The full horror of organ scandal

Date created: 05/02/2001

Health Secretary Alan Milburn has revealed that organs were illegally stripped from children against parents wishes by a surgeon at Alder Hey hospital as he unveiled a report into the scandal.

The inquiry into the hospital found that in addition to over 2,000 children's hearts, a large number of brain parts, eyes taken from foetuses, over 1,500 stillbirths or foetuses and a number of children's heads and bodies were obtained without consent, Health Secretary Alan Milburn told the Commons.

Mr Milburn told the Commons that Michael Redfern QC's report, revealed "a lack of respect and a failure to appreciate the circumstances which led to the taking of human material."

He said the number of organs retained increased dramatically in the seven years following the appointment of Professor Dick Van Velzen in 1988.

Mr Milburn said Van Velzen between 1988 and 1995 "systematically ordered the unethical and illegal stripping of every organ from every child who had a post mortem."

And he said that according to the report Van Velzen lied to parents, other doctors and hospital managers. He stole medical records, falsified reports, and encouraged others to do the same.

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The Health Secretary said the hospital authorities and the University of Liverpool failed to monitor the surgeon's practices and failed to take action to stop them.

Mr Milburn said the failures were compounded by the incompetence and insensitivity of the hospital and university authorities.

The university had turned its back on parents. "The pain caused to the parents by this dreadful sequence of events is unforgivable," said Mr Milburn adding that those who did wrong would now be held to account.

He said that the inquiry report had been passed to Merseyside Police and the Director of Public Prosecutions, who will decide whether to pursue criminal prosecutions.

Professor Van Velzen has been summoned before the General Medical Council, and four NHS staff, including Alder Hey's chief executive have today been suspended, said Mr Milburn.


The acting chairman and two non-executive directors of the trust have today resigned and a new chairman has been appointed, said the Health Secretary.

While Prof Van Velzen's practices were "exceptional" organ retention without relatives' consent was "widespread" in the NHS, with 105,000 organs retained across the country, said Mr Milburn.

Some 25 hospitals account for 88% of the retained organs, at least 16,500 of which were retained in contravention of the law, said the Health Secretary.

Mr Milburn announced the establishment of a commission to oversee the return of organs and tissues, a review of the coroners' system and of accountability of senior staff employed jointly by NHS trusts and universities.

A new law will enshrine the concept of "informed consent" and NHS trusts will be required to support and advise bereaved families, he said.

A new law will enshrine the concept of "informed consent" and NHS trusts will be required to support and advise bereaved families, said Mr Milburn.

He added: "The NHS can no longer assume that the benefits of science, medicine or research are somehow self-evident, regardless of the wishes of patients or their families.

The relationship between patients and the service today has to be based on informed consent."

Shadow health secretary Liam Fox told the Commons it was clear from the statement and the report that Van Velzen "lied and broke the law and he must answer for that."

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