Hillsborough: The Thatcher papers

Liverpool fan pays his respects to those who died in the Hillsborough disaster The 1989 disaster claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans

Cabinet Office papers from 1989 seen by the BBC show how Margaret Thatcher's government was misinformed about the cause of the Hillsborough disaster - and illustrate why the Information Commissioner demanded the disclosure of these secret documents.

Last July the commissioner ruled that it was in the public interest for documents about the Hillsborough tragedy to be released, since it would "add to the public knowledge and understanding about the reaction of various parties to that event, including the government of the day".

This followed a freedom of information request from the BBC that had been rejected by the Cabinet Office. That FOI case was dropped after a government pledge to publish its files on Hillsborough via an independent panel later this year.

The BBC has seen now some of this material and on Thursday is reporting details from these documents.

Due to these disclosures, we now know that a few days after the tragedy in April 1989 Margaret Thatcher was informed about the views of senior officers from Merseyside Police. She was told that one of them blamed drunken Liverpool supporters for the terrible incident which led to the deaths of 96 of the club's fans as a result of horrific overcrowding.

The briefing she received also reported the assessment of the then Merseyside Chief Constable Sir Kenneth Oxford. He thought that a key factor was the presence of Liverpool fans without tickets and this was being ignored while the authorities were being blamed.

Blame game

Sir Kenneth was a controversial chief constable who had often clashed with local politicians over his tough policing strategy, and was at this point close to retirement.

We already knew that private briefings accusing the Liverpool fans had been coming from South Yorkshire Police - this was the force responsible for the Hillsborough ground in Sheffield. It was later criticised for the poor crowd control that had actually been the main factor in causing the loss of life.

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Margaret Thatcher's policy priority was to press ahead with compulsory identity cards for football supporters”

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Lady Thatcher's then press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham has already revealed that when he accompanied her on a visit to the stadium the day after the tragedy, they were told the incident was the fault of a "tanked-up mob" of Liverpool supporters.

What we now know is that a similar message was coming to her, not only from the force which had made catastrophic errors in policing the FA Cup semi-final, but also from the top ranks of the police force covering the locality of most of the victims - the bereaved families and the anguished survivors.

Of course this document only reveals what was said in the period soon afterwards, and those involved may have changed their minds as further evidence came to light.

But it is interesting to note that the position of the senior Merseyside officers conflicted with that taken at the same time by some junior ranks in the same force.

In newspaper reports at the time, the Merseyside Police Federation was quoted as saying that the accusations against Liverpool fans were "ill-informed comments" which were "based on hearsay rather than evidence". The local federation secretary said that his phone had been "red hot" with calls from Merseyside officers demanding he speak out to "redress the balance".

Hillsborough disaster The victims of the tragedy at Sheffield's Hillsborough stadium were crushed in over-crowded pens

In due course it was the view of the federation, rather than the chief constable, which was found to be correct by the official inquiry into the disaster by Lord Justice Taylor. He attributed the main cause of the incident to police failures in crowd control that led to a fatal crush in the Liverpool fans' section of the ground.

The BBC's report today also contains another interesting revelation: that there was unease within the government about what a senior Downing Street official considered to be Lord Taylor's "distinctly unhelpful" response to an approach to align his inquiry schedule with the government's political timetable.

In the wake of Hillsborough, Margaret Thatcher's policy priority was to press ahead with introducing a compulsory identity card scheme for football supporters. The government had already been planning this to tackle the hooliganism that badly affected the game in the 1980s (although the idea was never eventually implemented).

The Home Secretary Douglas Hurd met Lord Justice Taylor soon after the judge was appointed to carry out the inquiry. Lord Hurd tried to persuade him to consider the membership scheme in time to fit in with the government's schedule for pushing forward with it. The judge couldn't guarantee this, insisting his timings would be determined by the process of establishing the facts of what happened.

ID cards

The current government has promised that official records relating to the disaster will be released through the Hillsborough Independent Panel. This was set up in December 2009 by Labour to work towards publishing these files, although cabinet papers were initially excluded from its terms of reference.

