The man leading the inquiry into issues raised by the case of convicted killer and necrophiliac David Fuller has said the families of victims "will be at the heart" of the process.
Sir Jonathan Michael said the task facing his team was “challenging but vitally important” and vowed to work with sensitivity and compassion for all those “so horrendously affected”.
In a statement, he said: "No one reading of David Fuller’s acts and the fact that they happened in an NHS Trust’s mortuary can fail to be horrified and distressed by them.
"Understanding how these offences took place in hospital settings without detection over such a long period of time, will require a focused and detailed approach.
"I am determined that my team and I will be objective and thorough in all our work."
But a lawyer working for the families of the victims believes the scope of the inquiry doesn't go far enough.
Ben Davey, of Dean Wilson solicitors, claimed an independent inquiry was "inappropriate" because of its limited powers compared to a statutory public inquiry.
"The main concern is this inquiry has no power to compel witnesses to come and give evidence to it. It has no teeth, and won't be able to forensically look at where these mistakes have happened, and make appropriate recommendations."
Ben Davey, chartered legal executive
In response to the criticism, a spokesperson for the inquiry said: "The Inquiry is independent of the NHS and of the government. Sir Jonathan and his team are determined to be objective and thorough in their work."
Fuller, an electrical maintenance supervisor firstly at Kent and Sussex Hospital and later at Tunbridge Wells Hospital, was arrested in December 2020 for the murders of two women in 1987.
Fuller beat and strangled Wendy Knell, 25, and Caroline Pierce, 20, to death before sexually assaulting them in two separate attacks in Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
When police searched his house, they found images and videos of him committing sexual offences on the bodies of at least 100 women at the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust mortuary since 2008.
In January 2021, Fuller pleaded not guilty to the murders. He was later charged with the mortuary offences. In October 2021, he pleaded guilty to the mortuary offences.
In November 2021, he pleaded guilty to the murders and was sentenced to life imprisonment in December.
Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust began an investigation into Fuller's actions overseen by Sir Jonathan. Health secretary Sajid Javid announced in November 2021 that this was to be replaced with an independent inquiry, given the scale and nature of the offences.
Today, Sir Jonathan outlined the process by which his inquiry would be carried out, and said his priority would be helping relatives through the ordeal with sensitivity.
He said: "I am equally determined that we will provide an opportunity for those families and staff who have been directly affected by the actions of David Fuller to share their experiences and information with the Inquiry in ways that are sensitive and supportive. This will be at the heart of how we approach the Inquiry."
Greg Clark MP:
Greg Clark, Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells, welcomed Sir Jonathan's approach and said lessons had to be learned. The first stage will focus on Fuller’s crimes in the Kent & Sussex Hospital and the Tunbridge Wells Hospital.
The second part will be to look at the implications of Fuller’s activities and the issues identified in part one for the country as a whole, "in order to safeguard the deceased and ensure that Fuller’s horrendous activity cannot be repeated elsewhere."
Responding to calls for the inquiry to be given greater powers, patient safety minister Maria Caulfield MP said in a statement:
“The friends and families of all the victims of David Fuller have our utmost sympathies. We are deeply sorry for what took place and are taking action to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.
“The independent inquiry chaired by Sir Jonathan Michael will help us understand how these offences took place without detection, identify any areas where swift action is necessary and consider wider national issues, including for the NHS.”
Any families who have been affected by the actions of David Fuller or past and present colleagues are urged to get in touch with the inquiry via their website www.fuller.independent-inquiry.uk, by email on Contact@fuller.independent-inquiry.uk or by phone on 0207 9721444.