I beg to move
That this House
has considered proposed reforms to the criminal justice system to better respond to families bereaved by public disasters.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this timely debate about learning the lessons of the Hillsborough disaster so that never again will families bereaved by a public disaster have to endure the more than three decades-long ordeal of the Hillsborough families. It is about changing the law to ensure that what happened to them can never again happen to any families bereaved by a public disaster.
I begin by noting that, since the final criminal trials arising from Hillsborough collapsed in May, Mr Andrew Devine sadly died, aged 55, as a direct result of the catastrophic injuries that he received in the crush at Hillsborough in 1989. Liverpool coroner André Rebello recorded a verdict of unlawful killing following his death, which confirms that Andrew Devine is the 97th victim of the Hillsborough disaster. It is only right that his name is read aloud and noted in this place, as were the other 96 by Steve Rotheram, the former Member for Liverpool, Walton, in a debate in the House in 2011.
Hillsborough was a national disaster, not just a disaster affecting Liverpool or a disaster affecting football, and the lessons to be learned are applicable far beyond the circumstances around it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way on that important point. The debate is obviously centred on Hillsborough, but the lessons apply to other public disasters such as the contaminated blood scandal. The people who have been infected and affected by that scandal stand in solidarity with what she proposes: to ensure that no other family ever has to go through what the Hillsborough families have gone through.
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 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.
“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,
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 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
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.
I congratulate Maria Eagle on securing this important debate. I thank her for her kind words about me, but I also congratulate her on a passionate and heartfelt speech. I agree with what she said; I will come on to the reasons why but want first to say that she has been a fine and fiery champion for the Hillsborough families since she entered this House. I am only sorry that it has taken so long for us to get to the position where the Hillsborough families actually know what happened on that day and where Government should be in a position to take action to ensure other families do not suffer in the same way.
In my time as Home Secretary and Prime Minister I dealt with a number of situations where victims, survivors and families bereaved as a result of public disasters found that their pain and suffering were compounded by the fact that they had to deal with the reaction of various organs of the state. Obviously, the hon. Lady focused on Hillsborough, but, as Dame Diana Johnson referenced in an intervention, that is not the only example of such situations happening. Too often the public sector and Government, which should be supporting bereaved families when there has been a public disaster and be on the side of those families, instead retreat into a defensive position: they put up the barricades. The families and victims and survivors then find that they not only have to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy—with loss, injury and all the other aspects of that tragedy—but that they are beating their heads against the closed door of the public sector. That is in the criminal justice system and in other aspects of the public sector.
Of course, what that leads to is an adversarial situation where both sides grow increasingly apart and increasingly sense that the other is just against them. That should not be the case, but more than that, that adversarial situation makes it much harder to provide for the needs of the bereaved families, it makes it much harder to get to the truth of what has happened, and it hampers the justice process.
It was the need to change that situation that led me to putting this commitment in the Conservative party manifesto in 2017:
“To ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families over the last twenty years is not repeated, we will introduce an independent public advocate, who will act for bereaved families after a public disaster and support them at public inquests.”
However, that is not just an idea that we have heard from the Conservative Benches; the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood has been promoting it for some considerable time, and it has cross-party support. It should have support from everybody in the House. May I just say, as an aside, that I am grateful that the Chairman of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill, is here? I am only sorry that there are not more of my colleagues here to speak on what I consider to be a very important topic.
The need for an independent public advocate was echoed later by Bishop James Jones in his report, “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power”. He wrote:
“I believe that this report confirms the need for an independent public advocate in these circumstances, but to ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated I would caution against the adoption of too narrow a definition of ‘public disaster’. As this report shows, many of the experiences of the Hillsborough families are very sadly also reflected in the experience of families bereaved through other forms of public tragedy where the state has fallen short.”
He provided a charter for the public advocate. He also suggested that they should be involved in ensuring that social work and other support was available to bereaved families in engaging with the media, to try to ensure that the bereaved were treated with dignity and respect—something that certainly did not happen in the case of the Hillsborough families; in fact, the very reverse happened to them—and in ensuring that bereaved families were kept properly and fully informed at all times.
That point of information is critical. Families want to know what is happening; they want to be informed. But that can be a two-way street, because there will be occasions when it is important for the families to have full information as to why they cannot have a particular piece of information—for example, if it would prejudice an ongoing criminal investigation. What matters is that there is that degree of transparency and not a feeling of cover-up.
Critically, the independent public advocate must be not just, as the name suggests, independent, but someone who can be recognised as independent by the bereaved families. To put it simply, the independent public advocate is there to be on the side of the families, to help explain and guide them through the processes and to get information for them—including, I suggest, dealing with breaking down any barriers to information that are put up by the public sector.
None of us wants to see any more public disasters that lead to the loss of lives, but sadly, as the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood said, we know that things will happen, and therefore it is imperative that the Government act with urgency to put in place an independent public advocate. We took an important step in 2017. I am sorry that it was not repeated at the 2019 election. The previous Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend Robert Buckland, recognised the importance of this issue, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for the work that he did in Government. He recognised the need for this role, and I hope that the incoming Lord Chancellor will do so too.
I am certain that introducing an independent public advocate is critical to ensuring that families bereaved as a result of public disasters in the future do not suffer in the way that the Hillsborough families suffered, but that they have someone they can turn to in their hour of need, and someone who they know will be working for them. Let me say to the Government that it is not just in the interests of those families but, actually, in the interests of the Government and the public sector that an independent public advocate should exist and should be able to ensure that we do not get into an adversarial situation, smooth the relationship between the two sides and ensure that everything moves rather more quickly. Governments should not just see this as something they may or may not be giving to potentially bereaved families in future; they should see that, actually, there is an interest for the Government in having an independent public advocate in place. That is certainly what I would argue. I would hope that the introduction of such a post would, over time, lead the public sector to recognise that it should not be defensive in such situations and that it should take a different approach—stopping the cover-up mentality in future.
I want to raise one further issue if I may. The reason why the most recent trials collapsed was that, although it was accepted that individuals had doctored evidence, it was evidence given to what was an administrative function of the Home Office rather than a public inquiry. Obviously, the Inquiries Act 2005 did not exist at the time. If we take the logical next step, it would be to set everything up as a 2005 Inquiries Act inquiry. Government Departments have a natural reluctance to set up public inquiries, partly because of the cost and the length of time they often take. We have seen, through the Hillsborough independent panel, that there are often other means of getting at the truth that can be equally beneficial and indeed, in terms of process, may be more helpful to all those involved. I ask the Minister to consider whether it is possible for the Government to address the issue that something that is not under the 2005 Act could lead to a similar situation in future, but to keep open the options for Government in terms of the types of inquiry that can be set up—the panel or the 2005 Act.
Finally, I want to return to the issue of the independent public advocate. I absolutely agree with everything the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood said on this issue. It is something the Government should take up as a matter of urgency. I am happy to beat a path to the door of the new incoming Lord Chancellor, once he has got his feet under the table, to try to persuade him, should he show any reluctance, of the importance of doing this. The Hillsborough families deserve that. They have been through hell since that fatal day. They do not want to see other people having that same experience. We owe it to them.
This is the commitment from the Government in their consultation paper, apparently establishing an independent public advocate:
“The government is committed to introducing an Independent Public Advocate who will act for bereaved families after a public disaster and support them at inquests and inquiries.”
