I am sure that the whole House would want to join me in paying tribute to the immense courage, determination and patience of the families of the 96 people who died in the Hillsborough disaster, and of those injured who, 32 years on, continue to grieve about the events of that truly terrible day.
The collapse of the case concerning two former police officers and a solicitor who are charged with perverting the course of justice for allegedly having altered statements to be provided to the 1990 Taylor inquiry was the final opportunity for the families seeking justice for what happened at Hillsborough. As the House will have seen, the trial judge in that case ruled that the offence of perverting the course of justice could not have been committed because the inquiry was carrying out an administrative function for the Home Secretary and was not a process of public justice. As such, the prosecution was not able to establish a key element of the offence of perverting the course of justice and the case was unable to proceed any further. Of course, as Lord Chancellor, it is my duty to respect that decision.
Since the Taylor inquiry, the Inquiries Act 2005 was introduced, which allows inquiries to take evidence on oath and to compel witnesses to give evidence and to produce documentary evidence. Section 35 of that Act also makes it an offence to commit acts that intend to have the effect of distorting, altering or preventing evidence from being given to the statutory inquiry. It is also an offence intentionally to suppress or to conceal a relevant document or to destroy such a document.
Members will be rightly concerned as to what, if any, effect this may have on current public inquiries, such as the Grenfell inquiry, the undercover policing inquiry and the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.
Each of those are statutory inquiries and each has been set up under the aegis of the 2005 Act, which means that, should someone seek to distort, destroy, conceal or suppress evidence in any of those inquiries, that Act provides that those actions will constitute a specific criminal offence. Indeed, the common law offence of perverting the course of justice may also be an appropriate offence to charge if the elements of that offence are made out.
We recognise the need for those in public office to act responsibly and to discharge their duties with both honesty and integrity. As we continue to consider the judgment in the latest Hillsborough trial and its implications, we will of course always consider opportunities to review the law and how it operates. I want the families to know that there will be no exception in this case. We are carefully considering the points made by the former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, in his 2017 report on the experiences of the Hillsborough families, including in relation to the proposed duty of candour. Our focus now, after the trial’s conclusion, will be on publishing the Government’s overarching response to that report, after having further consulted all the families.
Irrespective of the outcome of this case, the Government continue to be committed to engaging with the survivors and the bereaved families. It is critical that the lessons of the Hillsborough tragedy—the Hillsborough disaster—are not only learned but consistently applied so that something similar can never be allowed to happen again. The Government are absolutely determined to do just that.
This is a very important urgent question and I wanted to make sure that it was debated, quite rightly, today. The Lord Chancellor took longer than I expected, so if Members feel they need to take longer, will they please bear in mind that I want to make sure that everybody gets a fair chance to have their say about this very important matter?
I thank Lord Chancellor for his careful and thoughtful words.
It is 32 years since the 96 people were unlawfully killed having gone to watch a football match, primarily through the gross negligence of the South Yorkshire police who should have been protecting them. Five years since the inquest verdicts, after six men were charged with 14 offences, only two charges were even put to the jury. Twelve charges were thrown out or withdrawn and just one conviction was secured, for a health and safety breach, resulting in a £6,500 fine. Yet since 2016, the families and survivors have been silenced to prevent any prejudice to the criminal proceedings, necessitating the cancellation of all public memorial services, including the 30th anniversary, and preventing them from correcting the record when the Hillsborough slurs about fans causing the disaster have been repeated—and they have been repeated in court and outside court.
Does the Lord Chancellor agree that it is a catastrophic failure of our criminal justice system that nobody has been held accountable for these killings and that it has taken 32 years for things to fail so badly? Does he think that the Crown Prosecution Service has any questions to answer about the charges laid, the vigour with which they were fought, and the CPS’s failure to challenge the reintroduction of the Hillsborough slurs when the families themselves could not because they were silenced? Does he accept that the utter failure, over 32 years, of our criminal justice system to do justice for these people requires changes of the law to make sure that families who are bereaved in public disasters never again have to endure this extended ordeal, after so many years trying to get truth and justice?
The Lord Chancellor seemed to say that he wants to learn lessons, and I welcome that, so will he consider enacting measures in the Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill, which is designed to stop things going wrong in the first place—that is the key to stopping things going wrong in respect of public disasters—and in the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill? Will he work with those of us in this House who have been campaigning on this issue to get it right for the future?
