THE government is facing a backlash following its decision to appeal against an order to release documents from 22 years ago relating to the Hillsborough disaster. The documents reportedly include correspondence and reports sent to and from the Prime Minister of the time, Margarget Thatcher, in relation to the disaster that saw 96 people die.
The order to release the documents came from the Information Commissioner, who looked at whether or not the Cabinet Office had dealt appropriately with a request for information made by the BBC under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. The request was made in 2009, shortly after the 20th anniversary of the disaster.
The information asked for was, “Copies of all briefings and other information provided to Margaret Thatcher in April 1989 relating to the Hillsborough disaster,” and, “copies of minutes and any other records of meetings attended by Margaret Thatcher during April 1989 at which the Hillsborough disaster was discussed.”
The Cabinet office was supposed to answer within 20 days. They took nine months – and refused to supply the information requested.
The BBC, in response, requested an internal review. Internal reviews should “be carried out within 20 working days, but that this period may be extended to 40 working days in exceptional circumstances”. The Cabinet office didn’t take 20, or even 40 days. They took just short of seven months, and again refused to supply the information requested.
The Information Commissioner then received a complaint from the BBC and in January 2011 asked the Cabinet Office to reply (within 20 working days) with further details of their reasons for refusing the request and also with copies of the information in question.
30 working days later and the Information Commissioner had not had a reply from the Cabinet Office, so they issued an ‘Information Notice’, giving the Cabinet Office another 30 working days to supply the information requested in January. It took them 54 working days to do finally do this.
It had now taken just short of two years from the date of the original BBC request to the point where the Information Commissioner could look at the Cabinet Office’s reasons for refusing to supply the information.
The Information Commissioner ruled that the Cabinet Office “did not deal with the request in accordance with the Act.” The Commissioner wrote that the government office had “applied the exemptions provided by [various sections of the Act] incorrectly and in so doing breached the requirements of [various sections of the act].”
The Commissioner ruled that although it was correct to withhold one piece of information, due to it containing sensitive personal information of a member of the public (one of the survivors), that it should still be realised in a form that blanks out the name of the member of public.
The Cabinet Office was told to “disclose all information falling within the scope of the request, apart from… the cover note to the survivor’s letter [which] should be disclosed in redacted form.”
They Cabinet Office were given 35 calendar days to comply (by August 24th) and the report noted that the previous delays were “matters of concern”. The Commissioner pointed out that any appeal had to be made within 28 days – that day being August 17th, the day the appeal was announced. For once the Cabinet Office had met a deadline, but only just.
In announcing the appeal a spokesman from the Cabinet Office said: “The Government’s view is that it is in the public interest for the process that is underway through the Hillsborough Independent Panel be allowed to take its course. The terms of reference for that process includes the intention to disclose information to the Hillsborough families first.
“The Cabinet Office absolutely agrees with the principle of providing information to families about the Hillsborough stadium disaster, but we believe it is important that any release of information should be managed through the Panel’s processes and in line with their terms of reference. The Cabinet Office is fully committed to the disclosure process in line with the Terms of Reference and is working with the Panel to achieve that.
“The Panel have had access to all the information covered by this decision notice.”
This excuse comes despite the Information Commissioner stating quite clearly in its report that the existence of the panel is irrelevant in terms of this request, because: “It did not exist at the time of the request, or within 20 working days following the receipt of the request by the public authority.” It went on to say: “Any factor that did not apply at the time of the request is not relevant. This situation applies regardless of the lengthy delay by the public authority in responding to the request. In addition the Commissioner does not see how this argument is relevant to factors in inherent in the exemption claimed. The Commissioner also notes the panel is not set up on a statutory basis, on the same terms as a formal Inquiry.”
The Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) released a statement immediately after hearing the government’s decision to appeal:
HJC STATEMENT RE: GOVERNMENT APPEAL:
The Hillsborough Justice Campaign is disgusted but not surprised by the government’s decision to appeal the release of information to the BBC. The fact that it quotes the Hillsborough Independent panel’s work and ‘public interest’ as the reasons to appeal is both illogical and disingenuous. It states that information should be “managed through the panel’s processes”; in what way will the information be ‘managed’? Why is there a need to ‘manage‘ the truth? If the panel is committed to the true facts being revealed then why is there such concern regarding the BBC revealing those facts?
The panel does not have a moral right to ownership of the facts.
The issue seems to be that the BBC would make public the contents of the cabinet meeting minutes immediately, whereas the panel will not release any information before 2012. The government’s action in appealing the decision indicates the close working relationship between itself and the ‘independent’ panel. The decision appears to us as a policing exercise that is not in the best interests of those most affected by the Disaster.
The Hillsborough Justice Campaign will now have to seriously reconsider the relationship it has with the panel. Of paramount concern to the campaign is that the panel, via the government, should seek to police that truth in this way.
Sheila Coleman (on behalf of the HJC)
The government (often referred to as “this Tory government”, despite officially being a coalition government) were criticised heavily by supporters of the campaign for justice. This goes beyond football; those who support the calls for justice aren’t all Liverpool fans or even football supporters. 96 people died, countless more were victims in other ways; real people want real justice for those real victims.
Opposition MPs also joined the calls for the government to stop the cover-up and delaying tactics and release this information.
Andy Burnham MP said, via Twitter, “This is a worrying move. It raises real questions about the Government’s commitment to disclosure and the work of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.
“Families must have the full truth. Nothing less will do. I will write to Prime Minister urging him to intervene and drop this appeal.
“The Government are saying the Panel will ‘have access’. That’s not the same as disclosure.
“The appeal damages trust in the process. The Government could pass [the documents] to families before [passing them onto the] BBC.”
Steve Rotheram MP, asked why he thought the government weren’t releasing the papers, suggested: “There has to be something that someone doesn’t want us to see!” He promised that he and other Merseyside MPs would be joining Andy Burnham in asking David Cameron, the current Prime Minister, to intervene.
A petition had already been set up on the government’s “e-petitions” website calling for the information to be released. It had been signed by around 600 people early yesterday evening, by the time Kenny Dalglish and others had spread the word and asked people to sign it the numbers swelled rapidly. Kenny tweeted: “Please sign this petition and RT [retweet]. Think it is very important that we support this.” The link to the petition is http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/2199 and at lunchtime on Thursday it had been signed by close to 23,000 people.
As MPs try to get someone like David Cameron to do the right thing and intervene, the social networking tools that some want banned are helping to inform people around the country of exactly what they can do to help get the right thing done.
The petition can only be signed by UK citizens or those who normally live in the UK, but everybody can spread the word about it being there. Those who can sign it can do so in about 30 seconds – but it’s important that they check their emails to confirm to the e-petition system that they are a real person and not a “spambot”.
Names and addresses of those who sign it are not shown on the website.
Cameron spoke last week, after the unrest around the country, about how “no phoney human rights concerns… will get in the way of bringing… justice.” He also spoke about “swift justice”.
We’ve waited 22 years for justice for Hillsborough. We’ve waited over two years just for this one request for one file of information to be released, and we’re still waiting. We feel like we’re waiting for ever. And the reasons given for the delays all sound very phoney to us.
It’s time to stop the phoney excuses and admit the wrongs that were done. Those helping continue the cover-up are as bad as those who started the cover-ups in the first place.
What are they hiding?
Please sign the petition: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/2199.