Andy Burnham claims the South Yorkshire police force is in ‘deep denial’ and has a history of ‘underhand tactics in pursuing false prosecutions’.
The Shadow Home Secretary has been scathing in his criticism of the force in the wake of the Hillsborough inquest earlier this week, when the jury returned a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’, completely exonerating the Liverpool fans who were portrayed as the villains of the piece by the authorities and sections of the media on that terrible afternoon in 1989 when 96 supporters lost their lives.
South Yorkshire police have since been told to be proud of their work in a message on a website for retired officers, a statement that has caused further anger and resentment among the victims’ families.
And Burnham, Labour MP for Leigh, could not hide his contempt when he spoke to Julia Hartley-Brewer on Thursday morning.
“That is a statement that reflects the deep denial that exists within the South Yorkshire force,” he said. “It’s not just Hillsborough, is it?
“We have the neglect of victims of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, and going way back we have what was called the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, which people may remember during the miners’ strike.
“And that’s relevant here because this same force used the same underhand tactics against the miners in pursuing false prosecutions against them that was later used to much more deadly effect against the people of Liverpool.
“So there is a style here, a pattern of working where the force created a narrative that suited its version of events and the force, consistently in my view over the course of the past 27 years, was protecting itself before protecting the victims and the bereaved of Hillsborough.
“That is evidence, in my view, of a real toxic culture and one that is rotten to the core.
“I must stress I am not blaming ordinary police officers of South Yorkshire, who did so much in difficult circumstances on the day [at Hillsborough]. I’m not blaming those out on our streets today helping to keep people safe. I think they have been badly let down by their leaders.
“There has to be accountability for what happened. And that must mean prosecutions. This was a malicious act. Let’s remember, Liverpool back then was a city as its moment of greatest grief and to throw those falsehoods around at that time was, in my view, criminal. Truly criminal. And that is why people must be held to account.
“I’ll give you a direct example. I had two constituents who were there on that day, Lee Walls and Carl Brown. They came through Gate C together just before three o’clock. They had waited patiently outside and they came through together when the gate was opened.
“They went straight through the tunnel with the crowd who were walking down and were drawn straight into those central pens. They got separated. Carl died and Lee survived. So imagine how it must have felt to be him a couple of days later reading the allegations that fellow supporters were to blame for those deaths?
“It has caused real, real damage to people down the years. They have struggled with those malicious stories. Finally they were cleared away on Tuesday but people have to be held to account for what they did, in both the police and the media. Those stories had really damaging consequences on thousands of lies.”
South Yorkshire police apologised to the families in 2012 following the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report, but then went back on that apology at this subsequent inquiry. Chief Constable David Crompton has now been suspended, and Burnham insists his career should be over.
He added: “I believe his position is untenable for the decision he took to change the position of the force when this new inquest came along.
“They didn’t repeat the apology, and they didn’t accept liability. And again they made suggestions the fans were to blame. The police had a right to be represented [at the inquiry], but they had no right to repeat lies at tax payers’ expense.
“For me there is no explanation or justification for those actions. The right thing to do would have been to maintain the apology and maintain the admission of liability and begin a process of learning within the force.
“My observation at the inquest was this force hasn’t changed and hasn’t learned, and that starts at the very top.”