The recent debate in the House of Commons over releasing documents related to the Hillsborough disaster was not really a debate at all. There was no dissent. All present agreed that all documents should be released. "Brilliant result", one might say. Or was it?
Amidst the highly charged emotional atmosphere in the House, it was easy to fudge the real issue of public interest and opportunities were missed to challenge MPs. Clive Betts being just one example.
The MP for Sheffield South gave an emotional speech regarding his own experience of Hillsborough and how it impacted on the people of Sheffield. Betts was the leader of Sheffield City Council at the time of the disaster, yet not one MP challenged him as to why the Hillsborough Ground did not have a valid safety certificate. Emotion should never be used as a smokescreen for fact.
It needs to be remembered that the debate was the end product of the recent e-petition which arose out of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC), voicing its concern over the Government's decision to appeal the Information Commissioner's ruling that it was in the public interest to release the minutes of the cabinet meeting held under Margaret Thatcher after the Hillsborough Disaster.
This followed on from a Freedom of Information Act request by the BBC in 2009. The e-petition drew over 100,000 signatures in less than a week, and the debate last week was the first of it's kind.
The motion put to the House on 17 October was to release all documents, unredacted, firstly to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, then to the families.
This was a tactical shift from the original e-petition. In agreeing to hand all documents to the panel, the government effectively relinquished its responsibility and placed the decision making over to a group of individuals. A potentially dangerous precedent.
Whilst the panel has declared a commitment to "full disclosure", nevertheless its remit allows for exceptions. This is one of the reasons why the HJC opposed the panel having this power at the expense of public interest.
Whilst strictly speaking it was the government who appealed the commissioner's ruling, we had been told that the panel did not want information being released piecemeal. We were told to wait for the whole puzzle to be solved rather than having one piece of the jigsaw. We were emphatic that we wanted the information. Our objections were not ignored; rather they were taken, refined and manipulated in an attempt to make us think we had been given what we wanted.
This was able to happen because representatives of the Hillsborough Family Support Group have stated that they have every faith in the panel.
HJC cannot have the same trust because we do not have the same relationship. Although we have met and co-operated with the panel, it has been clear that the HFSG have a more intimate relationship with panel members. Whilst the Bishop chairing the panel disputes our take of events, nevertheless it is indisputable that the HFSG successfully pushed for certain individuals to be on the panel, and feel that these individuals represent their interests.
The HJC has no ongoing relationship with any panel members. Indeed when we complained of this in the early days we were later asked to suggest a lawyer to join the panel. Our suggestion of a respected barrister who had actually been present at the Disaster was subsequently rejected.
How can we place our trust in a panel that meets each group separately and indeed as recently as mid September met secretly with members of the HFSG, but had no similar meeting with the HJC? The fact that this meeting was held in Liverpool Football Club (literally within spitting distance from our premises) compounds suspicion. Only for a chance sighting we would still not have known about this meeting. We still do not know what was discussed at that meeting. Declarations of 'transparency' disappear in a fog of intrigue.
Let's be clear about this whole issue: not all Hillsborough families are treated equally. The most recent example of this was last week in the House of Commons. Not until they arrived home the next day from London and saw the local evening paper did HJC families realise that whilst they were in one part of the House, in another part there was a meeting of MPs and representatives of the HFSG. This is the climate in which our families have to exist. This is the reason why the HJC supported the BBC's FOI request.
We now have to work within the parameters of decisions made. However, we will continue to push for equal access to the panel and MPs. We will also push for all families to have equal and simultaneous access to all documents, sooner rather than later (the panel already have the relevant cabinet minutes).
We will also work hard to ensure that survivors of the disaster have access to the documents, which, after all, relate to their lived experience of that fateful day.
The fight to establish the truth means fighting on several different levels for the families of the HJC.
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