The Justice Secretary on the government’s response to Bishop James Jones’ report on the Hillsborough disaster.

The Rt Hon Alex Chalk KC MP

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the government’s response to Bishop James Jones’s report, ‘The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power’ – a report to ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated – and on the steps we will take to respond to the points of learning contained therein.

Bishop James has done our nation a great service, and his report is an exceptional piece of work.

I want to salute the Hillsborough families for the assiduous care they have given to help create this report and forge the response that flows from it. I had the privilege of meeting many of the families in Liverpool in June this year, alongside the former Home Secretary.

I was deeply moved to hear of their experiences, and by the dignity with which they shared them. But even more affecting was their unflinching determination to make some sense of the senseless, and bring about change for others. That is the true mark of compassion – campaigning selflessly for change, knowing that nothing that any government can do will bring their own loved ones back or temper their grief.

The Hillsborough families have through their determined efforts over decades created a lasting legacy, a national legacy, that is a tribute to their loved ones. At the start of his report, Bishop James expressed his hope that we might be a better nation for having listened to them. We are, and they deserve the thanks of our nation.

Second, I also pay tribute to those in this House who continue to campaign on behalf of the Hillsborough families and for families bereaved by other tragedies, including the members for Garston and Halewood [Maria Eagle], Halton [Derek Twigg], Wirral South [Alison McGovern], and Liverpool West Derby [Ian Byrne].

I thank former members of the House who have also given important support to the families, including Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham.

And I thank Glenn Taylor, for his vital work on the ongoing independent Forensic Pathology Review.

Quite apart from its important recommendations, Bishop James’ report lays bare the truly devastating experiences of those bereaved by the Hillsborough disaster on 15 April 1989.

An unimaginable tragedy unfolded. 97 innocent men, women and children ultimately lost their lives. Hundreds more were injured and traumatised by what they saw.

But for Hillsborough’s bereaved and survivors, that terrible day was only day one of an enduring ordeal. And in the days and decades thereafter it became clear they suffered a ‘double injustice’.

First, there was the abject failure of the police and others at the ground to protect their loved ones, failures described in Lord Justice Taylor’s 1990 Report as “blunders of the first magnitude”. Then, they faced years of unforgivable institutional defensiveness.

Second, the Hillsborough families and survivors suffered what can only be described as cruelty as innocent fans were cynically blamed for their own deaths. But that, Mr Speaker, as was later to become clear, was a web of lies spun by those seeking to protect their own reputations.

I emphasise this point because although the disaster may have been over 34 years ago, these baseless narratives still inexplicably, persist in some quarters today. So let me take this important opportunity to restate what is not a matter of opinion, but unassailable fact: fans attending the Hillsborough stadium on 15 April 1989 bear absolutely no responsibility for the deaths and injuries that occurred.

In making that statement I echo what was said 7 years ago, by my Rt Hon Friend, the Member for Maidenhead at this dispatch box when she read out the full findings of the second inquests – namely that 96 men, women and children were unlawfully killed.

Since then, Andrew Devine, who suffered life-changing injuries at Hillsborough, passed away on 27 July 2021, becoming the 97th fatality of the disaster.  I would like to place on record my deepest sympathies to Mr Devine’s family and friends, and indeed to all those who lost loved ones.

Mr Speaker, the government’s response to Bishop James’ report has been a long time coming. For some of that time, it was necessarily held back to avoid prejudicing the outcomes of criminal trials, but there has been delay since and I recognise that this has only compounded the pain of the Hillsborough families and survivors. And the government apologies for that.

As the House will be aware, the government’s response follows that of the police, which was published in January this year.

Today, the Chief Coroner is also publishing his response which relates to his leadership role regarding the coronial service.

Collectively, these responses address the points raised by Bishop James – but this doesn’t stop here. We will, of course, continue to listen to the families of those involved in all major incidents, and their concerns.

Bishop James’ report contains 25 points of learning. While he said he considered each to be vitally important, he was clear that three, in particular, were ‘crucial’. So let me turn to those:

First, he proposed the creation of a charter for families bereaved through public tragedy. Bishop James made clear he wanted to ‘help bring about cultural change’ through commitments to change ‘related to transparency and acting in the public interest’.

