David Fuller Case - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 7:47 pm on 9th November 2021.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 8 November.

“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.”

Photo of Baroness Wheeler Baroness Wheeler Shadow Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords) 7:48 pm, 9th November 2021

I thank the Minister for the Statement and its contents, and I fully welcome the Government’s announcement of an independent inquiry into this unspeakably vile and horrific crime. Across the House, our thoughts and hearts go out to the families of Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce and those with deceased loved ones. These 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? What steps are being taken to identify the 19 victims yet to be identified?

I also pay tribute to local Members of Parliament across Kent and Sussex who have spoken up on behalf of their communities in recent days. ln particular, the MP for Tunbridge Wells, 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.”

This is why the inquiry is so crucial. Can the Minister set out its timetable and say when the terms of reference will be published? Can he confirm that its remit will allow it to make recommendations for the whole NHS, as well as for the local NHS trust?

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 look at the way in which the HTA reviews hospital mortuaries, as well as its standards and how they are enforced? Will it be asked to recommend new processes that the Secretary of State will put in place if it is found that a mortuary fails to meet the necessary high standards for lone workers, security and care? If the HTA’s role is not to be included in the inquiry, how will this work be undertaken by the Government and within what timescales?

The requirement for NHS trusts to review their procedures and ensure that they are following current HTA rules and guidance is very welcome. This procedure must include the requirement for all mortuaries to document and record the access of all staff and visitors entering a mortuary, ensure that CCTV is in place comprehensively across all mortuaries, and that CCTV standards on usage and access records are fully enforced. Can the Minister confirm this? What is the timeframe for hospitals to adopt the extra rules that have been announced on CCTV coverage, swipe access and DBS checks in every single hospital and mortuary? Can the Minister confirm whether this will be guidance or a statutory requirement? 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 the authority’s remit be extended? Will the inquiry look at regulations for other premises where bodies are stored?

The Minister will agree that the conduct of the inquiry itself will be very important for victims’ families. Will they be allowed to give evidence on the devastating impact that the crimes have had on them? When our loved ones are admitted into the hands of medical care, that is done on the basis of a bond of trust that they will be cared for when sick and accorded dignity in death. That bond of trust was callously ripped apart here. I repeat the offer from our shadow Secretary of State, Jonathan Ashworth, to work with the Secretary of State to ensure that something so sickening never happens again.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

[Inaudible]—but that such a prolonged period of abuse was able to take place without it being noticed. We echo the sincere condolences to the families and friends of Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce, as well as the many families and friends of those whose bodies David Fuller so foully desecrated.

The Statement says that the families and friends will have access to mental health support and counselling. That is good, but can the Minister confirm that it will be available for as long as they need it and will not be time limited? Will the staff at the mortuaries and hospitals, as well as the police and the over 150 family liaison officers involved in this case, also have access to counselling? They too have had to deal with this very distressing series of events.

We must obviously be very careful in our discussions today pending the sentencing of David Fuller, but we welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement for the upgrading of the trust’s independent review to an independent inquiry, to be chaired by Sir Jonathan Michael.

In August 2018, the Health Service Journal reported that 58 mortuaries that had been inspected in 2017-18 revealed that more than 500 “shortfalls” were exposed during that period. Worryingly, that included eight critical failings. At that time, the Human Tissue Authority as regulator and the various other regulated bodies undertook to look at the large increase in failings that year and to review practice. What actions were taken following those 2017-18 reports and were measures on access by staff to mortuaries among them? I ask this because, looking at the Human Tissue Authority’s codes of practice online, almost the entire focus seems to be on those whose role is to be involved with bodies. In Code A: Guiding Principles and the Fundamental Principle of Consent, the only reference I can find that does not relate to those with direct responsibilities for bodies is in paragraph 14 on page 7, which begins:

“Quality should underpin the management of human tissue and bodies.”

