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18 Apr 2007 : Column 301

Post Mortems (Nuclear Industry)

12.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a short statement on the examination of tissue taken from some individuals who had worked in the nuclear industry and who died between November 1962 and August 1991. Having regard to the feelings of the families of those concerned and because it is in the public interest, I want to provide the House with the information available from British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, which operates the Sellafield site where the examinations were carried out. I shall then set out how I intend to proceed with the matter.

Most of the employees concerned worked at Sellafield, but one individual worked at the Capenhurst nuclear site in Cheshire, and had transferred from Sellafield. There are data, but not medical records, at Sellafield relating to an employee at the Springfields nuclear site in Lancashire and to a further six who worked at Aldermaston. BNFL, which holds the relevant medical records, tells me that to date it has been able to identify 65 cases in which tissue was taken from individuals and analysed for the radionuclide content of organs.

It is important to tell the House about the limited nature of the records that are held by BNFL. They are medical records, which show what analysis was done on organs removed following post mortem examination. Because they are medical records that dealt with the analysis carried out at Sellafield, they do not provide an audit trail that would show in every case who asked for such an examination, under what authority and for what purpose; nor do they disclose whether the appropriate consent from the next of kin was received. Some records contain more information than others, but at this stage it is simply not clear what procedures were followed in every case.

From the information that I have, I can tell the House that 23 such requests for further examination and analysis were made following a coroner’s inquest. A further 33 requests appear to follow a coroner’s post mortem. Three requests were made associated with legal proceedings, and one request was made by an individual prior to death. Therefore, it is assumed that in the majority of these cases requests were made to help establish the cause of death in the normal way. In many cases, that would be part of the coroner’s inquiry, but we cannot be sure of that because there is not an audit trail to establish that as a fact. A further single request was made following a biopsy of a living individual. In respect of a further four cases, I understand that the records do not record by what mechanism the request for the analysis was made. Clearly, it is important to establish why these requests were made and for what purpose. It is also clear that the data obtained from these examinations have been used in other studies that were subsequently published. One of the questions that therefore arise is whether it was appropriate to use the data gathered for that purpose.

It follows from what I have said that the records held by BNFL do not disclose whether the next of kin knew
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of the examinations and analysis. That needs to be established. Most cases appear to have followed a coroner’s request. It is therefore possible that in some cases there was such knowledge, but it is not at all clear that even if the next of kin had known about the analysis they would have been aware that the data gathered were then to be used as part of a wider research study. However, it will be necessary to examine the coroner’s records to find out what exactly the position was.

BNFL tells me that it believes that the tissue would have been destroyed as part of the analytical process. It also believes that although there was storage of the tissue prior to the examination, any tissue that remained would have been destroyed. Certainly BNFL tells me that no such tissue exists today. However, it is not certain at this stage what procedures were followed.

The House will appreciate that some of these cases go back 45 years. It is simply not possible, therefore, to be sure whether procedures were carried out properly. As I have said, the information held by BNFL is necessarily limited and a fuller investigation is therefore necessary. I believe that it is necessary to establish why these examinations were carried out and whether the next of kin were informed and consented to the analysis. It is also necessary to establish whether any of the examinations were carried out following the correct and proper procedures, and whether the data obtained were used appropriately and with the necessary consents.

The families and the public will want to know the answers to all those questions. I have therefore asked Michael Redfern, QC, who conducted the Royal Liverpool Children’s NHS Trust—Alder Hey—inquiry to investigate this matter. I have asked him to establish the facts, and to report to me. I will publish the full terms of reference shortly.

This is clearly a difficult situation, covering events that took place up to 45 years ago. None the less, we owe it to the families, as well as to the public, to find out what happened and why.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for allowing me advance sight of the statement and for notifying both the shadow Secretary of State—who is abroad and sends his apologies to the House—and me of this issue as soon as he became aware of it yesterday.

