217. Achieving Change: the Lessons of Hillsborough

Readers of this blog will be aware that there is an overwhelming case for changing the dietary advice on official guidelines here in the UK and in many other nations. While there are compelling arguments for a complete re-vamp of these recommendations, the barriers to change must not be under-estimated as illustrated by the aftermath of the tragedy at Hillsborough in Sheffield.

Results of the Hillsborough Inquest

The findings of the latest inquest into the events at the football match in which 96 fans from Liverpool lost their lives 27 years ago in 1989 have just been announced.

The jury reached the following decisions:

  • The match commander Chief Supt David Duckenfield was “responsible for manslaughter by gross negligence” due to a breach of his duty of care
  • Police errors caused a dangerous situation at the turnstiles
  • Failures by commanding officers caused a crush on the terraces
  • There were mistakes in the police control box over the order to open the Leppings Lane end exit gates
  • Defects at the stadium, including calculations over crowd capacity, contributed to the disaster
  • There was an error in the safety certification of the Hillsborough stadium
  • South Yorkshire Police (SYP) and South Yorkshire Ambulance Service (SYAS) delayed declaring a major incident
  • The emergency response was therefore delayed
  • Sheffield Wednesday failed to approve the plans for dedicated turnstiles for each pen
  • There was inadequate signage at the club and misleading information on match tickets
  • Club officials should have requested a delay in kick off as they were aware of a huge number of fans outside shortly before the game was due to start.

It was also highly significant that the jury decided that the fans did not contribute to the disaster in any way. The Prime Minister stated that this was “official confirmation” fans were “utterly blameless”.

These decisions are the culmination of a long and persistent battle on the part of the relatives of the deceased to have official recognition of what really happened on that April day in 1989.

This inquest clearly accepts that there was gross negligence on the part of the police in the way the crowds were controlled. Over the years there have been numerous inquiries and investigations, including an earlier inquest, which have failed to uncover the truth. However, the Inquiry by Lord Justice Taylor in the immediate aftermath of the incident was pretty well spot on but I as I explain below was completely disregarded.

The fact that the truth has finally come out is due entirely to the tenacity of the relatives who refused to give up what at times might have seemed to be an impossible task.

The fundamental problem was the refusal by the SYP to accept the responsibility for negligence which has finally been exposed. In fact the police took unprecedented steps to blame the fans themselves for what went wrong.


The Taylor Inquiry

Within months, the interim report of the Taylor Inquiry was presented to the Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd.

Here is how one of his aides described her perception of the Taylor report:

“The criticism of the police is very damning. The Chief Superintendent in charge is shown to have behaved in an indecisive fashion. To make matters worse, the senior officers involved sought to duck all responsibility when giving evidence to the Inquiry. Their defensiveness apparently infuriated the Judge”. (1)

In a briefing to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Hurd stated that:

 “But the most severe criticism is directed at the South Yorkshire Police; Taylor concludes that the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control. The actions of individual senior officers, especially Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, are criticised; reference is made to poor operational orders, lack of leadership, and evidence of senior officers given to the Inquiry is described as defensive and evasive. It would be for the Chief Constable, and perhaps the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Police Complaints Authority, to act on the conduct of individual officers.”

He also noted that:

“Liverpool fans – who have caused trouble in the past – will feel vindicated’ and ‘[a]ggressive behaviour by fans towards the police may be encouraged’. While being ‘a very sorry episode … there seems no reason to think that the report’s conclusions are wrong”. (2)

Margaret Thatcher’s response

It is extremely revealing to note the Prime Minister’s response:

“What do we mean by ‘welcoming the broad thrust of the report’? The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome? … Surely we welcome the thoroughness of the report and its recommendations” – M.T. [Margaret Thatcher] (3).

South Yorkshire Police continue to blame the fans

As a result, any criticisms of the police which Douglas Hurd was prepared to accept were effectively quashed by Margaret Thatcher. Essentially this got the SYF off the hook and even in this last inquest they have been able to maintain their original stance.

