Police chiefs finally apologise for ‘profound failings’ over Hillsborough disaster which ‘continue to blight’ victims’ families: Forces promise ‘cultural change’ in first official response to 2017 report into disaster which claimed 97 lives

  • Rt Rev James Jones published 25 essential recommendations five years ago 
  • He described Government’s lack of response to landmark report as ‘intolerable’ 

Police chiefs today vowed to oversee a ‘cultural change’ as they finally apologised for the ‘profound failings’ endured by the relatives of victims of the Hillsborough disaster more than 30 years ago.

The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) and College of Policing today issued a joint statement that promises a sea of change on behalf of all 43 forces across the country. 

Martin Hewitt, chair of the NPCC, shared the apology as senior officers today committed to acknowledge their mistakes with ‘openness and candour’ following a public tragedy.

He was joined by Liverpool-born chief constable Andy Marsh who said policing had ‘profoundly failed’ and ‘continued to blight’ the lives of those bereaved families more than three decades on.

Tuesday’s statement marks the first official response from a major public body to a landmark 2017 report that called for 25 ‘essential recommendations’ to be enacted following a public inquiry into the tragic crush.

The Government was today slammed for failing to respond to a landmark report on the Hillsborough disaster five years after it was published 

The Rt Rev James Jones (above), a former bishop of Liverpool, said it was ‘intolerable’ that there had been no formal response from the Government on his 25 essential recommendations that were published in November 2017 

Ninety-seven football fans died as a result of a crush at an FA Cup semi-final clash between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on April 15 1989.

They were unlawfully killed amid a number of police errors, an inquest jury ruled in 2016. 

The landmark 2017 report, The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power, was authored by the Rt Rev James Jones who made 25 recommendations – with 11 of them directly concerning policing.

Police chiefs today shared an official apology for the ‘pain and suffering’ experienced by the bereaved families years after the tragic crush, as plans for a new code of ethics and practice for officers were mooted.

Chief Constable Andy Marsh, who was born in Liverpool, said: ‘For what happened, as a senior policing leader, I profoundly apologise. Policing got it badly wrong.’

Describing the 1989 disaster as a ‘touchstone for long-lasting change’, Mr Marsh spoke of a new era of policing with ‘integrity and empathy’ at its core. 

He added: ‘What we’re talking about is cultural change and cultural change takes a long time, but my goodness we have started.’

All forces in England and Wales have signed up to a Charter for Families Bereaved Through Public Tragedy, which says police organisations must acknowledge any mistakes.

In his report, Mr Jones urged the Government to give full consideration to a Hillsborough Law, including a duty of candour for police officers.

Merseyside Police Commissioner Emily Spurrell said she supported calls for a Hillsborough Law as she responded to the police report.

She said: ‘As police leaders, we must strive to increase accountability and transparency within our justice system and enhance the support for victims of crime, especially those left bereft by public disasters, wherever possible.

‘Care, compassion, openness, transparency and accountability are values which should be embedded in every layer of policing, criminal justice and government.

‘That’s why I continue to support calls for the Government to bring forward a Hillsborough Law Now to rebalance the scales of justice and ensure these principles are enshrined throughout our system.’

Describing the 1989 disaster as a ‘touchstone for long-lasting change’, Mr Marsh spoke of a new era of policing with ‘integrity and empathy’ at its core. Pictured: The Hillsborough Memorial outside Anfield 

Supporters and police help carry injured fans away from the scene of the crush in April 1989

But NPCC chairman Martin Hewitt admitted any future legislation would a matter for debate within Parliament.

He said: ‘What we have really focused on is doing that which is really within our power. The issue of candour is very clear within the charter for bereaved families and it will be incorporated explicitly in the review of the code of ethics.’

Mr Marsh added: ‘We have been robust as possible and it’s for Parliament to make any legislation that they feel is necessary.’

It comes as the Government was earlier slammed for failing to respond to a landmark report on the Hillsborough disaster five years after it was published.

What did the landmark 2017 Hillsborough disaster report find? 

25 ‘essential’ learning points were found in The Rt Rev James Jones’s The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power report.

His 117-page report, commissioned by the-then Home Secretary Theresa May, detailed the response of those in power to the bereaved families of Hillsborough victims in the years following the disaster. 

The former Bishop of Liverpool highlighted a ‘change in attitude’ was required to ensure the ‘pain and suffering’ of relatives of those who died was never repeated. 

He said at the time: ‘The experience of Hillsborough families demonstrates the need for a substantial change in the culture of public bodies.

‘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.’ 

Among his recommendations, were the implementation of a ‘duty of candour’ for police officers, a charter for families bereaved by public tragedy and greater participation of grieving families at inquests.

The right to publicly-funded legal representation was also suggested.

