Skip to main content

Public Advocate Bill [HL]

Volume 768: debated on Friday 29 January 2016

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, this Bill arises out of my experience as a Minister devising the Hillsborough Independent Panel that was set up by the Government of Gordon Brown towards the end of his premiership. This was a more complicated and difficult process than perhaps the current public record suggests. The problems I encountered during that process made me reflect on the wider implications for public policy in the case of large public disasters such as Hillsborough, and this Bill is the result.

I want to place on record my gratitude to Ministers in the Ministry of Justice, the Justice Secretary, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the other place, Caroline Dinenage, and the Minister of State here, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, for the courtesy and consideration they have given to my representations to them about the Bill. I am also grateful to their officials, who have been generous with their time in discussing details of the Bill with me. Above all, I want to pay tribute again to the families bereaved in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, who campaigned for so long with such dignity and persistence in the midst of their grief until, at last, they have begun to see the results of their campaign for justice. Without their efforts, the panel would never have been established, and without their efforts, it would never have achieved what it has.

In 2009, I met representatives of those families on several occasions to discuss with them what outcomes might satisfy them. One message that came through over and over again was that they wanted to find a way to prevent other similarly bereaved families suffering and having to endure in the way they had suffered and endured for 20 years. This Bill is designed to do just that.

This is not the time to rehearse the history of those years between the disaster and the setting up of the panel, but that history illustrates the extent to which bereaved families and injured survivors can feel alienated from the official process for responding to such public disasters and how lack of transparency is one of the key reasons for that. It revealed the extent to which the experience and responses of bereaved families and injured survivors can illuminate what happens in such disasters, and why, and reveal flaws in the official response to them. That all this is now in the public domain is a tribute to the outstanding work done by the members of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, so ably and compassionately chaired by the then Bishop of Liverpool, who many noble Lords will remember from his time in your Lordships’ House, with powerful support from Home Office officials. The bereaved families were all well served by their labours. I should also pay tribute to the current Prime Minister and the current Home Secretary who continued to support a panel set up by a previous Labour Government and followed through on its report.

The fact that finally the families bereaved at Hillsborough have been able to achieve much of what they campaigned for should not lead to any complacency about the systems currently in place to respond to such public disasters. When the full record of what happened after the Hillsborough disaster is eventually made public it will show, I believe, how the successful outcome of the Hillsborough Independent Panel was the result of a series of fortunate coincidences. There was nothing inevitable about it. This can be seen from, among other things, the fact that the intense difficulties experienced by those bereaved at Hillsborough have been experienced by those bereaved in other public disasters including, for example, the Lockerbie terrorist atrocity, the sinking of the “Marchioness” in the Thames and the wreck of the “Derbyshire” in the South China Sea. Those bereaved families have not all made the progress the Hillsborough families have eventually been able to make.

Sadly, we must assume that such tragedies involving large-scale loss of life will occur again; they always have, and they always will. So this Bill seeks to provide a better way of responding to them on behalf of the bereaved and the injured survivors. It does so on the basis that there is an identifiable pattern to the process that follows a public disaster such as those I have mentioned. The nature and extent of a public disaster very often demands a response from government. The questions raised are almost always the same: who is to blame and what can be done to stop it happening again? Finding the answers does not put the bereaved families anywhere near the centre of that process. The state naturally assumes for itself the dispensation of justice, and the needs and wishes of victims, including the bereaved, are not paramount. As the process unfolds, there is an inevitable tendency for those in official positions who fear that they might be blamed in some way for what happened to close ranks and skew the results of any investigation, as they are so often in a position to do. The report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel graphically illustrated this in the way that it has exposed the behaviour of the police.

