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24 Oct 2007 : Column 74WH—continued

Mr. Godsiff: I do not go to horse races very often, but I occasionally watch a big race on television, as I am sure my hon. Friend does. At the Cheltenham gold
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cup, one can see a massive open terrace packed—far more packed than many terraces in England or Scotland used to be 40 years ago—with people standing up. I accept that it might be a nice bunch of people who go to horse races, but the fact is that they are standing cheek by jowl—thousands upon thousands of people—yet it is quite legal because, according to the regulations, it is safe.

Recently, a big rugby league match was played at Old Trafford. I saw it on television at 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon—quite possibly the Minister saw it, too—at the home of Manchester United. The ground was nearly full, and fans were standing, quite legally, because the regulations do not apply to rugby league matches. The following week, when Manchester United played on the same pitch before a full house, everybody had to sit down, because the regulations apply to football supporters in the premiership and the championship. That is just another contradiction and nonsense in the current legislation.

It would at least make some sense if, instead of aiming legislation at the sport, we aimed it at the ground and said, for example, that at any event at Old Trafford, everybody had to sit down. Local safety people can lay down their own regulations, but rugby league fans can go into Old Trafford, stand up and not break any regulations. Indeed, it is not considered unsafe. That is nonsense, as I have said, and the FLA, which is charged with enforcing the regulations, knows that they cannot be enforced. Its chief executive, Mr. John de Quidt, who earns £72,105 plus an £8,000 performance bonus, said in his 2006-07 annual report:

I wonder whether he got his £8,000 bonus.

In recommending all-seater grounds for premiership and championship clubs, Lord Taylor stated the belief in his final report that fans would come to accept all-seater stadiums—I have read the relevant paragraph. It is now clear with the benefit of hindsight that that prediction was wrong. Eleven seasons after the introduction of all-seater stadiums in the top two divisions, significant numbers of fans regularly stand at matches. The contradictions and inconsistencies increase all the time.

The inconsistency of approach was illustrated by a caller to a BBC Radio Five Live phone-in on standing and seating at football matches. The caller said:

The caller then posed this question:

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There is no answer to that question. There is no logic behind the rule that says that it is wrong and unsafe to stand up to watch a football match but that it is perfectly safe to stand in a crowded train travelling at speed.

I have tried to set out the reasons why I believe that safe standing areas should be allowed in premiership and championship grounds when matches are being played. The Football Supporters Federation has submitted a report to the Minister setting out similar arguments. I know that my hon. Friend has a copy, but I draw his attention to the introduction. It was written by Dr. Anne Eyre, a survivor of the Hillsborough tragedy, who argues that the question of safe standards should be properly debated, because too many incorrect myths and assertions are being made. Today, we are taking part in that debate.

In a nutshell, football supporters do not want to watch football in unsafe grounds; they do not want to see a return to the mass terraces of old; they do not want to prevent people from sitting if they want to; and they do not want to force clubs to have safe standing areas if the clubs do not want them. What I and other football supporters want is to be allowed the choice of safe standing. I want clubs to have the option, if they choose and if there is a demand from the fans, to put in a safe standing area.

The Taylor report arose out of an appalling tragedy. It was a long, detailed and good report, and many of its recommendations had the overwhelming support of football supporters and have stood the test of time. However, the recommendation on all-seater stadiums for premiership and championship clubs has not stood the test of time. Watching football while standing is not inherently unsafe. The no-standing regulations are not only flouted every week, but are unenforceable and throw up one contradiction after another.

In 1995, a politician, who is no longer a Member, said that safety must always be the number one criterion. He said that

That politician was Tony Blair. Twelve years on, those technological advances have gone further still: for example, Germany staged a highly successful World cup in stadiums where everybody sits for international matches and where all seats are reconfigured to allow standing at domestic matches.

Week by week, the contradiction grows. It is all right for fans to stand in all-seater stadiums to observe a minute’s silence, to applaud the life of someone who has died or to sing the national anthem, but it is not safe to stand to watch the match. It is all right for fans to stand up when a goal is scored or for thousands of people to jump around at a pop concert at a major football ground, but you cannot stand to watch a football match. It is all right for commuters to be herded into packed carriages, standing in trains being driven around at 70 mph, because that is not deemed to be unsafe. Indeed, while we are about it, Mr. Marshall, in this hallowed place it is all right for nearly 650 MPs to try to squeeze into the Chamber, which has seating for only 400. That, presumably, is not unsafe, but no one can stand to watch a football match in a safe standing area, because it would be deemed unsafe.

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The whole business is nonsense. The only way that the FLA can prevent away fans and some home fans from standing, such as those from Manchester United, Aston Villa and other clubs listed in Mr. de Quidt’s report, would be to install seat belts for away fans. They would have to be like airline-style seat belts, with stewards checking that everyone is locked in to allow the match to start. That is the logic of the argument. How else can it be done?

