Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 1 February.
“The Hillsborough disaster was an awful, devastating tragedy. Its impact continues to be felt to this day, especially by the families and friends of the victims. I am sure the thoughts of the whole House are with them. It is imperative that lessons are learned from the experiences the Hillsborough families have gone through, so I am very grateful to Bishop James Jones for the report he produced, which highlighted a number of points of learning for the Government, the police and other agencies.
As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said during yesterday’s debate, the Government are fully committed to engaging with the Hillsborough families prior to the publication of the Government’s formal response. Since arriving in the Home Office two or three months ago, I have asked for this work to be sped up, and we are expecting it to come out in the course of this spring. The National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing published their response earlier this week. I welcome their commitment to avoid repeating the mistakes that were made, and I welcome the apology that they gave. They made it clear that strong ethical values and the need for humanity and humility in the police response to public tragedies are critical. One of the commitments they rightly made earlier this week was to substantially strengthen and update their own code of ethics in relation to these issues.
Some important steps have been made by the Government in the past few years, which have addressed a number, but not all, of the points that Bishop James Jones published. For example, in 2020 a suite of police integrity reforms was introduced, on a statutory basis, via the professional standards for policing, which included, crucially, a duty to co-operate with inquiries. Other initiatives have already been taken forward to support bereaved families, including the removal of means testing for exceptional case funding to cover legal support for families at an inquest, which broadens the scope and access for families; and the refreshing of our Guide to Coroner Services for Bereaved People so that it is more tailored to their needs and provides improved guidance for others involved in the inquest process. The Inquiries Act 2005 also provides a statutory process for funding legal representation requests. Last year, the Home Office also established an independent pathology review, and additional consultation with the families is now taking place. A consultation has also taken place on retaining police documents, which was the subject of a recommendation made by the bishop, and the Ministry of Justice has also consulted on establishing an independent public advocate.
Those steps are important. They go a long way to improving the situation, but they do not cover everything that the bishop recommended, which is why we will be responding in full. We intend to do so in the spring, but after, of course, full and deep engagement with the families concerned.
The Government are committed to making sure that these lessons are learned following this awful tragedy and I, as the newly appointed Police Minister, will do everything that I can to work with Members across the House, particularly those representing the affected communities, to make sure that this does now happen quickly.”
My Lords, 97 people lost their lives as a result of what happened at Hillsborough on that terrible, awful day 34 years ago. We must never forget what followed: a shameful cover-up of the truth by the police and others, and decades of families, their supporters and the community having to fight and campaign to uncover what actually happened. We again salute their courage. Five years after Bishop Jones’s report, The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power: A Report to Ensure the Pain and Suffering of the Hillsborough Families is not Repeated, why is there still no government response? Can the Minister give us a categoric statement today? When will we get that government response and end the shameful and unacceptable wait for a response to the bishop’s recommendations?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that Hillsborough was an awful and devastating tragedy, and its impact is still felt today, especially by the families and the bereaved. My thoughts are with them.
As regards the report, the noble Lord is right: it was published a number of years ago. For the first four years there were criminal proceedings ongoing, and it was felt that it would be inappropriate to publish a response while those proceedings were ongoing. My right honourable friend in the other place, the Policing Minister, yesterday committed that the Government’s response will be published in full in the spring—he has not yet been more specific than that. He has also committed to speed up the work being done on this, and there are still ongoing consultations with the bereaved families.
My Lords, Hillsborough almost matches my time in this Chamber; it has been there as a constant for nearly 34 years. The fact that the police apologised publicly yesterday was a major step forward, but when it comes to a response in the spring, is there anybody in this Chamber who does not know that spring usually means autumn, at best? Can we not do a little better than that and give a firm date for this to occur, or at least a maximum deadline so that we can actually have some closure on this, which all those involved deserve?
My Lords, it is more than 18 months since the Daniel Morgan panel, which I chaired, published its report. We recommended a statutory duty of candour to be owed by all law enforcement agencies to those whom they serve, subject to the protection of national security and relevant data protection legislation. The Government owe a response not only to the Hillsborough families who have waited so long but to the family of Daniel Morgan, who have waited a very long time. Is our recommendation for a statutory duty of candour, which would be binding on police and law enforcement agencies, part of the Government’s plan?
