SIR Norman Bettison yesterday bowed to six weeks of intense pressure and deepening allegations over this role in the Hillsborough disaster cover-up, as he stepped down as chief of Yorkshire’s largest police force.
Politicians, police authority leaders and the families of those who died in the 1989 stadium disaster welcomed the resignation of the region’s most senior officer, just hours before he was due to face the first of several possible disciplinary actions related to Hillsborough.
Sir Norman retired yesterday morning with immediate effect and without a pay-off, shortly before a special committee of West Yorkshire Police Authority was set to decide what action to take over his alleged misconduct following the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report last month. It is understood his possible suspension would have been discussed.
Kris Hopkins, the Conservative MP for Keighley and Ilkley, suggested Sir Norman had “jumped before he was pushed”, and said his position had “been untenable for some time”.
Sir Norman used his parting statement to insist he has “never blamed the fans for causing the tragedy”, and said he “refuted” allegations made in Parliament this week that he once boasted of being involved in a plot to “fit up” the Liverpool supporters.
“It has been a privilege to serve the public as a police officer for more than 40 years,” he said.
But there were immediately calls from West Yorkshire MPs and others for the 56-year-old to lose both his knighthood, and the £83,000-a-year pension he can now draw from the taxpayer, should any of the allegations against him be proven.
Bassetlaw Labour MP John Mann, said: “Bettison should be stripped of his pension and his knighthood, should investigations confirm the role he played in the cover-up that shifted responsibility away from the police.”
Sir Norman’s resignation marks the first departure of any senior public figure in the wake of the bombshell Hillsborough report, and was warmly welcomed by justice campaigners who have been calling for his resignation or sacking for almost 15 years.
Trevor Hicks, the Keighley businessman who lost two teenage daughters in the tragedy, said: “I’m delighted he has gone. He held a position of accountability and trust for the people of West Yorkshire. I don’t trust him – and why should they?
“If Bettison had been a junior officer he would have been suspended or fired straight away. He is not above the law.”
Sir Norman had previously defied repeated calls for him to quit after the panel revealed full details of his role in South Yorkshire Police’s now-discredited response to the tragedy, in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed.
But the pressure mounted on him after he released a widely-condemned statement claiming the fans had “made the police’s job harder than it needed to be”.
Police authority bosses referred him on two separate counts of alleged misconduct to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and pressured him to announce he would retire in March,
But the final straw came in Monday night’s Commons debate, when the Yorkshire-born Merseyside MP Maria Eagle quoted a “contemporaneous account” from a civil servant that Sir Norman had “boasted” of “a plot to fit up Liverpool fans”.
Leading candidates in next month’s police and crime commissioner (PCC) elections – including former police authority chair Mark Burns-Williamson – said the latest allegations meant he should step down immediately.
Mr Burns-Williamson said yesterday it was “the right decision”.
But last night there was criticism from local MPs that Sir Norman had not stepped aside sooner.
Mr Hopkins said Sir Norman’s “insistence on staying in post” over recent weeks “has damaged the proud name of West Yorkshire Police – and that should be a matter of deep regret to him”.
Bradford West MP George Galloway added: “His position has been untenable since the Hillsborough report came out, and it speaks volumes for his judgement that he believed he could hold on to his salary and the reins of power to go at a time of his choosing.
“He is gone, and good riddance. The criminal inquiry is ongoing, but the verdict is already in on Sir Norman Bettison. I will now be demanding that he be stripped of his knighthood and pension.”
Praise did come for the work Sir Norman has undertaken during a long and glittering career since he joined South Yorkshire as a constable in the 1970s.
Association of Chief Police Officers president Sir Hugh Orde said: “Sir Norman Bettison has given nearly 40 years of his life to public service, during which his contribution at both local and national level has helped keep citizens safe and deliver better policing.”
Mr Burns-Williamson added: “I think anyone would be hard-pushed to say he hadn’t done a good job in West Yorkshire. This is about things that may or may not have happened 23 years ago.”
In a statement, Sir Norman paid tribute to the families who have campaigned for justice and denied ever blaming the fans for what happened at Hillsborough. Addressing directly the charges levelled at him on Monday he said: “I refute the report of a conversation 23 years ago. The suggestion that I would say to a passing acquaintance that I was part of a team tasked to ‘concoct a false story of what happened’ is both incredible and wrong. That isn’t what I was tasked to do, and I did not say that.”
Sir Norman said he had intended to remain in post to address the allegations made against him but that “it now appears that will take some time”. He said: “The police authority, and some of the candidates in the forthcoming PCC elections, have made it clear they wish me to go sooner. I do so, not because of any allegations about the past, but because I share the view that this has become a distraction to policing in West Yorkshire now and in the future.”