Football: Safe Standing

Luke Hall Excerpts
Monday 25th June 2018

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Mr Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (in the Chair) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:31 p.m.

I remind Members that the House has agreed, in its resolution on matters sub judice, that cases that are active before the courts should not be referred to in debate. There is currently a case involving six people who have been charged with offences relating to responsibility for the Hillsborough tragedy. That case and the individuals concerned may not be referred to in today’s debate.

As right hon. and hon. Members can see, this is a very heavily subscribed debate. I am therefore imposing a three-minute speaking limit and suggest that interventions are not made.

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall (Thornbury and Yate) (Con) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:30 p.m.

I beg to move,

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

I am delighted to have the opportunity to open this debate on what is clearly an incredibly important issue for football supporters across the country. The petition was launched by supporter Owen Riches and calls for current legislation to be changed to allow football stadiums in the top two divisions of English football to install safe standing in certain areas. I commend Owen for the hard work and passion he has invested in his campaign and for all the time he has taken to work with my office ahead of the debate.

I represent Yate in South Gloucestershire and my local club, Yate Town football club, was the first in the UK at which supporters watched from rail seats in 2011. Our country has both a glorious heritage and an enduring past in football ground safety. It is therefore vital that we debate the issue with the respect it warrants. It is right that we seek to ensure that football supporters across England and Wales have the best possible match day experience but equally important to remember the lessons the football world has learnt and why changes were first introduced.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar (Warley) (Lab) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:32 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman rightly indicates that there is a case to be made. Indeed, West Bromwich Albion, based in my constituency, produced a very well researched case for safe standing at The Hawthorns, looking at national and international experiences. Can he imagine the disappointment when the proposal was slapped down by the Minister?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:33 p.m.

I will talk about specific clubs later on. Standing was common practice at football grounds across the country until Lord Justice Taylor’s recommendations were acted on following the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. The findings from the final report in 1990 have shaped supporter safety ever since, and from August 1994 clubs in the English premier league and championship have been required to have all-seater stadiums. This matter remains complex and sensitive, but the debate’s purpose is to explore safe standing in a modern era and new climate of technological advancements.

As football clubs’ capabilities and technology to enhance the security and safety of supporters have evolved, there have been renewed calls for an examination of safe standing options. Paramount in the debate is maintaining supporter safety. Concerns about introducing safe standing have stemmed from genuine efforts to guarantee and uphold supporters’ safety and wellbeing.

Lord Justice Taylor remarked in his 1990 report:

“There is no panacea which will achieve total safety and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control. But I am satisfied that seating does more to achieve those objectives than any other single measure.”

It is therefore right that the Government have asked for clear proof that an alternative could deliver the same levels of stability and safety.

Sir George Howarth Portrait Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:35 p.m.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Taylor report led to no standing areas. He will be aware that Margaret Aspinall, who speaks on behalf of the Hillsborough families, has said that this is a “sensitive time” and that most families of the victims

“don’t want standing ever brought back”.

Does he not agree that those views should be given some weight?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:36 p.m.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for putting those remarks on the record and commend him for all the work he has done to represent his constituents on this matter.

Rail seating, the most commonly advocated safe standing system, is the method currently operated in all examples of safe standing. It can be found at Celtic Park as well as several top-flight German football clubs. It operates in much the same way as existing seats, with each ticket holder allocated their own seat in the stadium. The rail seating design allows for the seat to be folded and locked upright when necessary, allowing supporters to stand. Each row has a safety barrier, which spectators can hold on to or lean against for stability. Those barriers seek to aid crowd control by keeping groups of supporters separate and restricting movement around the terrace.

Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab) Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:36 p.m.

On that point, Nick Dale, Grimsby Town football club’s stadium manager, suggests that weight should be given to the argument that safe standing in small areas should be made permissible and licences more freely available to clubs such as Grimsby Town. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:36 p.m.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point. I will talk later about suggestions from my local football clubs and the mechanisms by which they could be introduced.