Since the collapse of the trials, two defence barristers have repeated the Hillsborough slurs in public. This matters so much to the families—the cover-up has been denied—so does the Lord Chancellor agree that it now has to stop? Will he make it clear that it must stop and that the apology that the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave in this House matters now as much as it did then and sets the record straight? Does he agree that the idea that it is lawful for a public authority to withhold information from an inquiry established to identify why 96 people died at a football event and to learn lessons, and for a solicitor to advise such a step, cannot be right and must be changed?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I pay tribute to her for the consistent work that she continues to do in this area. She has asked a number of questions, and she will perhaps forgive me if I cannot answer them with absolute specificity, but I will do my very best. I will start by reiterating the apology that David Cameron made. That is the Government’s position—no ifs, no buts.
With regard to the prosecution, clearly, it was right for the case to be brought and, as I have said, as Lord Chancellor, I have to respect the process. However, that has had quite a consequence for the families.
The important work that now needs to be done by colleagues in the Home Office—I have taken the trouble to speak to Home Office officials this morning—is to focus on Bishop James Jones’s 2017 report and work with the families to ensure that those recommendations are carried out. The focus has to be unrelenting, and I want this to take months, not years. Obviously, the families need to be at the heart of it—“nothing about them without them” clearly has to be the watchword—and I am confident, in the light of the work done by David Cameron, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and now by the Home Office, that that approach will very much be taken.
In regard to the work that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood and others, including Lord Wills, have been doing on the independent public advocate, I want to assure the hon. Lady that we are absolutely committed to ensuring that bereaved people are supported and given a proper voice throughout the process. A Government consultation was conducted in 2018, and the responses to it were rather varied. I propose to do some more work on that process more swiftly, and to bottom-out what the options might be in ensuring that any service is independent, has the confidence of those who use it and makes a difference, particularly in major public inquiries where many lives have been lost. I know that that has been the focus. I will work with the hon. Lady to ensure that the consultation will look at what the threshold might look like and at the overall impact. I do not think we need to create some huge public body; I know that that is not the hon. Lady’s intention. I now want to give this careful and close attention, and I am sure she will work with me on that.
It is good to note that a lot of work has already been done with regard to legal aid eligibility. We have, in effect, ended any means test on legal aid for legal help and, indeed, representation by the use of the exceptional cases funding category of legal aid. That was an important and welcome initiative. We must also bear in mind the work done by Mr Nick Hurd, a former Member of this House, as the Prime Minister’s adviser and envoy on the Grenfell inquiry. I want to make sure that the correlation of that type of role is fully understood in the concept of a potential independent public advocate. I am sure that the hon. Lady and I will have further exchanges, and I am sure she will forgive me if I have not answered every specific question that she has asked. I am profoundly grateful to her for her urgent question today.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has acknowledged that the collapse of this trial has been the final blow to the Hillsborough families in their desperate search for justice over so many years. He has referenced the independent public advocate. In 2017, I pledged:
“To ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families…is not repeated, we will introduce an independent public advocate who will act for bereaved families after a public disaster and support them at public inquests.”
We are now four years on, so can I urge him to act swiftly in this matter? We have established our former colleague here in this House, Nick Hurd, as a ministerial representative working with the Grenfell families after that tragedy, but I would say to the Lord Chancellor that I see that role as quite different from the role of an independent public advocate. The independence of the public advocate is incredibly important. The Lord Chancellor wants to get it right, but please get it right quickly.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to her for the approach that she took not only as Prime Minister but as Home Secretary throughout those years, particularly after the first report by Bishop James Jones in 2012. I well remember being a Back Bencher in this House and raising the issue of potential criminal charges, and now here we are, nearly 10 years later. I take the point about time, but I know that she will appreciate that I want to get this absolutely right. I want to make sure that anything that we do chimes with the aspirations and needs of those who might use such independent advocates. Our work will be fruitless if it does not achieve those aims.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), who has been at these issues in this House for 24 years on behalf of her constituents and others.
The Secretary of State will know that inquests have since found that 96 victims were unlawfully killed by the negligence of others. The authorities who were supposed to protect the 96 that day instead failed them. More than five years ago, the South Yorkshire police commander in charge on the day of the Hillsborough disaster admitted not only that he had inadequate experience to oversee the safety of the 54,000 people, not only that he accepted responsibility for the deaths, but that he lied, telling the then secretary of the Football Association that Liverpool fans should be blamed for getting entry through a large exit gate when, in fact, he ordered the gate to be opened himself. These lies—these pernicious, ugly mistruths—have caused incredible pain to the families of the 96, who were already in despair and obviously experiencing grief.
