Hillsborough disaster: Public Advocate could 'assist bereaved and survivors in future tragedies'
A public advocate to advise and protect the interests of the bereaved in major incidents like the Hillsborough stadium disaster has been called for by peers.
Labour former justice minister Lord Wills said the appointment of an independent advocate could help alleviate the "alienation" felt by the bereaved and survivors caught up in official proceedings.
His Public Advocate Bill, which was given an unopposed second reading in the Lords, won heavyweight backing from the Opposition and Labour former home secretary Lord Blunkett.
Lord Blunkett, former MP for the Hillsborough area of Sheffield, hailed the appointment of an advocate as an "excellent idea", insisting it would help "get to the truth" more quickly.
He said an advocate would assist the bereaved in being able to articulate their "hurt" and help identify what had gone wrong, so others did not have to suffer in the future.
The Hillsborough disaster claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool supporters on April 15 1989 with the fatal injuries inflicted from a crush on the Leppings Lane terrace at Sheffield Wednesday's ground.
Lord Wills said the Bill arose from his "complicated and difficult" experience as a minister in devising the Hillsborough independent panel to look into the stadium disaster.
He said: "I want to pay tribute to the families bereaved in the disaster in 1989 who have campaigned for so long and with such dignity until at last they have begun to see the results of their campaign for justice."
He said the message that came through from their experience was that they wanted to find a way to prevent similarly bereaved families having to suffer they way they had for more than 20 years.
The history of Hillsborough illustrated the extent to which bereaved families and survivors could feel "alienated from the official process for responding to some public disasters".
Lord Wills said those bereaved by Hillsborough, and in other disasters like the Lockerbie terrorist atrocity, had experienced "intense difficulties" and there had to be a better response.
The needs and wishes of the bereaved were not "at the centre of the process" or "paramount".
The appointment of a public advocate would augment the current system to better protect the interests of the bereaved and survivors, he said.
He or she would act as a representative for the interests of the bereaved and as an adviser and guide during any subsequent investigation and inquest.
Liberal Democrat former justice minister Lord McNally, backing the Bill, said it wasn't just the "final piece in the Hillsborough puzzle" but also legislation which looked to the future.
Bereaved families felt removed from the process after a disaster, he told peers. "Ranks are closed to protect reputations and avoid culpability. The wheels grind slow and the lay person feels excluded as professionals seems to take over."
Lord Blunkett, who oversaw changes to the coroners' court system as home secretary, said the Bill was necessary to help people at the moment they were "hurt the most".
He said: "The quicker an advocate could come into the scene, the more likely it is that we will get to the truth quickly and avoid myth and counter-myth.
"I hope we won't put people through years and years of distress and anger because systems don't work and those in power ... are felt not to be listening."
For Labour, Lord Bach said the Bill was timely since the Hillsborough inquest was moving towards a conclusion but 27 years was "far, far too long a period to wait for a definitive judgment on what happened and why".
He said: "This sort of delay must never be allowed to happen again. This Bill is a serious attempt at ensuring it never does.
"In a civilised country the agony of the relatives of those who die in a tragedy of this kind should never again be added to by having to wait an appalling length of time to find out what happened."
Justice minister Lord Faulks said the Government shared the desire to ensure bereaved families and injured people were properly involved and supported throughout the investigation, inquest and inquiry process.
Ministers were fully committed to ensuring that bereaved families didn't feel "alienated" from the official process.
But he said much of what was proposed in the Bill for the role of public advocate was alreadyin place after procedural changes.
"The Government acknowledges there were significant issues in the way the Hillsborough families were treated and we agree it's vital lessons are learned and their experience should not be that of others in the future."
Lord Faulks said changes had been made and much of what was in the Bill was already happening, making it a "very different climate" to when Hillsborough happened.
"I believe at the moment there is no need for the public advocate role that the Bill envisages. The Government does, however, agree that the needs of the bereaved families in particular must be paramount and the principles behind the Bill are right. Bereaved families should feel their voice is heard."
The minister agreed to meet Lord Wills to look at ways of improving the existing system. The Bill was given a second reading without a vote and goes forward for its detailed committee stage at a later date.