According the report of the inquest in The Guardian:

“The present-day South Yorkshire police force itself and the Police Federation also argued that Liverpool supporters outside the Leppings Lane end could be found to have contributed to the disaster because “a significant minority” were alleged to have been drunk and “non-compliant” with police orders to move back. Yet survivors gave evidence of chaos at the Leppings Lane approach, no atmosphere of drunkenness or misbehaviour, and no meaningful police activity to make orderly queueing possible in that nasty space.

Many officers who made such allegations against supporters in their original 1989 accounts, which the force notoriously vetted and altered, maintained that stance under scathing challenge by the families’ barristers. For periods, these inquests felt like an inversion of a criminal prosecution, in which police officers were repeatedly accused of lying, covering up and perverting the course of justice, while sticking insistently to their stories”(4).

Essentially the Taylor report got it right but the intervention of Margaret Thatcher has meant that what should have been resolved has been allowed to drag on for many years. Despite heroic efforts by the campaigners, the establishment continued to defend the indefensible for many years.

Implications for nutrition policy

There are very definite lessons here for those who advocate a wholesale alteration on nutrition policies. It must be emphasised that Hillsborough is not an isolated case. It is exactly the same story with several different child abuse cases and in Stafford Hospital where there were systematic failures resulting in the deaths of up to 1200 patients.

The common theme is that those directly involved use every trick in the book to avoid accepting responsibility and if at all possible blame those who have a grievance. However, where the system breaks down is the failure of those charged with ensuring the maintenance of high standards, especially senior civil servants and politicians.

Those of us who wish to see an alteration in nutrition policies are faced with exactly the same obstacles. The position can be illustrated very neatly by those who suffer from Type 2 Diabetes (T2D). The official advice is to reduce the intake of fat and to increase that of carbohydrates. It is established that this is not effective and actually makes the condition worse.

This means that here in the UK, millions of patients are being denied the advice, which would help them to cope with their T2D. As a consequence, very many of them are suffering unnecessarily and dying prematurely. The number of people involved is enormous compared to those lost at Hillsborough. Because of the failure to address the issue, the problem continues.

When I wrote to my MP, Julian Smith, he passed my letter to the Department of Health and I received the following response from Minister Jane Ellison:

“Preventing diabetes and promoting the best possible care for people with diabetes is of great concern to the Government. The NHS Five Year Forward View set out a commitment to implement the National Diabetes Prevention Programme to provide lifestyle programmes to pre-diabetic patients in order to reduce the risk of their developing diabetes. The Department is also building on the Diabetes Prevention Programme to improve the outcomes of people with and at risk of diabetes and will put forward our plans in due course.”

In other words:

“we will carry on what we are doing already”. She did not even have the courtesy to explain why I was wrong. Perhaps an official has scribbled a damning comment on my letter which the Minster (or whoever drafted the reply) has used to justify her response. Unfortunately this is probably locked away for 30 years.

Which is exactly the response the Hillsborough campaigners got for many years. One of the weaknesses of the T2D issue is that there is no group with the dedication, persistence and resources of those concerned with the Hillsborough incident. So if any progress is to be achieved, then this may well be an essential requirement. Because so relatively few understand what is wrong, it is crucial to disseminate our current knowledge and insight as widely as possible. Hopefully as more and more appreciate what is really happening, the pressure for a totally new approach will build up so that government will be forced to act. But be prepared for a long and difficult battle.


Note: for the first 3 references it is necessary to go to the report of the independent inquiry and then click on the appropriate link at the bottom of the page. These are all to government documents released prior to the usual 30-year embargo which provide fascinating insight into the views of Ministers and their advisers.

  1. http://hillsborough.independent.gov.uk/report/main-section/part-2/chapter-6/page-8/ (73)
  2. http://hillsborough.independent.gov.uk/report/main-section/part-2/chapter-6/page-8/ (74)
  3. http://hillsborough.independent.gov.uk/report/main-section/part-2/chapter-6/page-8/ (75)
  4. http://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/apr/26/hillsborough-disaster-deadly-mistakes-and-lies-that-lasted-decades
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