As part of the February 2020 integrity reforms, the Government introduced a statutory duty of co-operation for police officers, which provided clarity on the responsibility to participate openly and professionally as a witness in various circumstances, including in the misconduct of others. The noble Baroness is quite right to bring up the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel report, which obviously considers this matter fully, and the Government will take its recommendations into account.
My Lords, I echo tributes to my friend, the former Bishop of Liverpool. As a young priest 34 years ago, I was summoned to Hillsborough to support bereaved families in the immediate aftermath. That the Hillsborough families were not fully consulted in October last year when the Home Office announced an independent review is, I fear, deeply regrettable. Will the Minister now commit to ensuring that the Hillsborough families remain consulted, engaged and at the heart of the Government’s response from this point on?
I think the right reverend Prelate is referring to the pathology review. It was announced in October 2022; the terms of reference were published then, in response to a point of learning from the former Bishop of Liverpool’s findings on the experiences at Hillsborough. The review is led by Mr Glenn Taylor, an independent forensic scientist and an expert with extensive experience in death certification. It has been paused while the families are consulted; they felt—and it was felt—that they deserved more input into this.
My Lords, it has been 34 years since this happened and many other institutions are now involved, such as the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the IPSO. Can my noble friend the Minister outline whose responsibility it is now to ensure that this does not happen again, and to walk back through the whole process to check that the institutions we now have in place would have prevented this happening in the first place and could prevent a tragedy of this scale happening today?
My Lords, I think we should also refer to the fact that safety in stadiums has improved dramatically, so one would hope that the circumstances in which this tragedy occurred would not be able to happen in quite the same way—which is not to say it might not happen. The culture of policing has come under considerable scrutiny in the last few weeks. I welcome the police’s apology for the actions they have taken, and I am assured—and convinced—that they are making the right responses and taking this as seriously as it deserves.
My Lords, Members will be aware that I represented the constituency that covered the ground, and I reinforce what my noble friend Lord Coaker said. I ask the Government to help bring closure for the families and communities most affected after 34 years. I would like the Minister to draw to his ministerial friends’ attention the fact that my noble friend Lord Wills brought forward a Private Member’s Bill in this House that did not progress, but that might be returned to and help in this process.
My Lords, we owe it to our former colleague the former Bishop of Liverpool to give a formal, firm government response very soon. I completely understand why my noble friend was not able to go beyond what was said in the other place yesterday, when he was answering the noble Lord, Lord Addington. But the noble Lord had a very real point. Will the Minister please go back to his department and say, “Can we please have a date? Be it 1 May or 1 June, can we have a date very soon?”.
I agree with my noble friend and, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Addington. It would be preferable if I were able to state a date. I am not, but I will certainly take the noble Lord’s concerns back and ask the department to firm up on this. I stress, though, that the Policing Minister in the other place has committed to speeding this process up.
My Lords, to go back to the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, with trust and confidence in the police at historically low levels, why did the Government oppose placing a clear, simple and easily understood statutory duty of candour on the police in primary legislation, as exists for the NHS? A statutory duty of co-operation in secondary legislation is not the same thing.
My Lords, the bishop’s report made it very clear that when it came to the first round of inquests, the families could not secure legal aid, whereas all the public bodies were publicly funded in their legal applications. When can we expect equality of legal arms when it comes to these sorts of inquests?
My noble friend asks a very good question, and I am happy to say that some of the initiatives that have been taken support the sorts of things he is talking about—for example, the removal of means testing for exceptional case funding to cover legal support for families at an inquest. That broadens the scope and access for families. We have also refreshed the Guide to Coroner Services for Bereaved People. I hope that goes some way to answering my noble friend’s question.
My Lords, it goes some way but, sadly, not far enough. It should not be a matter of exceptional case funding, should it? If public authorities are funding themselves and the police are funded, why should the bereaved families, in any situation and in any inquest, not be funded at a matched level?