The government has stopped short of fully committing to a “Hillsborough Law” in its long-awaited response to a report on the experiences of the victims’ families more than six years after it was published.
In a foreword to a 75-page document published today, the home secretary and the justice secretary said “we are deeply sorry” the response had taken so long but said the delay was to avoid prejudicing the outcomes of criminal trials.
Rish Sunak told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions that he was “profoundly sorry” for what the Hillsborough families have been through, adding that they suffered “multiple injustices”, but the government would not be adopting all the proposals it had been asked to.
A report titled The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power by former Bishop of Liverpool James Jones made 25 recommendations in November 2017.
It called for the establishment of a charter for families bereaved by public tragedy, publicly-funded legal representation for families at inquests where public bodies are represented, and a “duty of candour” for police officers.
Campaigners have been calling for a “Hillsborough Law”, or Public Authority (Accountability) Bill, to create a legal duty of candour on public authorities and officials to tell the truth and proactively co-operate with official investigations and inquiries.
The Criminal Justice Bill, announced in the King’s Speech, will provide for a duty of candour for police officers, highlighting existing ministerial codes of conduct and the offence of misconduct in public to explain why a wider law is not thought necessary.
“The government is not aware of any gaps in legislation or clarifications needed that would further encourage a culture of candour among public servants in law,” the report said.
The government has instead signed the “Hillsborough Charter”, committing to a culture of honesty and transparency in public service.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “The Hillsborough families have suffered multiple injustices and more than 34 years later, there can never be too many apologies for what they have been through. And I want to repeat that apology today, and thank the Hillsborough families for their tenacity, patience and courage.
“Today, the government will publish its response to Bishop James Jones’ report on the experiences of these families, setting out how we will improve support for the bereaved in the aftermath of a public disaster and how we expect public bodies to act – which is with honesty, transparency and candour.”
Plans to expand free legal representation for bereaved families after major incidents and terror attacks will be “consulted on”, the government said, adding that the amount of money public bodies spend on their representation at inquests and inquiries should be “proportionate” and “never be excessive”.
The Ministry of Justice has already announced it will establish an Independent Public Advocate (IPA) to provide support for victims of major disasters in England and Wales, while the Home Office commissioned an independent review to consider what went wrong with the original pathology report into the deaths, following a recommendation from the former bishop.