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Mortuary Facilities (Standards)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 27th October 2016.

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Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

On behalf of the Labour team, I commend Richard Lochhead for bringing this matter to the Parliament’s attention through his motion and the debate. I also express my condolences to Mr Whyte’s family, who are in the public gallery, for their loss and the undue distress that they faced as a result of the condition of Spynie mortuary.

Nobody should have to go through such an experience, and I praise the family for the work that they have undertaken at such a distressing time to try and secure changes to mortuary standards so that other families do not suffer a similar harrowing experience in the future.

Since becoming a member of the Parliament, I have had the privilege of working closely with healthcare and social care professionals who dedicate their working lives to ensuring the comfort and dignity of those they care for. Compassion does not stop at the end of somebody’s life. Mortuaries and post-mortem facilities serve a practical function but, for some, they are the last place where they see their loved ones. As such, they hold a unique place in a person’s grieving process. It is therefore imperative that the condition of mortuaries is such that the dignity of the deceased is upheld and the distress that families face is minimised. That was not the case for the Whyte family.

If anything positive can come from the Whyte family’s experience—which, as Mrs Whyte told the BBC, also seems to be the experience of families in other parts of Scotland—it is the fact that this story has brought to our attention the shocking fact that there is no specific inspection regime and there are no guidelines for inspections of mortuaries in Scotland.

As members will be aware, under the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008, mortuaries can be provided by local authorities or health boards, or by a combination of the two. The standards for the management of hospital post-mortem examinations include standards for hospital staff supporting bereaved families. Specifically, the relevant standard states that the staff working at the facility must ensure that

“The deceased, and people who have been bereaved, are treated with dignity and respect, and in accordance with their wishes.”

Although such standards are welcome, they appear to be specific only to hospital post-mortems, and not mortuary provision across the board. That needs to change. We need to have standards for all mortuaries on treating the deceased and their families with dignity. Standards must also take into account factors such as the faith, cultural values and beliefs of both the deceased and the bereaved.

Scottish health planning note 20 provides particular guidance on the elements that should be considered in the building of mortuaries. Simple considerations such as ambient lighting and thoughtful decoration of waiting areas are suggested, and such additions to all mortuaries would be welcome. The problem at the moment, as highlighted by the Whyte family, is that such standards are not enforceable in existing mortuaries, as inspection procedures do not exist. That cannot continue.

I welcome the proposals from NHS Grampian for improving Spynie mortuary, but such improvements should not have to come on the back of the unacceptable personal experiences of those who have lost loved ones. Facilities that are fit for purpose must be the norm, and minimum standards have to be put in place and properly enforced. I therefore welcome Richard Lochhead’s motion and echo the Whyte family’s calls for regular inspections of mortuaries in every part of Scotland to ensure that minimum standards are enforced.

I finish with Mrs Whyte’s comments, which I read on the BBC website. She said:

“Families who are suffering in difficult and often tragic circumstances should be shown much more compassion than what we found ... It is vital that at such a difficult time, families should have access to a mortuary that is fit for purpose where families can feel comforted and where the deceased are treated with dignity and respect.”

I could not agree more, and Mr Lochhead and the Whyte family will have the full support of Labour in seeking to achieve just that.