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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the balanced way in which he presented his statement, because there is a need for perspective. Nothing would be worse than blowing up the tragedy and thus creating a general climate of fear and anxiety. That would only make more difficult the complex but necessary work of those engaged in the research from which we may all ultimately benefit. The work is necessarily gruesome and we need to maintain a sense of realism about it. I am therefore grateful for the tone of the statement.
I want to concentrate on two specific issues. The first relates to Professor van Velzen and the second to the wider use of retained tissues and organs. It is clear from the statement and the report that Professor van Velzen lied and broke the law. He must answer for that. Is he being investigated elsewhere for similar reasons? If so, is that happening in the United Kingdom or another country? Our regulations must ensure that no doctor guilty of a disciplinary breach can work in the United Kingdom. It should be a statutory duty for doctors to report to their employers, as a matter of routine, any disciplinary investigation that is being carried out into their work in this country or any other country.
The Secretary of State said that the question in the minds of parents and others was that of how Professor van Velzen had got away with his activities for so long. I would add that a question in the minds of most decent people would be, "Why did he do it?" Most of us completely fail to understand the thought processes or motives of such a man.
The taking of organs or tissue, even with consent, should be accompanied by a clear explanation of the purpose for which they are being taken. I hope that the Secretary of State will include such a provision in his proposed legislative change. The Opposition would fully support such a change in the law. We must also question the role of the universities, which should maintain a proper supervisory brief over those whom they appoint to positions as sensitive as the one held by Professor van Velzen.
The Secretary of State is right to say that it is essential that neither the report nor any exchanges in the House should affect the reputation of Alder Hey hospital or its staff, who carry out dedicated, quality work for which they deserve thanks and praise.
Turning to the wider picture, we fully agree with the concept of informed consent. As the Secretary of State said, most parents would agree, if asked, to allow tissue and organs to be used in research for the benefit of others. Some, of course, would not. In that sense, the special commission under Margot Brazier will have a difficult task that will call for great sensitivity.
It is essential that when parents want organs returned, the organs should be returned all at one time, and not on a number of occasions. We must also accept that some parents will not want organs returned, and that some will not even want to know about the retention of the organs of their children, as that could reopen many painful emotional wounds for them. Their views must be respected.
I welcome the proposed review of the coroner system, especially after the Shipman case, which raised even more questions about the system's operation. I also welcome the proposed code of conduct for the pharmaceutical industry, but I suggest to the Secretary of State that it should go further and cover all third parties to whom organs or tissues may be given, especially if money is to change hands. That should apply whether the third parties work inside or outside the national health service.
We fully agree with the need to reform the Human Tissue Act 1961, and I ask the Secretary of State to consider, first, what parallels there might be with the way that tissues are dealt with when individuals donate their bodies for anatomical dissection for medical education purposes, and secondly, whether those rules also need to be amended.
The Opposition will give every support to any legislative change that the Government intend to introduce. If the Government can achieve those changes by means of the Health and Social Care Bill currently passing through Parliament, they would have every support from the Opposition for its speedy passage. It would be ridiculous for both the main parties to approach a general election promising the same changes to legislation, when we could bring about that legislative change imminently.
This matter concerns treating the living and the dead with dignity and respect. We welcome and encourage research--including that involving the use of organs and tissue from the deceased--because we can all gain from it. However, we all lose if such research is not carried out in a climate of decency and respect.
On his specific question about Professor van Velzen, the House is probably aware that van Velzen is under investigation in Canada for his activities there. There is evidence that medical records were taken from this country and that they ended up in Canada. There is also evidence that van Velzen retained animal and human organs, which he stored in a furniture container in Canada. The Canadian authorities are currently investigating that case, and a copy of the report will be passed not only to the regulatory bodies in this country but to the medical regulatory bodies in Canada, Holland and other European Union countries.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the need to ensure clear explanations of post-mortem procedures, and of the real scientific and medical benefits of being able to conduct research on organs and tissue. That is important, and we all have a job of work to do in that regard. We must ensure that the public--particularly relatives faced with horrendous decisions soon after a loved one has died--are better informed of what a post-mortem entails and of what the advantages and disadvantages are. There is a job of public education that we will need to undertake. As I said in my statement, there is also a job of work to do to ensure that medical training procedures and systems are changed.
On the return of organs, it is extremely important that the commission--which, incidentally, is operating in shadow form and will come into full being in April with, I hope, the agreement of the House--learn the lessons of
The hon. Gentleman also made another important point. People have a right to know, should they want to take up that right, whether organs have been retained. They also have a right not to know. The commission must enshrine that principle. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's offer of support, but, on the feasibility of amending the Health and Social Care Bill, I am advised--we have checked this--that it is not possible to use the Bill to achieve the legislative changes that we want to make to the Human Tissue Act 1961. As soon as possible, however, we shall seek another legislative opportunity to do precisely that.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): Will the Secretary of State allow me to express a couple of views that families on the Wirral have asked me to put forward? First, they stress that parents who lose their children never get over it; the best they can do is live with it. The events that my right hon. Friend described make it much more difficult for them to live with the death of their children as other parents might. Secondly, they do not want to appear to be luddites. They are not against research, but when research might be carried out, they are anxious that parents should be key players in deciding whether it should proceed, so I am sure that they will draw great satisfaction from my right hon. Friend's statement that he intends that parents should not only be involved, but should be the key decision makers.
Mr. Milburn: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for those remarks. He is right. In my dealings with the Pity II organisation, which represents some Alder Hey parents, and the National Committee on Organ Retention, which represents parents throughout the country who have faced such a situation, I have been most impressed by how movingly they say that, had they been given the opportunity, they would of course gladly have donated their child's organs to help another child. Some would not, however, which is the important point. Donation has to be based on the consent of the parent or the relative. Tragically in this case, the opportunity to give or withhold consent was never offered to the parents at Alder Hey.
Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon): The Secretary of State will be aware that I have been involved in this issue for some time--since parents in my constituency discovered that their children had been victims at Bristol. My constituent Mrs. Michaela Willis became the national chair of the organisation representing parents. On behalf of them all, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, his blunt acknowledgement of the seriousness of these problems, and his apology on behalf of the NHS for the great wrong that has been done and the grief felt as a result of it. That represents a marked contrast with the reaction of hospital authorities when questions were first asked.
The Secretary of State rightly condemned a particular individual, but how widespread has such practice been throughout the country? By today's standards, would we not consider the typical attitude to be arrogance belonging to a different era, not to a modern health service that treats
On two specific points, I urge the Secretary of State to consider whether Professor Brazier's commission ought to be more permanent than he implied and whether an independent body should specifically be charged with on-going consideration of all such issues rather than examining problems that have arisen in the past.
Secondly, if we are to expect doctors--as I am sure we are--to sit down and spend far more time patiently going through the benefits and the issues with parents and other relatives, that will obviously have considerable resource implications. Will there be someone with expertise in each hospital? There is no doubt that if these matters are handled correctly, in the vast majority of cases parents will see the benefits and will want to feel that something can be learned from the deaths of their children.