I welcome the presence today of Mrs May. She has done so much to push this matter on, and I would like to thank her.
The consultation ended on
My hon. Friend Bill Esterson put a written question to the Justice Secretary on
Is it too much to ask, on behalf of those who lost their lives in those dreadful disasters, that their families and loved ones will be able to get the answers they need and deserve, the support they need, the comfort they need and the justice they need? The justice is calling out to be heard. It is our responsibility here to ensure that those cries, those demands, those entitlements are not just heard, but acted on. Is my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood asking for too much?
I thank my hon. Friend for pursuing this matter with her usual single-mindedness and determination. Her usual forthrightness, focus and tireless work on this issue is matched only by her compassion for those affected by such life-changing experiences. She has shown that again today in spades. It is the responsibility of this House to match her action, her compassion and her determination and support her Bill, not in due course, but now. Let the Minister end this delay, prevarication and procrastination now—today, this afternoon. Let him give not just another commitment or promise, but on behalf of the Government, a cast-iron guarantee that they will support my hon. Friend’s Bill through its parliamentary journey. In a civilised and modern democracy, which has had more than its fair share of disasters that have so affected the lives of so many people, is it really too much to ask for the Government to get on with the job? Is it too much to ask the Government to deliver what they promised? Is it too much to ask the Government to ensure that the victims, in the wider sense of the word, are looked after?
It is time to stop hiding behind the hackneyed old excuses for not acting. We all know that the Government can act if they choose to do so. Only this week a Bill spending £10 billion annually—the Health and Social Care Levy Bill—went through the House of Commons in just one day. Why did the Government do it? Because they wanted to and because they had the will, the wherewithal and the commitment to do it. That is the question that the Government must ask of themselves: do they have the commitment? It is the question that this House must ask of them. It is the question that the families of the victims are asking. It is the question being asked of the Government by so many people who see the injustices being prolonged. Do the Government have the will to do it? If so, the next question is: when?
Finally, my hon. Friend’s Bill has the widespread support of so many individuals and groups, including our former Members of this House, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, the Mayors of Greater Manchester and the Liverpool city region. It also includes the former Hillsborough family support group led by its former chair, Margaret Aspinall, who my hon. Friend referred to and who did so much over 30 years to keep the flame of justice burning for the 97 people who died as a result of that disaster. Let the passing of this Bill be another tribute—one of many—to those who have lost their lives in such tragic circumstances and to the persistence, passion and determination of their loved ones.
It is a privilege and it is actually very humbling to speak in this debate. I wanted to do so both as Chair of the Justice Committee and out of respect for my fellow Committee member, Maria Eagle—as well as the victims, of course, of this awful disaster and many others—because she has pursued this issue with great vigour as a constituency MP. She has also pursued it—I am grateful to her for doing so—through the Justice Committee and the report that we recently published on reform of the coronial system, so I particularly wanted to be here.
As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will start by asking the House’s indulgence of the fact that I may need to leave before the end of the debate, because there is a pressing family matter that I need to attend to and which the Front Benchers and the hon. Lady also know about. None the less, I thought it was important to be here.
I also welcome the Minister to his place. He will know from his service on the Justice Committee how seriously this matter has been taken and the energy with which the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood has pursued this case. She has done a service for the House, for her constituents and for the country more broadly, because this raises important issues of policy relating to how we deal with a particular tragic set of circumstances, where there are multiple deaths in consequence of a catastrophic failure through the regulation or other form of conduct by a public authority, in most cases, and sometimes by significant private corporations.
I was also particularly pleased to see my right hon. Friend Mrs May here, and I join the tributes to her for the courage and sheer decency that she showed throughout her pursuit of this issue both as Home Secretary and Prime Minister. The fact that she continues to pursue these issues having left office, says a great deal about her and the calibre of person she is. I agreed with everything that she said in her speech, and I hope that the Government will take it on board.
I cannot see for the life of me why we did not continue that commitment to a public advocate in the 2019 manifesto. As far as I am concerned, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, the facts have not changed, and I see no reason why we should change our opinion either. The overall cost of such a matter to the public purse is very small indeed in comparison with the importance in human terms of the issues that arise, and the public good that can arise. The purpose of inquests is not simply to determine the cause of death, but also—particularly through the powers of the coroner to write a statutory letter—to improve behaviour for the future, and to change practice. I think the importance of that is often underestimated.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all those reasons. I also wish to join in the tributes that have been paid to my right hon. and learned Friend Robert Buckland, who showed such sensitivity towards this issue during his time as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. I have made no bones about what I feel about his departure from government. I simply say now that the Government are the poorer for his departure.
The specific issues that we are debating have been well rehearsed by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, and I do not seek to repeat what she has said, but I do point out that what she has said is reflected, in many respects, in a number of the recommendations of the Justice Committee’s report on reform of the coronial system, which was published earlier this year. I am grateful to other members of the Committee, past and present, for being here today.
The coronial system has many merits, but in these cases it does not work satisfactorily. There are other issues with it, some of which coincide with the issues that are highlighted here. Examples are the variation of practice between coronial areas and the lack of a strong system of central support—the appointment of a new Chief Coroner, together with the work of the first two Chief Coroners, has done a great deal to improve that, but there is still a lack of structure to underpin it—and the fact that the inquest rules and procedures do not give the coroner anything like the degree of case management control that, for instance, a High Court judge or a circuit judge would have in the same circumstances, in terms of dealing with interlocutory issues, admissibility of evidence, and the appropriateness of lines of cross-examination.
If we are to try to preserve the coronial system, which I think is a good one, we must ensure that it can be adapted to different types of case. That which relates to a tragic death, for example in unexplained circumstances, but where the medical issues are pretty simple and straightforward and there are no other significant extraneous issues of fact to consider—or even to a comparatively straightforward but sad personal injuries death—requires a procedure that is wholly different from, and much simpler than, that which occurs in multi-handed inquests in which significant state or private actors are engaged and in which the issue of legal resource will come into play.
We also need to think about the position of a purely inquisitorial system when there are third parties, the bereaved families, who have a direct means of engagement. Regrettably, the current system cannot always guarantee that they will have the level of input to the system that they should have, and that they will have, for example, sufficient access to evidence to make the case in a way that enables them to feel that all the relevant issues have been fully ventilated.
There are broader issues, too, that arise from Hillsborough, in relation to what I think we can now perceive to be deficiencies in the substantive law itself, in two areas. One, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead referred, is the whole question of the status of evidence given to a non-statutory inquest. I think most people were surprised that that exists. It was inevitable—the ruling of the judge, Mr Justice Davis, a very experienced trial judge, cannot be faulted in law—but that does say something about the position of the law.
Perhaps, as my right hon. Friend suggested, it would be a measure of over-engineering to require every such inquest to be conducted on a statutory basis, but that is the only safe means by which people could be held to account in these circumstances. Perhaps we could expand the definition in some way, let us say by analogy with the law of perjury or by adopting other definitions of misconduct in public office, because after all these people were acting in public office in this case when they made the demonstrably false statements. There ought, surely, to be a legislative device which could achieve that, and I am sure that it would have the support of the whole House. Maybe the Law Commission could be asked to look swiftly at these matters. It is able to respond in a timely way to specific technical issues of law when required.
