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Arena bomb coroner vows ‘rigorous investigation’ into security services

Sir John's decision on the PII applications will be made public at a later date (stock photo)
Sir John's decision on the PII applications will be made public at a later date (stock photo)

By Pat Hurst

Families of those murdered in the Manchester Arena suicide bombing have been promised a "rigorous" investigation into the police and security services, a court heard.

Coroner and retired High Court judge Sir John Saunders said the families will have to "take his word" that he will investigate the authorities thoroughly during a hearing where lawyers for the authorities applied for evidence to be kept secret in the forthcoming inquests.

Lawyers for the families said the police and security services applying for public interest immunity (PII) for some evidence on the grounds of national security were the same people who may be in the "firing line" for criticism during the inquests.

The hearing, the fourth pre-inquest review hearing, was held at Manchester Town Hall ahead of full inquests next April into the deaths of the 22 people murdered by suicide bomber Salman Abedi (22) at the end of an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena on May 22, 2017.

The inquests will examine the build-up and the attack itself, security at the arena, the emergency response and the victims and their cause of death.

They will also look at whether the attack could have been prevented and the role of the police and security services.

Sir John said: "This will be a vigorous process. Public interest immunity will not be used as a device for covering up responsibility and I will do my very best that does not happen. A rigorous investigation will take place."

Part of the hearing was held in private for the coroner to consider the PII applications by the Home Office and Greater Manchester Police (GMP).

Unusually, the coroner and lawyers representing GMP and the Government were at an undisclosed location, with proceedings live-streamed from there to the town hall where lawyers representing the families and press were present.

The two-hour public part of the hearing heard lawyers for the families and authorities dispute the relative importance of public security and the necessity of public justice.

Sir John must rule whether to allow or reject the applications by the authorities.

Sir James Eadie QC, representing the Home Office, said that while public, open justice was a "thoroughly important matter", he suggested the balance lay in favour of not making public information about the police and security services that may be of use to terrorists, so national security held the "whip hand".

"National security, if you will, is at the very top of the tree in terms of protection of the public and, therefore, public interest," he added.

Alan Payne QC, representing GMP, said the evidence in the application had been analysed and their counter-terrorism experts concluded it could not be made public without jeopardising national security.

However, lawyers for the families of the 22, who have not seen the evidence the authorities want to withhold, stressed the need for as open an inquest process as possible.

Pete Weatherby QC, representing families, told the court: "There's fear from the families that the public interest immunity applications are being cast too wide."

Sir John's decision on the PII applications will be made public at a later date.

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