Football: Safe Standing DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Siobhain McDonaghMP Main Page: Siobhain McDonagh (Labour - Mitcham and Morden)
(2 years ago)Westminster Hall
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I think this is the first time I have spoken in a debate with you in the Chair, so it is a pleasure to see you in your place.
In this debate, we must listen to fans, because the fans we are talking about are those who commit themselves passionately to their club. They give up their time, go to the matches and create the atmosphere in the grounds that make football in the British Isles a brand that is popular across the globe. People are prepared to pay money to watch the English Football League, English football matches and British football clubs, because of the atmosphere created in the grounds by those fans. Imagine if those games were played in empty stadiums and then broadcast around the world. They would not be as attractive as they are, so the fans are incredibly important to the future of football, and we need to listen to them.
We are speaking particularly today about those fans who go to away games—the ones who make that extra commitment—because they are the ones who predominantly stand. I am a Millwall season ticket holder. I do not have to stand when we are at home games, but people in large sections of the ground do. When I go to an away game, I have to stand. If anyone wants to go to an away game who cannot, or does not want to, stand, they are discriminated against, because they have no choice. If they want to go to the game, they have to stand, so what about those fans?
We need to create these designated areas. I pay tribute to the Football Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct for their persistent campaigning to get recognition for the voice of fans. It is not about recreating areas where clubs can cram people into a standing area; this is about creating rail seating where someone will stand in the place of a seat. We can therefore designate areas where people who choose to stand can do so safely, and those who want to sit can do so without the interference of those who want to stand.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether the current situation, where people stand in areas that are designed for seating, is safe. The answer to that is clearly no, so the next question to the Minister has to be: “What are we going to do about it?” The Government cannot continue to put the telescope to a blind eye and say, “I see no fans standing.” They are, and they are standing in areas that are dangerous and not designed for it. We should deal with that.
When fans have been asked whether they want to stand, they have said in large numbers that they do. More than 3,000 Middlesbrough fans were consulted, and 99% of them said they wanted to stand. More than 7,000 Arsenal supporters were consulted, and 96% of them said they wanted to stand. Spirit of Shankly consulted 20,000 of its fans, and the overwhelming majority wanted to stand. Consistently, throughout the football league, fans are telling us that they want to stand in safe areas.
The Minister could allow a relaxing of the regulations to allow rail seating to be introduced in grounds. For games where the regulations demand that fans have a seat, seats could can be put down and it would become a seated stadium. For those games where an area is designated for standing, those seats could be locked back by the grounds staff and the area could be used for standing. When we have consulted with the local authority, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, the police, the fans and the local club, I do not see why we cannot designate safe areas where fans can stand. I do not see why we cannot relax the regulations to deal with a situation that is currently unsafe.
In answer to some questions last week, the Minister very helpfully said that she was looking to hold a fundamental review of safety in football stadiums, but over the weekend we heard rumours of No. 10 pushing back against that. Can she assure us that that did not happen over the weekend, and that we will get a full, fundamental review of safe standing in football stadiums?
Break in Debate
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) for her work on raising this issue.
When I was a child, it was evident to everybody who came to my house that I had an incredibly obsessive football-supporting father. They spotted it from the moment they stepped into the lounge and saw the football shrine made up of memorabilia collected over years, which outgrew the area it was originally assigned to. The evidence of my father’s support for his team even pushed away the family photographs. If people failed to miss that, they would notice the football programmes in frames throughout the house and up the stairs, which my dad would happily point out to anyone who showed a bit of interest in them. I witnessed the weekly rituals he went through. Every time his team played a match, we had to make mum sit upstairs in the bedroom, because if she set foot in the lounge, the opposition would score against the team we were all cheering along. I learned from a very young age how important football is. I believe that the vast majority of football fans are entirely decent, law-abiding people—although some, like my dad, are utterly obsessed.
I am very proud to have Hull City in my constituency. In 2012, it announced that it supports safe standing in principle. In June, representatives of the club came to Parliament to lobby MPs about this issue, although I was sadly unable to attend that event. Geoff Bielby, the chairman of the Hull City Supporters’ Trust, and Barbara Wilkinson, the secretary of Senior Tigers—a supporters’ group for over 55s—expressed a preference for safe standing. They suggesting designating a small area of the KCOM stadium for safe standing—they suggested it could accommodate 7,500 people.
A survey has shown that 47% of fans would be more likely to attend a football match if there was safe standing. I cannot speak for everyone else’s team, but Hull City certainly want to encourage as many people as possible to come down and cheer it on. If this is one way to do it, I say, “Let’s go for it.” If more fans come to matches, that will hopefully bring in a lot of extra income.
As many hon. Members have said, people stand anyway. A Hull City supporter who is unable to stand as he finds it difficult told me that he wants safe standing. I asked him why, and he said that he wants to be in a seated area where the stewards can enforce sitting and can make sure people in that area sit down. He said that, at the moment, people stand all over the place, but giving people the choice and saying, “If you want to stand, go here. If you want to sit, respect the fact that everybody in this area wants to sit,” would be a practical solution to the problem.
