Hillsborough Families:Patronised to death by the disdain of the powerful

hillsborough.pic credit ITV

A Liverpool football shirt commemorating Hillsboough. pic Credit: itv.com

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While Westminster was yesterday swirling with tales of sexual harassment by powerful ministers and MPs and the arrogance of a government that won’t tell us what will be the real effects of Brexit, a calm but hard hitting report was published on what had happened since the revelations of the Hillsborough disaster.

The scandal of the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans who went to watch a football match 27 years ago is well known and now well documented following the Hillsborough Independent Panel which  exhaustively looked at what happened.

Since there are now criminal proceedings against people following the disaster I am not going to rerun  who was to blame for these needless deaths but concentrate on what yesterday’s report was about – what should be done.

There are many reports exposing what goes wrong. There are fewer reports proposing how to remedy serious shortcomings. There are even fewer that  demand a cultural change in British society.

This is one of them. The gruesome testimony in this report of the families who lost loved ones well before their time demands nothing less than a radical change in the way the ruling elite view ordinary people.

People caught up in a tragedy are confused, distraught. angry and suffer lifelong angst   and the last thing they want are people in power who frustrate, ignore, belittle or patronise them for wanting to know what happened to their loved ones. The Hillsborough families also had to put up with  very public denigrating coverage from the Sun  which has never been forgiven in Liverpool.

This report shows a way  change can come and outlines the legislation needed to get it done. The recommendations – if implemented in the right spirit – would make a radical change in the way society coped with  the aftermath of disasters – whether it is Hillsborough or the Grenfell tower fire tragedy.

The proposals go from introducing a ” duty of candour” for police officers to tell the truth, providing proper legal aid for ordinary people attending inquests so they can really participate in the proceedings and a special charter for families who suffer bereavement in a major tragedy like Hillsborough.

It also wants to make sure authorities don’t destroy vital documents to avoid public scrutiny, better training and evaluation for coroners, a review of the  effectiveness of  the pathology services and the way death certificates are issued. Nor should public bodies use public money to their advantage to outspend ordinary people trying to get to the truth.

Two other things should be said. Theresa May, whom I may  disagree politically, should be commended for commissioning this. She could easily have walked away once the Hillsborough Panel had done its work. Liverpool football fans are not her natural constituency. She will be even more commended if she decides to implement its findings.

There is also an remarkable passage in the introduction from the  report’s author, the Right Reverend James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool and chair of the Hillsborough Inquiry which sums up the spirit of the report and what the families have suffered. It is worth quoting in full :

“I also wanted to set on record a recurrent theme that has been present, either implicitly or explicitly, in many personal conversations that I have had with families and survivors over the past 20 years.

“It is one that they have often been reluctant to raise not least because of public and political indifference to the subject and perhaps out of fear that it would add
to the lack of empathy that they experienced. The disaster, the aftermath, and the struggle to be heard for over quarter of a century have had an adverse effect on the mental and physical well being of both families and survivors.

“Depression, marital breakdown, family division, mental illness, unemployment, premature death and even suicide have featured in the Hillsborough narrative. Hopefully society’s increasing awareness of the issues of mental health will lead to a more sympathetic understanding of what they have endured.

“People talk too loosely about closure. They fail to realise that there can be no closure to love, nor should there be for someone you have loved and lost. Furthermore, grief is a journey without a destination. The bereaved travel through a landscape of memories and thoughts of what might have been. It is a journey marked by milestones, some you seek, some you stumble on. For the families and survivors of Hillsborough these milestones have included the search for truth, accountability and justice. But even these are not the end of the road.They are still travelling. And this report is another step along the way.”

You can read the report for yourselves here .

 

 

 

 

 

Child Sex Abuse Inquiry Debacle: Why it is important where we go next

Today (mon) home secretary Theresa May, will face a barrage of criticism in Parliament for her office’s failure to twice find a suitable person to chair the much needed historic child sex abuse inquiry

Losing not one chair but  two – Baroness Butler Sloss and Fiona Woolf – because of potential conflicts of interest in a matter of weeks smacks of real incompetence by a department that should know better. it also caused severe embarrassment both to the people appointed and to the home secretary herself.

But I hope today is seen not just as an opportunity for ” yah boo” politics between Labour and the Tories but for a more reflective discussion of how we got here and what is needed to put it right.

What cannot be denied is that the home secretary did not entirely fulfil what she promised the ” magnificent seven ” MPs requested in drawing up the panel. True she did take on board their request for survivors on the panel – appointing two – Graham Wilmer, who runs the Lantern Project and Sharon Evans,  a former TV  presenter who runs a children’s charity.

But there – as far as I can find out – been no through consultation over the appointment of the two chairs of the panel involving the MPs – and there has also, to my surprise, been no internal consultation inside the home office. Frankly they should also have asked survivors groups BEFORE not AFTER the appointments.

It is probably not well-known but the home office has its own very small unit which can advise on the setting up of independent panels, who is appointed to them, and can interview suitable people to sit on them – or at least advise newly appointed secretaries to inquiries set up by other ministries on how to get going.

I understand this body was never consulted yet it can claim a track record of success. Its biggest achievement has been the Hillsborough Inquiry into the tragic deaths of Liverpool fans where it got a chairman, now the former bishop of Liverpool, to preside. None of those families of the fans would now say it didn’t get to the bottom of a grave injustice hidden for years.

Yet child abuse survivors might be surprised to know that it got the information without any statutory powers by ruthlessly pursuing the evidence and cajoling reluctant authorities to hand over  the information, including stuff that is now landing the South Yorkshire Constabulary in dire trouble.

It did have one duty  – and only one duty – to tell the families who lost loved ones at Hillsborough Stadium first what it had found out. Once it had done this it published everything as fact – and set up of a train of events – now being shown by the inquest into Hillsborough.

It is also responsible for the current Daniel Morgan murder inquiry – where I suspect but do not know the same tussle is probably going on now.

Now many of the survivors seem to want a statutory inquiry which can compel people to attend, give information,  force people to confess to crimes, with grand public hearings and a very detailed terms of reference. Be careful what you wish for.

Superficially it sounds great but there are drawbacks to this approach. Terms of reference need to be nebulous rather than specific so the panel cannot be stopped following the facts wherever it takes them – and given the wide sweep of institutions involved it needs to go to places we may not have even thought about.

Second yes statutory power sound great but there is one drawback – I am told it allows lawyers representing anybody or organisation accused by survivors to demand the status of ” an interested party”. That means anything you tell them could go straight back to their lawyers before the inquiry even reports.

If it is non statutory there is no obligation whatever to tell them anything – and their lawyers have no right to find out.

If it follows what happened in Hillsborough and in Daniel Morgan – the families are centre stage. In this case, it means the survivors are centre stage – the panel is obliged to you, you are not obliged to the panel. This means you will know first what the findings are – not the armed forces, the security services, the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the councils, the police, schools or any other body that allowed you to be abused.

Finally I hope the panel can tell you whether they have obtained a freezing  or preservation order on all documents listing evidence or allegations of child sexual abuse. Whitehall permanent secretaries have a superb meeting and network facility – and could send out letters now banning the destruction of all documents. I would expect the Church of England – after Archbishop Welby’s words last week to do the same.

And as for a chair – whoever is appointed faces the risk of ” guilty by association ” if they worked in any organisation because of the widespread nature of child sexual abuse. It just depends on how guilty the association is and the Home Office needs to do a  better job of finding this out.