Today I can announce that we intend to legislate as soon as possible to introduce an independent public advocate; to put victims and the bereaved at the heart of our response to large-scale public disasters; to make sure they get the support they deserve through public inquests and inquiries; and to make sure they get the answers they need to move forward in their lives.
I know the whole House will recall that fateful day of 15 April 1989, when thousands of fans prepared to watch the FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Ninety-seven men, women and children lost their lives, unlawfully killed in our country’s worst ever sporting disaster. What happened at Hillsborough was a monumental and devastating tragedy. To this day, I remember watching the scenes in horror, and the impact is felt to this day, especially by the families and friends of the victims.
Of course, for Hillsborough’s survivors and the bereaved, that terrible day was just the beginning of a 34-year ordeal. It was followed by an appalling injustice. Fans were blamed for their own injuries. Survivors and the bereaved were blocked at every turn in their search for answers. We must learn the lessons of Hillsborough and we must make sure they never happen again.
In the wider context, major disasters involving significant loss of life are mercifully rare in this country. But, as Hillsborough, Grenfell and the Manchester bombings have shown, when they do happen, victims, families and communities have not received the answers to their questions, nor the support they need. We are duty bound, as a Government and as a House, to make sure that that never happens again and, positively, to ensure that those families and communities never again have to struggle in anguish against a system created to help them, in order to get the truth, and some measure of accountability.
The IPA will go some way to making good on the Government’s longstanding promise to ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough victims, and other victims, is never repeated. It will be passed into law, and made up of a panel of experts to guide survivors and the bereaved in the aftermath of major disasters. It will deliver in six important respects that I will outline for the House.
First, the IPA will provide practical support to the families of the deceased, and individuals, or their representatives, who have suffered a devastating or life-changing injury. That practical support will include helping them to understand their rights, such as their right to receive certain information at inquests or inquiries, and signposting them to support services, for example financial or mental health support. In particular, the IPA will help victims every step of the way, from the immediate aftermath of a tragic event, right through to the conclusion of investigations, inquiries or inquests. We will make IPA support available to the closest next of kin relative, both parents where they are separated or divorced, or to a close friend if there is no close family. That support will also be there for those whose loved ones die after the tragedy as a result of their injuries—a particular issue in relation to Grenfell, as I know from my experience as housing Minister. The IPA will also offer support to injured victims or their representatives.
Secondly and critically, the IPA will give the victims a voice when they need it most. It will advocate on their behalf with public authorities and Government, for example, where they have concerns about the engagement and responsiveness of public authorities such as the police or local authorities, or where the victims and bereaved want an investigation or inquiry set up more swiftly, to ensure maximum transparency.
Thirdly, the IPA will give a voice to the wider communities, not just the directly affected victims and bereaved, that have been affected most by the tragedy in question. To achieve that, we will set up a register of advocates from a range of different professions, backgrounds and geographical areas, including doctors, social workers, emergency workers, clergy, people with media-handling experience—often that is another burden that victims will not have experienced—and others. Communities will be able to nominate an advocate to act on their behalf, in order to express their particular concerns and ensure that their voice is heard as a community.
Fourthly, the IPA will be supported by full-time, permanent staff so that it can act swiftly when a tragedy occurs to make sure that the support is there for the victims and the families from day one. Critically, the IPA will be there to consult with and represent victims and their families before any inquiry is set up, so it will be able to make representations on the type of inquiry, whether it is statutory or non-statutory, and other important functional issues, such as the data controller powers available to any inquiry and the relationship it may have with the IPA in the exercise of such functions.
Fifthly, the scope of the IPA will be extended to cover events in England and Wales, but of course we are mindful of the devolved settlements, so we will work with all the devolved Administrations to ensure that our plans are co-ordinated with the support offered outside England and Wales. Finally, although the IPA is first and foremost about doing better by the victims and survivors, it is worth acknowledging that it is also in the wider interests of the public. It will ensure that we achieve a better relationship between public bodies, the Government and the bereaved; that we get better, quicker answers; and that we can learn and act on the lessons from such tragedies more decisively.