Yet the interests of justice and good government would not necessarily be best delivered by removing the state altogether from the process of responding to public disasters. The challenge, therefore, is to strike a better balance between the impartial discharge of justice and good government and protecting the interests and feelings of the bereaved and injured survivors. The Hillsborough Independent Panel pointed the way towards how that might be done, and the Bill seeks to learn those lessons. The first, in my view, was the benefit of the panel review system, which was able to circumvent the constraints of data protection legislation and so was able to reveal new facts. Then there was the importance of the trust placed in that panel by the bereaved and the confidence that they felt the panel was working in their interests. Next was the importance of the bereaved being able to articulate their views collectively. Importantly, the process revealed the problems caused by the absence of any consistent advocate for the bereaved at the heart of government to overcome any interests working against them. Lastly, I have little doubt that it was the extraordinary persistence and dignity and solidarity of the Hillsborough families’ campaign that generated the momentum that led to the panel and its achievements. This will not necessarily be replicable in similar situations in future.

I draw three conclusions from that. The first is the importance of transparency. Without this, the bereaved will never achieve anything approaching closure, and without it it is difficult, and often impossible, for the public policy lessons to be learnt and necessary reforms made. The second is the creation of an institutionalised, independent and adequately resourced advocate for the bereaved. Those who are bereaved in future public disasters should not have to rely on ad hoc remedies extracted over such a long period, such as those that in the end delivered some progress for those bereaved at Hillsborough. The last is the need, as I said, to organise some collective expression of the views of the bereaved.

Those conclusions underpin the Bill, but in my view they do not suggest replacing the existing system of responding to public disasters, such as the coronial system and public inquiries. They clearly still have a critical role to play, to ensure that any overarching public interest is protected. Rather, the Hillsborough experience suggests augmenting the system to protect better the interests of the bereaved. The Bill proposes the establishment of an independent and adequately resourced advocate for those bereaved in public disasters and injured survivors. The constitutional position for such a public advocate is based on what I believe to be the successful model of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, and would have a similar relationship to central government. The unpredictable and ephemeral nature of the demands on such an advocate would, I think, preclude any permanent establishment. However, to ensure that such an advocate was adequately resourced to deal with whatever demands were placed on them, they would be located within a government department—the Ministry of Justice would appear to be an obvious candidate—with the ability to call on the resources of that department as required.

The Bill stipulates, crucially, that two conditions would need to be satisfied before the advocate was required to act. The first would be that in the advocate’s opinion an event had occurred that had led to a large-scale loss of life and involved serious health and safety issues, a failure of regulation or other events of serious concern. In other words, the advocate would not be required to act in all circumstances where there was a large-scale loss of life. Secondly, to act, the advocate must have been asked to do so by 50% plus one or more of the total of representatives of those deceased due to the event and any injured survivors of it. In effect, the bereaved and any injured survivors would have a veto on the advocate’s role coming into effect.

When those two conditions had been satisfied, the public advocate would be required to act as a representative for the interests of the bereaved and survivors, and act as adviser and guide for them and any other representatives that they might have during any police investigation into the disaster and during the inquest. Following any such police investigation and the inquest, on request by a majority of the legitimate representatives of the victims and in consultation with them, the advocate would set up a panel, consulting the bereaved on its composition, to be in the position of data controller, so replicating the position of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. The panel would review all relevant documentation, which would be made available to them on request from all responsible agencies, and report on it—again, replicating the position of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. In effect, the Bill intends to give the bereaved a veto on the establishment of such a panel and its composition.

The Bill then sets out the conditions that would govern the disclosure of information to an advocate’s panel, and these are based on the safeguards in the Freedom of Information Act. I have incorporated them into the Bill because I believe that the Act is generally regarded as successful legislation, notwithstanding the Government’s current commission looking into reforms to it. Even that commission, which is widely regarded as hostile to the Act, seems, if media reports are to believed, to be considering only relatively minor amendments to it, and therefore it seems sensible to rely on its tried and tested provisions.

Lastly, the Bill contains provisions for the advocate to send to the Lord Chancellor a report on an annual basis summarising its work and the conclusion of support relating to a particular event, and at any other time when it identifies a need so to do, and the Lord Chancellor would lay before Parliament a copy of any reports received from the advocate within 15 days of their receipt. That provision is designed to ensure that Parliament retained oversight of the work of the advocate, and represents a further safeguard of the interests of the bereaved and injured survivors.

