Mortuary man tells of work on bodies: Procedures for examining routine deaths may have led to mistakes. Tim Kelsey reports

THE small mortuary at Barnet General Hospital was, for more than 20 years, one of the busiest in north London. About 500 coroner's autopsies were performed there annually. For most of the time, Ivan Biddle was the resident technician.

It was a lonely, poorly-paid job. At the most he earnt pounds 11,500. He had been a porter originally and spent the first years in the mortuary without qualifications of any kind. But, unusually, he later acquired diplomas in hygiene and mortuary skills. Many other mortuary workers had only a primary education and some had trouble reading; most were like him, former hospital porters, or night watchmen. When Mr Biddle went on holiday, one of the Barnet porters stood in for him - in some cases opening up bodies.

Mr Biddle's main business was with the coroner. Most of the cases were routine: road accidents and suicides. In murder cases a Home Office pathologist would supervise. This was the legal procedure: the pathologist present from start to finish.

This was not, however, the case with the more routine deaths. Mr Biddle found himself doing far more than his training entitled him to. He was opening bodies, removing internal organs, and making preliminary external and internal examinations - all without the supervision of the consultant pathologist. Routinely, Mr Biddle would do all this the day before the pathologist conducted his examination. The organs would be thrown into unmarked buckets and sometimes he forgot which bucket belonged to which cadaver.

He now fears that some of the coroner's autopsies may be suspect. He did not know until recently that it was illegal for him to open bodies unsupervised.

There are numerous examples of the way in which the regulations were flouted in the mortuary at Barnet. There is the case of Paul McArdle, who hanged himself in a police cell in Borehamwood in 1982. There was the suspicion that he had in some way been brutalised by police into taking his own life. The autopsy showed that he had taken the better part of a bottle of valium the day before; but there was no evidence on his body of physical mistreatment.

Mr Biddle said that he was responsible for doing the external examination of the body, and later for taking blood samples. His pathologist only saw the laboratory report. He was not present when the blood was taken. 'There was room for a lot of mistakes,' he said. 'We may have mixed up the blood samples and the pathologist would never have known the difference.'

Dr David Shove, consultant histopathologist at the hospital since 1982, admitted last week that bodies had been opened without his supervision. This constitutes a breach of the Coroner's Act 1988, which states that only a legally qualified medical practitioner can carry out a post-mortem. He said that he told Mr Biddle to observe procedures and only open the bodies in his presence. He went on to concede, however, that the practice continued.

Coroner's work is very lucrative for pathologists and it was worth a lot to Dr Shove. Normally a coroner's autopsy would be worth between pounds 30 and pounds 40.

According to figures prepared by external auditors to the authority, Dr Shove was earning more than pounds 18,000 each year from the coroner during the early 1980s.

Mr Biddle says that Dr Shove did not pay him for opening the bodies, only for cleaning up afterwards. Initially, he received pounds 1 and later pounds 1.50.

In 1989, however, he went to his trade union. He complained that the hospital had ignored complaints by the Health ETHER write errorand Safety Executive regarding sanitary conditions in the mortuary. He also alleged that Dr Shove should have been giving some of his earnings back to the hospital. Shortly afterwards, he was suspended. He has failed to convince an industrial tribunal he was unfairly dismissed. But the hospital management has repeatedly denied in court a central part of his case. Mr Biddle says that in 1984, the accountancy firm Deloitte Haskins Sells (now part of Coopers & Lybrand) audited his mortuary and confirmed that some of Dr Shove's fees from the coroner's autopsies should have been declared to the authority.

Sue McLellan, who is corporate development director at Barnet, now part of the Wellhouse Trust, said that she could find no copies of any audit report relating to mortuary fees. She told the industrial tribunal the same thing. Dr Shove also told the hearing that he had no knowledge of such an audit. The hospital's repeated denials badly dented Mr Biddle's credibility.

A copy of this audit is, however, in the possession of the Independent and it states that some of the fee income from the post- mortems should have been paid to the hospital. This income qualified as Category II earnings (which means that the consultant owes one-third of it to the hospital). When told that an audit did exist, Dr Shove said yesterday that only post-mortems in which special tests were ordered qualified as Category II but he then admitted that some of his post-mortems did involve such tests. He said that, in these cases, however, it was not his responsibility to alert the hospital authorities to their loss of earnings.

The auditors also disclosed that the hospital had no formal contract with the coroner, and could have been charging for the use of its facilities. The auditors estimated that in all, between 1965 and 1984, the hospital had lost more than pounds 300,000.

In 1989, under pressure from the HSE, the hospital closed the mortuary.

Dr Shove remains consultant pathologist at Barnet. Mr Biddle is still fighting for reinstatement; his hopes are now with the Audit Commission, which has ordered an inquiry into affairs at the mortuary.

(Photograph omitted)

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