Senior church figure criticises current Met chief's lack of organisation in dealing with bereaved families at time of disaster
The Metropolitan police commissioner headed an operation dealing with bereaved families at the Hillsborough disaster which was "utter chaos" and "a shambles," according to a senior church figure who was involved in ministering to the families.
Stephen Lowe, then the archdeacon of Sheffield, said "there was no organisation, no information, no sense of the police working in partnership," at the Hillsborough boys' club where anxious families were kept waiting for news, which was overseen by Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, then an inspector in the South Yorkshire police.
Lowe said one member of the clergy and one social worker were allocated to each family at the boys' club, but Hogan-Howe and his police officers kept themselves apart while providing no information about the many people missing.
"The inspector was not working as part of the team," said Lowe, who later became bishop of Hulme in Manchester. "There was no organisation – it was utter chaos, a shambles. The police were defensive; we could not get information; there was no sense of partnership or that they were there to help us do what was needed..."
Lowe said it was "incomprehensible" and "a genuine omission," that Hogan-Howe appears never to have made a statement about what happened. Hogan-Howe said last year that he had made a statement to the official Taylor inquiry and subsequently refused to change it, but as the Observer revealed last week, that appears not to be true.
Hogan-Howe said he had been confused when he said he made a statement to the Taylor inquiry. In fact, the account he referred to is a brief, six-line note of a telephone conversation in May 1990, when Taylor's inquiry was over.
On April 15 1989, Lowe said he had seen on television the unfolding disaster, in which 96 Liverpool football club supporters were killed at the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. He went to Hillsborough to offer the church's help, and was asked by South Yorkshire police to open the boys' club for families, because Hammerton Road police station could not cope with the numbers of distraught people seeking news.
Hogan-Howe, who was at the time seconded to studying at Oxford university and was in Sheffield for the weekend, answered a call for off- duty officers, and was put in charge of the boys' club. Lowe did make a statement to the Taylor inquiry, in which he said Hogan-Howe's arrival initially "did improve the situation." However Lowe believed Hogan-Howe himself was short of information about missing people, then while the priests and social workers were "getting the brunt of the emotions of relatives and friends," he said: "I felt that we were not being included in any of the decisions taken by the police. Communication at this stage with the police was not as good as it should have been."
Lowe said he did not know why communication was poor, but police radios may not have been working well. That was a factor in the policing chaos at the football ground which led to the disaster.
Of the revelation that Hogan-Howe never made a statement, Lowe said: "It is incomprehensible. The families had to wait for hours at the boys' club in very unsatisfactory circumstances, then those whose relatives had died were taken to the gymnasium at the football ground to identify the body. The screams I heard from the families that night will stay with me forever.
"The trauma of Hillsborough was not just the deaths, it was the aftermath as well. The boys club is an important part of what happened at Hillsborough and the lack of a statement from the officer in charge at the boys' club is a genuine omission."
Paul Spearritt, the younger brother of Adam, who died at Hillsborough aged 14, said Lowe's account added more questions the family have about what happened that night. A senior officer at the boys' club read out a list of names at 7:20pm who were "alive and well," and Adam's name was incorrectly on it, adding to the Spearritt family's distress.
The family has now complained to the Independent Police Complaints Commission's Hillsborough inquiry, asking it to investigate how Adam came to be on the list, why South Yorkshire police have never explained it, and why Hogan-Howe has never made a statement. The Spearritts also want an investigation into Hogan-Howe's comments last year, when he said incorrectly that he had made a statement to Taylor then declined to change it.
The Metropolitan Police said the IPCC should investigate the apparent lack of any statement by Hogan-Howe after the disaster. As for his role on the day, the Met said: "Since the IPCC has indicated that the events of 15 April 1989, including those at the Hillsborough boys' club, form part of the [IPCC-managed] Operation Resolve inquiry it would be inappropriate for the Commissioner to give further details about his role or recollections of the operation before those conducting the inquiry have had the opportunity to speak to him first.
"It is however, well documented in the Taylor Report and subsequent reviews and inquiries that communications and information flow posed major problems for the police response."