All Members are shocked and incredulous at what appears to have happened. I join the Secretary of State in expressing our deep sympathy for all the families involved and our wish to see the full facts established as quickly as possible. I therefore welcome his decision to set up an immediate inquiry under Michael Redfern, QC, who has exceptional expertise and authority in this area. That is the right way forward to alleviate the great distress that will be felt today by all the families potentially involved.

I recognise that the Secretary of State’s knowledge of this matter is very recent and that it has been hard for him to establish many of the facts so far, but I hope that he might be able to give some greater detail to the House. At present, many families of former workers at Sellafield and other nuclear locations will be profoundly concerned to know whether their loved
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ones had body parts removed without their knowledge. When does the Secretary of State expect to be in a position to inform families whether their relatives were among the 65 cases established so far?

British Nuclear Group has confirmed that files exist for 65 cases, but will the inquiry cover all past employees at Sellafield who died before this practice was stopped in 1992, to ensure that there are not other cases beyond the 65 that British Nuclear Group already knows about? Is it the Secretary of State’s understanding that any such post-mortem tests related particularly to those who might have been affected by the fire in pile 1 at Windscale in October 1957? Or does the information that he has received suggest that it might have been a much more general practice?

The Secretary of State has told us that those involved worked at Sellafield, Capenhurst, Springfields and Aldermaston. Will the inquiry establish whether other nuclear sites might have been involved, and is it his understanding that the issue related purely to civil nuclear personnel, or might military personnel working with our military nuclear programme have been involved?

As the Secretary of State will know, rule 9 of the coroners rules allows coroners to retain material relevant to the cause of death. Clearly, coroners would not have had the power to allow material to be retained for more general research, and we agree with the Secretary of State that it is paramount that we establish precisely why tissues and organs were retained, to see whether that was entirely legal. Have there been any previous expressions of concern by families about what might have happened? Will the inquiry establish what legal advice was given to British Nuclear Fuels at the time about the legality of removing any body parts? Furthermore, will the inquiry publish the outcome of any research that was carried out on whether there may have been a link between the deaths of those involved and their exposure to radioactivity?

Will Mr. Redfern establish whether all activity complied with the Human Tissue Act 1961, which provided for inquiries to be made whether the deceased or any surviving relative objected to the retention of organs or tissue? Will he also establish what contact took place between British Nuclear Fuels and the Retained Organs Commission, set up in 2002 after Mr Redfern’s earlier inquiry, or subsequently with the Human Tissue Authority, to ensure that all legal obligations were fully complied with?

Crucially, will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that the inquiry will establish who made the decision to stop the practice and when that decision was made? Will it also establish why the families were not informed when the decision to end the practice was made or whether it was decided simply to try to brush the issue under the carpet? At this stage, does he consider that the inquiry could lead to criminal investigations?

Finally, on the broader issue, like the Secretary of State, I have visited nuclear plants and I have seen first hand the priority that they attach to safety. The Government want a new fleet of nuclear power stations to be built. Does he accept that public acceptance for that will be undermined if people do not see this issue
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resolved openly and transparently, and will he therefore emphasise to Mr. Redfern the importance of this inquiry being both thorough and as quick as possible?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he put his questions. For the sake of clarity, I think that I told the hon. Gentleman and his colleague that it was last Friday when I became aware of the issue. The difficulty in getting information is as I set out. BNFL’s medical records deal simply with the examinations. There is no audit trail from the time of the post mortem that indicates who in each case asked for further analysis to be carried out or, at the other end, what happened as a result of the further consideration of the findings.

The hon. Gentleman asked several questions. I agree with him that it is essential that we have an open process. That is why I have asked Michael Redfern to conduct this investigation as thoroughly as possible. I do not intend to put any constraints on what he considers. He needs to examine all the matters that he thinks are relevant.

