UNDER-FIRE West Yorkshire chief constable Sir Norman Bettison has resigned.
He tendered his resignation ahead of a meeting today scheduled to consider his role in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, which he investigated for South Yorkshire Police.
Sir Norman has been under growing pressure since the Hillsborough Independent Panel report was published and he is being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).
In a statement issued through the West Yorkshire police authority, Sir Norman said he had never blamed the fans for the tragedy.
Sir Norman said: “First, and foremost, the Hillsborough tragedy 23 years ago left 96 families bereaved and countless others injured and affected by it.
“I have always felt the deepest compassion and sympathy for the families, and I recognise their longing to understand exactly what happened on that April afternoon.
“I have never blamed the fans for causing the tragedy.”
Sir Norman dismissed reports of a conversation he had in a pub in which he allegedly said he was “concocting” a story for South Yorkshire Police.
He said; “The suggestion that I would say to a passing acquaintance that I was deployed as 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 the police authority and some of the candidates in the forthcoming PCC elections made it clear that they wanted him to go.
“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.”
Margaret Aspinall, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, welcomed the announcement but said Sir Norman’s pension should be frozen while the investigation takes place into the police cover-up highlighted by the Hillsborough Independent Panel.
She said: “I’m absolutely delighted he’s gone but as far as I am concerned he should have been sacked.
“I would now like to know what payments and pension he’s going to get.
“Any financial benefits should be frozen until the outcome of the investigation into the cover-up.
“This is not the end of it, the next thing is to make sure his role is properly investigated.”
Mrs Aspinall, who lost her 18-year-old son James in the disaster, said the families had “no vendetta” against the former chief constable.
“He’s not the only one who we believe took part in this cover-up. But as a senior officer he should have been honest from the very beginning,” she said.
“He allowed the families to suffer for 23-years while knowing the truth all along.”
Sir Norman’s decision comes two days after Merseyside MP Maria Eagle told the Commons about the claim the chief constable had bragged about “concocting” a story about Hillsborough.
She read from a letter sent by retired civil servant John Barry, who later repeated his allegations in TV interviews.
Mr Barry said: “Norman Bettison stood opposite me and said ‘I’ve been asked by senior officers to pull together the South Yorkshire Police evidence of the public inquiry and we’re going to try and concoct a story that all the Liverpool fans were drunk and that we were afraid they were going to force down the gates, so we decided to open them’.
“I was absolutely astounded. He knew I’d been there. I was in the seats immediately above where people were being crushed and people were dying. I was astounded he said this to me.”
Mr Barry said Sir Norman made the comments in a Sheffield pub when they were both part-time students.
Ms Eagle said there would be “mixed views” among the families about his decision now to resign.
“I have said for many years in Parliament, as long ago as 1998, that he had an involvement in what everybody now realises was a major cover-up,” she said.
“Now the IPCC and the DPP are investigating following the publication of the independent panel report. I think that is right. We will see what conclusions that they come to.
“I think there will be mixed views amongst those affected by Hillsborough - the families and survivors - because many people wanted him to stay in post so if there were conduct charges, they could be laid. that now can’t happen.
“I think it is important for the good of confidence in policing that this matter is swiftly concluded and the investigations come to conclusions and if there are (criminal) charges to be laid, they are laid.”
Yesterday Mark Burns-Williamson, who resigned as chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Authority on October 7 to stand in the forthcoming Police and Crime Commissioner elections, increased the pressure by calling for the chief to step down.
Sir Norman was a chief inspector with South Yorkshire Police at the time of the disaster.
He attended the match at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground as a spectator but, after the disaster, he was involved in the subsequent force investigation.
The police authority has referred Sir Norman to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) which is investigating his role.
Les Carter, vice-chairman of West Yorkshire Police Authority, said he believed Sir Norman was entitled to his pension.
He told a hastily organised press conference in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, it was his understanding that Sir Norman was drawing his pension after retiring as chief constable of the Merseyside force. Sir Norman then stopped taking his pension when he began work again as the West Yorkshire chief constable in 2006 but could resume taking it again.
Mr Carter said he was first made aware of Sir Norman’s intention to resign at 8am today.
He said he believed the decision had been building over the last few weeks but the chief took the final decision last night.
The councillor referred to a local TV programme last night in which candidates to be the Police and Crime Commissioner for West Yorkshire lined up to call for Sir Norman to go.
He reminded the press conference that the police authority has only four weeks before it is disbanded and he doubted the IPCC would make any decisions before then.
Asked about Sir Norman he said: “I can’t comment on what happened at Hillsborough other than it was an unbelievable tragedy.
“Sir Norman said all along that he did not do what people said he was supposed have done.
“I can’t comment on that because I don’t know. An independent commission will do that.”
Mr Carter said Sir Norman’s contribution to policing in West Yorkshire had been “first class”.
“You can’t argue about that,” he said.
Mr Carter added: “”I think he’s made the right decision for the West Yorkshire Police force.”
Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, 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.
“As he has pointed out, there is a due process to deal with allegations, including those made from the floor of the House, through the IPCC and criminal law.
“West Yorkshire Police Authority have today recognised Sir Norman’s contribution, and it is in keeping with that record that his decision to step aside is made with the best interests of policing in West Yorkshire in mind.”
A spokeswoman for Merseyside Police Authority, where Sir Norman was previously chief constable, said: “If Norman Bettison had retired in March 2013, as planned, his pension would have been worth £83,000 per annum, but like others we have just heard about his decision to resign.
“The Treasurer is considering the implications this might have for Merseyside Police Authority and will be discussing the issue with members at the earliest convenience.”
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “This is the right decision in view of what the Hillsborough victims’ families told the Home Affairs Committee and Parliamentary colleagues said in the debate this week.
“Sir Norman has had a very distinguished career and his resignation is a staging post on the way to getting the full facts.”