A FORMER chief constable is to lead a new criminal inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster, which could result in the prosecution of police officers, the Football Association and Sheffield City Council over the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans.
Home Secretary Theresa May yesterday announced the new police investigation into the disaster, which happened during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in April, 1989. Jon Stoddart, former chief constable of Durham Police, will investigate the organisations that fall outside the remit of the Independent Police Complaints Commission – which is examining the actions of police officers in relation to the deaths.
Mr Stoddart will focus on Sheffield Wednesday FC, Sheffield City Council, the FA and engineers at the football ground. In September, the independent panel’s report into the disaster found that the FA authorised the Hillsborough ground to stage the match, even though it failed to reach minimum safety standards.
The Home Secretary said: “I am determined to see a swift and thorough response to the findings of the Hillsborough Panel to deliver justice for the 96 football fans who died and the families who have fought so hard on their behalf.”
Mr Stoddart will be able to recruit investigators and staff to his team, but he will not be allowed to employ officers or ex-officers with any prior connection to the Hillsborough disaster. He is also unable to recruit any officers or former officers who worked in the West Midlands, South Yorkshire or Merseyside forces.
Mr Stoddart will work closely with the previously announced Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation into police conduct in the aftermath.
He said: “My first priority is to meet with as many of the families as possible and to establish a working open relationship with them. I have held a number of meetings already and have been struck by their humility and steadfast determination to see justice delivered for their loved ones.
“My role is to ensure we determine exactly what happened in the lead-up to and on the day of the disaster and establish any culpability.”
The announcement was released ahead of the High Court decision to quash the original accidental death inquest verdicts for the 96 fans killed at Hillsborough.
The independent panel report triggered a raft of apologies from the likes of Prime Minister David Cameron and Kelvin MacKenzie – who was editor of the Sun when it ran a front-page story blaming fans for the disaster. The report also ultimately led to the resignation of West Yorkshire Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison, who was a chief inspector with South Yorkshire Police at the time.
The panel’s report found there were clear operational failures in response to the disaster and up to 41 fans could potentially have survived. It also found the then chief constable of South Yorkshire, Peter Wright, and his officers, with the help of local Tory MP Irvine Patnick, sought to cover up the failing. The new investigation could lead to criminal prosecutions, and for serving police officers it could also lead to misconduct proceedings, Mrs May said.
Mr Stoddart will principally investigate the deaths at Hillsborough, while the IPCC will principally investigate the aftermath of the disaster.
Barry Devonside, 65, lost his son Christopher, 18, at Hillsborough. Yesterday, he said: “History has been made today. If there is sufficient evidence to bring charges against those who were in the wrong then they have to be held accountable. I am not on a witch-hunt and I don’t want people locked up for the sake of it, but if there is evidence they should be before a court.
“If they had got the lines of ambulances on to the pitch at Hillsborough, so many people might not have been lost. And we might not have lost our son.”