I can tell the House that the preparatory work is well under way to establish the IPA, and we will place it on a statutory footing as soon as possible. I will say more about the legislative vehicle shortly.
Of course, there have been other important reforms in recent years to support and empower victims and their families. We have made inquests more sympathetic to the bereaved with a refreshed, accessible guide to coroner services, so the process, which can feel like a minefield to navigate, is easier to digest and understand. We have removed means testing for the exceptional case funding for legal representation at an inquest, which means that applying for legal aid is easier and less intrusive. People who have suffered a traumatic bereavement no longer have to submit the details of their personal finances to the Legal Aid Agency; if their case meets the exceptional case funding criteria, they will be entitled to legal aid whatever their means.
More broadly, we are putting victims at the heart of our justice system by quadrupling victims funding compared with 2010, and we are giving them a louder voice through the upcoming victims Bill. The creation of an independent public advocate to give greater voice to the victims and the bereaved of major tragedies is the next important step forward.
I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in paying tribute to the Hillsborough families for their courage and determination despite every setback and to their long-standing struggle to stop other families from enduring the same anguish in future. They have always maintained that their struggle for truth and justice for the 97 was of national significance, and I agree entirely. I also pay tribute to the families of those who died at Grenfell and the Manchester Arena bombing. Our hearts go out to them for their loss and I pay tribute to them for their dignified courage.
I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to hon. Members in this House and those in the other place who have campaigned tirelessly on the issue, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), Lord Wills, the Mayor of Liverpool and others, for their steadfast commitment to establishing an IPA. I will continue to work closely with all those hon. Members, the Hillsborough families, the Grenfell groups and the families of the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing to ensure that their experiences are taken into account and we get the detail of the IPA right as we establish it.
I pay particular tribute to the right reverend James Jones KBE for his work on Hillsborough and his important report. I met him last week and the Government will respond to the wider report this spring. We know in our heads and hearts that there is still much more to do to heal the wounds from that horrendous and heartbreaking tragedy, but this is an important step forward. The IPA will make a real difference. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. For decades, the Hillsborough families fought for justice and for the truth about how 97 innocent children, women and men were unlawfully killed in wholly avoidable circumstances. They faced a cover-up by public authorities that hid the truth and blamed the victims. Those brave families did more than seek justice for their loved ones; they sought to shine a light on what had gone so tragically wrong, because that is how we learn how not to make the same mistake again, but it should never have taken more than three decades.
I was in Sheffield on that fateful day in 1989, just a mile or so from Hillsborough, with a junior doctor friend who was called back to the hospital to treat the victims and deal with the aftermath, so I vividly remember the horror of what we heard unfolding from the football stadium. I pay tribute to those families for their long struggle for justice and to those who have spoken up for them, notably: my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle); my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne); the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May); Lord Wills; and the Mayor of Manchester.
Today is a chance to balance the scales of justice and give those victims the voice that they need and the power to make it heard, but it is a chance that the Government have missed. Their proposals do not go far enough and will be too weak, as they stand, to prevent future cover-ups. The public advocate needs to be a fully independent, permanent figure that is accountable to the families, not a panel of advisers appointed as a signposting service by the Government if they see fit.
It is critical that the public advocate has the full power of data controller, not just the power to make representations, as we heard from the Secretary of State. That means having the power to access all data, communications, documents and other information to torpedo cover-ups before they even happen. We know from the Hillsborough Independent Panel that the existence of such powers would be a massive deterrent to future cover-ups.
Will the Secretary of State reconsider and establish a fully independent public advocate? Will he agree to give it the full power of data controller from the start? That matters immensely because without control over the data that can expose the truth, there can be no transparency, and without transparency, there can be no justice. How many more tragedies will it take to wake the Government up? How many more lives need to be lost?
