Mortonhall ashes scandal: MSPs pass new crematation laws

New legislation on cremations, aimed at ensuring the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal will never be repeated, has been passed by the Scottish Parliament.

Mortonhall Crematorium. 

Picture: Neil Hanna
Mortonhall Crematorium. Picture: Neil Hanna

MSPs gave final approval to the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Bill, which was brought forward after the Evening News revealed how crematorium staff had secretly buried the ashes of babies for decades at Mortonhall without their parents’ knowledge. Similar practices were later discovered in other parts of the country too.

The new law takes forward many of the recommendations of Lord Bonomy’s Infant Cremation Commission, set up in the wake of the scandal.

It introduces a legal definition of “ashes” and requires the relevant authorities, including health authorities, to keep burial and cremation records indefinitely and ensure details of the burial and cremation of stillborn babies are recorded.

It strengthens the application process for cremation, requiring the applicant to clearly specify what should be done with ashes and also requiring cremation authorities to record details of cremations on a central register.

Public Health Minister Maureen Watt said there was broad agreement on the need for the legislation and its key provisions.

She said: “This Bill will make important and much-needed changes to burial and cremation processes, and will help to ensure that those processes are easy to understand, reliable and fit for purpose.

“The current legislation continues to reflect older and very different expectations about death and what should be done with human remains.

“It is right that we should put in place legislation that reflects modern Scotland and supports our expectations about the respect and dignity with which human remains should be treated. I believe that this Bill will do that.”

She said women affected by a loss would have the opportunity at every step to make decisions about their wishes in relation to remains.

The Bill puts in place a clear process for what should be done with ashes, with cremation authorities placed under a duty to carry out the applicant’s wishes, Ms Watt added.

Edinburgh Northern & Leith Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm backed the Bill and said he was satisfied it put women at the centre of decision making in relation to ashes.

But he said there were still issues which had not been dealt with. “An issue that was raised by the SANDS Lothians parents was that of the training of staff, which is crucial to how staff relate to parents, mothers in particular, in such situations. They recommended there should be specialist roles in midwifery, maternity and bereavement services, and I hope that the Government will consider that.”

The Bill includes provisions to give Scottish Ministers the powers to introduce a licensing scheme for funeral directors, but the Government has made clear it does not plan to use these immediately, despite calls from parents’ groups to do so.