There is also the issue of procedure. We need to strengthen the tools for coroners to get to the truth and ensure fairness for all the relevant parties and interests involved. We also have to ensure that, in cases involving bereaved families, the families are made much more central to the system. That is why we have recommended that there should be a charter for bereaved families appearing before the coronial system. There is already a guide to service for bereaved people, and that is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. We recommended going further and putting this on a much stronger and more formal basis. We also recommended strengthening the amount of specialist support services available.
I rather regret that the Government have not gone as far as I would wish in adopting all these recommendations. Again, the cost in the overall scheme of things is tiny. The Minister, when he was a very effective member of the Justice Committee, often made the case that, when we talked about spending on the courts system, we were talking about a fraction of a fraction, and I totally agreed with him. Well, spending on support services for bereaved families in coroners inquests and proceedings is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction, if I can put it that way, but the benefit in human and societal terms would be very great indeed. I hope that the Government will reflect that they can move further on their response to our recommendations.
In addition to arguing for a charter of rights, we argued that there should be a much more structured means of ensuring access to evidence. At the moment, this is far too dependent on the discretion of the individual coroner. There are not the same rules on the disclosure of evidence as would exist in a criminal trial on like facts in the Crown Court, and that is unsatisfactory. We also supported the recommendation for a duty of candour, and I suspect that Bishop James’s report will also go down that route. I know that the Government have said that this recommendation will be considered alongside their response to Bishop James’s report. The Select Committee reached this conclusion on very compelling evidence. The evidence that we heard throughout the inquiry pointed strongly in one direction on virtually all the points before us. I hope that, when the Bishop has produced his report, the Government will take the opportunity to act and bring in a duty of candour.
The other important issue that we want to look at is equality of arms. Where there has been a significant loss of life and where significant public interest issues arise in terms of the conduct of those responsible for the premises or the events that have given rise to the deaths, it cannot be right that one side can be represented by heavyweight legal teams, effectively at the taxpayer’s expense when these are public bodies, while the families have to rely on the very restrictive parameters of the exceptional funding scheme for legal aid. Again, we are not talking about a large number of cases. We are not talking about a general extension of legal aid to inquests, because that would change the inquisitorial nature of the system. That is not what we are arguing for, and that is not what the evidence has suggested. It said that, for a specific type of inquest involving specific tragic events, equality of arms and fairness would dictate that those families should have access to non-means-tested legal aid. That would be in the public interest, to ensure that all the issues were properly ventilated and that the coroner’s recommendations would fully deal with any issues relating to the prevention of future deaths.
I have perhaps trespassed for some time on the House’s time, but I think this issue warrants full and proper debate. It is a shame that we do not have more people here to discuss it, but I hope that we will have other opportunities to do so. If I am unable to be here when the Minister responds to the debate, I shall read his remarks with interest. I know that he will respond fully and conscientiously, for he is a considerable asset to the Government and I very much hope that he will continue to be so when the day is out. I am confident that he will, if there is any reward for ability and diligence in politics. I know that he is well seized of these issues, and if he cannot give us everything that we would like today, I urge him to ask the new Lord Chancellor—who I hope will continue to be his boss—to take these issues seriously and not to be afraid to revisit them, because there is profound evidence to support them. On that Keynesian basis, if the evidence and the facts are there, a shrewd person will act according to the evidence and facts and make these reforms, which would cost very little but would achieve a great deal.
I thank my hon. Friend Maria Eagle for securing this important debate. She has, for many years, worked with campaigners and used her voice in this place to speak up for our city, which suffered its darkest hours on and in the aftermath of
Our city on the banks of the Mersey in the north-west of England is one that knows only solidarity, love and empathy. We are a city that has one another’s back, and we know all too well that an injustice to one is an injustice to all. I can say proudly that the bonds that were forged in the fire of
As I have said previously in this place, Scousers have long memories. We shall never forget. We will continue to mourn our lost sons and daughters, and we will always fight for justice and for truth, opposing with every fibre of our being those who continue to spread the appalling lies of that fateful day.
It is these characteristics of solidarity and love, and these experiences of loss and trauma, that have come to define who we are as people. That spirit of a people who speak with one voice is written in the words of Jenni Hicks, who lost her two daughters, Victoria and Sarah, at Hillsborough:
“I’ll never get that accountability for my daughters but we’re still fighting on behalf of Grenfell, Manchester Arena and other disasters that are bound to happen in future. What runs alongside the loss of my daughters is the knowledge that this is a country that’s prepared to accept this injustice and that’s why the system has to be changed. You can’t just say that’s it, that’s how it is. If something’s wrong you have to try and do something about it.”
Those words resonated with me and I am sure they will with anyone who reads them. After it was ruled in May this year that the quest for justice and the accountability that comes with it may well be over, Jenni had the bravery to recognise the progress that had been made and that the decades-long campaign had not been in vain, even if those responsible for the loss of human life and the resulting cover-up will not be held accountable.
While the trial was proceeding and they were denying a cover-up, present-day South Yorkshire police were agreeing compensation to 600 relatives and survivors on the back of the force’s campaign of lies, perverting the course of justice and sweeping under the carpet their own gross negligence that resulted in the deaths of so many. The fight for justice was long and, yes, it has still eluded all in our city who believe with every fibre of our being that, with truth, comes justice and that, with justice, accountability should follow. Of course, as we know, the latter has never been delivered for the people of my city.
But we do not sit still in Liverpool. We say “Never again,” and it does not just apply to our struggle. Jenni Hicks has it right. If something is wrong, we have to try to do something about it. That is why we are here today. Sadly, we know too well that future disasters will happen, that human suffering at certain flashpoints will be immense and that the establishment’s immediate response will be to batten down the hatches and protect its own interests, against the interests of those who have suffered and lost so much. If any small flicker of light can come from the darkness of Hillsborough, it must be protection for succeeding generations from the pain and anguish of the lies, misinformation and cover-up that we witnessed and suffered for more than three decades.
We know here today that we can go so much further, and the provision afforded under law can be expanded. Ultimately, the criminal justice system must better respond to families bereaved by public disasters. Not doing so is a grotesque abdication of the responsibility of those in this place to those we represent—those who do not possess the levers of power and those with little resource, other than their collective and determined voice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood said, this is why we need thorough legislation and the introduction of an independent public advocate. I also thank Mrs May for her comments today.
So when we say, “Never again” on Hillsborough and the likes of Grenfell, we are not just referring to the tragedy itself. Loud and clear, we say “Never again” for a decades-long fight for what I talked about earlier: truth, justice and accountability. If the law does not place itself on the side of ordinary people—good and decent people—it will only consign itself as a hobby tool for the privileged and powerful in safeguarding their own interests. I implore this Government to hear the voices not just of those in this place today, but of the people who do not walk these corridors of power. Let us give some power to them. Let us elevate their voices. Anything less is an injustice itself.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend Maria Eagle for securing a debate that is of such great significance to our constituents. Like all of my hon. Friends from Merseyside, my thoughts today are with the loved ones of the 97 victims of the Hillsborough disaster. Andrew Devine, the last victim, died in July, aged just 55, from the catastrophic injuries he suffered that day, before he ever had the chance to see justice done.
