She had survived just over a month after being born with a congenital heart problem on 18 August 1990. But it took nine years to reunite her with the body organs that her parents never knew had been taken during a post-mortem examination at Alder Hey Children's Hospital, Liverpool.

She had survived just over a month after being born with a congenital heart problem on 18 August 1990. But it took nine years to reunite her with the body organs that her parents never knew had been taken during a post-mortem examination at Alder Hey Children's Hospital, Liverpool.

Yesterday, her father, Edward Bradley, called for a public inquiry into the removal of organs from children, and for the practice to be ended and the law changed. "What we want is the whole barbaric practice stopped," he said. "Why take the back of Niamh's head off [to remove her brain]? There was nothing wrong with her brain. It is unnecessary mutilation after death."

Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, announced an independent inquiry yesterday into the retention of organs at Alder Hey after Andre Rebello, the Liverpool coroner, described the removal of organs as "unlawful" and "reprehensible" if parents had not given their consent.

Mr Rebello said he was re-opening a case involving one family, the Valentines, who had been "brutalised by the system" after the death of their daughter, Kayleigh, whose organs were also retained. The coroner's concern is shared by Ian Cohen, a solicitor representing about 70 families who are demanding "full and frank disclosure" of the facts through a public inquiry.

Mr Milburn's move is intended to meet the growing disquiet among parents, officials and lawyers that the internal inquiry announced by Alder Hey in October into the retention of organs is incapable of dealing with the depth of grief and mistrust stirred up. At the same time, ministers announced a national inquiry into the practice, chaired by the Government's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, after news emerged that at least 11,000 hearts had been retained at other hospitals.

The third, independent, inquiry announced yesterday will be conducted by a panel of three - a lawyer, a pathologist and a patients' representative - and will run alongside the other two. It will report by March next year.

Alder Hey Hospital disclosed it had taken 2,087 hearts from children over a 40-year period, but later discovered that other organs had also been removed from at least 200 children between 1988 and 1995. In most cases, parents buried their children unaware that organs were missing. The additional organs were all removed during post-mortem examinations carried out by Professor Dick van Velzen, and found in a University of Liverpool laboratory store. He will reportedly not be questioned under the remit of the inquiry.

When Edward and Carol Bradley reopened the grave of their daughter, Niamh, on Thursday, they tried to spare their other children, Conor, 11, and Sarah Niamh, 6 - named in memory of her sister - further suffering by turning the occasion into a celebration.

Mr Bradley said: "We had a small graveside ceremony with the local priest. We didn't want to exhume her body, although some families have done so, so we didn't go down very deep. The children put soft toys either side of the casket - that was their way of saying goodbye.

"We told them that something that had gone wrong had now been put right - something taken from their sister had been returned to her and that we should thank God and be happy. Then the four of us and the priest went to an Italian restaurant for lunch."

How the Bradleys lost, and recovered, Niamh's organs is a modern medical horror story. Niamh was born with the main arteries to her heart transposed and needed emergency surgery at Alder Hey within hours of her birth. She survived the surgery but died, in her father's arms, a few weeks later at home.

A post-mortem examination showed that the cause of death was a blood clot in the heart. The examination was ordered by the coroner, Gordon Glasgow, who is now retired, and the family was not asked for its consent. Mr Bradley said: "We never had a problem with that. We knew it was the law [because Niamh had died at home]. What we didn't know was that they could keep her organs."

Two or three years later, the first rumours began to circulate about organs having been taken from some children. Mrs Bradley telephoned the hospital but met "a brick wall", and she received no reply to a letter. Mr Bradley said: "I could see she was getting upset and I said 'just leave it'."

That was where matters stood until September when, by chance, the Bradleys heard an item on the news about the public inquiry into the Bristol heart babies disaster. Alder Hey was mentioned as one of the hospitals that had retained hearts. They telephoned the hospital and three days later they received a call confirming that Niamh's heart was being kept in a laboratory. "We were furious," said Mr Bradley. "They said we had signed a form giving permission for tissue to be retained. But we had signed nothing. It must have been the coroner that ordered it."

Worse was to follow. Ten days later, a letter arrived, dated 5 October 1999, from Hilary Rowlands, chief executive of Alder Hey. It apologised for the distress caused by "having to confirm your daughter's heart and organs were retained". That was the first the couple knew that organs other than the heart had been taken. After more phone calls they learnt these were the lungs and the brain.

Mr Bradley said: "Carol went ballistic. She asked why they had done it. They said they couldn't comment. But to saw the back of her head off [to get at the brain] is barbaric."

The couple set about recovering the organs and they were delivered by an undertaker this week in time for Thursday's burial.

The Bradleys say they will not sue the hospital for what they describe as "blood money" but they have joined other parents to campaign for a change in the law. Mr Bradley, 48, a former social worker, lives on incapacity benefit after being forced to retire on health grounds because of chronic arthritis. His wife, aged 31, works in a social security office in Preston.

Mr Bradley said: "We do not want a penny. By taking money from the hospital we could deprive other children of care. If we got thousands and paid off the mortgage we feel it would be blood money. We feel it would be immoral but if others wish to sue we will not criticise them. What we want is the whole barbaric practice changed."