Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 2:10 pm on 15 July 2022.

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Second Reading

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood 2:12, 15 July 2022

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is now more than 33 years since the Hillsborough disaster, when 97 wholly innocent children, women and men, who were supporters of Liverpool football club, were unlawfully killed by the gross negligence of South Yorkshire police at the semi-final of the FA cup in Sheffield. Many thousands of survivors of that catastrophic event were traumatised by their experiences, and many of them suffer its terrible impact on their lives to this day. The families of those killed have also had to face unimaginable heartache, made worse by the behaviour of those responsible for the disaster in, even now, seeking to blame the victims and survivors for what happened. This 33-year long attempt by those responsible for the killings to evade their responsibility, and the lies and smears that they have repeatedly perpetrated and are still peddling, form the backdrop to this Bill. They still have an impact today: we need only refer to what was said at the Champions League final by those seeking to cover up the disaster of the organisation of that match.

The South Yorkshire police cover-up and smear campaign, begun on the day of the disaster, succeeded for many years in convincing public opinion that the Hillsborough disaster was caused by hooliganism, and that somehow those who died and the supporters who survived were responsible for what had happened, when they were all wholly innocent. Were it not for the fortitude, togetherness and determination of the families and survivors of Hillsborough, who fought a three-decades-long campaign for truth and justice, the truth would never have been set out or accepted, and the rightful inquest verdicts would never have been returned. The apology that families received from the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, in 2012, on the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report, for what had happened to them and for the cover-up would never have been forthcoming, and some of those responsible would never have been put on trial.

It was not until just over a year ago, in May 2021, that all the remaining criminal trials of those responsible who had been charged collapsed without anyone being held to account. Our criminal justice system can be said to have failed catastrophically when it takes more than three decades to fail to convict those responsible for 97 unlawful killings. After all, the events were filmed, with much shown live on television, yet those responsible for the catastrophe and the cover-up that followed have got away without being held to account.

It took 27 years for the families of those who died to have correct inquest verdicts of unlawful killing handed down, after the accidental death verdicts were quashed in 2012. It took 23 years, and the publication of the work of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, for the full truth to be told and accepted fully by the legal and political establishment: the fans were not to blame; the police in charge on that day were.

We must learn the lessons, and ensure that never again will families bereaved by public disasters have to endure their lost loved ones being smeared and traduced; and never again will families have to spend more than three decades campaigning to get truth and justice for their wholly innocent loved ones. There will be more public disasters. There already have been in the intervening time. Hillsborough is an exceptionally bad case, but we can see in other public disasters some of the same problems arising for bereaved families who, through no fault of their own, are caught up in these tragedies—the Grenfell fire and the Manchester arena bombing to name but two. We have already started to see some of the same problems.

So more is needed. The law must be changed. Public authorities must be made to tell the truth. They must be prevented from using all the public money at their disposal to prevent the truth from coming out. Families must be at the heart of subsequent investigations. They must have a collective voice. They must have agency and the capacity to act to get to the truth much sooner than the Hillsborough families were able to.

Hillsborough shows that attempted cover-ups must be torpedoed at an early stage to prevent what happened to the Hillsborough families from happening to others caught up in public disasters. It was not a legal process. It was the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and the publication of documents using freedom of information principles, that finally succeeded in establishing the truth about Hillsborough for all to see, when many legal proceeding for years previously had failed. But it took 23 years.

If we facilitate the capacity for families to get such a process going much sooner, that can help to stop things going so wrong for so long. That is what the Bill intends to achieve. It would establish an independent, adequately resourced public advocate for those bereaved in public disasters, and injured survivors. It would locate the public advocate’s office in a Government Department, able to call on its resources but—crucially—totally independent of Government control and direction. It would require the public advocate to act if 50% plus one or more of the representatives of the deceased and injured survivors ask the advocate to act.

