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20 Jul 2005 : Column 457WH—continued

20 Jul 2005 : Column 458WH

Football-Related Violence

11 am

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair in this Chamber, Mr. Bayley. I chose the title of the debate very carefully. I should put down a marker: I love football; along with politics it is perhaps one of my great loves. I am a patron of AFC Telford United, and I am very proud of the club and its traditions. It went out of business just over a year ago and has been taken over by a supporters' trust, which is doing fantastic work in the local community. The club sits in the constituency neighbouring mine, that of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), but as I said I am proud to be a patron.

I shall focus on two themes in the debate. The first is the general issue of football-related violence and the second is an incident concerning one of my constituents, Mr. Jamie Turner, and problems that he encountered at a football match he attended in Southampton earlier this year.

We all know that football prompts great passion. It is a fantastic game and people get incredibly involved in it. It is our national game and we should be proud of it. There have been many studies of football as a social phenomenon. In 1981, the great anthropologist Desmond Morris wrote a book called "The Soccer Tribe", in which he considered football as an extension of tribal rituals that the human race has enjoyed over many years. The book is interesting because he talks about football as a "stylised battle", a process whereby communities come together to do battle with each other. That is fine on the pitch.

Social scientists have talked for a long time about the search for an identity through football. People say that we live in a world dominated by globalisation in which people feel increasingly remote from their communities; they find that football gives them a contact with their local community, with their town and with society around them. There is probably some truth in that and we should understand it, but if people are going to use violence as part of the process, they should search for their identity in a different way. It is okay for people to support their local club very passionately, but it is not acceptable for them to be violent in their support. We should be very clear that people who are violent in and around the environment of football are criminals, not football supporters, and should be treated as such.

Clubs are doing a great deal to root out the problem of violence at grounds. An awful lot has been done in the past 20 or so years following incidents such as Heysel. The bigger clubs have gone in for all-seater stadiums. CCTV is now prevalent in many clubs, right through the divisions. Indeed, the club that I follow, AFC Telford United, has CCTV fitted around the ground, even though it is in one of the lower leagues. We should congratulate football clubs on taking a lead on that and on matching up with other campaigns, such as "Kick racism out of football".

Often nowadays violence is displaced away from football grounds and into neighbouring communities, and many of those involved in violence have already been excluded from their football clubs for violent conduct at the ground. On match day, we sometimes see groups of men—predominantly young men, it has to be
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said—floating around the ground and the environment near their club, looking or "cruising", as some of them call it, for trouble with opposing fans. We hear stories of groups of supporters e-mailing one another and using mobile phones and the computer network to set up pitched battles in locations near grounds. That has nothing to do with football any more. It is loosely associated with those clubs, which rightly distance themselves from such behaviour. It is a social phenomenon—a criminal phenomenon—in which groups gather to fight some form of battle connected with an honour for their community which is completely misplaced. I am sure that that view is shared throughout the House.

What I am describing can happen in football at all levels. It happens not only in top-flight football but throughout the structure. AFC Telford United played a friendly game against West Bromwich Albion on 9 July, and several supporters from, it is thought, Wolverhampton Wanderers turned up. They are not really supporters so much as people who associate themselves with that team. I do not think that they actually attended the match, but they caused a fight in a pub just outside the ground.

I can do no better than echo the words of the chairman of my club, Lee Carter, which appeared on the club website after the event. He said:

That was a responsible statement from a club chairman: he did not deny that violence occurred because there was a football match in town; he acknowledged the problem; and he wants to work with the community and police to put things right. That is no more than I would expect from a club that is as well rooted in its community as AFC Telford United now is.

There was a game on the following Tuesday evening, 12 July, against Wolves, which went extremely well. After that game, Lee Carter had this to say:

Again, he was quite right. It is interesting that that game did not receive coverage on the same scale as the game of the previous Saturday. No one wants to talk about football matches that go well, where everyone enjoys themselves. Of course, that is what happens at 99 per cent. of games in this country and around the world.

