HC Deb 24 January 1992 vol 202 cc677-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Neil Hamilton.]

2.34 pm
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this Adjournment debate. Obviously, the concern arises from the Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent Lord Justice Taylor report of 15 April 1989, which coincided with the semi-final round of the Football Association cup. During the disaster, there were 95 deaths. Several of those who died were my constituents. More than 400 people received hospital treatment. Extremely swiftly, and with a great deal of support at the time, Lord Justice Taylor was commissioned to produce a report, which he duly did.

I have told the Minister that I shall confine my remarks to the findings that are set out in Lord Justice Taylor's interim report, which was published in August 1989, about two-and-a-half years ago. I shall refer especially to chapters 16 to 20.

The title of chapter 16 is "Brief Summary of Causes", and it extends from paragraph 265 to 268. Paragraphs 265 and 266 read: The immediate cause of the gross overcrowding and hence the disaster was the failure, when gate C was opened, to cut off access to the central pens which were already overfull. They were already overfull because no safe maximum capacities had been laid down. No attempt was made to control entry to individual pens numerically and there was no effective visual monitoring of crowd density. Paragraphs 267 and 268 explain what happened in relation to the layout of the ground.

Chapter 17 is directed to the FA's choice of ground. Paragraph 270 reads:

"Mr. Kelly, the FA's Chief Executive"—

I understand that he still holds that position— sought to give reasons for preferring Hillsborough, but the only one which seemed to have any validity was that the 1988 match had been considered a successfully managed event. He admitted that a telephone call from the Chief Executive of the Liverpool Club protesting and putting Liverpool's case had not been mentioned to the FA Committee which finally decided the venue. Mr. Kelly frankly conceded that 'there was an element of unfairness' to Liverpool in choosing Hillsborough for a second time. I think"— this is Lord Justice Taylor's conclusion— "the decision was ill-considered. No doubt in future the FA will be more sensitive and responsive to reasonable representations. Chapter 18 deals with the policing of the event. It is a long chapter but I shall deal only with paragraph 285, which is headed: The Police Case at the Inquiry". The paragraph reads: It is a matter of regret that at the hearing, and in their submissions, the South Yorkshire Police were not prepared to concede they were in any respect at fault in what occurred. Mr. Duckenfield, under pressure of cross-examination, apologised for blaming the Liverpool fans for causing the deaths. But, that apart, the police case was to blame the fans for being late and drunk, and to blame the Club for failing to monitor the pens. It was argued that the fatal crush was not caused by the influx through gate C but was due to barrier 124a being defective. Such an unrealistic approach gives cause for anxiety as to whether lessons have been learnt. It would have been more seemly and encouraging for the future if responsibility had been faced. It is worth saying that the officer in charge, Mr. Duckenfield, and his deputy, Mr. Murray, have had internal police disciplinary charges against them dropped.

Mr. Duckenfield was allowed to take early retirement without facing disciplinary charges. It was then suggested by the South Yorkshire police that Mr. Murray should not be allowed to face charges alone because Mr. Duckenfield had gone. Therefore, no action, externally or internally, will be taken against any officer.

Chapter 19 relates to the city council and the safety certificate. Paragraph 286 reads: The performance by the City Council of its duties in regard to the Safety Certificate was inefficient and dilatory. The failure to revise or amend the certificate over the period of three years preceding this disaster, despite important changes in the layout of the ground, was a serious breach of duty. There were, as a result, no fixed capacities for the pens. The certificate took no account of the 1981 and 1985 alterations to the ground. Paragraph 287 states: A number of breaches of Green Guide standards were permitted and persisted e.g. the spacing of the crash barriers, the width of perimeter gates and the gradient in the tunnel. Paragraph 288 states: The Advisory Group lacked a proper structure; its procedure was casual and unbusinesslike. Its accountability to the General Purposes Panel was ill-defined. Chapter 20 deals with the club and Dr. Eastwood, the consultant engineer. In paragraph 290 it states: Nevertheless, there are a number of respects in which failure by the club contributed to this disaster. They were responsible as occupiers and invitors for the layout and structure of the ground. The Lepping Lane end was unsatisfactory and ill-suited to admit the numbers invited, for reasons already spelt out. That report was published two and a half years ago. Since then, there has been a coroner's inquest. I must make it clear that I believe that the rather unusual procedure of holding just one coroner's inquest in a case involving so many deaths was done in good faith. There was no attempt to thwart justice; it was genuinely intended as a vehicle to try to resolve the issues.

