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3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Hillsborough stadium disaster.

Few events in recent years have touched the lives of so many people. The families and friends of the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough have suffered immeasurably. The whole nation has been profoundly disturbed by what occurred that day. Although almost nine years have now passed, many of the families and others felt very strongly indeed that new evidence was available that would cast new light on the events. As Home Secretary, I was determined to do all that I could to establish whether that was indeed the case.

On coming into office in May last year, I gave that question intense and urgent consideration, and on 30 June, I announced to the House that the Attorney-General and I had decided to appoint Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, a senior Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal, to conduct an independent scrutiny of the matter. His terms of reference were:

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith has now submitted his report, which I am publishing today. It is available in the Vote Office. His scrutiny is the latest in a series of lengthy and detailed examinations of the evidence in this case. The public inquiry led by the late Lord Justice Taylor considered fully the causes of the disaster and made wide-ranging recommendations about crowd control and safety at sports events. Those have had a profound and positive effect on both crowd safety at football grounds and on the policing of football matches.

The deaths that occurred were also the subject of inquests conducted by the coroner for the Western district of South Yorkshire in two parts in 1990 and 1991. Those inquests involved more than 80 days of public hearings. A further investigation was conducted by the West Midlands police, supervised by the Police Complaints Authority, to establish whether there were any grounds for criminal or disciplinary proceedings against the police. That investigation involved taking more than 5,000 statements. At a later stage, in November 1993, a judicial review of the coroner's proceedings upheld the inquest verdict of accidental death and the conduct of those proceedings. We have now had this further detailed scrutiny by a senior Lord Justice of Appeal.

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The main causes of the disaster have long been clear. They were identified by Lord Taylor in his interim report in August 1989. Lord Justice Taylor did not attribute all the blame to a single cause or person, but in paragraph 278 of his report he made it clear that

Both Lord Taylor, and now Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, have been damning in their condemnation of the senior officer in charge that afternoon, the then Chief Superintendent Duckenfield. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith refers in his report to

    "Mr. Duckenfield's disgraceful lie"

about--one of the gates at Hillsborough--

    "Gate C being forced open by fans".

The South Yorkshire police have in turn accepted the main share of responsibility for the disaster. Sheffield Wednesday football club and the local authority were also criticised by Lord Taylor.

With any major disaster, it is almost inevitable that, over time, some new information may become available, but that does not necessarily mean that the outcome of any previous inquiries would have been different. What is crucial is not just whether the information is new, but whether it is of such significance--to use the phrase in the terms of reference--as to justify a new inquiry.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith has considered in great detail all the evidence put before him. That included all the relevant evidence presented to the earlier inquiries and inquests. He has looked equally rigorously at all the information presented to him, by individuals and official bodies, including those representing the families of those who died and others who have acted in support of them. He has produced a thorough and comprehensive report and goes into immense detail to analyse and reach conclusions on each of the submissions made to him.

Let me briefly summarise what Lord Justice Stuart-Smith says on the key allegations relating to video evidence and the cut-off time of 3.15 pm for the inquest, and allegations of interference with witnesses. I refer first to the video evidence. Two sets of allegations were made to Lord Justice Stuart-Smith about video evidence. They were, first, that video tapes were stolen from the club's control room to conceal material evidence from the earlier inquiries. There is no dispute that the theft of two tapes took place. The tapes were pictures from the club's closed circuit television cameras, not from police cameras. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith says that, in any event, the tapes would have shown nothing significant. Moreover, he is satisfied that all the police tapes were made available in their entirety to Lord Taylor's inquiry and to the coroner.

The second allegation relating to video tapes, with which Lord Justice Stuart-Smith deals at considerable length, was made principally by Mr. Roger Houldsworth, a video technician at Sheffield Wednesday football club. It was that the police had blamed their failure to see overcrowding in pens 3 and 4 on camera 5 being defective, when it was not; that evidence of the video tapes taken by camera 5 was deliberately suppressed and concealed; and that two police officers gave deliberately false evidence that camera 5 was not working correctly.

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Lord Justice Stuart-Smith says that the police did not try to blame their failure to spot overcrowding on the terraces on faulty CCTV equipment. He says that the police controllers had a good view over the terraces from the control box, and did not pretend otherwise. He also concluded that

and that Mr. Houldsworth's existence and evidence were known to the Taylor inquiry and to the coroner. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith concludes that the allegation that the police hid video tape evidence of the terraces is "unfounded".

