Margaret Thatcher voiced concern that a 1989 report into the Hillsborough disaster constituted a “devastating criticism” of police, previously-unpublished Cabinet papers revealed today.
The comment came in a handwritten note by the then-prime minister in the margin of a civil servant’s memo informing her that Home Secretary Douglas Hurd planned to welcome the broad thrust of Lord Taylor’s interim report on its publication in August 1989.
The prime minister, now Baroness Thatcher, had already been warned that the interim report was “very damning” of police but attached “little or no blame” to Liverpool fans.
The interim report found that the chief superintendent in charge at Hillsborough had “behaved in an indecisive fashion” and senior officers infuriated the judge by seeking to “duck all responsibility when giving evidence” to his inquiry, she was told in a memo from a senior civil servant.
The memo made clear that Mr Hurd thought South Yorkshire Chief Constable Peter Wright would have to resign, adding: “The enormity of the disaster, and the extent to which the inquiry blames the police, demand this.”
And it added: “The defensive, and at times close to deceitful, behaviour by the senior officers in South Yorkshire sounds depressingly familiar.
“Too many senior policemen seem to lack the capacity or character to perceive and admit faults in their organisation.”
The interim report would “sap confidence in the police force” and could encourage aggressive behaviour by fans towards officers, said the memo, adding that: “Liverpool fans – who have caused trouble in the past – will feel vindicated.”
But Mrs Thatcher made clear in her handwritten note that she did not want to give the Government’s full backing to Lord Taylor’s criticisms, only to the way in which he had conducted his inquiry and made recommendations for action.
She wrote: “What do we mean by ’welcoming the broad thrust of the report’? The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome? Surely we welcome the thoroughness of the report and its recommendations - M.T.”
The papers released today provide detail about the logistics of Mrs Thatcher’s visit to Sheffield on the day after the April 15 disaster, and her attendance at a memorial service in Liverpool, but do not reveal what briefing she was given that day by South Yorkshire Police.
However today’s report notes: “The Prime Minister’s press secretary (Bernard Ingham) later revealed... that he had been informed on the day that drunkenness and violent crowd behaviour were significant causes of the disaster.”
The papers reflect the enormous difficulties which the timing of the tragedy caused for the Government, which was in the process of pushing through Parliament the Football Spectators Bill.
The Bill, drawn up in response to repeated incidents of violent hooliganism which blighted football during the 1980s, included plans for a membership card scheme to control access to grounds by travelling supporters.
Within days of Hillsborough, ministers were voicing concern that it could be delayed while Lord Taylor completed his work, and that any criticism of the cards in his report could scupper the scheme.
A civil servant’s memo to Mrs Thatcher on 18 April 1989, two days ahead of a key meeting with ministers, noted that then chief whip David Waddington was “pessimistic” about the prospects of getting the Bill through.
“At present, he believes the Government could not get the Bill through as the overwhelming feeling is that it, or at least Part 1, should be delayed pending the Taylor report,” wrote Andrew Turnbull, then the PM’s principal private secretary.
“He believes, however, that in two or three weeks’ time when emotion has subsided and the facts about the behaviour of the crowd have been appreciated, the incident will be seen to stem more from rowdyism than from the police’s response. In those circumstances, sentiment for pressing on will return.”
In a further memo the following day, Mr Turnbull told Mrs Thatcher that she was likely to have to “stiffen the resolve of doubters” to ensure the Bill survived.
In the event, a note of the meeting, which appears to be in Mrs Thatcher’s hand-writing, expressed her determination to carry on: “4 decades of problems of crowd safety, 2 decades of hooliganism, 10s of thousands of arrests, nearly 300 have died, worst record in developed world... We cannot wash our hands of these matters and have no legislation for 12 months.”
Lord Taylor’s interim report did not address the issue of membership cards, and the Bill which passed into law in November included provisions enabling a national membership scheme, but required further parliamentary approval before it was actually created.
But Lord Taylor’s full report in January 1990 effectively sounded the death knell for the plans, as the judge voiced “grave doubts about the feasibility of the national membership scheme and serious misgivings about its likely impact on safety”.
The requirement to show ID on entering grounds could increase crowding at turnstiles, and may not stop hooliganism, said Taylor.
In a private memo to Mrs Thatcher, Mr Waddington – by then promoted to Home Secretary – acknowledged that it would no longer be possible to get MPs’ approval for the scheme and accepted it would have to be shelved – though the enabling provisions stayed on the statute book.
Mr Waddington agreed the move would be “embarrassing” but added: “The fact that Taylor has recommended against the present membership scheme does not mean that an alternative scheme cannot be devised in the future which does not give rise to the same objections.
“Such a scheme may still be necessary if the football industry does not play its part in improving the situation.”
The scheme was never implemented.