UK unveils reforms in wake of ‘unforgivable’ Hillsborough response

Thursday, Dec 07, 2023

LONDON: The UK government on Wednesday unveiled reforms to ensure there would be no repeat of the “most unforgivable forms of institutional obstruction” faced by families of the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster.

Ninety-seven Liverpool fans lost their lives in a crush at the stadium in Sheffield, northern England, on April 15, 1989, in what remains Britain’s worst sporting tragedy. The families of the victims suffered a “double injustice”, the interior ministry report said Wednesday, with public bodies initially failing to “protect their loved ones” and then blaming the deceased for the disaster. Wednesday’s publication outlines the government’s long-awaited response to former Liverpool bishop James Jones’ 2017 report on the response to the disaster, which made 25 recommendations.

The government said many had already been enacted through various reforms but added that new policies would be put in place to prevent families from having to go through the same ordeal. “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,” said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

“And I want to repeat that apology today, and thank the Hillsborough families for their tenacity, patience and courage.” A new body will support bereaved families in the aftermath of major incidents, helping them navigate the justice system and acting as a conduit between them and public institutions.

Families will be given better access to legal representation, while public bodies will be issued with guidance on how much they should spend on their own legal fees. “This spend should be proportionate compared to that of bereaved families and should never be excessive,” the advice states.

The government has also signed the so-called Hillsborough Charter, committing to “a culture of honesty and transparency in public service”. Sunak announced recently that the government would introduce legislation demanding a duty of candour for police forces following cover-ups that were found to have taken place in the wake of the disaster.

“Police dishonesty, lack of accountability and obstruction were all prevalent,” interior minister James Cleverly said. “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,” he added.

UK police chiefs in January apologised to the victims’ families as they unveiled plans for “essential reform”, including measures to prevent evidence being lost or destroyed. The disaster was caused during a crowd surge at one end of Sheffield Wednesday’s ground hosting Liverpool supporters.

A 2016 coroner’s inquest came after years of campaigning by victims’ families and found police errors in opening an exit gate before kick-off caused the fatal crush at the FA Cup semi-final tie.

Police initially claimed supporters had stormed the gate. But South Yorkshire Police admitted after the hearing they got match policing “catastrophically wrong”. The inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing but no one has been successfully prosecuted. Match commander David Duckenfield was tried twice for gross negligence manslaughter. A jury failed to reach a verdict in the first and he was cleared in a second trial in 2019.