An interminably long wait
Theresa May was certainly taking no risks when she said in the House of Commons last week that the decision to prosecute six people with offences arising out of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster aroused “mixed emotions”. Those emotions are likely to include satisfaction that criminal law due process will take place and concern that the case will reach court more than 28 years after the death of 96 Liverpool football fans at the Hillsborough ground. It has taken too long.
The charges announced by the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service range from gross negligence manslaughter to misconduct in a public office, perverting the course of justice and breaches of health and safety law. All of these are serious charges carrying prison sentences. No organisation that was involved at Hillsborough is to face corporate charges.
There are proper limits to what can now be said. The criminal prosecutions must on no account be endangered. No one should take the risk of saying anything that could be taken to taint the criminal process.
The question of responses and proceedings in the wake of human disasters is, however, at the top of the public mind at present. The Grenfell Tower disaster has once again raised issues of individual and corporate responsibility and wider government supervision and practice. There are strong echoes of earlier disasters, including Hillsborough. But it can surely be agreed that it would be intolerable if the issues raised by Grenfell Tower were still the subject of court cases in 28 years.
The evolution of the law and practice in response to public disasters has, for decades, been slow and inadequate. In 1913, for example, Britain’s worst ever mining disaster, at Senghenydd in Glamorgan, killed 439 miners and one rescuer. An inquiry led to negligence charges against the colliery manager under the Coal Mines Act 1911. The manager was fined £24. The colliery owner was fined £10.
By the time of the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge in 1987, not much had changed. After 193 passengers and crew had drowned, an inquiry found “a disease of sloppiness and negligence” throughout the ferry company. A coroner’s jury brought in a verdict of unlawful killing, after which seven people were charged with gross negligence manslaughter. In addition, the P&O ferry company was charged with corporate manslaughter. At the trial, the judge directed acquittals. Margaret Thatcher knighted P&O’s chairman.
Cases such as Grenfell Tower and Hillsborough are reminders that health and safety law, properly enforced, is a fundamental social necessity. Those with responsibilities should be held accountable.