Karen Eyre-White reflects on the verdicts in the Hillsborough Inquests
I commend the determination and tenacity of the families and survivors of the Hillsborough disaster who fought for 27 years to get to the truth of what happened on that terrible day in April 1989. They have dedicated more than a quarter of a century to get justice for their loved ones.
On 26 April 2016, the Jury reached their decisions on the 14 questions set out by the Coroner after hearing evidence for more than 2 years. They found failings and inadequacies across the board, from the design and layout of the stadium, errors and omissions in the safety certification and oversight, a lack of pre-event planning, and errors and omissions in police management and response that all contributed to the disaster. Crucially, they found supporters were not to blame.
These conclusions are a reminder about what can happen if we don’t manage safety properly. Whilst the focus moves from the Inquests to the ongoing criminal investigations, I have been considering what these verdicts mean for the spectator safety community now and in the future.
Thankfully, since the Hillsborough tragedies sports grounds in this country have been transformed. Following the disaster in 1989, Lord Justice Taylor was tasked with reviewing all aspects of stadium safety and he set out a range of recommendations to improve standards. The resulting changes included better management of risks, modernised grounds, the move to all-seater stadia, improved facilities, advancements in technology, the introduction of professional safety officers and stewards and an integrated approach to spectator safety. This integrated approach brings together sports grounds, local authorities, police and other emergency services into a single coherent structure with a common safety focus. This approach has shown that people are safer when all partners work together to make their safety a priority.
The Sports Grounds Safety Authority (formerly the Football Licencing Authority) was set up in 1990 following the Hillsborough disaster to regulate local authorities in their oversight of safety at football grounds. Our purpose is simple: to ensure all spectators can enjoy watching sport in safety. We set standards for safety design and management, write guidance which is used around the world, and work in partnership to educate and influence. We also advise other sports and other countries who want to learn from the UK experience.
Whilst the robust systems and processes we have in place make the UK one of the safest places in the world to watch live sport, we must never be complacent about spectator safety. It is not possible to eliminate all risk, but we must continue to work together, harness the commitment of the sector and adapt to an ever changing world to ensure the safety of spectators remains a priority.
The world is always changing and there are new risks and challenges which must be addressed. We’re seeing increased use of flares and smoke bombs by spectators in sports grounds and there has been a huge rise in the popularity of drones, which if not properly managed can pose significant risks to safety. And the attempted terrorist attacks at the Stade de France last year shows that sports grounds can be high-profile targets. Sports grounds have responded by reviewing their security and contingency plans to make sure they are as prepared as possible if the worst happens.
The Inquests are a sombre reminder about the importance of spectator safety and why we must never be complacent. We must build on, not erode, the progress we have made in the last 27 years. I remind those working in local authorities that effective oversight is essential, and I encourage the managers and owners of sports grounds to ensure spectator safety remains on their board’s agenda; a consideration for everyone who works at a sports ground, not just the safety team. Supporters have an important part to play as well. The Football Supporters Federation encourages fans to get involved with their club and its local Safety Advisory Group. Their input and experience is valuable and helps to ensure that as a safety community we take in to account the views of those we are here to protect. It also encourages a culture of transparency and accountability.
The tragedies in 1989 will never be forgotten. They were a turning point in UK crowd safety management and the changes which have been made have resulted in some of the safest and most welcoming sports grounds in the world. We will continue to work with all parties to avoid complacency and ensure the UK remains one of the safest places in the world to watch live sport.