Monday, 17 October 2011

Hillsborough debate in Parliament

Hillsborough, Sheffield - April 1989

A debate in the House of Commons is to be held from about 6pm this evening (17th October) regarding the release of documents relating to the Hillsborough stadium disaster of  April 1989 - see UK Parliament - E-Petition debate.  This follows an "e-petition" which attracted some 139,000 names.  See BBC 17th October - "Will Hillsborough files be made public?"  Please also see the earlier Law and Lawyers post of 23rd August - "The Hillsborough disaster - April 1989 - the search for information continues."

The events at Hillsborough (and certain other disasters) eventually led to major improvements to sports facilities.  Hillsborough also generated an interesting legal legacy through - (a)  cases in tort for negligently caused psychiatric illness and (b) the withdrawal of medical treatment (the "Tony Bland" case) - for further see "The Hillsborough disaster and its legal legacy" - (as written in April 2009.

Some points from the debate:

The debate opened at 5.43pm by Mr Steve Rotherham MP making a powerful and eloquent speech setting down the background to the Hillsborough campaign for justice.  He read all 96 names into the Parliamentary record.  He said that there has been an orchestrated campaign to discredit the Liverpool fans.  He particularly picked out THE SUN newspaper for its headline "The Truth" and the article which contained many lies and caused immense hurt to the families.  He also criticised Mr Bernard Ingham - (at the time, Press Secretary to Prime Minister Thatcher) - who referred to fans being "tanked up" and trying to force their way into the ground.  Lord Taylor, in his interim report, had concluded that such allegations were false.  Mr Rotherham stated that he was proud to be a Liverpudlian.  It should be said that Liverpool can be proud of Mr Rotherham for his dogged stance and for his speech opening this debate.

The Sun - discredited article
The Home Secretary (Rt. Hon. Theresa May MP) clearly stated that the government will do all in its power to establish the truth and fully supported the independent panel under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Liverpool.  No government papers would be withheld.  The panel would oversee disclosure of documents and would report on its work.  The right way forward was for government to release documents to the panel and the families should see them before the public.  There would be full disclosure - uncensored and unredacted save for any redaction considered neceessary by the panel after liaising with the families.  Some redaction may prove to be necessary - e.g. to withhold information personal to particular victims.

Mr Andy Burnham MP said that the families have suffered too much and thanked the Home Secretary for her unequivocal statement.  The campaign of lies - described by Mr Burnham as an "act of brutality" - was unprecedented.  He went on to refer to how blood samples were taken from victims including a 10 year old boy.  (Note: the so-called "mini-inquests" placed considerable emphasis on alcohol).  Families who arrived were questioned by the police.  Mr Burnham emphasised Lord Taylor's conclusion that it was Police failure of control which resulted in the disaster.  Furthermore, statements made by junior Police Officers were ordered to be amended though it seems that Lord Taylor saw many unamended statements.  It was still not known who ordered the amending.  Yet another point related to the inquests and the still unexplained decision by the Coroner to rule that all deaths had occurred by 3.15 pm.  This prevented the inquest looking at matters after that time.

Mr Burnham asked the Home Secretary to consider whether, in the light of the debate, the independent panel's terms of reference required amendment.  Material held privately should also be revealed - for example, communications between South yorkshire Police and their solicitors and, with regard to News International, the sources of their misinformed article.  The whole Hillsborough episode was a national scandal deserving of a national response.

Many other MPs spoke in this debate which was described by veteran MP Mr Frank Field as perhaps the best debate he had attended.  Within the speeches there were a few notes of concern relating to the massive amount of material which the panel will need to review and whether the panel has the resources to do that effectively.  Many MPs emphasised that the families did not want a drip of information which could distort the overall picture.  Release of material via the panel was the right and proper way to proceed.

Penned in people
Other MPs referred to the general context of football in the 1980s. Many grounds were dismal places with poor facilities and spectators standing on crowded terraces was the norm.  Fans were penned in and separated from the pitch by fencing.  The Hillsborough ground had, in fact, been improved in the 1960s for the World Cup but, in 1989, did not have a safety certificate.  The disaster which happened to befall the Liverpool fans could actually have occurred at many a ground and to any team.

Almost every MP referred to the report(s) by Lord Taylor.  At the time, Taylor was a Lord Justice of Appeal.  He went on to become Lord Chief Justice and served in that office from 1992 to 1996.  His reports on Hillsborough were characteristically through and written with great clarity.  His conclusions and his legacies to football and to the law merit great recognition.  As Angela Smith MP said, the "all-seater" Premier League grounds of today are one of the few positives to emerge from Hillsborough.

This was, without doubt, a very striking debate.  A serious debate with members listened to respectfully and with great concern shown by MPs of all parties to get the truth finally into the open.  The debate concluded at 10pm.

Obituary:  Lord Taylor of Gosforth CJ

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