HC Deb 23 July 1999 vol 335 cc1553-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hill.]

2.40 pm
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

I regret to have to raise an individual case on the Floor of the House, but, as I shall reveal, there are lessons to be learned from it.

David Alan Cunliffe, the son of one of my constituents, died of an overdose of amphetamine on Wednesday 2 October 1996 in his flat in Higher Openshaw, Manchester, aged 29. He had lived there for two years. His correct name was known to his landlord and it was on a bottle of tablets and a probation service report found in the flat by the police. He was taken to the mortuary at Manchester royal infirmary, where a pathological examination was conducted and the cause of death established.

When the police searched David's flat, they could find no evidence that would lead them into direct contact with relatives. However, the probation service report, which was dated 11 July 1995, said that he had been involved with drugs and crime for a long time and that he was from the Bolton area. Significantly, the report also referred to the fact that he had suffered from mental illness and had been treated as an in-patient at Prestwich hospital.

David had long been involved with the police, in Bolton and in Manchester, and I have provided my hon. Friend the Minister with evidence that he was very well known to them, especially in Bolton. About three years before his death, he was arrested in Bolton and held at Bolton central police station in the cells, where a balloon containing illegal substances burst in his mouth, causing an overdose that resulted in collapse and transfer to what was then Bolton district hospital. His mother, who has lived in the same house in my constituency for the past 22 years, was contacted within two hours by the police.

Following David's death in Manchester, a police officer at Collyhurst police station contacted the Greater Manchester police press office on 10 October 1996 with a request to include the fatality on its press media line. Following that, the police received no inquiries. The police officer made no attempt to contact either the Bolton Evening News or the Manchester Evening News to establish whether they had carried the story. We have established that they did not.

As a result of complaints received from David's sister—Mrs. Rita Houghton, who is also one of my constituents—Greater Manchester police have changed their procedures. Officers are now asked to follow up press media line notices if they receive no inquiries and they specifically ask local newspapers to carry news of fatalities if they have not already done so in order that every effort is made to contact relatives. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that every police force should be rigorous in that respect and I hope that she will issue instructions following this sad episode.

David Cunliffe was buried at the expense of Manchester social services department on 4 December 1996 in a common grave in Gorton cemetery, where his body still lies in section L116. His relatives want the body to be exhumed and transferred to Bolton so that they can attend a proper funeral. The problem is that they cannot afford to exhume the body and transfer it to Bolton.

Even worse, a second body has been buried in the common grave on top of that of David. We obtained the permission of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to exhume both bodies and permission was obtained from the relatives of the second person to disturb the grave. Unfortunately, our exhumation certificate expired on 7 May, although we can have it renewed.

I suggested to Greater Manchester police that they had made little attempt to locate David's relatives and that they should meet the cost of exhumation and reburial as a matter of good will, but they declined. It appears that they contacted local hospitals, but I am not sure which ones. They may have contacted Bolton district hospital, given the Bolton connection. They allege, however, that the hospital, or hospitals, would not reveal the addresses of David's relatives, on grounds of confidentiality, which apparently is preserved even following death.

I took the matter up with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health, who confirmed that it would be in order for access to medical records to be refused where there was no consent from the next of kin". In the same letter, however—dated 30 March this year—my right hon. Friend said: The Trust"— Central Manchester Healthcare NHS trust— have confirmed that, where a patient dies in hospital and has no known next of kin, then the notes would be read and any names and addresses passed to the police to help them trace the next of kin". Unfortunately, David did not die in Manchester royal infirmary.

The Greater Manchester police also claim to have contacted Bolton metropolitan borough council's housing department, the probation services and social services to make inquiries about relatives—surprisingly, without success. However, on or about 5 June 1997, an informal inquiry at Prestwich hospital revealed the address of David's mother, who was then informed by the police of his death, which had taken place nine months earlier. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that Prestwich hospital was mentioned in the probation service report of 1995, which was found in David's flat on the day of his death.

At a recent meeting attended by the deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester police, I asked whether, if David Cunliffe had been found murdered rather than overdosed, the police would have been able to gain access to the addresses of relatives. After a pause, the police admitted that they had the ways and means so to do. Does my hon. Friend agree that hospitals need to be given clear guidelines if they are to help the police in all fatality cases, not merely murder cases?

