You must confront ‘poison’ of Hillsborough, Theresa May tells police conference

Home Secretary Theresa May.
Home Secretary Theresa May.
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The British police service was today urged to confront the “difficult truths” of Hillsborough after Home Secretary Theresa May claimed the “poison of decades-old misdeeds” was as damaging now as it was at the time of the 1989 tragedy.

Mrs May told officers at the Police Federation’s annual conference that forces should let Britain’s worst sporting disaster, where 96 Liverpool fans were unlawfully killed, be a “touchstone for everything you do”.

Football fans climb to safety as they escape the crush which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough.

Football fans climb to safety as they escape the crush which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough.

Last month’s verdict by the Hillsborough inquests jury, that a catalogue of failings by police and other services contributed to the deaths of the blameless fans, was seen as a huge victory for the families whose loved ones were originally blamed as part of an alleged South Yorkshire Police cover-up.

In remarks greeted by stony silence at the conference in Bournemouth, the Home Secretary said yesterday: “I do not believe there can be anyone in this hall who does not recognise the enormity of those verdicts.

“Nor can there be anyone in policing who does not now understand the need to face up to the past and right the wrongs that continue to jeopardise the work of police officers today.

“Because historical inquiries are not archaeological excavations. They are not purely exercises in truth and reconciliation.

“They do not just pursue resolution; they are about ensuring justice is done. Justice: it’s what you deal in. It is your business. And you, the police, are its custodians.

“We must never underestimate how the poison of decades-old misdeeds seeps down through the years and is just as toxic today as it was then. That’s why difficult truths, however unpalatable they may be, must be confronted head on.”

Mrs May made no mention of the 1984 Battle of Orgreave, despite facing growing calls to launch a new inquiry into the clashes between police and striking miners following revelations that the same senior officers and practices were involved in the inquiries into both scandals.

But writing on the influential Conservative Home website today, her former chief of staff, Nick Timothy, said a new investigation into the events of 1984 was the only way of curbing future police malpractice.

He said: “Of course, some people will argue that as we are talking about events that took place more than thirty years ago, we should let sleeping dogs lie.

“But the Hillsborough Independent Panel inquiry showed that sleeping dogs in South Yorkshire Police lied, lied and lied again, not just about their own conduct but about the victims and other football supporters.

“If we want to prevent that from happening in future, if we want to make sure the police are above corruption, collusion and cover-ups, we need to know when and how these things have been allowed to happen in the past.

“And to know that, we need to investigate cases like Orgreave just the same as we need to look at cases like Hillsborough, Daniel Morgan and Stephen Lawrence.”

Mr Timothy wrote that he wanted to steer clear of using Orgreave to target the Thatcher Government and the wider choices made to tackle the strikes of the 1980s. But he said getting to the “bottom of what happened at Orgreave” should not undermine or repudiate ministers of the day.

He said: “The economy needed to be reformed, the unions needed to be faced down, and unprofitable pits needed to be closed.

“But if the police pre-planned a mass, unlawful assault on the miners at Orgreave, and then sought to cover up what they did and arrest people on trumped-up charges, we need to know.”

Concluding her speech, which also urged police to improve their response to domestic violence, Mrs May said: “Remember Hillsborough. Let it be a touchstone for everything you do.

“Never forget that those who died in that disaster or the 27 years of hurt endured by their families and loved ones.

“Let the hostility, the obfuscation and the attempts to blame the fans serve as a reminder of the need for change. Make sure your institutions, whose job it is to protect the public, never again fail to put the public first.

“And put professionalism and integrity at the heart of every decision, every interaction, and every dealing with the public you have.

“Because if you do, you will renew the model of policing by consent in this country, and you will truly be custodians of justice for those who have been denied it for too long.”

In his response to Theresa May, Police Federation chairman Steve White said: “Hillsborough was a terrible tragedy and our thoughts and sympathies remain with the families and friends of the 96 victims.

“It is important to remember that a lot has changed in the police service since 1989.

“It would not be fair to judge today’s police by the actions of a few senior officers who made poor decisions more than 25 years ago.”