Exclusive: Relatives’ advocate proposed to avoid repeat of Hillsborough failings
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Sunday 22 June 2014
A plan has been drawn up to help the families of disaster victims discover the truth, to avoid a repeat of the trauma following the Hillsborough disaster.
A Bill to be introduced in parliament would appoint a state-funded advocate to act on behalf of bereaved relatives after a public disaster. The advocate would have the power to set up a review panel like the one which finally uncovered what happened at the 1989 tragedy at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium in which 96 Liverpool fans died.
The Hillsborough panel, chaired by James Jones, the former Bishop of Liverpool, reported in 2012 after studying more than 450,000 pages of documents over 18 months. It did not question witnesses but was charged with ensuring full disclosure of the relevant documents held by public authorities. Crucially, it won the trust of the Hillsborough families.
The panel’s findings suggested that 41 of the 96 might have survived if they had received earlier medical treatment. David Cameron issued an apology to the victims’ families for the double injustice of the "failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth", and the attempts to denigrate the fans and suggest they were "somehow at fault for their own deaths".
Under a Private Member’s Bill, the Hillsborough panel could become the model for major disasters. The proposed advocate would protect the interests of the bereaved and ensure transparency. If the Government refused to hand over documents to such a panel, the advocate could “shame” it in their annual report to parliament.
The Bill will be introduced in the Commons by Maria Eagle, MP for Garston and Halewood on Merseyside and the shadow Environment Secretary. The same measure will be proposed in the Lords by Lord (Michael) Wills, who set up the Hillsborough panel as Justice Minister in the previous Labour Government.
In a joint article for The Independent’s website, Ms Eagle and Lord Wills said their proposal could help to tackle the “growing disconnection between voters and the political establishment.” They added: “The shameful way the Hillsborough families were treated for so long, and the way other families similarly bereaved were similarly treated suggests one reason this disconnection is sharpening.”
The proposed advocate would not replace the present system of inquests and public inquiries but to help the bereaved relatives cope with the process.
Although the Bill is unlikely to secure enough parliamentary time to become law before next year’s general election, it could feature in Labour’s manifesto. Ms Eagle and Lord Wills hope the Lib Dems and Conservatives will also embrace it.
Ms Eagle and Lord Wills said: “There is always a risk of truth being denied when the state takes upon itself to itself the exclusive dispensation of justice and the needs and wishes of victims, including the bereaved, are relegated....there needs to be a better balance between the impartial discharge of justice and good government and protecting the interests and feelings of the bereaved.”
The Labour politicians argued: “For too long, Westminster and Whitehall have too often forgotten that their primary duty is not to serve some abstract conception of state interest but the needs of those most in need. And in the case of public disasters such as Hillsborough that means the needs and interests of the bereaved needs to be given greater priority.”
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