Twenty three years ago one of my saddest duties while I served as a Liverpool Member of Parliament was visiting families of those bereaved in the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster.
Several constituents had died, including a child. One, a young man, Andrew Devine, aged 22, was left in a persistive vegetative state . Andrew was caught in the crush, deprived of oxygen, and following the resultant brain damage his parents were told that he would die within months. Ever since, his extraordinary parents, Hilary and Stanley, have lovingly cared for Andrew, who emerged from his coma in 1994.
The deaths of 96 people, and the long term trauma, was compounded by the outrageous, infamous aftermath. There was vilification, condemnation, and procrastination.
Agony was piled upon agony with the insulting and wholly fallacious attempt to smear and blame the victims. They had, it was suggested, brought the calamity of Hillsborough on themselves.
Twenty three years later, thanks to Bishop James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, and his Independent Panel’s Report, that calumny has finally been laid to rest.
For me, the most shocking aspect of the tragedy was that it could have been averted and that it had been predicted.
In the month before the match, which was played on April 15th 1989, a Liverpool fan had told me that staging the semi final at Hillsborough would be unsafe.
I wrote to the then Sports Minister, Colin Moynihan, registering my concern and this correspondence is referred to in a parliamentary reply which appears in Hansard:
“ The hon. Member wrote to me on 22 March about the arrangements at the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough on 15 April. No other representation was received. The arrangements for the match will be among the matters to be considered by Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry.”
No-one has ever been able to say that the ground’s safety and ticket allocation had not been an issue before the game.
Immediately after the tragedy Kelvin MacKenzie’s Sun branded Liverpool fans as Liars (for which he has now unreservedly apologised) and, acting on information given by the Police, alleged that that drunkenness was to blame. In Parliament I questioned Ministers about the fans’ behaviour, asking the Home Office Minister, Douglas Hogg, “at what level the publication of statements on 18 April by South Yorkshire police concerning the conduct of Liverpool fans at the Hillsborough semi-cup final was authorised; if he will publish a copy of that statement and the name of the officer who made it; and if he will make a statement.”
“Statements made by officers of the South Yorkshire police are a matter for the chief constable. It would not be helpful for me to publish statements or counter-statements which have been made about the circumstances leading to the tragedy, or to name those who made them. It is for Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry to establish the facts.”
The names of the officers who gave the authorisation were not made known. The falsehoods were allowed to stand. Taylor didn’t establish the facts, nor did he discover the truth. It was left to the grieving families to continue to demand answers and to insist that justice should be done.
As the years went by I made repeated requests for the legal cases to be re-opened.
In June 1992 the Solicitor General, Sir Derek Spencer, responded that the Attorney General would “take a decision on an outstanding formal application for consent under section 13 of the Coroners Act 1988 as soon as possible.”
I wondered whether the Minister had any understanding of “the sense of grief felt by many people, including my constituent Philip Hammond, whose boy was tragically killed at Hillsborough, and their sense that no line can be drawn on the issue until every legal remedy has been exhausted?”
I urged him to “assure the House that that announcement will not be long in coming and that he will try to understand the feelings of the relatives involved, who do not feel that the inquest process has been exhaustive?”
Twenty years ago, the Solicitor General replied that he was “conscious of the continuing grief and anxiety of the many individuals affected by that tragedy. For that reason, the decision must be carefully considered—and it will be. We shall make a decision as soon as possible.”
Three years had then elapsed since the tragedy – and a further twenty now. If Ministers had acted in 1992, telling the Coroner to reopen the cases, it would not now be possible to hide behind the excuse that “the passage of time” impedes accurate recall of the details of what occurred.
It’s not just the passage of time that is shocking: it is the institutional failure and corruption which has been exposed – and the craven failure of Ministers and officials.
In the House of Lords, in 1998, I again challenged the failure to re-examine the Hillsborough deaths, and asked what account the Home Secretary and Lord Justice Stuart-Smith had taken, “in deciding against a fresh inquiry into the Hillsborough tragedy, of missing video tapes, changed statements by police officers, conflicting medical evidence and complaints of lack of impartiality in the original coroner’s process and in the granting of immunity from prosecution to police officers upon taking early retirement.”
The Minister, Lord Williams of Mostyn, replied:
“Lord Justice Stuart-Smith considered all the material evidence submitted to his scrutiny about the Hillsborough disaster. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary (Jack Straw) accepted his conclusion that there were no grounds for a fresh inquiry.”
The Minister told Parliament that “there was no new video evidence”; that “the only missing video tapes were two tapes stolen on the day of the disaster, which remain missing. They were not police tapes and the judge was satisfied that they would not have shown anything significant.”
He added that the Director of Public Prosecutions had considered whether Police Officers should be prosecuted but “concluded that no officer should face prosecution” and because one officer had retired on ill health it would “have been unfair to pursue what was, in essence, a joint charge against one officer only.”
Imagine that you and I were involved in a bank robbery, a fraud, manslaughter, or a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, would the Police deicide that, because one of us had retired, they would take no action against the other? What nonsense is this?
The Minister was clear that “allegations of irregularity and malpractice are not substantiated” that they “found no grounds to suggest that the original inquests were flawed or that complaints of bias against the Coroner were justified.”
No substantial irregularities? No malpractice? Well now we know otherwise.
At last, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has told Parliament that the Liverpool fans had suffered a “double injustice”, both in the “failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth”. In offering a full apologyhe also admonished those who had denigrated thedeceased and suggested that they were “somehow at fault for their own deaths”.
His Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, says he will make a decision in the next two months about whether to apply to the High Court for the original verdict of accidental death to be quashed. He should get on with this without any further delay.
This time, the words need to mean more than the ones previously uttered – and, in seeking justice, our institutions need to examine how and why this scandal was allowed to fester and to be covered up for so long.