I do not think that we can apply a social science model, however attractive that may appear. We can use it to understand what happens when football violence occurs, but we cannot deploy it as a defence for criminal behaviour. We should never do that.
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The Football Association is doing good work in this respect. It is committed to eradicating violent behaviour at football matches in England and matches involving England teams abroad. The FA is working in several areas domestically and internationally to achieve that goal. For example, it is working with the Government to explore ways of tightening the regime governing ticket touting, the unauthorised sale of tickets that is one of the main factors leading to hooliganism, undermining as it often does the segregation at football grounds. I support the FA in that and in seeking far harsher penalties for ticket touts who operate outside grounds.

In recent years there has been huge progress in preventing the hooligan element from following the England team abroad. I understand that only one arrest was made before, during or after any of the four games that England played in Euro 2004 in Portugal. I thought that our supporters did us proud there, and I hope that England fans will follow in that direction in future. That was in no small part due to work done before and during the tournament by the FA, the police authorities—I am sure that the Minister will want to comment on that—the Home Office, and clubs and other colleagues in Portugal, ensuring success both in the security arrangements and in the eradication of hooliganism.

The FA has started similar preparations for next year's World cup in Germany. I hope and expect that the England team will be followed by people who want to enjoy their football in that country. The FA is right to call for magistrates throughout the UK to ensure that football banning orders are applied consistently and rigorously and to take all relevant offences into account. We can stop trouble makers travelling abroad if the process is managed firmly.

I want the Minister in his reply to tell us about the Government's efforts to lobby for the Schengen border agreement to be suspended for the duration of the tournament, as it was in 2004. We need to control people who have a record of committing violent football-related offences and who may intend to travel to Germany.

The FA is working hard with outside agencies to promote diversity among England fans, which is most important. The profile of people watching England games is very different from that of 20 years ago, which is a good thing. We need to get more families and women involved in the game, to encourage a multiracial view of football and to get more people engaged across the board. I am pleased that the FA recently fined Millwall £25,000 following racist chanting by their fans at a Carling cup game last season. We must be tough on that kind of abuse.

We will hear more about police activity in relation to football violence in a minute, but I shall turn first to what happened to my constituent and friend, Jamie Turner, who is a Telford resident. Jamie and his wife Karen, who is also a friend of mine, run a successful IT business in Telford. Jamie, who is a Manchester United fan, was 46 yesterday. He has followed Manchester United all his life and goes to games with a group of friends who travel together and enjoy their football.

Jamie was assaulted by a gang of Southampton fans while on the way to the last game of the season on 15 May. He met some of his friends in a local park and they walked towards the ground; they crossed a main road
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and started to go through an estate. A number of individuals—I will not call them football supporters, because they are not; they are criminals—emerged from a local working men's club, or drinking club, and set about the group of supporters with baseball bats, with chair legs and, some have said, with metal bars. It was an unprovoked attack on a group of people who just wanted to go and watch a football match. To my knowledge, Jamie has never before been involved in trouble relating to football. Several of the supporters involved in the incident pleaded with those who attacked them to leave them alone, because all they wanted to do was go and watch the game.

Jamie tried to walk away from the incident and was attacked—he was hit on the head with a baseball bat. For a time I thought that Jamie would not reach his 46th birthday; he will have to live with the legacy of the incident for the rest of his life. His family have been incredibly strong in supporting him and they deserve our respect. Jamie was unconscious for a considerable time; he was in a critical condition in the intensive care unit at Southampton general hospital. I stress that the incident was nothing to do with real Southampton supporters because, I repeat, the people involved are simply criminals.

At the time, Karen said to the press:

That is an appalling scenario: a group of friends who have been watching football for many years travel together for the closing game of the season, sit in a local park for a few minutes and enjoy themselves before the match, then head off towards the ground, when somebody nearly kills one of them. It is incredible that that should happen to someone while they are walking to a football match.

The police have been painstaking in their work, and I know that Karen wants to pay tribute to them. She has not seen eye to eye with them on some of the things that they have done, but, all in all, she thinks that they have done an incredibly painstaking job in trying to resolve the matter. Many local people have bravely come forward to give evidence, although they must be scared. Witnesses are also afraid that they themselves might be branded as trouble makers, football hooligans or criminals. Such an incident can become a melee. Things move quickly and people try to get out of the way—they run in an effort to remove themselves from the situation. Events become a blur, and people cannot remember exactly what happened or who did what. The police are trying to focus on that problem.