The collapse of the most recent case at the end of last month is yet another kick in the gut for the families of all those who lost loved ones at Hillsborough. It is nothing less than a national scandal that not one person responsible has been punished or held to account in the criminal justice system for these deadly failures. The lack of justice in this case is undermining the very concept of a public inquiry. After a tragedy like this, the system only works where there is good faith. There is clearly bad faith in respect of the Hillsborough tragedy, and we must legislate so that this can never happen again.
The travesty of Hillsborough is not a one-off. We can see parallels in the experience that the Grenfell families are going through at this time. Do the Government now accept that they need to change the law? Another tragedy, another 32 years of injustice—we clearly need to do something. This does not have to be a partisan issue. The former Prime Minister, as we have heard, yesterday expressed the need for legislative change after the most recent trial collapsed because, although it was accepted that police evidence had been altered, it did not constitute perversion of the course of justice as it was evidenced to a public inquiry. Authorities must be held to account and victims must be given the support that they need. The proposals to ensure that this takes place—the Public Advocate Bill and the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill—are ready to go. We cannot have more cover-ups, more lies and more pain for bereaved families. Truth and justice matter. Will the Secretary of State today commit to working cross-party to change the law not only to secure justice for the families of the 96, but to ensure that this does not and cannot ever happen again?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and, of course, I reiterate the commitment that I made to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) to work across the House. Those are not just words; that is backed up by the consistent work that this Government have done both in the incarnation of the previous Prime Minister and, indeed, when David Cameron was in office.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to changes in the law. I have already alluded to my intention with regard to the additional work to be done on how an independent public advocate service might work. I am also mindful of work that the Law Commission has done on potential changes to the offences of misconduct in public office, which are clearly tied in with these matters. On the matter of perverting the course of justice, I have made it clear that inquiries under the Inquiries Act 2005 could indeed be covered by that common law offence, which is a significant difference from the Taylor inquiry, which was, if you like, an administrative inquiry ordered by the Home Office, which formed the basis of learned trial judges’ decisions. I am confident that the current inquiries under the 2005 Act—indeed the future covid inquiry—would be covered, subject to the evidential tests being met by the common law offence of perverting the course of justice as well as the section 35 offences that I referred to in my initial statement.
Nothing can take away from the grief and heartache that the Hillsborough families have suffered. The system, for various reasons, has prolonged that suffering, and this has been rightly brought to our attention by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle). She is a fellow member of the Justice Committee, and all Committee members would want to extend their deepest condolences to the families at what must be a very trying time.
Will the Lord Chancellor recognise that we have to be cautious in moving to legislative change in relation to the specific facts of this case? This is a case in which a legal decision—a point of law—was argued by very experienced counsel on both sides in front of a very experienced High Court judge. Conclusions may have to be made, as he has set out, as to what should come from that, but legislative change may not be appropriate where we are dealing with a very fact-specific set of circumstances and the particular legal status of the Taylor inquiry.
Will the Lord Chancellor also recognise that he has received from the Justice Committee a report that highlights the way in which, in a number of important areas, the coronial inquest system fails, regrettably, to protect and support bereaved families both in large cases of great public attention such as this and in smaller ones too? The report makes a specific recommendation that legal representation should, as a matter of course, be available to families in cases where there has been a disaster that has significant public consequences or where state agencies such as a police authority are themselves legally represented, so that the families can get their concerns aired and their desire to challenge and scrutinise the evidence heard by their own representatives at the inquest stage earlier in the proceedings?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Justice Committee. I think I should correct the record; it was, of course, the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) who asked the urgent question. I know that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) is similarly supportive, and I am sure that she is more than grateful to be referred to, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, who is in the Chamber.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about the excellent report that his Committee has done. We will respond to it by the end of July, and my officials are working on that response. His question draws out some important points that we should all remember when it comes to inquests. Inquests are processes that are designed to uncover the facts. They are not trials; they cannot be trials. This brings us back to the essential point for the families. The families have put their faith in the criminal trial process as a way of responsibility—people being held to account. However comprehensive the inquest process was—and the inquest chaired by Sir John Goldring was, indeed, a very comprehensive and thorough piece of work that all of us can reflect upon and understand—it was never going to be a trial.
The point I seek to make is that we must ensure that, when we talk about equality of arms, which is a very important point that underpins the hon. Lady’s campaign, we do not turn to some sort of adversarial blame game. That would be wrong. It would be a disservice, frankly, to bereaved families, and it would be a misunderstanding of the coroner’s function. Article 2 widens the provisions of the inquest to allow for wider consideration to be given, but it is important that all of us focus upon the function of an inquest and the fact that any changes to be made should not detract from its essential quality.
The Hillsborough disaster was a fatal human tragedy at a football match at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield on 15 April 1989. I pay tribute to those who lost their lives and the families who have spent decades in pursuit of justice.
