Mortonhall: Senior QC’s ashes probe may lack evidence
The former Lord Advocate, who is now Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, has agreed to return to Edinburgh to conduct her enquiries.
But it was admitted today that it was possible she might not be able to speak to former crematorium staff and management who are no longer employed by the council.
However council sources said they hoped “that with her reputation she would be regarded as independent and prove persuasive enough to ensure
everyone involved would feel able to give information”.
A special email address will also be launched so that written evidence can be sent to the QC.
The news of her appointment has been welcomed by Sands Lothian, the bereavement charity which uncovered the scandal.
It discovered that for decades parents of stillborn babies and those which died at days old, were told there would be no remains after cremation, yet their ashes were later buried in the crematorium grounds.
Operations manager at the charity, Dorothy Maitland said: “I am quite happy with this decision. I do not know a lot about her, but from what I’ve read and heard she seems an eminently suitable, and independent, person to carry out this investigation.”
She added: “I hope that everyone she asks to give information will do so, so that the inquiry can be as complete as possible, and help put
parents’ minds at rest.”
Dame Elish will launch her inquiry as soon as Lothian and Borders Police confirms its actions on the 19 complaints against the council-run crematorium.
Today she refused to comment on her appointment, a spokeswoman saying it would be more “appropriate” to do so at a later date.
The announcement that such a senior Scottish legal figure had been invited to conduct the inquiry was also welcomed by Councillor Lesley Hinds,
convener of the council’s transport and environment committee which last week agreed that an independent investigator should be appointed.
It is understood that Dame Elish was council chief executive Sue Bruce’s first choice for the role and had accepted at the weekend.
Today Cllr Hinds said: “I don’t think we could have got anyone better or more experienced to carry out this task. We are extremely pleased that she has been able to fit it into her workload and find days when she can come to Edinburgh to speak to people.
“We feel as a council we have moved very quickly on this and it is my understanding that the police intend to make a decision quickly as well so Dame Elish’s enquiries can begin.”
She added: “Given the work involved it will likely be April before we receive any report - and she will also have the PricewaterhouseCoopers
audit of the crematorium’s records to add into her investigation.”
Asked about whether Dame Elish could compell former staff to talk to her, Cllr Hinds said: “She will speak to anyone she deems it’s necessary to talk to in the course of the investigation, including current council staff.
“It would certainly be my hope that former staff will also agree to talk to her - even if they wish to have a lawyer present. I am sure they want to give their side of the story.”
The terms of her inquiry include assessing and reviewing the initial findings of a report by Mike Rosendale, head of the schools and community services and reviewing the PwC audit of the records to establish whether there is evidence of failures in professional
standards and/or management practices.
She will also review the council’s arrangements for communicating with all 150 parents who have registered an enquiry and assess the arrangements to review current policy and practice.
The communication process between Mortonhall, NHS Lothian, funeral directors and bereaved parents will also be scrutinised as well as
national crematoria policies and “any other relevant matters”.
Councillor Hinds added: “Although she now works in England, with new technology I don’t see that as a drawback as people can video
conference and of course email. We will be setting up a special email account so people can write to her directly with information which could be of interest.
“However she will be coming to Edinburgh for some days to speak to people directly, and we hope to have some focus groups of parents for her to meet, and no doubt there will be a lot of technical and legal detail for her to get to grips with.
“It may take some time, but we want to be sure we have all the facts and that people are satisfied that the investigation is thorough.”
KEZ CALLS FOR HOLYROOD INQUIRY
A LOTHIANS MSP is calling for a Scottish Parliament inquiry to be launched in the wake of the Mortonhall ashes scandal.
Labour’s Kezia Dugdale said she hoped Holyrood’s health committee would agree to look into the appropriate policies surrounding cremation of stillborn babies and those who survive only briefly.
She said: “What is the fit and proper way to deal with baby deaths in 21st-century Scotland? What should parents be entitled to expect? There is such a huge variation in how the issue is handled.”
Ms Dugdale also called on the Scottish Government to help fund Sands Lothian. She said the counselling and support service – which costs £95,000 a year to run – was struggling to cope with demand at a time when they had been forced to cancel fundraising events to concentrate on helping the Mortonhall families.