Government stops short on implementing Hillsborough Law in long-awaited response to report

The Government says there will be a “duty of candour”, requiring police and public authorities to openly and fully assist inquiries and court proceedings after a major incident. But many say they should already be expected to tell the truth anyway. ITV Granada Report correspondent Ann O'Connor reports

The government has stopped short on implementing Hillsborough Law in its long-awaited response to a report into the experiences of the bereaved families.

Instead is has signed up to a Hillsborough Charter, pledging to place the public interest above its own reputation, claiming a “Hillsborough Law” incorporating a legal duty of candour was not necessary.

It forms part of the government's response to a review by the former Bishop of Liverpool, Right Reverend James Jones titled 'The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power'.

Published back in 2017, Bishop Jones' report set out 25 "essential" learning points following fresh inquests into the Hillsborough Disaster at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield, where 97 Liverpool fans died.

As the families finally get the response they have waited six years for ITV Granada Reports' Merseyside Correspondents Andy Bonner and Ann O'Connor take a look, in the latest episode of From the North, at whether it goes far enough?

The government reiterated its support for a duty of candour on police forces, legally requiring officers to cooperate and requiring Chief Constables to "ensure their officers act with openness, and speak up on behalf of victims" during official investigations and inquiries following major incidents.

But, unlike the Hillsborough Law, created by families and backed by the Labour Party, the duty only covers police forces, and not other public authorities such as councils, social services or fire and ambulance services.

The Duty of Candour means anyone who fails to co-operate could face sanctions, and police officers found to have committed a serious breach of professional standards can face dismissal.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said: "Police dishonesty, lack of accountability and obstruction were all prevalent.

"That is why we promised the Hillsborough families that we would honour the legacy of their campaigning and deliver lasting change.  

"By signing the Hillsborough Charter and introducing a duty of candour for policing, this government will deliver that change and protect others from similar experiences in the future."

The government added that The Criminal Justice Bill, introduced in November, already has a statutory duty of candour for police officers.

But, although the changes in the law in 2020 mean officers who fail to co-operate with inquiries inquests or investigations can face disciplinary or dismissal, those behind the Hillsborough Law wanted it be a criminal offence.

The victims of the Hillsborough Disaster. Credit: Family photos

In his 2017 report, Mr Jones called for the Government to give “full consideration” to a “Hillsborough Law” or Public Authority (Accountability) Bill, which would include a legal duty of candour on public authorities and officials to tell the truth and proactively co-operate with official investigations and inquiries.

But the response stated the Government was “not aware” of any gaps in legislation or clarifications needed that would further encourage a culture of candour among public servants in law.

It is understood the Government believes that adopting the duty of candour would risk “creating conflict and confusion” because of the framework of duties and obligations already developed since the disaster.

The charter for families bereaved through public tragedy was Bishop Jones' first report recommendation, in which he said “substantial change” was needed in the culture of public bodies.

Leaders of public bodies who sign up to the charter commit to place the public interest above their own reputations, approach forms of public scrutiny – including public inquiries and inquests – with candour and avoid seeking to defend the indefensible.

Other organisations which have already signed up to the charter include the National Police Chiefs’ Council, College of Policing, Crown Prosecution Service and Kensington and Chelsea Council, the report said.

The government, which has come under much criticism after taking six years to reply to the report, also vowed to take action in response to concerns that families should have legal representation at inquests.

The response follows an announcement a week ago that the government plans to create a permanent Independent Public Advocate who would help victims and families navigate the justice system in the wake of a public disaster.

Those affected by Hillsborough say this all comes too late.

In January, national police leaders apologised to the Hillsborough families for the first time.

The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said: "The Hillsborough families have suffered multiple injustices and more than 34 years later, there can never be too many apologies for what they have been through.

"And I want to repeat that apology today, and thank the Hillsborough families for their tenacity, patience and courage.

"Today, the Government will publish its response to Bishop James Jones' report on the experiences of these families, setting out how we will improve support for the bereaved in the aftermath of a public disaster and how we expect public bodies to act - which is with honesty, transparency and candour."

Steve Rotheram, Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, said: “For six years Bishop James’s report has been languishing on the desk of consecutive home secretaries without the dignity of a response. I know, at times, that wait has felt intolerable.

“The legal avenues to ensure those responsible for the Hillsborough disaster were held to account have been exhausted without justice being served.

“The law has failed the Hillsborough families and countless other groups affected by tragedy. Ensuring that no grieving family is forced to suffer the same indignity would be a fitting legacy for their decades of tireless effort.

“While today’s belated response is a move in the right direction, it does not clear the threshold that Hillsborough Law campaigners have been asking for.

“Our asks are simple: a charter for families bereaved through public tragedy; a statutory duty of candour on all public servants, a public advocate to act for families and an end to near limitless legal spending by public bodies, which tilts the scales of justice.

“A Hillsborough Law in full would ensure that ordinary people have a fair chance at getting the justice they deserve.”

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