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10.7 am

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): I start by expressing a word of appreciation to the Government for holding this debate. On 18 February, the Home Secretary was asked by me and others to talk to the Leader of the House with a view to having this debate and, as both are in their place, I say to them collectively that they came to the right judgment in the matter and I thank them.

The Home Secretary has dealt fully and comprehensively with all the facts surrounding Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's review, so it would trespass on the House's time, when other hon. Members wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I repeated what the Home Secretary has said. I concur with his analysis. I hope that I shall not be accused of treating the subject lightly if I do not simply repeat what he has said.

It is worth bearing it in mind that the conclusions have been reached after examination of literally hundreds of witness statements on a great tragedy. It would be immensely surprising if all those hundreds of statements--in the heat of the moment, in the chaos that was that Hillsborough scene, and in the tragedy as it unfolded--were to agree on every detail. Two people in a quiet framework frequently disagree on what they see. The idea that hundreds of people would see exactly the same thing in every detail is not credible.

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It is, however, greatly to the credit of the system that the truth emerged, and did so in a way that was broadly acceptable and seen to be an accurate reflection of what happened. The Home Secretary was right to point out, however distasteful it may be, that the failure of police control was at the very heart of the tragedy. He was also right to deal specifically with the serious allegations that have been made by the family support group, and I shall return to those later.

It is characteristic of a tragedy that what happened remains in dispute for many years, and why it happened even more so. In one sense, what happened in this great tragedy and why is interlinked in the minds of many people. That is understandable. We in this House have to remind ourselves that this is not some esoteric, theoretical debate; it is about what happened in the lives of thousands of people--lives that have been blighted from now to eternity because of events that took place in such a short time.

We all know, although we do not often talk about it, that death is not only commonplace, but frequently the most emotional subject with which we as Members of Parliament have to deal. I need only cite the case of Myra Hindley to illustrate that point, or, indeed, the continuing interest in what happened on the Titanic. Sadly, what happened at Hillsborough and the deaths that occurred fall broadly into the same category.

People want to come to terms with their grief, and to come to terms with their grief, they want explanations. They want to know who was responsible. They want, rightfully, some element of blame and punishment to be allocated because they feel that they have been unfairly punished. It is to Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's credit that he recognised that that element of blame and punishment was legitimate. Chapter 7 of his report states:

the Hillsborough families--

    "have that no individual has been personally held to account, either in a criminal court, disciplinary proceedings, or even to the extent of losing his or her job."

So it is right to go the extra mile to try to meet those concerns. That is why, on behalf of the Opposition, I supported the Home Secretary when he announced the initiation of this review. I said:

    "We owe it to the families and friends of those who died, to members of the police force and the other emergency services and to all who believe in justice to ensure--in the Home Secretary's words--

    '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.'

    I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that. I welcome his announcement and will support Lord Justice Stuart-Smith in pursuing that important examination".--[Official Report, 30 June 1997; Vol. 297, c. 26.]

On 18 February, when the Home Secretary reported the Government's reaction to Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's review, he recognised that by taking his decision, which we supported, he ran the risk of raising expectations. He gave an added boost to the hopes of the families involved. That was inevitable and could not be separated from his decision to hold the review. It is, perhaps, understandable that the judgments that have been reached and accepted should lead the families to believe that, in some sense, they have been let down a second time. This is not a time

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to be evasive. While I have sympathy for the families, I do not think that their feeling of having been let down a second time is justified in the circumstances.

The report is thorough. All the so-called new evidence has been thoroughly examined, and it was very important that it should be. It was important that Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, not caught up in the initial review, should calmly examine again the evidence and, indeed, the television documentary evidence. Like many other hon. Members, I saw that programme. Anyone who saw it could not have failed to be emotionally gripped by the story it told. The difficulty that all of us who simply watched the programme had was that we had no means of knowing whether it was an accurate presentation of what actually happened. It was gripping drama and very emotional, but whether it was accurate had to be determined in a forum other than a television studio. That is what Lord Justice Stuart-Smith did.

