The Hillsborough Files: Why tonight’s debate is simply about the Government following the law

A million words have been written ahead of tonight’s House of Commons debate about the release of documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster, which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans in 1989.

Prime minister David Cameron, and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, have both pledged the full release of the documents held by government related to the tragedy, but have sought to impose their own terms on the release of those documents.

And that’s what politicians must not lose sight of during tonight’s debate. The debate was triggered by an e-petition which attracted 139,000 signatures. The petition was prompted by the Cabinet Office’s refusal to adhere to a ruling by the Information Commissioner relating to a Freedom of Information request submitted  by the BBC, which asked for documents relating to the disaster held by the Cabinet Office.

Those documents would likely include the communications received and, presumably, sent by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

The Cabinet Office originally said no to the release of the documents, which the Information Commissioner then ruled against. The Cabinet Office was set to appeal that ruling, until politicians sensed a public backlash brewing and started promising full disclosure – but on their terms.

They want the information to be released after it has been read and cleared by the Hillsborough Independent Panel – set up to examine all Hillsborough documents –  and then given to the families of the Hillsborough victims first.

While no-one would seek to deny the families of the victims access to the documents first, it is essential that the Government isn’t allowed to start creating its own set of rules for the release of the documents.

The e-petition called for:

Full government disclosure and publication of all documents, discussions and reports relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. As requested by information commissioner Christopher Graham.

The key phrase there is ‘As requested by information commissioner Christopher Graham.’ This isn’t about appealing to the Government to be more open and transparent, it’s about the Government following legislation and releasing information which the independent body involved in monitoring FOI – the Information Commissioner – has ruled should be released.

The Prime Minister today shadow health secretary Andy Burnham – an Everton fan who has been quite vocal on Hillsborough in recent times – that he wanted ‘full disclosure’ of Hillsborough documents.

Tonight, the Government has the chance to deliver on that – by releasing information it has been told to release. In other words, the Government should prove that it’s not one rule for us and one rule for them. Should that be the case, then FOI legislation really isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

* The Liverpool ECHO’s section dedicated to Hillsborough can be viewed here.

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