The Rt Rev Jones also suggested that public bodies sign up to a charter for bereaved families that would see them approach inquiries and inquests in an ‘open, honest and transparent way.’

His recommendations were adopted by campaigners and relatives of victims who launched their bid to see a ‘Hillsborough Law’ enacted.

The Rt Rev James Jones, a former bishop of Liverpool, said it was ‘intolerable’ that there had been no formal response from the Government on his 25 essential recommendations that were published in November 2017.

Families of the 1989 tragedy’s 97 victims welcomed the findings by Rev Jones and called for changes, including a charter for public bodies, to be implemented urgently. 

An official police response to the report was finally published on Tuesday – five years after it was initially shared.

Rev Jones oversaw the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel which exposed years of fake evidence promoted by South Yorkshire Police and police negligence that contributed to the disaster. 

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Mr Jones said: ‘I think we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the families.

‘This year it will be 34 years since the tragedy, and for them to wait for so long for a response to these 25 points of learning is intolerable and adds to their pain and, I think, in some instances even affects their own grieving.’

Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died in the disaster at an FA Cup semi-final, told the programme: ‘I remember writing – I don’t know who it was to – to somebody in Government to say I hope this report does not get put on a shelf gathering dust for years like other things in the past have done.

‘We are now in 2023. How long does it take to read a report, to come out with your findings or what you think should happen?’

Downing Street today defended the lack of a formal government response to the Hillsborough report by the former bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said part of the delay was to avoid the risk of prejudicing legal cases.

‘The Government has been working closely with the relevant departments and organisations to carefully consider and address the points directed at government,’ the spokesman said.

‘That’s alongside the work with the police, because there are elements that span both government and policing.’

The spokesman said there was no specific date for a government response as ‘it’s important to ensure we do this properly’.

The spokesman added: ‘I understand that some of the Government’s response has been impacted by the need to avoid the risk of prejudice during the Hillsborough criminal proceedings.’

Families of the 1989 tragedy’s victims welcomed the findings by Rev Jones and called for changes, including a charter for public bodies, to be implemented urgently

97 football fans would lose their lives as a result of the tragic crush at Hillsborough in April 1989

Rev Jones 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.

In the report, he said: ‘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 Bishop added that it was clear some of the issues faced by the Hillsborough families in the aftermath of the tragedy, which took place on April 15 1989, still persist.

He said: ‘The experience of the Hillsborough families demonstrates the need for a substantial change in the culture of public bodies.’

It was proposed public bodies sign up to a Charter for Families Bereaved Through Public Tragedy to commit to placing the public interest above their own reputation and to approaching public inquiries in an ‘open, honest and transparent way’.

A ‘duty of candour’ was also suggested, which would require police officers, serving or retired, to cooperate fully with investigations undertaken by the Independent Police Complaints Commission or its successor body.

He said: ‘I believe there is at present a gap in police accountability arrangements and propose a duty of candour which addresses the unacceptable behaviour of police officers – serving or retired – who fail to cooperate fully with investigations into alleged criminal offences or misconduct.’

The Bishop, who chaired the Hillsborough Independent Panel, said the response of South Yorkshire Police to criticism over Hillsborough had included examples of ‘institutional defensiveness’.

He recommended College of Policing training for senior police officers to ensure an ‘open and transparent approach’ to inquiries and independent investigations.

The report found that the first inquests into the deaths, which had a cut-off time for evidence of 3.15pm on the day, failed to accurately establish how the 97 came about their deaths.

Families were unable to successfully challenge the ‘flawed basis’ on which the inquests took place because their legal representation was unfunded and inadequate.

In the report, Bishop Jones said: ‘The bravery and tenacity of the Hillsborough families has been exceptional; it is clear that without their determination and endurance there would never have been any redress for their 97 loved ones.

Floral tributes laid outside the Kop end of Anfield the day after the Hillsborough disaster in April 1989

Fans carrying an injured fan off the pitch by using an advertising board as a makeshift stretcher after overcrowding led to the death of 97 Liverpool supporters

‘But the fact that this level of resolve and persistence was necessary demonstrates a systemic failure of the processes that should work to bring about accountability and justice.’

He called for a change to inquest procedures, as well as publicly-funded legal representation for families at inquests which public bodies were represented at, as well as an end to public bodies ‘spending limitless sums’ on representation.

Rev Jones also supported the introduction of a ‘Hillsborough Law’, which has been called for by families and would make it a criminal offence for public officials to cover up wrongdoing within an organisation.

Last October, after a recommendation in Mr Jones’s report, the Home Office said it had established an independent review to consider what went wrong with the original pathology report into the deaths.

But there was no consultation with the bereaved families before the announcement, it emerged.

At the time, the Home Office said it was committed to responding to the report ‘as soon as practicable’.

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