The British government apologized Wednesday to the families of 97 Liverpool soccer fans who died after a stadium crush 34 years ago, as it introduced a charter it said will sharply diminish the chances that others will endure the kinds of injustices they suffered.
However, it refused to back calls from campaigners to legally require public bodies, including police, to tell the truth and proactively cooperate with official investigations and inquiries in cases of public disasters.
The so-called Hillsborough disaster happened on April 15, 1989. More than 2,000 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield were allowed to flood into a standing-room section behind a goal with the 54,000-capacity stadium already nearly full for a match against Nottingham Forest.
An original inquest recorded verdicts of accidental death, which the families of the victims refused to accept. Those verdicts were overturned in 2012 after a far-reaching inquiry into the disaster that examined previously secret documents and exposed wrongdoing and mistakes by police. In 2016, a jury found that the victims were “unlawfully killed.”
The proposed “Hillsborough Law" would have incorporated a “duty of candor” on public authorities and officials in such cases.
Instead, a “Hillsborough Charter” would see public bodies pledge to tell the truth in the wake of public tragedies whatever the impact on their reputation. The government said it is not aware of any gaps in legislation that would further encourage a culture of candor among public bodies and their representatives.
The new charter comes six years after a report from James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool, who was commissioned to learn the lessons of the disaster and a subsequent cover-up.
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk issued an apology on behalf of the government for the way the families were treated over the decades and for the delay in its response to the report.
“It doesn’t provide closure for the families of course,” Chalk said. “Grief is indeed a journey without a destination but today is a milestone on that journey.”
Hooliganism was rife in English soccer throughout the 1980s, and there were immediate attempts to assign blame on the Liverpool fans and defend the policing operation. A false narrative that blamed drunken, ticketless and rowdy Liverpool fans was created by police, a narrative that was only turned around by the tireless campaign of the bereaved families.
Organizations that have already signed on to the “Hillsborough Charter” include the National Police Chiefs’ Council, College of Policing and Crown Prosecution Service.
“The Hillsborough families have suffered multiple injustices: The loss of 97 lives, the blaming of the fans and the unforgiveable institutional defensiveness by public bodies,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said. “I am profoundly sorry for what they have been through.”