• Leaked letter reveals what Merseyside police told government
• Unnamed senior officer blamed Liverpool fans for disaster
• Mother of victim brands comments ‘absolutely appalling’

15 Mar 2012

Scarves are tied to the Shankly Gates at Anfield in 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. (Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Relatives of those killed in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster have reacted with anger after leaked documents showed a senior police officer initially told the government “drunken Liverpool fans” were to blame.

Previously secret documents relating to the disaster are being reviewed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, but they are not expected to be made available to the families or to the public until later this year.

However, among the documents leaked to the BBC is a letter sent to the then-prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, from a member of her policy unit in Downing Street four days after the disaster, which details the initial version of events put forward by the chief constable of Merseyside police, the late Sir Kenneth Oxford, and some of his senior colleagues.

According to the letter, addressed to Mrs Thatcher and headed “Merseyside Police views on Hillsborough”, the Merseyside chief constable told officials: “A key factor in causing the disaster was the fact that large numbers of Liverpool fans had turned up without tickets. This was getting lost sight of in attempts to blame the police, the football authorities, etc.”

The letter went on to report that a senior member of the Merseyside police directly blamed supporters: “One officer, born and bred in Liverpool, said that he was deeply ashamed to say that it was drunken Liverpool fans who had caused this disaster, just as they had caused the deaths at Heysel.”

The chief constable was also said to have “deplored the press’s morbid concentration on pictures of bodies. He was also uneasy about the way in which Anfield was being turned into a shrine.”

The note is initialled “MT”, suggesting it was read by Mrs Thatcher, and the phrase “drunken Liverpool fans” is one of a number of passages underlined by hand.

The World at One programme said none of the papers it had seen referred to the views of the South Yorkshire force.

Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son, James, died in the tragedy and who now chairs the Hillsborough Families Support Group, branded the comments a “disgrace”.

“They [the police] watched videos of what happened that day and they [have seen] survivors running along with bodies and maybe people who may be still alive on hoardings. They [the survivors] were the heroes that day,” she told The World at One.

“I find all of that absolutely appalling. Ninety-six lives and he was uneasy about it made into a shrine. The people who were there that day – the survivors, the fans – all needed somewhere to go to show respect and to be grateful that no more had died. He was ashamed that was made into a shrine. How appalling is that?”

Mrs Aspinall said she hoped there would be no further leaks before the independent panel “release the full picture”.

She said: “The panel is there to scrutinise the documents and present a balanced report. It doesn’t help the families of the victims, the survivors or the fans to have pieces of the jigsaw come out piece by piece, that is not how we will get to the truth.”

Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign said she was disgusted but not surprised by the views expressed by the police.

“Those of us who were around Liverpool in the 1980s are well aware of Ken Oxford’s racist and bigoted views. Presumably he recruited senior officers with a similar mindset,” she told the programme. “We are obviously disgusted with the views of Merseyside police but to some of us that will come as no surprise.”

She also expressed concern at the timing of the leak and the fact that none of the papers related to the South Yorkshire force.

“That makes us very suspicious of how this information was leaked,” she said. “Merseyside police would have been informed by South Yorkshire police. We find it a strange coincidence that this information is leaked only days after we found out the panel are not going to report until the autumn.”

Richard Kemp, the Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate for Liverpool, said: “The appalling news that Margaret Thatcher was being briefed by the police that Liverpool fans were drunk explains a lot in terms of the way the issues have been dealt with by central government for the past 23 years.

“I am delighted that this government is releasing all documents, no matter how sensitive they are, so that grieving families can at last feel that all the truth has been brought into the public view.”

The Labour MP Andy Burnham said: “These papers seem to confirm what we’ve believed for many, many years – that immediate attempts were made from the highest levels to shift the blame on to the supporters and away from the police. The truth must be told and the people of Liverpool must have an apology for one of the greatest injustices of the 20th century.”