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12.38 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I should like, first, to add to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) in thanking my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House and the Home Secretary for their co-operation with the north-west Labour group. Both responded positively to the group's request and said that they wanted a debate. I want to kill the argument, advanced by a number of people in the press, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is trying to duck out of the issue. That simply is not the case. We welcome the debate, as do hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I want to deal with two specific points; the coroners courts and the actions of the police. I welcome what has been said about the review of the role of coroners courts. My experience over my years in the House has been added to by my experience as a patron of the charity RoadPeace. I have had to deal with many families who have lost loved ones and had to face the difficulties of our coroners court system--I often hear reports of the system's lack of humanity.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary spoke about the use of language and the shadow Home Secretary talked about confusion and misunderstanding. That is hardly surprising in view of the abuse of the English language that occurs when accidents are referred to. How can anyone say to someone who has lost a loved one run over by a drunk driver or as a result of the incompetence of the South Yorkshire police that it was an accident? Of course it was not an accident. There is culpability.

In the language that we use and the Coroners Act 1988 and other legislation that relates to this terrible tragedy, the problem is the difference between a genuine accident and that which implies that there was some intent. There is a middle way. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is looking carefully at the work of the Law Commission which, if my memory serves me, was published in March 1996. It attempted to distinguish between those two extremes but retained the option of examining culpability in the spectrum. That would apply to charges that might emerge as a result of police inquiries, but it also needs to be examined in the context of the role and guidance that is given to coroners courts.

We are all guilty of falling into the trap of this language difficulty. I listened with interest as a fellow Cheshire Member to the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton). At the beginning of her speech she used the words, "cruelly killed". That is a perfect description of what happened. Those people were cruelly killed. Later, she slipped into the easy language of an accident. I make no criticism of her for that. We all easily slip into it. It was not an accident in the purest sense of the word. We all know that.

I urge my right hon. Friend, when he reviews the Coroners Act, to consider it in the broadest possible way and not to separate out types of incident. I am sure that

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the families of the Hillsborough victims would not want to be separated out. There are obviously special circumstances when a large number of people are killed in a tragedy, but where does one draw the line? At 100 people? At 50 people? Or at 10 people? Is it the one child killed by a drunk driver? We need a revision of the principles that guide our coroner system.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that we cannot turn back the clock. We would all like to turn it back in this case--not least the bereaved families--but if we were able to turn the clock back only to the day after the tragedy, we would want to apply more rigorously the law as my right hon. Friend envisages it. We need to consider the coroners court system and the police.

The corporate functions held by Sheffield Wednesday football club and other large bodies have been mentioned. We have heard similar debates about incidents such as the Marchioness disaster. The role of corporations needs to be examined with some care. The bottom line is that there is no doubt that the largest part of the responsibility rests with the failures of the police.

Like every right hon. and hon. Member, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is not anti-police--he is there to support the role of the police--but he emphasised, as many have done, the fact that the inquiries described Duckenfield as a liar. One cannot get more blunt than that. He slipped through a net that has existed for many years. We cannot simply brush the problem off and blame it on the previous Administration--it is the fault of our system, which has been in place for many years.

The one positive thing that can emerge from this terrible tragedy is what appears to be an all-party agreement that there ought to be a primary revision of the regulations governing police discipline. I believe that there would be widespread agreement also for major revisions to the coroners court system. That will not bring justice for the Hillsborough victims. We cannot retrospectively bring about justice because of the inadequacies of the two issues to which I have referred.

I wish to add my concerns about the role of the Director of Public Prosecutions, which needs to be re-examined. The consequences of the DPP's actions perhaps diminished the likelihood of prosecution at the time, and now, all these years later, many of the issues cannot be brought to court. We are in a ludicrous situation: we are trapped by a law, made by this House, that is inadequate to meet the needs of the citizens we seek to represent. We cannot turn the clock back, but we have a duty to ensure that we learn lessons from this terrible tragedy.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire referred to a particular issue that needs to be examined in some detail. The report showed in detail the way in which PC Frost's evidence was amended--if that is the right word--to the advantage of one side of the debate. That is an inappropriate way for the police to handle evidence. Major changes need to be made--there must be openness, frankness and honesty in all future inquiries on such terrible incidents.