At the request of my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Joynes, who had lost a son, I went to Sheffield and sat through a morning session of the inquest. It immediately became clear that the setting was wrong. Every interest was represented—the police, the football club, the local authority and others, and all had separate legal representation. They all sat at one table, together with just a couple of representatives of the bereaved families. It was not the right setting in which to consider the issues properly.

I am not criticising the conduct of the inquest, just the structure and procedures that it was obliged to use. I do not believe that it satisfactorily or adequately answered any of the questions raised in the interim report.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that when there has been a tragedy, one thing that helps to ease the pain of people is to know how and why their relatives died. I agree that the inquest was conducted as fairly as it could be, but perhaps it was the wrong format to adopt in a case of multiple death. Should not we devise a better system that would enable each family to help ease its personal pain?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend, who has a detailed and respected knowledge of the law, hits at the core of the problem. None of the families concerned believes that justice—to use the old legal adage—was done and seen to be done. There has been a great deal of grief and suffering and the legal system must devise a means by which justice can be achieved. The all-pervading feeling of all concerned is that justice has not been done or been seen to be done.

In the summer of last year one of my constituents wrote to the Prime Minister and received a reply from his office. She said that she did not feel that justice had been achieved in any of the procedures that had taken place. The reply from the Prime Minister's office was not helpful. I do not wish to quote it directly, but it suggested that, through application to the Attorney-General, there were two options open to those concerned. The first was to seek a judicial review through the Attorney-General; the second, to seek to have set aside the coroner's findings and a fresh inquest held, or some variation of that, so that all the circumstances could be reconsidered. I emphasise that I do not seek to suggest any conspiracy, because I am sure that that letter was written in good faith, in the best spirit, and on the basis of the best information available.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) made a cogent intervention, in reinforcing my point that there appears to be no clear route by which the families concerned can place before the Attorney-General within reasonable time the kind of case that they would need to make to justify either a judicial review or the setting aside of the coroner's findings. Although I am not an expert, I take a close interest in the matter, and my view is the best option would be a judicial review.

In an incident involving multiple deaths, to use my hon. Friend's phrase, it is difficult for any one lawyer or interested family to reach the point where they can make a convincing case to the Attorney-General. There are currently literally scores of different solicitors and legal advisers involved, and there are complex and possibly insoluble questions as to whether a particular action could be funded by legal aid. It is anyway questionable whether someone who is not entitled to legal aid could afford the legal costs involved in compiling a case that would convince the Attorney-General or another of the Law Officers.

The Under-Secretary of State was courteous enough to discuss the matter with me in advance of this Adjournment debate. I acknowledge that he is at something of a disadvantage, because, although the Taylor report comes within the realm of the Home Office, my points are directed, quite properly, at the Attorney-General. However, because of technicalities relating to the procedures of the House, the title of my Adjournment debate is the only one that I could get through the Table Office.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

I was at the Sheffield ground on the day of the disaster, and was the second person through the gate where it occurred. In my opinion, that was at the centre of the problems and the tragedy that ensued. Incidentally, I did not walk through the gate but was carried through it. My legs did not touch the ground. Is not my hon. Friend surprised that although I gave evidence to the police, I was not called as a witness? Doubts remain in many minds as to whether the victims' families were correctly treated.

Mr. Howarth

I was aware that my hon. Friend witnessed the tragedy and that he submitted evidence. If one reads carefully the conclusions of the interim report, it is clear that the decision to open the gate was, in all the circumstances, probably right. The fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) is here today is perhaps testimony to that. As I understand it, if the gates had not been opened, my hon. Friend would have been in grave danger of losing his life.

Mr. Loyden

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and that gives rise to the question why the situation outside the ground was not dealt with in the first place. Had the grave problem that was emerging there been dealt with, and had the pressure been eased, the second event would not have happened.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The criticism that the report makes is that the communication between the various officers responsible for policing the event was so poor that, at that point, it was too late to do anything other than open the gate, with all the horrendous consequences that followed.

I do not know of any family connected with the event that feels satisfied that enough has been done to hold the organisations or individuals concerned responsible for their actions. I do not think that it is my place to point the finger at any one individual or organisation and say, "That person should be in court and those people held personally responsible." The problem is that there seems to be no clear path to the justice to which the bereaved families feel they are entitled.