Lord Michael Wills and I have been introducing a Public Advocate Bill into the Commons and the Lords since 2016. That is why this is one is called the Public Advocate (No.2) Bill. It has already been introduced into the Lords this Session by my noble Friend. It would give families agency by putting them at the heart of the response to public disasters through the establishment of the independent public advocate, who, if the bereaved families wish it, and only then, will act as a representative of their interests, advocate and guide. As a data controller, the advocate would be able to establish a panel to review all documentation and produce a report at a much earlier stage than the 23 years it took for Hillsborough. So it would be cheaper and the process would be shorter. That enforced transparency would quickly put a stop to any venal attempts to deflect blame, such as that conducted by South Yorkshire police. Who could successfully conduct such a campaign in the forced glare of transparency, openness and the production of documentation directed by the public advocate at the behest of the families? Cover-ups and the spreading of lies and propaganda could be stopped at an early stage.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

The hon. Lady is bringing an important matter to the House. On the issues around Hillsborough and other major incidents that have gone on for so long, obviously, there are issues about the cover-up, but also about ignoring whistleblowers. Does she agree that we need to look at listening to people who raise these issues in these important matters?

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

That is an important point, but not important in this context, I think.

The role of the independent advocate would not replace any of the usual legal advocates and would be an addition to prevent things from going wrong over such an extended time. The advocate would get involved only if the families wanted them to be involved. Too often, bereaved families and survivors feel like outsiders, mere adjuncts to proceedings to which others—often those who were at fault—are parties. Those most affected have least agency. These measures could make a real difference and stop what happened to the Hillsborough families ever happening again to other families.

The measures, along with the recommendations of Bishop James Jones’s 2017 report into the lessons to be learned from Hillsborough, are urgently needed. Together they form the Hillsborough Law Now campaign, of which I am a part. In addition to the independent public advocate put forward in the legislation, the recommendations consist of a statutory duty of candour for all public authorities, equality of arms at inquests and a charter for families bereaved through public tragedy.

The report was produced and the recommendations made in 2017. The Conservative party had a manifesto commitment in 2017 to establish an independent public advocate and conducted a consultation, though to date there has been no publication of its outcome and no Government response—there really should be.

The survivors and families of Hillsborough have already had to wait for 33 years. To make them wait five years for a response to a Government-commissioned report into the lessons to be learned is too long. It is more than a year now since the last of the criminal trials collapsed. Getting this Bill into Committee to start making the legal changes we need will enable us to show the families and the survivors that we are starting to take the relevant steps. I hope the Minister can allow us today to give this Bill a Second Reading and get it into Committee.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Conservative, Charnwood 2:21, 15 July 2022

I will be very brief, but I do want to speak in this debate, because I was the Minister for victims in the Ministry of Justice in 2018 who pushed that consultation that Maria Eagle mentions. I want to highlight her consistent advocacy for an independent public advocate, certainly since my time in the Ministry of Justice.

I am afraid I moved on relatively swiftly to the Department of Health and Social Care, so I was not there to publish the response, or indeed to see it, but I want to put on record that the hon. Lady makes some important points. It is right to remind this House and this country at every opportunity of what happened at Hillsborough and what needs to be done to minimise the risk of that ever happening anywhere again.

Transparency is hugely important. We recently saw very concerning scenes at the champions league final in Paris, with an attempt to push particular and unacceptable narratives around that to blame the fans yet again. That will have stirred some horrific memories, particularly for Liverpool fans and people in the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere.

I support the concept of an independent public advocate and I support what the hon. Lady is seeking to do. I think there is more to be done to work through some of the detail of how it would interact with other investigatory bodies and specific powers; it is important that avoiding duplication in interacting with other bodies is handled appropriately. She may well suggest that Committee is the best place to tidy that up, but it is important that those issues are bottomed out before this Bill passes into legislation.

I put on record my support for what the hon. Lady is seeking to do and the underpinning principles behind that, and recognise how important this is to her constituents, to Liverpool fans and more broadly to anyone who could, through no fault of their own, find themselves or their relatives caught in a horrendous tragedy, and would want to know the truth and learn lessons from it. I do not propose to speak for any longer, because I am keen to hear the debate, but I wanted to put that on record.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:23, 15 July 2022

I commend my hon. Friend Maria Eagle for her persistence in bringing forward such an important Bill. I share her view, as I am sure we all do, that the treatment of the Hillsborough families is a stain upon this country. Action must be taken to ensure that we never again see families and survivors having to fight for decades to get to the truth.

