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Bill Dunkerley

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“The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power”: Bishop’s review on Hillsborough families’ experiences published

Blogs04/12/2017

Following conclusion of the recent inquests into the deaths of those killed during the Hillsborough disaster, Theresa May (whilst Home Secretary) commissioned Bishop James Jones to review the experiences of families involved in the tragedy. The stated aim of Bishop James’ report was to ‘ensure the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families is not repeated’.

Bishop James’ findings have now been published.

His 122 page report recommends 25 discrete points of learning requiring what he considers to be substantial cultural changes by public bodies. In summary, his proposals relate to three central propositions:

1. The establishment of a Charter for Families Bereaved through Public Tragedy.

In his report, Bishop James offers draft wording for the Charter, encouraging public bodies to sign up and, in so doing, establish a benchmark against which they may be assessed following public tragedy. For example, the draft Charter includes such standards as: placing the public interest above the public body’s own reputation; avoid seeking to defend the indefensible; and ensure that all members of staff treat one another and members of the public with mutual respect and courtesy.

In signing up to the Charter, Bishop James requires public bodies to put in place a programme to deliver whatever changes are required within the relevant organisation to ensure that the appropriate behavioural standards are adhered to in reality.

2. The creation of an independent public advocate’s office, to act on behalf of bereaved families following public disasters.

This will ensure, in his view, the ‘proper participation’ and central role of bereaved families at inquest. This can be achieved by, for example, waiving the requirement for a means test or financial contribution from those families affected, where public bodies are legally represented. As a corollary to this proposal, he goes on to recommend that there should be an end to public bodies spending ‘limitless sums’ providing themselves with representation which surpasses that available to families.

Bishop James proposes that the costs of these changes should be borne by the Government departments whose agencies are frequently represented at inquests, namely the Home Office, Department for Health, MOJ and MOD.

In line with his recommendations for cultural changes, Bishop James encourages a change in mind-set to the way in which public bodies approach inquests. Specifically he encourages public bodies to treat them not as a reputational threat, but as an opportunity to learn and as part of their obligations to those who have died and to their families.

3. The establishment of a ‘duty of candour’ to require police officers, whether still serving or retired, to cooperate fully with investigations undertaken by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, in much the same way as healthcare providers are subject to a similar duty.

It remains to be seen, at a practical level, how many of Bishop James’ recommendations will be introduced. In addition, cultural change cannot be expected to occur overnight. That being said the impact and consequences of the Hillsborough disaster are unlikely to have concluded with the closing of the recent inquests.