In 2016, the inquiry findings concluded that 96 victims were unlawfully killed due to gross negligence. Police errors in planning, defects at the stadium and delays in the emergency response all contributed to the disaster. The behaviour of fans was not to blame. The 32-year battle for justice by the families shows that the English legal system is in dire need of reform. It has failed to provide any real accountability for these unlawful deaths and a cover-up that extended from the police lying and omitting crucial details to the media narrative shifting, blaming fans for their deaths, and a long, hard fight for the truth. The collapse of the latest trial means that no one will be held criminally responsible. Margaret Aspinall, who lost her 18-year-old son in the disaster and is the former chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, has called this outcome a
“cover-up of the cover-up of the cover-up”,
saying that families have been
“put through a 32-year legal nightmare looking for the truth and accountability.”
Given the collapse of the trial, how does the Minister plan to promote confidence in accountability for public servants and in the idea that fair justice is ensured in the English legal system? The ruling that the Government inquiries are not a course of public justice and that in effect public servants cannot be held legally to account for evidence provided to them is incorrect and risks creating a dangerous precedent for those who wish to withhold or amend evidence for future inquiries. What action will the Minister take to ensure that the system of inquiries is not compromised by this ruling?
This is the end of the legal line for the Hillsborough campaigners. The reviews, inquiries, inquests and criminal trials have allowed the record to be set straight and established that fans were not to blame for the disaster. However, no convictions have been made and many still feel that justice has not been served. What assurances can the Government give to the victims and their families that the lessons of Hillsborough have been learned and that justice and accountability remain unequivocally guaranteed in the English legal system?
No one should go to a football match and not return home afterwards. It is right that the matter is considered carefully and sensitively, but after 32 years the campaign for justice for the 96 rightly deserved justice.
Indeed, Mr Speaker; you are quite right to add that to the record.
What brings those two tragedies together, although they are separated by time, is the fundamental approach that was taken to safety then. It seems that public order trumped safety, and the attitude of the then authorities was about the containment of potential unruly behaviour rather than the fundamental issues of safety. That lazy thinking, which seems astounding now in 2021, underpins many of the ways in which disasters such as this happened—or near disasters, which on many occasions were averted only by mere good luck or circumstance. That is an important point to reflect on. We cannot go back to those days. The care and safety of fans at matches have to be paramount and at the centre of any considerations by police and other agencies responsible for safety on these important occasions.
I have in my previous answers dealt with many of the proper points that the hon. Lady raises. I will reflect in this way: with regard to the inquest process, I think she will appreciate the important need for me to balance the imperative of ensuring that those who have been voiceless have a voice while at the same time making sure that we do not do anything inadvertent to close down opportunities for frankness. Although the Inquiries Act has done a very important job in making clear what is covered not just by statute but by the common law offence of perverting the course of justice, just because an inquiry might not be held under its aegis does not mean that there should be some retreat from principles of honesty, openness and integrity. That should not be the case. It should not just be about the letter of the law being there; it should be about the spirit of behaviour by everybody. That is what I want to see, and I know that it is what hon. and right hon. Members want to see too.
It is hard to disagree with the reported comments of Deanna Matthews that it is “ludicrous” for the search for justice to have ended in this way, particularly when the community in Liverpool have had to fight so hard for so long to uncover the truth. What does my right hon. and learned Friend consider is the key lesson for the Department he leads to prevent things like this from ever happening again?
My hon. Friend encapsulates very well the task that is before me and the Government. The task is to make sure, first, that we have finally moved away from the public order mindset that I referred to, but secondly, that in response to any tragedy or disaster that might happen, there is a spirit of openness and a willingness and an understanding that the needs of bereaved families must be at the heart of processes. In everything that we do with regard to future investigations, inquiries and criminal investigations, people must not hide behind process and use that as a shield, because that has been the impression and the perception, which is why the families feel today that deep damage has been done to the process.
Bishop James Jones set out in his report that one of the problems with the initial inquest was that there was no public funding for the families to get the representation and advice they needed. The Government have said that providing legal aid for inquests is too expensive. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s earlier response about that: an inquest is not like criminal proceedings or court proceedings. But clearly some legal advice is important for families in these cases. Whatever he wants to call it, will he listen to those families and prevent further injustices in future by providing legal aid for inquests?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady heard my observations about what has already been done with regard to legal aid and legal eligibility. The effective removal of the upper means test threshold with regard to exceptional case funding for legal help and legal representation in circumstances just such as this is a very important development. I take the point that she makes. That is why I have already undertaken not just to present the response to the 2018 consultation but to develop it further so that any potential change that can be made will be done with the fullest, most careful and earliest consideration.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, as this is the first time I am speaking on this topic, I hope you will allow me to pay tribute to the four victims from Warrington who lost their lives at Hillsborough—in particular, to David Benson from Penketh in my constituency, who was just 22 when he died. Having read some of the comments from Brian, David’s father, it is clear to me that he feels that the system has failed him at every single level. With that in mind, will the Lord Chancellor clarify what steps he is taking following the collapse of the most recent trial in relation to the offence of perverting the course of justice and common law offences that touch on those who hold public office?
