Cameron apology over Hillsborough
Police and emergency services made “strenuous attempts” to deflect the blame for the 1989 Hillsborough disaster onto innocent fans, newly published documents about the tragedy revealed today.
The disclosures were made by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which has been overseeing the release of thousands of official documents relating to Britain’s worst sporting disaster.
British prime minister David Cameron offered a “profound” apology to the families of the 96 people who died, telling the House of Commons that today’s report made clear that “the Liverpool fans were not the cause of the disaster”.
Mr Cameron said attorney general Dominic Grieve will review the report as quickly as possible in order to decide whether to apply to the High Court to quash the original, flawed inquest and order a new one. It will be for the court to make the final decision.
The victims died in an overcrowded fenced-in enclosure at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, northern England, a tragedy that changed the face of English football and ushered in a new era of modern, all-seated venues.
The report showed the Hillsborough families had suffered a “double injustice”, both in the “failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth”, and in the efforts to denigrate the deceased and suggest that they were “somehow at fault for their own deaths”, said Mr Cameron.
He told MPs: “With the weight of the new evidence in this report, it is right for me today as prime minister to make a proper apology to the families of the 96 for all they have suffered over the past 23 years.
“On behalf of the government - and indeed our country - I am profoundly sorry for this double injustice that has been left uncorrected for so long.”
Three relatives of the victims fainted when they heard that the panel put forward evidence of a cover-up, apparently vindicating their 23-year campaign to find "Justice for the 96".
Ninety six Liverpool supporters died in a crush at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium on April 15th, 1989 where their team were to meet Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semi-final.
Introducing the report to the Hillsborough families at the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, Bishop James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool and chairman of the panel, said: “For nearly a quarter of a century the families of the 96 and the survivors of Hillsborough have nursed an open wound waiting for answers to unresolved questions. It has been a frustrating and painful experience adding to their grief.
“The documents disclosed to and analysed by the panel show that the tragedy should never have happened. There were clear operational failures in response to the disaster and in its aftermath there were strenuous attempts to deflect the blame onto the fans. The panel’s detailed report shows how vulnerable victims, survivors and their families are when transparency and accountability are compromised.
“My colleagues and I were from the start of our work impressed by the dignified determination of the families.”
He added: “The panel produces this report without any presumption of where it will lead. But it does so in the profound hope that greater transparency will bring to the families and to the wider public a greater understanding of the tragedy and its aftermath.
“For it is only with this transparency that the families and survivors, who have behaved with such dignity, can with some sense of truth and justice cherish the memory of their 96 loved ones.”
The independent panel, set up in 2010 by the last Labour government to examine all the public paperwork relating to the tragedy, concluded that it could have been avoided, more lives could have been saved and the police response was flawed.
In its summary the panel said: “It is evident from analysis of the various investigations that from the outset South Yorkshire Police sought to deflect responsibility for the disaster on to Liverpool fans ... there is no evidence to support this view.”
The documents also reveal the “extent to which substantive amendments were made” to statements by South Yorkshire Police to remove or alter “unfavourable” comments about the policing of the match and the unfolding disaster.
The documents show, for the first time, that South Yorkshire Ambulance Service documents were “subject to the same process”, the panel said.
They went on to say the wrongful allegations about the fans’ behaviour later printed in some newspapers, particularly The Sun, originated from “a Sheffield press agency, senior SYP officers, an SYP Police Federation spokesperson and a local MP”.
The panel said the Police Federation, “supported informally by the SYP Chief Constable”, sought to develop and publicise a version of events derived in police officers’ allegations of drunkenness, ticketless fans and violence.
“The vast majority of fans on the pitch assisted in rescuing and evaluating the injured and the dead,” the panel said. The panel said their report raises “profound concerns about the conduct and appropriateness of the inquests”.
The documents go on to reveal the original pathologists’ evidence of a single, unvarying pattern of death was “unsustainable”, the panel said. The families have always disputed the accidental verdict which followed the inquest into the deaths.
The report found that 116 of the 164 police statements identified for “substantive amendment” were “amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable to SYP.”
One police officer said he only accepted the changes because he was suffering from post-traumatic stress and that he considered it an injustice for statements to have been “doctored” to suit the management of South Yorkshire Police, the report found.
