LONDON (AP) — The British government apologised Wednesday to the families of 97 Liverpool football fans killed in a stadium crush 34 years ago for its delay in responding to a 2017 report meant to ensure the official cover-up in that case isn’t repeated in other tragedies.
Six years after the report highlighted the “burning injustice” families faced in the wake of the tragedy, the government said it is introducing a charter, among other measures, aimed at preventing cover-ups of missteps by police or other public authorities.
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 into disasters.
The Hillsborough disaster unfolded on April 15, 1989, when more than 2,000 Liverpool fans were allowed to flood into a standing-room section behind a goal at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield with the 54,000-capacity stadium already nearly full for a match against Nottingham Forest. The victims were smashed against metal anti-riot fences or trampled underfoot, and many suffocated.
An original inquest in 1991 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 the victims were “unlawfully killed.”
With hooliganism rife in English football throughout the 1980s, 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.
A proposed “Hillsborough Law” would have incorporated a “duty of candor” on public authorities and officials in such cases, making it easier for any bereaved dealing with the aftermath of a public tragedy.
Instead, the government-backed “Hillsborough Charter” would see public bodies pledge to tell the truth about 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.
Organizations that have already signed on to the “Hillsborough Charter” include the National Police Chiefs’ Council, College of Policing and Crown Prosecution Service.
Bereaved families vowed to continue campaigning for a law to include a “duty of candor” on officials as a legacy to the victims of the disaster.
“We need it to go further,” said long-time campaigner Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James Aspinall was one of the victims of the tragedy.
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, which has a big lead in opinion polls over the Conservative government ahead of a national election next year, has indicated he would enact such a law if he became prime minister.
The government’s new charter comes long after the 2017 report from James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool, who was commissioned to learn the lessons of the disaster and a subsequent cover-up.
Jones, who was with Hillsborough families in Liverpool when the government response was published Wednesday, said it was a “serious and substantial response.”
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. Without giving any specifics, he said the lag was not just to avoid prejudicing criminal trials for South Yorkshire police officers, which ended with no convictions.
“I recognise that this only compounded the pain of the Hillsborough families and survivors and the government apologises for that,” he said. “It doesn’t provide closure for the families of course … Grief is indeed a journey without a destination but today is a milestone on that journey.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was “profoundly sorry” for what the Hillsborough families had been through and hoped to meet them in the new year.
“The Hillsborough families have suffered multiple injustices,” he said.