My last blogs were focused on my concerns with the lack of accountability in relation to the review into children’s heart surgery and the issues relating to accountability and transparency have been very much on my mind as a result. It has been with deep sadness that I have followed the unravelling story of the Hillsborough disaster. Sadly, it would seem that in recent years there have been several high profile examples of cover ups which have illuminated the culture of secrecy that appear to have been both accepted and prevalent by many in our public bodies. I have frequently heard discussion of how ‘developing’ countries are riddled with corruption, and whilst it is undeniable that it exists, it is usually blatant. Here on the other hand, we seem to have been under the illusion that power has not corrupted our institutions. Yet, the Hillsborough disaster seems to have provided a further example of the state essentially saying that ordinary people can’t have justice.
The implementation of the Freedom of Information Act under the Labour Government in 2000 was an attempt to open up our institutions to greater scrutiny thus making them more accountable. It is somewhat amusing to me that one of the most famous critics of this act is now Tony Blair, however I digress! However whilst trying to obtain information relating to out of date data, capacity and ECMO mortality rates in relation to the review into children’s heart surgery, I have discovered that it is not quite so “free” to obtain as one might expect. Further to this is the troubling “Justice and Secrecy Bill” that the current government have been trying to rush through. This bill will allow ministers to withhold evidence which would currently be given before an open court. As a result the evidence would only be seen by a judge, and even the claimant could be excluded from it. Clare Algar, the Executive director of Reprieve, recently wrote, “Either those responsible for the justice and security bill are seeking to mislead the public, or they have failed to understand the full implications of the legislation. The government's own reviewer of terrorism legislation has warned that under these plans "the judge's hands are effectively tied" and the secretary of state "pulls the strings". He has also pointed out that "some cases will be tried by a closed material procedure that could have been fairly tried under [the existing system of] public interest immunity". Current ministers may honour their promises concerning secrecy, but there is nothing in this bill to ensure this. It will create irresistible temptation, by providing a way to conceal embarrassing information and kill off the cases that might reveal it.”
Ensuring that the truth is heard and culpability is determined is always going to be a painful process for those involved, however it is essential if we are to ensure that we are able to live in a truly fair, free and just society. Lord Falkner described the cover-up and corruption surrounding the Hillsborough disaster as, “the organs of the state” failing. Surely we have a duty to stop being apathetic and allowing those running our institutions to believe that they have some sort of paternalistic, at best, and arrogant right to do as they please? I hope that the Hillsborough families who have fought so long and hard are now able to gain a degree of closure. However I also hope that the apologies of those in power are not in fact a case of “crocodile tears” whilst still pushing ahead with a bill that will mean that those who come into conflict with the state are unable to achieve the justice that they are entitled to.