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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 24 October 2007

[Mr. David Marshall in the Chair]

Football Matches (Standing Spectators)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

9.30 am

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to initiate a debate under your wise and experienced chairmanship, Mr. Marshall, and it is a delight to see you.

I extend my congratulations to the Minister on his new appointment, although in his short tenure his record of sporting success is pretty dismal. Wales and Northern Ireland are out of the European championship, and England and Scotland are unlikely to qualify.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Marshall. Northern Ireland are not out of the European championship—they have only to beat Denmark and Spain to qualify.

Mr. Godsiff: Of course, I accept entirely what my hon. Friend says—I am sure that Northern Ireland will, as always, battle to the end.

To return to my point, the new Minister’s sporting record is dismal. The England rugby team are in demise and are no longer world champions, the England cricket team are in the doldrums, and Lewis Hamilton managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the Formula 1 championship. However, I hope that the Minister might today play an absolute blinder and, in doing so, endear himself to many genuine football fans in the country.

I do not wish to make the debate too technical or legalistic by referring to the various Acts that cover safety at sports grounds or that arose from the Bradford and Hillsborough disasters. The debate ought to be about whether the provision of safe standing areas at the highest level of English football is safe and desirable, and not about the intricacies of deciding what legislation to alter. Having said that, the abolition of terracing was not included in legislation—the power to do so rests with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. If he decided tomorrow that standing areas were to be allowed at premiership and championship football matches, on a recommendation, say, from the Minister, the Football Licensing Authority would have to allow it and the football authorities would have no option but to change their rules to allow clubs to comply with the change in the law.

The issue of approved safe standing areas at premiership and championship football grounds might not be of great concern to the wider public, but it is of concern to the many thousands of supporters who frequent football matches in the top two leagues. Many of them stand up during matches, such as the away support of Manchester United, and many see home supporters standing either for all or part of a match. Standing supporters are in
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contravention of premiership and league rules, and the safety authorities of local councils have, on occasion, penalised the home club because away fans were allowed to stand through a whole match because stewards were unable or unwilling to force them to sit down or to expel them.

If legal safe standing areas were allowed at football grounds when there is a demand and when clubs wished to introduce them, the current problem of illegal standing would be resolved. I emphasise the importance of a club’s wishes, because I am not suggesting that clubs be forced or obliged to introduce standing areas. Allowing safe standing would mean that those who wish to stand would have an area in which to do so, and those who wish to sit would have dedicated seating areas.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, but does he agree that we need to stress the voluntary nature of his proposal? The Foxes Trust, of which I am a member, is associated with Leicester City football club. It is surveying visitors to Leicester City to find the level of support for safe standing. It is no surprise to find that football supporters want to feel that they are part of a crowd, and not a member of the audience—that is the thrill of the game.

Mr. Godsiff: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and I shall come to discuss the issue he raised. Of course, everybody stands up when a goal is scored or when a player is substituted and applauded from the pitch.

Before developing the reasons why safe standing areas ought to be allowed only when clubs and fans want them, I wish to deal with some of the myths and untrue assertions that have led us to the situation in which we find ourselves today. First, we must go into the history. Prior to the terrible tragedy at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989, professional football institutions had a complacent attitude and oversaw a chronic lack of investment in spectator facilities. In the 1970s and 1980s, a hooligan and violent element attached itself to football, especially at the top levels, which resulted in pitch invasions and violence, often organised by rival groups of hooligans. I have deliberately not described them as football supporters because they were not—they were violent hooligans who attached themselves to football and used traditional club rivalries as a cover for their criminal activities.

The Government of the time responded by introducing legislation to oblige clubs at the top level of professional football to segregate fans and, more contentiously, to erect fences to stop incursions on to the playing area. Tragically, the latter decision was to have fatal consequences. On 15 April 1989 at Hillsborough, an FA cup semi-final was being played between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Liverpool fans were allocated the Leppings Lane end, which had open terraces with a fence at the front, the gates of which were locked. The official report into the disaster—the Taylor report—makes it clear that the appalling tragedy of the 96 people who were killed was caused by too many people being allowed into the Leppings Lane enclosure. The pressure on spectators at the front increased, but there was no means of escaping on to the pitch. The Taylor report apportioned blame to the police, stewards, ground authorities and fences but did not say that the tragedy would not have occurred if the Leppings Lane stand was an all-seater.

