8 May 1998 : Column 941

House of Commons

Friday 8 May 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

PETITION

M25 (Noise)

9.34 am

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): This petition is from 591 residents of the village of Walton-on-the-Hill in my constituency in the borough of Reigate and Banstead, Surrey. That is three quarters of the electors of the village of Walton-on-the-Hill. The petition


To lie upon the Table.

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Hillsborough

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Jane Kennedy.]

9.35 am

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): The disaster at Hillsborough stadium on 15 April 1989 was one of the most appalling events that this country has experienced since the war. Ninety-six people were killed--many of them children. The grief for such a loss would have been unbearable whatever the circumstances, but there is an extra reason why that day has been such a trauma for the relatives and friends of those killed or injured.

The deaths could not be explained by some act of God: by some event of nature so unforeseen as to be beyond the culpability of any human being. Instead, from the second that the Leppings lane gate was opened, this was a disaster whose root was entirely human, caused by the error, incompetence, complacency or worse of people entrusted to secure the safety of those who attend football matches.

The Home Secretary of the day was entirely right to establish, just two days after the disaster, a full inquiry under one of the most senior and respected judges of the time, Lord Taylor of Gosforth. Lord Taylor's inquiry took oral evidence from 174 witnesses at public hearings during May and June 1989. It considered many other statements and more than 70 hours of video evidence. In his interim report published in August 1989, Lord Taylor found that the disaster had a number of causes. He did not attribute all the blame to a single cause or person, but in paragraph 278 he concluded:


Inquests were held by the coroner for South Yorkshire to determine the statutory questions as to the identity of each of the deceased and when and how he or she had died. In March 1991, after hearing the evidence of around 200 witnesses, the inquest jury returned verdicts of accidental death in respect of all the victims.

An investigation was conducted by West Midlands police and supervised by the Police Complaints Authority to establish whether there were any grounds for criminal or disciplinary proceedings arising from the tragedy. The Director of Public Prosecutions considered the West Midlands police report and took advice from Queen's counsel. The director's decision was that no one should face prosecution as a result of the events that day. The Police Complaints Authority decided that Chief Superintendent Duckenfield and Superintendent Murray should face disciplinary charges of neglect of duty.

In November 1990, Chief Superintendent Duckenfield retired from the force on the ground of ill health before disciplinary proceedings could be completed. Under police regulations, a disciplinary hearing cannot proceed when a police officer retires. The Police Complaints Authority subsequently decided to withdraw the charge against Superintendent Murray because it considered that it would have been unfair to pursue what was, in effect, a joint charge in the absence of the more senior officer.

Lord Taylor's inquiry and report were as thorough and impartial as one would expect of the work of such a great judicial figure. His report led to lasting improvements in

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the safety of football grounds, and in crowd behaviour and control. However, there has been sustained criticism of the coroner's inquests and, above all, of a police discipline system that was so defective that no one was brought to book.

Concern that the inquests had not been properly conducted led six bereaved families to seek a judicial review. Their application was heard in 1993. The divisional court of the High Court investigated the matter with great thoroughness. It looked in particular at the 3.15 pm cut-off point, but decided that there were no grounds for overturning the 1991 inquest verdicts. However, the sense of grievance of many of the families only increased with the passage of time, and they decided that more should be done to get at the truth, as they saw it, of what had happened. With the full co-operation of the Hillsborough family support group, the author Jimmy McGovern decided to prepare a drama-documentary for Granada Television. Entitled simply "Hillsborough", the two-hour programme, broadcast on 5 December 1996, presented a powerful picture of the tragedy. It suggested that fresh evidence that had not previously been considered called into question the verdicts of the inquests, and other decisions.

I must declare an interest. For two years before I entered the House in 1979, I worked on the staff of Granada's "World in Action". Some people whom I knew then, such as Ian McBride, helped to put "Hillsborough" together. I knew, and know, them to be journalists of great tenacity and integrity.

Following the programme, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) secured an Adjournment debate on 17 December 1996. I attended that debate, and listened with care to what my predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), said about whether the inquiry should be reopened. In the run-up to the general election, a great many hon. Members who represented Merseyside or the bereaved families approached me about the need for further investigation.

Many of my hon. Friends will wish to speak today; however, I want to mention some right hon. and hon. Friends who, although they are intensely concerned about the matter, cannot speak in the debate, as they are now Ministers. They are my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and my hon. Friends the Members for Walton, for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy).

