Before we come to the statement, I remind the House that as sentencing has not yet occurred, the case to which the statement relates remains sub judice under the terms of the House resolution. Brief reference to the fact that a guilty plea has been given may be made, but Members should not go into details of the case or speculate about sentencing options. I hope the statement will instead focus on the wider issues.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the appalling crimes committed by David Fuller and the Government’s next steps. In recent days, the courts have heard about a series of David Fuller’s shocking and depraved offences. The legal process is ongoing, as you have just said, Mr Speaker. David Fuller is yet to be sentenced, so there are some things it would be inappropriate for me to talk about at this time. I am sure the House will understand why the majority of my statement will focus on the steps that we are taking in response to those crimes and not the crimes themselves.
Before I do, I will briefly update the House on this shocking case. In December, David Fuller was charged with the murder of two young women, Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce, in the Tunbridge Wells area of Kent in 1987. Last week, he pleaded guilty to their murders. My thoughts, and I am sure the thoughts of the whole House, are with Wendy and Caroline’s family and friends.
As well as that, the Kent and Essex serious crime directorate has been carrying out an investigation into his offences in hospital settings between 2008 and 2020. As a result, Fuller was charged with a series of shocking offences involving sexual offences committed in a hospital mortuary. He has also pleaded guilty to these offences. As sentencing has yet to take place, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the case, but I will say that, in the light of what has happened, the Justice Secretary will be looking at whether the penalties that are currently available for such appalling sexual offences are appropriate.
It has taken months of painstaking work to uncover the extent of this man’s offending. The fact that these offences took place in a hospital—a place where all of us should feel safe and free from harm—makes this all the more harrowing. This has been an immensely distressing investigation, and I would like to thank the police for the diligent and sensitive way that they have approached it. They have shown the utmost professionalism in the most upsetting of circumstances, and I would like to thank them for their ongoing work. I would also like to thank the local NHS trust—Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust—for co-operating so closely with the police.
Officers have, tragically, found evidence of 100 victims. Of these victims, 81 have been formally identified, and specially trained family liaison officers have been supporting their families. Every family of a known victim has been contacted. We have been working closely with the police, the police and crime commissioner and the NHS trust to make sure that those families who have been directly affected receive the 24/7 support that they need, including access to dedicated caseworkers, and mental health support and counselling.
If anyone else is concerned that they or their loved ones may be a victim, or if they have any further information, they should search online for the major incident police portal, and select “Kent Police” and “Operation Sandpiper”. I know how distressing the details of these offences will be for many people. The local NHS trust has put arrangements in place to support staff who have been affected, and regardless of whether or not someone has been directly impacted by these offences, they can access the resources that are available on the My Support Space website.
This is a profoundly upsetting case that has involved distressing offences within the health service. The victims are not just those family members and friends who have been abused in this most horrific of ways; they are also those who are left behind—people who have already experienced loss, and now experience unimaginable pain and anger. They are victims, too.
Even as we look into exactly what happened, I, as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, want to apologise to the friends and families of all the victims for the crimes that were perpetrated in the care of the NHS, and for the hurt and suffering they are feeling. I know that no apology can undo the pain and suffering caused by these offences, but with such serious issues of dignity and security, we have a duty to look at what happened in detail, and make sure it never happens again, so I would like to update the House on the steps we are taking.
First, NHS England has written to all NHS trusts asking for mortuary access and post-mortem activities to be reviewed against the current guidance from the Human Tissue Authority. Trusts have also been asked to review their ways of working and to take a number of extra steps, including making sure that they have effective CCTV coverage in place, that entry and access points are controlled with swipe access, and that appropriate Disclosure and Barring Service checks and risk assessments are being carried out. NHS England will report directly to me with assurances that these measures have been taken, so that we can be confident that the highest standards are being followed and that we are maintaining security and upholding the dignity of the deceased. Next, the local trust has been putting its own steps in place. It has already conducted a peer review of mortuary practice, and it initiated an independent investigation into those specific offences.
