Ministers have rejected the “Hillsborough law” reforms that are central to a campaign by families of the 97 people killed in the 1989 disaster to prevent future police cover-ups.
Instead, in its long-delayed response to the 2017 report commissioned by the government from James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool, the government has signed a “Hillsborough charter”, that states a commitment by departments to openness and transparency after public tragedies.
James Cleverly, the home secretary, and the justice minister, Alex Chalk, apologised for the slow response to Jones’s report, saying ministers had initially held back to avoid prejudicing criminal trials of South Yorkshire police officers, which ended in May 2021 with no convictions.
“Nevertheless, our response has taken too long, compounding the agony of the Hillsborough families and survivors,” the government said. “For this we are deeply sorry.”
The call for police and public authorities to adopt a charter committing them to act in the public interest after a major incident was Jones’s central recommendation in his report.
His report was aimed at preventing cover-ups by police and public authorities, and ensuring better conduct towards bereaved people, to avoid ordeals like that of the bereaved Hillsborough families, who had to fight for decades against a campaign of lies about the disaster by South Yorkshire police.
The force and individual officers for decades sought to blame misbehaviour by Liverpool supporters for the disaster at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. A 25-year campaign by the families for the truth and against the accidental death verdict of the first, 1991, inquest culminated in a new inquest jury rejecting the police evidence in 2016.
The jury determined that the 97 people had been unlawfully killed due to gross negligence manslaughter by the officer in command of the match, Ch Supt David Duckenfield, and that no behaviour of supporters contributed to the disaster.
The six-point charter proposed by Jones included commitments for police and public authorities to “place the public interest above our own reputation” after a public tragedy; approach inquests and public inquiries “with candour, in an open, honest and transparent way”; “not knowingly mislead the public or media”, and “avoid seeking to defend the indefensible or to dismiss or disparage those who may have suffered where we have fallen short”.
The “charter for families bereaved through public tragedy” signed by the government as its response is identical to that six-point charter proposed by Jones in his 2017 report.
Bereaved families welcomed Jones’s report at the time, but called for a “Hillsborough law” to be the legacy of their campaign for justice.
The proposed law, drafted by Pete Weatherby KC, who represented 22 families at the 2014-2016 inquests, would introduce a legally enforceable “duty of candour”, requiring police and public authorities to openly and fully assist inquiries and court proceedings after a major incident.
The Hillsborough law’s other key proposal was for bereaved people to have equal public funding for legal representation at inquests and public inquiries into a major incident as the funding available to police, public authorities and companies involved.
In its response to Jones’s report the government explicitly rejected introducing Hillsborough law, arguing it was covered now by the commitment to the charter, and a “duty of candour” to be introduced into police officers’ code of conduct.
The government argues that adopting the duty of candour for which the families have campaigned would now duplicate existing duties and create conflict and confusion.
The government also declined the second proposed measure of Hillsborough law for an extension of public funding for bereaved families at inquests, saying only it would consult on expanding legal aid. The bereaved Hillsborough families had no legal aid for the first inquest after the disaster and funding from their own means paid for a single barrister who was outnumbered by the publicly funded lawyers for the police and other authorities.
They successfully applied for “exceptional funding” for legal representation at the new inquests available under article 2 of the European convention on human rights, the right to life, where the performance of state authorities is in question. The government cited the availability of that funding under the convention, incorporated into UK law as the Human Rights Act.
The government has also committed to introducing an independent public advocate to act for bereaved families and victims of a major incident, but the Labour MP Maria Eagle, who has long campaigned for such a role, argues the new role will not have powers to prevent cover-ups.
In a statement Rishi Sunak apologised again for the “multiple injustices” suffered by the Hillsborough families and said the government’s response set out “how we expect public bodies to act – which is with honesty, transparency and candour”.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, told the Liverpool Echo in September that he was committed to introducing the Hillsborough law if his party won the next election.