Removing organs or tissue from dead bodies without the consent of families will be punishable by up to three years in prison and unlimited fines under new legislation unveiled yesterday.
Ministers said they were fulfilling a promise made after the Bristol and Alder Hey organ retention scandals. The Human Tissue Bill is designed to ensure the taking of organs by stealth, without relatives' consent, never happens again.
It emerged in 2000 that thousands of children's organs had been taken from their bodies for research and teaching purposes without parental knowledge at Bristol Royal Infirmary and at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool. A government inquiry subsequently revealed that more than 100,000 organs were stored in hospitals across the country, most unknown to relatives.
Under the Bill, a Human Tissue Authority is to be established to license and inspect premises and ensure that strict codes of conduct are being observed.
The authority will take over the roles of a number of other bodies, including the Retained Organs Commission which was established in 2001 to oversee the return of organs to families and provide support. But specialists responsible for examining tissue for signs of disease and carrying out post-mortem examinations warned the legislation could inhibit future research.
Professor James Underwood, president of the Royal College of Pathologists, said: "While I welcome new legislation to replace the now discredited Human Tissue Act 1961, the Bill published today may place new but unwarranted restrictions on using surplus tissue from living patients for harmless and beneficial purposes."
A spokeswoman for the college said if specific consent had to be obtained for work on any tissue, such as the testing of material removed in surgery, the system would be unwieldy.
Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's chief medical officer, said the proposals should not harm research or the donation of organs for transplants.
"By learning from the dead we can help the living, but we saw from the events of the last few years that the balance was wrong and if we are to continue.... then we had to take the public with us," he said.
The Health Secretary, John Reid, said the Bristol and Alder Hey scandals had exposed a gap in the law. "It was a tragedy for the families affected, [it was] unacceptable and took place within weak legislation."Reuse content