PM issues Hillsborough apology

  • Last Updated: September 12 2012, 19:27 BST

Police and emergency services made "strenuous attempts" to deflect the blame for the Hillsborough disaster onto innocent fans, newly published documents about the tragedy reveal.

The disclosures were made by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which has been overseeing the release of thousands of official documents relating to Britain's deadliest sporting disaster.

Prime Minister David Cameron offered a "profound" apology to the families of the 96 people who died, telling the House of Commons that the report made clear that "the Liverpool fans were not the cause of the disaster".

Mr Cameron said that Attorney General Dominic Grieve will review the report as quickly as possible in order to decide whether to apply to the High Court to quash the original, flawed inquest and order a new one. It will be for the court to make the final decision.

The report showed that the Hillsborough families had suffered a "double injustice", both in the "failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth", and in the efforts to denigrate the deceased and suggest that they were "somehow at fault for their own deaths", said Mr Cameron.

He told MPs: "With the weight of the new evidence in this report, it is right for me today as Prime Minister to make a proper apology to the families of the 96 for all they have suffered over the past 23 years.

"On behalf of the Government - and indeed our country - I am profoundly sorry for this double injustice that has been left uncorrected for so long."

Ninety six Liverpool supporters died in a crush at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough stadium on April 15, 1989 where their team were to meet Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semi-final.

Introducing the report to the Hillsborough families at the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, Bishop James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool and chairman of the panel, said: "For nearly a quarter of a century the families of the 96 and the survivors of Hillsborough have nursed an open wound waiting for answers to unresolved questions. It has been a frustrating and painful experience adding to their grief.

"In spite of all the investigations they have sensed that their search for truth and justice has been thwarted and that no-one has been held accountable.

"The documents disclosed to and analysed by the panel show that the tragedy should never have happened. There were clear operational failures in response to the disaster and in its aftermath there were strenuous attempts to deflect the blame onto the fans. The panel's detailed report shows how vulnerable victims, survivors and their families are when transparency and accountability are compromised.

"My colleagues and I were from the start of our work impressed by the dignified determination of the families."

He added: "The panel produces this report without any presumption of where it will lead. But it does so in the profound hope that greater transparency will bring to the families and to the wider public a greater understanding of the tragedy and its aftermath.

"For it is only with this transparency that the families and survivors, who have behaved with such dignity, can with some sense of truth and justice cherish the memory of their 96 loved ones."

The report also says "there was no evidence to support the proposition that alcohol played any part in the genesis of the disaster and it is regrettable that those in positions of responsibility created and promoted a portrayal of drunkenness as contributing to the occurrence of the disaster and the ensuing loss of life without substantiating the evidence".

Mr Cameron said that the Hillsborough disaster was "one of the greatest peacetime tragedies of the last century".

The evidence uncovered by the report was "deeply distressing" and raised "vital questions which must be examined", he said.

Announcing that the report will be debated in the House of Commons soon after MPs return from their conference break in October, Mr Cameron said: "The conclusions of this report will be harrowing for many of the families affected.

"Anyone who has lost a child knows the pain never leaves you.

"But to read a report years afterwards that says - and I quote - 'a swifter, more appropriate, better focused and properly equipped response had the potential to save more lives', can only add to the pain."

And he added: "Not enough people in this country understand what the people of Merseyside have been through.

"This appalling death toll of so many loved ones lost was compounded by an attempt to blame the victims.

"A narrative about hooliganism on that day was created which led many in the country to accept that it was somehow a grey area.

"Today's report is black and white.

"The Liverpool fans 'were not the cause of the disaster'.

"The Panel has quite simply found 'no evidence' in support of allegations of 'exceptional levels of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans', 'no evidence that fans had conspired to arrive late at the stadium' and 'no evidence that they stole from the dead and dying'."

The Prime Minister paid tribute to "the incredible strength and dignity of the Hillsborough families and the community which has backed them in their long search for justice".

Mr Cameron quoted the findings of the report on "the failure of the authorities to help protect people; the attempt to blame the fans; and the doubt cast on the original coroner's inquest".

He told MPs: "There is a trail of new documents which show the extent to which the safety of the crowd at Hillsborough was 'compromised at every level'.

"The report backs up again the key finding of the Taylor Report on police failure," said Mr Cameron. "But it goes further by revealing for the first time the shortcomings of the ambulance and emergency services response.

"The major incident plan was not fully implemented. Rescue attempts were held back by failures of leadership and co-ordination. And, significantly, new documents today show there was a delay from the emergency services when people were being crushed and killed."

Mr Cameron said that the Hillsborough families were "right" in their belief that some of the authorities "attempted to create a completely unjust account of events that sought to blame the fans for what happened".

But he said that the report had found "no evidence of any government trying to conceal the truth".

Mr Cameron said: "At the time of the Taylor Report the then Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher) was briefed by her private secretary that the defensive and - I quote - 'close to deceitful' behaviour of senior South Yorkshire officers was 'depressingly familiar'.