Labour is committed to real change. In government, we will establish a fully independent public advocate that is accountable to survivors and victims’ families. We will arm it with the power it needs to access documents and data to expose the truth about what went wrong, and, importantly, to stop cover-ups before they happen. That will be part of a Hillsborough law with teeth that will also give victims’ families access to legal aid and impose a duty of candour on public officials. We will do that because we believe that victims must be at the heart of the justice system and that they must have a voice and the power to make it heard, and because we understand that a system that fails to learn from its mistakes is doomed to repeat them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his partial welcome of the announcement. I listened carefully to what he said. We share, and I personally share with him, the commitment and desire to set up the most credible advocacy for the bereaved, the victims and the families. I am very happy to work with him and hon. Members on both sides of the House on the detail, but I do not accept his characterisation.
The hon. Gentleman said that the IPA was not independent, but in fact it will be decided on the basis of consultations with the victims and the bereaved. That must be right to make sure that we have the right range of experts to deal with the particular circumstances of the tragedy in question. It would act on their behalf; it would not act on behalf of the Government.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to data controller powers. I understand exactly the point he makes, and as I said in my statement, it is important that there will be consultation with the families. The IPA will be able to consult with a putative independent inquiry, but the hon. Gentleman has to recognise that the independent inquiry will have many of those powers itself. Therefore, how would he reconcile that with duplicated powers in the IPA? However, this is something that we should talk about—I know it is an issue that has been raised by the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood. We want to get this right, but what we risk is a conflict of functions, which is something we would all want to avoid.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned other measures, such as the duty of candour. That is a broader issue for the Government’s response to the wider Hillsborough report, which is expected in the spring. I know it has been a long time coming, but it is right to deal with those broader issues. Although the IPA is only part of the redress and the accountability, I felt that we were in a position to not just bring forward the policy announcement but in due course, very shortly, to be able to say something about the legislative vehicle. Because this is such an important issue for the bereaved, the victims and the families, I felt it was right to do that now, not wait any longer.
I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing this statement to the House today and welcome the decision to introduce an independent public advocate, which was of course a commitment in our 2017 manifesto. However, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will understand, I want to ensure that this body will meet the ambition of the commitment that we made in that manifesto. I am happy to work with him to do that.
For today, though, could my right hon. Friend please just go back to two particular issues? One is the question of whether the families, victims and survivors will be able themselves to initiate the independent public advocate, so that they are not relying on the Government to do that for them. Certainly, in the case of Hillsborough, it was the fact that the state and state authorities shut their doors to people that led to the 34 years’ wait for any answers for the families. Also, in line with that, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the IPA is able to compel the provision of information and evidence to the families? He is assuming that an inquiry will always take place, but that might not be the case. It is essential that the families have answers to their perfectly reasonable questions.
I thank my right hon. Friend and pay tribute again to her for her campaigning and advocacy on this issue. On the right of initiative, the Government will ultimately have to decide the shape of any IPA that is set up. The right of consultation is clearly set out, but of course, one of the challenges will be where different views are expressed as to how the IPA should be configured for a particular inquiry. Ultimately, where there are differences, the Government will have to try to reconcile those, so in committing to an IPA, I think it is right to allow the Government to engage and to allow the victims, the bereaved and the families the power of initiative to call for an IPA and make their representations, but to allow the Government to decide the precise configuration of that IPA.
I listened very carefully to what my right hon. Friend said about the compulsion of evidence. As I said before, I am very happy to engage with her and with other hon. Members as this policy comes forward. I take her point that an inquiry may not be set up, but where one is set up, the piece that we need to reconcile is making sure that we do not have conflicting powers. But again, I am very happy to work with my right hon. Friend on the detail of this policy and, in due course, on the clauses.
I welcome the fact that the Government want to legislate for a public advocate, five years after the consultation that they undertook closed, but I am very disappointed with the provisions as the Secretary of State has set them out. His proposed public advocate would not be independent, would not be a data controller, and would not be able to act only at the behest of families. It would be directed by the Secretary of State. It would not have the power to appoint independent panels such as the Hillsborough independent panel—but at a much earlier stage following a disaster than the 23 years it took us to get that report out—and it would not have the power to use transparency to get at the truth at an early stage and torpedo the cover-ups that public authorities set about undertaking in the aftermath of disasters. This must be something that the families themselves can initiate and use to get at the truth at an early stage.