Since the Hillsborough disaster there have been significant improvements in the coronial system, set in train 12 years ago by my noble friend Lord Blunkett, and I am very pleased that he is speaking today. He remarked then on the importance of,

“providing a high quality service to the public at large and particularly to the bereaved, recognising their special needs and the input they can make to the death investigation process”.

Moreover, there is now the precedent established by the Hillsborough panel report and the subsequent inquest, which I hope will mean that in future bereaved families will not have to campaign as the Hillsborough families had to do for so long. However, the Bill is still necessary, because it gives the bereaved and injured survivors greater control over the process than they currently have, for all the welcome reforms to the coronial system and all the precedents established by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Rather than relying on ad hoc responses by government, victims, the bereaved and injured survivors would have a right to support and transparency.

My drafting of the Bill could well be improved, and it certainly makes a number of subjective judgments which may well have to be revisited—for example, the trigger mechanism which enables the public advocate to act, as I recognise that many bereaved and injured survivors might well not want to take part in a continuing process and their feelings must be respected. Another example is the definition of who should qualify as bereaved or a representative of the deceased, which may well also need to be revisited.

However, these are details which the Government, with all the expert resources at their disposal, can easily address and improve. Therefore I hope that today the Minister will feel able at least to express support for the principle that the Bill seeks to establish, of approving support for those bereaved by public disasters and injured survivors and giving greater powers to them. I hope that he can also suggest today a way to make progress on entrenching those principles in public policy. I beg to move.

My Lords, as I rise to speak I suspect that going through the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is a conversation we had when he took over from me as Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, when I said, “Don’t worry—I’m not going to be one of these ex-Ministers who haunts you when you’re doing the job”. I am in fact speaking twice today but that is still my resolution. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wills, and to speak before the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, on this matter. Both bring incredible experience as well as local and national expertise to the Bill before us. As we all know, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is an ideas man and has a terrier-like determination once he has something in his sights.

I am very pleased to be able to support a Second Reading for the Bill. The debate is bound to be dominated to a great extent by the Hillsborough disaster. My parents were both born in Liverpool and I have a large number of cousins and second cousins and the rest dotted around Merseyside, so I know the trauma and hurt that Hillsborough caused. However, it is also important, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, indicated, that this should not just be the final piece in the Hillsborough puzzle but should look forward to the disasters that will inevitably happen in the future.

Hillsborough, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, indicated, was all too familiar, as regards how major disasters happen. Families and the bereaved feel excluded from the process; those with responsibilities become defensive and uncommunicative; and ranks are closed to protect reputations, avoid culpability, and protect commercial or operational confidentiality. The wheels grind slow and the lay person feels excluded, as professionals seem to take over what is for individuals not simply today’s headline but a deeply personal tragedy.

Hillsborough only now comes to closure over a quarter of a century after it happened. Lessons have to be learned by the football authorities. I remember where I was when I heard on the radio that there had been a disaster, and my first reaction was, “Not again”. Ibrox, Bradford—any of us who were regular football attenders knew that health and safety at football grounds was a joke. Now I think again, there have been massive improvements over the last 20 years in ground safety and the quality of the offer to the football fan. However, the lessons of Hillsborough still need to be learned. They need to be learned by the police, certainly as regards crowd control, which was unbelievably amateurish at Hillsborough, as we now know, and as regards their own internal behaviour, discipline and inquiries. They are hard lessons to learn, but learn they must.

The noble Lord, Lord Wills, paid tribute to the changes in the coronial system and the guidelines on speed and information now under way. It is worth while noting that the inquest into the 7/7 bombings, conducted by Lady Justice Hallett, received almost universal commendation for the skill with which she conducted it. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, is right to say that neither the Bill nor its supporters have any intention of getting away from the inquest system properly conducted. Government and politicians also sometimes failed to listen or act. Sometimes that is because of the reaction when these things happen, when our compensation culture kicks in and there is a defensiveness against that. However, that does not go against the key hurt which the Bill intends to address.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that there is no room for complacency. There is much more room for transparency; if any lesson runs through this like through a stick of Blackpool rock, it is about the need for transparency and openness in dealing with these issues. Therefore I join the noble Lord in urging the Government in dealing with the Freedom of Information Act to treat it as the precious asset it is. I end as the noble Lord did; the headline in yesterday’s Independent said:

“Hillsborough trauma ‘could be avoided’ under new plans to help families of disaster victims”.

