Football: Safe Standing DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Dr Rosena Allin-KhanMain Page: Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (Labour) - Tooting)
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh, for the first time, I think. I am pleased to take part in today’s debate. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on setting out the case and the current situation so well. I add my thanks and congratulations to Owen Riches who launched the petition and all who worked so hard to get this issue brought to the House.
Throughout the debate a number of Members have been dreaming—I use that word advisedly—of the day that their local club will reach the heights of the premier league. Some Members took the opportunity to indulge in a bit of local football banter. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) claimed that he would not retaliate against taunts from the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) before describing Portsmouth as playing closer to the Sunday league than the premier league. As always, politicians are lying.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) made the vital point, since made by others, that standing is happening anyway and we should get on with making it safer. I agree with him and others that in doing so we must remain sensitive to the Hillsborough disaster and the families of those affected by that awful day.
Like the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), I declare an interest as an officer of the all-party parliamentary group for football supporters. Despite that, the sport I played week in, week out for 17 years was rugby. My first love was football, and for my sins I am a loyal St Johnstone fan. The Saints are going through what is probably the club’s most consistent and best footballing spell in their history, having qualified for Europe numerous times in recent years and—touch wood—been a regular fixture in Scotland’s top flight for the last 10 years.
When that top flight was formed in 1998, it followed the Taylor review in England in stipulating that all grounds must be all-seater, with a minimum of 10,000 seats—although that has been reduced to 6,000. That measure cost many Scottish clubs dearly: many are still in debt as a result and some have gone into liquidation. Coincidently, St Johnstone were the first club in the UK to open a purpose-built all-seater stadium, just weeks after the Hillsborough disaster. Indeed, Lord Justice Taylor visited the stadium during his inquiry into that disaster.
The debate has been brought about by the growing appetite across these islands for safe standing sections to be introduced at grounds throughout the country. More than 110,000 people signed the petition, high- lighting that growing demand. The Football Supporters Federation, referenced heavily throughout the debate, has done an excellent job in championing safe standing areas in grounds. That grassroots campaign has even managed to unite Manchester United and Manchester City supporters—no mean feat, though not quite Rangers and Celtic, or St Mirren and Morton in my area.
Standing at football has always been part of the game. Even after the Football Spectators Act 1989, supporters have chosen still to stand. Indeed, my first recollection of football was, I think, 1986, for the Stanley Rous cup, standing on the terraced slopes of Hampden against the auld enemy, England. My selective amnesia forbids my telling the House the result of the game. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is correct.
Ninety-four per cent. of respondents to the survey that has been mentioned believed that fans should be able to choose whether to stand or sit at football matches. That does not surprise me in the slightest. However, not one single football supporter would place the safety of other fans at risk. This debate is so important because it is fan-led. Fans can provide a range of examples of where safe standing has been produced in other countries across Europe, including Scotland. I would be grateful for the Minister’s expanding on any recent conversations she has had with the footballing authorities in Scotland, Germany or anywhere else in Europe on that point. In addition, what assessment have the UK Government, FA or premier league carried out on any individual stadiums across Europe that allow safe standing as a means by which to judge whether the policy in England and Wales can be relaxed in some way?
I mentioned that the Scottish Professional Football League’s seating requirements were relaxed. At the time that announcement was made, the chief executive of the then Scottish premier league, Neil Doncaster, said the decision was driven by “supporter demand” and that
“Whenever we talk to supporters about what they’d like to see, safe standing comes up as one of the things they’d like to see”.
Scottish football is doing a lot of work to improve the fan experience for those attending a game at the weekend. I should note that that is not being done at the expense of fan safety. In making that decision, the SPFL not only listened to its member clubs and to supporter groups, but gathered information that allowed it to make an evidence-based decision. It assessed the systems in place in Germany, specifically looking at Borussia Dortmund’s ground, where Mr Doncaster found that they have a fantastic set-up that improves the fan experience and creates a great atmosphere.
In response to fans’ demands, Celtic made history in 2016 by being the first club in the UK to install a safe standing system in their stadium, as was referenced, with 3,000 rail seats put in place at Parkhead. That installation was warmly welcomed by Celtic fans and endorsed by Jon Darch of the Football Supporters Federation. Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers also said that the installation of safe standing at Celtic Park has helped to create an even better atmosphere in the ground.
With its design based on barrier technology and its robust seat and high back, the rail seat forms a strong and continuous handrail to facilitate safe standing. The seats are compact and have been approved for use by both UEFA and FIFA for champions league and World Cup matches. Indeed, St Mirren, Paisley’s newly promoted top-flight club, have visited Celtic Park and are looking very seriously at introducing a safe standing section at St Mirren Park.
It is vital that we ensure the safety of all supporters who trek through the turnstiles each and every week. The memory and legacy of Hillsborough demand that. However, now is surely the time to review safe standing in football stadiums. I hope the Minister hears the demands of supporters and announces a review that assesses the examples in Scotland and across Europe of safe standing at football stadiums.
It is as always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh.
I have been a football fan for as long as I can remember. I played football, I collected the sticker books —I still do—and as soon as I was old enough, I started to go to football matches. I used to walk across the rec to Reachfields to watch Hythe Town. If I had earned extra pocket money, I used to jump on the bus to watch Folkestone play. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) will be pleased to hear that when I was at university I watched Hull a few times a season. Finally, when I started to earn money, I began to watch Spurs, the team I began idolising at the age of eight.
Why do I say that? It is not because of the nostalgia that many have said we should employ in our discussions. I say it to explain that football runs through my veins. It is only because I care so much about the game that I felt so disappointed with my own loose language on safe standing, which rightly led to outrage, but which sadly turned into abuse and threats of violence, both physical and sexual. I did not expect that from those with whom I have stood shoulder to shoulder throughout the years.
Let me say from the outset that I did not mean to suggest that only a vocal minority support safe standing—surveys show otherwise, but they also show that only a small percentage would want to stand throughout the match. I confused the two and we are here today as a result, but the debate gives us the opportunity to talk about the future of all-seater stadiums. In my speech, I will try to reflect some of the comments made by 33 colleagues during the debate, set out Government thinking and explain some of the challenges we face.