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Rishi Sunak apologises to families as Government rejects ‘Hillsborough Law’, and introduces a charter

3 months ago

By Lee O'Connor

Rishi Sunak apologises to families as Government rejects ‘Hillsborough Law’, and introduces a charter
Hillsborough Memorial

In 2017, the former bishop of Liverpool set out 25 learning points in his report, which followed the inquest into the deaths of 97 Liverpool supporters at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final. 

Today (Wednesday, December 6th), the UK Government stopped short of introducing the Hillsborough Law called for by campaigners. 

Instead, in its long-delayed response, the Government has signed a “Hillsborough charter”, committing to openness and transparency after public tragedies.

James Jones’ report, The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power, was published in November 2017 following inquests into the deaths at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield – where 97 Liverpool FC fans died.

In a response published on Wednesday, the Government said it had signed up for a Hillsborough Charter. The charter pledges to put the public interest above the Government’s reputation.

It added that a “Hillsborough Law “, which would incorporate a legal duty of truthfulness, was not necessary.

Hillsborough memorial
Hillsborough memorial

Government apologises

In the foreword to the report, Home Secretary James Cleverly and Justice Secretary Alex Chalk acknowledged the response had taken “too long, compounding the agony of the Hillsborough families and survivors”.

    They added: “For this we are deeply sorry.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “The Hillsborough families have suffered multiple injustices and more than 34 years later there can never be too many apologies for what they have been through.

“And I want to repeat that apology today and thank the Hillsborough families for their tenacity, patience and courage.”

Right Rev James Jones’ Report

In his 2017 report, Mr Jones called for the Government to give “full consideration” to a “Hillsborough Law” or Public Authority (Accountability) Bill. 

He recommended the law include a legal duty of candour on public authorities and officials to tell the truth and proactively cooperate with official investigations.

The report aimed to prevent cover-ups by police and public authorities and ensure better conduct towards bereaved people. The objective was to avoid others going through similar ordeals to the Hillsborough families, who had to fight for decades against a campaign of lies about the disaster by South Yorkshire police.

A floral tribute from Liverpool FC sits in front of the Hillsborogh Memorial before the official memorial service at Liverpool's Anfield stadium, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 football fans died. Credit: PA
A floral tribute from Liverpool FC sits in front of the Hillsborogh Memorial before the official memorial service at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 football fans died. Credit: PA

The Government’s response

The response stated the Government was “not aware” of any gaps in legislation or clarifications needed that would further encourage a culture of openness among public servants in law.

The Government believes adopting the duty of honesty would risk “creating conflict and confusion” because of the frameworks already developed since the disaster.

In 2021, retired officers Donald Denton and Alan Foster and former force solicitor Peter Metcalf, accused of amending statements to minimise the blame on South Yorkshire Police after the tragedy, were acquitted of perverting the course of justice when a judge ruled there was no case to answer.

Mr Justice William Davis said the amended statements were intended for a public inquiry into safety at sports grounds, led by Lord Justice Taylor, but that was not a course of public justice.

In its report, the Government said the families and survivors were “entirely justified” in their frustration with the evasiveness they experienced from public officials.

But it said much had changed regarding expectations and requirements on public officials since 1989.

It said that “continuing to drive and encourage a culture of candour among public servants” was an essential part of the Hillsborough Charter, which Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden had signed on behalf of the Government.

Mr Jones proposed the charter for families bereaved through public tragedy in his report, in which he said “substantial change” was needed in the culture of public bodies.

Hillsborough memorial at Anfield. Credit: PA
Hillsborough memorial at Anfield. Credit: PA

What will the charter do? 

Leaders of public bodies who sign up for the charter will commit to putting the public interest above their own reputations. This means approaching forms of public scrutiny – including public inquiries and inquests – with honesty and avoiding trying to defend the indefensible.

Other organisations that have already signed up to the charter include the National Police Chiefs’ Council, College of Policing, Crown Prosecution Service, and Kensington and Chelsea Council, the report said.

The Government response also states that it will consult on expanding the provision of legal aid for inquests following public disasters.

Inquests into the deaths at the match played between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on April 15 1989, concluded in 2016 and found that fans were unlawfully killed and that errors by the police and ambulance service caused or contributed to their deaths.

The match commander on the day, David Duckenfield, was charged with gross negligence manslaughter in 2017. He was cleared in 2019 at a retrial after the jury could not reach a verdict in his first trial.

Reaction

In a statement posted on Twitter, Metro Mayor Steve Rotherham said: 

“For six years Bishop James’ report has been languishing on the desk of consecutive Home Secretaries without the dignity of a response.

The legal avenues to ensure those responsible for the Hillsborough disaster were held to account have been exhausted, without justice being served. 

The law has failed the Hillsborough families and countless other groups affected by the tragedy. Ensuring that no grieving family is forced to suffer the same indignity would be a fitting legacy for their decades of tireless effort. 

While today’s belated response is a move in the right direction, it does not clear the threshold that Hillsborough Law campaigners have been asking for. 

A Hillsborough Law in full would ensure that ordinary people have a fair chance at getting the justice they deserve.”

For more info on the campaign for Hillsborough Law click HERE. For the latest news in Liverpool click HERE.

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