THE questioning of hundreds of police officers over their role in the Hillsborough cover-up will begin within weeks, the Government has said as new powers for investigators are fast-tracked through Parliament.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) announced yesterday that it has begun consulting the families of the 96 football supporters who died in the tragedy on their provisional terms of reference ahead of what will be the biggest-ever inquiry into British policing.
New laws to give the IPCC powers to compel serving officers to give evidence as witnesses should be passed before Christmas, but will not be extended to retired police, the Government said.
Speaking in the Lords, Home Office spokesman Lord Taylor of Holbeach revealed the IPCC will begin questioning both serving and retired officers from South Yorkshire Police and up to 30 other forces across the country “early in the new year”.
The development came as a provisional High Court date was set next week for the Attorney General’s bid to quash the original inquests into the victims’ deaths, held in Sheffield in 1991 but now seen as widely discredited.
The families of those who died have campaigned to have the original verdicts of accidental death overturned, and for a new coroner to take a broader look at how many victims might have been saved.
A spokesman for the Judicial Office said: “The Attorney General’s application to quash the Hillsborough inquest verdicts has been listed for a substantive hearing before the Divisional Court on Wednesday, December 19, subject to any applications by interested parties to adjourn.
“The Lord Chief Justice, sitting with two other judges, will hear the application.”
Attorney General Dominic Grieve announced in October he would make an application for fresh inquests after beginning a review of the evidence.
Yesterday’s developments are a clear signal of the Government’s stated intent to move as quickly as possible “from truth to justice” following the bombshell report published by an independent panel in September which revealed a huge cover-up and smear campaign at South Yorkshire Police following the 1989 stadium disaster.
Deborah Glass, the IPCC deputy chair who is leading the inquiry, confirmed the investigation would be looking into the actions of more than 2,000 police officers.
She said: “At present we have a list of 1,444 names provided by South Yorkshire Police covering officers who were apparently on duty at Hillsborough, who responded to the disaster or who were involved in the aftermath.
“In addition we are aware that 30 more police forces or police-related bodies had officers or staff who played some kind of role in relation to Hillsborough – that covers more than 400 officers.
“And we are aware there may be more officers whose details we have not had yet. We estimate we will have in excess of 2,000 names to analyse.”
She added: “I understand that many people want to see quick action after all these years. But completing the full picture for the families of those who died, were injured and were traumatised by the terrible events at Hillsborough is not going to be a quick or easy process.
“We are making real progress, and within the next month we expect the shape and integration of this complex and multi-faceted investigation will be clearer.”
The IPCC will be assisted in its inquiry by the new power to compel serving officers to give evidence – but Lord Taylor made clear it will not be extended to officers who have retired.
“Once officers retire, they are in the same position as any other member of the public,” he told peers.
“The police themselves do not have the power to compel an ordinary member of the public to attend an interview as a witness.
“To give the IPCC powers of compulsion over retired officers would be to extend the commission’s powers beyond those held by the police.
“I do not think that any member of this House would be comfortable with that, and such a matter would require careful and detailed consideration.
“Let us remember that the IPCC can, and will, investigate retired officers for misconduct and criminal behaviour, and it has the powers to compel such individuals to attend interview.
“The IPCC is currently scoping its investigation, and intends to start calling witnesses early in the new year.”