Police chiefs have promised to acknowledge mistakes and not “defend the indefensible” as they set out long-awaited reforms in the wake of a report into the Hillsborough disaster.
Among the changes are a Charter For Families Bereaved Through Public Tragedy, which commits police leaders to acknowledge any mistakes and ensure “care, compassion, openness, transparency and accountability”.
All forces in England and Wales have signed up to the pledge.
The police response on the day of the 1989 stadium crush – as well as after it – has long been an open wound for families of the 97 dead and those who survived.
A 2016 inquest jury ruled the fans were unlawfully killed amid a number of police errors.
“Police failures were the main cause of the tragedy and have continued to blight the lives of family members ever since,” said Chief Constable Andy Marsh, head of the College of Policing.
“Descriptions of how the bereaved were treated by police officers in the immediate aftermath of the disaster make harrowing reading…” adds the introduction to today’s report.
“When compassion and leadership were most needed, the bereaved were often treated insensitively and the response lacked coordination and oversight.”
The reforms are in reply to the former bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, who made formal recommendations for ensuring the suffering of Hillsborough families is not repeated.
They were published five years ago, but the national police response couldn’t be made public until legal proceedings and other matters were over.
Today’s report says Hillsborough must be “the touchstone for more ethical police leadership” – and as such candour will become a key theme of the police’s updated code of ethics.
A supporting code of practice – which senior police must follow – will also set out “a responsibility to ensure openness and candour within their force”.
Other reforms include new national guidance for the family liaison officers – the point of contact with relatives when somebody is involved in a tragedy such as Hillsborough.
Findings from the 2017 report, as well as tragedies like Grenfell Tower, have been fed into the latest best practice.
A new code of practice on police information and records management is also being implemented after records relating to Hillsborough were lost or destroyed.
Senior police repeated their apologies for the disaster as they published their response on Tuesday.
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Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said he was “deeply sorry for the tragic loss of life, and for the pain and suffering that the families of the 97 victims experienced on that day and in the many years that have followed”.
He said they were now committed to responding to major incidents with “openness and with compassion for the families” above any other interest.
“Collectively, the changes made since the Hillsborough disaster and in response to Rt Reverend James Jones’s report aim to ensure the terrible police failures made on the day and in the aftermath can never happen again.”
‘Promises must become law’
The former bishop said he welcomed the police response and its acknowledgment that the treatment of families was “harrowing”.
He also welcomed the NPCC’s new “duty of candour” and its view that bereaved families should have as much legal representation as public bodies after a tragedy.
He said the government must now make these two principles legally binding as “Hillsborough Law”.
The government has yet to formally respond to the 2017 report – something a survivors’ group says is stopping families from being able to move on.
Chairman of the Hillsborough Survivors’ Support Alliance, Peter Scarfe, also called the five-year wait for a police response “way too long”.
He said the police reforms should be put into law to make a real difference.
“It’s not quite Hillsborough Law – I would expect Hillsborough Law to be passed,” he said.
“It’s easy saying we’ve learnt from it, we’re going to correct our mistakes, we’ll make sure accountability is there, we can’t cover things up – but without a law they can.”
The prime minister’s official spokesman said part of the delay in responding to James Jones’s report had been to avoid the risk of prejudicing criminal cases.
“The government has been working closely with the relevant departments and organisations to carefully consider and address the points directed at government,” the spokesman said.
“That’s alongside the work with the police, because there are elements that span both government and policing.”
He said there was no specific date for a response as “it’s important to ensure we do this properly”.