More than 110,000 people have signed the British parliament’s e-petition urging the immediate release of documents revealing the attitudes of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her principal Ministers to the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989.
Some 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death in the opening minutes of the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday. A tragic mix of factors contributed to the tragedy including the failure of police in the ground to understand what was unfolding until – for many – it was too late.
Subsequent inquiries, including the inquest, failed to satisfy not only victims’ families but the wider public that justice had been done and the proper responsibility apportioned. In 2009 the Labour Government empowered an independent panel to study all documents and undertake a full analysis.
That report is due next spring. The panel is having to evaluate more than 100,000 documents. Among those documents are the ‘Cabinet papers’ which record the exchanges between Thatcher and her Ministers.
Two years ago the BBC, capitalising on the possibilities of the Freedom of Information Act, asked to see the Cabinet papers.
Standard procedure restricts their release for 30 years for a variety of reasons. These were drawn up originally with a view to protecting confidentiality. Now such rules appear anachronistic given the manner in which ex-Prime Ministers, their acolytes and rivals, rush out detailed memoirs the moment they are tipped out of office.
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham agreed to the BBC request but the Cabinet Office [i.e. civil servants instructed by the Government] objected. The grounds of appeal were that the papers should remain confidential to the independent panel and that only its members and the families should view them ahead of the ultimate release of their content next year.
The logic is incontrovertible . . . but, in my opinion, is unsustainable in this context.
Hillsborough campaigners have been thwarted down the years by one Establishment cover-up after another. They need to believe that, at last, the time for cover-ups is at an end. The refusal of the Cabinet Office to acquiesce to the FoI request smacks of a cover-up; even if it is not.
Fresh in public consciousness is the iron determination of the Establishment to protect its own back. Think of the self-righteous squealing which accompanied the revelations about MPs’ expenses; think of the squirming of police – yes, and media – over the phone-hacking scandal.
Add these latest betrayals of the public to more than two decades of denial over events of April 15, 1989.
It adds up one conclusion: No trust.
This, clearly, is a key issue which has prompted so many to sign the e-petition which must now be considered for formal debate in Parliament. Such a debate would have no executive value but it would underline how Hillsborough, disgracefully, remains unfinished business.
Advance release of the Cabinet papers would spark vibrant headlines and might well skew, unfairly, attitudes and assessments. Only temporarily. After a week or two, the focus would move on.
But releasing those Cabinet papers could help engender trust in the existence of a unanimous public commitment to uncover the truth. That makes it worth every last signature at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/2199