‘More to do to heal Hillsborough wounds’ says Raab as he unveils advocate plan
The UK Government knows there is “still much more to do to heal the wounds” from the Hillsborough disaster, according to Dominic Raab.
The Justice Secretary made the admission as he confirmed plans to establish an independent public advocate (IPA) to support those affected by major disasters.
Campaigners have long-demanded a “Hillsborough Law” which would create a legal duty of candour on public authorities and officials to tell the truth and proactively co-operate with official investigations and inquiries.
But concerns have been raised that the Government’s IPA plans do not go far enough and lack the powers to secure justice for families.
Mr Raab said the Government intends to “legislate as soon as possible” and the IPA will be made up of a “panel of experts to guide survivors and the bereaved in the aftermath of a major disaster”.
He told the House of Commons: “The IPA will give victims, critically, a voice when they need it most.
“It will advocate on their behalf with public authorities and the Government, for example, where they have concerns about engagement and the responsiveness of public authorities – whether it’s the police, local authorities and the like, or where victims and the bereaved want an investigation or an inquiry set up more swiftly to ensure maximum transparency.”
He said preparatory work to establish the IPA is “well under way”, adding: “We will place it on a statutory footing as soon as is possible.”
A 2017 report into the experiences of the Hillsborough families by former Bishop of Liverpool the Rt Revd James Jones made 25 recommendations but, more than five years on, there has not yet been a Government response.
Mr Raab said he met Mr Jones last week and has offered to meet the families of the Hillsborough victims.
He told the House of Commons: “The Government will be responding to the wider report this spring and we know in our heads and in our hearts that there is still much more to do to heal the wounds from that horrendous and heart-breaking tragedy.”
Ninety-seven football fans died as a result of a crush at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on April 15 1989.
They were unlawfully killed amid a number of police errors, an inquest jury ruled in 2016.
Labour former minister Maria Eagle, who has sought repeatedly to introduce legislation for an IPA, said the Government’s approach would not be independent and called on ministers to “beef up” their plans.
Labour MP Ian Byrne (Liverpool West Derby), who was at Hillsborough on the day of the tragedy, said: “This announcement today is a pale imitation of what Hillsborough families and survivors spent years campaigning on.”
Conservative former prime minister Theresa May, who has long called for an IPA, questioned whether families and victims can themselves “initiate the IPA so that they are not relying on the Government to do that for them”.
She said: “Because certainly in the case of Hillsborough, it was the fact that the state and state authorities shut their doors to people, that led to the 34-year wait for any answers for the families.”
Mrs May asked Mr Raab: “Will he look again or ensure that the IPA has the ability to compel the provision of information and evidence to the families?
“He is assuming an inquiry is always going to take place, that might not be the case. It is essential that the families have answers to their perfectly reasonable questions.”
Mr Raab said the Government will “decide the shape” of the IPA and it will try to “reconcile” different views on how it should work.
He added: “I take her point that there may not be an inquiry set up, but where there is, making sure that we do not have conflicting powers, but again, I’m very happy on the detail of this and on the clauses in due course to work with (her).”
For Labour, shadow justice secretary Steve Reed said: “The public advocate needs to be a fully independent permanent figure, accountable to the families not a panel of advisers appointed by the Government if they see fit as a signposting service.”
Elkan Abrahamson, director of Hillsborough Law Now and a solicitor at Broudie Jackson Canter, said engagement from the current Government with Hillsborough families had been “almost non-existent”.
He said: “We will be taking the Justice Secretary up on his offer to hear our views on the effective and independent development of this policy.
“Crucially, we will be reminding him of the many other recommendations which remain outstanding.
“We will be asking the Justice Secretary for the same commitment given to us by the Labour Party last year to reintroduce the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill.
“The Bill, often referred to as the Hillsborough Law, would, amongst other things, create a legal duty of candour on public authorities and officials to tell the truth and proactively co-operate with official investigations and inquiries.”
Mr Abrahamson added: “It is important to note that this law isn’t about Hillsborough families, arguably it’s too late for them, the damage has been done, but it could potentially have a transformative impact for every citizen caught up in future inquiries, such as the Covid-19 Inquiry.”