Maria Eagle – 2020 Speech on Establishing a Public Advocate

Below is the text of the speech made by Maria Eagle, the Labour MP for Garston and Halewood, in the House of Commons on 22 April 2020.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a public advocate to provide advice to, and act as data controller for, representatives of the deceased after major incidents.

We have just reached the 31st anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. It has been a difficult and painful day for the families of the 96 innocent children, women and men who were unlawfully killed on that day. It has been a difficult and painful day for thousands of survivors, many still traumatised, who witnessed what happened at the ground on that day. It has been a difficult and painful day for the people of the city of Liverpool, and much of Merseyside beyond, still united in sorrow.

The Hillsborough Family Support Group intended to hold their final public memorial service at Anfield—I and many thousands of others had planned to go—after which they had announced their intention to disband and in future to remember their lost loved ones privately in their own way. But the covid-19 pandemic has meant, quite rightly, that the final public memorial service has had to be postponed.

As the families prepare to end their three decades of large public commemorations of the disaster, many feeling exhausted but vindicated, it is left to us, as lawmakers in this place, to ask ourselves how we can learn the many lessons of Hillsborough. How can it be that it has taken bereaved families so long to get the truth of what happened accepted officially and to get a measure of justice for their loved ones? It was 23 years before the truth was told by the Hillsborough Independent Panel and finally officially accepted. How can it be that bereaved families have had to campaign for over 30 years in the face of official indifference, and sometimes even hostility, to get truth and a measure of justice? What can we do, as lawmakers, to ensure that no other families bereaved in public disasters will ever again have to face what they have endured?

This Bill is about learning those lessons. I would like to thank Lord Michael Wills for drafting the Bill following work that he and I did in consulting families involved in a number of disasters. It draws on his knowledge and experience of devising the mechanics of how the Hillsborough Independent Panel should work when he was a Minister in the Ministry of Justice in 2009. Without his efforts and expertise in devising its powers to obtain and process documentation, the ability of the Hillsborough Independent Panel to establish the full truth of what happened may well have been compromised, and its findings may not have been accepted officially in the way in which they were. It is a model that can work to stop things going wrong in future disasters if the correct lessons are learned, and the Bill draws upon those lessons. If enacted, it can ensure that what has happened to the Hillsborough families will never happen again to any other families bereaved in a public disaster. Its provisions will change how we handle the aftermath of such events so that we can better enable families of the deceased and injured survivors to be central to what follows.​

Families usually want two simple things: they want to know what happened to their loved ones, and why; and they want to stop it ever happening again to any other family. This does not seem like much to ask, yet it is striking how frequently bereaved families feel let down by the official processes and legal proceedings that follow disasters. This is not just the experience of the Hillsborough families, but of others I have helped in my time as an MP. The MV Derbyshire families fought for 20 years to get to the truth that it was design flaws, not alleged poor seamanship, that led to the sinking of the bulk carrier that killed their relatives. The Marchioness families, the Lockerbie families and others have all had real misgivings about the outcomes and conduct of inquiries and other legal proceedings. Perhaps such failings are continuing. I have seen reports that the Grenfell families and survivors have similar misgivings about what is happening in the aftermath of that catastrophe. Bereaved families feel alienated and excluded from processes to which they should be central. This is a common experience.

There are clearly issues about adequate resources for bereaved families to be properly legally represented, but this Bill seeks to prevent things from going wrong at an early stage and then having to right them many years later, and it is separate from those issues about legal aid. It proposes the establishment of an independent, adequately resourced public advocate for those bereaved in public disasters and injured survivors. The public advocate would be located in a Government Department and able to call on its resources, but crucially they would be independent of Government decision, direction or control. The public advocate would be required to act if in that person’s opinion an event had occurred that led to large-scale loss of life and involved serious health and safety issues of failure of regulation, or other events of serious concern.

Crucially, 50% plus one or more of the representatives of the deceased and injured survivors would have to ask the advocate to act in order for them to get involved. This gives the families agency and facilitates collective solidarity among them, and it puts their collective voice at the centre of the aftermath. The public advocate would then be a representative of the interests of the bereaved and survivors collectively and act as an adviser and guide for them. The public advocate would not replace solicitors and barristers acting in legal proceedings for the bereaved and injured, but would fulfil an additional role.

The public advocate, as a data controller, would establish a panel, like the Hillsborough Independent Panel, in consultation with representatives of the deceased and survivors, to obtain and review all documentation at a much earlier stage than happened with Hillsborough, thus facilitating transparency and disclosure by way of reports to the Lord Chancellor and to Parliament. Such transparency was key to getting to the truth of Hillsborough, but it came 23 years after the event. Getting it done sooner could prevent things from going so wrong for those affected, facilitate openness and establish the truth at an early stage; and the families would be in the driving seat. This would be an important improvement to public policy in reaction to the frequent examples of things going wrong in the aftermath of public disasters. It is a simple and relatively inexpensive measure.​

In the Queen’s Speech of 2017, the May Government promised to establish such an office, but nothing has been done beyond a consultation in December 2018. The results of that consultation have not yet been published, and I do not know what the current Government’s intention is, because I have only received holding replies to parliamentary questions about this since December 2018.

The role of the public advocate set out in that consultation document is very different from that envisaged by this Bill. The public advocate envisaged by the Government consultation would not be independent. They would not be a data controller, they would not be able to act at the behest of families but would be directed by the Secretary of State, and they would not have the power to establish and appoint independent panels like the Hillsborough Independent Panel.

I hope that Ministers will commit to establishing the role as envisaged by this Bill, because unless families have more agency and the public advocate is truly independent, it will not work. To be effective, the public advocate needs independence, the confidence of the families and survivors, and the ability to establish, as a data controller, an independent panel to require the production of documents and to report findings outside of the legal proceedings. These are the essential elements that will prevent the aftermath of future disasters from being made more traumatic for families and survivors, and that will put us on the path to preventing the Hillsborough families’ experience from ever being repeated.

I feel well placed, after more than 30 years of knowing some of the Hillsborough families, and after 24 years of representing some of them as my constituents in this House, to promote this Bill as close as possible, in parliamentary terms, to the 31st anniversary of the disaster. I am proud that so many Merseyside MPs, who would have wished to have been here today, have agreed to sponsor the Bill and to support it in other ways, because Merseyside MPs understand the extent of the damage and the trauma that has resulted from Hillsborough.

May I close by saluting the courage and heroic persistence and indefatigability of the families of those unlawfully killed at Hillsborough? I know many of them. They are exceptional people—not least because they would deny that they are exceptional. By the sheer force of their determination to defend the reputations of their lost loved ones, to get truth, justice and accountability for those who were killed, to bring ease and peace to the traumatised survivors, they have won through. And backed by the people of the Liverpool city region, they have shown up the great injustices perpetrated on the innocent by the indifference and hostility of some of our official processes. I believe that this Bill, if enacted, will go a significant way towards preventing what has happened to them from ever happening to any other families in the future—something they fervently wish to see. As they end the big public commemorations on the anniversary of the disaster, it would be a fitting legacy for their efforts if they could help to ensure that what has happened to them never happens again to families who are bereaved in public disasters. This Bill would, I believe, do that. I commend the Bill to the House.