Is a ‘Hillsborough Law’ being kicked into the long grass?

Given the horrific events, not just on the day of the Hillsborough disaster, but also during subsequent events over many years, and the failure of anyone to be held accountable for the disaster, you may have expected swift measures to be put in place to ensure that there could never again be a repeat of the state inflicted pain and suffering endured by the families of the 97 victims. However, thirty-three years on from the disaster, and five years on from when a commitment to a Public Advocate Bill was included in the 2017 Tory manifesto, it seems we are no nearer to having these protections in place.

In March 2017 Andy Burnham, then MP for Leigh, sponsored a ‘Public Authority (Accountability) Bill’. This Private Members’ Bill set out measures to place a legal requirement on public institutions, public servants and officials and those carrying out functions on their behalf, to act in the public interest and with candour and frankness. Further, it would place a legal duty on them to assist official inquiries and investigations. In addition, it proposed how funding would be provided for victims and their relatives during court and inquiry proceedings. The Bill was due to have its 2nd reading on the 12th May 2017, but as a snap General Election was called Parliament was dissolved and the Bill fell.

The 2017 Public Authority (Accountability) Bill. Click on the above to read the speech given by Andy Burnham when presenting the Bill

A commitment to an independent Public Advocate for the victims and families of those involved in disasters was included in the 2017 Conservative manifesto, although no action was taken on this and it made no appearance in their 2019 manifesto.

The commitment to an independent public advocate in the 2017 Conservative manifesto

In 2016 Teresa May, then Home Secretary, commissioned Bishop James Jones to produce a report on the experience of the Hillsborough families so that their perspective would not be lost and lessons could be learned to avoid a repeat of their experience at the hands of state. This report ‘The patronising disposition of unaccountable power’ was published in 2017.

The report made 25 points of learning. These are shown in chapter 5 of the report. Bishop James has highlighted 3 points of learning in particular that there should be:

  • a charter for families bereaved through public tragedy
  • ‘proper participation’ of bereaved families at inquests
  • a duty of candour which should require police officers – serving or retired – to cooperate fully with investigations undertaken by the Independent Police Complaints Commission or its successor body

At the time of publication, 1st November 2017, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said:

I am grateful to Bishop James Jones for undertaking this important piece of work. His thoughtful and considered report raises important points.

The government will now carefully study the 25 points of learning and we will provide a full response in due course.

Almost five years on and it seems we are no nearer to a ‘full response’. In January I wrote to Richard Fuller MP setting out the urgent need for a ‘Hillsborough Law’ and asking for his support for it. You can read the letter, and his response in full here:

Following this response and in light of multiple objections being made to Maria Eagle’s ‘Public Advocate’ Private Members’ Bill – objected to eight times so far in the House of Commons, I raised the issue again in person with Richard Fuller and was subsequently forwarded the response that he received from the Justice Minister, Kit Malthouse MP. The full response is set out below:

Kim Malthouse MP letter to Richard Fuller MP 12th May 2022

The letter above raises a number of issues, but it is simply not good enough that five years on from a Home Secretary promising a ‘full response’ – and 33 years on from the disaster, we still have government ministers saying “we hope to be in a position to conduct that engagement (with the Hillsborough families) and publish a full response soon”. How slowly the wheels of justice turn for the ordinary people of the UK. The letter also talks about the potential availability of legal aid, which has been slashed since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. It also indicates that the governent may be rowing back on previous commitments to an Independent Public Advocate. We must do better than this.

Maria Eagle MP sets out the need for a Hillsborough Law and Public Advocate Bill

The Hillsborough disaster may be a distant memory for many. However, the inequality of access to justice and the imbalance of power between the state and the people that it revealed is still present today. That the 97 victims and their families never received the justice they deserved will forever be a stain on the reputation of our legal and political systems that continue to fail the most vulnerable in our society. A Hillsborough Law is not only vital to go some way to redressing this imbalance, but would also be a fitting tribute to the remarkable dignity and determination of the Hillsborough families who have endured so much. I urge you to contact your MP and ask them to support the Hillsborough Law.

Julian Vaughan

May 2022

Twitter: @julian_vaughan_

Further reading:

‘The patronising disposition of unaccountable power’ A report to ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated – The right Reverend James Jones

Hillsborough – finally a catalyst for change?

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