THURROCK MP, Jackie Doyle-Price rose on the floor of the House of Commons to speak during the emotionally charged Hillsborough debate.
Ms Doyle-Price said: “As Members of Parliament, we all have to deal on a daily basis with the consequences of what happens when the state fails. Thankfully, there are mercifully few occasions when the state fails as badly as it did the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. We should all be able to take it for granted that the state will make every endeavour to keep us safe.
We should also take it for granted that the state will deliver justice and treat us fairly if we obey and abide by the law. Through the publication of this report, we have seen how spectacularly the state failed in those commitments to protect the victims of Hillsborough. The report also shows how the organs of the state colluded to deny the families justice for their loved ones. The families have now got the truth, but in doing so they have reminded us that the establishment is fallible. That is a very uncomfortable truth.
I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett). Some of the things I will say follow on from the points he made. I was born and bred in Hillsborough, and I lived a mere stone’s throw away from the stadium. I remember that day very clearly, not least because friends and family were there, as stewards, spectators and police officers on duty. I should also advise the House that I was employed at South Yorkshire police in 1992. It is from that perspective that I would like to make a few comments.
South Yorkshire police has rightly been condemned for its failings as part of the tragedy, but it says a lot about Trevor Hicks that when the report was published and South Yorkshire police was criticised, he immediately chose to pay tribute to the individual members of South Yorkshire police who had behaved honourably and supported the victims. I draw attention to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley), who identified some of the officers who did exactly that. Although today is rightly about the victims of the tragedy and how we ensure that the same thing never happens again, I want to take a few moments of the House’s time to pay tribute to all the police officers of South Yorkshire who behaved professionally and honourably, but who are being unfairly maligned as a result of the criticism of the force. They should continue to feel proud of the contribution they make to keeping our communities safe. It should also be remembered that, as it was a football game, a number of the officers on duty were special constables, giving their time as volunteers.
Over the years, a number of police officers have shared with me their perspectives of what happened. Without exception, they have all recognised the failings of South Yorkshire police and, as highlighted by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, the failings by the senior leadership on the day and subsequently. Those present on the day all report that there was chaos and a complete breakdown of leadership. What happened on the day was exacerbated by a failure of the leadership to acknowledge what had gone wrong, which can have been motivated only by a desire to protect the name of the force and individual officers. That is completely unacceptable. I hope that the inquiries by the IPCC will find those who were culpable and take appropriate action.
When I joined South Yorkshire police in 1992, I joined an organisation that was traumatised by the effects of the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. As a consequence, the force had a mission to improve confidence in the service and to improve performance. To achieve that, a corporate affairs unit was established under Chief Superintendent Norman Bettison. Much has been made of his role in the disaster and subsequently, and the unit, which he supervised, has been the focus of discussion in the House before.
It will be mentioned in this debate, too, but I should advise the House that as well as dealing with the aftermath of Hillsborough the unit dealt with much wider issues and was responsible for some significant changes in procedure and performance in the force.
The IPCC will obviously get to the bottom of where the wrongdoing took place. I do not think we should prejudge the outcome of those inquiries, but if systemic wrongdoing is found, senior officers cannot distance themselves from it. I was particularly disappointed that, immediately following publication of the report, the former chief constable of South Yorkshire police, Richard Wells, who succeeded Peter Wright—he is no longer with us and therefore no longer able to account for his role in these events—announced that, with regret, he had accepted the account of events given to him by officers, which was that “statements had been looked at for criminal justice purposes and emotional, non-evidential material had been removed.”
It is just not good enough for any officer in a senior position to distance themselves from things that happened on their watch. Leadership means setting the style and tone of an organisation, and it means taking responsibility when things go wrong. Whether it was a systemic attempt at rewriting events or the activity of individual over-zealous officers, it is still not good enough for senior officers at the time to say that they did not know what was happening. They ought to have known. They are responsible, and we do not pay them healthy salaries so that they can abdicate responsibility when things go wrong. It now falls to the IPCC to identify where misconduct took place and who was culpable, but it should not have taken this long, and we should not have to rely on regulators and inquiries to get to the truth. We need to instil in public servants an emphasis on doing the right thing and on placing that ahead of protecting their reputations. The truth will out in the end.
I cannot finish without addressing the untruths that were published in The Sun and which did so much to set the tone in which the circumstances of the disaster came to be viewed. I was horrified to learn that the source of that material was a former Member of this House. Although it is recorded that the account was given by a police officer, his statement as published also records that another officer told him to take what he had heard with a pinch of salt. It is extremely regrettable that that advice was not heeded. As a result, an untrue account of events relating to the behaviour of fans was allowed to be perpetuated. It is that account which has denied them justice for so long. All of us in this House should never forget our role as community leaders; nor should we forget the respect that our comments command. We should never repeat anything unless we can be satisfied that it is the truth. In this context, careless talk has impeded justice.
“It has taken an unacceptably long time for the victims’ families to get the truth, but I am massively inspired by their fight, and I hope that the fresh inquests and the investigations afforded by this report will give them the closure that they need from this awful tragedy.”