I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. It is true that there is a much broader application for the lessons learned from Hillsborough as they relate to other disasters.
The last of the criminal trials relating to Hillsborough collapsed in May, some 32 years after the event. It is surely a catastrophic failure of our criminal justice system that it took so long while still failing so badly to do justice to those who died, their families, those injured and the traumatised survivors. There is something very wrong with how our legal system handles public disasters. Thirty-two years after 97 people were unlawfully killed at a football match, primarily through the gross negligence of the South Yorkshire police—that was proven at the second inquests to a criminal standard of proof—no one has been held to account through our criminal justice system for those killings. For 32 years, those responsible for the disaster have sought to blame the victims and survivors for what happened and deny their own culpability.
It took 23 years for the truth to be acknowledged, following the work of the Hillsborough independent panel in 2012. It was fortunate that the panel was even set up to do its work following the 20th anniversary memorial event. Earlier that day, Andy Burnham and I, as Ministers in the Brown Government, and with the permission of the Prime Minister, launched our joint call for all documentation relating to Hillsborough to be published to facilitate transparency. The Hillsborough independent panel was established with the powers of a data controller only because of insight from Lord Michael Wills, who was then in charge of freedom of information at the Ministry of Justice. Only because of that formulation was the truth about what happened on that terrible day finally able to be revealed incontrovertibly, with documentation. Only because of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—I am glad to see her in her place—was it allowed to complete its work after the change in Government in 2010. It would have been easy to cancel it at that point, but she did not. For that, she deserves great credit.
It should also be noted that the Hillsborough independent panel was a non-legal process and that it worked by making use of openness and transparency. As a consequence of its work, the original inquest verdicts of accidental death were quashed, but it took 27 years for correct inquest verdicts of unlawful killing to be recorded. Families had to fight for 23 years for the truth to be officially acknowledged, but to this day no one has been held to account for the Hillsborough slurs and the decades-long smear campaign that was conducted by those responsible, the South Yorkshire police, to deflect blame from themselves on to the innocent victims—the dead, the injured and the traumatised survivors.
As Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron apologised to the families in 2012 for the smears they had endured over what was then a 23-year period. From the Dispatch Box, he said that
“these families have suffered a double injustice: the injustice of the appalling events—the failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth; and then the injustice of the denigration of the deceased—that they were somehow at fault for their own deaths. On behalf of the Government and indeed our country, I am profoundly sorry that this double injustice has been left uncorrected for so long.”—[Official Report, 12 September 2012; Vol. 550, c. 285-286.]
That full and unequivocal apology was made nine years ago. That should have put a stop to the self-serving lies by the representatives of those who were at fault, but it did not.
Since evidence began to be heard at the new inquests in April 2014, there have been legal proceedings that have required the families to maintain a public silence to avoid prejudicing them, yet the apologists and defenders of the South Yorkshire police and of the individuals responsible for what happened on that day have not been silent. They have reiterated the smears for which the Prime Minister apologised to the families in 2012, and they have done so inside and outside the courtroom. We must change the law to stop this kind of cruel abuse, perpetrated by a public authority using taxpayers’ money over decades, from ever happening again.
We must stop legal proceedings arising out of disasters from lasting for decades and from going so wrong, because once things go this wrong, our legal system appears to find it very hard to put things right. We must give the collective voice of the bereaved families agency in the proceedings that inevitably follow a disaster. We must search for the truth using transparency as a key tool, not allow the legal forums to become a way for moneyed vested interests to set about evading their responsibility for the disasters they have caused. The Public Advocate Bill, which I have introduced again into the House—I have been doing so for a number of years, as Lord Michael Wills has done in the Lords—will do that.
It is timely to have this debate because I know that the Government are now considering their response to Bishop James Jones’s 2017 report into the lessons to be learned from Hillsborough, which was commissioned by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead. I hope that, as part of the response to that, the Minister will agree to legislate for an independent public advocate. I know that the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland) was very sympathetic. I am sorry to see that he has lost his place in the Government as I think he was very sympathetic to this call.
My Bill seeks to put bereaved families collectively at the heart of the response to disasters through the establishment of an independent public advocate, who if the bereaved families wish it, will act as a representative of their interests, an adviser and a guide. The advocate, as a data controller, would be able to establish a panel, like the Hillsborough independent panel, to facilitate transparency about what has happened at an early stage. Crucially, this would give the families the capacity to decide collectively on an initiative that would put them at the heart of events, instead of feeling, as bereaved families often do, that they are a mere adjunct to proceedings. This enforced transparency, shining a light into the darkest recesses of the reaction of public authorities caught up in disasters, would torpedo attempted cover-ups and do so at an early stage.
Let me be clear: this role would not replace that of more traditional legal advocates—barristers, solicitors—who would continue to act for individuals in specific legal proceedings; it would fulfil a different and an additional role. The proposal would not require new institutional arrangements or place any burden on the Exchequer. It would not require an open cheque book. On the contrary, the transparency it would bring could save millions of pounds in drawn-out adversarial proceedings over many years or decades.
I am pleased to have the support of many of the most prominent and active members of the Hillsborough Families Support Group who have written a letter published today in the Daily Mirror. They say:
“We are members of families bereaved by the Hillsborough disaster more than 32 years ago who have been active in the campaign for truth and justice.
