Bill Esterson (Sefton Central, Labour)
You are most kind, as always, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The families and their supporters deserve huge credit for how they have stuck to their guns and for the dignity, restraint and perseverance with which they have continued their fight in the face of a catalogue of smears from the press and cover-ups by the establishment. Ninety-six people went to watch a football match and died, but their families have been treated as if their loved ones were criminals. That has now stopped, thankfully, and the Government have started the process of setting the record straight.
Fifteen-year-old Kevin Williams, 17-year-old Steven Robinson, 18-year-old Gary Jones and 18-year-old Christopher Devonside were among the 18 victims from the borough of Sefton. Their families have told me that they want new inquests and that they want those responsible to be prosecuted. Christopher’s father, Barry, was at the match and saw what happened to the victims as he sat in the stand while his son was in the Leppings Lane end with a friend. Barry was given the run-around on the day by the police. We now have confirmation that this was while the cover-up was starting and senior police officers were desperately trying to agree a story blaming the victims for their own deaths. Barry also attended the inquests. He told me what happened when the results were announced. In front of Barry and other family members, the police celebrated the accidental death verdict. In his words, “Crates of wine and beer were brought into an adjacent room where about 20 senior police officers toasted their success with the coroner.” As he said to me, “How’s that for impartiality?”
The way that the inquests were carried out, the way that the evidence was ignored, the way that witnesses were intimidated and the way that police evidence was altered—all this showed that a cover-up was being carried out, part of a massive miscarriage of justice, alongside an arbitrary decision by the coroner that all must have been dead or beyond saving by 3.15 pm. No wonder, then, that Barry Devonside and the other families have always maintained that the inquests did not tell them how or why their loved ones died, and that it protected those responsible for their deaths.
Other Members of the House have addressed the key issues which come from the independent panel’s report. I add my congratulations to the panel on the work that it has done, and to colleagues in the House who have worked to help the families reach the position that they are in today. The Prime Minister gave a full apology in his statement last month, and the Home Secretary and Attorney-General have done everything that has been asked of them. For that this Government deserve praise. Previous Governments have failed the families and we need to ensure that no more time is lost. It is not possible to make up for lost time, but it is possible to minimise future delay.
The report of the independent panel highlights what went wrong before the event, on the day and in the immediate aftermath, and in the days, months and years after. Much of the evidence in the report is not new, of course, but the report has set it out in a way which allows calls for new inquests to be addressed and for prosecutions to be considered. The report makes the simple point that the policing of football matches was regarded as a matter of control. Public safety was completely ignored. Anyone attending a football match at the time knew only too well that we were regarded with suspicion at best and outright hostility at worst by many of those supposed to be there to keep us safe. The culture of watching football meant that Hillsborough was an accident waiting to happen.
I attended the 1987 semi-final at Hillsborough. I was in the Leppings Lane end. My hon. Friend Ian Lavery described his experience of attending a match with Newcastle in the same location and in the same end. When we left that ground, we felt that we were lucky to escape without serious injury or death. The same thing happened in 1981 and 1988, yet the lessons learned were not applied in full. Some would argue that the behaviour of the police meant that this was no accident, but that is no doubt something for the special prosecutor to consider when he or she looks at the evidence. As the report makes clear, the disaster could have happened at any one of a number of matches in previous years or at a number of other football grounds.
The Attorney-General has already announced that he will apply to the High Court for fresh inquests into the deaths of all 96 victims. Gaining new inquests is the top priority for the families. At the original inquests the coroner decided that all victims must have been dead by 3.15 pm, despite evidence that many were still alive, including 15-year-old Kevin Williams, whose mum Anne has worked so hard to have the verdict overturned. The fact that the Attorney-General is convinced that he can succeed in having the verdicts overturned in the courts this time shows how right Anne and the other families have been all along. The independent panel has found
evidence that at least 41 of the victims may still have been alive at 3.15 pm, and that number may be higher. The decision to have a cut-off at 3.15 pm has meant that evidence about the emergency response has not been fully examined. Only 11% of the evidence was considered by the coroner. As the independent panel says in chapter 4:
“The emergency response to the Hillsborough disaster has not previously been fully examined, because of the assumption that the outcome for those who died was irretrievably fixed long before they could have been helped.”
A new inquest would allow a new coroner to consider all the evidence and to decide why the 96 died. A different verdict would show that the victims died as a result of the failings of the police and other authorities.