If we really believe in justice and fairness then it is essential the Hillsborough Law is passed
In April this year, we will commemorate the 28th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and we will do so with the public at large knowing much more about the causes of the tragedy than ever before.
That in itself is progress and hopefully there will be much more to come.
But the hope that I and many others had that the Hillsborough inquests would represent a watershed in the way that this country treats bereaved families is yet to be realised and that needs to change.
I called for the introduction of a Hillsborough Law in June last year out of the belief that bereaved families should receive the same financial resources as the police and other organisations of the state in order to create a level playing field at inquests.
That is essential if inquests are to be a vehicle to establish the truth. Such a re-balancing of the system in favour of ordinary families would show that we have truly learned the lessons of Hillsborough and represent a crucial step forward for our legal system, our democracy and our society.
In the early 1990s onwards, the Hillsborough families had to scrape together whatever they could afford, often relying on the extraordinary backing they received from ordinary people, to hire legal representation.
Sadly, this is still the same experience of other bereaved families to this very day. They arrive in court raw with grief only to find themselves up against the highest QCs in the land representing public bodies and hired at great expense to the taxpayer.
To use a football analogy, it is like a non-league team playing a Premier League club away from home in the FA Cup. But this is supposed to be the pursuit of truth and justice, not sport, so how can such inequalities serve that objective? But the unfairness does not stop there. Not only is there an imbalance in legal representation, those same top QCs often resort to denigrating the victims and their families to such an extent that they are made to feel like they were the ones on trial. That is as morally reprehensible as it is pathetic.
Up until recently, the families of the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings were denied legal aid for representation at the new inquest which opens soon. Kye Gbangbola, who is campaigning for a fresh investigation into the death of his seven-year-old son Zane who he believes died as the result of being poisoned by floodwater contaminated with hydrogen cyanide from a former landfill site, is facing similar problems.
So too are Des and Doreen James (pictured below), who continue to fight for justice for their daughter, Cheryl, after she died at Deepcut Barracks in 1995. During the inquest into Cheryl’s tragic death, Mr James had it put to him by John Beggs QC, Surrey Police’s legal counsel, that by making inquiries into how his daughter had died he had somehow distracted the Police from while “more pressing” matters such as the search for Milly Dowler’s killer. For a bereaved family to be targeted in such a way is disgraceful and it is indefensible.
This has to change. While the changes I am proposing have become known as a Hillsborough Law, they are about stopping injustices that are still happening right now. It is about the police receiving state support that grieving families are denied and that is part of the slippery slope that so easily leads not just to injustice, but double injustice. I had believed that the outcome of the Hillsborough inquests would lead to the fundamental rebalancing of the scales in favour of ordinary families. That hasn’t happened.
Instead, we have seen the system close ranks and go back to its bad old ways. We have had the Government’s refusal to approve a fresh inquiry into Orgreave even though the case for one is absolutely overwhelming. We were told that it wasn’t possible because no-one had died – are we to take from that decision that as long as nobody dies the state can do whatever it likes? Is that really the message that this Prime Minister wants to send out?
Then we have the thousands of people affected by the contaminated blood scandal, including those who have died, lost loved ones and had their lives damaged by this terrible situation. This is a tragedy on an immense human scale and yet those affected by it have had nothing like the truth. Their cries for justice must be heard but up to now that had not happened.
If we really believe in justice, and in any notion of fairness, we should be doing everything in our power to help anyone caught up in this kind of predicament. In the first instance, that should mean ensuring that the odds stop being stacked against ordinary families in the way that they are now. As an example, instead of the police being able to spend £1 million on legal representation, they should instead spend £500,000 with the remaining £500,000 being used by families for their representation.
Inquests should not be viewed as an arms race in which public bodies can use their superior spending power to smash families into the ground. That's not justice; it is anything but. Of course money should be made available for them to spend on legal representation. But it should be reasonable and proportionate and the same level of funding should be made available to bereaved families in order to make the playing field as level as possible.
In July 2016, Peter Thornton QC, the outgoing chief coroner, called for parity of funding for families at inquests in which the government pays for lawyers to represent police officers or other state employees and he was entirely right to do so. Fairness should not just be part of our legal system, it should be at the very heart of it. The Hillsborough Law that I am proposing would enshrine this principle and is a step we have to take if Hillsborough is to be the vehicle of change that we hoped it would be.
There have also been calls for law changes to place on all public officials a duty of candour and responsibility to act in the public interest during court proceedings. This would remove the culture of cover-up and denial that we saw vividly following the Hillsborough disaster. I hope we can combine the two objectives in one Bill because what this country needs is a powerful package of reform.
My intention is to present a Hillsborough Bill to Parliament on March 29th which will put these important reforms into legislation. In a way, this is unfinished business for me. It is possible that I will be leaving Parliament soon and that I will not be around to see it into law.
If that happens, I want to leave behind a Bill that another MP will be able to pick up and bring about lasting change. I had thought that Theresa May had wanted real change following the Hillsborough inquests but I am now deeply frustrated that this does not appear to be the case.
When I shadowed the Prime Minister as Home Secretary, I thought we had come to an understanding that ordinary people had been denied justice for far too long and that this country needed to change. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that Hillsborough is being viewed by the Establishment as the exception - "the one that got away" - rather than a catalyst for real change.
If the system is allowed to close ranks again, then I do not believe we will have truly learned the lessons of Hillsborough and honoured the families' 30-year fight for justice.
The biggest victory is yet to be won - and that is a permanent legacy where no family ever again has to go through what they have been through. To make sure that happens, I am calling on MPs on all sides to put party politics to one side and support our Hillsborough Bill.