Following the representations that I received before the election, I thought that there was a case for a thorough examination of the matter. Within days of coming into office, I began to consider whether any of the inquiries should be publicly reopened. After thorough examination, I concluded that there was, on the face of it, sufficient evidence to warrant further investigation. However, as there had been a very thorough inquiry by Lord Taylor, very lengthy inquests and a disciplinary inquiry by the West Midlands police, I decided that what was needed in the first instance was judicial scrutiny of the new claims, to determine whether formal inquiries should be reopened.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, a senior Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal, was eminently qualified to conduct an independent and thorough scrutiny of the evidence. I gave

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him very wide terms of reference that enabled him to establish conclusively whether any material evidence had been overlooked, and to recommend appropriate action. Those terms were:


    "To ascertain whether any evidence exists relating to the disaster at the Hillsborough Stadium on 15 April 1989; which was not available:


    (a) to the Inquiry conducted by the late Lord Taylor; or


    (b) to the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Attorney General for the purpose of discharging their respective statutory responsibilities; or


    (c) to the Chief Officer of South Yorkshire police in relation to police disciplinary matters;


    and in relation to (a) to advise whether any evidence not previously available is of such significance as to justify establishment by the Secretary of State for the Home Department of a further public inquiry; and in relation to (b) and (c) to draw to their attention any evidence not previously considered by them which may be relevant to their respective duties; and to advise whether there is any other action which should be taken in the public interest."

I appointed Lord Justice Stuart-Smith on 30 June 1997. I published his report on 18 February 1998. I want to place on record, again, my thanks to him for the thoroughness and impartiality with which he conducted his scrutiny. Anyone who has read the report thoroughly will, I believe, be bound to reach the same conclusions as he did, that reopening the inquiries would serve no purpose whatever.

Let me explain why that must be so. First, there is the overriding issue of who was to blame for the disaster. If blame had not already been allocated, there would unquestionably be very good grounds for a further full public inquiry, but we have known since Lord Taylor's report that Sheffield city council, Sheffield Wednesday football club and, principally, South Yorkshire police were to blame.

Far from resiling from that judgment--or taking part in a whitewash, as some have ludicrously charged--Lord Justice Stuart-Smith repeated Lord Taylor's conclusion in the most strident terms. Indeed, he stated that Chief Superintendent Duckenfield had uttered a "disgraceful lie" about gate C being opened by fans, and he quoted with approval Lord Taylor's "stinging rebuke" of South Yorkshire police for failing to concede that they were in any respect at fault.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith also unearthed the fact that some of the original statements made by individual police officers had been edited by solicitors acting for South Yorkshire police. At appendix 6, he gives an example. He considered whether the statements were covered by legal professional privilege--that was a real issue--but concluded that such privilege did not apply. He consequently said that the statements should be made public. I have made every such statement available to the Hillsborough family support group, and placed copies in the Library of the House.

The new claims put to Lord Justice Stuart-Smith by the television programme and the Hillsborough family support group fell principally into two groups: first, the video evidence, and, secondly, that relating to the 3.15 pm cut-off point for the inquest. Let me deal with them in turn.

First, there is the question of missing video tapes, and the importance that can be attached to them. Two tapes were indeed stolen. Their theft--still unsolved--understandably heightened concern about a cover-up,

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which was compounded by the extraordinary and pervasive denial of responsibility by South Yorkshire police at the time. However, the crucial thing about the tapes was that they contained no material evidence that was not otherwise available. One was entirely blank, as the camera concerned had been pointing at a blank wall. The other showed turnstiles 9 to 16 at the Leppings lane end, next to turnstiles A to G, which were monitored by police closed circuit television camera 1. What happened on those turnstiles was recorded on both the police tape known as TB2 and tape RJH2, which consists of camera output viewed in the club control room.

As hon. Members will know from page 20 of the report, counsel for the Hillsborough family support group made five submissions about video evidence on behalf of the group.

The first submission was that the police blamed their failure to see the overcrowding in pens 3 and 4 of the Leppings lane end on camera 5 being defective when it was not. The second submission was that the evidence of the video tapes taken from camera 5 was deliberately suppressed and concealed. The third was that the coroner deliberately failed properly to pursue the question of the "missing video evidence". The fourth was that police officers gave deliberately false evidence that camera 5 was not working correctly, and the fifth was that evidence from Mr. Roger Houldsworth, a closed circuit television technician in the club control room, had been suppressed. Mr. Houldsworth, who featured so prominently in the Granada Television programme, claimed that he could see from monitoring police cameras that pens 3 and 4 were overcrowded, and that a dangerous situation was likely to arise because of the influx of fans through gate C.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith goes through each of the submissions with great care, and I shall spell out his conclusions. The first allegation was that the police blamed their failure to see overcrowding in pens 3 and 4 on camera 5 being defective when it was not. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith describes that allegation as "quite untenable" because he says that it was clear that the police could see what was happening with their own eyes. He describes the second allegation, that the evidence of the video tapes from camera 5 was deliberately suppressed as "completely unfounded" as the vital tapes, TB1 and TB2, were at all times, together with the schedule of their contents, available to be seen by the legal representatives of the families.