The panel also found that access to cabinet documents revealed that in an exchange about her government welcoming the Taylor Report into the tragedy prime minister Margaret Thatcher expressed her concern that the “broad thrust” of the report constituted a “devastating criticism of the police”.
The prime minister said: “What happened that day — and since — was wrong.
“It was wrong that the responsible authorities knew Hillsborough did not meet minimum safety standards and yet still allowed the match to go ahead.
“It was wrong that the families have had to wait for so long — and fight so hard — just to get to the truth.
“And it was wrong that the police changed the records of what happened and tried to blame the fans.
“We ask the police to do difficult and often very dangerous things on our behalf, and South Yorkshire Police is a very different organisation today from what it was then.
“But we do the many, many honourable police men and women a great disservice if we try to defend the indefensible.
“It was also wrong that neither Lord Justice Taylor nor the coroner looked properly at the response of the other emergency services.”
A document disclosed to the panel has revealed that an attempt was made to “impugn the reputations of the deceased by carrying out police national computer checks on those with a non-zero alcohol level”.
The documents also show that blood alcohol levels were tested in some survivors who attended hospital as well as in all those who died.
There is no record of these tests or their results in the medical notes of the survivors and in some there was “no apparent medical reason for the test”.
The extent of this testing remains unknown, the report says.
The report also says “there was no evidence to support the proposition that alcohol played any part in the genesis of the disaster and it is regrettable that those in positions of responsibility created and promoted a portrayal of drunkenness as contributing to the occurrence of the disaster and the ensuing loss of life without substantiating the evidence”.
Mr Cameron said that the Hillsborough disaster was “one of the greatest peacetime tragedies of the last century”.
The evidence uncovered by today’s report was “deeply distressing” and raised “vital questions which must be examined”, he said.
Announcing that the report will be debated in the House of Commons soon after MPs return from their conference break in October, Mr Cameron said: “The conclusions of this report will be harrowing for many of the families affected.
“Anyone who has lost a child knows the pain never leaves you.
“But to read a report years afterwards that says — and I quote — ‘a swifter, more appropriate, better focused and properly equipped response had the potential to save more lives’, can only add to the pain.”
And he added: “Not enough people in this country understand what the people of Merseyside have been through.
“This appalling death toll of so many loved ones lost was compounded by an attempt to blame the victims.
“A narrative about hooliganism on that day was created which led many in the country to accept that it was somehow a grey area.
“Today’s report is black and white.
“The Liverpool fans ‘were not the cause of the disaster’.
“The panel has quite simply found ‘no evidence’ in support of allegations of ‘exceptional levels of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans’, ‘no evidence that fans had conspired to arrive late at the stadium’ and ‘no evidence that they stole from the dead and dying’.”
The prime minister paid tribute to “the incredible strength and dignity of the Hillsborough families and the community which has backed them in their long search for justice”.
Mr Cameron quoted the findings of the report on “the failure of the authorities to help protect people; the attempt to blame the fans; and the doubt cast on the original coroner’s inquest”.
He told MPs: “There is a trail of new documents which show the extent to which the safety of the crowd at Hillsborough was ‘compromised at every level’.”
“The report backs up again the key finding of the Taylor Report on police failure,” said Mr Cameron. “But it goes further by revealing for the first time the shortcomings of the ambulance and emergency services response.
“The major incident plan was not fully implemented. Rescue attempts were held back by failures of leadership and co-ordination. And, significantly, new documents today show there was a delay from the emergency services when people were being crushed and killed.”
Mr Cameron said that the Hillsborough families were “right” in their belief that some of the authorities “attempted to create a completely unjust account of events that sought to blame the fans for what happened”.
But he said that the report had found “no evidence of any government trying to conceal the truth”.
Mr Cameron said: “At the time of the Taylor Report the then prime minister (Margaret Thatcher) was briefed by her private secretary that the defensive and - I quote — ‘close to deceitful’ behaviour of senior South Yorkshire officers was ‘depressingly familiar’.
“And it is clear that the then government thought it right that the chief constable of South Yorkshire should resign.
“But... governments then and since have simply not done enough to challenge publicly the unjust and untrue narrative that sought to blame the fans.”
The prime minister also cited evidence from the report showing that some of those who died “could have had potentially reversible asphyxia beyond 3.15pm in contrast to the findings of the Coroner and a subsequent Judicial Review”.