Hillsborough files: E-petition numbers growing fast

Hillsborough memorial Image copyright PA
Image caption Ninety-six Liverpool fans were killed in the disaster

Who could have more influence over government policy?

Chris Graham, the Information Commissioner who officially oversees whether public bodies are implementing the Freedom of Information Act, or the tens of thousands of members of the public who have signed an e-petition calling for ministers to release documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster?

This question is raised because this e-petition has just become the second most signed petition on the government e-petition website, with over 52,000 signatures.

The rapid growth of signatures has happened in a couple of days since the Cabinet Office announced on Wednesday that it would appeal against a ruling by Mr Graham, rather than disclose records in response to a Freedom of Information request from the BBC.

The rate at which the petition was signed accelerated after it was tweeted on Wednesday night by the Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, who wrote "Think it is very important that we support this". It has since been enthusiastically taken up by other footballing figures with large Twitter followings, such as the Newcastle midfielder Joey Barton.

'Irrelevant argument'

The petition calls for the government to publish all documents relating to the tragedy, "as requested by information commissioner Christopher Graham".

In April 2009 we asked the Cabinet Office for files about discussions which the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher had about the disaster. After the government refused to give us this information, we appealed to the Information Commissioner, who then ruled last month that releasing the papers would be in the public interest.

The Commissioner argued that it would add to public knowledge and understanding of how the Thatcher government responded to the event.

But the Cabinet Office is now planning to fight this decision by taking its case to the Information Rights Tribunal, which handles appeals against Commissioner decisions. This is expected to hear the case in the next few months, unless the public pressure helps to change the government's intentions.

The Cabinet Office argues that any release of information should be managed by an independent panel set up by the previous Labour government to review the documentation about the Hillsborough tragedy and assess what should now be made public.

Its statement said: "The Cabinet Office absolutely agrees with the principle of providing information to families about the Hillsborough stadium disaster, but we believe it is important that any release of information should be managed through the panel's processes and in line with their terms of reference."

But the Commissioner discarded this as an irrelevant argument, since the panel had not existed at the time in April 2009 when our FOI request was initially made.

Intense emotions

Ninety-six Liverpool supporters were killed due to an appalling crush of fans within the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, where the club was playing an FA Cup semi final. A subsequent inquiry held that the main reason for the overcrowding was the failure of police control.

Mrs Thatcher was briefed about the disaster in the days that followed it, and it was discussed at a number of meetings. The records involved include reports presented to her, correspondence between her office and that of the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, and minutes of meetings she attended.

If an e-petition obtains 100,000 signatures then the House of Commons backbench business committee has to consider whether to give it time for debate.

So far only one petition (calling for convicted rioters to lose benefits) has hit that target since the coalition government's new e-petition system was introduced last month.

The Hillsborough petition still has a long way to go, but the numbers it has attracted so far demonstrate how the intense emotions surrounding this terrible event continue to resonate across the years.

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