Football: Safe Standing

Mr Clive Betts Excerpts
Monday 25th June 2018

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op) Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 5:39 p.m.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. Now I have four minutes, I can take a bit longer. I have to declare an interest: I was the chairman of Forest Green Rovers. I was then vice chairman until I was re-elected as a Member of Parliament, and standing down from the board was one of the sacrifices that I have had to make. I will make a couple of pertinent points.

I heard what my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) said, and I deeply sympathise with all that has happened as a result of Hillsborough, but the big difference is that directors now have direct responsibility for the crowd’s safety. That was never previously as clear as it is today, and it is a responsibility they take seriously. CCTV, active stewarding and the grading of games, for which clubs rely on the police, make a huge difference; those safety measures allow more flexibility with regards to the crowd’s willingness to stand or sit.

We are a very small club—potentially the smallest club ever to enter the Football League—and this issue matters because we are in the process of trying to get a new ground. One of the problems is the lack of clarity from the Football Association and the Football League about what our future progress should be and what that entails for how we should design our ground.

As someone who has stood for decades, I would always prefer to have safe standing, but we need clarity now. If clubs are looking to move, they need to know what their future requirements will be. It is about time the football authorities realised where the demand is coming from. It is important that we realise that that demand can be satisfied with safe standing, but it has to be designed into the ground. As we all know, it is much more difficult to do so retrospectively, and that is where some problems may arise. For football to flourish, however, we need to allow it.

I say this without a note of irony, but rugby supporters and cricket supporters can drink to their hearts’ content in the ground without anyone thinking that that is in any way alien. Anyone who takes a glass into a football ground is immediately thrown out, so compared with other sports, our standards and requirements in football are much tougher. All we ask for is a degree of flexibility. We have to remember that fans are on CCTV, so the days when they could just get away with it are long gone. They will get a lifetime ban if they misbehave. The clubs are responsible if they fail to organise what happens at their grounds efficiently. That is why things have moved on. It is about time we gave the fans what they want, which is the ability to stand as well as sit, if they so desire.

Mr Clive Betts Portrait Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 5:42 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. This year it is 60 years since I first went to Hillsborough to watch Sheffield Wednesday. For more than 30 years, I had a season ticket on the Kop. I stood watching Wednesday play along with friends and family, including my father until he died at the age of 84. Standing at football grounds is a different experience and a different atmosphere, and I enjoyed it most of the time. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) said, there were concerns at the time about standing at all grounds in the country. Frequently, there was at least a degree of discomfort around it, if nothing else. No one is talking, however, about going back to having that sort of standing in that sort of way. Indeed, I was at Hillsborough on the day of the disaster. I thoroughly understand the views and feelings of survivors, families and friends. We have to respect and understand that.

I did not really read the Taylor report, but I spoke to Lord Justice Taylor after his inquiry. He clearly believed that seating was the safest way, but he did not say that standing was inherently unsafe. We also have to remember that he was dealing with a situation where it was compulsory to have fences around grounds. I hope that that is a very different sort of arrangement from one that anyone is suggesting for the future.

I want to pick up on two points. Other Members have referred to the fact that all-seater stadiums are compulsory in some leagues, but not in every league. If standing is safe in some grounds in some leagues, why is it not safe in others? That point has to be addressed, but I want to speak in particular about standing in seated areas. As well as being a home season ticket holder at Hillsborough, I am also an away season ticket holder, so I have been to most football grounds in the country. Last season, I do not think I sat down once in an away ground. A few years ago, stewards and police tried to get people to sit down, but frankly they have given up these days. It is not possible to do it.

We have a situation that is fundamentally discriminatory, because it depends on someone’s size. Women are likely to be smaller than men and therefore have the most problem seeing when stood up in a seated area. As the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) said, children have the same problem. Whatever the dangers of standing in seated areas, it is really dangerous for children to have to stand on tip-up seats, and that happens. I have taken my godson Dan to games for many years. When he was younger, he had to stand on a tip-up seat. At Charlton one day, a steward came over and said, “Get him sat down. It’s unsafe.” I said, “He will sit down when everybody in front of him sits down, because he cannot see otherwise.” That was at the age of eight, nine or 10, and that problem has to be addressed. Not allowing standing is also discriminatory against people with disabilities. If someone is not disabled enough to go in the disabled area—they might have bad arthritis, a problem with their back or a heart condition—but cannot stand up for 45 minutes, they cannot go and follow their team at an away ground. That is the reality at present. It is discriminatory, and we have to address that.

I hope we can have the discussion. The answer could be rail seating. I had emails recently from Grand Stand Seating Systems, which has another way of looking at the problem. In the end, we have to find a way of having safe standing and safe seating at football grounds so that everyone can enjoy the game they love in the way they want.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 5:48 p.m.

I will never forget my first proper experience of football. It was Christmas 1989. I remember the anticipation walking through the streets to get to Roker Park. I remember how close I felt to the action once I was inside. I remember the freezing cold wind off the North sea that used to hit me on the terraces. What I genuinely do not remember was feeling unsafe, because I have never felt unsafe in a football ground. I tell that story not because I am nostalgic about the past—I think Members have correctly said that we are not trying to look back to the past in this debate; by the way, there is far too much nostalgia in some of our policy debates in this place—but because it is a reminder of what football is really about. I did not just discover football as an experience that day; I discovered my tribe. Football is about sport, of course, but it is also much more than that. It is about culture, family and identity. That is why it is so special, why it matters and why so many of us are here today when some serious business is going on next door.

