The Stuart Smith Scrutiny
The Labour party when in opposition promised Hillsborough families that if and when they came to power they would order a new inquiry into the Hillsborough Disaster. This was set within the context of Jimmy McGoverns' Hillsborough drama documentary bringing to the attention of the wider public The miscarriage of justice that had occurred over Hillsborough, in particular in respect of the inquests on the deceased. Peter Kilfoyle, M.P. for Walton Liverpool called for a fresh inquiry. The then home secretary, Michael Howard, responded by stating that such a decision could not be made lightly and that he would have to be convinced that "it would be in the public interest".
When Labour came to power in May 1997, the new home secretary, Jack Straw, on meeting with bereaved families sympathised with them and promised them that there would be an independent judicial scrutiny to inquire into the disaster. He stated that Lord Justice Stuart-Smith would head the scrutiny. Whilst the immediate response of this was one of optimism from families, nevertheless a closer look at what was being ordered clearly showed the limitations of this 'scrutiny'. It was only to look at 'new evidence'. This effectively meant only evidence that had not been before the Taylor inquiry, the DPP, the Attorney General or South Yorkshire Police.
Families quickly became confused by this 'Scrutiny'. What precisely was a 'scrutiny'. The popular impression (certainly in the media) was that there was to be a new inquiry. In reality however, the 'scrutiny' had no clear remit and seemed to operate largely at the discretion of Stuart-Smith himself. Of prime importance was that any consideration or decisions made would be within the paradigm of 'public interest'.
The one positive aspect of the scrutiny was that it enabled families to have access for the first time to the files on the deceased that were held by South Yorkshire Police. Many of the files corroborated that which had long been speculated i.e. statements had been tampered with.
On the 6 October 1997, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith was at the Maritime Museum in Liverpool's Docklands area. He was there to listen to any new evidence from families. Any optimism families might have had was swiftly diminished when the judge set the tone for the proceedings by stating to one bereaved father:
Have you got a few of your people or are they like the liverpool fans, turn up at the last minute.
This comment outraged families and rightly so. Here was a senior member of the judiciary in Liverpool to give families the opportunity to put the record straight once and for all about Hillsborough, yet his opening comments referred to that old chestnut about Liverpool fans and lateness. Hindsight is wonderful thing but clearly families should, at that stage, have refused to co-operate with the scrutiny until Stuart-Smith had been replaced. In any event they chose to accept his apology for what he referred to as a ''flippant remark''. He was later to issue a statement regretting his ' off the cuff remark' which had not been intended to 'offend'.
At that meeting on the first day he defined precisely what he meant by 'new evidence'. Fresh evidence was:
Evidence which was not available or was not presented
To the previous inquires, courts or authorities.
Even if they accepted his apology for his insensitive comments, the families should have walked out when he defined the parameters of his investigation. In his opening statement he was effectively saying that the Taylor Inquiry had been thorough, the police had paid out damages and the inquests had been considered 'exemplary by the Court of Appeal. In other words he rubber stamped everything that had gone before. Yet at this stage families had access to statements (for the first time) which clearly showed that these previous investigations were flawed by virtue of the fact that statements had been altered. However, by the judges terms of reference this would not constitute new evidence and therefore would be inadmissable. Families, from this point on were in a no win situation. As difficult as it would have been they should have held out for an inquiry with wider terms of reference.
Stuart-Smith stayed in Liverpool for three days hearing individual evidence from sixteen families. Individual meetings were very formal. Stuart-Smith was accompanied by the secretary to the Scrutiny (Chris Bone) and another unnamed 'official'. The meetings were quite inquisitorial and hostile in spite of the coffee on offer. Families were confused and frustrated that evidence they brought to the judge which they had gleaned from the recently released body files was not considered relevant. Yes, it was new to them but it had been before the other investigations albeit in its doctored fashion and therefore fell outside the remit of the scrutiny.
Any idea that Stuart-Smith was approaching this scrutiny with objectivity was an illusion. No better example can be given than when Dave and Maureen Church met with the judge accompanied by Sheila Coleman. They outlined the issues relating specifically to their dead son, Gary, and then went on to point out that one of the Investigating officers from the West Midlands Police, Superintendent Stanley Beechey, was a former head of the (by now disbanded) notorious Serious Crime Squad. They told the judge that there was evidence that Beechey had fabricated evidence and altered statements prior to Hillsborough. That it had been proved in a miscarriage of justice case that Beechey lied and framed an innocent man. The response of the judge illustrated clearly that families would get nowhere with this judge. He commented that just because an officer had lied in one instance did not mean that he would lie in another case and therefore this fact was not relevant. When the Church's received the transcript of this meeting this comment by the judge was ommitted. The selective use of comments in transcribed meetings has been a common theme throughout the entire Hillsborough issue.
