Why the Hillsborough files must be released under FOI
SHORTLY after the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough an independent panel was set up to work on the release of official documents relating to the disaster. This panel continues to work through the documentation to prepare it for release, the release to be accompanied by a report detailing how the information “adds to the public understanding of the tragedy and its aftermath”.
Independently of this a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from the BBC called for release of documents and correspondence relating to the disaster that had passed through the office of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. The government refused the request, mainly on the grounds that the independent panel (set up after the original FOI request) would be working towards the release of those documents anyway. The Information Commissioner dismissed this excuse and ordered that they be released – the government appealed.
A petition demanding that the documents in that FOI request be released soon followed and it hit well over the 100,000 signatures required for it be considered for debate in Parliament. That debate takes place next month.
There is some confusion as to what the bereaved families want to happen, whether they want the documents covered under the FOI request to be held back until the panel is ready to release the rest of the documentation they uncover or if they want those FOI documents to be released now. The confusion stems from an assumption that all the bereaved families have the exact same opinion or that they are all represented by the same Hillsborough group.
The terms of reference for the panel refer throughout to “the Hillsborough families” but no definition of what that term actually means is provided. The terms state that, “The fundamental aim is to provide full disclosure of documentation to the panel and, subsequently, to the Hillsborough families and then the wider public, taking into account legal and other considerations.” Details of these considerations are referenced in that document, which lists exceptions such as:
a) information covered by legal professional privilege;
b) information which public bodies are legally prohibited from disclosing (including information provided in confidence by third parties);
c) information indicating the views of ministers, where release would prejudice the convention of Cabinet collective responsibility.
That final point, c), relates to this:
Some information held by central government is covered by the convention on the release of papers of a previous administration (as set out by the Prime Minister on 24 January 1980). This does not apply to all information from before May 1997, but to documents indicating the views of ministers, such as Cabinet material or policy advice to ministers. The convention requires that such information cannot be disclosed without first consulting representatives of that administration.
This has the look of a loophole which could allow some information, potentially damning information, to remain hidden away. It requires trust, at a number of levels, that only irrelevant details would be missing from the documents ultimately released. The document goes on to say: “In all of the above cases, the decision to withhold information will be considered on a case-by-case basis by the holding agency.” It does state that “wherever possible, information that cannot be disclosed to the public will be disclosed on a closed and confidential basis to the panel and a description of the information provided for public disclosure.” If that isn’t possible, which the documents says will be the case for a “very small” number of documents, “the holding agency will be asked if they could provide a description of the information for the panel which can be made available to the public in the same form.”
The holding agencies that have the power to restrict this information include central government, local government, the police, the ambulance service, the fire service, the coroner and Sheffield City Council.
In the case of central government, that potential block of information from “a previous administration” means that both the existing government and members of previous governments (at the time any particular piece of documentation was created) get to have a say in what does or doesn’t get out. “The Government will consult representatives of the previous administration about the release of information covered by the convention, and will release such information only in accordance with that convention [the release of papers of a previous administration]. ”
In an ideal world none of this would be an issue. There would be trust all the way along this chain of disclosure and there would be no need to worry that anything held back was held back for the wrong reasons. But if this was anything like an ideal world this article wouldn’t be getting written, there wouldn’t be an independent Hillsborough panel and there wouldn’t be a 22 year history of cover-ups and contempt from those in public office towards those who suffered because of Hillsborough. The word “Hillsborough” would have no more meaning than “Elland Road”, “Villa Park” or “Molineux “, the Liverpool club crest wouldn’t have the eternal flames on it. 96 people would have carried on living instead of being taken from their families at a football match and countless more would not have had to live through the unimaginable trauma of that day or the misplaced feelings of guilt that they survived and their friend or family member didn’t.
For 22 years we have heard snippets of information that suggest, to put it lightly, that there is good reason for the documents to be fully disclosed. Those who have nothing to hide will be happy to see their part of the record put straight, for it to be put in front of the public in black and white. Those who withhold (or try to withhold) information will be seen as having something to hide – and the whole point of the panel is to ensure that from the day it releases its report and those documents that there is no longer anything being hidden.
It is vital that nothing is hidden.
If the panel feels that any of the withheld or redacted information should have been disclosed, “in the public interest”, “the matter will be referred to the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Council on National Records and Archives.” It’s been made difficult, but not impossible, for information to be withheld.
One quick point to note with regards the idea that the FOI request should be blocked because the panel will release all the documentation at one time is that, according to the panel’s terms of reference, the documentation isn’t expected be released in one go: “It is expected that the disclosure process will take place on an incremental basis over a period of at least two years.”
The Hillsborough Families
The terms of reference, under the heading “Consultation with Hillsborough families”, state that “The independent panel should consult and reflect the views of the Hillsborough families when co-ordinating the publication of distressing or personal information regarding those who died.”
Under the heading “Public disclosure process” the terms of reference state: “The independent panel should ensure that disclosure takes place initially to the Hillsborough families and other involved parties, in an agreed manner and within a reasonable timescale, before information is made more widely available. No disclosure should take place to any other involved party before disclosure is made to the Hillsborough families.”
Nothing in that terms of reference explains how those families will be contacted, whether they’ll all be invited individually to inspect the disclosed information or if they’ll be represented as a group. If it’s the latter there is nothing that says all three Hillsborough groups will be brought in on behalf of the bereaved families they represent.
A development this week has caused concern to two of the three groups, as explained by the HJC and Anne Williams on their respective Facebook pages, that maybe they are already being kept in the dark, that one group is getting the access to the panel that the other two groups are just not getting.