It’s worth reflecting that in setting out POL 13 regarding ‘The Hillsborough Law’ (which I will come on to) Bishop James says that he has ‘drawn heavily’ on that law’s principles in the drafting of the charter. So it is worth taking a moment to consider that language.

It commits signatories, the leaders of public bodies, to strive to:

  • place the public interest above the reputation of their own organisations
  • approach all forms of public scrutiny – including public inquiries and inquests – with candour in an open, honest and transparent way
  • avoid seeking to defend the indefensible

I can tell the House that the Deputy Prime Minister has today signed what will be known as the Hillsborough Charter, on behalf of the government.

Other signatories of the charter include the National Police Chief’s Council on behalf of all 43 police forces, the College of Policing, the Crown Prosecution Service, National Fire Chiefs’ Council and others.

We want this charter to become part of the culture of what it means to be a public servant in Britain. So the Deputy Prime Minister will be writing to all departments, to ensure that everyone who works in government is aware of the Hillsborough Charter and what it means for the way they work. A reference to the charter will also be added to the central induction to the Civil Service for all new joiners.

The Hillsborough Charter and Bishop James’ Report have also been added to the curriculum for every recruit who joins the police.

This charter will now be embedded in our public life.

The second crucial point of learning from Bishop James’ Report is what he described as ‘the pressing need for proper participation of bereaved families at inquests.’

Inquests are, first and foremost, about answering four questions: who, where, when and how an individual has died.

But as Bishop James highlighted, the Hillsborough families were let down by the very process that should have given them answers during the first inquests, and then had to endure a second.

At  the first inquests, the families were forced to fund their own legal representation – a single barrister between them.

We recognise that proper involvement in an inquest will in appropriate cases mean that bereaved families should get legal representation, especially when the state is represented.

That’s why changes have been made such that had the Hillsborough tragedy happened today, the families would have been eligible for free legal aid, through the Exceptional Case Funding Scheme.

The government is determined to make this process as straightforward as possible, which is why in January 2022 the Ministry of Justice removed the means test for representation in relation to ECF cases. In September 2023, the means test was also removed for legal advice at inquests.

But we want to build on this progress. So I can announce today that we will consult on an expansion of legal aid for families bereaved through public disaster where an Independent Public Advocate is engaged, or in the aftermath of a terrorist incident.

I acknowledge that Bishop James talks broadly about the proper participation of bereaved families at inquests where the state is represented. We will seek to further understand the experiences of these individuals, and I would welcome a conversation with Bishop James on this early in the new year.

We also support the principle raised in Bishop James’ report that public bodies should not be able to spend limitless public funds on legal representation. We have for the first time set out a requirement on government departments to ‘consider the number of lawyers instructed bearing in mind the commitment to support an inquisitorial approach’ [annex A to the guide to coroner services for bereaved people].

And we will now go on to set out that central government public bodies should publish their spend on legal representation at inquests and inquiries, reaffirming that this spend should be proportionate, and never excessive.

We have also published a set of principles to guide how public bodies should instruct lawyers at inquests. These include a requirement to approach the inquest with openness and honesty and to keep in mind that the bereaved should be at the heart of the inquest process.

But we will also publish guidance to set the clear expectation that central government public bodies must instruct their lawyers in accordance with the principles of the Hillsborough Charter. Because how those lawyers engage with the inquest process, and indeed with the bereaved families, matters.

The third of Bishop James’ 3 crucial points of learning was a duty of candour for police officers. As he described it ‘there is a gap in police accountability arrangements’ for officers who ‘fail to cooperate fully with investigations into alleged criminal offences or misconduct.’

That is why a new offence of police corruption, applicable to police and NCA officers was introduced in 2017, punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment. In 2020 we updated the Police (Conduct) Regulations to introduce a new duty to cooperate for individual officers during investigations and inquiries. Failure to do so can result in disciplinary sanctions, including dismissal.

And last month, we introduced legislation to place an organisational duty of candour on policing. Through the Criminal Justice Bill, we will place a duty on the College of Policing to issue a code of practice for ethical policing, and for that code to include a duty of candour. This duty is designed to promote a culture of openness, honesty and transparency – and Chief Constables will be held to account for their forces’ performance against the code.

The new code of practice has been laid in Parliament today.