More than 30 years after the tragedy, the campaign for truth and justice continues. Throughout it all, the families of the 97 have endured things most of us could barely begin to imagine. The pain and grief of losing loved ones who simply went to watch a football match but never came back is heart breaking, but the disgusting lies and smears against the victims by the gutter press, the protracted efforts by South Yorkshire police to cover up their role in that day’s events and the disinterest in doing anything to redress injustice shown by successive Governments all magnified the terrible hurt suffered by the families. Through all this, those families and their supporters stood firm and dignified. They never gave up their quest for justice. We must take inspiration from their determination. It is incumbent upon those of us who have the privilege of serving in this place to ensure that no one is left to struggle so hard and for so long again.
I applaud the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood to enshrine the right to a public advocate in law. For far too long, grieving families have been forced to navigate complex legal bureaucracies alone, without the resources, connections and access to expertise that the wealthiest in our society take for granted. Her private Member’s Bill would go a long way to putting this wrong to rights and to ensuring that no one is denied justice, as the families of the Hillsborough victims have been. I look forward to supporting its Second Reading next month. She has brought to this debate characteristic passion, as well as her considerable experience, both in law and in government, but in truth it should never have fallen on her shoulders to fight this fight. The right to a public advocate has broad cross-party support and was even included as a proposal in the 2017 Queen’s Speech, but more than four years later, the people whose lives were torn apart by the Hillsborough disaster are still waiting, as are the victims of subsequent disasters such as the Grenfell fire.
The Lord Chancellor’s unceremonious firing yesterday was met with widespread condemnation from Conservative Members, but it would have been warmly welcomed by many of the people I represent who have waited so long to see the Government honour their commitments. After all, a Justice Secretary who does not see justice done does not merit that high office. His successor must prove that the Government are serious when they say that they are committed to giving families bereaved by public disaster a voice. They must act to end the wait for truth and justice.
I thank Mrs May for everything that she has done for Hillsborough survivors and families. I also thank my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury for allowing me leave from the Building Safety Bill Committee. I know that he and my hon. Friend Ms Rimmer both desperately wanted to attend this debate; however, they have to attend the Committee to scrutinise the Bill, so I place this on record on their behalf and for their constituents.
The result is that nobody has been held accountable for the needless deaths, injuries and enduring trauma suffered at Hillsborough, despite the 2016 inquest verdicts that the 96—now 97—victims were unlawfully killed due to the disastrous actions of the police and the officer in command, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield. Is it any wonder that faith in the legal system has been utterly corroded for many after the experiences suffered?
This can never be repeated. Justice has been denied for so many. That is why the proposed Bill and set of reforms matter so much. My hon. Friend Maria Eagle has been a champion of the families and survivors since her election; I thank her for everything she has done for them. She will never know how much it has meant.
My own experience will be familiar to many survivors, but I would like to take the House back to a 16-year-old in 1989—how his view of the establishment was shaped and why this Bill matters so much to him. I watched the horrors of Hillsborough unfold from the side pen because of fate.
In 1988, I had stood with my two friends directly behind the goal—it was edgy, but we walked out celebrating a great victory and got home safely. In 1989, we had another Kopite with us. We headed back to the same place for the big game hours before, full of excitement and anticipation, like so many others. My friend started feeling extremely uncomfortable with the numbers, and we decided to move our way back down the tunnel to a side pen. That was fate, because it was before Duckenfield made his disastrous decision. I am sure all four of us who were there, and who are now parents and grandparents, thank whatever powers made us take that fateful decision to move.
I knew my dad and his mates—
My hon. Friend is making a powerful and suitably emotional case. As he knows, I spent a day at the original inquest; does he agree that that inquest, which thankfully was overturned later, was an absolute travesty of what should have taken place? A few moments ago, my hon. Friend Paula Barker talked about the importance of truth; an inquest should be the occasion on which we get the truth, but that inquest did not.
Absolutely. I thank my right hon. Friend.
I knew my dad and his mates were also in the stadium, along with many of my friends from school and my area. You immediately think of your nearest and dearest, while watching events, powerless to do anything, next to the pens. I will never, ever forget the kindness of the people of Sheffield who, as we walked home to the station, numbed, were asking whether we wanted to phone home to tell our families that we were safe. Like many others, I had family and friends in Leppings Lane, and—this was before we had mobile phones and social media—we were hearing rumours of how many people were injured and how many had died. So it was a long, long journey home. In the next few days, I got the call from my dad saying he was okay, plus his friends. But then the calls came telling us we had lost friends from school and our community. It is something you never forget. Thirty-seven people who died at Hillsborough were teenagers.
Back in 1989, the printed media were all-powerful, and in the days after the disaster, when you were trying to come to terms with what had happened and process it, we had the infamous headline from the rag I will not name. The “Truth” headline made me, at 16 years of age, question my own sanity. I had watched the fans supporting each other, giving mouth-to-mouth on the pitch, ferrying the injured on stretchers—how could this be what the media were saying? Then we had South Yorkshire police initiate the smears and lies that reverberated around the world, backed by the Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, and her press officer, Bernard Ingham. The narrative was all-powerful and the establishment was spinning it for all it was worth. And we had a set of fans and a city that never stood a chance. In the face of the unrelenting media onslaught and spin, if I was questioning my own eyes, how easy was it for the vast majority of this nation—and, indeed, the world—to swallow the orchestra of lies that was the establishment’s version of Hillsborough?
In the weeks after Hillsborough, when we had laid our scarves on the hallowed turf at Anfield and laid our friends to rest, I was visited by two police officers from the West Midlands police force to take my version of events on that fateful day. We sat down in my living room—I was 16—and the first and last question was, “How much alcohol had you drunk on the day, Ian?” I asked them to leave—that is the polite version for this Chamber—and that was my first taste, in person, of the cover-up by the respective police forces. That is why the proposed reforms—the Public Advocate Bill, the Hillsborough law and the set of measures that have been so well outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood—matter. We cannot ever allow the events and response after a disaster to be shaped by the perpetrators and the innocent to be smeared and denied justice. We cannot ever again allow mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters to go through the pain and agony that the families and survivors of Hillsborough endured.
If we learn one thing from the greatest miscarriage of justice ever seen in this country it must be this: truth and justice must be something that every victim of a disaster can expect to receive from the state. The template must be the Hillsborough independent panel, which changed everything. I am eternally grateful to the politicians who enabled it and to the panel members for their work in giving the world the true story of the Hillsborough disaster.
In this fight for truth and justice, I have met some of the greatest people I will ever meet in my life—through the tragedy of Hillsborough. These are the people and experiences that have shaped my life and my thinking. Over the last three decades, I have watched politicians from both side of this House betray the families and dismiss their version of events, afraid of upsetting the establishment narrative. And some on this side still pander to the media barons responsible for the headlines that have caused such anguish to our people and city. It is hard to swallow now that we know the real truth.
The decision by a judge in May to ensure that no one was held accountable for 97 unlawful killings, after 32 years of lies, smears and cover-ups, was a bitter pill to swallow for so many. I personally feel a huge sense of responsibility—as a 16-year-old boy at Hillsborough who has travelled to these green Benches—to the families, survivors and my city to do everything in my power to ensure that we have some form of legacy from an establishment that owes us.
My esteemed colleague’s Bill and its proposed reforms will give some comfort to the families and survivors that other families involved in any future disaster will not face what befell them after the fateful day of
It is an honour and a privilege to follow my friend, Ian Byrne, in this debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Maria Eagle on her tireless campaigning on this issue and on what I thought was an excellent speech that covered what the families have been through for years and years.
