Officials implicated in the “unlawful killing” of 96 Liverpool fans in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 could face prosecution for criminal negligence and perjury, United Kingdom Home Secretary Theresa May has said.
She warned of potential criminal proceedings against police officers and other responsible groups over the tragedy while speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Reporting to MPs on the damning findings of the Hillsborough inquest, which gave their verdicts on Tuesday, May said the Crown Prosecution Service would decide later this year whether charges should be brought when two criminal investigations into the disaster were complete.
“It was this country’s worst disaster at a sporting event. For the families and survivors, the search to get to the truth of what happened on that day has been long and arduous,” May said.
Home secretary spokesperson Andy Burnham paid tribute to the families and said those responsible must be held to account for a “27-year cover-up”.
He criticised South Yorkshire police for failing to admit earlier that officers had ordered the opening of a gate at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, allowing thousands of fans to pour in, which eventually caused the fatal crush.
“Shamefully, the cover-up continued in this Warrington court room,” he said. “Millions of pounds of public money were spent retelling discredited lies. Lawyers for retired officers threw disgusting slurs; those for today’s force tried to establish that others were responsible for the opening of the gate.
“If the police had chosen to maintain its apology, this inquest would have been much shorter. But they didn’t and they put the families through hell once again.”
Speaking to a silent Commons, May read out the determinations of the jury in full – including, crucially, the fact that the police’s lack of planning and the decisions taken on the day contributed to the disaster, while the behaviour of the fans attending the match did not.
“Clearly, the jury’s determination that those who died were unlawfully killed was of great public importance,” she said. “It overturns in the starkest way possible the verdict of accidental death of the first inquest.”
She insisted there would be “no holding back” in pursuing prosecutions and paid tribute to the families of the victims, who have fought long and hard to see the truth emerge.
“They suffered the injustices of hearing the victims, their loved ones and fellow supporters, being blamed,” she said. “In their search for truth and justice, I have never failed to be struck by their extraordinary dignity and determination.”
Burnham, a leading figure in the long-running campaign for the truth about Hillsborough to be revealed, demanded the resignation of the chief constable of South Yorkshire police and called for the culture of the force to be investigated over its failings on the day, and the subsequent cover-up.
Drawing a link with the Orgreave clash during the miners’ strike in 1984, and the child-grooming cases in Rotherham, between 1997 and 2013, Burnham called for “fundamental reform” of South Yorkshire police.
Burnham said the findings of the jury had been “simple, clear, powerful and emphatic”, and that “those responsible must be held to account for 96 unlawful deaths and a 27-year cover-up”.
He mooted the idea of inserting a “Hillsborough clause” into the forthcoming Justice Bill, which would prevent senior police officers from retiring before disciplinary action against them could be taken, a proposal that May said she was willing to discuss with Labour.
Burnham also called for government to press ahead with “Leveson II”, the second part of the investigation into the relationship between media and public figures.
The South Yorkshire chief constable at the time of the disaster, Peter Wright, died in 2011, but the force has faced criticism for its conduct during the inquests.
The fate of the current chief constable lies in the hands of his police and crime commissioner, Alan Billings. A spokesperson for Billings declined to comment on whether he supported the force’s controversial actions at the inquests.
South Yorkshire police issued a new statement apologising for the perception that their actions at the inquest were contrary to the force’s apology in 2012.
“We have been asked about our conduct at the inquests. The coroner himself gave a clear ruling that specifically addresses the relationship between apologies and evidence at the inquests. He ruled that to admit the previous 2012 apology by the chief constable into proceedings would be ‘wrong’ and ‘highly prejudicial’,” it said.
“He also ruled that the conduct of SYP [South Yorkshire police] during the inquests was not inconsistent with this earlier apology. The force has taken careful note of the coroner’s comments during the inquests and has sought to be open and transparent at all stages.
“It is important to remember that inquests are not about guilt, liability or blame, but about establishing the facts. The intention throughout these proceedings has been to assist the jury [to] understand the facts. We have never sought, at any stage, to defend the failures of SYP or its officers. Nevertheless, these failures had to be put into the context of other contributory factors. In other words, where do the failings of SYP stand in the overall picture?
“We are sorry if our approach has been perceived as at odds with our earlier apology. This was certainly not our intention.” – © Guardian News & Media 2016