Several people have appealed for witnesses to come forward and give further evidence. Bobby Charlton made that appeal on behalf of Manchester United. I hope that anybody in the Southampton area, any Manchester United supporter or any genuine Southampton supporter who knows what happened on that day will come forward and give further evidence to the police. We must catch the individual, or group of individuals, who committed this crime. Quite frankly, it is not safe to have them walking around on our streets. They must be brought to justice.
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I close by asking the Minister to ensure that this case continues to have a high profile and that we will not rest until we find the individual or individuals who attacked my constituent and friend, Jamie Turner, when he went to Southampton to enjoy a football match with his friends. I am sure that the Minister will commit himself to ensuring that we continue with the inquiry and that we press as hard as we can to find the individuals involved in the incident.

Football is a great game. It is one of the great loves and passions of my life and the life of many people in our nation. It will always be a great game. We must ensure that we talk carefully about football-related violence, which has nothing to do with football, and never should have anything to do with it. Those who perpetrate it are criminals.

11.17 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) for raising the issue of football disorder. As he made clear, substantial progress has been made in recent years, but there is still a problem. We cannot afford for a moment to be complacent about it. This debate gives me an opportunity to outline some of the initiatives that the Government have taken and continue to take to deal with it.

First, I want to say a few things about the specific incidents that my hon. Friend related this morning. I was aware of the appalling attack on his friend that took place in Southampton in May. Indeed, my hon. Friend and I discussed the incident soon afterwards. I assure him that my officials have maintained close contact with the Hampshire police throughout the intervening weeks.

As my hon. Friend indicated, the incident occurred before a football match between Southampton and Manchester United. He described the circumstances in which the attack took place. The police confirmed that the visiting group were chased through a nearby housing estate before two of their number were seriously assaulted. One of the attacks was on my hon. Friend's constituent and personal friend, who sustained serious injuries. Mr. Turner has been discharged from hospital, but his treatment will continue for some time. I take this opportunity to send the good wishes not just of myself but of the whole House to my hon. Friend's constituent for his sustained recovery.

The assault was serious, and the Hampshire constabulary immediately set up a major incident team to investigate it. I assure my hon. Friend, his constituents and their family that the inquiries are thorough and ongoing. I endorse the call that he made this morning: if anybody has any information that could help the police, they should come forward with it. I am not able to go into further detail about the police investigation, but I emphasise that Hampshire constabulary is wholly committed to bringing its investigations to a satisfactory conclusion. I know that everyone in the House fully supports the view that serious criminality of that kind cannot be tolerated for a second.

My hon. Friend also cited an incident that occurred the weekend before last. A small group of troublemakers who associate themselves with my hon.
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Friend's football team, AFC Telford United, and with Wolverhampton Wanderers, attacked a public house in which visiting West Bromwich Albion fans were drinking after a football match. The incident resulted in one serious assault and three arrests, and it demonstrates my hon. Friend's point: football-related disorder can occur at all levels of football. I was shocked to find out that nine individuals who associate themselves with AFC Telford United are subject to banning orders.

In recent years, we have made great strides in dealing with football hooliganism. Incidents between groups of rival hooligan supporters still occur from time to time—we heard evidence of that this morning—but the problems are not of the same magnitude as they were. That is because the Government, police, football authorities and supporter groups have come together; they are intolerant of that besmirching of the name of football. We have found ways of working together to counter the influence of hooliganism.

As we know, the dynamic of football disorder is complex and fluid. It ebbs and flows in scale, and its character changes continually. We need to keep a clear eye on what is taking place. Football matches can be highly charged and passionate affairs, with raw emotion and community spirit holding sway. The potential for a minority of fans to exploit that opportunity to lose their discipline and self-control and pose a danger and threat to others is always there. It can never be a justification for violence.

Let us be clear that the scope for spontaneous misbehaviour in grounds has greatly reduced as a result of the improvements in ground structure and safety that have taken place. I pay tribute to football clubs and all those associated with football who have made that happen. My hon. Friend is right: today, football is a game with a much more diverse supporter base. More families and women attend and feel safe, secure and unafraid. That is a wholly good thing for the game and for the atmosphere in which it is played.

The appalling incident in Southampton demonstrates an important point: football disorder can be violent and can have serious consequences. These days, it is largely pursued away from the public eye and is, as my hon. Friend mentioned, dispersed from the immediate area of the football stadium. That is also a challenge for the police and one that they are ready to meet.