The public advocate having the power to compel—to produce documentation and shine the light of transparency on what public authorities have done in the immediate aftermath of a disaster—would stop cover-ups. It would mean people not still having to fight to get at the truth 34 years later. That prize is within our grasp if we set this up right, so does the Secretary of State accept that if he does not beef up his proposals significantly, he will be missing an important opportunity to stop things going wrong for families? For what it is worth, I am perfectly willing to indicate to him in detail quite how those proposals ought to be improved.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. She has worked tirelessly on this issue, and we have very good engagement on it; I am happy for that to continue. I take her point about the power of initiative. The families of the bereaved will have a power of initiative through consultation, but if there are conflicting views—something that I have seen before at first hand—the Government will have to reconcile those views in the last analysis.
Secondly, on the point about data, I am happy to keep listening and working on this issue, but if we have an inquiry that has powers to compel evidence of its own, the problem will be how we reconcile those powers where they are competing in a process. But as I have said, it is important that we bring this policy forward. There will be full scrutiny of it, and as we develop the clauses, I am very happy to keep working with the right hon. Lady.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), a fellow member of the Justice Committee, for the work she has done, and to the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May).
The former Prime Minister’s point about the risk of cover-ups by those in authority is an important one. That is why, while I very much welcome what the Secretary of State has said—it is an important step—I hope that when engaging on how best to refine and advance these proposals, he looks again at the Justice Committee’s recommendation that there should be an extension of legal aid availability. Although the situation has already improved, we should be extending non-means-tested legal aid to all cases where there are mass fatalities, or where public bodies are potentially at fault. It is not fair—there is no equality of arms—when those public bodies are represented by teams of lawyers, but the bereaved families have to rely on sometimes getting legal aid and sometimes not, or on pro bono representation. Equality of arms would surely mean representation as a matter of right in those cases.
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee. I think that this policy will create stronger advocacy on behalf of the bereaved, the victims and the families, and having panels with the right expertise, range and status will go a long way towards getting the answers.
Again, I understand the point about compulsion of evidence. There is not a theological objection to it, certainly as far as I am concerned: it is a question of reconciling competing powers when an inquiry is set up. I will, of course, look at the Justice Committee’s report and recommendations on that issue. In general, of course, inquiries are not supposed to be adversarial, which is why the rules in relation to legal aid are as they are, but we will look at this and work with colleagues in all parts of the House as we introduce these important clauses.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s acknowledgement that we need to legislate for an independent public advocate, but I am sorry to say that today’s announcement is a pale imitation of what Hillsborough families and survivors spent years campaigning on. The Government’s proposal feels like a weak signposting service. It does not have any of the powers that a truly independent public advocate would require—it feels so weak.
For me, the key question is whether this proposal would have stopped the state cover-ups of Hillsborough, the contaminated blood scandal and so many other cover-ups over the ages, and whether it will prevent further cover-ups. Unfortunately, I have to say that the answer is no, so will the Secretary of State instead adopt the Bill tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood, which is ready to go, and work with us to bring the Hillsborough law—including a fully independent public advocate—into legislation?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for all his efforts. I am afraid I do not accept the characterisation; calling it a signposting service is quite wrong. By the way, the signposting is important, but that is the start, not the end of the role of the IPA. It will be set up as a statutory advocate for all those who have been affected, whether individual victims or on behalf of the community as a whole. As of its own status, it will be impossible to ignore.
On the specific functions beyond those I set out in my statement, I am very happy to keep engaging, but I think that Members need to think about the practicalities, for example with data compulsion, and how we make sure that they can be reconciled. I hope that we will be able to continue working together to make sure that victims and the bereaved, particularly of pre-existing tragedies, such as Hillsborough, but also those in the future feel they are better equipped to get the answers and accountability that they need.