The third allegation that the coroner deliberately failed properly to pursue the evidence and the issue of the missing video evidence is described by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith as "unfounded" as there never was any missing footage from the relevant tapes. The two missing club tapes are not relevant to the issue, and the learned judge said that the coroner dealt perfectly properly with the jury's request to see the camera footage of the terraces. The fourth allegation was that police officers gave deliberately false evidence that camera 5 was not working correctly. He describes that submission as


He noted that even if the extent of any defect in what camera 5 was showing was exaggerated by the police, it was of no consequence, and Lord Taylor took no notice of it in his considerations.

The fifth allegation was that evidence from Mr. Roger Houldsworth was suppressed. On that submission, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith emphasises that Mr. Houldsworth's

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existence, and his evidence, were known to the Taylor inquiry and to the coroner, and that his evidence, even if correct, would not have had any effect on the previous proceedings. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith also deals with the credibility of Mr. Houldsworth. He says that he was


    "unable to accept that his recollection of events now is accurate"

and he adds:


    "the importance of his evidence has been exaggerated out of all proportion".

The second area of new claims related to the inquests. At the start of the main inquest, the coroner ruled that he would cut off the inquiry at 3.15 pm, the time by which he considered that all those who died had received the injuries that caused their deaths. That cut-off point has long been a matter of controversy for the families. After careful consideration of the proceedings of the inquests, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith found that there were no grounds to conclude that the conduct of the inquests was flawed. He says that the cut-off point did not limit the inquiry that was undertaken by the inquests and that it was never suggested by the coroner that all those who died did so before 3.15 pm.

The inquest jury heard evidence about those who died after arrival at hospital and about those who were treated and recovered. It was only in relation to how and by what means the deceased came to their deaths that the cut-off time of 3.15 pm was imposed. Therefore, evidence that some people died after 3.15 pm would not affect the outcome of the inquest. That matter is profoundly important to our understanding of what happened and in explaining to the families why the 3.15 pm cut-off did not produce the injustice that they claim.

For the benefit of the House and of the families, I repeat what the coroner said, which is an incontrovertible truth, that by 3.15 pm the principal cause of death, that is, the crushing, was over. That had finished by about 3.5 pm, which means that the evidence about the principal cause of death was bound to be over by 3.15 pm. He never suggested, nor was the inquest jury led to believe, that the inquest was interested only in those who had died by 3.15 pm. As I have said, there was evidence relating to those who had died after 3.15 pm and about those who were treated and recovered.

Other allegations related to the rescue operation and to alleged improper interference with witnesses. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith noted that Lord Taylor had inquired into the rescue operation and had criticised the slow response of the police. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith found no evidence of want of care by the emergency or medical services and, in his view, no purpose would be served by any further inquiry into that aspect of the disaster.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith investigated in some depth allegations that certain witnesses were pressurised by the West Midlands police to change the evidence that they wished to give. He concludes that there was no improper attempt to affect their evidence. As I have said, he also examined carefully the statements that the South Yorkshire police obtained from their own officers, some of which were amended on the advice of force solicitors. He is satisfied that the Taylor inquiry and the inquest were not in any way inhibited or impeded by what took place.

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In a very few cases, which are referred to in appendix 7 of the report, what was excluded was either factual or comment in which factual matters were implicit, and the learned judge says:


    "it would have been preferable for those matters not to have been excluded".

Against that background, the question is what a further opening of full inquiries, or inquests, or disciplinary procedures could achieve. A reopening of Lord Taylor's inquiry would serve no purpose, and since I published Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report on 18 February, I have heard no convincing argument against that view. There was no cover-up by Lord Taylor or by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith. The reverse is the case: both laid the blame fairly and squarely on the police. Thankfully, as a result of Lord Taylor's recommendations, there has been a significant improvement to safety at sports grounds and his recommendations have long since been implemented.

When I talk to the bereaved families, I find that much of their anger continues to focus on the inquests and on the police disciplinary procedures. In terms of the inquests, there was no evidence before Lord Justice Stuart-Smith that could result in an application by the Attorney-General to set aside the inquest verdicts, not least because the conduct of the inquests was so thoroughly examined by the divisional court.

I have two additional points to make about the inquests. We all understand the great concern of the families about the fact that the inquest jury's verdict on each of the deceased was accidental death. In common parlance, accidental death implies that no one was to blame. All those, including many coroners, who know anything about the conduct of inquests have reservations about the way in which they are conducted. The term "accidental death" is a legal one, and it was made clear by the coroner and repeated by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith that an inquest jury's verdict of accidental death does not necessarily imply that no one was to blame. That is very important.

The second point that needs to be made--it is made on page 11, paragraph 63 of the report--is that, before the scrutiny under Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, counsel for the family support group accepted that it was impossible to have a fresh inquest with a view to substituting a verdict of unlawful killing, so that point has been accepted by the family support group itself.