The 18 February 1998 saw families making the by now familiar trip to London. This time at the invitation of Jack Straw, who wanted to tell them first of the outcome of the Scrutiny, prior to him announcing it in the House of Commons. Ominously perhaps, he met them in room 13 in the House. He described Stuart-Smith's scrutiny as thorough and impartial however, he went on to say that nothing of any significance had emerged to warrant a new inquiry. Straw accepted Stuart-Smith's findings describing them as 'dispassionate' and 'objective'. Families were outraged.
The journey back from London was like so many before, having set out with optimism no matter how remote they were returning with heavy hearts, the truth once again having been denied them. All they had got from the meeting was a free copy of Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's Scrutiny very quickly renamed the Stuart-Smith Stitch-up. On the train home families looked through the evidence and marvelled at how such evidence could be ignored. This was worse than if the evidence had not been available. Here it was, in black and white, the establishment sticking two fingers up to the families - they acknowledged that statements had been altered but effectively said 'so what?'. Political commentators should have made a note of Straw's attitude here for it was clearly a forerunner to how 'new labour' would be running things from that point on.
It is worth taking a look at Stuart-Smith's 'impartial' and 'objective' approach. The case of Kevin Williams serves as a good example. Anne Williams, mother of Kevin, had worked relentlessly to unearth the true facts surrounding her son's death. In the course of her efforts she secured meetings with two crucial witnesses-ironically both police officers who had attempted to save Kevin. Both officers informed her (in front of witnesses) that they had been pressured into making second statements by the West Midlands Police. One officer, Derek Bruder, was to refute this and say to Stuart-Smith that he had not been pressured there are still witnesses including his senior officer at the time to confirm that he stated he had been pressured. The other officer, Special Constable Debra Martin, however, has constantly maintained from the first time Anne Williams met her that the West Midlands Police harassed her by constantly visiting her and in the end she gave in under pressure and signed a second statement that had without reading it. The second statement was written by a WPC Julie Appleton who of course denied that any pressure had been exerted on Debra Martin and who stated that Martin had dictated the statement to her and had read it before she signed it. Debra Martin had consistently maintained that her first statement written shortly after the disaster is the true account and the second statement is a fiction of WPC Appleton's. In her first statement Debra Martin staes quite clearly that Kevin Williams opened his eyes in the gymnasium looked at her and said 'Mum'. This was at 4 p.m. on the day of the disaster. Was that the reason this had to be changed? Stuart-Smith chose to ignore the evidence of Debra Martin in favour of WPC Julie Appleton. He stated:
In my judgement Debra Martin cannot be regarded as a reliable witness. ...By contrast I found WPS Appleton a most impressive witness.
Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? This one example illustrates perfectly how the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny did more harm than it ever did good. It served to consolidate the establishment view of events and discount as irrelevant any inconsistencies with that view. The report is a public document which can be viewed but the following statement (point 5 of the summary) supports this assertion:
...I have come to the clear conclusion that there is no basis upon which there should be a further Judicial Inquiry or a reopening of Lord Taylor's Inquiry. There is no basis for a renewed application to the Divisional Court or for the Attorney General to exercise his powers under the Coroners Act 1988. I do not consider that there is any material which should be put before the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Police Complaints Authority which might cause them to reconsider the decisions they have already taken. Nor do I consider that there is any justification for setting up any further inquiry into the performance of the emergency and hospital services. I have considered the circumstances in which alterations were made to some of the self-written statements of South Yorkshire Police officers, but I do not consider that there is any occasion for any further investigation.
To many the Stuart-Smith Scrutiny stands as a testament to the Labour Party's crude electioneering. Prior to their victory in May 1997, Labour politicians who had shown little interest in the Hillsborough issue realised it was a potential vote catcher. They promised so much. However, once in office, Jack Straw did no more as Home Secretary than to implement the policies of the previous Home Secretary (Michael Howard) in relation to Hillsborough. The Stuart-Scrutiny was a sop. It was not an inquiry as such. It was a convenient tool to further consolidate that which had gone before and to further enshrine in law one of the greatest injustices in Britain.