I join other Members in welcoming today’s statement and the important step that it takes, as well as recognising that the legislative process to follow will provide opportunities to strengthen the role and ensure that it delivers what we set out all the way back in 2017, not least trying to ensure that we can safeguard the independence of the IPA from Government. Can I ask my right hon. Friend how “survivors” will be defined? Will it simply be those who have had a life-changing injury, or will it also include those who may have been physically or mentally changed by their experience of a disaster they have been involved with and their need to have support and advice through that inquiry process?
We will work very closely with my hon. and learned Friend and colleagues on the definition. It is important to get that right. It will be an independent advocate once it is established, with the full force of expression and advocacy to get the answers that are required. As I have said before, I am happy to work with colleagues to make sure that we get the right balance and, in particular, to get the IPA to be as effective as possible, whether in relation to an inquiry, statutory or otherwise, or indeed when an inquiry is not established.
I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House today and the willingness to legislate in this area. As he has heard already today, nothing less than an independent public advocate acting at the behest of families, not directed by the Secretary of State, and with specific powers, will do. How is he engaging with Members in this place, others who have campaigned on these issues for years and, most important, the Hillsborough families? My constituent Deanna Matthews wrote to me—her uncle Brian was unlawfully killed at Hillsborough—to share her dismay about the lack of engagement with bereaved families ahead of this announcement. Can he tell me how he is engaging with those concerned?
Just to be clear, the advocate will be entirely independent once it is established, so the characterisation is not accurate. In terms of engagement, I am caught a little bit in terms of the detail by the strictures of Mr Speaker in making announcements to this place first, but I wrote to the families, the bereaved and the various groups from Hillsborough, Grenfell and the Manchester bombings, so they have had advance sight. One of the concerns now is the lack of detail, which I could not provide in advance of the statement. I did consult Bishop James Jones, and I saw him over the last week. I am committed to working with all those families—I know Grenfell United and some of those well from my time as Housing Minister—to make sure that we get this right and, above all, get them the most effective means of giving them the transparency and accountability they need.
I warmly welcome this announcement by the Government of the establishment of an independent public advocate, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), with whom I have sat on the Justice Committee and who I know has worked tirelessly on this for many years. I was at university at the time of the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield, and sadly a friend of mine died in that tragedy, so I know all too well the frustration that the bereaved families have felt ever since. Can my right hon. Friend tell us in more detail how he will ensure that the families of the bereaved of the Hillsborough disaster will be fully involved in the practicalities of the establishment of the advocate?
I am very sorry for my hon. Friend’s loss in relation to Hillsborough. I mentioned some of the engagement there has been. I have offered to meet the families and their groups, in relation to not just Hillsborough but Grenfell and the Manchester Arena bombing. I have always found in these cases, when facing the bereaved or survivors of such dire tragedies, that the most important thing is that they feel they have access, and I am very happy to meet any of them.
I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), and I just wonder whether the Secretary of State has actually read previous debates on this issue in Hansard, because 12 years and five months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood and many other Members of this House and I stood here seeking the power to compel the Government to release papers on Hillsborough and to get transparency over that information, yet all this time later, here we are again, still debating who has the power to compel information—in other words, how we as citizens can have the power to get to the truth.
I also want to ask the Secretary of State about extending the duty of candour to public servants so that they have to proactively tell the truth, because without this information we will, as my right hon. Friend has said, always be liable to these cover-ups. I saw it through all of the process with Hillsborough, with Lakanal House, with Grenfell and with the covid inquiry—again and again. I want the Secretary of State to understand this issue properly; it is about the truth. Will he explain what he is going to do on the duty of candour?
I know the hon. Lady cares deeply about this subject. I am familiar with these challenges from my time as Housing Minister, aside from the issue of Hillsborough, which I followed closely.
I totally understand the importance of the duty of candour. I have never said that the IPA is the whole picture; I said that it is a partial but important step that we are taking. It is better to get on with it, because after so long, one thing that I get from the communities, victims and survivors is the need to get on with tangible action—that is the way we will restore confidence. Thy duty of candour was included in the report by Bishop James Jones, and therefore it is right that is part of the Home Office response. As has been set out previously, the Home Office will publish that response in the spring, and of course it will cover that issue.