It goes on to say that this means that:

“practitioners’ work should be subject to a system of governance that ensures the appropriate and safe storage and use of human tissue and which safeguards the dignity of the living or deceased”, and that

“premises, facilities and equipment should be clean, secure and subject to regular maintenance”.

One of the concerning issues relating to this case is that Mr Fuller ceased to be an employee of the Tunbridge Wells health authority in 2011 when the maintenance contract was subcontracted out. Will the inquiry look at not just whether employees of subcontractors working in sensitive areas are subject to DBS checks but whether there is a duty on their employer to report any findings to the hospital, or in this case the mortuary? Mr Fuller had a previous criminal record, but it is reported that the hospital did not know this.

There is another issue which I have not heard referred to either here or in the Statement in another place yesterday, and that is our criminal justice system’s approach to the desecration of bodies. The respected criminologist Professor Jason Roach from Huddersfield University has analysed the policing of and law in Britain towards necrophilia. He found an almost complete absence of case studies, which is not true in the rest of the world. Indeed, it was not until the Sexual Offences Act 2003 that necrophilia became a criminal offence in its own right, but he says there is no evidence that anyone has ever been prosecuted. He reports that, as part of his research in 2016, he was told by one senior police officer that it was very unlikely that the police would ever urge the Crown Prosecution Service to charge an offender.

One hypothesis that Professor Roach explores in his 2016 work “No Necrophilia Please, We’re British” is that

“the attitude of the British criminal justice system towards necrophilia echoes that of the British public, i.e. one of embarrassment, whereby those caught are either not charged with a criminal offence or, perhaps for the sake of the deceased’s family, are charged with a less degrading offence such as grave robbing. Both routes will produce less attention-grabbing stories”.

Can the Minister say if the review will look at police and criminal justice system attitudes towards necrophilia or other forms of desecration of bodies? One of the deeply unsatisfactory legacies of Jimmy Savile’s extended abuse is the suspicion of his undertaking such activities. However, perhaps through embarrassment, there has been no real examination of that case and the cultures of the places where he was able to have access to the dead.

Can the Minister say if any lessons learned so far will be reported and implemented straightaway, before the full independent inquiry reports, to give the public confidence that hospital mortuaries are safe and secured? As ever, if the Minister does not have any of the answers to my questions to hand, please will he write to me with them?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, this is one of the most difficult issues that we have had to address and discuss in my short career at the Dispatch Box. It is one of those crimes that are beyond imagination. Who could think that an act of such depravity would occur? David Fuller has pleaded guilty to the murder of Wendy Knell and Caroline Pierce, and all our thoughts are with Wendy and Caroline’s families and friends.

In recent days the courts have heard about a series of David Fuller’s shocking and depraved offences. He is yet to be sentenced, so I am sure noble Lords will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details of the case while the legal process is still in progress. However, I will try to address as many of the questions about the response as possible.

This is a profoundly upsetting case that has involved distressing offences within the health service. I 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 that they are feeling. 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, somewhere all of us would hope to feel safe and free from harm, makes it all the more harrowing. This has been an immensely distressing investigation, and I thank the police for the diligent and sensitive way in which they have approached it. I also thank Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust for co-operating so closely with the police.

I am sure that in the inquiry all matters will be considered and that it will be as full and comprehensive as possible, but it is critical that we investigate this case thoroughly to ensure that lessons are learned. My right honourable friend the Health and Social Care Secretary is replacing the trust investigation with an independent non-statutory inquiry, which will look into the circumstances surrounding the offences committed in the hospital as well as their national implications. That will help us to understand how these offences were allowed to take place without detection in the trust and then to consider the wider national issues, including for the National Health Service. My right honourable friend has also asked the Human Tissue Authority to advise on whether changes are required to the existing legislation.