That sums it up. On that ground alone, the Bill is justified in being given a Second Reading.

My Lords, I will speak briefly to commend my noble friend Lord Wills for his work on the Bill and for bringing it forward to us. He and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, have concisely and clearly laid out why this legislation is necessary and that while there may be tweaks to the content and to the way it finally emerges, the need to get this right for the future is unarguable.

We make progress slowly. As my noble friend Lord Wills generously suggested, as Home Secretary I oversaw modest improvements to the coroner’s court system and greater transparency, with the considerable help of the late Paul Goggins, who as a Minister and Member of Parliament was an exemplar of how to get things done and to do so with care and thought for others—which is at the root of my noble friend Lord Wills’s proposition. At the very moment when people are hurt the most—in one sense disabled the most from being able to be advocates on their own behalf and for those loved ones they have lost—we need to assist them to be able to articulate that hurt and to seek redress. More important than redress itself is to be able to investigate and put right those aspects which can be identified as having gone very badly wrong so that others do not have to suffer in that way. Therefore an advocate is needed most at the moment of greatest hurt.

I suggest that it would be remiss of us to allow this proposition to fall, particularly during its process, on the grounds of cost. I know—and am learning as I go along—that we do not deal with finance in this House, but there are costs involved in picking up issues much later in the day, a number of which have been listed by the noble Lord, Lord Wills. When an inquiry is held, a process is set in train to bring comfort and redress, and to provide knowledge about what happened and what needs to be put right. The cost of that is much greater down the line than if that process is brought into play quickly and easily. The terrible hurt and trauma involved for the individuals who have fought with tenacity for what they see as justice, as well as setting the scene for others for the future, following the Hillsborough disaster —a fight that has been ongoing for 27 years—as well as other instances that have been listed, can be avoided.

It has been said to me that people are losing loved ones in tragic circumstances on a daily basis, and we should be cognisant of the fact—I am very mindful of this—that numbers are not always a reflection of that. Therefore, it will be important to get the terms right regarding when an advocate should be brought in to represent those who are bereaved, to speak on behalf of those who can no longer speak for themselves, and to unlock the systems which those of us who have been in government are all too familiar with. There is a tendency—I plead as guilty to it as anyone else—not to want to close things down but to hear what suits the moment best.

Until last May, I represented the area around the Hillsborough stadium in the city of Sheffield. I am deeply mindful that in the aftermath of the disaster, even with the Taylor inquiries, people did not know the truth and therefore were subject to listening to what others were saying, sometimes making unjustifiable judgments. We have to avoid that. The quicker an advocate can come on to the scene—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, mentioned Lady Justice Hallett—the more likely it is that we will get to the truth quickly and avoid myth and countermyth and the terrible hurt that goes with that.

It is really important that we pick up what is an excellent idea and hone it into a mechanism that will work for the future. I hope we will ensure that we do not put people through years and years of distress, and very often anger, because systems do not work and because those in power and those with influence—who, understandably, are getting on with their job—are felt not to be listening and learning. If we can avoid that, we will do a great deal for individuals who are in that situation but we will also ensure that our democracy works better.

My Lords, I want to be brief. I applaud my noble friend Lord Wills for this excellent proposal and I urge people on all sides of the House to support it.

The proposal draws its inspiration from one of the few positive developments to have emerged from the shameful saga of the events following the Hillsborough disaster—the Hillsborough Independent Panel. As my noble friend Lord Wills made clear, it is not a proposal to replace the existing mechanisms that we use to respond to public disasters, but to augment that process with an independent, adequately resourced advocate for bereaved families.

