Clause 40 - Criminal justice purposes

Human Tissue Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 5th February 2004.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

Subsection (1) describes

''the prevention or detection of crime, or . . . the conduct of a prosecution'' as purposes of examinations and the removal of body parts. As Committee members might know, I spoke on Second Reading about a long-term concern of mine: the removal of brains of criminals and people generally. I am led to understand that the brain is removed in an extremely high percentage of cases when there is a pathologist post-mortem examination. I do not understand why.

Photo of Richard Taylor Richard Taylor Independent, Wyre Forest

I should point out that for an effective post-mortem examination in which the brain has to be examined, it must be removed in toto because it must be fixed before it can be sectioned for examination. Removal of the brain is implicit in a post mortem that requires examination of the brain.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

I appreciate that point, and I understand that a relatively high proportion of such post mortems would include brain removal, especially if people had had brain-related deaths. However, my understanding is that the brain is removed in about 45 per cent. of all post mortems. That seems excessively high.

I want to concentrate on the criminal justice aspect. At the time of Ronnie Kray's death, I read a report that his brain was removed and that he was buried without it. That caused a lot of offence to his family. Fred West also had his brain removed. We do not know what has happened in the case of Harold Shipman—I cannot ask because that is all sub judice at present. Fred West and Harold Shipman both hung themselves, so I do not understand why, in those circumstances, their brains should be removed.

I received an answer to my question from the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who said:

''Under the Coroners Act 1988 and Coroners Rules 1984, a coroner undertaking a coroner's post mortem examination may remove and retain any organs or tissue that he/she deems relevant to the cause of death on his/her own authority alone. However, any organ or tissue removed in such cases may not be used for any other purpose unless separate authorisation is obtained.''—[Official Report, 4 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 485W.]

That answer was welcome. However, I wonder whether coroners are qualified to make that decision. It seems that, particularly in the prison system, the process is driven by the pathologists, who want to undertake brain removal. The pathologists seem to be setting the trends.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

The hon. Gentleman has done the Committee a great service by raising an important point. I suspect that the answer is that the pathologist conducting the coroner's post mortem has a series of tick boxes and that the process is very didactic. I suspect that the removal, weighing, fixing and

examination of the brain are part of that list. A more reasoned approach to the examination of those organs might be appropriate.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head—I think that the removal of brains is done automatically, as a matter of routine. That should not be the case. Whether for criminals or members of the public, brains should be removed only if there is proof or suspicion that a brain illness or defect has caused death.

I received an interesting e-mail from Caroline Wheeler of the Sunday Mercury, a Birmingham newspaper. She says:

''I am a journalist from the Sunday Mercury . . . I recently read an article in the Sunday Mirror, where the report claimed that bids were coming in from scientists across both sides of the Atlantic to buy Robert Maudsley's brain after he died.''

Robert Maudsley has not died—he was very ill, but did not die. He was an axe killer who—ironically—threatened to eat someone's brain. Ms Wheeler told me that bids of about £25,000 were submitted for his brain. There is therefore a bit of a market building up in criminal brains.

In an earlier debate, I referred to the notion—it is still very prevalent—of a criminal gene. I understand that that notion has been discredited because there is no evidence for it, but it is still prevalent among some people in criminology and anatomy. We do not want that sort of market to build up.

In Britain, we used to hang, draw and quarter criminals. The criminals whom I have named—as well as many others—were vicious, horrible people, but we do not want to go back to those days. We do not want their brains to be taken out automatically either—perhaps as a sort of punishment. We should have respect for bodies, even those of criminals.

I share the suspicion of the hon. Member for Westbury that the post-mortem process is carried out according to a tick-box system. I ask the Under-Secretary to examine that to see whether we can improve the system so that brains will not be removed automatically if there is no reason to do so. I seek those improvements not just for criminals—their treatment was my main reason for raising the matter—but for members of the public.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I assure him and more importantly, Mr. Maudsley, that there is legislation covering the removal of people's brains before they are dead.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

But will his brain be sold after his death?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health

I assure my hon. Friend that it will not be possible to sell organs. There may be good reason in the criminal justice system for it to be appropriate to look at the brain, even when it is clear that the direct cause of death was something else. My hon. Friend mentioned hanging, and it may be clear that the person died as a result of asphyxiation through hanging. However, coroners might legitimately want to ask why the person hanged himself, whether it was as a result of a mental

disorder—which clearly cannot be gauged from a physical examination—or whether he was toxicologically induced into a fit of depression that led him to hang himself. The criminal justice system might need answers to those questions even though, on the face of it, it is clear that the person hanged himself.

One should bear in mind that a coroner's autopsy is for information for the judicial process, and that somebody may be charged with an offence in connection with someone's death. A person has a right to know that somebody will have considered carefully all the facts surrounding his death, and will have all the answers to questions—even questions that did not immediately seem obvious ones to ask. They may well become relevant questions in the context of a defence against an accusation connected with the death.

I understand my hon. Friend's point, and I absolutely agree that people's brains should not be removed for absolutely no reason. Brains can be removed only if doing so is directly relevant to the criminal justice system, or the family has given consent. It should not be done on a routine basis. It certainly should not be done on the basis of anybody offering to purchase parts from people whom they think might have special characteristics.

It is clear that the Act will allow post mortems for the purposes of the criminal justice system only in the circumstances of the exceptions mentioned in the clause. The only exceptions that we have built into the legislation are occasions on which it is necessary for certain procedures to take place outside licensed premises, such as at the scene of a crime. Clearly, scenes of crimes cannot be licensed premises, so that exception has been provided for. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government and the Committee agree with him that we must not allow the routine removal of body parts for purposes outside the criminal justice system or for unnecessary purposes. The Bill will achieve that when it is enacted.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 40 ordered to stand part of the Bill.