HL Deb 04 June 1992 vol 537 cc1072-6

6.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Arran) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd March be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the purpose of the order is to define the arrangements for the use and custody of bodies left for the purposes of teaching anatomy. It also sets out requirements for the licensing of persons to practise anatomy and for the licensing of premises in which it is to be practised. The order will replace the Anatomy Acts of 1832 and 1871, which still apply in Northern Ireland, and bring the law in the Province into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. In short, this is a parity measure which will do for Northern Ireland what the Anatomy Act 1984 did for the rest of the United Kingdom since it came into force in 1988.

The structure of the order is simple and follows closely the provisions of the Anatomy Act 1984. It would therefore be tedious to subject your Lordships to a detailed explanation of each and every article. I propose therefore to concentrate on the main provisions.

Article 4 forms the core of the order, and sets out the conditions which must be met before anatomical examination is carried out. The body must be lawfully donated, the death must be registered, the premises must be licensed and the person carrying out the examination must be authorised. Similar conditions apply to possession of the body, or "anatomical specimen" as it is defined in the order.

Article 5 deals with licences. Any person wishing to practise anatomy will require a licence granted by the department for that purpose. The premises in which anatomy is practised will require to be licensed, and a licence will also be required to possess parts of bodies following completion of anatomical examination. In addition, the licence-holders will be required to maintain records of bodies (and parts of bodies) held in his or her possession, and to keep records of anatomical examinations.

Article 6 specifies what constitutes lawful examination. The anatomical examination of a body is lawful if the body has been lawfully donated; that is donated by a person in writing during his or her lifetime, or orally in front of witnesses during his or her last illness. In addition, a person having lawful possession of a body may authorise its use for anatomical examination where, after reasonable inquiry, there is no reason to believe that the deceased had previously made any objection to his or her body being so used, and that surviving relatives would object to such use.

Article 6 also defines the period for which a body may be retained for examination. Under the 1832 Act a body could only be retained for 6 weeks. The 1971 Act subsequently provided for the extension of the period to 2 years but advances in science now mean that a body can be kept in good condition for up to 3 years, the maximum period specified in the order.

Article 7 provides that it shall be unlawful to retain a body or part of a body following the expiry of authority—that is, after 3 years—or after anatomical examination is completed. However, paragraph (4) of this article allows for an exception to this requirement in cases where a licensed person, or a person authorised by him or her, needs to retain part of a body for research or teaching purposes. The conditions to be fulfilled before such retention is lawful are set out in Article 8.

Articles 9 and 10 cover the system for issuing licences and empower the department to make regulations for the orderly conduct of examinations and the decent disposal of bodies and parts of bodies after examinations have been concluded.

Article 11 re-enacts the provision in the 1832 Act which empowers the department to appoint inspectors of anatomy. The inspectors' powers and duties are set out in Article 12.

Present-day circumstances are of course radically different from those which gave rise to the introduction of the 1832 Act. Medical schools did not at that time have an adequate supply of bodies for the purpose of anatomical examination, and it was not unusual for newly buried corpses to be removed illegally from graves by body snatchers or "resurrection men", as they were known, for sale to medical schools. Among the more notable practitioners of this art were two infamous gentlemen known as Burke and Hare.

Nevertheless, even in modern times, it is necessary to regulate the practice of anatomy in order to ensure (and perhaps more importantly assure) the public that proper arrangements are made for the use and custody of bodies donated for the purpose of teaching anatomy. The order therefore is a necessary updating of the 1832 and 1871 Acts. It relates to a limited, but important, sphere of activity. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 2nd March be approved.—(The Earl of Arran).

6.45 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Arran, on his appointment to the Northern Ireland Office and I wish him well in his challenging post. I should like also to take this opportunity of placing on record our appreciation of the work of the noble Earl's distinguished predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, during his tenure of office as Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office.

I now turn to the draft order which is before the House, and I shall not detain your Lordships for long. I believe that the order was considered this morning by the Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments in another place. Perhaps the Minister will confirm—I am sure he can—that it was given a safe passage.

I thank the Minister for his full explanation of the main purport of the order. As he said, it is not a unique order addressing a unique situation or providing a unique answer. It has a precedent in the Anatomy Act 1984. The order extends the provisions of the 1984 Act without a single amendment, so far as I can see, to Northern Ireland. However, it provides that it is not to have any retrospective effect and rightly so. I have not been able to ascertain why it has been necessary to wait eight years for the 1984 Act to be so extended to Northern Ireland. Can we safely assume that the eight year delay was justifiable?

We support the order, but perhaps I may be allowed to mention briefly two other points. First, Article 6 provides that a person, during his last illness may, in the presence of two or more witnesses, authorise his body to be used for anatomical examination. A probate lawyer will be extremely familiar with the need for two witnesses to be present at the same time. It is not clear to me whether the two or more witnesses referred to in Article 6(1) are to be in each other's presence. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that small point.

I was also rather surprised to read in Article 6 that any surviving relative of the deceased may object, in the circumstances set out in the article, to the body being used for anatomical examination. It surprises me that the right to object is not confined to the nearest surviving relative but is available to any relative who can establish any degree of kinship with the deceased. It has occurred to me that that could lead to difficulties. It probably has not done so otherwise there would have been an amendment to the 1984 Act.

Finally—and possibly this is a point of more substance—should there not be a right of appeal where a licence granted under the order is revoked under Article 9(7)? Whatever be the climate in the last century and whatever the climate in 1984, is it not important in the climate of 1992 that the revocation of a licence should be seen to be fair and to be properly done? To that end it should be possible to appeal the decision.

I have no more questions or comments to offer on the order and I hasten to confirm that we support fully its provisions.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, for his warm good wishes for the future in what is, as he says, a challenging job. I thank him also for the kind words which he has expressed about my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Belstead.

First, I can confirm that the order was considered in a Commons Standing Committee and was approved.

As regards the other points raised by the noble Lord, he was courteous and thoughtful enough to give me notice of those points, which is helpful to your Lordships' House. The words "surviving relatives of a deceased person" are not defined in the order or in the corresponding Anatomy Act 1984. I agree that any relative can object and his or her objections will be respected. Of course, that applies only to cases where the deceased has not made a written request or an oral request duly witnessed by at least two persons.

The noble Lord inquired also whether both witnesses to an oral request must be present at the same time. I can confirm that is necessary in order to provide proper corroboration of a person's wishes in that particularly sensitive area.

On the question of licences, there is no provision for an appeal against the department's decision not to grant a licence. It is similar to the position in Great Britain where the absence of an appeal system does not appear to have caused any problems. However, where the department decides not to grant a licence under the order, the applicant will be notified in writing of the decision and of the reasons for it.

The first point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, concerned the question of time and why it has taken so long to introduce the order. It is regrettable that from time to time we experience delay in bringing forward legislation comparable to Great Britain Bills. In this case the delay was brought about by the competition for resources within the DHSS. In the recent past the department had to administer the passage of Orders in Council on health and personal social services and on food safety, both of which were lengthy, complex and essential and had to be introduced by a specific date in order to maintain parity with Great Britain. In addition, six orders subject to negative resolution procedure were introduced. By contrast to that urgency, the existing anatomy Acts, while in need of updating, provided adequate framework for continuing the practice of anatomy.

I hope that I have been able to answer the majority of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies.

On Question, Motion agreed to.