December 11, 2012

Bill Esterson

The Hillsborough independent panel report, among other things, found evidence of extensive alteration of police records and attempts to impugn the reputations of the deceased. In its response to the report, the Independent Police Complaints Commission noted that it could not investigate all aspects of the police’s conduct, because when the IPCC took over from the Police Complaints Authority, a transitional provisions order set out that certain old cases could not be investigated under the new framework.

The government has introduced a bill to allow the IPCC to overcome this hurdle so that a further step can be taken in giving justice to the families of the 96 who died at Hillsborough in 1989. The Bill will provide two key new powers. The first will require a serving police officer to attend an interview as a witness. The second new power will be to set aside the relevant articles of the transitional provisions order in exceptional circumstances, so that the IPCC can investigate certain old cases, where the PCA had already been involved.

In its response to the Hillsborough panel’s report, the IPCC set out the potential misconduct by police officers that had been disclosed. The potential criminal and misconduct issues fall into two broad categories: allegations - which go to the heart of what happened at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 - that individuals or institutions may be culpable for the deaths and allegations about what happened after the disaster, including allegations that evidence was fabricated and misinformation spread in an attempt to avoid blame. The IPCC decision document set out a large number of matters that it proposed to investigate, but noted that it was legally prevented from looking at some matters that had previously been investigated.

One example of what is set out in the Hillsborough panel report is the early lie, by Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, about the gates being forced open. This was investigated by West Midlands police under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority. The IPCC is legally prevented from investigating the issue further without a law change. There are many examples of police actions that the PCA has already investigated. That is why this Bill is so important and why it is so important that the IPCC should be given the powers to investigate what happened at Hillsborough.

There were serious failings on the day and an immediate and longer-term cover-up by police officers, yet no one has been convicted for their role in either the deaths of the 96 or the systematic cover-up and the vilification of the dead, their families and the injured. It is to be hoped that this Bill will help that injustice to be rectified. Officers were pressurised to change their statements. This new piece of legislation will reflect the strength of public opinion about the need for action to be taken against police officers who were responsible for the deaths of the 96 or who took part in the cover up. Police officers and former officers need to come forward to give evidence and tell their story. They can do this knowing that they have public support. There should be an end to any protection of colleagues or former colleagues. Officers certainly should be coming forward to tell their story. This legislation will ensure that serving officers do that, but it will hopefully encourage former officers to do so as well.

In the debate in parliament, the minister, Damian Green, rightly spoke of the “industrial scale” of the alteration of statements. He was right and everything must now be done to deliver justice to the families of those who died at Hillsborough. That applies to the bid for new inquests and an added urgency has been given to this as Anne Williams is seriously ill. Anne spends much of her time in a hospice in Southport. Justice for Anne and the other families is the absolute priority. They have campaigned hard for recognition of what happened; they have campaigned for far too long. That has been acknowledged in the independent panel’s report. From what the Attorney-General has said, the application for new inquests is imminent and I again asked in parliament this week for confirmation that this is going to happen quickly. The Bill requiring police officers to appear at hearings of the IPCC and allowing the IPCC to review what happened at Hillsborough and afterwards provides an opportunity for one of the big injustices - the action of those police officers who broke the law - to be addressed. The Bill should be allowed to proceed as quickly as possible.

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