The method and approach of the Hillsborough Independent Panel offers a model for uncovering the truth about other public disasters its chairman, James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, said today. Independent panels can be faster, cheaper and more considerate of the needs of victims than inquiries led by judges.
“The problem with judicial inquiries is that they necessarily involve lawyers and barristers for all those called before the inquiry,” the bishop told the BBC Religion Rethink conference in Salford. “This usually leads to a very long process and soaring costs. The Saville Inquiry [into the Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland] took over ten years and cost well in excess of £100m.”
By contrast the Hillsborough Independent Panel took just 18 months. It did not interrogate individuals but was charged with ensuring full disclosure of all the public documents related to the tragedy and its aftermath.
“Once documents were made available to the public they could make their own minds up about the rights and wrongs,” he said. Asked whether he thought criminal prosecutions should now follow he said: “Truth has its own pressure and power”.
The panel system is also better attuned to supporting victims. Throughout the panel's work the bishop had on his desk a photograph of the stadium at 2.59pm on the day of the disaster and the names of the 96 people who died.
“The problem with judicial processes involving inquests and inquiries is that it does not serve the victims and the bereaved well,” he said. “They tend to distance those most affected. People with power in the processes are often patronising to the victims. In a culture of blame, liability and litigation over culpability conspire against getting to the truth. They certainly conspire against enabling the victim to feel that their needs and grief are being respected in the process.”
Trust in public institutions and their leaders - politicians and bankers and the media - has begun to evaporate in Britain today, he said. The church too has been blighted by episodes of abuse. Yet it has an important role to play in panels such as this one because as it is still trusted to be both impartial and more on the side of ordinary people.
His status as a bishop also allowed him to be more robust in persuading incoming coalition government not to axe public funding to the panel which the previous Labour administration set it up. At a time of budget cuts the fact that he did not owe his future position to politicians enabled him to speak “frankly and robustly” to various Secretaries of State. “I was never lent on,” he said.
Asked whether his report would further diminish public trust in the state institutions he said it would increase pressure for those institutions to be more open. “Transparency and accountability are moral virtues which our society is [increasingly] embracing,” he said.
The hardest part of the job, he said, had been listening to the stories of the bereaved families. “Their dignified determination made a tremendous impact on me. Hearing the way the families had been treated was very hard,” he said. His overriding concern was to ensure that the families could receive with dignity the facts the panel uncovered. “We knew how distressing what we discovered would be for them”.
The panel will continue its work till the end of the month, he said, working with the support of Liverpool City Council helping families cope with the trauma provoked by the panel's revelations.