Football: Safe Standing

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan Excerpts
Monday 25th June 2018

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Gavin Newlands Portrait Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:29 p.m.

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.

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan Portrait Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (Tooting) (Lab) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:37 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their fantastic contributions to this important debate.

I start by paying respect to the 96 fans who went to a football match but never came home after the tragic events at Hillsborough. I pay tribute to those hon. Members who have not only spoken today, but campaigned for justice for many years, even decades. Their continued courage and determination will bring about justice for the 96. I extend my thanks to Mr Speaker and to the Petitions Committee for issuing guidance around the ongoing court case, and I am grateful to the Chair for keeping a close eye on proceedings today.

I also thank Owen, who is here today. For those who do not know, Owen is 17 and he started the safe standing petition online just a few months ago. He is already making footballing history. I am sure my colleagues will join me in thanking him for his contribution to today’s discussion. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

As many colleagues from all parts of the House have said, when discussing safe standing it is vital to understand and acknowledge that it is not a step back for football or a return to the terraces of the ’80s; it is the opposite. It is about moving football spectating forward and into a new era—into the future—so that it becomes safer, more inclusive and gives fans this choice.

The data and extent of the surveys provided by the English Football League and fan groups clearly show that fans want a safe standing option. More than 50 representatives from supporter groups joined me at my parliamentary roundtable, where I heard about a fantastic example of safe standing being used in Orlando. It is an inclusive area that puts wheelchair users at the heart of the action—not seeing them as an afterthought. They are in among the crowd and can experience football along with every other fan. It is a fantastic example of how safe standing can make football more inclusive for all.

However, at the heart of the debate is safety. It always has been and always will be, and it is not something that I will ever compromise on. The safety of fans at football matches is the first and foremost factor that we looked at when discussing safe standing. As many colleagues have already pointed out with interesting examples, the current system is not working. It is not safe. Week in, week out, fans like myself stand in seated areas, which is not safe. Owen himself started the petition because he was injured at a football match by people behind falling on top of him. Stewards are powerless. Clubs do not want to get involved and the police will intervene only if an argument escalates. Anyone who has travelled away with their club will have had the experience of steep upper tiers, where the seat in front barely comes above their socks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) said, it is simply not safe.

I cannot and will not stand by while fans are being injured, especially when we have alternative ways to improve things and minimise risk. That is why I am proud to support the installation of specialised rail seating, where appropriate, or standing in current seated areas where it can be made safe. That could be by the addition of bars or by other means. It is a matter of converting a small section of a stadium to be designated for safe standing—capped at 7,500 safe standing spaces. That is in line with what the EFL has proposed. We want to give fans, clubs and the safety authorities the power to allow a small area inside a stadium to be designated for safe standing. Clubs, fans and safety authorities know their stadiums better than anyone in Whitehall. The decision should rest with them. A different set of rules applies to football fans, and it is not right. At the time of my parliamentary roundtable, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority told me that the last time it met a Minister was more than three months ago. Every supporters group that I speak to tells me that every Minister has refused to meet them in the past few months. It is time that the Government stopped taking fans for granted, and started listening to them.

People who go to a football game at the Emirates or Etihad stadiums on a Saturday will be asked to sit down. At the same stadiums a few days later people can, without the threat of being evicted, stand at a pop concert and jump up and down. They can go to the rugby, stand and enjoy supporting their team without the threat of being evicted. Three weeks ago I was pleased when the Sports Minister announced a review of safe standing; but we have heard nothing since—no details and no timetable. Nothing. I am told there is a rumour—I hope it is wrong—that the Minister will announce the postponement of the review. We must all remind ourselves that while the debate is about how we enjoy football it is also about how we make the current system—which is not safe—safer for all, including the elderly who want to enjoy the national game, families who want to attend with children, and everyone who wants to enjoy football.

Today’s debate is about safe standing in 2018, not the terraces of the 1980s. It has been about how fans can stand safely at a football match and prevent serious injury. There are 112,000 people who have filled in a petition online, and almost 6,000 people responded to my fan survey. More than 30,000 fans gave their views to the English Football League. More than 4 million Twitter uses have seen a tweet relating to safe standing in the past month. The premier league has spoken about safe standing. So have the EFL and the Football Association; and finally so have we today in the Chamber. If the Minister is thinking about postponing the Government’s review of safe standing, I strongly urge her to reconsider.

Football can, as has already been shown, have a sensible debate about safe standing that focuses on safe standing in the future. The Minister, for whom I have great respect, has an open goal. She can listen to the vocal majority or choose to ignore us.

Tracey Crouch Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Tracey Crouch) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:44 p.m.

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.