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1.55 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth): Much of the detail arising out of Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's scrutiny report and the Taylor inquiry has been dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and others, and I do not intend to cover ground that has already been covered so thoroughly.

However, I need to respond to a few particular points made during the debate. First, I shall respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton). That is not a parliamentary nicety--he and I are close friends. Characteristically, he spoke from the heart; he is incapable of anything else, because he is such a decent and

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honourable man. He asked how we squared the logic of the law with the feelings in people's hearts. It does not necessarily answer his question, but I thought that a line from Pascal says something about it:

    "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."

That may be helpful, but it does not get us to the end of the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) referred to secrecy in terms of the way in which some within the criminal justice system act. We should give it a name--my hon. Friend was referring to the activities of freemasons. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that we believe that there is no place within the criminal justice system for secrecy. What is done should be done in the open, and should always be open to scrutiny. I have seen no evidence linking freemasonry to Hillsborough, but I ask the House to accept that we are not prepared to allow the criminal justice system to be used in that way.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) asked whether there was a proper tribute by the club at Hillsborough. The hon. Member for Ryedale mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). I am not sure what his position is in all of this; I know that my hon. Friend is a director of Sheffield Wednesday. There have been discussions between representatives of the families and the club, which have been inconclusive. I urge those concerned to recognise the horrendous events which occurred on that day by some sort of tribute that would be considered appropriate by the families and those who care about the matter.

The question of statements was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) and for Halton (Mr. Twigg), and it needs to be examined more fully. Until questions were raised last week, I understood that all the necessary information was available either in the House of Commons Library or elsewhere. When my hon. Friend the Member for Halton raised the matter with me a week or so ago, I took the trouble to find out whether all the boxes had been placed in the Library. As I understand it, they now have been. We have asked Home Office officials to check whether there are any gaps in that information, or in the information that has been provided to others. If people are missing information that they should rightly have, it will be sent to them.

Our attitude to the disclosure of documents has been simple. We believe that anything relevant or material--anything that throws any light on to any of the events of that day--should be made available unless someone can demonstrate a very good reason why it should not be, although I have not so far come across such a case. I hope that access will be provided to everything that is required.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) asked whether the Home Secretary had met the families and whether he had plans to do so in the future. To my certain knowledge, my right hon. Friend has met them at least three times, and there is an outstanding invitation to them for another meeting. He properly believes that they should be kept informed and that he should hear what they have to say as often as is necessary.

A number of hon. Members, including the righthon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire(Sir B. Mawhinney), have contributed thoughtfully and

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respectfully to the debate. I hope that I have been able to deal with some of their concerns, but there are other matters that need to be expressed and put on the record.

When I entered the House this morning, I was handed a list of 20 questions prepared by the Hillsborough family support group. That was the first time that I saw the questions--I do not say that critically, as I know that it was difficult to put all the information together. Some of the questions may have been covered by hon. Members, and some I shall try to deal with now. I give an undertaking that we shall write to the families about any of the questions that have not been covered, so that they know our exact position on all 20 points.

When we talk of the Hillsborough tragedy, I am acutely aware that we are, in fact, dealing with 96 individual and very personal tragedies. We refer to the Hillsborough families, but we are dealing with many individuals, some of whom I know personally, whose lives have been changed for ever. People whose lives were changed because they were at that game have kept me informed about how they feel not only about what happened that day, but about how matters are developing. I mention two of my close friends: John King, who lives in Kirkby in my constituency, and Mike Murphy, my agent, who was there on that day and has views on what happened.

Many of the families have been helped by the support that they have been able to give one other, whereas others have chosen to cope with their grief in different ways. As a Merseyside Member who was brought up locally--indeed, as a youth, I stood on the Kop and watched Liverpool--I share the deep sense of frustration that nobody has been held to account for what happened.

Ninety-six people on that day went to watch a football match and never came home. All those who died had had a future when they left home. Some were too young to have a clear picture of what that future might be, and others had family responsibilities and commitments. All of them had fresh experiences ahead of them--love, joy, disappointment, success and, yes, the fear of failure and rejection. They had a life ahead of them. Whatever those people's potential--for happiness, a career and fulfilment--it was cut short, and that terrible truth still affects us all, although those of us who did not lose a loved one can never come close to knowing how those who did have been affected. We simply do not have the words to describe how they feel or the imagination to feel as they do.

That inability to feel or describe adequately has created problems for us and has often hurt those who were left behind. Sometimes, because we are unable to express things properly, we do so clumsily and, although our clumsiness is unintentional, it causes pain and anguish. If my own inadequacy to express my feelings and to explain events has on occasions hurt people, I here and now apologise for that, but I hope that people will come to accept that such inadequacies of expression do not apply when it comes to matters of judgment and good faith.

Some of what has been said--by certain police officers, by some sections of the media and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Halton said, by Bernard Ingham--has profoundly scarred the survivors and the families of those who died. In other ways, the system failed to provide adequate means for blame to be seen to be apportioned

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and, equally importantly, for injustices to be remedied. I think that those matters require us to respond, not only by ensuring that practices and procedures are properly reformed in the manner described by my right hon. Friend, but by putting into words the consequences for those left behind as a result of the failures.

As many hon. Members have said, the reasons why those 96 people died had nothing to do with where they came from or who they were. The fact that they came from Liverpool, or were football fans, had nothing to do with their deaths other than the fact that their team happened to be playing at that stadium on that day. It was not their behaviour or their alcohol intake that caused the tragedy, and nobody should be left in any doubt about that simple truth. If anyone questions it, they should read both the Taylor report and the Stuart-Smith review. If they do so, they will not be left in any doubt that one organisation, above all, was responsible: the South Yorkshire police.

We need to go still further. Stereotypes, as the hon. Member for Ryedale said, about people from Liverpool and about football fans are every bit as offensive as stereotypes about ethnic minorities, women or anyone else. Football fans, from Liverpool or from anywhere else, now as then, are like any other group in society: most are normal people, trying to get on with their lives as best they can, and all they seek is to enjoy a sport that in many cases arouses their loyalty and passion. We should not confuse their loyalty and passion with an in-built tendency to behave badly to the extent that they endanger their own and others' lives. They do not do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) spoke about disciplinary action and what should have happened to the police. If we could turn the clock back and behave differently, if there were a different set of disciplinary procedures, and if we were not signatories to the European convention on human rights, perhaps matters could have been conducted differently, and we would all wish that that could have been the case. All the advice, however--I am not enough of a lawyer to be able to counter it--is that the clock cannot be turned back, and those things that we all feel should have been done at the time cannot be done all these years later.

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