Plans for a new Independent Public Advocate which will provide specialist support for survivors and bereaved families of major disasters like Hillsborough, the Manchester Arena bombing, and the Grenfell Tower fire were unveiled by the government on 1st March.
Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab confirmed that dedicated support will be provided by an expert panel who will act as a new Independent Public Advocate, ensuring that victims and affected families are ‘at the heart’ of the government’s response. This expert panel will include former social workers, ex-civil servants, retired doctors, emergency services, professionals with media experience and community leaders.
This measure follows five years of pressure from campaigners after the government’s continuing failure to respond to an official report and its recommendations regarding the Hillsborough disaster, during which 97 football fans sadly died during a crush at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield in 1989.
The panel of trained advocates will provide services like signposting the survivors and bereaved to financial, physical, and mental health services as well as advocating on their behalf to public authorities. The experts will also ensure that victims and their families are kept up to date with relevant information regarding inquests and inquiries.
A crucial element of this proposal highlighted by the government is the responsibility of the new Independent Public Advocate to produce a report which must include recommendations based on the experiences of the bereaved and survivors to the government for improvement once investigations are completed.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May, MP said she welcomes the introduction of this new support plan and is looking forward to ‘working with the government to ensure that it delivers the support needed in the aftermath of a public disaster.’
However, the government’s plans have been criticised as inadequate, particularly in relation to its failure to provide legal aid funding so that victims can be legally represented in an inquest, or to introduce a duty of candour on public authorities
In his response to the Ministerial Statement on the Independent Public Advocate, Ian Byrne, MP likened the measure to a ‘weak sign-posting service’. He maintained that this proposal would not have stopped the cover ups of Hillsborough and is unlikely to prevent further cover ups that may occur in the future. Byrne stated that a full implementation of Hillsborough Law is urgently needed.
Furthermore, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Labour Peer and former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice described the government’s action as ‘bitterly disappointing’ and stated that the proposal has no power to ‘nip a cover-up in the bud.’
Labour MP Maria Eagle a long time Parliamentary campaigner on issues relating to the Hillsborough disaster welcomed the introduction of legislation in this area but feels that the proposal ‘won’t be effective in its current form.’