National commission to tackle Scotland’s ashes scandal

Mortonhall Crematorium was found to have buried babies' ashes in secret for decades. Picture: Bill Henry/TSPL
Mortonhall Crematorium was found to have buried babies' ashes in secret for decades. Picture: Bill Henry/TSPL
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A NATIONAL commission is to be established to investigate the unfolding scandal surrounding the disposal of babies’ ashes without their parents’ permission across Scotland.

• Independent commission will investigate failings and come up with proposals to ensure new approach is implemented

• In December it emerged that Edinburgh’s Mortonhall Crematorium had secretly buried babies’ ashes for decades

The Scottish Government announced that new laws will be introduced after the commission reports later this year to ensure a regime more “sensitive” to families is implemented.

But parents caught up in the tragedy said the move does not go far enough and have vowed to fight on for a full public inquiry into the row.

It emerged in December that Edinburgh’s Mortonhall Crematorium had secretly buried hundreds of babies’ ashes for decades.

Further cases have now emerged in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Falkirk and police are investigating whether criminal offences have been committed.

Public health minister Michael Matheson yesterday announced plans for an independent commission looking into the “practices and policies” which led to the current situation.

But the commission is unlikely to go into individual cases and the government was accused of a U-turn because Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had previously said that it was down to local councils to hold their own inquiries.

Mr Matheson insisted yesterday that councils should still investigate concerns at local crematoriums and urged Glasgow to undertake an inquiry after complaints that babies’ ashes were being scattered without parents’ permission.

“Losing a child is an extremely traumatic experience and it is absolutely crucial that families are treated sensitively and given the support and information they need,” he told MSPs yesterday.

“I believe that the recent cases of the treatment of ashes of very young children demonstrate that the existing legislation and current industry practice is falling short of what the public deserves. I’m establishing an independent commission to examine the policies and practices in place for handling ashes and cremated remains.”

The commission will make recommendations by the end of the year to inform “new legislation and guidance on cremation and burials”.

However, campaigners said that establishing a commission to investigate the scandal did not go far enough.

Willie Reid, chairman of the Mortonhall Ashes Action Committee, said: “We welcome the fact the government are taking notice, but it’s two steps short of what’s required.

“We need a public inquiry because this commission is not going to look into individual cases, so individual parents are not going to get answers.

“We welcome the change in legislation, but parents have to be involved in that. They need to know their experiences and hear their voice – what went wrong and what needs to be done in the future to make it right.”

Phyllis Little, 53, did not receive any ashes from the cremation of her 11-month-old son in 1995 and said yesterday that she is still “wary” about announcements by the authorities.

“You thought back then that you were somehow protected by laws over these things but it turns out that it’s even worse than we thought – and different depending where you were,” she said. “If they can tell you that there aren’t any ashes, and there are ashes, that’s unbelievable.

“It’s got to be looked into, what went on, for the future – but how are you going to get back people’s trust?”

Former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini was appointed to lead an investigation into the disposal of baby ashes at Mortonhall. It is thought that the practice was carried out from the 1960s until 2011.

This month, it was revealed that Aberdeen did not return ashes for babies up to 18 months old, while two babies’ ashes had been disposed of secretly in Glasgow. Another case has been reported in Falkirk. Police have received 30 complaints relating to cases where it is claimed that the ashes of deceased babies were disposed of without the knowledge of parents.

Dorothy Maitland, of stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands which helped uncover the scandal, discovered in December that the ashes of her daughter Kaelen were interred in the ground at Mortonhall – 26 years after she was told there would be nothing for her to collect after the funeral.

She said: “The problem is that parents who don’t know where their babies’ ashes are, don’t know what happened to their baby, they need that information. In my opinion a public inquiry is the only thing that will satisfy these parents.”

Labour’s health spokesman Jackie Baillie described the commission as a “partial U-turn” by the Scottish Government.

She added: “The scandal of the disposal of ashes isn’t just limited to one crematorium. It is clear that poor practice and standards existed across Scotland. The Scottish Government needs to set up an inquiry which looks at what happened and gives parents a voice and an opportunity to be heard.”

But Liberal Democrat health spokesman Jim Hume said the creation of a commission puts the “needs and wishes of bereaved parents first”.