I have tabled parliamentary questions to the Attorney-General and have raised the matter repeatedly, as have a number of other hon. Members. It is not good enough to expect the individuals concerned to beat a path to the doors of justice through disparate bits of the law and through the use of various legal advisers. On the basis of the interim findings of the Taylor report, I believe that there is already sufficient evidence to say that those who were responsible for policing the ground—the club, the local authority and others—ought to have their actions further investigated in a legal setting, and I believe that that aim would be best served by a judicial review.

The Attorney-General had the courtesy to meet me on one occasion to discuss the matter. I believe that he is honourable in his concern, but he is perhaps naive—and I do not mean this maliciously—to assume that people can overcome the horrendous complications involved in advancing their case to the point at which they can plonk something watertight on his desk. In my entirely non-partisan desire to try to get justice done in this matter, I believe that the Law Officers ought now to intervene and say, "We recognise that, in this case, justice will be difficult to obtain under the normal procedures. We realise, however, that the police, the football club and Sheffield city council have cases to answer. We think that the best way forward would be for us, the legal officers of the state, to intervene and grant a judicial review."

Those who feel not only a sense of bereavement but a sense of great injustice about what has happened deserve such treatment. In the aftermath of the disaster, they were given assurances by the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), the then Prime Minister, and by just about everyone with whom they came in contact that no stone would be left unturned in the pursuit of justice. Their strong feeling, which I have come to share, is that too many stones have been left unturned. The procedures necessary to get the matter into the right legal format to allow it to be properly investigated, and to allow responsibility to be attached to those who bear responsibility, have not yet been used. The quicker the Law Officers agree with that, and grant a judicial review or some kind of coroner's procedure, the better. I strongly believe that a judicial review would be the best way forward.

2.53 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

Little time is left to me, so I shall make one point right at the beginning of my speech that ought to be stressed—it is not in the Government's, the Attorney-General's or any other Minister's gift to grant a judicial review. That is open to the judiciary, after an application has been made to it. The Government may not intervene in any way. It is a judicial, not a ministerial decision.

I thank the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) for providing an opportunity for this matter to come before the House once more. Even those of us who were not present or did not experience the trauma of seeing friends or relatives injured or killed before our very eyes cannot escape the indelible images created by the terrible events that day at Hillsborough. I know that the hon. Member receives constant reminders of the disaster from the continuing distress of his constituents, as he said today. I welcome this opportunity to go through the way in which the various bodies with responsibilities in this area have sought to respond to this dreadful and unforeseen disaster.

"Unforeseen" is in many ways, I think, the key word. It is easy to say now that the possibility should have been foreseen—and of course it should. But nothing like this, thank God, had happened before—not in all the previous years of capacity crowds at football matches or pop concerts—and a disaster of this magnitude was simply not something anybody conceived of as imaginable, much less as actually happening.

Cataclysms which come apparently out of the blue nearly always have multiple causes which come together fortuitously to enable something dreadful and quite out of the ordinary to happen. These may include what the insurers call acts of God, natural causes and human carelessness, or deliberate misconduct. Any one of those, taken separately, would have had little effect. Coming together, they can be devastating as they were here.

As with many less far-reaching accidents, the degree of blame which may attach to any of the people involved in the run-up to a catastrophe may not be in any way commensurate with the degree of harm caused. This must be pre-eminently a case where that is true, as Lord Taylor comments in relation to the police, the local authority, the club and others whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

It might help the House if, having made those observations, I went through what has already been done to seek out and address the causes that led to this dreadful incident.

Within two days of the disaster, Lord Justice Taylor had been commissioned to inquire into its causes and his inquiry was under way. As a result, the West Midlands police force undertook two major investigations into the events of 15 April 1989. The first of those investigations was, of course, the formal inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor, which was commissioned by the Home Secretary. The investigation, which was inaugurated by the Taylor inquiry, involved some 440 officers from the West Midlands police force. They took some 3,776 statements, as well as taking advantage of video films from three separate sources which provided, in all, some 71 hours of further evidence. That vast store of evidence was carefully sifted. I think that it is fair to say that the interim report—the one which the hon. Gentleman talked about most particularly—of Lord Justice Taylor on the disaster gives a very clear picture of police activity on the day.