Once the Minister has studied the submission from the FSF and listened to what has been said today, I hope that he will acknowledge—using the words of our civil servant, Mr. de Quidt—that there is life on Mars and that the Martians have landed here. If he wants to know where they are, he might see them standing behind a barrier in a safe standing area watching a top football match.

Mr. David Marshall (in the Chair): It may help if I intimate to Members that I intend starting the winding-up speeches at 10.30 am. Three hon. Members have applied to speak, so if hon. Members are considerate, everyone will hopefully get in.

10.5 am

Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff), on securing the debate. Some might not realise it, but football is extremely important to millions of our constituents, so it is vital that we have such debates.

I have a great regard for Charlton Athletic football team. Despite my accent, it is the closest team to where I was born, so I have a soft spot for it. I am delighted to find that football is not all love and peace nowadays—for instance, just because Charlton have been relegated, my hon. Friend decides to attack the sports Minister about English rugby, English football, Northern Ireland football and Scottish football. I am joking, of course, just as my hon. Friend was, but it is good to see that there is still some spite left in football.

I shall not speak about the difficulty involving the engineering required to change existing grounds, or about the difficulties of the European international competition. I shall speak only about the change in culture. It is nothing to do with standing being safe or unsafe. First, however, I shall address a couple of points raised by my hon. Friend when summing up.

If Piccadilly line travellers hated District line travellers with the same intensity that football supporters hated each other—we see it every week at football grounds—there would be bans. They would be completely segregated, but that is not so. Of course, it is safe to stand for the national anthem—that is a time when even football hooligans can be relatively peaceful. We have seen a culture change in that respect because we used to hear whistling and booing throughout, and that is a good thing. All-seater stadiums have helped to change the culture of football.

My hon. Friend’s last point was about standing in a crowded House of Commons Chamber. I have to admit that I sometimes get close to crossing the Floor as a
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result of the attitude of at least one person on the other side. That feeling of aggression is still there, and it cannot be removed.

I am probably the oldest Member here this morning, and I can remember travelling to football grounds in London in the 1960s when I was in the forces. There was no segregation; I stood with Millwall supporters and watched the games quite peacefully. Only after that did the culture start to change. No one was more upset than me when standing was banned because that was the culture throughout my football supporting life. I felt angry when seating was imposed on clubs, but for a long time I knew that the culture would have to be changed.

The 1980s were appalling. From the late 1960s through till the mid-80s, when I was working for Middlesbrough football club, at virtually every game I was in the directors’ box and saw fans chanting at both ends of the ground. I remember well a game that I saw after I had finished working for Middlesbrough. I am sorry to mention Ipswich Town in front of the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who is not happy that they beat his home side last night, but theirs was the first ground at which I stood with a Middlesbrough crowd. I was horrified by the racism, viciousness and chanting that went on. I almost ended up fighting with my fellow supporters because of that. Going to football grounds in those days was a dreadful experience and we do not want to go back to that.

It is not a case of having to strap supporters down to stop them moving about. The seats make it difficult for people to move about. I was horrified when I first saw the photographs of the German so-called safe standing because it would still have been easy for people to move about quickly and they would then be unidentifiable to those trying to monitor bad behaviour.

I spoke to the previous sports Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), only half an hour ago in the Tea Room. He told me that, at the debriefing after the World cup in Germany, it was said that the German football association would look again at safe standing in Germany. Beckenbauer himself said to my right hon. Friend, “You were right. We’ve got to go back to all-seater stadiums.”

10.11 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): May I also congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate? I suspect that his support for Charlton Athletic is tactical and means that he does not upset half his constituents, who are going for either Aston Villa or Birmingham City. He made some interesting points. It is rare for we in this House to discuss the national game, which is close to my heart. I always appreciate it when the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) invites me to all-party football group events. I am one of only a few Conservatives with a passion for the game and I want to say several things in this debate.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath cited a lot of the historical analysis. We had fences because of the hooligan debate in the 1970s and 80s, as a result of which there was a sense of penning in a whole lot of fans. I would not disagree
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with what he said about terrible disasters: the two in 1985 at Bradford City and Heysel, and then that at Hillsborough four years later. Of course, the authorities were partly to blame for locking gates at Bradford, which was why the death toll was so high. There were no fences and many fans in that wooden stand who were able to save their lives were able to come on to the pitch. However, that lesson was not learned four years later on that terrible day in April 1989 when, although a lot of drunken hooligans contributed to the problem, the main issue was that a fence could not be removed quickly, and also the authorities were very slow on the uptake. Those issues still live with us. It is legitimate for us to have a debate about footballing matters, as has been pointed out, because many tens of millions of pounds of public money—more than £100 million—was spent on improving our football stadiums following the Taylor report.

