THE former Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, has urged the Government to end “the patronising disposition of unaccountable power” in a follow-up report based on the experiences of the Hillsborough families.
Bishop Jones, who chaired the independent panel that ultimately led to fresh inquests and a final verdict of unlawful killing for the 96 victims of the football stadium disaster (News, 14 September 2012, 29 April 2016), published his report on Wednesday.
The title of the report, The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power, is a phrase used by Bishop Jones to sum up how public bodies, from the police to the coroner’s court and the Government, treated the loved ones of those who died in the 1989 disaster.
It was commissioned by Theresa May, then Home Secretary, in April last year, and is the fruit of hundreds of meetings and submissions from the families of the Hillsborough victims and others involved in their quarter-century campaign for justice.
In his opening foreword, addressed to Mrs May, Bishop Jones writes: “In your manifesto you also set out your plans to confront and overcome a number of ‘burning injustices’. I suggest that the way in which families bereaved through public tragedy are treated by those in authority is in itself a burning injustice which must be addressed.”
The reforms he sketches out in the 122-page report would benefit not only the Hillsborough families, but many others who have also experienced a dismissive, uncaring, and defensive attitude when trying to challenge public authorities, Bishop Jones argues.
“There are others who have found that when, in all innocence and with a good conscience, they have asked questions of those in authority on behalf of those they love, the institution has closed ranks, refused to disclose information, used public money to defend its interests, and acted in a way that was both intimidating and oppressive.”
Whatever the Hillsborough families achieve will therefore be of “value to the whole nation”.
The families have not got over their grief, and never will, Bishop Jones writes. But he hopes that his report, and the changes that it recommends, will be another milestone on their “journey without a destination”.
The Government’s recent proposal of an independent public advocate for bereaved families after a disaster is welcomed, but, among its 25 “points of learning”, the report also recommends the creation of a Charter for Families Bereaved through Public Tragedy: commitments to transparency and public accountability for institutions to sign up to.
It is also imperative that the inquest procedure is reformed, to enable families to participate fully and be treated with respect and sensitivity, the report concludes. Public bodies should not be allowed to use taxpayers’ money to outspend the families, and so procure far superior legal representation.
Coroners should permit family members to read out “pen portraits”, and display images of their dead loved ones, and public bodies must undergo a cultural shift so that they approach inquests as a place to learn lessons and disclose information honestly, not simply attempt to minimise their culpability, the report says.
Finally, there should be consideration of how to enshrine a “duty of candour” upon police officers, to ensure that they co-operate fully with investigations.
The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, said: “I am grateful to Bishop James Jones for undertaking this important piece of work. His thoughtful and considered report raises important points. The Government will now carefully study the 25 points of learning, and we will provide a full response in due course.”