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Even now, those of us who listened, as I did, or who watched on television as the tragedy unfolded, remember feeling vividly a sense of helplessness. I cannot imagine the feelings that the bereaved families went through at the time or in the years afterwards. However, I must reiterate that standing supporters did not cause the tragedy. The tragedy was caused by the fact that too many fans were allowed into an enclosed area with no means of escape—they were fenced in.

My good friend the Minister represents a Bradford constituency. Bradford also suffered football tragedy. On 11 May 1985, a fire started in the main stand of Valley Parade. Everyone in the stand was sitting on wooden seats. The fire spread rapidly and, owing to a combination of events, 56 people were killed. Those tragic fatalities did not occur because all the fans were sitting down. They occurred because rubbish caught fire under the wooden floors, and the fire spread rapidly because everything else in the stand was constructed of wood.

I revisit those painful events to make the point that two appalling tragedies have taken place at football grounds in Yorkshire: one in a standing area enclosed by a fence and the other in a seated area in a wooden stand. However, the myth has grown that standing to watch football is inherently unsafe. It is not true.

After the Hillsborough tragedy, an inquiry was set up under Lord Justice Taylor. He produced an interim report, followed by a final report in January 1990. The Taylor report called for a major investment in professional football to improve facilities. It made many recommendations, covering a range of issues, including how many people should be allowed in standing areas and how that should be monitored. The overwhelming majority of the recommendations were welcomed by football supporters and have stood the test of time.

Lord Justice Taylor also recommended all-seater stadiums for the top two divisions of English football and the top division in Scotland. It is crucial that we read the report to see exactly what he said and the context in which he said it.

David Taylor: Will my hon. Friend give way for a second and final time?

Mr. Godsiff: By all means.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend is right that there were no specific recommendations covering the broad mass of football, but does he agree with me that one of the specific recommendations that Lord Justice Taylor did make—he could not have been clearer—was that clubs should not use the advent of all-seater stadiums to ramp up prices, yet that was blatantly ignored, which has been a contributing factor to some of the problems that we have seen in the years since? Does my hon. Friend agree that that was a specific recommendation and that it was ignored by football league clubs and others?

Mr. Godsiff: As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is true that that is exactly what Lord Justice Taylor said. I shall return to that point.

Let us examine exactly what Lord Justice Taylor said:

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Lord Justice Taylor’s expectations in respect of seating have definitely not been realised.

As a result of the Taylor report, the Government provided more than £100 million of public money in a variety of ways to improve facilities at professional football grounds. In the 1992-93 season, the premiership was formed and vast amounts of money then flowed into football at the highest level—mostly, it has to be said, into the pockets of players, their agents and assorted advisers.

The premiership is the richest league in the world. Chief executives, particularly the current one, Richard Scudamore, have been brilliantly successful at maximising its income and turning it into a worldwide brand. Fabulously rich oligarchs, entrepreneurs and business men have acquired ownership of a number of clubs. Whether those trends are good for football or the national team and whether they are welcomed by football fans is a matter of opinion, and it is not necessarily relevant to this debate—with one exception.

When the Taylor report was published and the impression was put around that any standing area in top football grounds was unsafe, it suited the owners of many top clubs to replace standing areas, where entry prices were cheap—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor)—with seated areas, where much higher prices could be charged, particularly as the majority of the money to make the changes was coming from Government sources or the pools companies. The premiership has greatly increased the move towards higher ticket prices, with more corporate areas, and many fans of top clubs find watching premiership football live more and more expensive.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Perhaps I can give him some encouraging news. Pearse Flynn, the owner of my local club, Livingston, was very keen, once Livingston were in the premier league, to have standing areas, not only because prices would be cheaper but because he saw it as a way of increasing the size of the crowd. The average crowd in a 10,000-seater stadium was about 4,000 or 5,000 unless Celtic or Rangers were playing. I thought that that was a very good initiative, and it needs supporters. There are people out there who own football clubs and support the drive that my hon. Friend is making.

Mr. Godsiff: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; he is absolutely right. As I would expect, and as always, Scotland leads the way. However, what he describes is not happening just in Scotland. There are owners of football clubs elsewhere in the United Kingdom who support safe standing areas, but I will develop that point later.