The grief suffered by the families, friends and loved ones of the 96 who lost their lives at Hillsborough is unimaginable for the vast majority of us. But what is extraordinary, and shameful, is that over a quarter of a century later the families of the 96 are still waiting for final justice and for the final truth to emerge. For much of that time, those in positions of power—through a combination of negligence, obfuscation, intransigence and professional self-interest—have combined to prevent the full facts of what happened coming to light.

However, if there are any silver linings in this grim, appalling episode in our national life, it is that eventually the Hillsborough Independent Panel system emerged as an ally of and advocate for the bereaved. It was able to circumvent the constraints of freedom of information and data protection legislation, and became trusted by the families both to listen to their experiences and to be an advocate in their search for the truth inside government and other public authorities.

I do not think we can understate how intimidating it is for families thrust by tragedy into the public limelight to deal with public authorities, government and the state, or how huge the information gap is when you are outside the system, unable to access it, and, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, when you don’t know what you don’t know, as well as when you don’t have the first clue how to access what you know that you don’t know, or how the myriad laws, rules, provisions and jurisdictional boundaries make navigating the system impossible for those who are not experts on process, government lawyers or senior professionals.

And all that is assuming that the various agencies of the state—from central to local government, the police, officials staffing inquiries, civil servants and employees of other public bodies—show co-operation, judgment, sensitivity and objectivity towards the families concerned. But sadly, as we know from the Hillsborough tragedy, that cannot always be assumed, so families may face not just the might of the state but parts of the state that have interests of their own to protect—those, which, I am afraid, cannot be assumed to be honest brokers and which can come across as adversaries, with resources far greater than those of the families.

The value of a state-provided advocate in the event of future public disasters is clear: to act on behalf of the bereaved as an adviser during the investigation and inquest; to get access to documentation that the families would not be able to access and to report on the contents; and to require resources, commission advice and issue reports. These are functions that cannot simply be provided by collective legal representation. As my noble friend Lord Wills set out, there is a precedent here, although as my noble friend Lord Blunkett made clear, work will obviously need to be done on clarifying when this would and would not apply.

What makes this proposal so necessary is not just the experience of the Hillsborough families but the experience of families who have suffered so much in previous public disasters. We know that the barriers to establishing the truth about the circumstances of disasters have been experienced by other families in other tragedies. I shall take just one example: the Aberfan tragedy in Wales in 1966, when a coal slip killed 116 children and 28 adults. This was a tragedy caused in part by the negligence of public authorities, yet the families faced a stunning combination of insensitivity and professional self-protection in the inquiry process that resulted from it. At one point, the Charity Commission, in 1967, gave advice to the Aberfan Disaster Fund on financial compensation for the families who had lost children. It said that before any payment was made, each case should be reviewed to ascertain whether the parents had been close to their children and were likely to be suffering mentally. One bereaved mother wrote to the chairman of the National Coal Board, Lord Robens, about the way that she felt the inquest had treated her and other families. She wrote that the response of the NCB and other authorities,

“adds to the feeling that our children, whatever they meant to us and whatever value they may have been as citizens, are now dead, and being so, value little to this country, and also value little to those who caused them to die. They are now it seems and within the letter of the law to be written off, as cheaply as possible and the matter closed ... Is there no room for social conscience?”.

There is little we can do about the unnecessary suffering caused by the impenetrability of government and public authorities for those who have suffered in disasters such as the Aberfan tragedy, but there is something we can do for those among us all who may lose someone they love in future tragedies. As my title betrays, I am a lifelong Liverpool football fan. I myself tried to get a ticket for the Hillsborough game when I was 21, and I have a son who, I think, has a lifetime ahead of him of attending Liverpool games. Imagine losing someone you love in those circumstances and feeling helpless in the face of searching for the real reasons, because of the way our government and our public bodies work. Why would we wish that on anyone?

This is a sensible, practical proposal. It needs more work but is definitely in the right territory. It builds on something that has worked in the case of Hillsborough and may help in future to prevent the type of suffering that has been inflicted on Hillsborough victims’ families for over 26 years—practically my entire adult life. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Wills on this proposal and urge all Members of your Lordships’ House to support it.

