10 May 2016

‘We in the police got it wrong’: PCC Alan Billings on Hillsborough

Alan Billings is angry. He is frustrated. But he is patient.  Newly re-elected (with a vast majority share of the vote) as Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Britain’s most beleaguered police force – South Yorkshire –  he knows he has one hell of a task to hand:

“Police morale has fallen. Of course it has. The police just feel under constant battering. It’s almost as if they feel they cannot get out from under these things. Officers feel these legacy issues – if I can call them that – are just continually dragging them down and they can’t escape it.”

Well who is at fault then Alan?

The Reverend Doctor Alan Billings is a curious mixture of taking it on the chin and wanting to pass responsibility to others. But he does not, cannot, deny that with Orgreave, Hillsborough and Rotherham, the force he is paid to hold to account has some unique accounting to do.

He’s on the front foot over Orgreave, saying an new inquiry is “inevitable” and the Home  Secretary will establish one “within a month”.

“The miners’ strike,” he says from the comfort zone of a long-serving Sheffield Labour councillor,”was the nearest we came in my life to a politicised police force. I think the police were dangerously close to being used as an instrument of the state.”

But this is relatively easy stuff, comfort zone stuff.  Hillsborough is more difficult.

We start on the notorious public apology the force gave for the disaster in 2012 and then proceeded to ignore it and  blame the fans throughout the recent inquests:

“It looked hypocritical. It looked like we didn’t mean it. We have to mean it now when we apologise.”

Critically – and this is often forgotten  – Alan Billings only became commissioner once the inquests were under way. The Chief Constable (suspended) and previous PCC Shaun Wright (who resigned over the Rotherham child abuse scandal) had supported the legal strategy to blame the fans throughout the inquests and the cash to pay for those lies – £25m of taxpayers’ money.

Billings says he could do nothing. He says the coroner warned him he’d be in contempt if he spoke or intervened in any way in the legal process.  He says he spoke to the Chief Constable and to the coroner but he was legally gagged:

“I could not intervene. The coroner was very clear. I could not prejudice the inquest jury.

“I tried to cap the legal expenditure. We were judicially reviewed twice. I was in discussion with the Home Secretary. The legal teams were threatening to walk out and I could have collapsed the entire inquests – a disaster for the families.

“We in the police got it wrong. I am sorry for that. Sorry for the families of those who died. I am deeply sorry for the 27 years of hurt but I’m not the Chief Constable. I don’t run the police force.”

Freed at last by the inquest findings, he says he acted at once to suspend Chief Constable David Crompton on full pay of around £170,000.

It appears that the men who need to account for £25m spent peddling lies at the inquests are Shaun Wright and David Crompton.

But Billings would draw wider lessons beyond  S Yorkshire police into all police forces:

“There is the general culture to close ranks and look inward at the first signs of trouble and that is the culture we have to change.”

Good luck with that one.

South Yorkshire police faces a Police Complaints Commission criminal Investigation into the alleged Hillsborough cover-up;  the Operation Resolve criminal investigation into the Hillsborough disaster; the investigation into suspended Chief Constable David Crompton; a vast slew of  Hillsborough compensation claims; a possible new Orgreave lnquiry – and possible criminal trials next year over Hillsborough.

No – South Yorkshire police force is nowhere near being out of the woods yet.

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