This Bill would provide a better way of responding to large-scale public disasters on behalf of bereaved relatives and survivors. It would facilitate transparency about what has happened at an early stage, which would not only give answers for those involved, but allow learning to be implemented to prevent further victims from being created. The Bill would be a lasting legacy for the 97 lost in the Hillsborough disaster and would give real protections to victims and families of future public disasters. I look forward to seeing it progress through the House.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I will call the Minister now. We are pressed for time, but we will see how far he gets in his speech.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office) 2:24, 15 July 2022

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I begin by thanking Maria Eagle for introducing the Bill? I pay tribute to her for her steadfast commitment to the creation of a public advocate, which we have discussed previously, and for all the work that she continues to do in supporting the Hillsborough families and other families who have sadly experienced such unimaginable tragedy. I have had the privilege of working with the hon. Member in my capacity as the victims Minister on another matter affecting bereaved families, and her dedication to those families is clear for all to see.

I thank all hon. Members for their interest in this issue. I thank my hon. Friend Edward Argar for his contribution and for the work that he did in ministerial office that is relevant to this debate. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mrs May for her commitment to this issue, and to the wider pursuit of justice for the Hillsborough families, during her time as Home Secretary and Prime Minister and, of course, more recently too.

It is clear to me—as if it were ever in doubt—that there is as much cross-party support for the right to a public advocate today as there ever was. It is humbling and a privilege to respond to the debate on behalf of the Government.

Photo of Darren Henry Darren Henry Conservative, Broxtowe

Can the Minister clear something up? Have the Government made proposals to introduce an independent public advocate?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

What I can tell my hon. Friend—the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood knows this, because we have had meetings and conversations about it—is that this is something that Ministers in the Ministry of Justice are actively considering. I hope that we will be able to say more about that in due course. I recognise that the House and the Hillsborough families feel very strongly about this proposal. We want to make sure that the detail of any proposal linked to this is got right and worked through.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

Can the Minister tell me when the response to the consultation, and the Government’s plans, might come forward? We were told during the Backbench Business debate last September that it would be by last Christmas, but that did not happen.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Unfortunately, I cannot give the hon. Lady a firm commitment on timescales, but I repeat that this is something that we as Ministers are actively considering. We want to get it right, and we will of course then be in a position to say more about it as soon as possible.

Photo of Darren Henry Darren Henry Conservative, Broxtowe

May I suggest that, when we get to that point, the Government are clear that there are some details that need to be considered? Typical questions include how an independent public advocate should interact with investigative bodies, how we should avoid duplication, and when an independent public advocate should get involved—when a fatality has occurred, or not? Those are the sorts of things that I hope the Minister and the Government will consider.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestions, which are all valid in the context of considering policy around introducing a public advocate function. I certainly take those suggestions on board.

Photo of Jill Mortimer Jill Mortimer Conservative, Hartlepool

I, too, pay tribute to Maria Eagle for her fierce advocacy on behalf of the bereaved families of Hillsborough. Does the Minister agree that, as demonstrated by the questions raised by my hon. Friend Darren Henry, this is just too complex to get through on the timeline of a private Member’s Bill and needs longer consideration?

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Minister of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

It is fair to say that it is, of course, important that any independent public advocate function is delivered properly and robustly, that it is thorough and takes proper account of all the circumstances and eventualities that we would want it to, and that it is delivered through the appropriate legislative vehicle. That is a key consideration for Ministers as we work to look at this issue. It is something that we will continue to consider. I place on record that the Government support the overriding objective of the Bill and are sympathetic to its aims. We believe that it is a welcome addition to the debate, but I am afraid that we do not consider the specific proposals in the Bill to be the best way to provide the support of an independent advocate. That said—I reiterate this point—I am looking carefully at the issue, and the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood knows how seriously I take such matters and the points that she has raised—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 9 September.