Aiming to provide answers to help ease the pain
HILLSBOROUGH INDEPENDENT PANEL:HALF AN hour into talking to James Jones, the Anglican bishop of Liverpool, about his role as chair of the panel seeking to establish the truth about the Hillsborough disaster, a familiar thought intrudes.
It is, along with the other emotions Hillsborough has always provoked – horror, grief, shame, outrage – one which has only deepened in the years since, as English football has extravagantly rebuilt, hosting its FA Cup semi-finals now at plush, €863 million Wembley. The thought is disbelief.
That at a semi-final one sunny April in modern times, 96 people, mostly young, really did lose their lives. It will be a year since Andy Burnham, then the British minister for culture, media and sport, addressed the Hillsborough 20th anniversary memorial service. The attendance, 30,000, astonished everybody, and the nation witnessed his words of sympathy drowned out by cries for justice.
“When you saw that reaction,” Jones reflects, over a cup of tea at his comfortable Bishop’s Lodge in south Liverpool, “you realised this was a very, very deep wound in the body of this community. It suggested to me there were deep, unresolved questions which needed to be addressed.”
Burnham, with Maria Eagle, the junior justice minister, had called before the anniversary for all official documents relating to Hillsborough to be released, but he decided he should not stress that in his speech at the service. The crowd’s reaction, protesting that this government had done too little to resolve the unanswered questions over Hillsborough and accusations of a South Yorkshire police cover-up, in fact worked in Burnham’s favour. It powerfully demonstrated to Gordon Brown and his cabinet the resentment still burning in Liverpool, prompting them to respond.
The result, after months of discussions with the home secretary, Alan Johnson, and intensive negotiations with the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG), is a process much more substantial than publishing all documents relevant to the disaster. Having considered how such disclosure, by South Yorkshire police, the Yorkshire ambulance service, the Sheffield coroner and Sheffield Wednesday among other bodies, could answer the families’ enduring questions, the government invited a group of experts to assess the documents.
That produced the nine-person Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by Jones, which includes former senior police officers, medical, legal, media and archive specialists, and Prof Phil Scraton, whose book, Hillsborough: The Truth, concluded in 1999 that South Yorkshire police did seek to cover up their culpability for causing the disaster.
Scraton has been invited by the home secretary to take a leading role in writing the panel’s report, with Paul Leighton, the retired former deputy chief constable of Northern Ireland, and Dr Bill Kirkup, the Department of Health’s former associate chief medical officer.
The panel’s terms of reference, issued by the Home Office in December, crucially include the responsibility to write a report which will: “Illustrate how the information disclosed adds to public understanding of the tragedy and its aftermath.”
That, Jones says, clearly represents a duty to examine what the archives reveal of Hillsborough’s most bitterly contested areas. “We are aiming to ensure the maximum possible disclosure,” he says emphatically. “Then, with that information, to write a fuller story than has been told to this point. We are hoping, absolutely, that we can tell as near to the full story as possible.”
In a country where the church is rarely involved with such investigative processes, a bishop may be considered an unexpected choice as chair. However, in this, his first full interview since accepting the post in December, Jones makes clear he believes the task falls very firmly within his duties as bishop.
“I know people knock the Church of England for being an established church,” he acknowledges. “But the positive aspect of it is that an Anglican priest has a responsibility to everybody in the community, not just those who go to church. I’ve taken it on because I have a pastoral responsibility to the bereaved, the families, whether they are church members or not.”
At its first full meeting in February, the panel heard representations from the HFSG, to which 67 bereaved families are affiliated, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC), which represents several more families and many survivors, and also met Anne Williams, whose son, Kevin, aged 15, died at the semi-final. The panel has since been to Sheffield, to see some 600 boxes of documents held by South Yorkshire police and other public bodies, and to the National Archives at Kew in London.
They meet again on Thursday next, when the members will be expected to say, following this preliminary work and their own reading, which areas they believe most clearly demand investigation. Jones does not want to pre-empt that discussion by presenting his list, but says the panel’s role is to follow up the issues which have outraged the families and sparked accusations of injustice and cover-up over two decades.
“We want to be led by the questions the families are asking.”
That, he confirms, will include seeking detailed answers to what happened on the day of the disaster after 3.15pm, the time which the coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, determined as a “cut-off”: his inquest heard no evidence about events after that time. Popper decided all the victims had suffered their fatal injuries by 3.15pm, but his decision has caused lasting agonies for the families. It meant most have never even been informed, in detail, what happened to their loved ones – where they were taken, what treatment they did or did not receive. In addition, no official process has ever considered whether people might have been saved had the response from the police and emergency services been better organised.
“That question – why 3.15? – has come up,” Jones says. “I fully expect that to feature on the April 22nd agenda.”
The two groups and Williams all raised “strongly”, Jones says, the allegation of an attempted cover-up by South Yorkshire police. Lord Justice Taylor, in his official report into the disaster, emphatically stated the principal cause was police mismanagement of the crowd and rejected the force’s case that Liverpool fans were responsible because of drunken behaviour. Years later it emerged, discovered first by Scraton, that shortly after the disaster senior officers had instructed junior officers on duty that day to rewrite their statements about what happened. Often the order was to stress misbehaviour by supporters and remove comments critical of the police’s work.
The families consider that to have been part of a cover-up attempt and have long campaigned to be told the extent of it, the names of those senior officers, and what their instructions were. The force has always denied that the changing of the statements amounted to a cover-up, and the 1998 “scrutiny” by Lord Justice Stewart-Smith reached the same conclusion.
“The families have asked us if we will see, and they will see, the original documents,” Jones says. “Our response is that we will be seeking the maximum possible disclosure. That is something we will certainly have on the table on April 22nd.”
The families have also always seen as part of the cover-up the removal of a CCTV tape from inside the Hillsborough control room on the evening of the disaster. “That was mentioned,” Jones agrees, saying the panel will investigate the incident for which no culprit has ever been identified.
The families believe, too, that South Yorkshire police had high-level government support despite the Taylor finding. The then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, visited Hillsborough the day after the disaster and was briefed by the chief constable, Peter Wright. Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, has since said unapologetically he “learned on the day” that the disaster was caused not by the police but by “a tanked-up mob” of Liverpool supporters. The families have asked the panel to examine official records of Wright’s briefing, to establish what he said to Thatcher about the disaster’s cause, and how she responded. “That has been raised,” Jones confirms, “and that is the sort of question we will follow up.”
Ever since the inquest in 1990, the families have also sought to understand the role an officer from the West Midlands police, the force appointed to investigate the disaster. Det Supt Stanley Beechey was at the time on “non-operational duties” after the disbanding of the notorious Serious Crime Squad, of which he was a former head. Yet at the inquest, he played a senior role, assisting the coroner. “The families have mentioned that,” Jones confirms.
Given the mountain of documents to be read and catalogued, and a detailed report to write and agree, Jones says he expects the panel’s work will take two years.