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Mr. Milburn: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Mrs. Willis and all the work done by her national committee. I have had the pleasure of meeting her and her fellow committee members, and she and others have helped to contribute to the chief medical officer's recommendations which I announced to the House today.
The hon. Gentleman is broadly right in what he says about practices generally. Practices that might have been considered acceptable in the 1950s or 1960s are not considered acceptable nowadays, for the simple reason that we live in a very different era. Public and patient expectations are very different. Systems, ways of working and, I think, the whole culture of the health service have lagged behind; it needs to catch up, and it needs to catch up quickly.
I think that we should be optimistic. Discussions with the medical profession--whether with the British Medical Association, which welcomes some of the changes that we seek, or the Royal College of Pathologists--have shown an enormous willingness on the profession's part to adapt to the new environment in which we all find ourselves. In many ways, doctors in some parts of the country have been leading the changes, and I pay tribute to them. We must build on that, and ensure that the appalling practices that took place at Alder Hey are not repeated.
I will gladly consider the basis for the commission. We need to think about that. I think it right for the commission to be given a specific job to do in the first place--and it will be an extremely difficult job: make no mistake about it. We shall then need to think about whether the commission should continue in a permanent form thereafter.
Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby): I understand that at present no criminal sanctions can be used against those who have perpetrated what most of us would regard as crimes. Would my right hon. Friend ensure that any legislation that is introduced--before the
How does my right hon. Friend think that the injustices done to bereaved parents can be addressed? Is his Department floating any ideas for a compensation scheme? May I impress the urgency on him? Often, in cases of emergency, the House has managed to pass legislation in a single day when there has been no opposition. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider the possibility of passing legislation before the election.
Mr. Milburn: In regard to urgent legislation, we shall certainly discuss with the Opposition parties, through the usual channels, how best we can make rapid progress. I take the point made by the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) that it is important for us to get these things right, but there is clearly great urgency in this case.
What my hon. Friend said about criminal sanctions is absolutely right. I understand that, under the Human Tissue Act, the coroner's rules of 1984 and the Coroners Act 1988, although the taking of human tissue or organs is illegal, we have no criminal sanctions. That gap in the law must now be filled, and we shall present proposals in both the short and, as I have said, the medium term to correct those deficiencies.
On the two occasions on which I met parents in my office--and indeed last night, when I spoke to Mr. Ed Bradley, who is the chairman of the Pity II Group of parents--the compensation issue generally was not raised. People will have different views on the issue. Some parents will feel very strongly about it, whereas others will not. However, I think that there is consensus on what the parents really want. They want an apology and an explanation and to know that those who are responsible for what happened to them and their families will be brought to book. Above all, they want to know that it will not happen again, and that action will be taken quickly to prevent it from happening again. We are committed to taking that action.
Although I understand the Secretary of State's anger, may I ask him to reflect on three matters? I should like, first, to underline a point that has already been made. Probably because I am a coward at heart, I do not want someone knocking at my door to discuss parts of my daughter. I simply do not want wounds to be reopened.
Secondly, will the Secretary of State keep in mind the difference between the use of parts of a dead child and the way in which they are obtained? In the anguish of the moment, I forgot to ask whether any parts of my daughter could be used to help others. I can only say that I wish that someone had asked me.
Thirdly, will the Secretary of State think very carefully about the compensation issue? The bottom line is that the only thing that every bereaved parent really wants is his or her child back. To maintain one's sanity, one has to accept that that cannot be. I speak with some feeling when I say that the pursuit of compensation can all too easily prolong the grief.
As I said to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), parents absolutely have a right to know, if that is what they want. Equally, they have a right not to know. We have to respect the views of the individual parent. I certainly intend that the commission should operate in such a manner that it enshrines respect for parents and for relatives as I have described, precisely to avoid the type of situation that we had at Alder Hey not only once, but, sadly, on very many occasions.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Not only as a Liverpool MP, but, more important, as the uncle of one of the mothers who has been traumatised by these events, may I tell my right hon. Friend how welcome his statement has been--not only for the openness of his account and the range of his conclusions; but for the expedition with which he is seeking to implement the necessary action? In the course of his inquiries, has he been given any reason to be concerned about allegations that the hospital sold live tissue to pharmaceutical companies? If so, could he elaborate on that?
Mr. Milburn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. On the issue of the sale of organs taken from live children at Alder Hey, it is our understanding that there was such a practice at the hospital in the early 1990s. We suspect that there was such a practice also at other hospitals across the country. Thymus glands were taken without the consent of parents and handed to a particular pharmaceutical company, to produce drugs that help to avoid the rejection of transplanted organs. It therefore clearly had medical and clinical benefits, but the central issue for the House and for parents is that the organs were sold without consent.
In my view, the principle and issue of consent must come first. I assure my hon. Friend that we will issue very clear guidance to the national health service about the matter, and the statutory code of practice that I mentioned in my statement will cover precisely the set of circumstances that he described.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The Secretary of State's emphasis on informed consent is entirely welcome, but will he accept that it is likely to require NHS hospital trusts to invest a great deal of time and effort in handling individual cases sensitively? Will he give attention to two particular matters? First, if a mother is recovering from a difficult confinement or emergency procedures, will he ensure that no consent is sought from her at that time? Secondly, would it not be highly desirable if both parents involved had to give consent jointly and subscribe to it together? I recognise that it may be difficult to make that a legal requirement, but it would remove any question of subsequent recrimination.
Mr. Milburn: In respect of matters of timing and pressure on hospitals, it is true that changes in practice will be needed. Many hospitals have changed their practice, and the chief medical officer issued interim guidance to the national health service in March last year
The NHS faces a choice. We can go on as before, pretending that we can live in the previous century; or we can bring practices up to date, so that they are more relevant for this century. That is no choice at all: the national health service has to change.
On the specific issue of consent, there are profoundly difficult issues that we must get right. That is why the code of practice will involve consultation--with the medical profession, parents' organisations and bereaved parents--so that we can get right the practicalities of informed consent, and avoid some of the problems that the hon. Gentleman described.