I accept, as I believe the whole House does, that inquests of the sort that occurred in respect of the Hillsborough disaster turn the screw on bereaved families, without adding any understanding on questions of culpability. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report underlined the need to make improvements to the inquest system. In the case of Hillsborough, it was clearly unsatisfactory that the families suffered additional distress as a result of the inquest proceedings and the jury's verdicts of accidental death, when the cause of the disaster had already been established by the Taylor inquiry and the Director of Public Prosecutions had announced that there would be no prosecutions.

The inquest system, in its present form, is unsuitable for dealing with disasters such as Hillsborough. The Home Office working group on disasters and inquests, which reported in March 1997, recommended that the role of the inquest should be severely limited when a public inquiry has already been held.

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A comprehensive public inquiry that also addressed the questions that would otherwise be before an inquest would relieve the coroner of the need to resume the formal inquest. The changes recommended by the Home Office working party in that respect point the right way forward, so the Government will look for a suitable legislative opportunity to amend the Coroners Act 1988.

I have often been asked: if the police were to blame, why has no police officer been brought to book? The only answer is far from satisfactory: police disciplinary procedures have been so defective that individual senior police officers have been able to utter "disgraceful lies", act with contemptible incompetence and incur no penalty. That is plainly unacceptable to the whole House and to the whole country.

As I said in my statement to the House on 18 February, I fully understand the public disquiet--I share it; I do not just understand it--that those who have been criticised by the inquiries into this disaster have not been prosecuted or disciplined in respect of their actions. It is not possible, however, to turn the clock back, and Lord Justice Stuart-Smith is satisfied that no new evidence that he considered could be put before the Director of Public Prosecutions or before the Police Complaints Authority. I accept that, but everyone, I think, believes that, in the light of Hillsborough and other cases, there is a compelling case for reform of the police disciplinary system.

In January, the Select Committee on Home Affairs published its report into police disciplinary and complaints procedures. The report recommended changes in a number of key areas and, in March, I announced to the House that I was taking steps to implement almost all its recommendations.

I have decided that the standard of proof in police discipline cases should be changed from the criminal to the civil standard and that it should be possible for officers to face both criminal and disciplinary action on the same facts. I have also accepted the Select Committee's recommendation that we should implement a system of "fast-track" dismissal for use in the most serious cases.

In the light of the Hillsborough disaster, I have been particularly concerned to address the serious defect in the present practice, which allows a police officer to retire on medical grounds before disciplinary hearings can be completed. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] As my right hon. and hon. Friends make clear by their approbation, that was rightly an issue of the greatest frustration to the families of the Hillsborough victims.

We are strengthening the procedures so that, when accused officers claim that they are unable, through ill health, to appear at disciplinary hearings, matters can and will be decided in their absence, with appropriate safeguards. I am also concerned that existing regulations should be rigorously applied, so that any outstanding disciplinary matters have to be completed before any application for early retirement can be considered. Those and other changes will come into force in April next year.

Ninety-six people lost their lives as a result of the disaster at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. The lives of many others were and continue to be profoundly affected by that day's events. None of us can begin to understand the anguish that is felt by the families who lost their loved ones in such tragic circumstances, but we have shared their determination to establish, to the fullest extent possible, why and how their relatives died.

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The causes of the disaster were clearly identified by Lord Taylor in his 1989 report. It was right to consider, as I have done, whether there was any subsequent information that cast doubt on earlier decisions. It was for that reason that, at the instigation of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent Merseyside constituents and other constituents of the bereaved families, I established Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's thorough scrutiny, but I am satisfied that he has, after that rigorous examination, reached the correct conclusions.

The changes in the safety of football grounds following Lord Taylor's report should ensure that the risk of anything similar ever happening has been greatly reduced. Changes in inquest and inquiry procedures following such disasters should ensure that the families are not put through the extra ordeal that the Hillsborough families have suffered, and the changes in police discipline procedures that I have announced will ensure that police officers cannot escape responsibility by early retirement.

I am asked by the families and their supporters to establish another full public inquiry, but I ask: what could that achieve? I do not believe that a further inquiry could or would uncover significant new evidence or provide any relief for the distress of those who have been bereaved. Although I know that it is difficult for the families to accept that, such a conclusion must be in their best interests. To hold out the possibility of a further inquiry, only and inevitably to have that hope dashed when the inquiry reported, would lead simply to further anxiety and to a deepening of the wounds of grief. That would be no kindness to the families, or to their communities on Merseyside and elsewhere. Although the families may not today accept the conclusions that I have reached, I hope that, in time, they will see that no purpose could be served by the further inquiry that they seek and that we as a Government have done everything that is possible on their behalf.


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