Margaret Thatcher Margaret Thatcher was prime minister at the time

The panel has said it will complete its work by the end of June, although there are reports today that this deadline will be postponed. It is expected to release a very large quantity of documentation. The papers being covered today by the BBC are only a small proportion of the undisclosed material.

Today's revelations do not constitute a "smoking gun" or lend support to any kind of conspiracy theory, but they have added valuably to the state of public knowledge about the political reaction to the terrible events at Hillsborough in April 1989.

In brief, we have learnt that the top ranks of Merseyside Police helped to misinform Margaret Thatcher by wrongly blaming Liverpool fans. And we have learnt that there was dissatisfaction within the government at Lord Justice Taylor's refusal to adapt his inquiry to their political timetable for pressing ahead with an identity card scheme for football fans.

Martin Rosenbaum, Freedom of information specialist Article written by Martin Rosenbaum Martin Rosenbaum Freedom of information specialist

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Justice for the 96 RIP

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    As much as feel great sympathy for those directly affected over 20 years ago I don't see what we're learning that's new other than that the PM was briefed in line with the prevailing thought, subsequently rescinded!

    There's a weird desire to conflate the disaster with Margaret Thatcher...to blame her for it somehow which, regardless of your views on her, is ridiculous! How much is this costing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    how do you comment on that !! 96 good souls lost to incompetence .we will NEVER forget

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    The important point is that, in spite of the evidence, the official line was that that the responsibilty rested with the fans. As most people who had dealings with the man will tell you, "Sir" Kenneth Oxford was hardly a fit person to give an impartial opinion on this issue (nor indeed on most other issues).

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    No wonder they did not want to release the Hillsborough papers.
    Why did he tell such a blatent lie, he should be named and shamed.
    96 people lost their lives and have still not had justice

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.


    Utter nonsense, please do not troll on such a sensitive topic. Shameful.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I remember watching Hillsborough on the TV, a really sad day. I think releasing this information can only help us learn from our mistakes. Whether it is how to police a football match to how the Government respond. We must make sure we learn as much as possible from this tragedy, and make sure this does not happen again. .

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Anglophone, I can only hope that you never lose any family members in any future disasters.
    You clearly have no understanding of losing a loved one in such horrific circumstances and to then never receive true justice against those responsible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    23 Minutes ago ... How much is this costing?"
    How much? 96 lives, plus the pain to the families - immediate and extended - before we even get to the weight carried by the survivors.

    Read Taylor's Report, if you do indeed speak English, otherwise keep your hurtful stupidity to yourself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Whilst interesting, the papers are unlikely to reveal anything more about the causes of the tragedy. There seems to be a desire to pin the blame on a specific group of people - but this is fruitless as all groups involved, to a greater or lesser extent share a portion of the blame. Ticketless fans, police action and inaction, and the barrier construction, all at fault. All must share the blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @ iancoady
    Everything you say is completely wrong. You haven't read the Taylor report have you? It clearly lays culpability at the feet of the police. You are a troll shame on you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    IANCOADY - Please check your facts. Game wasn't a sell out. HSE head count said number of people in attendance was less than grounds capacity. Problem was central pens with TWICE the safe occupancy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Comments so far fail to realise why this is so important to those involved in the tragedy who are still suffering. After years of official denial and disinformation they want to know the truth. We now know that the Government was lied to by senior police officers and that Justice Reynolds would not bend. Those are two new significant facts. I hope we find out many more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    RIP Those 96 fans. I honestly don't know why Margaret Thatcher is linked to this, I'm sure most PM's would have reacted the same with the information given to them.

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    Comment number 19.

    So many reasons why this happened.Poor police control being the prime cause.The fact that previous football hooliganism meant fencing to segregate fans and protect pitches restricting escape routes were in place without emergency gates.Lessons have been learned by the authorities shame some fans still,even today,don't behave but no where near the scale of the 70's/80's.RIP the 96.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The idea is to find out the extent of the attempted cover-up by the police, where senior officers tried to deflect the blame onto the fans themselves, when in fact the incompetence of the police was the main factor. Thatcher and other regime members also perpetuated the notion that the fans were to blame so it's important that the public knows to what extent the Cabinet was briefed and by whom.


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