What will the independent inquiry do? We thank the NHS trust and its leadership for its quick initial work in setting up the investigation, but we have a duty to look at what happened in detail and to make sure that it never happens again. The Secretary of State has appointed Sir Jonathan Michael to chair the 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 has been leading the trust investigation and will be able to build on some of the work that he has already done. The inquiry will be independent and will report to the Secretary of State.

The noble Baronesses asked about the timeframe. Sir Jonathan will split his time into two parts. The first report will be an interim one, which has been asked for early in the new year. The second and final report will look 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. Sir Jonathan has been asked to discuss with families and others to ensure that their feelings are fully considered and that they input into the process. Sir Jonathan’s findings will be public and will be published.

We all know that this is a shocking case. None of us ever thought that we would have to take part in a discussion such as this. Specialist police officers have contacted the families of the victims directly and privately. We want to, and we must, respect the families’ privacy at this difficult time. There is a comprehensive package of support for the families affected. This includes dedicated caseworker support, a 24/7 telephone support line and specialist support, such as mental health support and counselling, as needed and as appropriate. The trust is also talking to family members who wish to be contacted.

Kent Police has set up a major incident public portal and contact centre to manage calls, collect any relevant additional information and direct people to other sources of support. If people are interested in looking at that, they can search online for the major incident public portal and select Kent Police and Operation Sandpiper. We know that this is distressing for many people, both the families and more widely.

Wider support can also be accessed through the Ministry of Justice Victim and Witness Information page, which provides links to local support according to postcode, the 24/7 Victim Support helpline and My Support Space, a platform providing many guides and tools and access to a 24/7 live chat function. The trust has worked closely with the police to put in place a comprehensive package, and we thank the NHS trust for the measures it has put in place. We also recognise that, as the noble Baroness said, all those working in the trust and wider health service are profoundly shaken by the nature of these offences. The trust has put support in place for affected staff.

The trust and NHS Resolution are considering the right approach to compensation, but that involves getting further legal advice. The trust will provide support to the families concerned. As we have said, it is also important that we understand what is happening.

The police have so far found evidence of 100 victims of the offences committed in the hospital mortuary and have been able to formally identify 81 victims. They are seeking to identify all the victims, as is appropriate. Specially trained family liaison officers have spoken to all the families of those identified to date.

It is important to make sure that this is investigated thoroughly, and I want to be careful not to pre-empt the inquiry’s findings. Under the current regulations, the Human Tissue Authority regulates licences and inspects organisations that run mortuaries where post-mortems are carried out. Mortuaries that do not carry out post-mortems may not need to have a licence from the Human Tissue Authority. It is the responsibility of the organisation running a mortuary licensed by the HTA to ensure that the HTA’s licensing standards are met, including those relating to security. It is also for the organisation running the mortuary to ensure that safety procedures are in place.

I was asked about the DBS regime. In July the Home Office announced an independent review of the disclosure and barring regime. The review will consider the adequacy of current arrangements for criminal record checks for jobs that entail contact with the deceased. Ministers are finalising arrangements for the review, and further details will be announced as soon as possible.

I apologise to noble Lords if I have not answered their questions. I hope I will be able to follow up with answers.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour 8:07 pm, 9th November 2021

My Lords, I am sure that the appointment of Sir Jonathan Michael will be very welcome; I have no doubt that he will do a very robust piece of work. My noble friend mentioned support for families, and the Minister made a number of comments about the support given, including care worker support and compensation. If families wish to appear before the inquiry, will the department consider making financial support available to those families in relation to legal advice, so that they can articulate their concerns before the inquiry?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I am afraid I am not able to answer the noble Lord’s question directly, because clearly there are some legal issues around it. I am sure he will understand if I try to find an answer and write to him.

Photo of Lord Brownlow of Shurlock Row Lord Brownlow of Shurlock Row Conservative

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former police officer, although it was some years ago. I warmly welcome the Statement made in the other place, particularly its tone in reference to the victims and those left behind. Among all those who have taken part in this horrendous episode, I pay particular tribute to the police and police authorities, particularly for the £1.5 million victim support package and the training and deployment of 150 family liaison officers. When does my noble friend the Minister, or the Secretary of State, expect the NHS England report to be made on the progress of measures? If he does not know at the moment, could he write to me?

