An in­ter­minably long wait

The Guardian Weekly - - The guardian weekly -

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.

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