How Lancashire would respond to a major disaster like Hillsborough, Grenfell or the Manchester Arena, as county council adopts victims' charter
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County Hall has made the pledge by officially incorporating the so-called Hillsborough Charter into its emergency planning and response policies.
The move commits the county council to the six principles set out in an independent report into the 1989 football tragedy, which claimed the lives of 97 Liverpool FC fans.
Amongst other promises, it means the authority will “place the public interest above our own reputation” and “avoid seeking to defend the indefensible or to dismiss or disparage those who may have suffered where we have fallen short”.
Lancashire County Council’s cabinet agreed to embed the commitments into its emergency framework after a meeting of the full council last year unanimously backed the charter's measures.
Cabinet member for community and cultural services Peter Buckley said it was part of a plan to ensure the authority worked with all of its partners to ensure Lancashire is “[in] the best place to respond to any incidents requiring a humanitarian response”.
His colleague, Michael Green, who holds the health and wellbeing portfolio, said it was important the county was prepared should the worst ever befall any of its residents.
“We all hope that these tragedies never take place in Lancashire, but at some point in the future, sadly, we know that [incidents] can happen - so it's right to have things in place for that,” County Cllr Green said.
Each of the bullet-point commitments of the charter have been expanded upon in the process of incorporating them into County Hall’s processes.
The authority says tragedies like Grenfell have shown that disaster response “must consider those affected by the incident at the earliest opportunity and the focus must remain on the humanitarian assistance response for the duration of the incident and beyond”.
“It is therefore imperative that the public interest is placed at the centre of any response - even to the initial detriment of our reputation,” the emergency plan states.
“By not getting this right at the early stages of an incident, the reputational damage for any organisation may be much more significant and it is hard to regain the trust of those affected if their needs aren't met from the start.”
The county council acknowledges that it might not always “say or do the right thing” in what would be an “emotive environment”, but promises to try to avoid falling short of public expectations. Where those cannot be met, explanations should be offered and “joint solutions” sought instead.
Ross Telfer, a director of the Hillsborough Survivors Support Alliance, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the organisation was “delighted” to learn Lancashire County Council had committed to the charter.
Inevitably, there will be large-scale disasters that affect everyday people going about their daily lives. If the charter can give support to those that need it immediately, then perhaps the legacy of the Hillsborough disaster will do some future good,” Mr. Telfer said.
WHAT ELSE IS IN THE HILLSBOROUGH CHARTER?
Adopting the charter - officially known as the“charter for families bereaved through public tragedy” - has also seen Lancashire County Council commit to responding “with candour [and] in an open, honest and transparent way” to all efforts to uncover the truth about a disaster, through processes such as public inquiries and inquests. It will keep detailed records during any incidents to enable it to achieve that aim.
The government - which also signed up to the charter last year, following its long-delayed response to a 2017 review of the Hillsborough families’ own 27-year search for the truth - stopped short of introducing a Hillsborough law, which would have placed a legal duty of candour on public authorities in the aftermath of tragedies. It said such duties now existed in the likes of the police code of conduct.
Meanwhile, County Hall has also pledged to “learn from past mistakes”, including by enacting a College of Policing debriefing process after any tragedy. County Cllr Buckley said he could assure Ormskirk division member Nikki Hennessy - the mover of the motion on the Hillsborough Charter at full council last year - that the police-devised debrief was a “nationally-accepted standard for multi-agency debriefing" and would include the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service.
Meanwhile, the county council will aim to ensure all of its staff treat members of the public and each other “with mutual respect and…courtesy” during a disaster and its aftermath. On the occasions that does not happen - as per the charter - it promises to “apologise straightforwardly and genuinely”.
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN FIRST AFTER A DISASTER IN LANCASHIRE?
Hillsborough charter signatories like the county council must activate their emergency plans in the face of unfolding tragedies and deploy the resources necessary “to rescue victims, support the bereaved and protect the vulnerable”.
The multi-agency Lancashire Local Resilience Forum, which swings into action during severe flooding and also co-ordinated the county’s Covid response, would lead the way after any disaster.
However, the county council has its own emergency response group, staffed by more than 70 volunteers from amongst its staff who are trained to help residents requiring support during an emergency.
They would likely be deployed to any emergency centres established in the wake of a disaster and their role can range from an administrative one to meeting welfare needs and providing basic trauma support. The response volunteers last year received training specifically on how to support people affected by terrorism.
Back in November, Lancashire County Council also introduced three specific disaster-focussed job roles which would be activated when required during an incident.
The authority’s humanitarian assistance lead officer would consider the overarching strategy needed to deal with the issues arising from an emergency, while a second officer would operate at a more “tactical” level.
People affected by a disaster would also be helped in the days and weeks after it occurred by “key workers” offering “psychosocial support and practical assistance”.