My hon. Friend puts in very heartfelt, genuine terms the real sense of loss and frustration, to say the least, that his constituents and their families feel. I have already outlined the steps that I want to take with regard to looking at the public advocate role. In line with that, I and my officials are considering very carefully the work of Law Commission on the offences of misconduct in public office published right at the end of last year. I aim to issue a response as soon as possible with regard to any next steps. There is a joint protocol that we have agreed between my Department—the Government—and the Law Commission. I want to make sure that any potential changes are done in the round so that we are not inadvertently missing out any particular issues that clearly need to be addressed.
May I pay my own tribute to the families and survivors? It took 27 years to get to the truth that 96 people were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough, yet 32 years on, justice remains out of reach. The decades-long fight of the bereaved families and survivors is all the evidence we need that the legal system is broken, and the collapse of the recent trial risks setting a precedent that tips the scales of justice even further away from victims. Can I ask the Lord Chancellor to say how he will engage with the families and survivors about their experiences? Will he quickly set out a timetable for reviewing and changing the law, to learn lessons from the horrific experiences that the families and survivors have had of the British legal and judicial system?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I can assure him that when it comes to ramifications, we must remember that this was a decision of first instance that turned on its particular facts. I have clearly set out the position with regard to the existing Inquiries Act 2005 and the section 35 offences applying to that and, indeed, the common law offence of perverting the course of justice.
In terms of the other important points the hon. Gentleman makes, colleagues at the Home Office will now be working closely with the families with regard to the 2017 Bishop James Jones report. They can get on with that work now that the trial has come to a conclusion. As I said earlier, “nothing about them without them” has to be at the heart of the work that is done with the families, so that what emerges will be a positive set of changes informed by the excellent work of Bishop James Jones.
Secondly, I have already outlined what my intentions are with potential legislative change, and I absolutely get the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need, after all this time, for work to be done as speedily as possible.
The Hillsborough tragedy is one of those events where anyone who was alive at the time will remember where they were when these terrible events were unfolding. All our sympathy must be with the families of the victims and those recovering. Will my right hon and learned Friend set out what plans he has to review the existing position so that legal support is provided to the families of victims not only of the Hillsborough tragedy, but of other tragedies that may sadly happen? There will need to be legal support for families undergoing this. We need to learn the lessons and ensure that the failure to provide proper legal support for these families during the entire process is not repeated.
I think it goes further than that; it starts right at the beginning of the process, and I think the families would say that they were shut out from day one. The rot sets in much earlier than the investigative, inquisitorial and adversarial process. That is something that none of us can accept or wants to see happen. What we are left with is the aftermath. The work that Government have been doing and will continue to do in the spirit of cross-party co-operation is designed to try to create a higher degree of accountability and involvement, but I emphasise something that I have not yet properly emphasised, which is that the justice system cannot do this alone. It is only as good as the product of the evidence, information and intelligence it receives, and that requires all arms of the state to act in a way that is responsible, open, accountable and honest.
Those of us who were at Hillsborough that April in 1989 will never forget the scenes that we witnessed that day, made all the worse by the deliberate attempt by South Yorkshire police to blame Liverpool fans. It made the trauma of the families 10 times worse. It is worth putting on the record again that what has been found is that the police lost control, the stadium was unfit for a match of that importance and that size of crowd, and other agencies such as the ambulance service failed on the day.
What is important now is that we take the lessons forward. This has been a terrible time again for the families. I hear what the Secretary of State says, but over the years as an MP on constituency cases I have had some good and bad experiences with the coronial service. I dealt with a case recently that also raises questions about whether sensitivity and openness to families is really there throughout the coronial service. I hope that we will look at that again.
I thank the hon. Gentleman who, as a Merseyside MP as well as a football fan, has lived this experience, along with all of us who have followed this tragedy over the years. I am, of course, more than happy to look at the case that he raises. In the past I have always been happy to see him on particular issues, and this occasion will be no exception.