My Lords, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, we welcome the Bill and congratulate my noble friend Lord Wills on introducing it. I have some personal reasons for welcoming it: I was a ministerial colleague of my noble friend and my honourable friend Maria Eagle MP at the Ministry of Justice at the crucial time when, after a shamefully long period, the Hillsborough tragedy began to be properly investigated. Great credit is due to both my noble friend and Maria Eagle for the work they did when jointly Ministers of State at the Ministry of Justice.

All this, of course, is in no small measure due to the work of many, many people. However, I want to mention, as my noble friend Lord Wills did, the previous Bishop of Liverpool, our erstwhile colleague in this House, and, if I may, the now shadow Home Secretary, the right honourable Andy Burnham MP, who played an enormous part in what has happened. However, as my noble friend said, it is the bereaved who deserve more credit than anyone.

This Bill is timely, in the sense that the inquest is moving now towards a conclusion, but 27 years after a national tragedy such as Hillsborough is, as other speakers have said, far too long to wait for a definitive judgment on what happened and why. I am very conscious, as I know the House is, that the inquest is not yet finished, so I will avoid, as will others I am sure, any comment on any conclusions it may or may not reach. What is clear is that this sort of delay must never be allowed to happen again. In our judgment, this Bill is a serious attempt at ensuring that it never does. In a civilised country, the agony of relatives of those who die in a tragedy such as this should never be added to by their having to wait an appalling length of time to find out the truth.

I can be brief today. There are strong rumours that the Government are sympathetic to this Bill and the idea behind it, and I hope that those are true. I am sure my noble friend will agree that there are probably some drafting changes that need to be made at a later stage. However, it is important that the Government, in as much as it is within their power, allow time for this Bill to progress in this House and, most importantly, reach the other place with a real chance of going through its various stages and becoming law—unless, of course, they have some other intention in relation to the Bill. We look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that point.

Today, at Second Reading, we are debating the principles behind the Bill. However, I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I raise two possible issues for the future. The first is whether the independence of the public advocate—a very important concept and a crucial principle—should not perhaps be set out in the Bill itself, perhaps as part of Clause 1(1). Secondly, is there an argument for saying that the public advocate should always be the chair of an advocates’ panel rather than just a member? Might this enhance the confidence of the bereaved and ensure more transparency? I pose these questions for further consideration. In short, today, I hope the House will celebrate the introduction and Second Reading of this Bill. It is an important step forward and we on this side of the House are delighted to support its Second Reading.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for introducing this Bill and giving the House the opportunity to debate this important matter today. He was kind enough to pay credit to officials and Ministers in the Ministry of Justice who have engaged with him, and he has been helpful and constructive in explaining what lies behind this Bill. Let me make it clear at the outset that the Government share his desire to ensure that bereaved families and injured people are properly involved and supported throughout the investigation, inquest or inquiry process following a major incident.

There was unanimity in the contributions that your Lordships have heard, which echoes what lies behind this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, spoke of the sad history of disasters in football grounds and the sometimes inadequate inquiries that have followed those. He was right, however, to reflect on the improvements that have taken place, and he gave as a shining example the inquiry into the 7/7 disaster, conducted by Lady Justice Hallett.

The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who has particular experience of these issues, was absolutely right to praise Paul Goggins, who did so much in his modest way—I came across it briefly in committees—to help promote the interests of those so often neglected in such situations. The noble Lord made the important point that although cost must not be excluded from government consideration, we must think about costs further down the line.

The noble Lord, Lord Wood, and other noble Lords, made the point that these proposals augment rather than replace the existing mechanisms. Indeed, as I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, very much accepts that. The noble Lord, Lord Wood, also referred to the fact that, in the wake of these disasters, what confronts those who are sadly affected by them can be intimidating, and they are placed in a quasi-Rumsfeldian dilemma. He was right, too, to remind us of the Aberfan disaster and the dreadful noises made by the establishment in its wake.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred to possible drafting imperfections. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is perfectly aware of the fact that there could be improvements, and the noble Lord made specific reference to them.