It is time that we allow local clubs to make these decisions, based on local information. I am not saying that we should create a rule that affects every club in every city, but for clubs such as Hull City, surely it should be up to the local authority, the police and the football club to work together and think about what really works for our football fans and our city. I do not believe that one size fits all. Allowing a local decision-making body to decide on the amount of safe standing means that it can adapt quickly to changing circumstances. We would not need to have a big debate if, a bit further down the line, we want to reduce or increase the amount of safe standing. That would be the best solution and the best decision for obsessive fans such as my dad and clubs such as Hull City.
I have got it this time. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh.
I confess that, when I was first approached by constituents who said, “We would like safe standing,” my gut reaction was to say, “I really don’t think so.” I remember replying to, I think, the first person who ever wrote to me on the subject, that, “Nothing we do should in any way jeopardise safety, because we all remember the horror of Hillsborough.” I am here today because I changed my mind.
I pay tribute to the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust for its work—Jon Darch is its lead campaigner on safe standing. It polled its members—to add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) just said, 97% were in favour—and recently organised a safe standing roadshow at Elland Road. Angus Kinnear, the managing director of Leeds United, wrote to me, as the local Member of Parliament—it is a great honour to represent Leeds United and Elland Road—and said, “The club wants to see a change in the law.”
My initial reaction was as it was for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) set out. It should be obvious to the Minister, who is passionate about football, that two truths have been expressed in this debate: the current situation is not working and it is not safe. It is not working, because fans are standing. We have heard evidence about that. Everyone can see it with their own eyes when they go to matches or watch them on the telly, and hon. Members have talked about that today. It is not safe for reasons that my hon. Friends the Members for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Burnley (Julie Cooper) set out very clearly. I am quite tall, and it is a terrible risk for me to stand with a seat in front of me, because if I am knocked, I will tumble forward. I do not see how we can accept the reality that some fans want to stand, but allow the safety risk to be incurred.
I had never heard of rail seating—I did not know what it was—but as part of my education I saw the pictures and read the evidence, which has been referred to today, from places where rail seating has been used. It is not a return to the standing of the past; it is a completely different method. It is safe and gives fans the choice.
I simply say this to the Minister: this is an idea whose time has come. I hope very much that, after listening to the debate, she will respond in a similar way to my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), who has announced our party’s support for safe standing. If she wants to have a trial in the premiership or the championship as a way of demonstrating its safety in that context, fine. I, for one, look forward to the day when Leeds United fans who want to stand are able to do so, and when those who want to sit are able to do so and see, because they are not sitting behind people who are standing.
This point will appeal particularly to the Minister—I am revealing my true passion, as well as my representative pleasure and privilege. I look forward to the day when safe standing is also permitted at the new White Hart Lane.
Break in Debate
There are many things I would like to say and many things I would like to challenge. Ten MPs made a point that I would like to challenge, but I am not able to do so because of the ongoing court proceedings. I point that out as a fact but also because there are people with far greater expertise, such as one of my constituents, who has a dramatic amount of expertise in this area and could contribute greatly, who cannot speak because that would compromise court proceedings. The timescale is important, because some issues need to be discussed. I refer specifically to the comments made by 10 MPs today that it would be highly inappropriate for me to respond to.
As it happens, I am a football fan who for 25 years has sat only twice. Because one of those occasions led to a very unlucky defeat, I refuse to do so other than when one could only get a ticket a Wembley. There is not a corner, wall or even roof of Elland Road where I have not stood. The concept of standing is very pleasant and the concept of seating is not.
Spiritually, I am totally in support of what the Football Supporters Federation wants to achieve and the practical way it is going about it, but there are some issues that the Minister ought to consider. First is the safety or otherwise of current football stadiums, which has been raised in a different context. Many MPs have suggested that they are much safer than they were, but I challenge that notion. The ability to get out of a football stadium in a disaster has not been tested in real time in any stadium in this country. Seating is probably worse than railed standing would be. The Leeds University model that is used to test the design of stadiums is flawed. I would like to illustrate my point by giving precise examples that are unsafe, but it would be problematic to do so. When I have challenged football safety officers and owners on this, I have been given confirmation that there is no system. Therefore, there needs to be a review of all aspects of safety, including the remaining banks of seating and the inability to get out of stadiums quickly in an emergency.
Secondly, 11 MPs mentioned Germany. I have been to most of the Bundesliga grounds with the chief safety officer, the chief family liaison officer and with the ultra leader. I went to quite a number of major Italian grounds last season with the safety officers. Safe standing is quite possible, but other issues emerge. The Minister should talk to the safety officers in Italy; there, the big safety issue is the firing of pyrotechnics as missiles from one end of the stadium to the other. That is a major issue in Italy. The supporter who fell to his death in a stadium this year and the racism at Lazio compound the safety issue.
Let us be clear: in the Bundesliga, there is a whole series of safety problems—some in the seating but some in the safe-standing areas, too, which the safety officers have to deal with all the time. Fans have to have a season ticket. The amount of alcohol provided is significantly less in standing areas than in seating areas. The body checks at the entrance are significantly greater because of the risk of pyrotechnics. Culture changes over time. I am not against standing at all—quite the opposite—but I hope the Minister will visit Italy, Germany and perhaps Ajax in Amsterdam and look at what the safety officers say of the problems that they face, so we get it all right, not partially right.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I will not speak for long because I was not here at the start and I cannot be here at the end. I just want pay tribute to the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) for introducing the petition, and for being an Ipswich Town fan.