Will my right hon. Friend explain in a little more detail at what point and under what circumstances the availability of the advocate will be triggered? I see that he or she could be involved in not just inquiries but inquests, so how large a tragedy does it have to be before the victims and the bereaved can call upon his or her services?
I thank the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, who raises a very good point. The principle is that the advocate is there for major tragedies. This is a specific institution set up with a range of expertise designed to deal with that. It is not dealing with one loss of life or a smaller event like that. We will need to work closely with Members on the definition to get that right.
There are many good things in the right hon. Lady’s private Member’s Bill, but there is more we can do than just that, and there are some areas where, as she knows from her engagement with me—we talked about this at some length, and I am always happy to continue engaging—we take a different view. The most important thing, and I think my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) made this point well, is to make the advocate as effective as possible. I am committed to that, and I am committed to working with Members in all parts of the House.
As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I was at the Hillsborough disaster. Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), I worked closely with the families, particularly in the lead-up to the decision of the independent panel, so we know quite a bit about the impact on families and what families and victims want. I came to this statement today when I saw its heading, about an independent public advocate, but I am going away not sure what “independent” means, because the Government have not set out clearly how independent it will be. It appears to me, from what the Secretary of State has said, that it will not be totally independent. I am surprised, given that there has been so much discussion in this Chamber, including with my right hon. Friend, that the Secretary of State has come here today and it is still a bit muddled. What does “independent” mean? If it is truly independent, it means that Ministers have no role in it whatever.
To be clear, on the right of initiative, which I know the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) has raised and included in her Bill, there could be different views as to its shape or scope, so that is something the Government will ultimately have the last word on. Frankly, what the hon. Gentleman said about the IPA not being independent is wholly wrong. We ought to be clear that, from the point of establishment in relation to a tragedy, the IPA will be wholly and entirely independent to serve the victims, the bereaved and the survivors, and only them. I could not be clearer on the subject.
A lot of the statement is welcome and will hopefully rebalance the position for families and victims, not least since they have had the unedifying experience of facing phalanxes of lawyers, knowing they were being paid for by their own taxes and by public funds to sometimes cover up the impact on their relatives. However, I do not find myself particularly persuaded on the points made by the Secretary of State around the compulsion of evidence, which strikes me as something that needs to be part of this. In his preparation work, which he referred to, what timeline has he set for this institution being up and ready, pending the legislation coming through the House?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The policy work is quite far developed, but of course we have not foreclosed options so that we can have maximum transparency and proper engagement. I will need to identify the right legislative vehicle and it will then take as long as the House takes to enact it, but I hope to say more on the legislative vehicle shortly.
I put it to the Secretary of State that, in the case of the contaminated blood scandal, Governments failed to acknowledge what actually happened for decades, even though thousands of people had been harmed and died. The scandal is now recognised as one of the worst treatment disasters in the history of the NHS. How would this independent public advocate work in circumstances where incidents happen over many years and across many parts of the United Kingdom, and where Governments fail to come clean about the involvement of the state for years and deny that there was a problem? What confidence would victims actually have in a situation where the Government decided whether an independent public advocate was appointed?
We are talking about the final configuration of the IPA, and the immediate consultation will take place with the families and the bereaved. On how it would help in a scenario like that, that is precisely why—with the greatest respect to the right hon. Lady—we went for a panel approach, so that we have a range of experts. A disaster like she mentions would be quite different from, say, Hillsborough or Grenfell, and it is therefore important that the IPA has that range of expertise. I take the point about compulsion of data and evidence, and that is something I am happy to keep looking at, but, frankly, from the moment an independent public advocate starts asking those questions, given the nature of its status in statute, it would break down many of the barriers that have previously faced victims in these situations.
I agree fully with my right hon. Friend when he says getting the detail right is vital in this process. I am pleased with the tone he has taken in his comments about being willing to work with Members from across the House to reach the right settlement for victims and ensure that this process is right for the future. Will he expand more on the panel he is planning? In particular, will victims be fully represented? Could they elect people to go on this panel to advocate for people involved in a tragedy?