Notwithstanding those potential improvements, I reiterate that the Government are fully committed to making sure that victims have a voice and do not feel alienated from official processes. Indeed, I am pleased to say that much of what is proposed for the role of a public advocate already takes place, and it is fair to say that there has been much progress.

The noble Lord’s Bill is driven by the concern that following a major incident involving the loss of life in the past, such as the “Derbyshire” sinking in 1980, the Hillsborough disaster in 1989—which has been a significant focus of the debate—and the “Marchioness” tragedy in the same year, bereaved families have undoubtedly felt ignored and swept up in official processes. They have felt that once the state starts to look into the matter, their needs and wishes are not paramount, or even important, and that the process can be confusing and lacks the transparency that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, stressed as being important. In order to address this, the Bill would create the role of a public advocate to represent bereaved families and injured survivors to ensure they understand all the processes and are supported through them, and to review and make sure they have access to the documents used in the investigation.

I know that this is a matter in which the noble Lord has, as he modestly told us, a long-standing interest, as well as considerable expertise and experience. He has been closely involved with the families who were bereaved in the Hillsborough tragedy and who are now involved in the final stages of the inquest into the death of their loved ones. Indeed, it is right to say that Sir John Goldring is currently in the course of summing up to the jury in that inquest. We do not expect a decision for a few weeks yet, and quite what form that decision will take we do not know; it may be a narrative verdict or it may be something more narrow.

I had a meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Watts, who is unable to be here today, and he asked me to say that, given his personal experience, he very much supports what lies behind the Bill, without necessarily committing himself to the actual words.

The Government acknowledge that there were significant issues in the way in which the Hillsborough families were treated in the various processes which followed and we agree that it is vital that lessons are learned and that their experiences should not be that of others in the future. It is because we agree that the needs of the family are so important that we have already taken a number of steps forward.

Reference was made to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and the suite of rules and regulations underpinning it. They reformed the way in which coroners’ investigations and inquests are now conducted following a major disaster. These reforms have been in place since July 2013 and have the central aim of putting bereaved people at the heart of the process. The aim is that they receive the support they need and that the process is transparent and understandable from the time of a death being reported to the coroner until the end of the inquest hearing.

Under the reforms we have taken forward, bereaved people have the right to request most documents involved in a coroner investigation and inquest and they can expect the coroner’s office to update them at regular intervals. They can also expect the coroner’s office to explain each stage of the process so that they understand what is happening and why. They can expect compassion and respect for their needs to be central to the investigation and inquest.

They will also have the resource of the Guide to Coroner Services, which my department published in February 2014. This explains clearly and simply what they can expect from the coroner and his or her staff and what to do if that does not happen. Under the 2009 Act, a key role of the coroner and his or her office in an investigation is to make sure that “interested persons”, including bereaved people, understand the process of investigation and are informed of their rights and responsibilities. They are entitled to receive documents and other relevant information, such as hearing dates, so that they can fully participate in the process. Many coroners now also have a support service which provides emotional and other practical support to those attending inquests on the day.

Under the Inquiries Act 2005, the inquiry chair is under a statutory obligation to have regard to fairness. Core participants, which will clearly include all those with whom we are concerned, are entitled to disclosure. The inquiry chair will act as data controller, devising and implementing mechanisms for obtaining, handling and securely storing documents provided to and generated by the inquiry. There is guidance for those running inquiries, including inquiry chairs, teams and sponsoring departments, which sets this out.

Therefore, much of what is in the Bill setting out what a public advocate would do is already happening in the existing processes. We are today in a very different climate from that at the time of the Hillsborough tragedy and in the intervening years. The needs of bereaved people are rightly much more central. I hope noble Lords agree that the current landscape brought about by these reforms and the hard work and contributions of so many makes it less likely that what happened to the Hillsborough families will occur again.

We are not, of course, complacent about this but I believe that, at the moment, there is no need for the public advocate role that the Bill envisages. However, the Government agree that the needs of bereaved families, in particular, must be paramount and that the principles that lie behind the Bill are right. Bereaved families should feel that their voice is heard and confident that processes are fair and transparent. They should feel that they fully understand what is happening and able to participate effectively.

