PCC Blog 181

Last week the government said it would not accept a so-called Hillsborough Law.

This is what the families, bereaved as a result of the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989, have wanted ever since the former Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Revd James Jones, published his report summarising their experiences. In it he recommended what is now known as a Hillsborough Law. But it looks like being another long wait, something that in itself encapsulates what they have been through at every stage.

It was not until 2016 that the second set of inquests were held, which found that 97 people had died as a result of police negligence. The families had battled for almost 30 years to have the truth told about what happened on that day, and subsequently. They had met a lack of transparency and obstruction by various authorities at every point along the way. It is hardly surprising that the Bishop summed up their experiences by titling his report: ‘The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power’.

I have lived with the consequences of the Hillsborough disaster and the 2016 inquests verdicts for almost my entire time as Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). As well as having to be sure that the police force now fully understands and accepts what went wrong for the families – which I believe it does –  we have also had to ensure that those who were bereaved and those who suffered in other ways were and will be properly compensated. I had hoped that all the civil claims might be settled before I finished my final term as PCC; but that is not going to happen. In the meantime, as we set the budget each year – something I am currently doing with the Chief Constable – we have to set aside millions of pounds for the families and others. Hillsborough, as with any major failing by a public body, casts a long shadow.

Yet most officers recruited now were not even born when Hillsborough happened. They don’t even have a memory of it. But the resources that can be made available to them to do their job will be less than they might be as a result.

I have always had the greatest of sympathy for the families and realise that, having had the truth about what happened at the football ground and afterwards laid bare, what they most want to see now is for lessons to be learned so that others might never have to experience what they have done. They want the Hillsborough Law. Such a law – Public Authority (Accountability) Bill – would create a legal duty of candour on public authorities and their officials – not just the police – to tell the truth and to proactively co-operate with official investigations and inquiries.

It is true that the Criminal Justice Bill, announced in the King’s Speech, will provide for a duty of candour for police officers and there are many codes of conduct already in existence which cover the behaviour of ministers. But given the public’s unease around what the Covid inquiry is revealing, it is hardly surprising that the families, given their experiences, want to see a clear duty set out unambiguously in legislation that will apply to all public officials. I am pleased that Shadow ministers have pledged to support this should they become the next government.

As one of the family members said, ‘I’m so tired of fighting…. I just want to be able to get on with my life…’

After 34 years that does not seem to me to be asking too much.

Policing uncertainty

‘We are following the science.’

This is what we were repeatedly told during the pandemic, especially when we were being asked to accept more and more restrictions on our movements and way of living. The claim was that the rules followed logically from the science – and the science could not be gainsaid.

I never thought this was likely. I recalled how as a schoolboy I had been taught physics by an enthusiastic disciple of the Cambridge astro-physicist Sir Fred Hoyle. Hoyle believed in the steady-state theory of the universe. This was the idea that the density of matter in the universe remained constant owing to the continuous creation of matter. The observable universe is always the same at any time or place. He rejected the idea of – what he pejoratively called – a ‘Big Bang’ starting everything off and expanding thereafter. My science teacher was insistent that steady-state was incontrovertibly true, a scientific fact. When I rejected the idea of a Big Bang I thought I was following the science.

But within a few years of being at university (Fred Hoyle’s old college as it happened, I soon realised that there was no consensus in the scientific community on this and all theories were as safe as the empirical evidence allowed. If you are a scientist, you learn not only to live with uncertainty but to realise that this is how science works. Theories, however venerable, are always open to challenge.

So I was never convinced that when a new virus came along – Covid 19 – the scientists would know enough in the early days to be that confident in their pronouncements. New empirical evidence was bound to emerge and our understanding would have to change – how contagious was this, how fast was the rate of transmission, could we achieve ‘herd immunity’ if we simply allowed people to be infected, was it better to lock-down or leave it to people’s common sense and best judgement, how safe were children – and what were the long term effects of both the disease and the restrictions?

And government is never about handing decision-making over to ‘experts,’ whether scientists or others. As the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) made clear in the Covid Inquiry, the job of the advisers is to advise, the job of the ministers is to decide – because the advice will rarely be consensual or unambiguous. This is what politics and politicians are for.

Perhaps it was a mistake to have the CMO and the CSA flanking government ministers at the daily press conferences and giving their updates. This added to the idea that ministerial decisions about restrictions and lock-downs really were decisions driven simply by unambiguous and consensual science. No doubt that was part of the idea. But now the Covid Inquiry is showing that there never was this consensus around either all the science or all the restrictions; it is leaving us in a bad place should there be another pandemic.

This matters, not least for policing, because it was the police who were tasked with enforcing the law around the rules at the time. Fines were issued to lawbreakers. On the whole, people were compliant. (Not, alas, everyone working in Downing Street.) But that acquiescence, which made the job of the police easier, was because we trusted what we thought was the science and we trusted the ministers.

But if that trust has been eroded, the police will not find it as easy next time to enforce the law if that involves severe restriction on liberty. We shall be more challenging and questioning. Perhaps even more sceptical and less compliant.

I hope the Covid Inquiry gives some thought to this. If there is another pandemic, we need a way of being honest and transparent with the public about what we know and what we don’t know as far as the evolving science goes, especially if we are going to be asked to surrender our liberty in such a comprehensive way and for such a long period of time. Otherwise, restrictions will be challenged and policing them will be infinitely more difficult.

Have your say on future policing priorities

Each year I consult the public of South Yorkshire on two matters – the priorities for policing that I want to see in the Police and Crime Plan for the coming financial year and how much people are willing to pay for police services. The latter consultation is a statutory requirement.

It would be very helpful, therefore, if you would be willing to complete the consultation. You can find it here: https://shorturl.at/klqA6

Stay safe