The Hillsborough Inquest

First of all, I have to say that I share in the joy of the families of the 96 that at last – 27 years later – those they have lost have been vindicated, and it has been made completely clear that they were not to blame in any way for the events at the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough in 1989.

But if not them, then who?

First of all they made clear that the Police played a central role in the tragedy. In particular, retired Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield bears a considerable responsibility for these terrible events, as it was he who authorised the exit gates at the Leppings Lane end to be opened so as to relieve crushing outside the ground. This led to a surge of fans on to the terracing at Leppings Lane and the crushing, almost entirely in the middle two sections.

The Police were held by the Inquest Jury to have failed on a number of counts

  1. With respect to planning before the event, they did not produce specific instructions for managing crowds outside the stadium, on how the “pens” (sections) were to be filled and monitored, or who would be responsible for monitoring the pens.
  2. There were no contingency plans for the late arrival of a large number of fans, and the response to this was uncoordinated and too slow.
  3. With regard to their management of events within the tunnel, prior to opening the exit gate, the Police should have blocked off the central tunnel as the middle pens were already full, which the match commander (Duckenfield) failed to recognise. Officers inside the stadium were not warned when the exit gate was opened, and the match commander failed to consider where fans entering via the exit gate would go.

Thus, in the view of the Jury, Duckenfield failed to plan for events both outwith and inside the stadium, opened the exit gate leading to an uncontrolled entry of fans through the exit gate and onwards to the central tunnel which should have been closed off.

However, set against that, there are two issues which perhaps might also have been taken into account – issues which take us directly into the role played by South Yorkshire Police itself.

First of all, Duckenfield, while an experienced Chief Superintendent, had only been in his present position in the force for three weeks beforehand. Moreover, he had little operational experience of crowd control, and no experience at all of managing policing at Hillsborough. We might ask why, with a such a high profile match, he was allowed (or required) to take command without support from a more experienced officer. We know that the previous match day commander – Chief Superintendent Mole – had occupied that position for a number of years. Given the size of the expected crowd perhaps management at a higher level might have considered that additional, more experienced support would be wise. This takes us into the role of the South Yorkshire force, a topic we will return to.

Also held to bear a responsibility were Sheffield Wednesday, who play at Hillsborough. Their safety certificate had not been re-issued since 1986, but more importantly their previous Secretary, Richard Chester (1984-1986) was aware that due to a lack of up-to-date drawn plans the certificate was not valid and that the club was open to criminal sanctions. Moreover, Chester was aware that the capacity of the Leppings Lane end had been reduced by the building of radial fencing to create the individual pens or sections in the standing area, but the certificate and plans were never updated to reflect this. In any event the turnstiles counting system could not track which part of the ground fans entered after coming through the turnstiles numbered 7 to 23, and therefore could not count how many were in the standing areas. In addition, the club’s consulting engineers never updated the safety certificate after 1986, and to calculate the ground’s capacity and re-calculate this after changes were introduced. Thus reverting to Duckenfield, this means that he handled incompetently a situation in a ground which not only was unsafe, but was known to be unsafe by its management.

In terms of what led up the disaster that is all. The Jury were given specific questions to answer about the role of the police on the day, and about Sheffield Wednesday and their consulting engineers. Other than two more questions about the response of the Police and the Ambulance Service after the event, that is about it. There are though others whose conduct should have been investigated, but the focus on Duckenfield, and the club, screens off a wider view. While the present Chief Constable of South Yorkshire has been suspended on account of public anger at the questioning by the force’s lawyers at the Inquest, which not only seemed to go back on the apology issued by South Yorkshire police to the families, by posing questions about the conduct of the fans and their role in the disaster, another sacrifice (of an office due to retire in November anyway) does nothing to widen our focus. The questions put to the jury never let them consider wider issues. The questions were never asked so they could hardly be answered.

What questions?

First of all, the conduct of the South Yorkshire force as a whole, not only in terms of what they were doing leaving a newly appointed Chief Superintendent to manage a high profile event where they would be a large assembly of people, when he had little or no experience of control of such crowds, but also in terms of their conduct afterwards. It might be argued that claims of officers being required to amend their statements, and/ or details in their pocket books are not matters for an Inquest, but if they are not, I hope very much that the part played by the force as a whole – whose culture was described today by Andy Burnham in the Commons as “rotten to the core” – in the subsequent cover-up is investigated at some point in the near future, as Burnham called for in the Commons, and done so thoroughly that those who were guilty at that stage can be identified and if still serving their position reviewed. I won’t, though, hold my breath, particularly as Alex Thomson has revealed on Channel 4 News that the chairman of the IPCC has said that he doubts whether anyone will be prosecuted as a result of this Inquest.

There are additionally two other organizations whose role in all of this has been, it seems to me, carefully organized away from any consideration.