We are, therefore, willing to consider whether the existing processes can be improved and whether any of the principles in the Bill can be incorporated into the existing system. We could, for example, place more firmly in the guidance which is already available to inquiry chairs and teams how important the needs of the families are. We can look at whether the positive things coming from the Hillsborough inquest, not yet concluded, such as the family forums set up to keep the families informed of the investigative processes and to give them a safe space in which to discuss issues, can be replicated in other major inquests and inquiries.

As to specific next steps, I commit to meeting the noble Lord, Lord Wills—not immediately but as things progress—so that our feet can be held to the fire to see whether steps can be taken to reflect what lies behind this and further to improve the significant steps forward we have made.

On behalf of the Government I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for raising the profile of this important issue and for his valuable input, which is welcomed. I hope he will accept my assurance that the Government will continue to ensure that bereaved families and injured persons are central to the inquest and inquiry processes and that their voices will not be ignored.

My Lords, does the Minister feel that the role of the advocate to the inquiry could be closely used to adopt many of the points required by those who support this Bill?

The concerns which would be represented by a public advocate—were there hypothetically to be one—should be properly reflected in the way that an inquest or inquiry is carried out. We are not at the moment persuaded that a public advocate as set out in the Bill is necessary. However, we do not rule out possible improvements to ensure that those factors which would be reflected in what a public advocate did find better representation in the existing arrangements.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It has been relatively short, but it could make a profound difference to all those who in the future, out of a clear blue sky, find their lives transformed by a terrible public tragedy.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally—who I regard as my noble friend whatever the technical position is—made a powerful statement from his own experience about why the Bill is needed. I am grateful to him for his words of support, as I am to my noble friend Lord Blunkett, who brings to this a wealth of experience from the heart of Government, as well as personal experience as the MP for many years representing the constituency containing the Hillsborough stadium.

My noble friend Lord Wood, who was working at the heart of the Gordon Brown Government when the Hillsborough Independent Panel was set up, drew attention again to the need for this Bill and gave the telling example of Aberfan, which I remember as a young boy. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Bach, who expressed support from the Front Bench. His idea of putting the independence of the advocate in the Bill is excellent and I should like to adopt it going forward. We will obviously discuss the other issue he raised in due course. So I am grateful for all the support I have received from all noble Lords, who spoke with all their authority and years of experience, and I am glad that the Government have listened to what they had to say.

I also express my gratitude to the Minister for his characteristically thoughtful, sympathetic and thorough approach to all the issues raised by the Bill. Of course, I did not expect him to commit the Government to wholeheartedly adopt the Bill today, but his cautious words pointing towards a possible way forward are perhaps the most that I could have expected. I am grateful for them and I certainly will—with what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to as my terrier-like capacity—pursue him for the meeting that he kindly offered. In due course, I hasten to add.

Of course, I recognise all the improvements that the Minister described. As he said, the situation is significantly different from what it was 20 to 25 years ago. However, there is an issue that I would like to explore with him further, perhaps in Committee, because there is a fundamental distinction between what he has described as the improvements that are taking place and what I think are the improvements the Bill would bring about. It is to do with the independence of the advocate. The changes that he has described are still in the gift of the Government and the institutions of the state. I think it is important because all the experience of disasters that other noble Lords have described more powerfully than I shows how easy it is for the bereaved and the families of injured survivors to feel excluded by the process, no matter how well meaning it is or what is set out in all the guidance, and no matter what the experience and how diligent, thoughtful and empathetic those agents of the state are. Nevertheless, for all the reasons that have been set out today, it is sometimes very easy for families to feel excluded. Having someone who is independently advocating their cause and, crucially, doing so independently of the state and seeking to bring about the transparency that is so important in these cases, is the difference between the position that the noble Lord has set out and the position in the Bill.

I am sure that we will have opportunities to explore this further and I am grateful for the offer of a meeting, which as I say I will take up, so perhaps the issues can be considered further in Committee. In the mean time, while again expressing my gratitude to all noble Lords who have taken part today and to the Minister, I now ask your Lordships’ House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.