I pay tribute to the bereaved families, the survivors and the campaigners for their courage, tenacity and inspiring example to people fighting injustice everywhere. I was only two years of age when the Hillsborough disaster happened, but I grew up with people who were affected by it. We are a city influenced by it still today.
Let me thank Mrs May for being here today and for her continued support, which I know means so much to the families. I hope the Minister will take away the real feeling and passion that we have heard today.
It is 32 years since the victims of the Hillsborough disaster left to watch a game of football and never came home. It is nine years this week since the Hillsborough independent panel report exposed the gross negligence of members of the South Yorkshire police, who, instead of answering for their actions, sought to shift the blame on to those whom they had failed to protect. We remember it as “Truth Day”. It is five years since the inquest verdicts found that the victims of the Hillsborough disaster were unlawfully killed, and it is seven weeks since Andrew Devine, who suffered life-changing injuries at Hillsborough, became its 97th fatality.
We know now that witness statements were altered, that the reputation of the victims was impugned, and that lies were fed to the gutter press in one of the most despicable cover-ups in modern history, yet the only conviction secured was for a health and safety breach, resulting in a fine. No one has ever answered for the unlawful killing of 97 people. What kind of justice is that? What message does it send to those who campaigned for decades not only for truth, but for accountability? What message does it send to the bereaved families and survivors, who were forced to bite their tongues while discredited slurs about their loved ones were repeated inside and outside the court? The horrific experience that they endured is all the evidence that we need that the legal system in this country is broken. It is incapable of delivering justice for bereaved families and survivors, and it needs to change.
I commend the tireless work of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood to help deliver that change, and I am proud to add my name to her Public Advocate Bill, which would provide support for bereaved families at an early stage following a public disaster to prevent them from having to endure what the Hillsborough families have endured.
Back in June, following the collapse of the recent trials, the then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice told me in this Chamber that the Government would engage with the Hillsborough families and survivors every step of the way to review and propose changes to the law, and I hope that the new Secretary of State will commit to do that as quickly as possible.
The Public Advocate Bill has the support of the Hillsborough families and of survivors—including my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby—so when it is brought back to the House next month, will the Minister guarantee that the Government will not block its passage through Parliament? Together with this vital change, it is also time to take forward the work of the families, the former Member for Leigh, Andy Burnham, and my predecessor, Steve Rotheram, to introduce a Hillsborough law. This would make it a legal duty for public institutions to tell the truth in proceedings, investigations and inquiries, and to act with candour and frankness. Ahead of the inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic, calls for a Hillsborough law have also been taken up by families whose relatives died due to covid-19, so it could not be more pressing.
During the last debate on this matter, the then Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice said that the Government were considering the points made by the former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, in his 2017 report on the experiences of the Hillsborough families, including in relation to proposals for a Hillsborough law. Will the Minister tell us when the Government will publish their response to the report and on what timetable they will act on the report’s recommendations? Although criminal proceedings may have prevented a public response until now, the Government have had years to consider the report’s findings, and there is no excuse for any further delay. Our legal system must be fundamentally rebalanced, so that the bereaved families and survivors have access to the same tools as the powerful and the state.
Let the greatest legacy of the decades-long fight for truth and justice following the Hillsborough disaster by the families, survivors and campaigners be the introduction of these changes to ensure that their experiences are never repeated.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Maria Eagle on securing it, on all her work in support of the families and for a Public Advocate Bill, and on the clarity and passion with which she spoke today.
Those who lost loved ones on that painful day of
Let me turn to the proposed reforms of the system. I fully support the Public Advocate Bill—the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood—which would establish a public advocate to provide advice to and act as data controller for representatives of the deceased after major incidents. Between September and December 2018, the Government ran a consultation on establishing an independent public advocate. It is disappointing that nearly three years on, the Government are still analysing the feedback to that consultation, so will the Minister give us an update today on when the Government will be issuing their response?
I thank Mrs May for her commitment to support the 97 and for making it clear that she supports the concept of the public advocate. I ask the Minister: is that the current Government’s view? If so, why have they not yet brought forward their own legislation or at least responded to their own consultation? In the aftermath of the collapse of the trials in May, Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester and long-time Hillsborough campaigner, called for there to be
“a duty of candour in law for public officials”.
“duty of candour which addresses the unacceptable behaviour of police officers—serving or retired—who fail to cooperate fully with investigations into alleged criminal offences or misconduct.”
In addition, the report of the Daniel Morgan independent panel has proposed the creation of a statutory duty of candour to be owed by all law enforcement agencies to those whom they serve, subject to the protection of national security and relevant data protection legislation. Shortly before the summer recess, the Government indicated that they were considering this, so will the Minister tell the House whether there has been any progress?. On
“be on publishing the Government’s overarching response to”
James Jones’s report,
“after having further consulted all the families.”—[Official Report,
So what consultation with the families has taken place between then and now?
As the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds, has noted in this House, the issue of the creation of a statutory duty of candour is particularly urgent given that there will soon be an inquiry, sadly, into the covid-19 pandemic. We need to see action from the Government. No families bereaved by public disasters should have to go through what the brave families who lost loved ones at Hillsborough have had to endure.
Truth and justice: two words that should underpin our criminal justice system. But from Hillsborough, to Orgreave, to the Shrewsbury 24, to Grenfell, we know that too often this just is not the case. The recent collapse of the Hillsborough trials, where police who perverted the course of justice by tampering with evidence were let loose with no case to answer on a mere technicality, lays bare the current flaws in our system. There are no words that do justice to the agony and the trauma the families have faced in their decades-long fight for justice, nor how this defeat crushed the last remaining hopes and faith the survivors, families and their supporters had in our justice system. The fact that no individual has been held responsible by the justice system for the decisions that led to the deaths of 97 people is nothing short of a national scandal.
The same applies for the families of those who have died at the hands of the police, particularly black victims, who make up 8% of deaths in police custody despite being only 3% of the population. Cases such as the untimely deaths of Christopher Alder, Kingsley Burrell and Sean Rigg have seen inquest after inquest into police conduct fail to hold a single person accountable. Indeed, since 1969 just a single police officer in the UK has been convicted for their role in the death of someone in their care.
We must seize this opportunity today for a serious rethink about how we support survivors and loved ones who are already dealing with the pain of bereavement so that no one ever has to face this nightmare again. We need measures that will rebuild trust in these processes; measures that will promote transparency and uphold accountability; measures to prevent things from going wrong as they did with Hillsborough. We have seen some recent progress after much campaigning by survivors and bereaved families, supported by incredible organisations such as Inquest. Just last week, the Government response to the Justice Committee’s inquiry report on the coroner service put forward some positive commitments around the means-testing of legal support for some bereaved families. This commitment is incredibly welcome. If properly implemented and coupled with non-means-tested publicly funded advice for families, it will make huge strides forward in ensuring equality between families and public bodies at inquests—a fundamental principle that the state has a duty to uphold. However, there has been no response from the Government on the calls from the Justice Committee for major reforms to the statutory duty of candour, creating a system for appealing coroners’ decision, or the establishment of a charter of rights for bereaved people. Can the Minister explain why his Government are yet to come forward with a position on these crucial reforms, and give us a timetable for when they are likely to do so?
