The Hillsborough Disaster
On 15 April 1989 over 50,000 men, women and children travelled by train, coach and car to Hillsborough Stadium, home of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, to watch an FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. It was a sunny, warm, spring day and one of the high points of the English football season.
Hillsborough was a neutral venue, like so many stadia of its time a mix of seated areas and modified standing terraces. As the match started, amid the roar of the crowd it became apparent that in the central area of the Leppings Lane terrace, already visibly overcrowded before the kick-off, Liverpool fans were in considerable distress.
In fact, the small area in which the crush occurred comprised two pens. Fans had entered down a tunnel under the West Stand into the central pens 3 and 4. Each pen was segregated by lateral fences and a high, overhanging fence between the terrace and the perimeter track around the pitch. There was a small locked gate at the front of each pen.
The crush became unbearable and fans collapsed underfoot. To the front of pen 3 a safety barrier broke, creating a pile of people struggling for breath. Despite CCTV cameras transmitting images of distress in the crowd to the Ground Control Room and to the Police Control Box, and the presence of officers on duty on the perimeter track, it was a while before the seriousness of what was happening was realised and rescue attempts were made.
As the match was stopped and fans were pulled from the terrace through the narrow gates onto the pitch, the enormity of the tragedy became evident. Fans tore down advertising hoardings and used them to carry the dead and dying the full length of the pitch to the stadium gymnasium.
Ninety-six women, men and children died as a consequence of the crush, while hundreds more were injured and thousands traumatised. In the immediate aftermath there was a rush to judgement concerning the cause of the disaster and culpability. In a climate of allegation and counter-allegation, the Government appointed Lord Justice Taylor to lead a judicial inquiry.
What followed, over an 11-year period, were various different modes and levels of scrutiny, including Lord Justice Taylor's Interim and Final Reports, civil litigation, criminal and disciplinary investigations, the inquests into the deaths of the victims, judicial reviews, a judicial scrutiny of new evidence conducted by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, and the private prosecution of the two most senior police officers in command on the day.
Despite this range of inquiry and investigation, many bereaved families and survivors considered that the true context, circumstances and aftermath of Hillsborough had not been made public. They were also profoundly concerned that following unsubstantiated allegations made by senior police officers and politicians and reported widely in the press, it had become widely assumed that Liverpool fans' behaviour had contributed to, if not caused, the disaster.
In 2009, at the 20th anniversary of the disaster, Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, announced the Government's intention to effectively waive the 30-year rule withholding public records to enable disclosure of all documents relating to the disaster.
In July 2009 the Hillsborough Family Support Group, supported by a group of Merseyside MPs, presented to the Home Secretary a case for disclosure based on increasing public awareness of the circumstances of the disaster and the appropriateness of the investigations and inquiries that followed.
The Home Secretary met with representatives of the Hillsborough Family Support Group and in January 2010 the Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, was appointed.