Hillsborough disaster: Chief constable Norman Bettison resigns
THE resignation of under-fire West Yorkshire Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison has been welcomed by relatives of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster.
Sir Norman resigned today after weeks of criticism since the Hillsborough Independent Panel report revealed a huge police cover-up in the wake of the tragedy, which left 96 Liverpool fans dead.
Earlier this week, the pressure on the long-serving officer intensified with claims that he bragged about being asked to “concoct” an account of what happened when he was investigating the 1989 disaster as a South Yorkshire Police chief inspector.
Sir Norman has always denied any involvement in a cover-up or any wrong-doing. He said he resigned today because the controversy had become a “distraction to policing in West Yorkshire”.
Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group (HFSG), welcomed the announcement but said Sir Norman's pension should be frozen while the investigation takes place into the police cover-up.
She said: “I'm absolutely delighted he's gone but as far as I am concerned he should have been sacked.
“I would now like to know what payments and pension he's going to get.”
Sir Norman's resignation was announced by the vice-chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Authority, Les Carter, at a hastily arranged press conference in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, today ahead of a meeting which was scheduled to discuss the chief's position.
In a statement issued through the authority, Sir Norman said he had never blamed the fans for the tragedy.
“First, and foremost, the Hillsborough tragedy 23 years ago left 96 families bereaved and countless others injured and affected by it,” he said.
“I have always felt the deepest compassion and sympathy for the families, and I recognise their longing to understand exactly what happened on that April afternoon.
“I have never blamed the fans for causing the tragedy.”
Sir Norman dismissed the claim first highlighted by Merseyside MP Maria Eagle that he had bragged about “concocting” the police version of events, describing the allegation as “both incredible and wrong”.
Sir Norman said the police authority and some of the candidates in the forthcoming Police and Crime Commissioner elections made it clear that they wanted him to go.
“I do so, not because of any allegations about the past, but because I share the view that this has become a distraction to policing in West Yorkshire now and in the future,” he said.
Mr Carter said the authority believed the move was “in the best interest of the communities of West Yorkshire”.
He said he believed Sir Norman would be able to draw his pension as normal.
Merseyside Police Authority - which will be paying his pension because he served as its chief constable between 1998 and 2005 - said Sir Norman would have been entitled to a sum of £83,000 per year if he had retired in March, as he recently said he would.
The authority said it was now considering the implications of today's news for Sir Norman's pension.
Mrs Aspinall said: “This is not the end of it. The next thing is to make sure his role is properly investigated.”
Mrs Aspinall, who lost her 18-year-old son James in the disaster, said the families had “no vendetta” against the former chief constable.
“He allowed the families to suffer for 23 years while knowing the truth all along,” she said.
Trevor Hicks, president of the HFSG, said: “We welcome the resignation, because Mr Bettison's position had become untenable and was growing more so with every day that passed.
“His was a position of trust and he had lost that trust a long time ago.
“This may affect the ability to take disciplinary action against Mr Bettison but will not stop a rigorous examination of any potential criminal liability by those charged to do so.
“We will continue to work closely with our own legal team and the appropriate authorities to hold all those involved to proper account including Mr Bettison.”
Mr Hicks lost his two daughters, 19-year-old Sarah and 15-year-old Victoria, in the disaster.
Sir Norman's decision comes two days after Ms Eagle told the Commons about a letter sent by retired civil servant John Barry, who later repeated his allegations in TV interviews.
Mr Barry said he was “astounded” when Sir Norman talked about how “we're going to try and concoct a story that all the Liverpool fans were drunk and that we were afraid they were going to force down the gates, so we decided to open them”.
He said the officer said this in a Sheffield pub when they were both part-time students.
Ms Eagle said she thought there would be mixed views among the families affected by the disaster because many people wanted him to stay in post to face any possible misconduct charges.
Yesterday, Mark Burns-Williamson, who resigned as chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Authority this month to stand in the forthcoming Police and Crime Commissioner elections, increased the pressure even further by calling for the chief to step down.
Sir Norman was a chief inspector with South Yorkshire Police at the time of the disaster.
He attended the match at Sheffield Wednesday's ground as a spectator but, after the disaster, he was involved in the subsequent force investigation.
Sir Norman was referred to the IPCC over claims that he gave misleading information in the wake of the tragedy and that he tried to influence West Yorkshire Police Authority's decision-making process in relation to the referral.
The IPCC said: “We were not informed of Sir Norman's resignation in advance of the stories appearing in the press and the decision came as a surprise to us.
“We are seeking clarification from West Yorkshire Police Authority.”
In a statement, the commission said: “It should be noted we can and, in this case, will investigate both criminal offences and misconduct matters after an officer has retired or resigned as it is in the public interest to do so.
“Retirement or resignation precludes any internal misconduct sanction as once an individual leaves the police service there is no opportunity to take disciplinary action.
“Retirement or resignation does not prevent criminal prosecution should the investigation identify criminal offences, including misconduct in a public office.”