I now turn to the Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill, which is backed by the Hillsborough Family Support Group. I thank the families, and I thank my hon. Friend Maria Eagle for her work on developing and bringing this legislation to Parliament. If adopted by this Government, it would enable families to set up an independent review and establish an independent, fully-resourced public advocate supporting the survivors and families who have lost loved ones at the heart of the process to get answers for their loss. These much-needed steps would improve trust and transparency in systems that alienate relatives and survivors, who too often feel pushed to one side in the official scramble to shift blame and protect reputations. To avoid taking action is to be responsible for preserving a system that time and again shields actors of the state from accountability, while deflecting blame on to their victims.
Last month, Andrew Devine tragically became the 97th victim of the Hillsborough disaster to be unlawfully killed. In his name, and the names of the 96 other victims, I ask a simple question—yes or no—will the Minister take this opportunity today to commit to the provisions in the Public Advocate Bill, as well as the recommendations from the Justice Committee report, and take these long-overdue steps to redress the balance of the scales of justice and provide survivors and families with the support they need to gain truth, justice and true accountability? As we know, justice delayed is justice denied.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to participate. Just last Friday, Maria Eagle was here for the consideration of private Members’ Bills and referred to this debate. I wanted to come along—I do not provide support to any of the victims as an MP—to convey from my point of view our understanding of what the debate means to everyone here today. None of us could fail to feel the sorrow, hurt, loss and raw pain that we have all heard here today. The hon. Lady has been a stalwart in putting this matter forward, and I wanted to come and support her, and I am here today to do just that, and I put it on record.
If I may, I will refer to Mrs May. I am always impressed—I have said this to her, so it is not something she has not heard before—that she is on the Back Benches contributing to debates. I am impressed every time I come here and she does that, because it shows the depth of her and her commitment to the issues she brings forward. We should all be impressed by that, including the Conservative side.
This is a very sensitive topic, and I know there are people listening today who are members of families who have lost loved ones due to public disasters. Many out there will resonate with what those MPs who have spoken today have said, as well as with those who have spoken before and are not here now, and they will understand where the Bill needs to go. We look to the Government to respond positively. We all know—I have written down “96 Liverpool fans”, but as Kim Johnson reminds me, it is now 97—that the impact goes long beyond the event. I remember well that awful day and the vivid scenes that took place afterwards.
The previous Justice Secretary stated that the Government would
“always consider opportunities to review the law”.—[Official Report,
Well, today is the day, and the House is asking for that to happen. However, given the devastating situations that families were left in as a result of what many families perceived to be Government inaction after the Hillsborough disaster, it is fair to say that a review of the current law is the minimum action that could be taken. Steps must be taken, as every hon. and right hon. Member has referred to, to ensure that this process is never repeated in any way and that the correct process takes place not only for victims, but the victims’ families who have been left behind.
The motion for this debate is clear. It calls for reforms that
“better respond to families bereaved by public disasters”.
I want to take a moment to reflect on an event in the past that also supports the claim for reforming the criminal justice system. I refer to the Omagh bombings of 1998. I also remember that day. It was a Saturday, and I always remember it very well. It was
The hon. Gentleman is right, as others have, to praise my hon. Friend Maria Eagle. I add my thanks to Mrs May for all she has done to support the families. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the major problems that has beset all this is the lack of a process that takes any account of the legitimate interests of those who either were bereaved or survived it? Does he therefore believe it is about time we put that right?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for intervening. Absolutely, we want to associate ourselves with those who lost loved ones in Liverpool and their pain. We in Northern Ireland have had the same pain for some 23 years from the Omagh bombings in particular.
After multiple court cases and futile arrests, there was no real closure for those poor families. My point is: this is not a Northern Ireland-based dig-up of history but another illustration of how there is, as the right hon. Gentleman said, a lack of justice and judicial support for the families of the victims. For 23 years, the families of the Omagh victims have had no closure and no explanation. The process that they have been through shows again that we need to do better by victims of public disasters.
Such disasters should be treated no differently from individual cases. The mark left behind is the same. The pain is the same. The long-lasting hurt is the same. The feeling of losing a loved one hurts all the same, and more effort needs to be put into reforming the system to ensure that there is a better response to the families of the victims. They have waited for something to happen, but nothing has happened. That could be done through communication and better liaison between families and the police, emergency services and, ultimately, the courts. I look to the Minister for a response.
The Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill would allow for better scrutiny for investigations. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood said that, as did the right hon. Member for Maidenhead—everyone has said it. Perhaps I sometimes look at things simplistically, but it looks simple enough—so just do it. I fear that, all too often, victims are left in the dark, making the process more devastating. An independent advocate would allow for those all-important questions to be answered from the aftermath of a tragedy that is still raw. We have witnessed that in recent years with Grenfell, which other hon. Members referred to, and the Manchester Arena bombings. Many of us did not cry tears at that, for people we did not know, but for the victims, the tears, the sorrow and the hurt are the same, and we need to help the victims. They and their families should be at the forefront of legislation. The authorities have a moral duty to ensure that information and investigative movements are transparent to all victims’ families.
One of the most prominent duties of hon. Members in this House—we all do this, hopefully to the best of our abilities—is to represent our constituents. I stand up here for all who have suffered loss with no closure or justice at all. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland knows only too well about victims, and there is often little to no closure. As we have heard from right hon. and hon. Members, it is crucial that no negligence or wrongful information has the potential to dissipate relations further. I cannot fail to be angered about that; I want the response to be as it should.
The core element of the Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill is to ensure that things are done properly from the start. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood has raised this issue in Parliament over a great many years—long before I came here—and I hope that consideration will be given to the Bill. I urge the Minister, to whom I look as a friend, to work collectively with the victims’ families. It is not enough, and moreover it is not fair, that it is down to the families to set out their own methods of support and victims support groups. The Government must do more to ensure that the pain that victims’ families go through is met with understanding and support. If we cannot give support to our grieving and vulnerable, we as a society are failing and we in this seat of democracy as MPs have failed. Today we want to take failure and make it success, so we look to our Minister to make that happen.
I support the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood and everyone who has spoken across the Chamber. I would just say this: to their repeated efforts to secure this support in legislation, I add my voice—as one who represents Strangford in Northern Ireland and does, I believe, understand the pain—as I do to the request they have put forward today. That request in this House today will help us all in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and, on behalf of the victims and on behalf of the families, make sure that we can learn from past mistakes and simply, but most importantly, do it better.
I would like to start by saying, in my 21 years in Parliament, what a privilege it has been to participate in this very important debate. I thank my hon. Friend Maria Eagle for securing this debate, as well as Lord Michael Wills for his work alongside her in championing the Public Advocate Bill (No. 2) Bill.
We have had so many important speeches in this debate. There is the leadership shown by Mrs May, and I think we are all very grateful for her continuing to champion these issues. It has been good to hear from Sir Robert Neill, as Chair of the Justice Committee, as well as from my hon. Friends the Members for Bootle (Peter Dowd), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson).
We heard two very emotional speeches from my hon. Friend Ian Byrne and Jim Shannon, and they both brought tears to my eyes. The truth is that I may well get emotional myself, because I have been thinking throughout this debate about the victims and the loved ones of the Grenfell fire, and my friend Khadija Saye and her mother, who lost their lives. It is for that reason that we must set this right, because tragedies have come after Hillsborough, and we are still waiting. That is unacceptable because we have to demonstrate that we can act, so I hope that the Minister, when he rises to his feet, has some news for us on this occasion.