I am pleased that the Home Secretary paid attention to the 3.15 pm cut-off point because, as he said, it has led to great misunderstanding and unhappiness. I have memories of at least one mother pointing out that her son was still alive at 3.15 pm and that there was, therefore, something deeply flawed with the process. She knew that he was alive at 3.15 pm, but the coroner said that he was interested only in people who died before then. Of course, that was not the case, and the Home Secretary made that clear. I hope that what he has said in emphasising what Lord Justice Stuart-Smith said--and, indeed, to the extent that it makes a difference, what I am saying--will encourage people to reconsider that issue. The great danger is that a mythology develops, and once a mythology is established in such emotionally fertile ground, it will never be plucked out.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith was also right to defend the legitimate decisions taken by the coroner. On the subject of the inquest, I agree with the Home Secretary that it is not attractive in such circumstances to have an inquiry and a full inquest, not least because their terms of reference are different. While we aficionados and other professionals may understand the difference, the general public by and large do not, and it sows confusion and misunderstanding.

I am not calling into question the importance of inquests, but it is important to effect change that focuses attention on a tragedy of this magnitude in one forum and perhaps allows the inquest then to deal almost in a more routine, formal, non-investigative way with the events to which it must address its attention. I welcome what the Home Secretary said about changing the Coroners Act 1988, but I noticed that he added, perfectly understandably in view of the fact that the Leader of the House is sitting beside him, the rider that legislation would be brought forward as soon as an available opportunity presented itself.

Without wishing in any way to antagonise the Leader of the House, I have to say that I have in my time sat on Government Business Committees. I know the pressure for legislation, and I can see the pressure for legislation this Session. I do not think that it is likely to lessen, given the Government's legislative zeal. I therefore offer the Home Secretary encouragement in his attempt to amend the Act, but he will have to fight his corner. Business managers will think that it is a worthy objective, but also

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that there are more pressing things to do if Labour is to get its second full term in office--which, as far as I can determine, is its avowed and only reason for governing. He will have to press very strongly on the matter, but can count on our support--[Interruption.] I tell the Leader of the House that we have not done too badly. We have been thorough, but have not unduly prolonged matters.

As Lord Justice Stuart-Smith said, the chief constable of South Yorkshire police has on many occasions apologised on behalf of his force for the disaster. Although I do not intend in this debate to reopen the issue of policing and responsibility for the tragedy, acknowledging the inadequacies and failures of the police on the day provides a background to the report.

As there is that background, and there was a failure of police control, people have become more willing to blame the police for other matters, although less blame or no blame should attach. It is important that we should get the perspective right--as we must all, on a daily basis, have confidence in the police. When they do things wrong, as they did at Hillsborough, they must say so, as the chief constable has done.

We must not--I accept that the Home Secretary did not do it in his speech--create a climate in which the police are blamed for everything, thereby reducing public confidence. Equally importantly, blaming the police for everything attaches an unfair and unjustified stigma to the name of dedicated and professional police officers. I therefore welcome those parts of the report dealing with the handling of officers' written accounts of events.

The report, on page 106--dealing with the handling of officers' accounts--states:

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith went on to say:

    "The investigation of the disaster by the West Midlands Police was not biased in favour of the South Yorkshire force."

When an officer retires, there is concern that any disciplinary matter under investigation will lapse. Some think that the issue can be addressed by changing the disciplinary code, whereas others--such as the Home Secretary--believe that chief officers already have sufficient power under current regulations to deal with those matters. We must have clarity, guidance and openness, so that public confidence is increased, and so that the overwhelming majority of good officers are given support.

On 30 June, the Home Secretary told the House that he was investigating those matters. Today, he mentioned again the "sustained criticism" of the police disciplinary code, and made three announcements. The first was that he has decided that the civil rather than the criminal standard of proof should apply in such cases. The second was that it should be possible for officers to face both criminal and disciplinary action on the same facts.

The Home Secretary's third and most significant announcement was that police officers should not be allowed to retire on medical grounds before disciplinary hearings were completed. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides the House will agree with him on that point. A doctor's note should not be an escape route for bad behaviour. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] There is agreement on both sides of the House on that.

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Nevertheless, we must be very careful to protect police officers' legitimate rights, and not to assume that a police officer who is facing a disciplinary charge and has a genuine medical complaint is using that complaint to evade responsibility.