There are allegations about the conduct of the inquest, and in particular about the cut-off time of 3.15 pm. One of the issues that has unquestionably caused most distress to those bereaved at Hillsborough was the decision of the coroner to rule that all those who had died had received the injuries that caused their deaths by 3.15 pm.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith says that the coroner did not say that all those who died did so before 3.15 pm, or that all those who became unconscious subsequently died. It was only in relation to how or by what means the deceased came to their deaths that the cut-off time was imposed. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith says that the cut-off time did not limit the inquiry undertaken by the inquest, and that he does not consider the inquest to have been flawed. The Taylor inquiry considered in detail the response of the emergency services after 3.15 pm as well as before, and concluded that no valid criticism could be made of them.

The main allegations concerning interference with witnesses were that specific witnesses had had pressure put on them by the West Midlands police, and that the South Yorkshire police had collected evidence from their own officers in an unacceptable manner.

On the first allegation, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith concludes that there was no improper attempt to alter the evidence of those witnesses. On the second, he records that a number of the initial statements made by South Yorkshire police officers were subsequently amended on the advice of solicitors to the force before being submitted to the Taylor inquiry. He says that in a very few cases, which are referred to in appendix 7 of the report, what was excluded was either factual or comment in which factual matters were implicit. He says that

for those matters not to have been excluded, but he is satisfied that Lord Taylor's inquiry was not in any way inhibited or impeded by what happened.

The report also deals comprehensively in appendix 10 with the 10 questions posed by the Granada Television programme in December 1996.

Taking those and all other considerations into account, the overall conclusion that Lord Justice Stuart-Smith reaches is that there is no basis for a further public inquiry. He also finds no basis for a renewed application to quash the verdict of the inquest, and he concludes that there is no material that should be put before the Director of Public Prosecutions or the police disciplinary

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authorities that could cause them to reconsider the decisions that they have already taken. He also concludes that none of the evidence that he was asked to consider added anything significant to the evidence that was available to Lord Taylor's inquiry or to the inquests.

I, the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions have considered Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report very carefully. We have no reason to doubt his conclusions. That will, I know, be deeply disappointing for the families of those who died at Hillsborough and for many who have campaigned on their behalf.

I fully understand that those who lost loved ones at Hillsborough feel betrayed by those responsible for policing the Hillsborough football ground and for the state of the ground on that day. I hope and believe that the changes that resulted from the Taylor inquiry will mean that such a disaster will never happen again.

However, there is another sense in which the system has failed the Hillsborough families. As Lord Justice Stuart-Smith says in chapter 7 of his report:

That highlights some of the serious shortcomings in the police disciplinary system. Earlier this year, the Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a report that made major recommendations for change. I shall respond fully to that report soon, but what happened after Hillsborough is a prime example of why we must improve the current arrangements.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith also comments on whether coroners' proceedings are appropriate at all in respect of a major disaster that has already been the subject of a public inquiry. He endorses the recommendation of a Home Office working group on disasters and inquests--published in March 1997--that the role of the coroner after such a public inquiry should be limited.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report emphasises the exceptional difficulty of the coroner's task in conducting the main inquest. It placed an unreasonable and, I think, unnecessary burden on the families involved, given that the Taylor report had covered substantially the same ground. Certainly, I am sure that Hillsborough proved that the inquest system in its present form is an unsuitable means of dealing with disasters of that kind. I think it would be far better--above all, for the bereaved families--if there were one fully comprehensive inquiry into the causes of death and the wider circumstances.

When I instigated the scrutiny, I said I would do my best to ensure that the evidence considered by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith was published. Most of the main material that he has considered is contained in appendices to his report. Much of the other evidence that he has considered is already in the public domain, consisting of transcripts of public hearings or material considered by the Taylor inquiry. As I told the shadow Home Secretary, I am arranging for the other material considered by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith to be placed in the Library of the House, save where there are overriding reasons for doing otherwise. Let me make it clear that the material that will be published will include all the original statements made by South Yorkshire police officers, together with the amended versions submitted to the Taylor inquiry.

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All hon. Members will have profound sympathy with the families and friends of those who died at Hillsborough. We can scarcely begin to comprehend what they have suffered. In his report, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith says:

the families and friends of those who died--

    "especially since they have had their hopes raised that something more could be done. But I cannot allow compassion to cloud my judgement. I have had to look dispassionately and objectively at what is said to be fresh evidence, in the light of the evidence which had previously been considered".

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions and I have had to consider Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report in the same light, and we accept its conclusions.

The entire country is united in sympathy with those who lost loved ones at Hillsborough. We cannot take the pain from them, but I hope that the families will recognise that the report represents--as I promised--an independent, thorough and detailed scrutiny of all the evidence that was given to the committee.

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