The first of these is the FA. It has been axiomatic in health and safety law that the fundamental responsibility for the safety of premises lies with the owner, so the criticism of Sheffield Wednesday is well made. However, this does not utterly absolve the person who has rented the premises – the occupier. If for instance the occupier becomes aware of a safety issue in the premises he is occupying he would be expected to act, even if only to bring this to the owner’s attention so that remedial action can be taken. We therefore can ask whether the FA really knew nothing, nothing at all about the safety problems at Hillsborough? This is particularly so when we take into account that the new Chief Executive at the FA (appointed only the previous February) was Graham Kelly who had left his job as Secretary of the Football League to take up his new position. But the question was never posed. Indeed, Kelly never appeared at the Inquest, providing instead written evidence. For sure, given their control of the stadium, primary responsibility has to lie with club, but given that the game was the FA’s (an FA Cup semi-final) do the FA not bear some responsibility for their apparent policy of just not looking or asking appropriate questions?

Secondly there is the policy of HMG, as another axiom of health and safety law is safe access and egress. However, at the time of the disaster the focus of the government in respect of football was control of fan behaviour, following Heysel and the Luton Town riot (ironically an all seater stadium), as well as problems away from stadia by “firms” following particular teams and with “football casuals”. The solution to this was tighter policing outside of football stadia, with, for instance, fans sometimes being ‘escorted’ (or marched) from their arrival at the local train station to the ground they were visiting. Inside grounds, fencing was the order of the day, so that fan disorder would not encroach on to the pitch, but less thought was given to fan safety. For instance, one of the problems at Hillsborough, reported by Bruce Grobbelaar (Liverpool goalkeeper) was that when he asked a police officer to open the single gate into a pen, he was told the “steward has the key” ( In any event the gate in question only allowed the access or egress of one person at a time, so, in the event of large scale crushing its usefulness was minimal.

In other words, it is arguable that government policy was unbalanced toward control of fan behaviour, paying too little attention to safety and the possibility that something could go wrong. With little or no consideration given to how to act in such circumstances. Yet again that question was never asked of the jury who were carefully guided toward immediate causes and responsibilities without consideration of the wider issues of the role of the game’s governing body and of the government itself.

Below is a picture of the fans crushed against the fencing at the Leppings Lane end. (

To me it looks as the person in red, just right of centre is probably already unconscious (at best). The person in grey to his left (our right) may be as well. We might reasonably ask if they were among those who died of compression asphyxia, as a great many of the 96 did? But more importantly for the purposes of the Inquest, and in particular because of Richard Chester’s statement to the Inquest, that a Safety Certificate for a football ground “is to ensure that the paying public are catered for and are hosted in a ground safe in the knowledge that the ground is safe for them.”, we really must get answers as to why the government of the day put such a small price on the safety of football fans in a football stadium. It is more than abundantly clear that that Safety Certificate, and its ‘monitoring’ in this case did not achieve its end. Why did the government of the day put such emphasis on controlling fan behaviour that their safety ceased to be even secondary? Does that alone – indeed does the above picture – not make that government culpable?

We can wonder why the FA, and the government were not included in the questions to be answered by the Inquest jury, and would very likely be told that its purpose was to examine the direct causes of the disaster, which in itself is just another way of saying that other matters have been excluded. Then again we might contemplate explanations such as avoiding criticism of the British elite and establishment. For instance, the FA is an organization whose origins owed much to English public schools coming together to agree a code which owed more to dribbling skills rather than the strength required in a scrum. Moreover, since 1955, when the Duke of Edinburgh became its President, successive Presidents have been members of the Royal Family, or connected to them (Earl of Harwood, Duke of Kent) with Prince William currently occupying the role. Criticism of the government of the time might implicate the inheritance of Margaret Thatcher, who reportedly had particularly strong views on controlling football fans. The day after the disaster, Thatcher herself came to Hillsborough where her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, relied upon what he was told about the disaster by the police blaming “tanked-up yobs” for the deaths. “Liverpool,” he later said, “should shut up about Hillsborough.” These two facts alone make more understandable the limitations on the questions the Inquest Jury were allowed to answer.

Bachrach and Baratz seminal article “Two Faces of Power” (The American Political Science Review, Volume 56, Issue 4 (Dec., 1962),947-952) first introduced the concept of nondecision-making by asking how issues are suppressed and the scope of decision-making restricted. The structure of the questions put to the Jury in this Inquest are an instance of power being used in this way.

The outcome of the Inquest that the fans were unlawfully killed is of course to be welcomed, but, as well as the above questions, the Inquest simply concealed other matters. For instance, while the Police have publicly accepted their responsibility, Duckenfield’s barrister and lawyers representing the force, during the hearing continued to press home the issue of fan behaviour, including not only previous instances such as Heysel but also repeating allegations of drunkenness and hostility to Police instructions in Leppings Lane, outside Hillsborough, (contributing to Duckenfield’s decision to disastrously open the exit gate). Moreover, they have still not admitted to their conspiracy to lie in the aftermath in order to smear the Liverpool fans, including those who died. Where the South Yorkshire force is concerned serious issues remain which extend far beyond David Duckenfield, and even the present Chief Constable (now suspended).

In short this Inquest has given closure to the families in that their loved ones are no longer officially held to have been responsible in any way. Responsibility instead has been pinned on the club and on a retired Police Officer. However guilty they were – and they were very, very guilty in very many ways – there are other people who may be guilty who have avoided being identified in the course of this Inquest, which, in terms of the questions put to the Jury, did not intend to identify them. The inquest was a move forward, but this matter has much further to travel, and however welcome and positive yesterday’s decisions were, there are many questions still to be answered which were not even allowed to be asked at the Inquest.

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