The House will be aware that, in recent years, there has been a major reduction in the numbers involved in football disorder. That has been achieved through a range of measures. The use of football banning orders has been fundamental, as has more effective public order policing. We have had a much more focused, intelligence-led police operation, which has helped. There has also been a discernible change in the attitude of football supporters. They are no longer prepared to be complicit in hooliganism, because they know that it is wrong and intolerable.

Domestic football disorder is rarely a major issue these days for crime statistics and the impact on local communities. It would not rate as the highest priority on a local policing agenda, given the other problems that the police face. During the 2003–04 season, the total number of football-related arrests, which includes any arrests that take place during the 24 hours either side of
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a match, was fewer than 4,000. That is 1.62 arrests per football match and represents a 10 per cent. decrease from the season before. That is a good and improving record. Data from last season will be published in the near future. I cannot confirm the figures, but all the indications are that progress is continuing.

Perhaps an even stronger indicator of the extent to which things have improved is the fact that about 25 per cent. of all premiership and Football League matches take place completely free from police involvement, which shows that the sport takes its responsibilities seriously.

We know the history, which goes back as far as Luxembourg in the 1970s. We remember the terrible events in Dublin in the 1990s, and in Copenhagen, Brussels and Charleroi in 2000, when we had a wake-up call telling us that something had to be done about football hooliganism. During the Euro 2000 finals in Belgium, 945 England fans were arrested and deported. It seemed at that time that England's future as a football nation was at stake. However, it gave us the impetus to do something. I am sure that all Members of the House will welcome what has been achieved since and agree that the reputation and behaviour of England football fans overseas has improved dramatically since our new strategy was introduced. This is shown by the significant reduction in the number of arrests of English people for football-related disorder during the European and World cup finals. As my hon. Friend said, compared with the 945 arrests in 2000, there was just one confirmed arrest during Euro 2004 in Portugal, an impressive achievement when 80,000 football fans travelled to Portugal.

The UK's efforts to minimise the threat also received public acclaim from UEFA, the Portuguese police and Government, the Independent Football Commission and the fans themselves. There were, of course, problems with drunkenness and disorder in the Algarve, but the Portuguese made it clear that that was not football-related disorder in the traditional sense; it was antisocial drunken behaviour of the sort witnessed too often in our high streets and some Mediterranean resorts. In Spain alone, more than 2,000 British tourists are arrested annually for drunken violence and disorder. That is a regrettable and disturbing trend, which the Government are working hard to address, but it is a wider social problem rather than a football-related one.

That success has not happened by accident. It is the result of a great deal of hard work by a number of agencies and the fans, as well as the comprehensive Home Office-led initiative born out of the terrible scenes that we remember from 2000. The legislation allowing football banning orders is fundamental to the strategy and gives the police and the courts power to prevent domestic football disorder and the export of the problem.

In the next few weeks, I shall place in the Library a detailed report on the impact of the legislation. The new laws are delivering on every front. The number of orders has risen dramatically since Euro 2000 when around 100 individuals could be prevented from travelling to Belgium. Today the number of banning orders exceeds 3,000. Indeed, the 10 per cent. reduction in arrests reported for the 2003–04 season was accompanied by a 45 per cent. increase in the number of banning orders.
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The police can identify those people and take the appropriate steps to prevent them from travelling and thereby associating with football matches.

It is important to pay tribute to the effectiveness of public order operations by local police in suppressing the risk of football violence and in reassuring local communities. It is also important to pay tribute to football fans. They and their organisations, particularly the Football Supporters Federation, have played a major role in helping the police to combat football-related disorder.

I know that hon. Members share the widespread pleasure in what we have achieved in our national sport. We all like to participate in one way or another and support our teams. We can all take pride in what has been achieved and the fact that our national game is no longer blighted by mass disorder on the terraces or in the streets of European cities that host football tournaments.

The legislation and strategy introduced in the wake of the violence during Euro 2000 is working well, but the problem of hooliganism may not have been eradicated and the threat may remain, so we must not be complacent. However, the number and scale of incidents both at home and overseas has decreased dramatically. Relatively small and isolated incidents will occur from time to time, and some, like the appalling incident in Southampton that my hon. Friend described, remind us of the need to retain the initiative and prevent troublemakers from shaming our national game.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.

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