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Volume 551: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2012

1. What steps he is taking following the publication of the report of the Hillsborough independent panel in September 2012. (122175)

9. What steps he is taking following the publication of the report of the Hillsborough independent panel in September 2012. (122183)

My consideration of the evidence in this matter is far from complete, but as I do not wish to cause the families affected by this disaster any greater anxiety, I have decided to take an exceptional step and announce that, on the basis of what I have already seen, I am persuaded that an application to the Court for fresh inquests must be made.

Ninety-six people died as a result of what occurred at Hillsborough that day, and 96 inquests were held. I believe that, as all those deaths arose from a common chain of events, it would be better for me to apply for all 96 cases to be considered again. I want to allow all the families affected the opportunity to make representations to me on that issue, and I will be in contact with them.

I wish to make it clear that, having announced my decision, I will still need further time to prepare the application so that the strongest case can be made to the Court. I have given that work priority and I will continue to do so. I have today laid a written ministerial statement in both Houses announcing my decision.

All in the House and all the families involved will welcome the Attorney-General’s decision today; they have lived with a completely wrong verdict for far too long. Will the Attorney-General assist the House by telling us about the speed of the process, so that urgent justice can prevail?

I need to complete my consideration of the evidence and, as I have said, I need to provide the families with the opportunity to make representations, and to consider any representations that are made. I need to complete my consideration of the legal issues, and I then need to make the application to the Court. When the case is heard will be a matter for the Court’s listings. It is very difficult for me to give a precise timetable for my hon. Friend; I will move as quickly as I can.

I say a genuine thank you to the Attorney-General for what he has announced today. The families who have waited so long for justice are at least now within reach of that justice. Will he assure the House that sufficient resources will be made available so that work on getting a new inquest can proceed as quickly as possible? Can he say whether that inquest will be held in Liverpool, as the families have always requested?

I am satisfied that there will be sufficient resources to take this forward. The venue of any eventual hearing is not really a matter for me. Should—I stress this for the House—the application that I make to the Court be successful, it will be for the Court and the coroner to decide where the inquests take place. I am sure that representations can then be made in respect of that, but it is not my decision.

I thank the Attorney-General for his very important statement; he will know what a hugely important day this is for Merseyside and the many people around the world who care about putting right the injustice of Hillsborough. Will he meet a delegation of Members of Parliament, with the families, so that we can talk about some of the complexities of what he has announced today?

I am always happy to see Members of Parliament. As for meeting with delegations, the hon. Lady will appreciate that one feature of my work is that I must take it independently. If there is a good reason for meeting people, I am certainly always happy to do so, but she will appreciate that I have already undertaken to consult representatives of the families. We will do that as a formal process, and I would obviously wish to avoid something that does not appear sufficiently structured.

I genuinely thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his announcement, which will be of great comfort to my constituents whose family members died at Hillsborough, and particularly to the families of those who died after the 3.15 pm cut-off. Will he indicate whether he expects the Director of Public Prosecutions’ potential consideration of criminal charges to have any impact on the timing of the inquest?

Clearly, the consideration of charges is done independently by the DPP and I have no role in it. It is perhaps trite to say—I think I have said this before—but were there to be criminal proceedings, that could undoubtedly impact on when an inquest could take place. However, I do not think that it has any impact on the timing of my making an application to the Court for it to order inquests to take place if it is so minded.

The Attorney-General’s announcement is indeed welcome news. Will he assure me that adequate parliamentary time will be given for the fullest of debates into the shocking revelations that we heard last month?

It is my understanding that there will be the opportunity for a debate on this matter next Monday, 22 October, which I believe will be led by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Obviously, I will be present for as much of the debate as possible to listen to what is said.

The Attorney-General’s statement is greatly to be welcomed, and the families had a very positive meeting with the DPP yesterday. All hon. Members hope that justice for the Hillsborough families is finally in sight. However, the Crown Prosecution Service faced criticism for failing to act 14 years ago when it was presented with evidence of the wholesale alteration of witness statements by South Yorkshire police and their solicitors. In order to build further public confidence in the process launched by the DPP last week, will the Attorney-General consider discussing with the DPP the value of instructing, at the outset, a senior and independent-minded Queen’s counsel to lead the review of evidence and the decision-making process on any possible prosecutions? Does he agree that such an additional check and balance would be helpful and positive?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I understand that she wrote to the DPP on 8 October, which I believe his office received last Friday, to raise some of those issues. I understand that she will get a reply from him as soon as possible.

May I reiterate that the DPP, under our constitutional system, acts entirely independently from myself, although I have superintendence. I am sure he will have noted the hon. Lady’s comments. The question as to how he best goes about conducting his operations within the CPS, bringing prosecutions or reviewing any matter that is historic, is a matter for him, but it is always open to him to discuss it with me.

The Attorney-General’s announcement will be welcome not just on Merseyside and in Yorkshire, but by football supporters in the whole country. Will he, at an appropriate time, and perhaps with colleagues from the Ministry of Justice, talk to the new chief coroner to ensure that the lessons of this experience are learned for all future inquests?

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said and I think I agree with him. It is worth bearing it in mind that the world has moved on quite a lot since the events surrounding the original inquests. We have much better systems in place. One of the challenges, should the Court be minded to grant my application, will be how to structure the new inquests, if they are to take place. I have no doubt that tried and tested methods—they have already been used with great success in other recent, high-profile matters—are in place.

That is a rather difficult question for me to answer. Ultimately, costs can be a matter for the Court. As I have indicated, at the moment, the costs of the preliminary work that is taking place are borne by my Department. I cannot assess how much those will be. Once the matter is within the court process, the courts have discretion, but I suspect—it is probably inevitable—that the taxpayer will pay a considerable amount of the cost.

I note the Attorney-General’s comments about where the inquest might be held, but is it his view that the inquest should definitely not be held in Sheffield?

The hon. Lady has made her point, but it is not for me to start giving views or instructions to the Court or coroner about how they should conduct an inquest, if one is held. I have no doubt, however, that representations made by hon. Members and representatives of the families will be noted by those concerned.