Hillsborough disaster: An investigation going nowhere?

A year after the exposure of a police cover-up that followed the 1989 tragedy, no one has yet been held to account, and victims’ families are losing hope of seeing justice

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The Independent Online

A year on from the report that exposed the cover-up over Britain’s worst stadium disaster, anger is mounting among Hillsborough families at the slow progress of investigations that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, pledged must follow the truth.

Not a single person or organisation has yet been held to account for the deaths of 96 Liverpool football fans in April 1989.

Last night Professor Phil Scraton, lead author of the Hillsborough report, said that he doubted whether the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation could get to the bottom of alleged police misconduct.

In an interview with The Independent, he said: “A fundamental requirement is that its research and investigation is truly independent, is knowledgeable and familiar with the details of Hillsborough, and has informed oversight. As the person who headed the panel’s research and primary author of the report I remain to be convinced on each of these issues.”

The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report, which was published a year ago today, revealed that a major cover-up had taken place in an effort by police and others to avoid the blame for what happened when officers allowed fans to flood into overcrowded terraces at an FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s football ground.

Within weeks of the report the inquest verdicts of “accidental death” were quashed and the biggest investigation in the history of the IPCC was under way, along with a parallel criminal investigation – Operation Resolve – led by a former Durham Chief Constable, Jon Stoddart.

Investigators claim that new lines of inquiry are being pursued, but there has been little concrete progress and new inquests will not begin until next March at the earliest.

Hillsborough families hit out at the delays at a press conference held in Liverpool today, with relatives “gravely concerned by the lack of real progress”, according to Sheila Coleman, from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC).

“We understand the enormity of the task before these bodies. Nevertheless, in spite of generous funding by the Home Office, the last year seems to have been occupied by moving into premises and recruiting staff.”

Campaigners will meet Kier Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Dame Anne Owers, IPCC chair, tomorrow in an effort to get a challenge panel established, to scrutinise the investigations. This remains in limbo despite being promised by Ms May last December.

“Surely after so many years of cover-up and corruption it is not too much for families to expect independent scrutiny of the police and IPCC investigations,” said Ms Coleman. She warned that “without rigorous scrutiny”, the families will have “no faith in them”.

Most of Mr Stoddart’s team only moved into the investigation’s headquarters in Warrington last week. It is not yet at full strength. The IPCC has done little better, having taken a year to recruit the 100 or so people it needed. It still does not have all the documents it needs, and – as of mid-August – had managed to conduct a grand total of eight interviews.

Professor Scraton, who has spent almost a quarter of a century researching the tragedy, said: “The IPCC comes to its most demanding investigation with serious questions hanging over its previous performance and scathing criticisms from the Home Affairs Committee. The public, not least the families and survivors, have to be convinced that its investigation will be thorough and will tackle the key issues.”

The concerns about the progress of the investigations come amid revelations that the scale of the cover-up is worse than was first thought, with some 238 officers’ statements having been changed.

It also emerged that handwritten accounts of fans at Hillsborough suffered “some significant amendments” when turned into statements by the police, according to the watchdog. And more than 90 police pocket notebooks that could shed light on the disaster have been recovered.

An injured fan gets help on the pitch, as disaster engulfs the FA Cup semi-final match on 15 April 1989 (PA)


All this makes an already massive task even bigger, but the IPCC has been slow to respond.

It has taken a year for it to get around to making a major appeal for witnesses. This will finally happen  next week when Liverpool Football Club help in an appeal to fans at next Saturday’s home game with Southampton. 

Barely 1 per cent of officers whose statements were changed had been interviewed by the IPCC, as of mid-August, with just three interviews conducted out of a total of 238 officers whose statements were altered. Only five retired police officers have been interviewed in relation to the role of West Midlands Police.

The IPCC would not provide an update today, a spokesman arguing “as this is now a rolling programme changing on a daily basis we are not giving a rolling total”.

Tensions are running high, with Hillsborough families increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress. Grieving relatives are “desperate” for the inquests to start, according to Margaret Aspinall of the Hillsborough Families Support Group. Her 18-year-old son, James, was one of those who died.

And greater urgency is needed, according to Bill Esterson, a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hillsborough. “The longer things go on the more people will die not knowing that justice has been done and there needs to be as much urgency as possible,” the Labour MP said.

Barry Devonside, whose son Christopher was 18 when he died at Hillsborough, said: “A year on after the report was published the two investigations have hardly made any progress whatsoever.” He added: “All we are getting is handshakes and smiles and platitudes.”

In an update today, Rachel Glass, IPCC deputy chair, said: “I acknowledge and understand the views of those who want quicker progress, and I cannot ask those who have waited 24 years to be patient. But I would ask them to speak to us to understand the complexity of the investigation we are conducting and the progress we are making.”

A spokesperson from Operation Resolve, said that plans to interview “over 200 serving or retired police officers in conjunction with the IPCC” are “already well under way”.

But the Hillsborough families do not have the luxury of time. The past year has seen a number die, including prominent campaigners Anne Williams and John Glover.

Treble chance: The three investigations

The Hillsborough Family Support Group have been frustrated with the pace of investigations (EPA)


The families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster are frustrated by the lack of progress in two separate investigations. They are also waiting for new inquests to begin into the victims’ deaths.


The Independent Police Complaints Commission deals with all cases where people have died or been seriously injured after coming into contact with the police, as well as allegations of serious assaults, sexual offences, corruption or criminal behaviour . Following the report a year ago today by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, the IPCC is investigating how police behaved in the aftermath of the disaster.


Operation Resolve – a criminal investigation which is being run in parallel with the IPCC inquiry  – is focusing on the causes of the disaster and what happened on the day itself. It is being led by Jon Stoddart, former Chief Constable of Durham.

New inquests

The “accidental death” verdicts from the original inquest were quashed last year.  Lord Justice Goldring was appointed as the coroner for new inquests expected to start in March.

Case studies

(Picture credit: David Ashdown)


‘It felt as if these weren’t human beings, they weren’t individuals’

Margaret Aspinall is the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group. Her son James, 18, was one of the victims of the disaster

We had the inquest verdicts quashed in December, which was very good, that’s what the families had been fighting for – the truth and to get the inquest verdicts quashed, and we’ve done that. At this moment in time, yes it does seem an awful long time from last December – we are still waiting to see what’s going to happen next.

The families are all desperate for the inquests to start because we’ve never had a proper one. It felt as if these weren’t human beings, they weren’t individuals – they were nobody’s loved ones and we always felt that’s the way we were treated. It was appalling the way the original inquests were done. What angers you – you always felt, wait a minute, this is not an inquest – is because none of us really found out the reasons why.

‘Unless they  start moving I’ll never see justice’

Barry Devonside, from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign,  lost his 18-year-old son Chris in  the tragedy

A year on after the report was published the two investigations have hardly made any progress whatsoever. We have to make the public aware of this and I think we need to make the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister aware of this.

On the day it was published the Prime Minister said these families need justice. Well, we need help because we are not getting it. At this moment in time, I believe unless they start moving vigorously I will never ever see the justice I am wanting.