After 23 years – a number of big steps towards justice have been taken

23rd December, 2012 12:10 pm

The week before Christmas was a momentous one for the Hillsborough families. The High Court told them that the evidence published by the Independent Hillsborough Panel had made it inevitable that the accidental death verdicts in the original inquests would be overturned. On 19 December 2012, 23 years and 8 months after their loved ones died at a football match, the families were finally told officially it was no accident. People on Merseyside have always known that the accidental death verdict was a cover up for the failings of the police but for the families to finally hear it was further vindication that they were right to keep the fight going.

The 96 who died in April 1989 were not responsible for their own deaths and the lies and cover ups by senior police officers and by some sections of the media are now facing proper investigation as well. The Home Secretary has announced a further inquiry into the police actions on the day and in the aftermath. And on the same day that the inquest verdicts were finally overturned, George Howarth, the MP for Knowsley asked the Prime Minister to waive the VAT on the Hillsborough CD, ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.’ The Prime Minister confirmed that the VAT would not be charged and that the extra money would go to help the families. Then the next day, Angela Eagle, the MP for Wallasey asked the Leader of the House of Commons to confirm that the government would help the families with their legal costs for the new inquests.

This request, too, was granted.

It has taken 23 years too long for justice to start to be done, but in the space of a week, a number of big steps have been taken. One of my constituents is Barry Devonside, whose son Christopher was one of those who died at Hillsborough. Barry told me that he was 42 years old when his son died. By the time that the new inquests have been held and all prosecutions carried out, he may be 70. No one should have to wait so long for the truth to be recognised or for justice to be delivered. Barry will have fought for justice for Christopher for much of his adult life. The same is true for all of the families

The news of the new inquests was welcomed by the families and by their supporters but it was of course a bitter sweet victory. Nothing can bring back the 96 people who went  to watch a football match and didn’t come home. But everything can be done now to ensure justice with new inquest verdicts and with prosecutions for those who contributed to the disaster and for those who covered up what happened on that April day so long ago.

The independent Hillsborough panel report, among other things, found evidence of extensive alteration of police records and attempts to impugn the reputations of the deceased. In its response to the report, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) noted that it could not investigate all aspects of the police’s conduct, because when the IPCC took over from the Police Complaints Authority, a transitional provisions order set out that certain old cases could not be investigated under the new framework.

The government introduced a bill to allow the IPCC to overcome this hurdle so that a further step can be taken in giving justice to the families of the 96 who died at Hillsborough in 1989. The new legislation will provide two key new powers. The first will require a serving police officer to attend an interview as a witness. The second new power will be to set aside the relevant articles of the transitional provisions order in exceptional circumstances, so that the IPCC can investigate certain old cases where the PCA had already been involved.

In its response to the Hillsborough panel’s report, the IPCC set out the potential misconduct by police officers that had been disclosed. The potential criminal and misconduct issues fall into two broad categories: allegations—which go to the heart of what happened at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989—that individuals or institutions may be culpable for the deaths and allegations about what happened after the disaster, including that evidence was fabricated and misinformation spread in an attempt to avoid blame. The IPCC decision document set out a large number of matters that it proposed to investigate, but noted that it was legally prevented from looking at some matters that had previously been investigated.

I will give one example of what is set out in the Hillsborough panel report: the early lie, by Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, about the gates being forced open, which was corrected by the chief constable that evening. This was investigated by West Midlands police under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority. The IPCC was legally prevented from investigating the issue further; therefore it was not investigated. There are many examples of police actions that the PCA had already investigated. That is why this legislation is so important and why it is so important that the IPCC should be given the powers to investigate what happened at Hillsborough.

There were serious failings on the day and an immediate and longer-term cover-up by police officers, yet no one has been convicted for their role in either the deaths of the 96 or the systematic cover-up and the vilification of the dead, their families and the injured. It is to be hoped that the process this legislation is part of will enable that injustice to be rectified. Officers were pressurised to change their statements. This new piece of legislation will reflect the strength of public opinion about the need for action to be taken against police officers who were responsible for the deaths of the 96 or who took part in the cover up. Police officers and former officers need to come forward to give evidence and tell their story. They can do this knowing that they have public support. There should be an end to any protection of colleagues or former colleagues. Officers certainly should be coming forward to tell their story. This legislation will ensure that serving officers do that, but it will hopefully encourage former officers to do so as well.

In the debate in parliament, the minister, Damian Green, rightly spoke of the “industrial scale” of the alteration of statements. He was right and the legislation about the IPCC is one of a number of ways in which justice can finally be delivered to the families of those who died at Hillsborough.

Bill Esterson is the Labour MP for Sefton Central

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