UNDER fire city leaders have revealed they will appoint a senior legal expert to independently probe the Mortonhall ashes scandal – after an initial council report into the affair sparked fury.
Chief executive Sue Bruce said she would this week confirm the appointment of a “person with legal experience, and with no connection to this or any other local authority” to lead the probe.
They will be tasked with finding out why for 45 years parents were told there would be no ashes from a baby’s cremation and why when ashes were retrieved they were buried by staff at the Howdenhall Road facility instead of being returned. The investigation will also look at what advice was given by the crematorium to funeral directors and hospitals and whether Mortonhall kept accurate records of what happened to the ashes – particularly those of babies stillborn before 24 weeks.
The decision comes just days after the council called in independent auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers to examine the crematorium’s records from 1967 to the present day.
While the move was welcomed by the charity that revealed the scandal, Sands Lothians, parents today hit out at the council’s initial report, carried out by head of schools and community services Mike Rosendale. In his report, which recommended appointing an independent investigator, Mr Rosendale said there was “no evidence of any inappropriate or insensitive practice” when he interviewed “relevant existing and former council and crematorium staff”.
Dorothy Maitland, operations manager of Sands Lothians, said the report had left grieving parents infuriated.
She said: “Obviously we are pleased the council has seen fit to bring in an independent person to investigate properly, whomever that may be, but to suggest that nothing wrong happened, or nothing insensitive took place just serves to make all of us affected by this even angrier, and confirm that what’s really needed is a public inquiry, otherwise we’re concerned the whole thing could be a whitewash.
“The council seems to be pointing to an audit carried out at Mortonhall in 2005 by the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities, which didn’t identify any issues. But did they watch as a baby was cremated and then discover what happened to the ashes? Did they hear them give out advice about ashes to bereaved parents? I doubt it.
“I’m quite sure the staff working there now do their best and have changed the practices which were going on before, but that doesn’t mean there was nothing inappropriate going on in the past. Ms Maitland, right, who has discussed the scandal with Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, said another member of Sands Lothians’ management committee, Ros Lowrie – whose stillborn daughter Eve was cremated at Mortonhall five years ago – had written to Mr Rosendale with a list of questions which his report “didn’t answer”.
She added: “Of course, many of those may well be answered by an independent investigator doing the job, but if not, then the only route left open is a full public inquiry.
“We need to get to the bottom of what the crematorium was doing, and what it was telling funeral directors.
“There’s a lot of concern about boxes being ticked on cremation forms which might suggest parents didn’t want ashes, but if you’re told there are none then I would suppose the funeral director would tick it automatically. That is the sort of thing that has to change.”
About 150 families have contacted the council since the Mortonhall scandal first broke in December – and eight have since made complaints to Lothian and Borders police.
All the families are being written to by the council to explain the next stage of the investigation, with another report expected to be published in March.
City environment leader Councillor Lesley Hinds said: “My understanding about Mike Rosendale’s report is that the staff he could speak to are upset about what is happening, and from them he could discern nothing going on that was inappropriate or insensitive. “It’s not a blanket statement that nothing wrong ever happened, we are not making any assumptions either way.
“But that is why we need an independent investigator to come in, someone with a legal background and an analytical mind, to find out the full facts of what went on in the past, in conjunction with the audit. And we are also setting up a working group with Sands and crematorium bodies to ensure information given to parents is correct.”
Meanwhile it emerged two north-east families are considering making a criminal complaint against Aberdeen City Council in relation to the disposal of their children’s ashes,
The families have been in contact with a solicitor regarding practices at the council-run Hazlehead Crematorium.
US CONSUL SEEKS TALKS
THE American Consul General to Scotland is set to talk to the council on behalf of a senior US diplomat and his ex-wife who have been caught up in the tragedy.
Zoja Bazarnic has contacted Madelaine Cave, who now lives in North Berwick, and her ex-husband, Donald Holm, a former US Consul General in Edinburgh who was responsible for returning the remains of the American victims of the Lockerbie bombing to their families.
The Evening News revealed yesterday that Mrs Cave, above, and Mr Holm, who lives in California, were writing to the Consulate and the US Embassy in London to ask for their help in discovering what happened to their daughter Meghan’s ashes.
Meghan Holm died at 15 days old when the family were stationed at The Hague, but she was brought back to Edinburgh to be cremated at Mortonhall as the couple wanted to scatter her ashes on the Lammermuir Hills. Instead, they were told by a member of the crematorium staff that Meghan would just “vaporise”.
Today, Mrs Cave said: “Zoja Bazarnic spoke to both Meghan’s father and myself yesterday. She is gathering information.”