I thank the trust and its leadership for its quick initial work to set up that investigation, but given the scale and nature of these sexual offences, I believe we must go further. Today I can announce that I am replacing the trust investigation with an independent inquiry that will look into the circumstances surrounding the offences committed at the hospital, and their national implications. It will help us to understand how those offences took place without detection in the trust, identify any areas where early action by the trust was necessary, and consider wider national issues, including for the NHS. I have appointed Sir Jonathan Michael to chair this inquiry. Sir Jonathan is an experienced NHS chief executive, a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and a former chief executive of three NHS hospital trusts. He had been leading the trust investigation, and will be able to build on some of the work he has already done. The inquiry will be independent, and it will report to me as Secretary of State.
I have asked Sir Jonathan to split his inquiry into two parts: the first, an interim report, which I have asked for early in the new year; the second, a final report looking at the broader national picture and the wider lessons for the NHS and other settings. We will publish the terms of reference in due course, and I have also asked Sir Jonathan to discuss with families and others to input into this process. Sir Jonathan’s findings will be public and they will be published. We have a responsibility to everyone affected by these shocking crimes to do right by those we have lost, and by those still left behind in their shock and their grief. Nothing that we can say in this place will undo the damage that has been done, but we must act to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for its content, and I welcome what he has announced today.
This is an unspeakably vile and horrific crime, and across the House our thoughts and hearts go out to the families of Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce, and to the families of those with deceased loved ones. Those 100 victims—we are talking about the corpses of 100 women —were, as has been reported in the press, violated in the most monstrous, vile and sickening way. Will the Secretary of State confirm that all the families impacted will have immediate access to the psychological counselling and support that they need? Will NHS staff at the hospital, many of whom will themselves be devastated, also have access to appropriate counselling and support?
I welcome the announcement of an inquiry, and I pay tribute to local Members of Parliament across Kent and Sussex who have spoken up on behalf of their communities in recent days. In particular, Greg Clark said over the weekend that authorities and politicians must
“ask serious questions as to how this could have happened and…establish that it can never happen again.”
I agree, and that is why an inquiry is so important.
Will the Secretary of State offer some precision as to when the terms of reference will be published? Fuller was caught because of a murder investigation, which in itself prompts a number of questions about the regulation of mortuaries. The Human Tissue Authority, which regulates hospital mortuaries, reviewed one of the mortuaries in question as part of its regulatory procedures. It raised no security concerns, but found a lack of full audits, examples of lone working, and issues with CCTV coverage in another hospital in the trust. Will the inquiry consider—or perhaps this is the remit of the Secretary of State—the Human Tissue Authority’s standards, the way it reviews hospital mortuaries, and how those standards are enforced? Will the inquiry recommend new processes that the Secretary of State will put in place if it is found that a mortuary fails to meet the high standards for lone workers, for security and for care?
The NHS has asked trusts to review their procedures; I welcome that. Will the Secretary of State ensure that all mortuaries document and record the access of all staff entering a mortuary, and will he ensure that standards for CCTV are enforced and that CCTV is in place comprehensively across all mortuaries? There are, of course, other premises where dead bodies are stored, such as funeral directors, that do not fall under the regulatory remit of the Human Tissue Authority, so will its remit be expanded, or will the inquiry look at regulation for other premises where bodies are stored?
When our loved ones are admitted into the hands of medical care, that is done on the basis of a bond of trust—that our loved ones will be cared for when sick and accorded dignity in death. That bond of trust was callously ripped apart here. I offer to work with the Secretary of State to ensure that something so sickening never happens again.
I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s words and his offer to work together on this. I most certainly would like to take him up on that. I think the whole House would want to see us all working together on this.
I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there is comprehensive support rightly available to all families and friends that have been affected. As I said a moment ago, every family of the known victims has been contacted directly by family liaison officers. They are in touch, and that support will continue for as long as necessary, including dedicated caseworker support, a 24/7 telephone support line and whatever counselling and support of that nature is needed. That includes support for staff in the NHS and elsewhere, where staff will also be affected.
On the terms of reference, that is something that I and my Department will work on with Sir Jonathan. I have already started discussions with him on that, and I am sure that he will want to have discussions with others, including families, their representatives and the Members of Parliament who represent those families.
The work that Sir Jonathan will do will be broad in its nature. I think it has to be, because, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly alluded to, it has to go beyond just hospitals. There are a number of settings that rightly need to be looked at, including, for example, local authority mortuaries, private mortuaries and other settings, such as undertakers. I think the inquiry should be open to all of that, and I think we would want to see that reflected in the terms of reference.