And we want to go beyond the police, to consider healthcare settings too. Indeed, I can tell the House that in response to recent concerns about openness in those settings, we will also be conducting a review into the effectiveness of the existing duty of candour for health and social care providers – the terms of reference for that have been published today.

Mr Speaker, I am aware that the ‘Hillsborough Law’ calls for a duty of candour on all public authorities.

Since the Hillsborough disaster, a comprehensive framework of duties and obligations has developed which cover public officials and the different official proceedings, such as inquests and inquiries.

First, in central government, the Civil Service code requires civil servants to act with honesty and integrity. A breach of this code can result in a range of potential sanctions, including dismissal. These principles sit alongside the Nolan Principles providing that ‘holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest’.

Second, the legal framework surrounding criminal investigations, statutory inquiries, inquests, and most other formal proceedings requires all individuals, regardless of whether or not they are a public official, to cooperate with them. For example, there is a duty of candour in judicial review, which amounts to a duty on public authorities to lay cards ‘face up on the table’.

And when it comes to inquiries, importantly, these carry the potential for custodial sentences.

Third, where a public official demonstrates a lack of candour, where it forms part of their duty as a public officer holder, they can potentially be guilty of misconduct in public office which is a criminal offence.

We will keep these changes under review to ensure we achieve that culture of openness, honesty and candour, and we will not rule out taking further action if it is needed.

Mr Speaker, today the government responds to all 25 points of learning, but I have focused this statement on those which Bishop James described as crucial. Very meaningful progress has been made. However, we will not hesitate to go further if necessary.

The discussions will continue, and indeed the government has committed to another debate in the new year to ensure that dialogue progresses. I would also be happy to meet the Hillsborough families should they wish to discuss any aspect of the government’s response.

Mr Speaker, let me finally turn to the improvements to the justice system.

Bishop James has made searingly clear that the justice system – which should have supported victims and the bereaved after the tragedy – was not set up to do so.

Our response sets out the steps this government has taken to make sure that bereaved families and survivors in the immediate aftermath of a public tragedy are guided through what can be a difficult and complicated process.

Through the Victims and Prisoners Bill, we have introduced legislation to establish an Independent Public Advocate. Once established, the Independent Public Advocate will be a strong voice for victims, the bereaved and whole communities affected by major incidents.

The Independent Public Advocate will make sure those affected by major incidents know their rights, can access support services, and have their voices heard at inquests and inquiries. Its design has been informed by the difficulties that the Hillsborough families faced and our commitment to making sure that other families do not suffer the same injustices. That can also include holding public bodies to account for their commitments to abide by the Hillsborough Charter. I am also grateful for the contributions of some of the families of victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and Manchester Arena bombing for their contributions, telling us what would have helped them most in the aftermath of those terrible events.

And, after listening to concerns of the Hillsborough families, set out so powerfully when I met some of them earlier this year, as well as contributions from colleagues across the House, I decided that we must go further by establishing a permanent Independent Public Advocate. It is vital that the Advocate can be deployed as soon as possible after disaster strikes, and that they have time in advance to be as prepared as possible.

A permanent Advocate will be able to advise the government on its response to major incidents, such as any subsequent inquiries or reviews, and will make sure the views of families are heard. They will also report independently to government about the experiences of victims and bereaved families, as well as publishing an annual report. All published reports will be laid before Parliament.

Mr Speaker, the Hillsborough families have been unrelenting in their pursuit of justice, and Bishop James has done essential work to support the families and faithfully discharged the commission by the then Home Secretary and former Prime Minister to capture their perspective, so that it was not lost following the second inquests.

Today is therefore an important day. It doesn’t provide closure for the families of course. As Bishop James himself wrote, ‘there can be no closure to love, nor should there be for someone you have loved and lost’. Grief is indeed a journey without a destination.

But today is a milestone on that journey. It is a moment, I hope, when families will feel able to pause and take quiet pride in the enormity of what they have achieved – not for themselves, but for others. For the British people.

But I hope they will serve to cement and strengthen the Hillsborough families’ legacy – the changes they have made to benefit an entire nation – and to help ensure that never again can our people be so betrayed by the very organisations and institutions meant to protect them.

I commend this statement to the House.

Published 6 December 2023