Hillsborough Justice Campaign
We received a phone call the other night from Anne Williams regarding her visit to Anfield last Sunday to film for the One Show. What she told us sadly did not surprise us. As you can see from what she has written below, on her arrival at Anfield she was mistakenly directed to a room where a meeting was being held. She recognised members of the HFSG as well as Home Office people who are working with the Hillsborough ‘Independent’ Panel. We have always been assured that all the families are being treated on an equal basis during this whole process. Therefore why have neither the HJC or Anne Williams been contacted? Indeed, given that the HJC has very publicly voiced concern over the entire Freedom of Information act debacle, is it unreasonable to think that the same Home office people might have contacted the HJC to allay their fears? Maybe anyone with lingering doubts as to why we are pushing for the files under FOI will understand now why we are so adamant.
Anne Williams (Hope for Hillsborough)
When I arrived at Anfield on Sunday the cab dropped me off at the wrong end, I was shown into the Paisley room. The HFSG were holding one of their meetings there. What surprised me was there were people there who run the Hillsborough panel. I left the room to make my way to the ground where we were filming and these people ran after me to see how I was and to say they will phone me. The point I am trying to make is there are three groups, we were promised by the panel that every family will be informed of everything that is going on and they will meet with each group to keep them informed. I know these people are not the actual panel but they play a key role in organising things and interviewing people so they know everything that is going on. I feel hurt that they may be freezing families from other groups out. I am going to send the panel an email teling them of my concerns. JUSTICE For All.
There is an urgent need for the panel to clarify why this happened. Trust of the panel has already been damaged and without clarification that the panel will act independently to get all of the relevant documents to all of the bereaved families all trust will be destroyed.
It is more than a little disappointing that to this day there remains a situation which sees individual groups representing the bereaved families – and survivors – treated differently from each other and far too often excluded. 96 people died and each of those victims had their own families. Surely it’s inevitable that over the course of 22 extremely difficult years that some families would have their own opinions on how best to deal with what has followed the awful day itself. Surely three groups is a manageable number to deal with for a club like Liverpool FC or a panel like the one set up to look at disclosure of documents. And dealing with the three groups, who could each show which families they represent, would ensure that none of the families are missed out of this process.
The goodwill that has been shown by the public, by people unconnected to the disaster, in that last couple of years has been overwhelming. If the Independent Panel manages to meet its original aims then it will be for the good of all who are looking for justice and the truth.
If it is – for whatever reason – going behind the backs of one set of families in order to appease another set of families then it is not going to meet its true reason for being there, which is for it to bring out the truth without there being any fear of bias in any way.
The fight for the FOI request to be met must continue – at the behest of a significant number of the bereaved families.
The panel must make efforts – as soon as possible – to contact all of the groups that represent the families before any perception of preference towards one group is allowed to take hold.
And it is also now time, surely for Liverpool Football Club to recognise at the highest levels that there is a place for all three groups and to offer the other groups the same amount of support so generously offered to the original support group down the years. That way there is more chance that all the different voices who deserve a say get heard.
They must be heard.
The Three Hillsborough Groups
The three groups that represent bereaved families are The Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG), The Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) and Hope for Hillsborough (HFH – For Justice).
Hillsborough Family Support Group
The original support group that was set up in the aftermath of the disaster was the HFSG, founded in May 1989.
Some of the bereaved families met whilst travelling to and from the Taylor Inquiry and decided to contact each of the victims’ next of kin to form a group to help and support each other throughout the aftermath. The group continues to organise the memorial service at Anfield each April 15th and has its own section (and email address) on the official Liverpool FC website: liverpoolfc.tv/history/hillsborough/hfsg. It is currently the only Hillsborough group to receive this recognition from the club.
Hillsborough Justice Campaign
As time and struggles went on and the years passed by following the disaster there was recognition within the HFSG that the survivors of the disaster should also be included in the support group. The survivors were suffering from PTSD and living through hell, they were in need of support certainly as much as the bereaved were, and could also help families with their understanding of what actually happened. Not all the group agreed with this, however, and often survivors would be coldly shunned. The result was that in 1998, nine years after the disaster, some of the bereaved families chose to split from the HFSG and join up with ‘Survivors and Supporters of Justice For All’. A new group was formed which would include survivors as well as bereaved families.
This group was the HJC and it was set up in 1998. The split from the original group was acrimonious and despite it rapidly gaining universal acceptance and recognition by supporters (of the club and the cause) the football club itself is still, regrettably, reluctant to treat it as an equal to the original HFSG.
As well as the inclusion of the survivors the HJC also wanted a more pro-active campaign than had been in place previously, as did the local communities, and soon after forming they acquired premises in Anfield. The HJC shop, across the road from The Kop on Walton Breck Road, has become a familiar landmark to supporters as well as a focal point for those involved in the fight for justice.
The shop sells items that allow people to support the campaign by both spreading the word and providing funding to keep going with initiatives that range from ideas like Don’t Buy The Sun stickers which add more awareness to that aspect of the overall campaign to funding the legal battles that have had to be fought down the years. The shop also serves as office/meeting space as well as an advice centre.
See @HJC_Official (on Twitter) or facebook.com/HJCOfficial (on Facebook) for more about the HJC and how to order some of their products online. The HJC’s website can be found at contrast.org/hillsborough/index.shtml.
Hope For Hillsborough
Anne Williams lost her son Kevin in the disaster and in 2006 she set up Hope For Hillsborough. Kevin is known to have still been breathing long after the cut-off time imposed by the coroner, a cut-off time that prevented any scrutiny of issues like preventing all but one ambulance from getting onto the pitch with equipment and expertise that could have saved the lives of Kevin and other victims. Hope For Hillsborough’s website is hopeforhillsborough.org and Anne can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/ourkevin.
The Don’t Buy The Sun concert
In full: Hillsborough Independent Panel – Terms of Reference.