Government pledges not to 'defend the indefensible' in Hillsborough Charter

Hillsborough Charter sets out "duty of candour" but will not be legally enforceable
Liverpool supporters commemorate the 97 victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Photo: Action Plus Sports/Alamy Live News

The government has committed to welcoming public scrutiny and “avoid seeking to defend the indefensible” in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster – but has stopped short of enshrining the pledges in law.

Deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden has signed the Hillsborough Charter, which pledges to “ensure that the lessons of the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath are learned, to prevent those who are affected by public tragedy in the future from having the same experience”, on behalf of the government.

The signing of the Hillsborough Charter comes more than six years after it was recommended in a report by The Right Reverend James Jones, who chaired an independent panel into the experiences of the families who were bereaved when fans were crushed at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield in 1989.

It comes alongside a response to Jones’s recommendations, which the government acknowledged “has taken too long, compounding the agony of the Hillsborough families and survivors”.

However, it did not go as far as to introduce a Hillsborough Law making the so-called “duty of candour” a legal one, as campaigners have called for.

The charter pledges to “place the public interest above our own reputation” and to “recognise that we are accountable and open to challenge”.

“We will ensure that processes are in place to allow the public to hold us to account for the work we do and for the way in which we do it. We do not knowingly mislead the public or the media,” it says.

In the immediate aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, in which 97 people died, police officers were told to blame "drunken, ticketless Liverpool supporters" for the tragedy. An inquest in 2016 found the victims had been unlawfully killed and that their deaths were down to failures by police, the ambulance service, and defects in the stadium.

The government must approach forms of public scrutiny, including public inquiries and inquests, with “candour, in an open, honest and transparent way, making full disclosure of relevant documents, material and facts”, reads the charter.

The signing of the document last week coincided with the last few days of hearings in the second module of the ongoing Covid Inquiry, which is currently looking at core decision making and political governance.

Announcing the signing of the charter in a written ministerial statement, Dowden said: “Our objective is to assist the search for the truth. We accept that we should learn from the findings of external scrutiny and from past mistakes."

It reiterates public servants’ obligation to adhere to the Seven Principles of Public Life – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – and the obligations of the civil service code and ministerial code.

Another of the charter pledges is to “avoid seeking to defend the indefensible or to dismiss or disparage those who may have suffered where we have fallen short”.

“Under the Seven Principles of Public Life, all public servants are required to demonstrate leadership, which includes treating others with respect and challenging poor behaviour wherever it occurs. They are also required to act with selflessness, by acting solely in the public interest, and with honesty by being truthful,” the charter says.

It also underlines “the importance of individuals being able to explain the rationale for their actions in the face of public scrutiny, including in the context of public inquiries”.

In signing the charter, the government has also committed to activating its emergency plan in the event of a public tragedy and deploy its resources to rescue victims, support the bereaved and to protect the vulnerable; and to ensure all government employees treat members of the public and each other with respect.

In a letter sent out to government departments, Dowden said: "It is imperative that all of us in government understand and exhibit the principles set out in the charter and described further in the written ministerial statement.

"To that end, I would urge you to share this letter and accompanying WMS within your departments and encourage your staff to take up the wider training available on these subjects."

“Where we fall short, we should apologise straightforwardly and genuinely,” it adds.

Commenting on the government’s response, Bishop Jones said: "Although the government's statement falls short of the hopes of the Hillsborough families it is a serious and substantial response and rises above that given to other panels and inquiries.”

He said the government had responded to the 25 recommendations in his report and had today “introduced significant changes".

However, he said he would continue to "press for further action".

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