Why does my hon. Friend think that Greater Manchester police appear not to have made inquiries of K division in Bolton, where David Cunliffe's criminal activities were well known? They have made the excuse that he used aliases, but I remind the House that the probation service report and the bottle of tablets found in David's flat were in his correct name. The landlord had also been given his correct name. There seems to have been a lack of care on the part of the police, but I cannot get them to accept that.

I remind my hon. Friend also that the police have changed their procedures following complaints from the family. I cannot believe that Greater Manchester police, with all their training and resources, could not have found David Cunliffe's relatives and saved his family all that anguish if they had tried just that little bit harder.

At the meeting that I held with Great Manchester police, they claimed that the Data Protection Acts had made their inquiries more difficult in cases such as this, because they are not allowed to keep what they describe as "dangerous information" in computer files, however useful it might be to their present work or their future activities. It was suggested that a lot of useful information had been weeded out since the setting up of computer databases throughout the police force.

I have also corresponded with Councillor Stephen Murphy, the chairman of the Greater Manchester police authority, and Councillor Frank White, a former Member of Parliament who is now Bolton metropolitan borough's representative on the police committee. Both have been extremely helpful. They feel, as I do, that David's family have suffered unnecessarily and should be given as much help as possible at this stage for compassionate reasons.

Let me now turn to the role of the coroner for the Manchester city district, who dealt with the case. By the time of the inquest, relatives had been contacted. In a letter to me dated 19 May this year, the coroner admitted that he knew that a brother had been in court. In fact, David's brother and two sisters were in court on that day. The coroner also knew that Manchester's social services department had been involved with the burial, but he did not establish the reasons for that.

Manchester contains numerous people with no fixed abode, whose families are not local and who have very few belongings, which, when searched, give no information about relatives. In some cases, even when relatives can be contacted, some cannot, or will not bury their relatives' bodies. The cost then falls on the Manchester social services department.

Following my approach to the coroner about David Cunliffe's death, he has informed his staff that, when told that social services are involved in a case, they should ask the reasons why. If the answer is because relatives cannot be found, in future further questions will be asked. The fatality has caused the coroner to change his procedures, too.

The coroner has informed me that, at the time of David's death, there was a designated coroners officer who, if he had been approached in such a case, would have made appropriate investigations to trace relatives, or to ensure that the police made every effort to do so before releasing the body for burial. However, in the David Cunliffe case, the coroner does not know exactly what was done.

It is an extremely sad story. I am sure that many people like David Cunliffe die in similarly tragic circumstances without their relatives knowing. Somewhere, there are two of David Cunliffe's children from a former relationship. Surely, they have a right to know what happened to their father and where he is buried. His mother, brothers and sisters certainly have a right to know. Can it be that the lives of people who become the victims of the misuse of drugs are not regarded as quite as important as yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or mine? I hope that that is not the case.

The systems have failed the Cunliffe family. If only the police had been a bit more diligent; if only they had established better communications with the coroner's office; if only the coroner had asked the police some relevant questions; if only the references to Bolton and Prestwich hospital in the probation report that was found in David's flat had been followed up immediately; if only the national health service had been given clear guidelines about helping the police with inquiries arising from all fatalities, not just murders, David Alan Cunliffe might have been reunited with his family for a proper burial. Is it too late?

I do not attempt to apportion blame in what is a sad case. I raise the issue in the hope, first, that someone will help the Cunliffe family, even at this late stage, and, secondly, that the Minister will try to ensure that authorities throughout the country will learn something from the case.

2.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kate Hoey)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) for clearly setting out the background to this tragic case and the lessons that he considers should be drawn from it. I welcome the consistent work that he has put into the case and his dealings with all the authorities—I would expect no less from him as a Member of Parliament.

No hon. Member can really understand the pain and distress that David Cunliffe's family felt on learning of David's death eight months after it occurred and of his burial in an unmarked grave. I share the concern that the relevant authorities should learn from the case, even though, as my hon. Friend has said, it is not necessarily possible to apportion blame for what occurred.

It is a painful but necessary task, which the police perform, to trace and notify the next of kin of the death of their loved ones. We might expect that to be a straightforward task in a modern age of instant communication and computer databases, but that underestimates the difficulties that can occur in some cases, particularly with those who have perhaps distanced themselves from family, who lived on what can be seen as the fringes of society.

As my hon. Friend has said, David Cunliffe was found dead at his home in Openshaw, where he lived alone, on 2 October 1996. As in all suspicious deaths, the Greater Manchester police conducted initial inquiries into the circumstances of his death, and reported the case to the coroner. The cause of death was established as a drugs overdose.