None of us in this House will forget that, in the FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989, 97 football fans tragically lost their lives. The victims were young and old. Jon-Paul Gilhooley, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard’s eldest cousin, was the youngest, aged just 10. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood recognised, the most recent is Andrew Devine, who died this summer as a result of the catastrophic injuries he received 32 years ago.
Inquests carried out since the Hillsborough tragedy have shown that the 97 victims were unlawfully killed by the negligence of others. The authorities shamefully failed the fans whose lives they were supposed to protect. But it was not only the lack of experience at managing large crowds that was wrong and it was not only poor decision making; it was the gross and repugnant lies that they have since admitted and the desperate attempts to cover their own tracks. Earlier this year, the collapse of the most recent case was yet another slap in the face for the families of all those who lost loved ones at Hillsborough.
It is truly shameful that, still today, not one person has been held accountable for these deadly failures. The truth about what happened that day in 1989 was only acknowledged 23 years later as a result of the Hillsborough independent panel, but still not one person has been held accountable, not one victim has got what they deserve, not one family has received closure. South Yorkshire police have not been held accountable for their lies but tried to deflect blame from their own failures on to the victims. The lack of justice in this case fatally undermines the very concept of a public inquiry: what is the point of a public inquiry if it is incapable of shedding light on the murkiest of dealings and if it is incapable of or unwilling to provide closure for the families of the victims?
The reforms we are debating today stem from the Hillsborough tragedy but their benefits would reach far beyond it. The appalling thing about the travesty of Hillsborough is that it is by no means a one-off. I referenced the parallels that I see in the dishonesty and criminality at the heart of the Grenfell tragedy, in which I personally lost a friend. I will never forget waking up on the morning of
The Opposition firmly believe that changes to the law are needed. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood is right that an independent public advocate should be available to the victims of disasters to advocate for their best interests, to establish a panel to review all the evidence, documentation and data relating to the tragedy, and to advise on the course of action most likely to get justice and push for it. The creation of an independent public advocate was promised in the Government’s 2017 manifesto, and I am sure all in the House will agree this is too important a promise to break.
The Opposition also support the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill, as proposed by Andy Burnham, former Member for Leigh. When disasters like Hillsborough occur, the public expect those in official positions to be honest and transparent about the events which took place. If mistakes are made, they expect officials to be held to the same standard as they themselves would be if they made a mistake at work. That is why the Opposition support the principle that those in public office should face legal consequences if they fail to co-operate with inquiries in a truthful, open and honest way.
The Opposition would also take steps to end the fundamental imbalance of power at the heart of the inquest system. It is absurd beyond belief that after terrible events like Hillsborough and Grenfell a modern-day David and Goliath situation exists when it comes to public disasters. It simply cannot be right that state bodies and their representatives have unlimited access to a pot of public money to spend on the country’s best legal minds while the families of victims get little or nothing. How can it be just for a family who has gone through the most unimaginable pain of losing a member in horrendous circumstances to have to rely on crowdfunding just to be represented at inquest? Yet we know this happens all the time.
Let us consider the case of Zane Gbangbola, which I raised last year. On the evening of
Truth and justice are the fundamental principles that must guide us in this debate. The families of victims must be supported, and authorities must be held to account. Those are simple commitments that everyone in this House can agree on. We cannot have more cover-ups. We cannot have decades of mistruths placed on the shoulders of victims who have already suffered too much. We cannot allow lies to linger for as long as they did over Hillsborough ever again. It is time for the Government to do the decent thing and change the law.
Occasionally—very occasionally—a debate takes place in this House that has such searing force that it lodges forever in the memory because of the way in which it measures up to the gravity of the subject matter. This is one such debate. I thank Maria Eagle for securing it, but even more for giving a speech that was of such exceptional clarity and force that I hope not just her constituents, but those more widely in the great city of Liverpool, will read it and, even better, listen to it.
I also thank my right hon. Friend Mrs May, to whom I shall return in a moment; Peter Dowd—what a joy it is to see him in his place—my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill; the hon. Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) and for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley); Ian Byrne, who also made an exceptional speech; and the hon. Members for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I want to mention the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, because it says an awful lot that, having acted as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister, she now acts as a Back Bencher. That can be encapsulated neatly, hon. Members may think, by the single word “duty”. She encapsulates duty, and Parliament is the richer for it.
The Government recognise the fundamental importance of placing the bereaved at the heart of any investigation that follows a major disaster. That, perhaps, is taken as read. We remain committed to ensuring that bereaved people are supported. That means that they are not just treated with the basic humanity and respect, which I am afraid was not the case in the past, but provided with—the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood used this word—agency, given a voice and thought of not as spectators but as participants. The way she put it—I think she was absolutely right—was that the bereaved cannot be considered a mere adjunct to proceedings. I cannot put it better than that.
Stepping back from inquests for a moment, I think that there is a new and welcome culture in that regard in criminal courts, as well as in inquests, in so far as I remember that when I began prosecuting as a barrister, witnesses and the bereaved were considered to be completely incidental. In fairness, because of reforms made when the Labour party was in power and while we have been in government, there has been a welcome trend to ensure that witnesses are spoken to by prosecuting barristers, shown round the court, given a copy of their statement and so on. However, we do need to go further.
Before I turn to the IPA proposals specifically, I want to take a moment to set out a bit of context. Just before I do that, however, let me reiterate that the apology that was made from this Dispatch Box by David Cameron for the double injustice that the hon. Lady referred to is as relevant today as it was then. It is worth spelling out what that double injustice was: the first injustice for the families was losing their loved ones, and the second was being traduced.
Let me turn to that context. In recent years, as the House has discussed, a forensic spotlight has been shone on the experience of the bereaved, and on bereaved people in general. First, there was the report by Dame Elish Angiolini into deaths and serious incidents in police custody. Then, most pertinent to today’s proceedings, there was the report by Bishop James Jones, commissioned by the former Prime Minister, to ensure that the pain and the suffering of the Hillsborough families would not be repeated. I want to take a moment just to focus a little on what was said in that report, a copy of which I have here and have had the opportunity to re-read.
In section 2 of the report, on the proper participation of bereaved families at inquests, Bishop James Jones talked about two things in particular: first, legal representation for bereaved families in appropriate cases; and, secondly, cultural change. Legal representation can be so important. It was, in fact, the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, who ensured that in those second inquests the families did have legal representation. If one takes a moment to read what is in Bishop James Jones’s report, one can see that he included some of the testimony from the bereaved families. One said:
“The second inquest gave me my children back.”
The opportunity to lodge pen portraits, and to have those lawyers to speak to, was transformational in terms of providing the very agency to which the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood referred.
Bishop James Jones went on to talk about another matter as part of proper participation: cultural change. Here, I wish to pick up the point made by the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead. Bishop James Jones, in paragraph 2.95, said:
“I believe that ‘proper participation’ of bereaved families at an inquest is not just a question of funding, but also of cultural change.”
What he observed was the point that others have made:
“the highly adversarial behaviour of some lawyers employed by public bodies suggests that additional training may be required for solicitors and barristers working in the inquest system.”
