The Hillsborough inquest verdict
When an inquest jury ruled that the 96 Liverpool football fans who died at Hillsborough on April 15th 1989 had been unlawfully killed and that mistakes by the police and ambulance services had caused or contributed to their deaths, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, came to the Commons to announce the Government’s response in an emotionally-charged statement to the House.
The new inquest had been ordered following the devastating findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by Bishop James Jones, which had re-examined the evidence. Its revelations that witness statements by police officers had been altered were so significant that it led to the new inquest and to two major criminal investigations. With 296 days of hearings it had been the longest inquest in British legal history.
Theresa May said that the findings ‘Overturns in the starkest way possible the verdict of accidental death returned at the original inquests. However, the jury’s findings do not, of course, amount to a finding of criminal liability and no one should impute criminal liability to anyone while the ongoing investigations are still pending’.
She praised the families and survivors, who had never accepted official accounts which laid the blame on Liverpool fans. ‘They have faced hostility, opposition and obfuscation and the authorities, which should have been trusted, have laid blame and tried to protect themselves instead of acting in the public interest.’ As some MPs wiped away tears, she added ‘No-one should have to suffer the loss of their loved ones through such appalling circumstances and no-one should have to fight year after year, decade after decade, in search of the truth’.
Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, said the inquest jury had delivered a ‘simple, clear, powerful and emphatic’ verdict. ‘But it begged the question: how could something so obvious have taken so long? There are three reasons: first, a police force that has consistently put protecting itself over and above protecting people harmed by Hillsborough; secondly, collusion between that force and a complicit print media; and thirdly, a flawed judicial system that gives the upper hand to those in authority, over and above ordinary people.’
He said a similar inquiry was now needed to clear up what had happened at Orgreave during the 1980s Miners’ Strike and his final words, about the families of the 96, produced applause from MPs. ‘They have kept their dignity in the face of terrible adversity. They could not have shown a more profound love for those they lost on that day. They truly represent the best of what our country is all about. Now it must reflect on how it came to let them down for so long.’
The Conservative, Bob Neill, who chaired the Commons Justice Select Committee asked the Home Secretary to look at creating a mechanism to ensure ‘proper equality of arms,’ between the families of disaster victims and the authorities in dealing with inquests and legal proceedings.
The former Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Steve Rotherham, – one of several MPs at Hillsborough that day – said the Liverpool fans had always known they were not to blame. ‘It took political intervention to force the judicial process of this country to take 27 years to recognise what we knew from day one – that Hillsborough was not an accident… that drunken and ticketless fans did not turn up late, hell-bent on getting in and that it was not caused by a drunken “tanked-up mob”.’
The Liberal Democrat, Greg Mulholland, said the families of victims had been treated appallingly in the aftermath of the disaster. ‘We saw police officers sitting eating chicken and chips in the gymnasium as the bodies were lying there, while families were told that they could not hug their loved ones in body bags because they were the property of the coroner. Worst of all, the initial coroner forced alcohol testing on all these victims – including children such as 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley – of this unlawful disaster. That was a disgrace, and we want to know that it will never happen to a single victim again.’