I have had the opportunity of watching two games in London in the past six weeks and I have seen both sides of the argument. I went to Loftus Road to watch a Queen’s Park Rangers match in the championship, and I visited the newest football ground in not just London, but England—Victoria Road, which is the ground of Dagenham and Redbridge—for a league 2 game three or four weeks ago. There was little doubt that the atmosphere there, even though it is a much smaller ground, was tremendous. There were seated and standing areas. Dagenham and Redbridge is clearly a great little family club and it prides itself on that. I was there to watch Bury, whom I have followed through thin and thinner over the years, and I was particularly delighted to find both their fans and Dagenham and Redbridge fans having a drink together in the bar before going to watch the game, albeit in segregated parts of the ground.

The atmosphere has clearly been affected by the fact that we do not have the opportunity and option to have standing areas. I have some concerns about the notion that we now turn the clock back. In many ways, discussing whether we have seated or standing areas is yesterday’s argument. The reality is that if are to have the voluntary code suggested by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath, I am not convinced that that many clubs will want to change things. I fear that this is down, in part, to the management of the clubs.

There are those of us who have been passionate football fans. I remember what it was like in 1985, when attendances were at their post-war low and there was a real question about whether this national game was sustainable and, certainly, whether 92 professional clubs could be sustained. I wonder whether the ebb and flow might mean that we see lower gates in years ahead.

Speaking as a keen watcher of football on Sky Sports, it is evident, even for a number of premiership games, that matches are played in half-empty stadiums. The route forward might be that the Bolton Wanderers or Middlesbroughs of this world take the view that a voluntary code provides them with the opportunity to have a flexible policy over a period of time.

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I fear for our national game. In many ways, it would be useful if, at some point, we had a much broader debate about issues beyond standing. It is easy to blame agents, but there is endemic corruption throughout much of our game.
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There is administrative incompetence to a large extent, whether in the premier league or the football league, which has allowed, or meant that a blind eye has been turned to, all sorts of financial irregularities. They are not just something of the past; they are ongoing. I am sure that he, like me, has read Tom Bower’s book about the greed of football. I suspect that that is an ongoing issue. It is easy for the professionals in the game and all their friends in the media to point the finger at the greedy agents. A lot of greed and financial corruption is going on in the game as it stands, and little regard is being paid to the paying public—the spectators—who want to play their part. I fear that if there was a voluntary code, it would not achieve all that much, because the clubs would be happy to carry on with the situation as it is.

We now have some tremendous international stadiums. I have had the privilege of going to the Emirates stadium on two or three occasions in the past 18 months since it got up and running. However, we in London have particular concerns in respect of a number of premiership clubs and their stadiums getting ever larger, including at Arsenal. We are seeing possible expansion at Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, and Fulham, as was mentioned earlier, is now a premiership club, whereas only 10 years ago the team was playing in the lowest professional league. In all these cases, there is enormous pressure on transport services, although little attention and money has been given to that in relation to football and its wider responsibilities.

I fear that, in many ways, this is yesterday’s argument. There has been a great improvement in safety. I think that all of us are delighted that the endemic hooliganism that blighted the national game for so many years in the 1970s and 80s, when it was felt by many that our national game was a disgrace and our fans abroad were an absolute disgrace, is not so apparent. I am not so na├»ve as to suggest that there is no hooliganism at all in the game any more, but things are certainly considerably better.

In my visit only a few weeks ago to Loftus Road, I was surprised that in Shepherd’s Bush, within a couple of hundred yards of the ground, the pub I went into beforehand insisted that we showed our tickets so that the end of the ground that we were going into could be seen to ensure that we were being segregated. I had assumed that it would be all pints of beer, which I quite like occasionally, but this was a wine bar in which everyone was drinking wine. There was a different culture, not just in respect of the alcohol being consumed, but because there was a family environment. A lot of women now support our national game. All this suggests that there is a positive route forward and I worry that we passionate football fans are getting worked up about the issue of standing and all-seater stadiums.

There is little doubt that there are smaller attendances. Going back to my visit to Victoria Road to see Dagenham and Redbridge, there were only 1,700 fans in the ground. I suspect that, notwithstanding Colchester United’s great success in recent seasons, only 5,000 or 6,000 people turn up at Layer Road regularly. There are, therefore, broad issues to do with atmosphere that I think that we all want to encourage. We need to ensure that we encourage the next generation at a time when football will no longer be quite as high profile or attractive a game.

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I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and I will now allow the representative for Colchester United to have more than his say. This has been a useful debate, and I hope that we will have many more along these lines in the years to come.

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