When fans asked for safe standing areas to be provided on grounds of choice and cost, they were originally told that standing was unsafe. When people pointed out that
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clubs in Germany and elsewhere on the continent had provided dedicated safe standing areas, and when people asked why, if standing was unsafe, the premiership had allowed one of its member teams, Fulham, to play for more than a year with open terracing behind one goal instead of closing that area of the ground, the argument changed. Fulham is an excellent example. Its situation is analogous to that of a hospital that is suddenly discovered to have a load of viruses in it, but the health authority, instead of closing it down, says, “Well, we’ll leave it for a year because it’s going to be rebuilt in a year anyway.” The premiership was saying, “Standing is unsafe, but we will allow one of our member clubs to have standing until such time as it gets round to putting in seating.” That is just one of the many contradictions and hypocrisies in this matter.

Instead of it being said that standing was unsafe, the new line was peddled that it was outdated, not modern and not in keeping with the global image of the premiership, that there was no real demand for it, that it would be turning the clock back and that it would cost too much money to provide safe standing areas. When that argument was challenged, a new argument was added. It was then argued by the premiership and the FLA that if an element of safe standing was introduced into top grounds in England, no international or European games could take place in those grounds, because FIFA and UEFA regulations do not allow people to stand at international or European matches. However, it was pointed out that every ground in Germany has safe standing, that 24,000 people stand at each match in a single stand at Borussia Dortmund’s ground, and that German stadiums are reconfigured quite simply for European and international matches.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but I just want to correct him. UEFA rules are that stadiums have to be all-seater to be involved in European competition. In Germany, there are flexible stadiums, and seats are put in for UEFA games.

Mr. Godsiff: I am grateful for the intervention from my hon. Friend the Minister because it is just the point that I intend to make. We want to have the same situation in this country as that which pertains in Germany. I accept his point about UEFA. It is clear that an international match must have an all-seater stadium, but in Germany, when domestic matches are played, the grounds are reconfigured and the seats are turned into safe standing areas. Furthermore—to put the icing on the cake—the World cup in Germany was played very successfully in those grounds, which have gone from seated to standing and back again.

When those arguments were put, the premiership and the FLA gave up. They did not have any more arguments. However, in the best tradition of British civil servants, a certain gentleman who was the chief executive of the FLA stated in an interview in 2002 that there was

than of the reintroduction of terraces. Some might regard that comment by a civil servant as hardly neutral and unbiased, but that is what he said—and he is in charge of the FLA.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I welcome this debate. To put it in context, I stood on the
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Kippax stand for 20-odd years before we were forced into an all-seater stadium at Maine road. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons for the reluctance to change back to safe standing is crowd control? Security guards who are looking at the crowd can see what is going on much more easily in all-seater stadiums. One of the ways to deal with that when reintroducing safe standing would be to have individual standing places.

Mr. Godsiff: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman’s last point is particularly pertinent. Nobody is suggesting for a minute that we should go back to the old system of wide-open terraces with unlimited access to standing areas. In Germany, people entering a safe standing area have tickets and, more to the point, the local safety committee limits how many people can enter and how many can stand safely. His point is a good one. I shall return later to the chief executive of the FLA.

Nobody is suggesting that clubs should be forced to provide safe standing areas. As I have demonstrated, and as all hon. Members here know, with modern inventions and innovations, such as those in Germany, it is quite easy for a seated area to be turned into a safe standing area by adapting the seats, but the premiership and the FLA have turned a blind eye to that.

Every week in most premiership grounds, fans stand to watch the match. Sometimes they stand in areas that are unsafe due to the elevation of the seats. Any Newcastle United supporter who has seen how their stands go up into the heavens will know that anyone who stands at the top is taking their life in their hands. It is highly dangerous.

When my club, Charlton Athletic, played in the premiership against Manchester United, the Manchester United fans occupied the whole away end, and they stood up to watch the match. The stewards and police were not going to eject 3,000-plus fans from the ground for standing up. Charlton, the host club, could not threaten to ban them from matches because they were Manchester United fans and not Charlton ones. All that happens in such a situation is that the FLA restricts how many seats a club can sell in the away end, thus penalising the club. Charlton and other clubs would like the option to introduce safe standing areas.

There is a clear contradiction between the treatment of supporters of premiership and championship clubs and the treatment of those who watch other sporting events and football leagues. Premiership and championship supporters are forced to sit to watch matches or run the risk of being ejected, whereas week in, week out, thousands of people stand to watch league one or two matches, rugby union, rugby league and horse racing. Indeed, in his report, Lord Justice Taylor went out of his way to say that having all-seater horse races would impact on—indeed, destroy—what horse racing is all about. He said that people must be free to move around, and that that was part of horse racing.

Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Has my hon. Friend ever seen groups of horse racing supporters threatening each other and calling out nasty things, or do they tend to get along in a friendly way?

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