Greater Manchester police say that they were unable to identify Mr. Cunliffe's next of kin and extensive inquiries were, therefore, conducted to trace them. To clarify a point that was raised by my hon. Friend, those inquiries were carried out by the officer designated locally to liaise with the coroner's office on such cases.

The police say that the local health bodies were contacted for assistance, but that, in accordance with their confidentiality policy, they were unable to provide the information requested to the police. Social services and the probation service were also contacted, but they were unable to provide any information that would assist in locating the next of kin.

An appeal for relatives of the deceased to come forward was included on the Greater Manchester police media line, which is an information line accessed by the local media. Unfortunately, there is no obligation on the press to carry such appeals and, as my hon Friend noted, this particular appeal was not picked up by either the Bolton Evening News or the Manchester Evening News although it might have helped to lead police to Mr. Cunliffe's family.

The unsuccessful outcome of those inquiries was reported to the coroner, who authorised the release of Mr. Cunliffe's body for burial. This was carried out on 4 December 1996, just after two months after he had been found dead. As my hon. Friend has said, he was buried in a common grave in Gorton cemetery. The cost of burial was met by Manchester social services in the absence of the next of kin.

However, it was not the end of the matter for the police. A second officer continued to make inquiries to trace David Cunliffe's next of kin. In June 1997, I understand that informal contact between the officer and a local hospital led the police to identify the address of David's mother and the police were finally able to break the news to her of her son's death the previous October. It should be noted that there had not been any inquiries to the police regarding Mr. Cunliffe's whereabouts in the intervening period.

It is clearly regrettable that it took so long to trace Mr. Cunliffe's family, but that does not necessarily mean that the police were somehow at fault in the way they carried out this task. Nor would I accept that the circumstances of Mr. Cunliffe's death meant that the police were not as rigorous as they should have been in this case. I remind my hon. Friend that police inquiries continued until Mr. Cunliffe's next of kin had been traced and informed of his death.

The actions and decisions taken by police officers in the course of their duties are an operational matter for the chief officer of the police force concerned. Following representations from the family, I understand that Greater Manchester police carried out an internal review of the case. It confirmed that the officers involved had followed normal police procedures in the attempt to trace Mr. Cunliffe's next of kin. As I have said, inquiries had been made of relevant local authorities and agencies, but without success. As part of their review, the police approached these authorities and agencies again to ask for the same details of next of kin. The review team received the same response as the original officers and concluded that there was no reason to criticise the officers involved in the initial investigation.

The review, however, did identify a lack of knowledge about the operation of the force's media line, which had been used in the unsuccessful attempt to place an appeal for information in the local press. Recommendations were made to improve awareness of the way the line operated and, as my hon. Friend indicated, police officers are now meant to follow up appeals on the media line if no response is received and, if necessary, specifically ask the local press to cover particular appeals.

The police were unable to obtain details of Mr. Cunliffe's next of kin when they initially approached local hospitals because of the confidentiality policy operated there. Decisions on disclosure are a matter for the NHS trust or other body which is being asked to disclose, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the decision taken by those bodies. However, as my hon. Friend said, there are discussions on that.

In March 1996 the Department of Health issued guidance to the national health service on the protection and use of patient information. The guidance explains that personal information is protected by common law, the Data Protection Acts and the ethical responsibilities of health professionals. In general, any information given or received in confidence for one purpose may not be used for another or passed to anyone else without the consent of the provider of the information. That is unlikely to have been a problem as, on an earlier occasion, as my hon. Friend indicated, Mr. Cunliffe was admitted to hospital after a balloon containing drugs burst in his mouth and the police were able to contact his mother within two hours.

The duty of confidence continues to apply even after a patient's death. The Department of Health guidance makes it clear, however, that the duty is not absolute and it may give way to an overriding public interest. Further, although the guidance recognises that the duty of confidence may continue after death, disclosure in the public interest should be easier to justify in such circumstances. However, the responsibility for deciding whether to allow disclosure rests with the NHS body concerned, based on the circumstances of the request.

As my hon. Friend said, the Department of Health is aware of the need to raise awareness of protocols for information sharing between NHS and non-NHS bodies, and of the need to ensure that confidentiality requirements do not become a bar to the legitimate flow of information. All NHS organisations were asked to have in place, by April 1999, "guardians" of patient confidentiality to help improve the way in which the NHS handles confidential patient information. One of the guardians' responsibilities will be to oversee the development of information-sharing protocols and ensure effective liaison with non-NHS partner organisations. Each organisation's performance will be monitored by the Department of Health, and I hope that that will lead to more effective co-operation with the police service.

