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Paul Vallely: Powerful disregard ordinary people

19 January 2024

In scandal after scandal, there is a faimilar pattern, Paul Vallely finds

Alamy

A man outside the Cabinet Office last month protests about the contaminated-blood tragedy

A man outside the Cabinet Office last month protests about the contaminated-blood tragedy

I REMEMBER thinking what an odd title it was when Bishop James Jones published his report after the Hillsborough disaster on the lessons that public bodies needed to learn, in the light of the scandalous delay in achieving justice for the families of the 97 people who died (News, 3 November 2017). He called it The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power.

It is quite a mouthful. No one would ever remember it, I thought, when the report came out in 2017, cataloguing the ordeal that the families had been made to endure to uncover the truth of what had happened to their loved ones. They were made to wait a full 25 years before a second inquest ruled that the latter had been “unlawfully killed”, overturning police attempts to blame the victims for their own deaths.

Yet, barely a month goes by when the title of that report does not pop into my mind, prompted by the latest example of the disregard of those in authority for ordinary people. This week, it was victims of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale. Last week, it was the sub-postmasters (News, 12 January). Before that, it was teachers bullied by Ofsted inspectors, one so severely that she took her own life (Features, 9 June). Then there were the survivors of the Grenfell Tower inferno, the Windrush scandal, and the contaminated-blood tragedy.

The common factor in all these cases is an arrogant disdain by those in power for those whom they are supposed to serve. There is an all-too-familiar pattern of denial, cover-up, and deceit — and a default response of seeking, above all else, to protect the reputations of powerful individuals and institutions. Even when justice, or compensation, is promised, that restitution proceeds at a glacial pace.

The victims in so many of these cases suffer, to quote from the Bishop’s report, “depression, marital breakdown, family division, mental illness, unemployment, premature death and even suicide”.

It is worth returning to the rest of that report; for it expresses outrage about citizens who “in all innocence and with a good conscience” ask questions of those in authority, and find an institution that closes ranks, refuses to disclose information, and uses public money to hire top lawyers to intimidate citizens who, denied legal aid, have to represent themselves.

Instead, the report suggests, the powerful should observe basic decencies, such as ceasing to “defend the indefensible”, and refraining from disparaging the people whom they have failed. Yet, when Bishop Jones called for a law requiring a “duty of candour” for police officers, and an undertaking that public officials should “not knowingly mislead the public”, it took the Government six years to reply.

Extraordinarily, when, eventually, the Government did respond, it refused to pass such a law, on the extraordinary grounds that a “duty of candour” would “duplicate existing duties and create conflict and confusion”. If that is not the patronising disposition of unaccountable power, it is hard to say what is.

It is only the prospect of a General Election later this year which has temporarily brought those in power to public account. The problem here is something deeper than politics: it is embedded in a culture that reflects a perhaps unfathomable structure of inequality in modern Britain. If episcopal exhortation is not enough to change that culture, where do we go next?

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