My hon. Friend is right: the point of having a range of expertise on the panels, rather than a single public advocate, is precisely to ensure that there is a range of expertise to deal with the nature of the unfolding tragedy, but also to allow the victims, the bereaved and the families to be properly consulted. In addition, they will have the ability to nominate a community-level representative on that panel to ensure that, as well as dealing with technical issues and with individuals being represented, the community as a whole and its concerns, which are often expressed as a whole, are properly reflected in that advocacy.
I pay tribute to the Hillsborough families and all those affected for their tireless campaigning over decades to establish the truth of what happened and their determination to ensure that other families do not have to suffer the injustices they have been forced to endure. I pay tribute in particular to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for all their hard work on this matter.
The Secretary of State talks about a conflict between the IPA and any inquiry. Surely he must recognise that it is vital that victims and families feel confident that they have a truly independent advocate. Surely he must also recognise that, by definition, we cannot have too much transparency.
I certainly agree with the thrust of that. The IPA will be fully independent once it is established, with all the powers of advocacy and with the expertise to give voice and expression to the victims and the bereaved. On the compulsion of data or access to evidence, we need to ensure that we reconcile that with the powers an inquiry might be exercising and that we do not end up with either a legal muddle or an ineffective process.
I join colleagues in paying tribute to my fellow member of the Justice Committee, the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), for her long campaigning on this issue, which the whole House recognises.
I am interested in the issue of legal representation that other Members have raised. How would the IPA interact with that, and what support might be there in accessing legal advice when, as others have said, it may face public bodies with well-funded legal teams that family members will not necessarily have access to?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In general, inquests should be inquisitorial, fact-checking processes, and the 2019 review into legal aid for inquests, which he may recall, underlined the importance of us keeping it that way. There are, of course, circumstances, such as article 2 inquests or where there is significant public interest in the outcome, where legal representation may be available under exceptional case funding. I mentioned more about the detail of how that will work in my statement.
For bereaved families to have confidence in an independent public advocate, it needs to be truly independent of Government. That means acting on the directions of families and not the Secretary of State, exercising the powers of a data controller and being empowered to establish independent panels. Elkan Abrahamson, the co-author of the Hillsborough law, has said this Government’s engagement with the Hillsborough families has been “almost non-existent”, and it shows. Will the Justice Secretary commit to meeting with the Hillsborough families with a view to revising his proposals and bringing them in line with what the Hillsborough families have long been calling for?
I understand that the Secretary of State could not divulge the detail of today’s announcement to the families who had been campaigning, but does he believe they would recognise the independent advocate he has announced as what they have been campaigning for on behalf of the people they lost?
I hope that they would, particularly as we engage with them on the detail. As I said, it will be fully independent. I take the points that have been made about the right of initiative and powers over data; we are always willing to look at the detail of how that will work, but we want to make sure that we have the most effective means of giving expression and voice to people in their time of need.
Chloe Rutherford and Liam Curry from South Shields were tragically murdered in the Manchester Arena terror attack. Archaic law on terror attacks prevents their parents from registering their precious children’s deaths. Last week they again met Ministers, who this time treated them with contempt, patronised them and insulted them. In that meeting, it became clear that they have been misled by the Government for nearly a year: the law can be changed but the Government simply choose not to change it. Registration is now imminent. The IPA will not help them or other families. How on earth can they believe the Secretary of State when he says that victims and the bereaved are at the heart of his response?
If the hon. Lady looks at what we are doing in the round, I think she will see the steps we are taking. I am very mindful of and sensitive to the issues that she describes and, indeed, the constituents who lost their lives in that appalling attack. As the hon. Lady will know, the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, which is owned by the Home Office, and the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 set out the process for registering deaths following an inquest, which requires the coroner to inform the registrar of particulars of the deceased. As the law is currently configured, there is no flexibility around that, but I reiterate my deepest sympathies to the families who were so tragically bereaved.