I am sure that the whole House has immense sympathy with the families affected by the tragic events of Hillsborough, and their tireless pursuit of justice is to be praised. Has my right hon. and learned Friend made an assessment of the adequacy of the financial package of support available to bereaved families after such a tragic event?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. As I outlined in previous answers, it is important, certainly from my position with regard to the justice process, that we act as swiftly as possible to make legal aid eligibility easier. We have done that, but clearly, in the light of the responses to our consultation, more work needs to be done to achieve the level of justice-related support that families deserve.
The recent collapse of the Hillsborough trial was a devastating development for many people living in my constituency and across Merseyside who have suffered so much in their decades’ long quest for justice. The pain that it has caused the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives, along with the trauma still haunting so many of the survivors, needs to be urgently addressed by this House. Do the Government accept that the payment of compensation by the police to 601 people affected by the disaster is inconsistent with the court’s failure to find anybody responsible for the tragedy, and that that failure needs to be addressed by legislation to protect victims in the future?
The hon. Gentleman asks a proper question about compensation; indeed, it echoes that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). I undertake to write to them both about that aspect. I do not want to say anything that would in any way be misconstrued or misunderstood. Frankly, this is a very sensitive matter that needs more careful consideration. I am alive to the fact that things are said and done purportedly on behalf of the families when in fact the families have not been involved. We have to act in a way that is consistent with our words, and that is what I am doing on this occasion.
I pay tribute to the families and survivors at Hillsborough. Liverpool is a proud and resilient city, and I am a proud Scouser. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s description, we are not a city that wallows in victim status; we have a long history of fighting social injustice, and Hillsborough is the worst kind of injustice. On 15 April 1989, 96 Liverpool fans left to watch a football match and died as a result of corporate failures. Can the Lord Chancellor tell the House, and the families of the 96, what he intends to do for justice to be served?
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the great city of Liverpool. I am a proud Welshman, but Liverpool is very close to my homeland and to my heart. It is a great city—a wonderful place, full of amazing people. I want to put that on the record. I am sure that she listened very carefully to the points that I made about my intentions, and the Government’s, with regard to achieving as high a degree of justice as possible. Sometimes the word “justice” is bandied about a bit too much and we are perhaps a little careless with the way we use it. Bearing in mind everything that has happened, and the huge setbacks and reversals that the families have experienced, I will try to achieve as high a degree of justice as possible in these terrible difficult and deeply sad circumstances.
Thirty-two years after the Hillsborough tragedy, the families of the 96 football fans unlawfully killed that day have not seen justice done. Three of my Warrington North constituents—19-year-old Ian “Ronnie” Whelan, 19-year-old Colin Ashcroft and 42-year-old Eric Hughes—were among the 96 innocent victims killed that day. May their memories forever be a blessing. Many more of my constituents have been traumatised by the events of that day.
The fact that there has been no individual responsible held to account by the justice system is a national scandal, as are the years of smears about fans that the families and survivors have endured, blaming them for the disaster. Will the Government therefore consider implementing the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill of the former Member for Leigh to set a requirement on public institutions, public servants and officials, and on those carrying out functions on their behalf, to act in the public interest and with candour and frankness, so that other families bereaved in public disasters cannot be treated as disgracefully as the Hillsborough families have been?
I think the hon. Lady is right to remind us again about the victims of the disaster from Warrington North and how in fact the diaspora—I suppose that is the best word to use—was a wide one, bearing in mind the wide fan base of Liverpool football club. That means that what happened was a national disaster, and was not confined to the great city of Liverpool, though the great city of Liverpool felt the brunt of it. This was something I think all of us felt was a national loss and a national disaster, and therefore we have a national responsibility to address it and to rectify wrongs that have been committed.
I listened very carefully to the hon. Lady’s point about the Bill that fell back prior to the general election of 2017. I am of course, as I have already indicated, looking carefully at aspects relating to that Bill, and indeed at wider work to make sure that we fully reflect the wrongs that were committed and the culture change that I think is such an important part of rectifying the ills of the past.
Ninety-six people were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough. Police statements were altered, yet nobody has been held to account. What are the Government going to do about it?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and she will forgive me if I do not go through all the important points I have made in response to other hon. Members. I will simply say this to her: she rightly raises the issue and she wants accountability—so do I, and so do the Government. That is why the work will continue in the months ahead, particularly the important work that the Home Office has conducted with the families directly, as a result of Bishop James Jones’s second report—the 2017 report.
Can I thank the Lord Chancellor for his answers so far?