The inquest into the deaths at Hillsborough, which took more than 100 days to examine the material facts, constituted a second inquiry into those events. The hon. Gentleman referred in particular to the inquest. It served, in fact, a separate function, in that the law states that the purpose of an inquest is to ascertain the identity of the deceased and how, when and where he came by his death. The coroners rules provide that neither the coroner nor the jury shall express any opinion on any other matters—hence much of the frustration to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

In addition, the rules specifically prohibit the framing of an inquest verdict in such a way as to appear to determine any question of criminal liability on the part of a named person, or civil liability. Any issue of civil or criminal liability is a matter for the civil or criminal courts, not the coroner's inquest.

Mr. Bermingham

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lloyd

No, I will not give way because I have only six minutes left to me. If I have time later to do so, I will.

In the third inquiry, which followed up its work for Lord Justice Taylor, the West Midlands police force conducted a further major investigation with a view to discovering whether the disaster resulted from, or was made worse by, criminal activity by any individual.

The Director of Public Prosecutions concluded that the results did not indicate that anyone should be made the subject of criminal proceedings. Perhaps I could add a comment on that. The conclusions at which the Director of Public Prosecutions arrived mean that, so far as anyone can discover—the evidence that has been amassed has been considerable—this terrible disaster was not the result of criminal activity. The result is that neither Chief Superintendent Duckenfield nor Superintendent Murray—nor, for that matter, any other person—has been charged with a crime.

For anyone other than a police officer that would be the end of the matter. For police officers, though, there remains the question whether, without having good or sufficient cause, they failed to fulfil all the requirements of their role as police officers. Had they, perhaps, been guilty of a deliberate neglect of duty, or had there been professional failure or momentary loss of "grip"? Were there any faults to be addressed in the organisation as a whole?

All those matters have been addressed in the intervening years. One matter Hillsborough pointed up, tragically, was the need for thorough training of police commanders. The Association of Chief Police Officers has since developed appropriate training courses, and those who act as police commanders at such events now have the benefit of preparation, which unfortunately, was not available to Mr. Duckenfield.

However, as Lord Justice Taylor said, with such truth, in paragraph 25 of his final report, Complacency is the enemy of safety". After Hillsborough, I believe that anyone responsible for crowd control where large numbers of people are present will find it difficult to be complacent ever again. I hope that those grieving might draw a little comfort from that.

Another investigation of the event, of the day, therefore covered complaints that had been made regarding police behaviour. That investigation involved the taking of a further 5,341 statements, as well as the scrutiny of all the material which had previously. been examined. It was supervised throughout by the Police Complaints Authority, which subsequently expressed itself satisfied that it had been properly and thoroughly conducted.

I know that many people would feel more confidence in those investigations if the report could be published, but this is one of those unfortunate instances where decisions taken to protect one branch of the public militates against another. The courts have decided, in a number of judgments, that people would be less willing to complain of bad behaviour by the police if there were any risk that what they had said would become generally known. As a result, they have said that such statements are immune from disclosure, in the public interest, with the result that the report of this investigation cannot be made public. I believe that it would be only on application to a court by an injured party that a decision could be made to publish the report in this case. Again, that is a matter for the courts and for the law, not for me. I embark upon that observation with the humility of a non-professional.

To maintain discipline within the force, the Police Complaints Authority and the deputy chief constable are required to consider whether there are ways in which an officer may have failed in his duty. If so, they are required to arrange for a formal hearing of the charges against him. That was done. After receiving the report of the complaint investigation, the PCA decided that Chief Superintendent Duckenfield and Superintendent Murray should face disciplinary charges.

A police disciplinary hearing is held in private. It is concerned only with whether the officer concerned may have failed to conform to police discipline. The hearing would not, therefore, in any way contribute to public knowledge of what happened on the day; nor would it do more than receive and consider the evidence, which is already known, as to the propriety of Mr. Duckenfield's conduct.

I wished to make a number of other important points, but time is short. The hon. Gentleman expressed great concern about the matter of the coroners court. He rightly said that it is not a matter for me, but I shall speak to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to ensure that he sees the hon. Gentleman's speech in the Official Report. I am certain that he will want to reflect carefully on what the hon. Gentleman said because I know that he, in common with everyone else who has any knowledge of this horrific event, understands something of the anguish and burning frustration felt by the hon. Gentleman's constituents. He has expressed those feelings strongly this afternoon. I hope that what I said will be some help in illuminating the situation.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Three o'clock.