He was not the first person to make that point. The Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, in his judgment of
The current Chief Coroner, his honour Judge Teague QC, said publicly that it is “precisely the inquisitorial nature of the coroner’s investigation that is important to the centrality of the bereaved. Where proceedings take on a more adversarial character, the focus is liable to be diverted away from the bereaved where it properly belongs and channelled instead into some extraneous satellite dispute, with the risk that it ends up as yet another form of litigation.” I speak as a lawyer myself. I know that sometimes that can make the situation worse.
The Minister is making a very good point. I can remember an exchange between the right hon. Member for Maidenhead and myself when she was Home Secretary in which we talked about the stereotyping of people. Somewhere at the bottom of all this, the way in which the judiciary and some sections of the media dealt with it was all about a stereotype—a stereotype of football fans—which was convenient for them, but actually, in this case, bore no resemblance to the truth. Does he agree that stereotyping in any situation is wrong, but that in this one it has been absolutely appalling?
What an excellent point. The idea that all football fans are the same, behave the same way and think the same way is an absurdity. Perhaps we understand that better now than was the case 30 years ago.
To conclude the point about the context, what has happened since 2017 is a document that was referred to, but which I just want to take a moment to discuss—“A Guide to Coroner Services for Bereaved People”. I mention it because there is a welcome focus on bereaved people and it contains all the information that one would expect. I will not rehearse it in exhaustive detail, but I just want to pick up on one point made by the former Home Secretary and former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, which is that it is really important that there is never inequality of arms—in other words, in a situation where the state is potentially on trial or certainly under scrutiny, it acts towards the bereaved parties in a way that is defensive and unfair. So I was very pleased to see the annex to that document effectively has a code of conduct in those circumstances. It states:
“Where a Government department has interested person status to an inquest, the Government and the lawyers it instructs at inquests will adopt the following principles”.
I will not read them all out, but it includes, in paragraph 3:
“Communicate with the bereaved in a sensitive and empathetic way which acknowledges and respects their loss.”
Hon. Members would have thought that that is obvious, but it bears emphasis. The annex also includes:
“Keep in mind that the bereaved should…Be at the heart of the inquest process…Feel confident that the inquest will get to the facts of what happened…Feel properly involved throughout and listened to.”
That is part of a new code of conduct and it is absolutely right.
I want to make a final point in focusing on there not being a “closed door of the public sector” , which is the phrase that my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister used. The Bar Standards Board published, I think as recently as this week, resources for those practising in the coroners’ courts, which includes instructions to:
“Adapt your style of communication and engagement to the unique purpose of inquests”— and so on. That effectively says to representatives, “Remember bereaved people. They are not simply observers in this. They are participants. They are vulnerable people. They deserve to be treated with respect.”
Finally on context before I turn to the IPA, there have been very important changes made to the exceptional case funding scheme. I know that there are a lot of people in the House who greatly value legal aid, and we certainly do. The Government recognise that although legal aid is generally not available for inquests—by the way, that is as it should be, because the inquest is essentially a fact-finding process—there are some circumstances where legal representation may be required for bereaved families, as the former Prime Minister noted in respect of the second inquests, and that is provided through the ECF scheme.
We believe that where there should be legal aid for bereaved families, access to it should be as simple and easy as possible. That is why we have reviewed this process as part of our legal aid means test review. Following that work, I am delighted that we have made a commitment, in the Government’s response to the Justice Committee’s report of its inquiry into the coroner service, that ECF applications for representation at inquests will no longer be means-tested. That is a very important development. It will broaden the scope and access to legal advice and support.
Let me turn to the IPA and the Bill that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood prepared, which I have read. As the House knows, in 2018, the Government consulted on proposals to establish an IPA, and the consultation looked at a range of issues about how best to support those bereaved following a public disaster. It asked a number of challenging questions because, as always, we know in this House that the devil is in the detail. We need to focus on issues such as: how exactly an IPA should interact with investigatory bodies, how one avoids duplication, whether the IPA should be involved only where fatalities occur, whether it ought to have a wider remit, and so on.
It is right to say that there was a mixed reaction from those who provided responses, including on the circumstances in which such an appointment should be triggered. There was also the issue of the name. As the consultation document noted, the Government do not see an IPA as providing legal advice and representation—of course not—and it is not an advocate in that sense. It also noted that such an IPA may be supporting a
“diverse group of people whose views may differ, perhaps strongly”.
Just as Sir George Howarth made the point that it is absurd to put all football fans in one category, it is also very dangerous to put all the bereaved in one category, and we must be mindful of that. There was, however, more agreement on the importance of the IPA dovetailing with other support already provided. Plainly on that latter point, it will be important to consider the new and, we would suggest, significantly improved landscape, in terms of the culture and support that I referred to.
Since that consultation, there have been a number of significant events, such as a new Government, a general election and a pandemic, but perhaps most importantly, there has been a criminal trial, which has been referred to. Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that that does mean that there are necessarily some things that cannot properly be discussed for fear of prejudicing, but that is now behind us, and I am pleased to announce today that we will be responding to the 2018 review by the end of this year, and I expect it to be rather earlier than that.
Quite apart from that, the Government are committed to continuing their engagement with the families bereaved by the Hillsborough disaster. Indeed, we have done so earlier in the summer and will continue to do so. It is critical that the lessons that can be learned from their awful experience are not lost. To that end, the Home Office has been working closely with its partners in the relevant Departments and organisations, and is now engaging with the Hillsborough families before publishing the Government’s overarching response.
The former Prime Minister made the point that we must make sure that other types of inquiry do not fall within the loophole that has been observed in criminal cases such as this. If an inquiry is not set up under the auspices of the Inquiries Act 2005, we need to ensure that we do not have a situation in which people can apparently avoid the consequences of their actions. We are considering very carefully a report from the Law Commission, which, as Members will know, is there to look at lacunae in the law and try to improve it. The commission came up with some recommendations in December last year, considering potential offences of corruption in public office and breach of duty in public office. Those are two potential offences that we are looking at with great care.
Ensuring that the bereaved are still at the heart of the investigatory process that follows a major disaster remains fundamentally important, and important steps have been taken. However, we are going to go further and, as we do so, we will continue to welcome the interest and, yes, the challenge—the proper challenge—from people standing up for their constituents, standing up for their city and standing up for accountability. I thank Members on both sides of the House for some measured, powerful and principled contributions today.
I thank the Minister for his response and the information that he will now be responding to the consultation. “By the end of the year” is a little disappointing. I appreciate that there has been a change of Lord Chancellor and that always delays things, but it should be remembered that we will be heading towards 33 years by then.
As I think the Minister should have understood from the debate today—including the powerful contributions from a survivor of Hillsborough, my hon. Friend Ian Byrne, and from Jim Shannon—the power of the emotions expressed indicates quite what an impact these events have. The small, cheap, relatively speaking, reforms that have been proposed will make a real difference. The introduction of a public advocate, and three or four proposals in the report from the former Bishop of Liverpool, will make a real difference to bereaved families and survivors. They will be a monument to the powerful campaign—which has continued for 32 and a half years so far—of the Hillsborough families, the survivors and those who have been bereaved and affected by this terrible disaster.
I hope that the Minister will remember the emotion and power of the speeches because something really must be done. Just coming back in December and saying, “We will have a code of conduct” will not cut it.
It has truly been an honour to be in the Chair during this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered proposed reforms to the criminal justice system to better respond to families bereaved by public disasters.