Police bosses have apologised to the families of Hillsborough disaster victims, but campaigners are still seeking legal reform that would make public authorities more accountable after major tragedies.
On Tuesday police chiefs responded to a 2017 report by the Rt. Rev. James Jones, former bishop of Liverpool, into the experiences of the Hillsborough families, saying it “profoundly failed those bereaved.”
Ninety-six football fans died as a result of a crush at a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989.
Jones’s paper, titled “The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power,” made 25 recommendations, with 11 of them directly concerning policing.
Chief Constable Andy Marsh, the College of Policing’s chief executive officer, said in a statement: “For what happened, as a senior policing leader, I profoundly apologise. Policing got it badly wrong.”
“Policing has profoundly failed those bereaved by the Hillsborough disaster over many years and we are sorry that the service got it so wrong. Police failures were the main cause of the tragedy and have continued to blight the lives of family members ever since,” he said.
“When leadership was most needed, the bereaved were often treated insensitively and the response lacked coordination and oversight,” he added.
Marsh said that changes will include all police forces in England and Wales signing up to a charter agreeing to acknowledge when “mistakes have been made and not seek to defend the indefensible.”
He added that there is now “a strengthened ethical policy which makes candour a key theme” as well as “new guidance for specialist officers supporting families during a tragedy which learned lessons from the Hillsborough Families Report, the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the 2017 terrorist attacks.”
Families of those who died, the local Liverpool community, and survivors have always rejected the police’s official version of events, which blamed fans’ drunken behaviour for the police’s own errors.
In 1991 an inquest ruled the deaths of the fans as accidental. After years of campaigning by families, that ruling of accidental death was quashed in a High Court challenge in 2012, sparking a new inquest that ran until 2016. This concluded that the 96 victims were “unlawfully killed,” and that Liverpool fans’ behaviour did not contribute to the crush, amid a number of police errors.
But campaigners say they are “extremely disappointed” with the police response and have called on the government to bring in new legislation.
A spokeswoman for the Hillsborough Law Now campaign said: “The apology, while welcome, makes no reference to a change in legislation which would put an immediate stop to families battling against the state.
“We have long been campaigning for a Public Authority (Accountability) Bill, often referred to as the Hillsborough Law, which would create a legal duty of candour on public authorities and officials to tell the truth and proactively cooperate with official investigations and inquiries.”
Merseyside Police Commissioner Emily Spurrell also supported calls for a Hillsborough Law, responding to the police report.
The spokeswoman said that the bill would also provide a “toolkit” to enforce compliance with the law, which would both prevent obfuscation and cover-ups, and lead to much more focused and shorter inquiries, thereby “saving millions of pounds of public money, and delivering swifter justice with much less stress to families and witnesses alike.”
“Failure to comply would become a criminal offence, and the culture of denial that we have seen in other inquiries, such as Infected Blood and Grenfell, would be minimised,” she added.
“The Labour Party have committed to enacting the bill in full. We call upon the government to respond to Bishop James’s report and do the right thing without delay,” she said.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman told MPs that the “timing of the government’s response has been impacted by the need to avoid the risk of prejudice during any criminal proceedings which related to Hillsborough.”
“Nonetheless, work has been under way, has been undertaken across all relevant government departments and organisations to carefully consider and address the points of learning which are included in the bishop’s report and to whom they are directed,” she added.
Braverman said that as the National Police Chiefs Council is independent of government, “it is for them to publish their own response independently of government, and that’s a step that I welcome.”
“But the government remains absolutely committed to responding to the bishop’s report as soon as practicable and our focus now is on engaging in a meaningful way with the bereaved families of the Hillsborough disaster prior to publishing the government’s over-arching response,” she said.
PA Media and Simon Veazey contributed to this report.