George Howarth (Knowsley, Labour)
The Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary and several hon. Members have paid tribute to the determination and dignity with which the families and survivors have pursued their cause over so many years. I add my voice to theirs.
There are two good reasons why the families pursued their cause—there are many more, but I shall isolate two. First, they did so because had those in positions of responsibility on that day—not only the police—carried out their duties properly, they could have helped to avoid the disaster; and, secondly, because of the cruel and baseless allegation that the fans themselves were responsible for what happened. Often, because it was not always easy to articulate what justice would amount to, too many were either unable, or in some cases unwilling, to comprehend the voice of the families.
Before the independent panel got to work, there were a lot of strands to the story of what happened. Among other things, we knew—because of the Taylor report—that the principal reason for what happened was the failure of South Yorkshire police to manage the event properly. We also knew—I saw this first hand—that the so-called mini-inquests were a cruel travesty that seemed interested only in undermining the characters of the 96 people who died. Moreover, that was compounded by the 3.15 pm
cut-off point decision, which effectively served to insulate the authorities from any responsibility for anything that happened after that time. We also knew that parts of the media, and most shamefully
newspaper, had grotesquely misrepresented and twisted events in such a way as to paint those who lost their lives and the survivors as partly the architects of their own misfortune. The survivors were also painted as bearing the responsibility for those who so tragically lost their lives. I recently watched the Jimmy McGovern drama to which my hon. Friend Alison McGovern referred in her emotional speech. It powerfully illustrated how, on top of the trauma of being present and surviving, some felt that the finger of suspicion, despite everything, including the Taylor inquiry, was still being pointed in their direction. That ghost had not been firmly been exorcised.
What the independent panel managed to achieve—by so doing, it did a great service to truth—was to weave all those strands together into a coherent and damning narrative. In my view, the report shows convincingly how the strands combine to form a distinct and discernible pattern. Two unambiguous conclusions among others can now be accepted with absolute confidence by all fair-minded people. First, there is no foundation whatever to the victims-as-cause theory that, we now know, was scandalously orchestrated by South Yorkshire police to such grotesque effect. I am not normally a conspiracy theorist, but in this case there clearly was a conspiracy. I know from comments that constituents and others have made to me that the conspiracy shakes the very foundations of their belief in institutions that they have always respected.
As somebody recently pointed out to me, had there been a fire at a theatre or classical music concert, nobody would ever have tried to blame those attending for having had a gin and tonic or glass of wine during the interval. The fact that so many people were at least tacitly prepared to accept or even half accept that version of events speaks to a more general and regrettable aspect of our society: the implicit prejudice many have towards football fans and working-class culture.
Secondly, the report’s conclusions call into question the means available to investigate major disasters. As we have heard, the Taylor inquiry got it right, but provided no real pointer as to how those responsible could be held to account. Because of the prejudiced assumption on which the inquest was based, the inquest system was deeply flawed to the extent that it was both grossly offensive and cruelly ineffective. As the Prime Minister has said, the approach taken by the independent panel—I join others in praising the work of the Bishop of Liverpool and the panel—might serve as a model for the future, should that ever sadly prove to be necessary.
Finally, the question of what happens next must be addressed. As many have said, we know the truth, but what about securing justice and accountability? As I have said previously, the key action will be to hold fresh inquests. I have described on previous occasions what was wrong with the so-called mini-inquests, and I will not repeat what has already been said, but I welcome the Attorney-General’s statement of last week. I hope the courts take note of the strength of feeling and of the strength of evidence in favour of holding fresh inquests.
A different outcome could unlock the door for other action against bodies and individuals who either failed to carry out their responsibilities or tried to cover up what happened before, during and following that fatal football fixture. The recent Independent Police Complaints Commission statement is, in addition, a welcome step in that direction, as is what the Home Secretary has said today. I know she will listen and I hope she takes note of the many points that have been made on resources, keeping the House informed and, most importantly of all, keeping the families abreast of what is happening.
One small point that has not so far been raised with the Home Secretary is this: I hope that anybody who claims they are too ill to give evidence will be rigorously tested—some will make such a claim, and some serving police officers of the time are getting on. I hope it will not be taken as read if they get a doctor’s note saying they are too ill to give evidence. That needs to be independently tested, because it is all too easy in such cases—it is a cop out. I hope she takes that point on board.
Once or twice in each generation, we have a debt of honour placed on us. What happened at Hillsborough is a stain on all of us. I hope we can now redeem that debt of honour.