It would be wrong to say that such issues as hooliganism and racism, which scarred football in the 1980s, have gone away entirely, but the situation today is fundamentally different. This country is fundamentally different—for the better—from how it was in the 1980s. Most of all, policing is fundamentally different. I am proud to see my predecessor Lord Pendry of Stalybridge in the Gallery, because I know he tried to influence the Taylor report at the time to allow for safe standing. As shadow sports Minister, I think he tried to introduce a policy similar to the one our current shadow sports Minister has introduced.

Football fans like me would like two things: first, to be treated with respect, and secondly, to have the choice that so many Members have talked about today. If I go to a football match, ideally I would stand if I could, because football is a participatory event. At a music gig —this is not as good an example as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who talked about singing in church—people can be seated at the sides or be in front of the stage standing up. Where is the best place to be? It is standing up, being right in the centre of the gig. I want to jump up and down when we get a chance or a corner, because as a Sunderland fan, you have to take what you can get, frankly. I want to sing songs. I do not just want to go and watch a live version of what we see on TV. I want something different from that. I want to be with my people, sharing in that collective experience.

A lot of people have mentioned the World cup, and how much we are enjoying it so far in this country for once—I have probably jinxed it. It sounds ridiculous, but it is a proven fact that while the World cup is on, suicides decline in participating countries. That is not because a country is doing particularly well or badly, but because that shared experience is genuinely good for people. There is a book called “Soccernomics” that looks through some of the data around football. That fact is also true for big collective events, such as when Princess Diana died or when JFK was assassinated. The shared experience makes the game what it is. It is why I can sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is a Newcastle fan. The derby games are so important for that.

In terms of the practicalities, people can stand up and watch horse racing or rugby, or football in Germany and now in Scotland. They can stand up and watch football in the lower divisions. It seems particularly egregious that league one clubs that have been promoted and sustained that success have to remove their standing areas. In reality, as so many Members have said, people stand up at matches anyway. That is particularly so for away matches, which are by far and away the best way for someone to watch their team. We need to look at the law, and we need to change things. We need to consider just how far we have come from the 1980s and celebrate what football means for this country. Most of all, we need to give football fans the respect and choice that they deserve.

Break in Debate

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:55 p.m.

That perfectly outlines the challenge we face. At the moment, we do not have the data or the evidence to make a decision either way on the issue. What I am announcing today is that we will start the data and evidence collection, because as the hon. Gentleman says, it is clear that there are gaps in the injury data. We know that the current format of data collection does not allow people to specify some of the issues around the injuries that are happening at football matches.

I look forward to working closely with the Premier League, the English Football League and other organisations, including the Football Supporters Federation, which I met last week, to make progress together. I would like to thank the FSF, the Premier League, Mike Davis from Shrewsbury Town Supporters and the Plymouth Argyle management, who, in the middle of all the abuse, were kind and considerate in their conversations with me about the issue, which I appreciate. I also thank those at Spurs, and the chairman of Norwich City, for explaining the pragmatic approach that they are taking to ensure fans’ safety while still adhering to the law.

I acknowledge the evolution of stadium design, seating technology and modern crowd management approaches that has taken place in recent years. The data-gathering work will look at the impact of those changes and consider any existing data on the wider impact of introducing the type of rail seating accommodation used in Germany and elsewhere on attendances, ticket prices, the atmosphere, the diversity of supporters, fan behaviour, the management of various parts of the stadiums and, of course, safety.

Mr Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:56 p.m.

In the review, will the Minister look at the discrimination that occurs at present? If there is no standing area and people insist on standing in seated areas, it means that there is no alternative for smaller people, such as women and children, who are prevented from enjoying the game and viewing it properly, or for people who have a disability and simply cannot stand up for 45 minutes.

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:56 p.m.

That is why I praise Norwich City’s pragmatic approach in recognising that some fans who were persistently standing in a family section were causing a great deal of distress to people who pay a significant amount of money to watch their team with young children. It has effectively moved those fans to a different part of the stadium, which allows the family supporters to continue to watch the football match.

Mr Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:56 p.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:56 p.m.

No, I will carry on.

On top of what I have already announced, the SGSA is currently revising the “Green Guide”, which sets out the standards of sports ground safety that apply in this country. It is influential around the world, as it is absorbed by sports bodies and Governments looking for authoritative advice on sports grounds safety. The revised guide is due for publication later this year, and will offer refreshed technical guidance that sets out the standards for seats incorporating barriers and seats with independent barriers within the prevailing legislation and competition rules.

Clubs and local authorities are responsible for managing their grounds, and I and the SGSA will expect them to continue to apply the all-seater policy while we gather the evidence and data. To be clear, no one expects any fan to stay rooted in their seat for 90 minutes through goals, near misses and last-minute match-winners—or, in the case of Spurs fans, usually match-losers. That was never the intention of the all-seater policy.

There are many different views about the future of the all-seater policy and they all need to be heard. Some people feel unable to contribute to the discussion while legal proceedings are under way, as outlined by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). We need to be mindful of that. While the proceedings continue, we shall gather the missing data and evidence by working with the authorities, leagues, supporter groups and others.

With something as serious as football ground safety, change cannot and should not happen overnight, but, contrary to the reports on social media, my mind is open about the future of the all-seater policy. However, due process must be followed to ensure the safety of fans now and in the future—fans who, like me, stay loyal and true through the good times as well as the bad, and who spend a lot of money providing the lifeblood of their clubs up and down the country.

A million people watch football every week. I conclude by thanking those who signed the petition and hon. Members for reflecting their views and those of their constituents. I hope that we can move forward with the required data gathering, continue the discussion with key stakeholders and develop the “Green Guide” so that we all know where we stand.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 207040 relating to allowing Premier League and Championship football clubs to introduce safe standing.