Gibson and my hon. Friend—my very good friend—Mrs Hodgson.

In Hull the levels of stillbirth and neonatal deaths are higher than the national average. There is so much more that needs to be done, as we have heard. I want to put on the record my tribute to the excellent work in supporting parents of the Hull and east Yorkshire branch of Sands. I also pay tribute to the Lullaby Trust, under the inspirational leadership of Francine Bates.

I want to go back to the issue that the hon. Member for Eddisbury talked about at the beginning of her contribution: injustice. We know that the trauma of losing a baby can be compounded by what happens next. I want to share with the House the story of my constituents Mike and Tina Trowhill, who came to tell me about what happened to them. They explained that their baby son William had very sadly died in 1994, which was a long time ago. They were told at the time that when he was cremated there would be no ashes. Many years later, Tina discovered that William’s ashes had in fact been retained—they were never returned to her—and that somebody had scattered them without her knowledge. That was very sad and bewildering. Why would somebody do that? It soon became clear that it was not a one-off incident.

Tina has worked relentlessly in Hull and the wider area to help the many other families who have discovered that their baby’s ashes were not returned to them and were scattered without their knowledge, or that there is still a mystery as to where the ashes are. Tina set up the local Action 4 Ashes group, which now has 420 members. She has discovered that many families were told by NHS clinicians and nurses that there would be no ashes when their babies were cremated. Many families have since discovered that the ashes were scattered. Over 50 sets of ashes are still held by the Co-operative funeral service and have not been returned to the families. Cases are now coming to light in which babies appear to have been transported to the crematorium without the use of an undertaker. Tina has helped families submit forms to the local authority seeking information about what happened to those babies. She has submitted over 50 such requests so far.

It is clear that this has happened not only in Hull, but up and down the country, for example in Scotland and Shrewsbury. The local authority in Shrewsbury rightly held a local inquiry to find out what happened and get answers for local families. Tina and I decided to ask Hull City Council for a similar independent inquiry. Although initially sympathetic, the council decided that it was not willing to hold such an inquiry. We challenged that, stating that it was not okay for the local authority to investigate itself and that it had to be done in an open and transparent way. But the council said no. It was not willing to have that local inquiry.

I therefore raised the matter with the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, and asked what he thought about it. He expressed to me that he thought it must be absolutely dreadful not to know what happened to a baby’s ashes and that something should be done. Eventually, Tina and I went to see the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, who I think was genuinely moved by Tina’s plight and by hearing about the many families in Hull who still did not know what happened. Tina made it clear that she wanted a local inquiry so that those families could get answers. On 10 May this year the Justice Secretary wrote to me, stating:

“I am pleased to be able to tell you that my fellow Secretaries of State at the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government have agreed with me that there is a need for an historic investigation into the practices relating to infant cremations in the Hull area, and we have today jointly written to the Chief Executive of Hull City Council asking him to commission this.”

As Members can imagine, we were delighted to have three Secretaries of State acknowledge that the families in Hull deserve to know what happened. It was excellent news.

However, two issues rightly remained of concern. One related to jurisdiction. It was not just about the local council, which had responsibility for the crematoriums; it was also about the role that the national health service had played. It was about the training needs and anything else that might come out of an inquiry. It was therefore important that the health service was involved. There was obviously an issue about how private funeral directors would be compelled to take part in any investigation. It was clear that there were some issues that needed to be addressed.

The other issue, which I had a lot of sympathy with, was the cost on holding an independent inquiry, which we know can be expensive. We also know that local councils are under enormous financial pressure at the moment. I supported Hull City Council in returning to the Ministry of Justice and asking for clarification and assistance on the two points of jurisdiction and available financial help. That all seemed to be going well, and I thought those were genuine issues that the Department would deal with.

However, on 26 September, the new Justice Secretary wrote to Hull City Council saying she thought there was no longer any need for an inquiry. The letter was not copied to me or my constituent, and I became aware of it only because the chief executive of Hull City Council sent a copy to me. I have to say, on behalf of my constituent and the many families affected in Hull, that I am absolutely furious that a decision made by three Secretaries of State was completely overturned without any consultation—indeed, without any attempt to consult me, my constituent or the Action 4 Ashes group in Hull. As Members can imagine, my constituent is devastated.

The letter from Hull City Council said the council had carried out investigations and was satisfied that everything that could be done had been done. Reading the letter, it was clear that the council had not really engaged fully with the problems around the NHS and funeral directors, and it certainly had not engaged fully with the families. In recent years, we have become a very much more open country, and we are less willing to take on trust the word of authority figures. Organisations left to investigate themselves rarely see the need for independent scrutiny of their actions; we only have to look at cases such as Hillsborough. Organisations that investigate themselves almost always find nothing much wrong and no one answerable for any error that is owned up to. “Nothing to see here. Go away. Move on” could be the motto of that culture.

The nearly 100 families in Hull who have come forward are not just going to go away and accept that they will not get the answers to their questions about what happened to the ashes of their deceased babies. A proper independent inquiry from outside the council—as they had in Shrewsbury—to ascertain whether more can be learned is the least those families deserve. If we do not learn the lessons of the past, there will be less confidence about whether measures proposed by Ministers to reform practices at crematoriums will be enough. I really do not understand what the Secretary of State for Justice had to gain by closing down the prospect of proper independent scrutiny of what went wrong in Hull.

In this week, in particular, I would ask the Minister to put himself in the shoes of those families in Hull who want answers and justice. There are three key demands. First, my constituent ought to receive an apology from the Secretary of State for Justice. Secondly, the Secretary of State should give her the courtesy of a personal meeting, just as the previous Secretary of State did. Thirdly, the independent investigation into what happened to the ashes of the babies of over 100 families in Hull should be reinstated forthwith, with funding from the Government to ensure that it can go ahead.