14:47, June 28 177 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-28 14:47:03
The Guardian view on Hillsborough prosecutions: an interminably long wait

Theresa May was certainly taking no risks when she said in the House of Commons today that the decision to prosecute six people with offences arising out of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster arouses “mixed emotions”. Those emotions are likely to include satisfaction that criminal law due process will now take place, and concern that the case, whatever its outcome, will reach court more than 28 years after the death of 96 Liverpool football fans at the Hillsborough ground. Those and other even stronger emotions will be widely shared, for they relate to a very public tragedy, they raise big issues of public policy, and it has taken too long to get to this stage.

The charges announced by the Crown Prosecution Service range from gross negligence manslaughter to misconduct in a public office, breaches of health and safety law, and perverting the course of justice. All of these are serious charges carrying prison sentences. No organisation that was involved at Hillsborough is to face corporate charges. But there are proper limits to what can now be said. The criminal prosecutions must on no account be endangered. The law must be allowed to take its course at last. No one should take the risk of saying anything that could be taken to taint the criminal process that has now been announced.

The question of responses and proceedings in the wake of major human disasters is, however, at the very top of the public mind at present. Debates on this wider set of issues cannot possibly be parked as a result of the pending Hillsborough proceedings. The Grenfell Tower disaster has once again raised major issues of individual responsibility, corporate responsibility and wider government supervision and practice that are still being assessed. The argument about it was rightly at the centre of the first prime minister’s question time of the newly elected parliament.

Some of the issues have strong echoes of earlier disasters, including Hillsborough among others. 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, in 2045. Hopefully, modern politics is more responsive now. The government’s Queen’s speech proposal to set up an independent public advocate’s office to work for victims and their families in the wake of disasters may be a good step.

What must be said, though, is that the evolution of the law and practice in response to public disasters has for decades been too slow and inadequate when set alongside the seriousness of the loss of life involved. In 1913, for example, Britain’s worst ever mining disaster took place at Senghenydd in Glamorgan. It killed 439 miners and one rescuer. A subsequent inquiry led to negligence charges against the colliery manager under the Coal Mines Act 1911, then a state-of-the-art piece of regulatory legislation. The manager was fined £24. The colliery company 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 in Britain’s worst peacetime maritime disaster since 1919, an inquiry found “a disease of sloppiness and negligence” throughout the ferry company, and directors who had no idea of their responsibilities. 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. But at least the case established corporate manslaughter as an admissable charge in the English courts.

There are moments in modern British life when many curse some aspect of the health and safety culture, sometimes rightly. Yes, there will always be elements of risk in human life. But cases such as Grenfell Tower and Hillsborough are never acceptable risks. They are reminders that health and safety law, properly enforced, is a fundamental social necessity. Those with responsibilities should be held accountable. The public should not have to face being killed at work, at arenas, as they travel or in their beds. Cultures of individual managerial and corporate responsibility matter. They have been established too slowly and still only imperfectly, invariably in the face of organised corporate resistance. It is not red tape or a bureaucratic restriction on business to demand that this effort must continue with more determination than ever.