Mr Paul Sweeney (Glasgow North East) (Lab/Co-op) Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:36 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. He referred to rail seating at Celtic Park, which has been in operation since July 2016. Does he agree that, since its installation, there have been no safety concerns whatever and it has been highly successful for the club and its fans?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:37 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting that point on the record. That highlights the potential for devolution. Importantly, Celtic’s application was just for a change in the type of seating; there was no increase in the number of people in the stands. The density of people at Celtic Park was therefore the same, which is important when we look at safety in that example.

The Football Supporters Federation has consistently argued that the controlling of crowds at football games, as well as crowds’ entry into grounds and the ability to monitor capacity, has drastically improved in the last 10 to 15 years. As the hon. Gentleman alluded to, that may be best evidenced by the fact that Celtic football club has reported that there has been no increase in incidents.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:38 p.m.

On that point, a broad range of supporters have come to me in favour of rail seating. That includes a 24-year-old female Liverpool fan and a much older male Man United fan, both constituents of mine in Leeds, as well as a Leeds United supporter.

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:39 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is right to put his constituents’ comments on the record, which are duly noted and replicated by many Yate Town football fans who have spoken to me on this matter.

As we explore the various arguments, we are tasked with comparing a 30-year period of improvements in supporter safety with the relatively early years in the introduction of safe standing and some of the examples already mentioned. The Government are asking for a long period of time to assess the impact of rail seating.

One solution is to devolve responsibility on safe standing to local authorities, who could in turn take advice from the safety advisory groups, which often consist of a local authority, the police, fire and ambulance services, and other relevant groups. We already trust local authorities to listen to SAGs when making recommendations and decisions on rugby matches, horse-racing events and music concerts. It is argued that there is an opportunity for those bodies to take on a new and enhanced role, with the Government allowing the decision for a club to introduce safe standing to be recommended and determined by authorities already in place.

Ashton Gate is the home of Bristol City football club and Bristol Rugby—the matches are held in the same ground. Yet the ground regulations on standing, for each sport, are in stark contrast to each other. Bristol City football club previously applied to the local safety advisory group to consider the possibility of introducing safe standing. Rail seating was considered at the start of the redevelopment of Ashton Gate in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, when the club was in league one. The possibility of progress on that was part of the reason why Bristol Rugby started to play at Ashton Gate. However, Avon and Somerset police have explained that it never took off following advice from the local safety advisory group. That clearly shows that football clubs already adhere to the advice and guidance of local experts and authorities.

The sort of devolution I am describing would require only for the Secretary of State to direct the Sports Grounds Safety Authority through secondary legislation under section 11 of the Football Spectators Act 1989 to allow safe standing in specified areas of the ground. That would allow clubs to future-proof their grounds in case their league status should change, and would allow for grounds such as Ashton Gate to adapt to their dual purpose. If they moved up or down a division, they could make changes to rail seating and whether seats were locked or not, depending on their status.

With the ability to install such seating, each club could be in a position to comply with the legislation but could also have the opportunity to consult their SAG on whether safe standing in certain areas could be pursued. Introducing safe standing could become an individual case-by-case decision, taking into account the varying opinions at each club, and the differing circumstances. It is argued that local authorities and SAGs are best placed and most suitably equipped to recommend safe standing.

Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:39 p.m.

Would the hon. Gentleman say that there is an exception in which it might always be important to install safe standing, because away supporters tend to stand? At Newcastle United the away supporters are right up in the gods, and stand in a dangerous position. Might that be an exception for every ground?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:42 p.m.

The point that the hon. Lady highlights is right. The important point is that devolving the decision to local authorities, which would take into account the police’s experience of dealing with issues at specific clubs and in specific stands, would provide more flexibility.

The debate centres on enhancing safety and control. It is about the extent to which devolution is required, and to which we trust local authorities to make the decisions in question—while ensuring that supporters get the best possible match day experience. I would welcome clarification from the Minister of the exact evidence that will be required before progress can be made. I would also welcome her thoughts about whether the sport might be best served by devolving the decisions to local authorities, which might be better placed to consider each application to install safe standing on its individual merits. The matter is one of particular sensitivity to people on all sides of the debate, and I hope that the points that are raised during the debate will receive fair and careful consideration and understanding.

Mr Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (in the Chair) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 4:42 p.m.

Order. There will be a three-minute time limit on speeches.