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

As my noble friend anticipated, I am afraid I do not have a detailed answer. I am sorry; I wish I did have the answers, but I will write to him.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour

My Lords, the Minister has quite correctly said that Sir Jonathan Michael has great experience of the NHS. Sadly, it is in the nature of this shocking case that his inquiry will have to range more widely than the NHS. Will the Minister therefore suggest to Sir Jonathan that he consults the National Association of Funeral Directors? It has a lot of experience, through the guidance it has issued on access to mortuaries, and advice that it could give the inquiry. I think it would welcome consultation. We must do all we can to restrict access in mortuaries to only those people who have an essential reason to be there.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank the noble Lord for that suggestion. As far as I understand, the inquiry will be as wide ranging as it can be and wants to include input from as many people and stakeholders as possible who are affected by, or will be affected by, the implications of the investigation. There are already a lot of calls. A number of people have spoken to me today informally, for example, with a number of suggestions, making me recognise how much wider this goes. It is not just about the storage of bodies in hospitals but in other places, including funeral directors’ premises. I am sure that the suggestion will be considered, but I will confirm that.

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Non-affiliated

My Lords, I welcome the Statement and welcome the inquiry that is to be set up. I hope that lessons will be learned from it. The Minister mentioned the question of compensation and how legal advice was being sought in relation to that. I think that advice will indicate that the law is extremely complex in this area, unsurprisingly perhaps. Of course, it is also complex in the criminal area, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, pointed out.

On the question of civil compensation, there have already been certain stories to the effect that millions of pounds of compensation are going to be obtained. There is the likelihood, I suspect, of there being some great case—as there was, for example, in the Alder Hey body parts litigation, and I declare an interest as being one of the lawyers involved in that. I respectfully suggest that that is not something that will benefit very much all those affected by these dreadful events. I respectfully suggest to the Minister, for consideration by his department, that, rather than embark on long, complex and uncertain litigation, it would be wise to set up a scheme to provide some form of statutory compensation for a set amount which would be an appropriate recompense for these dreadful events.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank the noble Lord for that suggestion. As we are all aware, there is a wide range of experience across this House, and it is important that we draw on that when it comes to considering the terms and parameters of the inquiry. The trust and NHS Resolution are considering the right approach to compensation and, as the noble Lord acknowledged, that does involve getting further legal advice. The trust has been quite clear that it will provide support to the families concerned. One of the things that this Statement has brought out is the wide range of experience and the suggestions that have been made by noble Lords for helping the inquiry along. I welcome those suggestions and will feed them back into the department.

Photo of Lord Selkirk of Douglas Lord Selkirk of Douglas Conservative

Will the Minister very kindly pass on the condolences of this House to the families concerned? Will he accept that the presence of CCTV, as used by local authorities, can readily deter a great deal of crime, due to the fear of crimes being caught on camera? Pilot schemes have been tried out in Scotland and have been found to be very effective. I ask the Minister not to rule out the possibility of CCTV playing an increasing role against appalling crimes.

Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank my noble friend for that suggestion. In conversation today with my officials, as I was preparing for the response to this Statement, the issue of CCTV did come up. At the moment, it is clear that we do not want to draw any conclusions yet. The inquiry will be as wide as it possibly can be and will carefully consider such suggestions but also make sure that we are aware of the consequences of any suggestions, including possible unintended ones, and where there might be concerns about further use of CCTV. We have to make sure that we get the right balance. We know that, where CCTV has been deployed in the past, there have been concerns about civil liberties. That may or may not be relevant here, but we always have to be aware of concerns that, whenever the solution might appear simple to us, we understand the consequences, intended and unintended.