Lastly, the right hon. Gentleman referred to recommendations around access, documentation and CCTV. He is right to raise all those issues. I want to be careful not to pre-empt the final outcome of what is an independent inquiry, but I am sure all those issues will rightly be looked at.
I join the Secretary of State in giving thanks to Kent Police for its sensitivity, but also its tenacity in bringing Fuller to justice after all these years. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for agreeing to the inquiry that my colleagues in the area have called for.
It is important that the House understands the need for the inquiry. As well as brutally murdering two young women, Fuller raped the dead bodies of over 100 girls and women. Their identities are known, and that means that their families have been informed. The shock and desolation that those families are going through is beyond imagination. That is why the inquiry is so important—because this can never be allowed to happen again. It does go beyond the local. In the last four years, there have been over 30 incidents of unauthorised people entering mortuaries in NHS hospitals. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the inquiry will do three things? First, will it allow victims’ families to give evidence on the impact the crimes have had on them? Secondly, will he make public recommendations for the whole of the NHS, as well as the local NHS trust? Thirdly, will he publish the assessment of the risks for other sectors in which people have access to human dead bodies? We can never take away the horror and the grief that is being suffered by the families, but we can do one thing, which is to protect other families from having to go through this nightmare.
I very much agree with all the words of my right hon. Friend, especially when he talks about the shock, hurt and pain of all the families, many of them his constituents. He asks specific questions on three points: whether the victims will be allowed to give evidence to the inquiry; whether the recommendations will be for the whole of the NHS and be public; and whether the inquiry will publish its findings on other sectors beyond the NHS. Absolutely, the inquiry will do all three things. I can give him that assurance.
This is truly one of the most horrific things any of us will have heard of or encountered. Our thoughts are with the families and those conducting the investigations. Following on from Greg Clark who highlighted that access has happened elsewhere in the country, the Secretary of State said in his statement that he has written to NHS England to ask all NHS trusts to report directly to him on what they find in terms of compliance. Will he outline how he will share the information from NHS England with local communities who are now very concerned about that and with us as their representatives?
Yes, I am very happy to expand on that. The NHS has, first, written directly to all trusts and asked them to look into the issues of mortuary access and other post-mortem activities, and to judge them against current guidance to ensure that it is all being applied. In the first instance, that information will go back to NHS England. It will then be shared with me and I will certainly want to find the best way of sharing it with both the House and everyone who is interested.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the extremely sensitive tone with which he is approaching this incredibly difficult issue. He is absolutely right to put the concerns of families and staff first. He is also right to say that this issue will not be resolved by one evil man facing justice. The big question everyone is concerned about is this: could this happen elsewhere and why did this horrendous series of crimes happen over such a long period of time without being detected? I welcome the call for an independent inquiry and the Secretary of State’s decision to do that. May I ask him to praise the work of the vast majority of morticians throughout the country who do an incredibly difficult job extremely well? I met some of them after the Manchester Arena bombing and I know that he would not want this terrible, terrible series of acts to cast a cloud over their fantastic work.
I agree very much with my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right to raise those points. As he said, these appalling crimes have taken place over a number of years. I am certain that the independent inquiry will get to the bottom of that and that we can learn not just about mortuaries in hospital settings, but much more broadly. He is also right to draw attention to the vast majority of people who work in mortuaries, the morticians and those who support them, for the very difficult and important work they do.
This is a truly harrowing case and I think many people will be shocked not just by the horrific nature of the crimes, but by the fact that many of the extra steps announced today were not already in place. Will the Secretary of State give an indication of how quickly he expects hospitals to adopt the extra steps of CCTV coverage, swipe access and DBS checks in every single hospital and mortuary?
I would expect that many of those steps may well be in place in many NHS trusts. The purpose of the NHS writing to all trusts is to ensure that the kinds of steps that I set out earlier, and others, are in place, so they are following the current rules and guidance that are set out by the Human Tissue Authority. What we also need to do is determine whether the current rules and guidance are right in the light of these appalling crimes and whether we need to go much further than that. That is also the purpose of having an independent inquiry.
