Jack Straw was embroiled in a fresh row over the Hillsborough disaster yesterday after new documents revealed he had made up his mind within five weeks of coming to power that there was no need for a fresh inquiry into the tragedy.
A "restricted" memo to Tony Blair in June 1997 outlined Mr Straw's fears that the public would refuse to accept that verdict from the Government – and said that it had to come from an independent source instead.
Mr Straw wrote to the then Attorney-General, John Morris: "I am certain that continuing public concern will not be allayed with a reassurance from the Home Office that there is no new evidence. I therefore propose that there should be an independent examination of the alleged new evidence by a senior legal figure." At the end of June 1997, he met Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, appointed to lead the review. He told him that his officials had already looked at the case and concluded that "there was not sufficient evidence to justify a new inquiry".
The scepticism conveyed to the judge before he had even started his inquiry contrasted with Mr Straw's statements to the House of Commons on the disaster at the time. He told MPs: "I am determined to go as far as I can to ensure that no matter of significance is overlooked and that we do not reach a final conclusion without a full and independent examination of the evidence."
The Stuart-Smith inquiry, which lasted seven months, was widely criticised over its conclusion that there was no case for a new inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster, which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans at the FA Cup semi-final in 1989. The judge also failed to investigate fully evidence that police statements from the day had been substantially re-written – a key finding of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report, published earlier this month.
Hillsborough campaigners reacted angrily yesterday, claiming the files undermined the credibility of a review that could have enabled them to find out the truth about the tragedy 15 years ago.
Margaret Aspinall, whose son James died at Hillsborough, said: "He gave a full assurance that he was going to look into everything about Hillsborough and it's quite obvious to me that was the start of another little cover-up. All governments let us down. It wasn't just the Conservatives. But with Jack Straw, I'd had meetings with him and he categorically promised that every aspect would be looked into. What he did was very deceitful because he didn't tell us the truth of his own opinion and we didn't get proper scrutiny."
Lord Mawhinney, a former Tory cabinet minister and the honorary president of the Football League, said: "If a senior minister sets up any form of inquiry, he ought not to be trying to direct the conclusions before the investigation even starts. This would include things like telling the investigator his own personal view. I have never come across a case before of a senior minister doing this."
Mr Straw insisted that he had done nothing wrong, and had made his doubts about any inquiry clear to MPs at the time. He added: "It was obvious anyway that I thought there was not enough evidence, otherwise I would have had an inquiry. A few minutes' looking through the papers would have told [Stuart-Smith] that." Mr Straw also criticised the judge for "not doing a proper job".
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the part of Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, who is unwell after suffering a stroke last year. A retired colleague and close friend, Lord Justice Sir John Waite, said: "I cannot understand what basis there could possibly be for Straw's assertion that Sir Murray had not 'done his job properly'. It sounds to me like a case of someone trying to shift the blame from their own shoulders."
In 1996, as shadow Home Secretary, Mr Straw had pledged to help grieving families in their fight to uncover the truth behind Britain's worst ever sports disaster.
Yet documents uncovered by The Independent on Sunday reveal how just weeks after coming into power in May 1997, Mr Straw told Lord Justice Stuart-Smith that his officials had decided the "alleged new evidence" did not warrant an inquiry. The papers, among hundreds of thousands released by the panel, reveal how Home Office officials had already prepared the ground in a briefing for "incoming ministers", dated 2 April 1997. They said: "We do not consider that there is the evidence to justify a further public inquiry and we understand that this view is shared by those considering it in relation to the prosecution of individuals and the reopening of the inquest. We will be providing full advice to ministers on this within the next few weeks."
A note from 26 June 1997 reveals that the Home Office minister Alun Michael told Des Parkinson, secretary of the Police Association of England and Wales, that the Home Secretary "was very concerned to avoid 'starting a hare running'" regarding Hillsborough. It said there had been "creative thinking" about how to look at new evidence without "reopening the whole affair".
The following week Mr Straw met bereaved families before announcing Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's appointment. He later told the House of Commons of his determination to ensure that the evidence was fully and independently evaluated.
Lord Justice Peter Taylor carried out a public inquiry shortly after the disaster, which put the blame on South Yorkshire Police. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith was appointed to rule whether any new evidence had come to light which had not been available to the Taylor inquiry or police, and to recommend whether it was significant enough to justify a fresh public inquiry.
Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign dismissed the Stuart-Smith report as "a paper exercise going through the motions". She added: "A lot of people took Jack Straw at his word. Now to find out that he had previously stated what he believed would be the outcome is absolutely so dishonest. It's dishonest because he gave families false hope. It is an appalling betrayal."
Mr Straw said: "I took what I considered the very best and most thorough approach I could – to appoint a senior and experienced judge to look at all the evidence, with the intention that he should 'get to the bottom of things'. If Stuart-Smith had said that the evidence had justified a new inquiry, there would have been one.
"It's worth bearing in mind that the Hillsborough scrutiny which has just reported wasn't that different in approach from what I did; the difference is that the latter did a proper job, whereas – as I now know but did not know at the time – the former did not."
Peter Kilfoyle, a former Liverpool Labour MP who also served as a Home Office minister, said the documents demonstrated the department's scepticism, and Mr Straw's "less than enthusiastic support for the Hillsborough campaign at the time". He added: "Jack was reflecting the establishment's indifference. But it was wrong for the judge to be told about the Home Office's position before he started his review."
Full disclosure: Crucial documents at the heart of the affair
2 April 1997 – Home Office briefing for 'incoming ministers'
"We do not consider that there is the evidence to justify a further public inquiry and we understand that this view is shared by those considering it in relation to the prosecution of individuals and the reopening of the inquest. We will be providing full advice to ministers on this within the next few weeks."
5 June 1997 – letter from Jack Straw to Attorney-General John Morris
"My officials have thoroughly examined the alleged new evidence … and have concluded that there are no grounds for establishing a new public enquiry. I am certain that continuing public concern will not be allayed with a reassurance from the Home Office that there is no new evidence. I therefore propose that there should be an independent examination of the alleged new evidence by a senior legal figure."
9 June 1997 – Home Office memo to Tony Blair
"JS does not believe that there is sufficient new evidence for a) a new inquiry, b) reopening the inquest or c) prosecution of individuals."
26 June 1997 – letter referring to a meeting between Mr Straw and Lord Justice Stuart-Smith three days earlier
"The Home Secretary said that officials had considered these questions and their view was that there was not sufficient evidence to justify a new inquiry."
26 June 1997 – memo to Tony Blair from his special adviser, Liz Lloyd
"In response to an earlier note, you indicated a certain scepticism about the need to look anew at this. The reason Jack Straw feels it is necessary is because he and others had given assurances before the election that the new evidence would be examined."
26 June 1997 – note of a conversation between Home Office minister Alun Michael and Des Parkinson, secretary of the Police Association of England and Wales
"Mr Michael said there were concerns about new evidence that had come to light about the way the incident had been handled and they needed to be aired. However, Jack Straw was very concerned to avoid 'starting a hare running'. As a result there had been some 'creative thinking' in the Home Office to find a way of testing the new evidence without reopening the whole affair."
30 June 1997 – Mr Straw's statement to the House of Commons
"I am determined to go as far as I can to ensure that no matter of significance is overlooked and that we do not reach a final conclusion without a full and independent examination of the evidence."
9 February 1998 – letter to Straw from a Home Office official, Linda Rushton
"Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's evaluation of Debra Martin and Paul Taylor's evidence is likely to be interpreted as a whitewash of South Yorkshire Police Force. Frankly, it reads in a manner which supports the police officer's version of events without any serious attempts to appear even-handed."