Football: Safe Standing

Clive Efford Excerpts
Monday 25th June 2018

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (in the Chair) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4 p.m.

Order. Owing to the previous Chair’s great chairing and the great behaviour of all Members, I am unprecedentedly extending the length of speaking time. Members may now speak for five minutes, and if anybody wants to take interventions that will be okay as well. I call Clive Efford.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4 p.m.

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 makes 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?

Mr Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab) Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on initiating the debate. In the late 1990s, I initiated a similar debate and introduced a private Member’s Bill, which the Government of the day, in their wisdom, talked out. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has better luck with his current campaign.

Every week, hundreds of thousands of people attend football matches in leagues 1 and 2, and non-league games. They attend rugby matches, rugby league matches and horse racing, and they can stand up at all those events. Indeed, if one wishes to include fishing as a sport, one could say that for fishing—the most popular participatory sport in the country—one can choose to stand or sit. However, at championship and premiership matches, one cannot choose to stand. Furthermore, literally hundreds of thousands of people attend pop concerts such as Glastonbury, many of which are held in football grounds where the fans cannot stand up to watch a game. Yet they can stand up to watch a concert. They can jump up and down, and that is perfectly legal.

The Minister is on record as saying:

“While I appreciate there is a vocal minority who want a return to standing, I don’t think they speak for the majority and I remain to be convinced of the case. The clubs aren’t convinced either. I know there have been surveys done and there is no desire among the top clubs to change this policy.”

That is just not true. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) and other speakers pointed out, club after club have asked for the right to have a safe standing area.

Reference was made earlier to the fact that West Bromwich applied to the Minister when they were still in the premiership to be allowed to have a safe area for 3,800 people. She turned it down. The great club of Aston Villa, on the edge of my constituency, wrote to me saying, “Here at Aston Villa, we believe that existing legislation should be changed to afford all EFL clubs the opportunity to offer their supporters the choice to sit or stand at matches in safe, licensed stadiums.” One after another, clubs in the championship and premiership have said that they would like to have that option.

Ever since I initiated, many years ago, the debate that I referred to, I have never had a satisfactory answer from any Minister to this question. How can it be safe for hundreds of thousands of pop fans to jump up and down at pop concerts, but not safe for a few thousand football fans to stand up behind rail seats? It happens in the Bundesliga and other European leagues, and it is perfectly safe. Nobody has ever given me a convincing argument about why it is safe for hundreds of thousands of people to jump up and down and not safe for a few thousand people to stand up.

The Scottish Parliament rightly recognises that ridiculous contradiction and has allowed clubs in the Scottish Premiership to trial safe standing. Celtic, which 50,000 supporters watch every week, has introduced safe standing in a small segment of the ground, and it has proved very popular. It is about time that we in England caught up with Scotland. It is about time that football fans in England were allowed to stand up.

Break in Debate

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (in the Chair) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:28 p.m.

Do any other Back-Bench Members wish to speak?

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:28 p.m.

I’ll have another go.

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (in the Chair) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:28 p.m.

No, Mr Efford, I think you will find you have spoken already. I call Sandy Martin.

Break in Debate

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:50 p.m.

I was about to say that the all-seater policy has served football and football fans well over many years—the hon. Gentleman makes that point. It is not just a domestic measure: FIFA and UEFA both mandate that host stadiums for their main competitions must be all-seater. Let us not forget that all-seater stadiums provided the impetus for clubs to transform their grounds after years of neglect, which meant the widespread improvement of facilities for fans, which has brought about a welcome increase in the diversity of those choosing to attend.

I recognise the increasing support for the Government to change the all-seater policy in the top two tiers of English football, and the interesting innovations in spectator accommodation in recent years. They include various forms of seats incorporating barriers, or seats with independent barriers, which provide both a safety rail and a seat. They have been installed at grounds in Germany and at Celtic Park. More recently, they have been installed at Shrewsbury Town in League One. Those developments led the then premier league club West Bromwich Albion to make the request to the Sports Ground Safety Authority to run a rail seating pilot. The request to install rail seating made it clear that the intention was to create a permanent area within the ground where supporters would be freely permitted to stand. That would have been in breach of the licence conditions imposed on all clubs in the top two divisions under the powers set out in the Football Spectators Act 1989, the current legislative framework.

Ministers make decisions based on the evidence put in front of them within the legal framework permitted. Contrary to media reports, I did not receive a recommendation from the SGSA to approve the application. The club’s request would have required an immediate change in the law as it stands. As the application was for permission to start this coming season, colleagues will appreciate that the processes required would have taken more than the few months that Albion wanted them completed in. However, more significantly, the current legislative framework means that I cannot allow for any pilots. There is no wriggle room. It is either the status quo or changing the legislation.

So, what next? What are we going to do? The one thing we need to do is to collect and analyse the evidence that exists and ensure that all views on this issue can be heard and considered before we make any decision on changes to the all-seater policy—a point that many hon. Members have made today. We need proper evidence and solutions about how risks associated with standing would be addressed and what systems might be needed to achieve this. The first step is to gather that data and to conduct further research if necessary.

Today I can announce that we will commission an external analysis of evidence relating to the all-seater policy. My Department will be going out to tender for this piece of work shortly, and my aim is that the initial analysis work will be completed by the end of the year. As well as looking at what evidence already exists and assessing its reliability, that work will look to identify any important gaps in data, including injury data, and recommend the best ways of filling them.

The premier league has already shared some of its injury data with me, collated in the SGSA format from its clubs. What is clear is that not enough information is collected to determine the circumstances, severity or outcome of injuries. For example, data collected so far shows that, of the 1,550 injuries reported over the season at 19 premier league clubs, none related to persistent standing and 242 may have been caused by some standing—the equivalent of two injuries per 100,000 match attendances. Hon. Members have today made it clear that people are standing in unsafe ways, yet the current injuries log suggests otherwise. Some colleagues have outlined their own experiences of being injured at football matches, yet the injuries log says otherwise. Given that that fan experience is very different from the data, it is clear that the data needs further probing, and that is what I am announcing today.

The precise scope of that work will be defined in conjunction with the SGSA and other expert stakeholders. I am grateful to the Premier League and English Football League, with whom we have discussed this approach, and with whom we will work to improve the evidence base from the start of next season.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:53 p.m.

I associate myself with the comments made earlier. The Minister is a passionate supporter of Tottenham and dedicated to football, and I know that she is passionate about it. I am sure that we all oppose those who have attacked her on social media. Does she agree that football clubs need to report where injuries are taking place within their grounds? If they are in locations where people are predominantly standing where they should be seated, that may give us a better idea of how those injuries are coming about. I suspect they are not be being recorded properly.

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.