"And it is clear that the then government thought it right that the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire should resign.

"But... governments then and since have simply not done enough to challenge publicly the unjust and untrue narrative that sought to blame the fans."

The Prime Minister also cited evidence from the report showing that some of those who died "could have had potentially reversible asphyxia beyond 3.15pm in contrast to the findings of the Coroner and a subsequent Judicial Review".

Labour leader Ed Miliband admitted his party should have done more during its 13 years in office from 1997 to 2010 to uncover the truth.

He said: "It shames us as a country that it has taken 23 years to get to the truth of what happened at Hillsborough.

"The Prime Minister was right to offer an unreserved apology, but all governments during this period bear their share of responsibility for the failure to get to the truth, so we on this side also apologise to the families that we didn't do enough to help.''

Mr Miliband said the report revealed the original inquest was "hopelessly inadequate'' and called on the Attorney General to make a speedy decision.

He added: "The victims were not only blamed by those who were supposed to protect them, they were blamed by those who were responsible for the disaster.''

The Labour leader accused some media of "aiding and abetting'' the police cover-up and called on The Sun newspaper to apologise for its story claiming Liverpool fans urinated on and stole from dead bodies.

Speaking at a press conference following the disclosure of the report the Bishop of Liverpool said that when the families of those who died heard the overview of the report "they stood to applaud what they had received''.

The press were then asked to stand for a moment of silence.

At the press conference the panel were asked if they could estimate how many people might have been saved if the emergency had been better handled.

The panel said there were a total of 41 victims who were either alive after 3.15 - the coroner's cut off time - or who suffered injuries which were inconsistent with the findings of the pathologists.

The coroner ruled that by 3.15 all the victims had received fatal injuries, which meant that the inquests did not examine the chaotic response after that time.

Panel member Dr Bill Kirkupp said: "Twenty eight people had definite evidence that they didn't have obstruction of the bloodflow, 16 people had definite evidence of heart and lungs continuing to function for a prolonged period after the crush.

"In total 41 therefore had evidence that they had potential to survive after the period of 3.15.

"What I can't say is how many of them could, in actuality, have been saved.

"But I can say is that, potentially, it was in that order of magnitude.''

The Bishop said the Prime Minister's apology was "well received" by the families who watched the Commons statement with the panel.

He said: "I was sitting the front row and couldn't see the faces but my sense is that there was rapt attention, especially when he referred to the double injustice.''

Clive Betts, former leader of Sheffield City Council, welcomed the report.

He said: "I was present at Hillsborough on that day. I was also leader of Sheffield City Council at that time.

"I think therefore it is relevant if I reiterate the unreserved apology on behalf of the city council for its failings in this terrible tragedy.

"I released all my personal papers and documents to the panel. I'm sure you will join me in paying great credit to Ken Sutton and the support team to the panel, for the very helpful and professional way they have gone about their business, which has greatly contributed to the production of this very detailed and comprehensive report.''

Mr Cameron praised the report team and added: "It's greatly to your credit you have revealed all the papers, public and private to this report.

"This is not a public inquiry, this is a proper trawl through all of the proper documentation. There may be lessons we can learn in other cases where a report of this nature is the right way to get to the truth because you are revealing everything, rather than believing a public inquiry itself is right.''

Labour MP Chris Bryant, who has pursued The Sun's parent company News International over phone hacking allegations, said the newspaper's editor at the time of "The Truth" splash, Kelvin Mackenzie, should finally apologise for publishing the story.

Mr Bryant (Rhondda) said: "Surely to God Kelvin Mackenzie if he is going to go on any media outlet at all should be saying 'sorry'

He added: "The role of the media in this should have been to uncover the corruption and the lies, not to try and mask it or effectively perpetuate the corruption in the police.

The Prime Minister said: "The Sun has always been up there because of that appalling article with 'The Truth' and the appalling things written into it.

"My view is that Kelvin Mackenzie needs to take responsibility for that and should be very clear about that. But it's for others to decide."

Mr Cameron said the report was definitive, adding: "Now is the time for the proper, heartfelt not only 'I'm sorry', but 'here's what I got wrong and here's what I regret'.

"It's like when we deal with our children - sorry isn't good enough unless you understand what you actually screwed up in the first place."

Mr Mackenzie later released a statement apologising for the headline.

David Whiting, chief executive of Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust, said: "We have co-operated fully with the Hillsborough Independent Panel and given them unrestricted access to archive material from the former South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service.

"The Trust remains committed to openness in the process and we welcome and fully accept the findings highlighted within the Panel's report.

"I sincerely apologise for the shortcomings identified in the report relating to the way in which the incident was managed in the early stages.

"Twenty three years on from the Hillsborough tragedy, the ambulance service is very different and events such as this have shaped the way in which the emergency services plan and respond to major incidents today."