12.49 pm

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale): I am eternally grateful to my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Leader of the House for allowing this debate. The Home Secretary made it clear when he announced the results of the scrutiny that the matter merited a debate on the Floor of the House, and that is what is happening today.

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People may ask what interest I have, as Member of Parliament for Weaver Vale--a mid-Cheshire constituency--in the Hillsborough disaster. It is not widely known that the Runcorn part of my constituency has a large Liverpool overspill--a number of my constituents lost loved ones on 15 April 1989. Tommy Howard senior, Tommy Howard junior, Kevin Tyrell and Adam Spearritt all died at Hillsborough on that day. When the constituency boundaries changed, I inherited Mr. Harrison as a constituent, who lost his two brothers at Hillsborough. I have read the scrutiny report in great detail. I shall make a personal apology to the Hillsborough families--as Members of Parliament, we are almost impotent to bring them the justice that they want.

It is impossible for hon. Members to understand what it was like for people to lose a son, daughter or wife at Hillsborough--people cannot know what it was like unless it happened to them. The lives of people at Hillsborough and their families were scarred by an event that was beyond their control. Subsequent events have not helped those scars to heal.

When we inherited the mantle of government, we inherited the problems of Hillsborough. We knew what those problems were: first, no one had been prosecuted for the 96 deaths on that fateful day; secondly, none of the police involved had been disciplined; and thirdly, the inquest had recorded a verdict of accidental death. I find it beyond belief that what happened was a case of accidental death. I know that the inquest could have reached an open verdict and that the jury was not unanimous about the result. The jury could have recorded verdicts of death by misadventure or unlawful killing, but it did not--it reached a verdict of accidental death. Faced with those three problems, it is no wonder that the families feel angry, frustrated and a deep sense of injustice.

That sense of injustice has been compounded by the decision that the inquest would not take evidence about what happened after 3.15 pm, a matter to which I shall return. It has been compounded by the fact that the police statement of the evidence of Dr. Edward Walker, a local anaesthetist who had rushed to the hospital after seeing the events on television--the statement is a harrowing account of the aftermath of the disaster--was witnessed by Woman Police Sergeant Appleton, when in fact she was not there. Is it any wonder that the families of the victims are concerned about what went on?

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) has been through the police evidence, as we heard. I am certain that that evidence was deliberately tampered with as a damage limitation exercise, to protect the police's reputation. Whether that was a conspiracy--a concerted action--is not for me to judge, but it clearly took place, and that makes the healing process far more difficult for the families. To add insult to injury, video evidence was stolen. The position is extremely messy.

I am caused real pain by the fact that police officers who were on duty in Hillsborough on that day are entitled to compensation for the trauma and distress that they suffered, but the victims' families have not been compensated in like fashion.

The previous Government resisted pressure to look afresh at the events. They acted on the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions, who said in late 1996 that there would be no formal grounds for criminal proceedings. The Attorney-General of the day confirmed

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the view that an application to the High Court to have the inquest reopened would not succeed and the previous Government decided to draw a line under the event.

When we came into government, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, bravely and rightly, asked Lord Justice Stuart-Smith to take a detached view and reappraise the evidence in detail. I said that I had an apology to make, because I welcomed Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's scrutiny, as I was looking for a way of making progress and ensuring that the culprits were brought to book. I hoped that we might be able to reopen the inquest and get the verdict of accidental death changed, and that police officers might be disciplined. Sadly, events and powers beyond the control of Government have frustrated that expectation.

Lord Justice Stuart-Smith rightly lays the blame firmly at the door of the police. That has never been in doubt. There is nothing equivocal about what he says when he draws attention to the fact that Chief Superintendent Duckenfield lied to the inquiry. It is also interesting to note that the original Taylor report concluded that the most likely explanation for Chief Superintendent Duckenfield's behaviour was that he "froze". In that moment of inaction, a tragedy was caused.

For the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) to try to blame the victims for what happened at Hillsborough is absolutely irresponsible. The victims' families have suffered enough, without having to go through the trauma of being told that their loved ones who lost their lives at Hillsborough were responsible for their own deaths. To convey such a message is totally unacceptable, because the clear conclusion of all the reports is that it was not the behaviour of the fans but the poor and inadequate policing that contributed to causing the deaths. I hope that we can get unanimous agreement in the House on that issue.

