COUNCIL CAPERS April 2009.

20 years ago, 15th April fell on a Saturday when most of Liverpool‘s army of football fans had made the journey across to Pennines to Hillsborough.  Jim Sharples, my senior had gone too, leaving me as duty officer in charge of the Merseyside force.  20 years on, same date, I found myself in the County Council Audit Committee, leading the debate on why the decision we had reached on 19th January to review bringing in-house internal audit within twelve months had been ignored in favour of “officer spin” who offered another recommendation to the Executive.  It had not been any agreements to bring internal Audit in-house much less do it by April 2010.  The Auditors in question were present as the arguments grew and anxious not to spell out in frank terms and without being rude; that Audit members were suspicious about being duped by our officers was a difficult balancing act.  I just did not have the courage to say what I wanted- “Officers failed to persuade us to agree to the in house option in January and so, before we could confirm the minutes, our decision was overridden and the Executive had been misled.  As we battled on to get recognition of our points, my thoughts drifted back 20 years to the day. That fateful Saturday, I was at home on the Wirral with telly on waiting for the match to start.  Something was causing delay and then the phone rang from the Control Room. Word was breaking that an incident had occurred and would “Ma’am” like to be kept informed.  I shot to Merseyside HQ and frantically changed into uniform and with sinking heart took the call that the incident was very serious indeed.  I knew we would have to set up the Casualty Bureau which meant putting quite a lot of the force on a war footing as more staff was required to man the phones when we announced the help line emergency number.  I’d had experience working as a member of a Casualty Bureau when in London but now I was the boss, I had to get the wheels moving and its efficient operation  would be down to me. Everyone was so willing.  Officers rang seeking permission to come and help, civilian catering staff was soon opening up the canteen, BT people were helping roll out the phones, the whiteboards surrounding the designated office dusted down and then the statistics slowly began to roll in as names of the missing and dead and injured were chalked up.  Officers knew what they had to do and then cogs began to run more smoothly.  More officers were despatched to mount a morgue and hospital watch in Hillsborough, assist with the identification of dead and alive and deliver the sad task of matching victims began in earnest. The “known dead list” began to grow with as much detail of clothing and description added as no one thinks of wearing much identity at a Saturday afternoon football match.  I recall it was a very long night and a very early start on the Sunday morning.  Policing of the impromptu Catholic cathedral service which was hastily but so tastefully arranged had to be organised as the numbers attending would be vast. The place was packed with people and journalists squatting on the floor and around the altar steps.  There were many tears that evening, mine included. More tears again when the Anglican Cathedral hosted a memorial service attended by Lord Taylor, who had conducted the enquiry into how the tragedy had occurred.  I found myself pouring him coffee in the senior officer’s Mess as the chief mourners were to leave from Merseyside HQ.  It stuck in my mind; he did not even bother to thank me even though my uniform should have told him I was a little more than the office cleaner. Mrs Thatcher was the chief political mourner and when the organ swelled and   “You’ll never walk alone”, echoed across the vaulted greatness of the huge cathedral, I wept again and having to stand to attention as the Prime Minister walked past, I could do nothing to stop my tears as they fell onto my jacket and mingled with the silver buttons.  I never really saw Mrs T thought my red, weepy eyes although she passed so close.  I was a Liverpool supporter, proud owner of a season ticket and I was deeply moved by the poignancy of the occasion. Lord Taylor’s report introduced seating on the terraces.  He died a short while later. My mind drifted back to Audit Committee deliberations.  Cllr Ian Roberts, our Chair was dealing with our complaints professionally and gave us full freedom to share our concerns.  Thus, after much weaving and bobbing plus an apology of sorts, the matter was resolved and the agenda moved on.  The determination of Cllr. Peter Pemberton, Mike Peers & Hayden Bateman not to bow to officer pressure was necessary and established the principle that the decisions of the Audit Committee must stand, nor will we tolerate official interference and allow our decision to be overridden. Why had I given up my Liverpool season ticket all those years ago?  Just moving on from a painful experience. Despite having the rare hands-on knowledge of taking charge of a Casualty Bureau for real, I was still denied promotion on the grounds of not having sufficient experience!  My experience, such as it is can still recognise when someone in authority tries to pull a fast one even in a little matter of dissembled Audit minutes.

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