The national body for police chief constables has issued an official apology for the police failures that led to the unlawful killing of 97 people in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, and for the “pain and suffering” experienced by the bereaved families for years afterwards.
Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), made the apology at the launch of a report setting out senior police officers’ commitments to learn lessons from the Hillsborough failures. These include every force having signed a charter for bereaved families in 2021 that requires police organisations to acknowledge mistakes with “openness” and “candour” after a public tragedy, and not “seek to defend the indefensible”, as South Yorkshire police were accused of doing after the 1989 disaster.
Andy Marsh, the chief executive of the College of Policing, the standards-setting body for the police in England and Wales, said a new code of ethics would also be issued for consultation in the next few weeks, that would incorporate a code of practice requiring chief police officers to ensure openness and candour including in inquests and public inquiries.
Marsh also made an apology, saying: “Policing has profoundly failed those bereaved by the Hillsborough disaster over many years and we are sorry that the service got it so wrong. Police failures were the main cause of the tragedy and have continued to blight the lives of family members ever since. When leadership was most needed, the bereaved were often treated insensitively and the response lacked coordination and oversight.”
Marsh described the 1989 disaster at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest as a “touchstone for long-lasting change”, towards a police service acting with “integrity and empathy”.
He said: “The changes include all police forces in England and Wales signing up to a charter agreeing to acknowledge when mistakes have been made and not seek to defend the indefensible; a strengthened ethical policy which makes candour a key theme, and new guidance for specialist officers supporting families during a tragedy, which learnt lessons from the Hillsborough Families report, the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the 2017 terrorist attacks.”
A 56-page report setting out these commitments, jointly produced by the NPCC and College of Policing, represents a national police response to the 2017 report into the Hillsborough failures by James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool. Jones was previously chair of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, whose landmark 2012 report exposed the police negligence that caused the disaster, and the years of false evidence promoted by South Yorkshire police, that sought to blame Liverpool supporters for the disaster.
The first inquest verdict of accidental death, against which bereaved families campaigned for more than 20 years, was quashed in December 2012. In 2016 a new inquest jury found that the 97 victims of the crush on Hillsborough’s Leppings Lane terrace had been unlawfully killed due to gross negligence manslaughter by the South Yorkshire police officer in command, Ch Supt David Duckenfield, and that there was no misbehaviour by Liverpool supporters that contributed to the disaster. However no police officer has been disciplined or convicted of any offence relating to the disaster or the years of false evidence; Duckenfield was charged with gross negligence manslaughter and acquitted in 2019.
Jones’s November 2017 report, commissioned by Theresa May when she was home secretary, made 25 recommendations “to ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated”, including a charter for bereaved families, a “duty of candour” for police officers, and that bereaved families should have public funding for legal representation at inquests where public bodies are represented.
Those recommendations have been adopted by families and campaigners as a “Hillsborough law” they have called on the government to introduce. However, more than five years after the James report, the government has still not produced a response to it. Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died at Hillsborough, told the BBC: “We are now in 2023. How long does it take to read a report, to come out with your findings or what you think should happen?”
Labour committed at its conference in Liverpool last September to introduce the Hillsborough law reforms if it wins the next election. In the Commons, the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, welcomed the police response but said the government’s failure to respond showed “a lack of respect to the families”.
The home secretary, Suella Braverman, said the government’s response had been delayed “by the need to avoid the risk of prejudice during any criminal proceedings which related to Hillsborough”; the last trial collapsed in May 2021.
Braverman said the government “remains absolutely committed to responding to the bishop’s report as soon as practicable”.
Jones himself criticised the government’s delay as “intolerable” and welcomed the police response:
“The NPCC report now shifts the focus and puts the pressure on the government, especially the home and justice secretaries,” Jones said. “I welcome the NPCC’s recognition that the police ‘got it so wrong’ and subjected the families to ‘harrowing’ events. It is also encouraging that they are so supportive of ‘a duty of candour’ and legal representation for families bereaved after a public tragedy.”
In a press briefing, Marsh and Hewitt acknowledged current challenges facing police following a series of recent scandals, and said the public and media would hold police to account for adherence to the new charter and ethical code.
Hewitt also condemned the toxic chants about the disaster directed at Liverpool supporters by some rival fans at recent matches, which have caused deep offence to families and survivors.
“It’s disgusting and action needs to be taken [by match police and stewards] to stop people doing that,” he said.
Deborah Coles, the executive director of Inquest, which works with families of people who have died in circumstances of police or state involvement, said: “The continuing failure of the government to respond to the bishop’s report is an insult to bereaved and survivors who want to see no one else suffer a similar injustice. And yet the culture of delay, denial and defensiveness by the police and other public and corporate bodies continues after state-related deaths.
“It shows the urgent and compelling need for enactment of a Hillsborough law to stop families having to fight for truth, justice and accountability against the might of the state.”