We welcome those parts of the Home Secretary's speech dealing with charges. He said that the changes would come into force in April 1999. I ask the Minister, in his reply, to give the House a little more detail of the Home Secretary's thinking on charges. The sooner that the details are available, the less likely it is that there will be a high level of perhaps unhelpful speculation, not least in police forces across the country.

I should like to digress momentarily from Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report--although I shall later link my digression to it. When my children were younger, I took them to watch football matches--as I am sure other hon. Members have taken their children. Whether I was right or wrong to take them is a matter that only I can decide. Nevertheless, I took the view that, too often, the threat level on the terraces was more than I felt comfortable with when accompanying two young boys. I therefore insisted that, when we did go, we had seats. Consequently, we watched less football than we might have. I exercised my parental choice--which was one that not everyone would make--in response to the level of uncertainty and menace that was too often associated with our football grounds.

It is therefore right, even in today's debate, again to pay tribute to the late Lord Taylor for the changes that his report effected in the world of football. In our football grounds, seating is now commonplace, even if it is not always used. Segregation of fans and control of drink are now commonplace. Everyone agrees that the policing and stewarding of games is better, and greater intelligence means that troublemakers can be identified and dealt with. Closed circuit television has revolutionised the control of games. It is right that I should give a special word of thanks to the Football Trust for the contributions that it--with the previous Government--has made to making changes.

The worry now is that those improved standards may be starting to slip a little. Concern about what might happen at the World cup is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Part of the legacy that we owe to those who died at Hillsborough is to ensure that the highest possible standards are maintained and take precedence in our football grounds. My digression is, therefore, not unconnected to today's debate, as rigorous enforcement and pursuit of new and better standards are enduring remembrances of those who died at Hillsborough.

In his report, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith says of the families of those who died:

The Home Secretary saw the families before he made his announcement to the House in February on the Government's response to the review. He told the House:

    "They are upset, disappointed and angry about its conclusions. They are also angry that I have accepted those conclusions."--[Official Report, 18 February 1998; Vol. 306, c. 1090.]

Of course they still are.

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The Home Secretary will know that the families issued a press statement this morning which included 20 questions. If what they say at the beginning of their statement is true, it was an uncharacteristic lapse on the part of the Home Secretary. They claim that they were not formally notified that the debate was to be held or that family group members would be able to listen to it, and they reject the report as

We have dealt with that. We understand where they are coming from and why they feel that way, but the Government do not share their view.

The press release makes one point that I hope the Minister will address in his reply. If it were true, it would be a cause of some concern. The families say:

that is Mr. Trevor Hicks's letter--

    "to Jack Straw in November 1997 expressing concern at the Judge's interpretation of the terms of reference and the way the scrutiny goal posts were being moved."

It is important that the Minister addresses that particular point. I assume that he will want to assure the House that the interpretation of the terms of reference was not changed and that the goalposts were not moved, but the allegation having been made, it needs to be addressed.

The families asked 20 questions, which I shall not address although others may wish to do so. However, for the sake of reassurance, the Minister should respond to two in particular. They are questions 9 and 11. Question 9 is framed as follows:

I believe that this morning he said that he had done so--

    "Why are the key police statements not in the House of Commons library and why were they not in the document bundles recently supplied to the family group, despite them being on the index?"

Clearly, I cannot answer that question as it relates directly to the behaviour of the Home Secretary. Perhaps the Minister will address it in his reply.

Question 11 states:

There might be a number of reasons for that, including the one reflected in the question. I shall not seek to make political capital out of it or to second-guess the Minister, but it is a serious allegation that needs to be addressed.

When I thought about the debate, a line of poetry came to mind. It was written by W. B. Yeats, who had a special knack of reflecting on people's emotional lives. He wrote:

We are in danger of a permanent and solidified chasm being established. Conclusions arising from an examination of the facts have been drawn with integrity and impartiality against the families' perception of injustice, leading to irreconcilable difference, grievance, despair and nightmare.

The families say in their press release:

but they ask the purpose of today's debate. It is not my job to answer that question save to say that this debate provides an opportunity for their elected representatives

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to examine what has been done on their behalf and to explain to some degree that the dealings of men are sometimes messy. However, I hope that we shall all remember that we should tread softly because dreams were shattered that sunny day in Sheffield.

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