On 15 April 1989, I witnessed 96 women, men and children unlawfully killed at a football match in Hillsborough, Sheffield. On 26 May 2021 in Salford, we shamefully witnessed a trial collapse on a technicality. After 32 years, not a single person has been held accountable for the deaths, and justice has been denied to families and survivors.
“Our loved ones went to a football match and were killed, then they and the survivors were branded hooligans,”
said Margaret Aspinall:
“We’ve been put through a 32-year legal nightmare looking for the truth and accountability.”
Mary Corrigan, whose 17-year-old son Keith—he was a great friend of mine—died, said she was “so angry”:
“It’s the lies, the lies that they’ve come out with,”
We now have families of the dead, survivors and indeed a city—broken by the events of 32 years—believing our justice system is corrupt and damaged beyond repair.
Does the Lord Chancellor accept that there need to be legislative changes to avoid families affected by future disasters facing the same mistreatment and injustice as the Hillsborough families and survivors have suffered? Will the Lord Chancellor commit to working with families, survivors and Members across this House to implement the Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), which will help to ensure this injustice is never repeated?
I am profoundly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and I listened very carefully to what he said. He was a witness to what happened and, no doubt, he has to live with that. All of us in this House would understand and share with him that huge sense of loss to which I referred and that sense of an ongoing injustice. I hope he appreciates that, in the answers I have given, I have set out the steps the Government wish to take on the important work that is being done on many fronts: potential legislative change; the work of Bishop James Jones’s inquiry; and, importantly, the work that quietly but effectively goes on between the Home Office and families directly. I say again that we have to act in accordance with our words, and doing things for, to or about the families is meaningless unless we do it with them—it has to be with them that we will make things better.
In asking my question today, I am thinking of all those who lost a loved one and all those who were affected in any way by the Hillsborough disaster, and all that they have been through.
I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) for their incredible work on this, and I will support them every step of the way as they create a legal legacy for all those affected in the most terrible way by the Hillsborough disaster. Both of them accurately captured the effective silencing in recent years of those who know the truth of Hillsborough during the recent proceedings, which is why I want to ask about the Hillsborough archive, which is crucial to making sure that history correctly records the truth of Hillsborough. Will the Lord Chancellor and appropriate Ministers meet me to discuss the future for that archive?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, who makes an important point about the archive. There is a general point to be made here which goes back to the initial question. The ongoing criminal procedure meant that a lot of material, for example, material on existing websites, had to be taken down. Obviously, I want that to change—I want it all to go back. Indeed, more work needs to be done to ensure that documents and material are in the public domain. So my answer is: yes, I absolutely will undertake to work with her, because I think it is important that everybody has access to the truth, so that the full story is known by generations yet to come.
It represents a complete failure of the state, does it not, that 96 people were unlawfully killed and then there was a cover-up, for which no one has been held to account because of what amounts to a technicality 32 years later on? So does the Lord Chancellor agree that, to the families of the bereaved, the idea about statements submitted by the police to an inquiry headed by a Lord Justice that was not in the “course of public justice” is a cruel absurdity, on top of all the other injustices that they have suffered? Does he consider that anything could have been done to close this loophole long before we got to this point?
I listened carefully to the careful question from the hon. Gentleman. He appreciates that with regard to criminal procedure the law applicable at the time is the law that is then used with regard to the evidence and whether individuals might be guilty or not guilty of allegations. I have made it very clear that the Inquiries Act 2005, which of course was passed many years after the Taylor inquiry, covers the major public inquiries that we are all very familiar with, the ongoing ones that we have and indeed the future covid inquiry. I have also made it clear that that common law offence of perverting the course of justice would cover those types of inquiries, but clearly as part of the work we are doing, we will look carefully to make sure that there are not any inadvertent loopholes, while remembering the important point that there will be certain procedures that must be conducted in a spirit of openness and honesty which will benefit from being less adversarial and more fact-finding, and that of course includes the essence of the inquest process itself. We must be very mindful of getting that balance right when we look at these things.
The collapse of the trial last month was devastating for the families who lost loved ones at Hillsborough. In 2016, an inquest jury ruled that the 96 who tragically lost their lives were unlawfully killed, yet no successful criminal charges have been brought against any individual. The whole House will be in agreement that this is a massive failing of the criminal justice system.
I have heard the Lord Chancellor’s responses today, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) says, the Public Advocate Bill and the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill are ready to go. Will the Government now commit to introducing that legislation without delay, so that no families bereaved by public disasters have to go through what the families who lost loved ones at Hillsborough have had to endure?
Without repeating the points I made in earlier answers, I reiterate my commitment to carefully considering the 2018 consultation and the responses that have been given, which were quite varied and included varied views about the merits of the proposal. I will always look to achieve that essential element of independence and to ensure that a voice is provided to those who, prior to this, have been voiceless.
