An e-petition calling for the immediate release of Cabinet Office documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster has gained more than 110,000 signatures, forcing the government to consider a parliamentary debate.
The campaign, urging the government to drop an appeal against a ruling by the information commissioner to release the documents to the BBC, has been supported through Twitter by celebrities and footballers, including comedian Simon Pegg and Manchester United striker Michael Owen. The government is expected to continue with its appeal against the commissioner's decision, believing that an independent panel set up by the previous government to examine the full circumstances surrounding the disaster in which 96 people died should deliver its report before the documents are made public.
Now that the e-petition has reached more than 100,000 signatures, the government is obliged to respond.
It will also forward the e-petition to the backbench business committee in order to determine its suitability for debate when parliament returns in September. "The government's view is that it is in the public interest for the process that is under way through the Hillsborough Independent Panel be allowed to take its courseThe terms of reference for that process includes the intention to disclose information to the Hillsborough families first," said a Cabinet Office spokesman.
Prof Phil Scraton, lead investigator on the Hillsborough panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, said it was important that the Cabinet Office documents were placed in context before the full archive was publicly released.
The panel is due to publish its findings next spring.
Scraton said: "Our terms of reference are absolutely clear: full disclosure is what we're about.
"The important aspect of full disclosure is that the families are the first to receive material from the panel and that it then goes more broadly into the public domain."
"We will write a full report that demonstrates how that which we have analysed and researched adds to public understanding of Hillsborough – in its context, its circumstances and its aftermath."
Families of victims and survivors of the tragedy hope the report will answer questions about the role of emergency services and the government in the runup to the disaster and its aftermath. The inquest into the deaths set an arbitrary cut off time of 3.15pm, so the response of the emergency services has never been examined in full.
Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, backed the panel's position but also urged the government to release an unequivocal statement promising full disclosure of the potentially embarrassing documents.
The Hillsborough Justice Campaign said the documents – originally the subject of a 2009 freedom of information request – should be released immediately.
"It's in the public interest, as the commissioner had ruled. We're uncomfortable with a panel that is committed to full disclosure challenging a FOI Act ruling that is said to be in the public interest," said spokeswoman Sheila Coleman.
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