Fuller’s vile and depraved acts are hard to comprehend, especially taking into account the number of victims and the fact that the crimes took place over such a long period of time. My thoughts are with the families of Fuller’s victims as they come to terms with the news that they have been told. I am grateful for the inquiry; we need to understand how access was made available to Mr Fuller. May I push the Secretary of State a bit further, especially on family liaison officers? Will he provide assurances that all the victims’ families have that access for as long as they need it and can access mental health services for as long as they need to? Will he provide some assurances that, as far as he is aware, all the families of the victims have been contacted to date? And perhaps he can offer some assistance to the staff of MPs who are dealing with constituents going through this, so that we can make sure that we are offering the most sensitive advice and support possible.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make those points, and I can give those assurances. The police have informed my Department that all the families of all the victims have been contacted. They all have family liaison officers. That support and other support, such as counselling and mental health support, if required, and the 24/7 telephone line that I referred to, will remain in place for as long as is necessary. Indeed, if she and other Members of Parliament who have constituents who are affected think that there are other ways to provide support, of course we would be willing to do that.
I thank the Secretary of State for his words and his action; it is much appreciated, as is the solidarity shown by the shadow Secretary of State, Jonathan Ashworth. I also thank my right hon. Friend Greg Clark for leading the local MPs on this difficult matter.
The nation has been absolutely appalled and horrified by the actions that we have heard about, and none more so than the people in Heathfield, where Mr Fuller was arrested at his family home. They are good people who have been shocked by what they have found out. My constituents use the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust. It is an excellent hospital, run by some brilliant management and fantastic staff. Will the Secretary of State make sure that those staff and management have all the support that is needed to ensure that patients receive their ongoing care?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. His local hospital does some excellent work in supporting local people in all their health needs and has done so for a long time. I have no doubt that this news will be incredibly distressing to all the people who work in the hospital, and they will get the support that they need. The other support that is necessary for the hospital to continue with its good work and care will remain, and will remain very important.
Nothing can undo the horror that the families of victims are going through, but I am pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend has said. Could he provide some further and better details on the timescale for the final report that will come out of the inquiry? He mentioned an interim report early next year, but what about the final report? When does he anticipate that the recommendations that might be made in that report will be implemented?
Yes, I am happy to provide more information on that issue. I have asked Sir Jonathan to provide the interim report from his inquiry early next year. As my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will understand, it will take some time to get the terms of reference in place and make sure that the review is done properly, but it is important to learn some early lessons, especially around the local hospital trust. I anticipate that the interim report might take about three months, but I will wait to see Sir Jonathan’s final analysis. I hope that the final report will come some time next year; I do not want to set a timetable now without knowing the full terms of reference.
I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the work that I have asked for from the Human Tissue Authority as well as the independent inquiry. I have asked it to do an independent review of its own advice to me on the current regulations.
This horrific crime has shocked many in Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling who use the hospital. I associate myself entirely with the words of my right hon. Friend Greg Clark.
I thank the Secretary of State for announcing the inquiry that many of us have been seeking. May I ask him to provide some resources locally for the trust to reassure patients and staff of the actions that it is taking and make sure that they are communicated to all the towns and villages that rely on and place so much importance on the hospital? We need to ensure that trust is returned to the establishment if we are to have the care needed for all our communities.
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. This will, of course, be a very difficult and distressing time for the local trust. I have already discussed the matter with my colleagues in NHS England, and it will be provided with the resources that it needs.
I thank the Secretary of State for agreeing to the inquiry. For my constituents who have been affected, nothing will ever take away the pain and the trauma, but I hope that it will at least provide them with some comfort and assurance that this will never happen again.
When David Fuller was first employed, DBS checks did not exist. Subsequent checks failed to pick up his previous convictions. Can the Secretary of State assure us that that issue will be looked at as part of the inquiry? Will he look at the wider NHS and ensure that people with convictions do not have access to sensitive areas of NHS trusts?
Yes, I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. As other colleagues have done, she raises a very important point: it is clear from this case that the issue of employment checks, especially DBS checks—not just in hospital settings, but in mortuary and undertaker settings—needs to be looked at afresh. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the independent inquiry, but I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that the issue will absolutely be looked at.