Ninety-six people died at Hillsborough, including 18 people from the borough of Sefton. That included Kevin Williams, one of the youngest victims, whose mum, Anne, campaigned so hard to achieve the new inquest. Despite the coroner’s verdict, no one was held accountable of unlawful killing at that new inquest. Instead, the loved ones of the bereaved families continue to be smeared to this day. The Justice Secretary said that he was committed to changing the law, so I ask him: how quickly will he introduce the Hillsborough law? Will it deliver parity of legal funding for bereaved families? Will it include a duty of candour on public officials? In short, will it ensure that no one is ever denied justice in such a cruel way ever again?
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to all those from the borough of Sefton who lost their lives and to their families, to whom he quite rightly refers. Those campaigners, in particular in his constituency, worked so hard for the inquest. I remember the people he talks about very well, as I think do most of us who followed events closely; I remember them with gratitude and honour.
I will not reiterate the points I have made, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answers that I gave a moment ago. I simply say this: I want to get it right and to ensure that things are done as quickly as possible, but I do not want to rush this and get it wrong in a way that, frankly, the families would, once again, be let down by.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for her assiduous work over many years on behalf of her constituents and many others on this important issue. It is important to remember that the families have suffered injustice at every stage, and have had to fight to overturn lies and decisions that have gone against them. They have had to relive the tragedy and listen to all the details of what their family members went through on that day.
To then come to the final stage, with a court case falling on the technicality that it is not unlawful to give false statements in an inquest—we cannot imagine the pain and anguish that that must cause. I ask the Lord Chancellor to expedite the changes in law that he has said he is willing to do, but will he also tell us whether he thinks the Crown Prosecution Service has anything to answer for here? Should it be looking at itself and the way it has conducted itself during this case?
The hon. Gentleman encapsulates the feelings very well indeed. I refer him to the answers I gave a moment ago.
With regard to the CPS, I have to say that I am not the accountable Minister. The Attorney General is responsible for the superintendence of the independent Crown Prosecution Service. As Lord Chancellor, my clear role is to acknowledge and respect process, and I think perhaps it would not be right for me to make comments about an individual case, not having been close to the facts. The hon. Gentleman knows that there are mechanisms by which further questions can be asked, primarily via the Attorney General’s Office.
As other hon. Members have done today, I pay tribute to the families and survivors of Hillsborough for their dignity and tenacity in the pursuit of truth and justice, and of course I pay tribute to my wider city of Liverpool. Hillsborough and the subsequent fight for justice show the great lengths to which state actors are willing to go to avoid accountability and truth—to act in their own self-interest, not that of the public, the survivors or the families.
The fact remains that 96 innocent men, women and children were unlawfully killed, and yet nobody has been held accountable and justice still awaits. Will the Secretary of State condemn Jonathan Goldberg’s recent comments about the behaviour of Liverpool fans that day? A member of the Queen’s Counsel should know better and, quite frankly, his empty apology just does not cut it.
I can absolutely understand the strong feelings that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) has articulated. She is right to remind us that every time comments are made in public, by people who should think very carefully, real hurt can be caused. The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) is right to mention the reliving of events. The intense sensitivity of these matters cannot be overestimated, so my sage advice to everybody in public life, and anybody who wishes to pass comment about the dreadful events of 1989, is this. Remember that there are human people behind this, who are still living with it. Show some respect.
I pay tribute to the families, survivors and victims. The Lord Chancellor referred to loopholes. I understand that the expert witness Sir Robert Francis QC, who has led or been involved in inquiries into the Liverpool Alder Hey Children’s Hospital scandal and others, and who is a champion of openness and transparency, told the jury—with regret, I expect—that there was no legal duty of candour for police at a public inquiry. Can I be absolutely clear? Is the Lord Chancellor absolutely satisfied that the current legal provisions, which he referred to earlier, cover all administrative inquiries in relation to breach of candour? I thank him today for his candour.
The hon. Gentleman asks a very important question. Indeed, he touches on detail that my officials and I need to consider regarding not just the ruling, but the evidence that was given in the trial. As he knows, it would not be right for me to comment on the detail of that evidence. It is clear that that work needs to be carried out as part of a wider process of making sure that well-intentioned decisions to get on with important and expeditious work to uncover the truth do not end up, further down the line, in loopholes that can cause real misery to those who seek justice. He knows that my door is always open to him, and I am sure that we will carry on having an active dialogue on these important matters.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:
Finance Act 2021.
I now suspend the House for two minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.