My hon. Friend has also mentioned the role of the coroner in this sad case. As he will know, it is not a function of the coroner to identify the relatives of those whose deaths are reported to him for investigation. However, as part of a coroner's inquiries, it will usually be necessary to make contact with the immediate family in case they are able to shed any light on the circumstances of the death, and so that they may, if they wish, exercise their rights in relation to any post mortem examination or at the inquest.

It is also a matter for the coroner to decide when and to whom he should release the body for burial or cremation. The normal practice is to release the body at the earliest opportunity, and in advance of the substantive inquest hearing. The body will normally be released to the executors or family of the deceased.

In the great majority of cases, relatives can be located readily, but occasionally there can be difficulties, and in some cases there will be no relatives to find. It will be a matter for the coroner's judgment to decide how much effort should be devoted to such inquiries in the light of all the circumstances known to him. When there appears to be no one else to make the funeral arrangements, the coroner may release the body to the local authority. That is what happened in David Cunliffe's case.

The Home Office has not issued guidance to coroners on how to proceed in those circumstances. I note, however, that the Manchester city coroner has decided that, in future, if his staff are told that the local authority is making the funeral arrangements, action should be taken to determine whether further inquiries could be made to establish the whereabouts of any relatives. I am not sure how much more effective that may be than police inquiries, but it clearly makes sense to make every reasonable effort to find the family of the deceased. We therefore propose to consider the matter with coroners generally, to determine whether there are some helpful lessons to be learned.

All hon. Members will have sympathy with the family's concern to have David's body exhumed for a family burial in Bolton. As my hon. Friend mentioned, when the problem of the location of David Cunliffe's grave was brought to my Department's attention, we explained that a Home Office licence under section 25 of the Burial Act 1857 would be needed to remove the body for reburial elsewhere, but also that, as there was another body in the grave, the agreement of that person's next of kin would be required. With the assistance of the burial authorities at Gorton cemetery, the next of kin of the other deceased person was traced and consent was duly given. On 7 May 1998, Home Office licences were issued.

Although, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the validity of those licences has now expired, I assure him that there should be no difficulty in principle in reissuing the licences for a further period, provided that there has been no material change in circumstances. However, I should say that, out of consideration for the other family involved, it might be best not to renew the application until there is some certainty that the exhumations can proceed.

My hon. Friend has suggested that Greater Manchester police should meet the costs of exhumation and reburial, presumably because of their failure to trace Mr. Cunliffe's next of kin at the time of his death. Although the force is sympathetic to the family's predicament, for the reasons I have explained, the force cannot accept that it was responsible for the delay that occurred, and therefore cannot agree to cover the costs involved in Mr. Cunliffe's exhumation and reburial. That is the decision of the chief constable, and there is no discretion for me to intervene in the matter.

The House will recognise that there are circumstances in which it is appropriate for public funds to be used to provide a proper burial. That was clearly the case when, in the absence of the next of kin, the costs of the original burial were met by Manchester social services. It may be appropriate for the family to approach the social services department again, if there is a difficulty in finding the cost of reburial.

I understand how strongly my hon. Friend feels on this matter and I thank him for raising the case in the House today. We all have immense sympathy for Mr. Cunliffe's family and are concerned that it was not possible for the police to contact his parents earlier with the sad news of their son's death.

I hope that I have shown that the police do take seriously their responsibilities in this regard and that considerable efforts were made to trace Mr. Cunliffe's next of kin, eventually with success. For that reason, the chief constable is not prepared to meet the costs of exhumation and reburial, although my Department will look favourably on any application from the family to renew the licences.

My hon. Friend has made a number of important points about the police service, the coroners and other agencies, and how they could improve their procedures for dealing with such cases. I am pleased that, as he said, certain improvements have already been made. We can always look for new ways of ensuring that the co-operation between agencies makes a real difference in particular circumstances. I encourage the police, in particular, to continue to look for ways in which to apply the lessons learned from this and similar cases to improve the service that they provide.

I hope that my hon. Friend will find some comfort from what has been said in this short debate, and that Mr. Cunliffe's family will realise that his case has been discussed at the most senior levels of Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Three o'clock.