Football: Safe Standing

Tracey Crouch Excerpts
Monday 25th June 2018

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
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.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab) - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:46 p.m.

I want to reflect on what the Minister has just said. I implore everybody to ensure that all sides can be heard in the debate. That is what is important. We need conduct that enables the broadest possible debate.

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch - Hansard

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I still feel quite scarred by the response I received on social media to my initial comments. They were loose and wrong, but were not a reflection of my views on football. It was certainly unfair of people to say that I did not understand the game with which I have been personally involved since I was knee high to a grasshopper. That shows a lack of understanding that Ministers and Members of Parliament have views and sometimes make mistakes.

It is useful to start by summarising very briefly the framework in which we operate. As colleagues have heard, Lord Justice Taylor’s report following the terrible Hillsborough disaster ushered in the all-seater policy for the top two divisions of English football, as well as Wembley stadium and the Principality stadium in Cardiff. The wider safety regime, which includes the all-seater policy, also took into account other tragic events, such as that at Bradford. No Government of any political persuasion should ever be complacent about safety or other measures that have enabled us to achieve such consistently high levels of safety since the all-seater regulations were introduced. That must be paramount in our considerations.

Ian Mearns Portrait Ian Mearns - Hansard
25 Jun 2018, 6:48 p.m.

One thing that has changed since Hillsborough is that the Government and the establishment have taken safety at football grounds much more seriously. Ibrox had two disasters in the space of less than 50 years, and Bolton Wanderers had a significant one. Crushing injuries occurred week in, week out at football grounds. The evidence of earlier years shows that football’s fans and their safety were not taken seriously by people in the halls of power.

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.

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.

Sitting adjourned.