In relation to some of the specific points raised, the hon. Gentleman referred to “this practice”. From what I have been able to discern, I do not think that it was a routine practice. What happened was that from time to time the coroner—in the majority of cases—would ask for further analysis to be carried out. I do not know whether he decided to do that because of something that he was concerned about, or whether he was asked to do it on behalf of the family concerned. If we look at the distribution of the 65 cases over what was a very long period, we realise that it cannot be said to be a practice. Certainly, as I understand it, it was not done routinely. However, one of the issues that Mr. Redfern will wish to consider is why the decisions were taken, and then he will draw the appropriate conclusions.

I cannot give the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) any information on whether any of the people concerned were involved in, or associated with, the 1957 incident, nor can I say whether any of them were military personnel; no doubt Mr. Redfern will want to investigate that.

The hon. Member for Wealden asked about the research. There has been quite a lot, although I understand that it has been more concerned with the methodology used to calculate radioactivity in organs than with these specific cases. However, it is important to note that the records for the individuals involved are confidential. As a result, I do not know—and neither does BNFL—what conclusions were reached for each person.

The final point raised by the hon. Member for Wealden is very important and sensitive. The company, work force representatives and Michael Redfern are urgently considering how to approach the families concerned to explain what happened. The House will appreciate that in some cases the immediate next of kin are, sadly, no longer alive. However, there will be surviving family members: contacting them must be handled sensitively and, as I have told the company today, quickly. The surviving next of kin will be concerned about what happened, and the right thing to do is to explain to them exactly what we know and what we are doing to find the answers to those questions that are not yet resolved.

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Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Are any of the body parts radioactive, and is it possible that BNFL has been involved in a cover-up? I remind the House that Ronnie Kray was buried without his brain. Should not the Government take a wider look at the Dr. Frankenstein practice of storing body parts?

Mr. Darling: I have no evidence to back up what my hon. Friend says. As I said in my statement, BNFL has said that it was inevitable that some of the human tissue that it was asked to analyse would have been stored prior to examination. As I understand the matter, that tissue would then have been destroyed in the analytical process.

The use of body parts that I have described this afternoon has been known about for about 20 years, as research has been carried out using data derived from the examinations. However, Mr. Redfern will face the problem that attitudes have changed, as has the relevant legislation. The practices of the 1960s and 1970s would not be acceptable today, and the Alder Hey inquiry that he carried out addressed some of the same issues. What is paramount, however, is that the families of the people who died and whose organs were examined know what happened. I am determined that they will.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I join others in expressing my deep sympathy to the families affected by what went on, and to those who fear that they might be so affected. I am sure that the whole House understands the anxiety that they must be feeling. I also thank the Secretary of State for his attempt to let me know last night about the statement that he has made: if I was elusive, it was because I was in the House.

I very much welcome the inquiry that the Secretary of State has announced. Although I recognise that he had no information about the matter until last Friday, and that the events about which we have heard took place quite a few years ago, I reiterate that we believe that it is very important that citizens are respected in death as they are in life. The ghastly nature of the events that have been described means that it is important to establish that body parts should not be used for research without the appropriate permissions.

However, I want to ask the Secretary of State a number of questions. He talked about the difficulty of accessing information and coroners’ records. When the events that have been described took place, a Government authority, the Central Electricity Generating Board, managed our nuclear power plants. Were the CEGB records fully transferred to BNFL, or have some of them stayed in the Government’s possession, perhaps even in the archives of the Department of Trade and Industry? Has he researched that angle, as the information contained in them would clearly be vital?

As the Secretary of State said, the Alder Hey investigation took place a few years ago, so it is beyond belief that other organisations, especially those associated with Government in any way, shape or form, should not have seen that event as a trigger for their own investigations into practices that might have operated in their organisation. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the inquiry to explore why the decisions
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and events at Alder Hey did not lead to disclosure of the series of events in this case some years ago? That leads to the obvious question that if BNFL did not use that opportunity to examine its records, which other organisations failed to do so, too?

The hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who spoke for the Conservatives, mentioned the other nuclear facilities that may have been involved and the possibility that the practice extended to military as well as civilian personnel, which we believe ought to fall within the remit of the investigation. Will the Secretary of State emphasise that point?

There are particular concerns that there may have been far more extensive practice at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston and Burghfield than has been revealed by the cases that have surfaced so far, so the question in everybody’s mind is whether the 65 cases are the tip of an iceberg or are they—

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I point out to the hon. Lady that she has taken more than three minutes?

Mr. Darling: Perhaps I can deal with the points that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) has made. It is more likely that the UK Atomic Energy Authority held the records rather than the Central Electricity Generating Board, but one of the things that Mr. Redfern will want to look at is whose responsibility it was. As I said in my statement and in reply to the hon. Member for Wealden, it is important to remember that the analysis was undertaken at Sellafield because that is where the expertise was. In many cases, the analysis was being undertaken either at the request—it would appear—of a coroner as part of his wider inquiry or, in a smaller number of cases, as part of legal proceedings. It is not clear whether the families concerned knew whether further analysis was being performed in those cases, but it is clear that the main inquiry was being conducted by a third party; in other words, not BNFL or its predecessors.

In relation to the hon. Lady’s call for a wider inquiry, I want Mr. Redfern to find out what happened in this set of cases. If we go wider, we shall not get the answers that the families want in anything like a reasonable time scale. On her point about research, analysis of the tissues was carried out—often, it would appear, at the request of a coroner—to find the cause of death, and that point is fairly well known. As I understand it, the research was derived from the data found, and a lot of it involved looking at the methodology used to calculate the effect of radioactive material. I understand that the research has been fairly well published, although that is not to say that the families concerned would have known about it—a point I made earlier. Mr. Redfern will look at what should have happened with regard to the law prevailing at the time and so on. The law is quite different now and is much tighter, thanks to legislation published two years ago following Alder Hey, but those issues need to be examined.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): Although I welcome the alacrity with which my right hon. Friend has moved, will he consider extending the remit of the inquiry to the nuclear submarine industry, where there
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is a long history of people being affected? Given the relevance of our nuclear developments at present, we ought to cover our tracks there, too, before we proceed.

Mr. Darling: No, I do not agree. I want to get to the bottom of what happened in this case—that is what the families want and there is a public interest in finding out. My hon. Friend refers to something far wider and there have been a lot of studies on such general matters, but this inquiry needs to look at what happened in these cases.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that the difficult issue with which he has dealt so appropriately and sensitively today could be seen as just the latest manifestation of the nuclear industry’s past reputation for a dangerous combination of unbridled optimism, alarming scientific naivety and obsessive cold war secrecy? Bearing in mind the new consultation that the right hon. Gentleman is conducting into the future of nuclear power and, indeed, tomorrow’s debate on the subject in Westminster Hall, does he agree that the nuclear industry has everything to gain from the maximum possible openness on this and every other issue?

Mr. Darling: Yes, I do. I have said on numerous occasions that the industry could help itself enormously by being open. If there are problems, let us discuss them. If things went on the past, let us hear about them—subject, of course, to observing sensitivities and the confidentiality to which families are entitled. It is far better to be open about these things. As far as we understand, the practice stopped in the early 1990s and it was not until the company was approached to see whether it would allow the data gathered to be used for further general research that people focused on what had happened. People’s attitudes now are quite different from the 1960s, when—the hon. Gentleman is right—the whole history of the nuclear industry was that given the choice between being open or secretive it was secretive. That has to change, and I hope the inquiry will help the process along.

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for the thorough and swift way in which he expedited the investigation once he became aware of the facts as we understand them at the moment. When he establishes the terms of reference for the investigation by Michael Redfern QC, will he ensure that as the facts emerge the families of those affected are the first to be informed? There is already some wilfully misleading reportage in the media today, but that must not be allowed to distress the families further.

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