I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
The Deputies will be aware that I, and my predecessor, have met with Parents for Justice on a number of occasions. I have learnt at first hand of their trauma and distress on discovering that the organs of their children had been removed and retained, and in some cases disposed of, without their knowledge or consent.
I want to place on record my sincere regret and offer my sympathies to all those parents affected for what has happened. My primary concern to date has been to ensure that parents and families affected by the recent disclosures receive all necessary support, including where appropriate independent counselling services. This is in addition to the support which has already been put in place by the hospital, the Eastern Regional Health Authority and other health boards.
The Deputy will also be aware that on 9 February 2000, I announced my intention to hold an inquiry into issues relating to post-mortem examinations, organ removal, organ retention and organ disposal at Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin, the national centre for paediatric cardiac surgery. Since then I have been in consultation with a number of parties, including the Attorney General regarding the terms of reference, scope and form of the inquiry. Indeed, I met with Parents for Justice again yesterday evening to update them on progress in relation to the establishment of the inquiry and to listen to their views on the subject.
It is now apparent that the practices and procedures followed by Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin, in this area were not confined to that hospital. While I have yet to finalise the terms of reference for the inquiry, I can assure the Deputies that the inquiry will provide for a review of post mortem policy, practice and procedure in the State since 1970 and, in particular as it relates to organ removal, retention and disposal by reference to prevailing standards both inside and outside of the State, as well as an examination of the application of these policies, practices and procedures in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin. I also intend that the inquiry will be empowered to examine any specific cases in any hospital in the State as it deems appropriate.
I anticipate that the terms of reference of the inquiry will be finalised in the very near future and I am concerned that it should commence as speedily as possible. While I appreciate that guidelines covering post mortem practices have recently been issued by the faculty of pathology, the outcome of the inquiry will also influence future policy and practice in this area. I also intend to establish a working party to advise on any legislative requirements in this area and in particular on the updating of the existing legislation regarding human tissue.
A decision has not yet been taken on the person or persons to conduct the inquiry. I consider this matter to be of major importance and I am concerned that the issues arising should be addressed in a way which will have full regard to the sensitivities of the parents and families concerned. In all the circumstances, therefore, and particularly in the best interests of all the families affected, I consider it best to refrain from commenting on the detail of the allegations and so forth which have been made and, in that respect, await the outcome of the inquiry.