Sir John Major has delivered a heartfelt apology to the families of those who died at Hillsborough, expressing “regret” his Government failed to support an inquiry two decades ago.
The former Conservative Prime Minister, who came to office 19 months after the South Yorkshire stadium disaster in which 96 football fans lost their lives, said the revelations about police smears and cover-ups were “shocking” and that the families “have been proven to be right”.
“We must all say to them we are sorry,” Sir John said. “We should have dealt with it a good deal earlier, and we should have listened a good deal more carefully.”
Sir John was speaking to the Yorkshire Post at a lunch for journalists in Westminster yesterday, where he made a series of rare and dramatic interventions on contentious political issues including energy prices, welfare reform, poverty and Europe.
The 70-year-old Tory grandee called on the Chancellor to consider a windfall tax on energy firms, due to the “unacceptable” rises in bills that would mean people being forced “to choose between keeping warm and eating” if a cold snap hits this winter.
He dismissed Ed Miliband’s proposed price freeze as “unworkable”, but nonetheless delighted Labour by insisting Government intervention in the energy market may be necessary to help people who cannot pay their bills. Downing Street said the idea was “interesting”, but that the Government has “no plans” for a windfall tax.
Sir John, the last Conservative leader to win an outright majority in 1992, also warned the Tories are no longer a “national party” due to their loss of support in large parts of the North. He said the situation was similar for Labour following its wipe-out in the South. He said Tories “should not be afraid to show we have a heart and a social conscience” in order to pick up votes in “no-go areas” such as Sheffield and Liverpool.
But it was his words on Hillsborough which will resonate most powerfully in Yorkshire and on Merseyside, following his stubborn resistance to an independent inquiry throughout his tenure as Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997.
Sir John described the Hillsborough Independent Panel report last year – which concluded South Yorkshire Police tried to cover-up their mistakes and then pin the blame on the victims – as “pretty shocking”, and suggested his Government was too quick to listen to advice from senior officers.
“When there was agitation for a Hillsborough report, we had pretty strong police views that there was no need for a report at the time,” he said. “Nowadays I’m not sure that assurance would ring as strongly as it did in the 1990s.
“Self-evidently, the Hillsborough families who petitioned and demanded an independent report have been proven to be right... I’m very happy to say that to the Hillsborough families today.
“We should have done more, and I’m sorry in retrospect that we didn’t. It is one of many things you can look back on and regret.”
Documents released to the panel last year included pleading letters to Sir John in the early 1990s from the families of those who died, calling for an inquiry. Each fell on deaf ears.
Last night Keighley businessman Trevor Hicks, whose two teenage daughters died in the tragedy on April 15, 1989, said the apology was “welcome” but had been “a long time coming.”
“I’m very pleased to hear what he has said,” Mr Hicks said. “Obviously it is a deep source of regret for everybody - the families in particular, who’ve had to suffer and push hard to get where we have now.
“Every little step, every bit of regret and recognition from senior politicians, is to be welcomed. It is a long time coming, and very welcome.”