The real problem comes with the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, because we are told that there is insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution. I do not know whether that is right or wrong. Our judicial system makes the decisions of the Director of Public Prosecutions independent of political considerations, and that is absolutely right--politicians have no right to try to influence individual prosecutions--but, like my hon. Friends, I am firmly of the opinion that the Director of Public Prosecutions in 1989 should have taken steps to bring somebody to book, and I think that the evidence could still be reappraised to allow that to happen. If the evidence is marginal, and there are two counsels' opinions on the matter, let the courts decide, because that is what our justice system is all about.

Another failure is that the statute that was in place at the time allowed police officers to take the escape route of retiring on health grounds when faced with the possibility of police disciplinary procedures, which is another matter that is beyond our control. Chief Superintendent Duckenfield's exit through that escape route on health grounds is an absolute travesty. I am only sad that we cannot do something retrospectively to stop that practice. However, we have a convention, which is well established in Parliament and in the European convention on human rights, that legislation should in that respect not be retrospective. Now, legislation is essential to ensure that that loophole is closed, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said that that will be the case.

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None of that brings any succour or comfort to the families of the victims of Hillsborough. There are two incontrovertible facts in the case: the Director of Public Prosecutions has refused to act, and it is outside the remit of Parliament to direct the DPP; and the police disciplinary procedure that was in force in 1989 prevents retrospective action from being taken when police have exited the force on health grounds. One channel is left open to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, which is to seek a private prosecution, but I am advised that that will not work. I am no legal expert and do not have any legal training. On such matters, I have to take advice.

What concerns me most is the fact that the coroner's inquest decided not to take evidence about what happened after 3.15 pm, claiming that all those who died at Hillsborough had sustained their injuries before that time, which I do not dispute. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Twigg), who has the neighbouring constituency to mine, was at Hillsborough and testifies to the fact that the crush was clearly over by 3.15 pm. However, I am not so sure that the activities that took place in the gymnasium, for example, covering the bodies with sheets, did not contribute to the deaths of some of the 96. Placing a cloth over the face of people who had been crushed, asphyxiated or were suffering from cardiac arrest would not seem to be the best sort of first aid and not the aid that I would have rendered.

That was the tragedy, and now we must learn the lessons. I hope that we can again turn our attention to what happened at Hillsborough at 3.15 pm. Mr. Eddie Spearritt, a constituent of mine, was with his son Adam at Hillsborough. Adam died in intensive care at 4.45 pm. He was in pen 4 and was struggling up against the gateway to the pen when he asked Police Constable Illingworth to open the pen gate--Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report refers to the incident. He told me that that happened at 2.59 pm, but Police Constable Illingworth failed to respond to his request. Whether that failure to act resulted in the death of Adam I shall never know, but Mr. Spearritt passed out. On page 45 of the report, in paragraph 32, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith states:

According to an article in the British Medical Journal, which is confirmed by Mr. Wardrope, Mr. Spearritt arrived at the hospital at precisely 5 pm. I wonder what evidence Lord Justice Stuart-Smith had to show that he arrived before. That might be a marginal question; the big question is what happened between 3 pm and 5 pm. Where was Mr. Spearritt?

I have tried to track down PC Illingworth's statements in the Library. They are listed in the index, but there are 12 boxes of papers and I have not yet been able to track the statements down. It will be interesting to read the abridged and unabridged versions, then we might get to the truth of what happened to my constituent and his son, because to this day he does not know. He has had to come to terms with the fact that he has lost a loved one.

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I stress to my hon. Friend the Minister that that aspect of the inquiry has to be revisited. Families must know what happened on that fateful afternoon.

I began by making an apology. Justice must not only be done; it must be seen to be done. In this case, justice has not been seen to be done, because it has not been done. The families of the Hillsborough victims will feel deeply let down, disappointed, angry and frustrated. I feel exactly the same because I am not empowered to do anything about this tragic situation. It is difficult to accept conclusions that do not conform to one's hopes and expectations, which is precisely what has happened with Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's report. Nevertheless, I think that he has probably reached the right conclusions. It is painful for me to say that, but we must learn the lessons of Hillsborough to ensure that in future families do not have to suffer the trauma that the families from Hillsborough who are here today have had to endure.

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