It took us 23 years of relentless campaigning to have the truth about what happened to our family members finally officially acknowledged. It took 26 years to get accurate inquest verdicts of unlawful killing. The collapse of the criminal trials in May means that after 32 years no-one responsible has been held to account by our criminal justice system for the unlawful killings of 97 innocent children, women and men.
We do not want any other families to endure what we have had to go through simply because they are caught up in a disaster through no fault of their own.
We believe that an independent Public Advocate as proposed by Maria Eagle MP and Lord Michael Wills would stop families bereaved by public disasters in future from ever having to go through what we have had to endure over the last 32 years.
We note that the Government of Theresa May consulted on establishing such an office in 2017 but the proposal appears to have been dropped by the current Government.
We hope that the Lord Chancellor will use the occasion of the debate in the House of Commons on September 16 to announce the creation of an independent Public Advocate as promised in his 2017 manifesto. We consider that such a change will be an important part of the legacy of the 97 and of our long and hard campaign for truth and justice.”
As the Government are considering their response to Bishop James’s report, I say that I know, because he has told me, that he is fully supportive of the establishment of an independent public advocate. He told me that he has been persuaded by his experience of meeting families involved in other disasters, such as Gosport and the infected blood scandal, that such a position is necessary. I am very supportive of his own findings. In particular, three recommendations of his are key: the proposed charter for families bereaved through public tragedy, equality of arms at inquests and the statutory duty of candour. These measures are undoubtedly valuable, and the Government should adopt them. However, I think the only way of preventing disasters going so catastrophically wrong over decades is to establish an independent public advocate. The families back this reform, Bishop James backs this reform and the Conservative party had it in its manifesto in 2017, so I hope that all of us across the House can get behind it and legislate for it now.
I was first elected to this House, over 24 years ago, on 1 May 1997. The first of my new constituents to contact me shortly after were the bereaved families of those who had been killed in the Hillsborough disaster then nine years earlier. They had by that time already endured almost a decade of legal actions, including the Taylor inquiry, the first inquests, civil claims, decisions not to discipline or to prosecute the South Yorkshire police commanders in charge on that day, judicial reviews of various such decisions, appeals and every other kind of legal action imaginable, such that it seemed even then as though there was little chance of further recourse for them through our legal system.
I met four of the Hillsborough Families Support Group committee in the home of one of them in my constituency. I met Phil Hammond, who lost his son in the disaster and was then chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group. I met Jenni Hicks, who lost both her daughters in the disaster. We met in the home of Doreen Jones, who lost her son and his fiancée, and very nearly her daughter too. I also met Trevor Hicks, who was prominent then in the campaign.
I was struck by the raw pain and deep anger of Phil Hammond. I still remember it; it was as if he was reliving the day of the disaster—as if it had been yesterday—in minute detail as he talked, yet this was nine years on, and almost all possible legal avenues had already been tried and had failed the families in getting to the truth or achieving justice for the bereaved. He was so appalled and upset at the fact that he felt that his young son who had been killed was being blamed for what had happened to him when he was a wholly innocent boy and that those responsible, South Yorkshire police, were not intent upon telling the truth and learning lessons, as Lord Justice Taylor had exhorted them to do, but were instead engaged in the callous pursuit of blaming the victims of the tragedy, no matter what pain and hurt they caused in the process.
While we had a tea break in our meeting, I overheard Trevor Hicks telling Jenni that he had been contacted by a new witness who perhaps had some information about one of their two young daughters and what had happened to her during the missing hours between their going into Leppings Lane and the confirmation that both of them had been killed. I was struck by the fact that this basic information was what the inquests were supposed to have provided to the grieving families, but the inquests came nowhere near fulfilling that basic purpose. It was not until the second inquests began, a full 17 years after this meeting, that our legal system even tried to answer those questions for the bereaved families.
I knew how wrong things had gone, how thoroughly the families had been let down and their loved ones, Liverpool fans and the survivors traduced, and I have tried to do all I can to help them and other families ever since. They have all been central figures in the Hillsborough families’ fight for truth and justice, along with many others, and I want to take this opportunity to say that without their unbelievable efforts over so many years the truth would not have been acknowledged and the correct inquest verdicts would not have been handed down. Their achievements and those of other families and representatives, such as Margaret Aspinall, Sue Roberts, the indefatigable Anne Williams and others too numerous to mention, are monumental. Their fortitude, dignity, persistence and determination had to be seen to be believed. They have needed all of those qualities for all of the 32 and a half years that it has taken.
This year the Hillsborough Family Support Group has disbanded, knowing now that they can do no more. They have the truth and they have achieved a measure of justice, but there has been no accountability. They have, between them, all truly done everything they possibly can for their lost loved ones. Now it is up to those of us in this House and Ministers in this Government to learn the lessons that their commitment, their fortitude and their togetherness over such a long period have taught us. We owe it to them to get it right: we owe it to those 97 people unlawfully killed by the gross negligence of South Yorkshire police on that day in 1989 to make sure that what has happened to these bereaved families and survivors can never happen again to families bereaved in public disasters—and there will be more disasters; there have been.
The establishment of an independent public advocate will help to achieve that. I call upon the Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Government to heed those who really do know best, the Hillsborough families themselves, and use the occasion of this debate to announce that they will now do what they said they would in 2017 and establish an office of the independent public advocate. Now is the time to move forward and implement those learned lessons of Hillsborough and at long last change the law to prevent what went so wrong in that case from ever happening to any other families again.