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24 Oct 2007 : Column 81WH—continued

10.20 am

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I do not think that this is yesterday’s debate—it is about the future and the future of football. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate. He has laid out a clear, articulate view of all the reasons why the Football Licensing Authority has got it wrong, so I shall not go over all those points.

I agree with my hon. Friend about John de Quidt. Way back, when I was Minister for Sport, I first tried to raise the issue and sent the FLA to Germany to look at the stadiums, but I found that there was a deep-rooted objection to the idea. The FLA and the establishment in football were not interested in listening to the arguments, any of the supporters’ views or the safety argument. However, one by one, over the past few years, every single argument against safe standing has been demolished. Now, I am not quite sure what my hon. Friend the Minister will say, because there are no new reasons why safe standing should not be introduced. The new Minister, whom I congratulate, has an opportunity to start the way that he means to go on. He should not automatically accept what officials have said over and over again or listen to people who, for whatever reason, have decided that this is a no-go area.

We must continue to point out the hypocrisy and double standards. It cannot be right that the FLA justifies an individual at a football match being ejected for persistently standing in a lower-level tier, when at that same ground on the next Saturday that same individual can not only stand, but jump up and down and dance at a concert in any part of the stadium, including right at the top. That is not logical. The message that it is sending out is that the Government—if they continue to keep this attitude—the FLA, the premier league and the entire football establishment think that somehow football supporters are just a little bit less in the human race and are not to be trusted. Of course, the culture of football was in a particular situation years ago, but it has changed, and it has not changed because of seating. Even today, at any match at the Emirates, most of one end of the ground will be standing most of the time. It happens all the time. To argue that making grounds all-seater has changed the culture is complete nonsense.

I urge the Minister to sit down and talk to those supporters in the Football Supporters Federation who have worked passionately on the issue for a number of years, have done huge amounts of intelligence work in other countries at their own expense and have produced reports that give facts and figures that can outdo anything that John de Quidt can put in front of him. I urge him to give football clubs the choice of how they want their supporters to be treated and to allow that to happen. The matter will not go away, and we will have continually to return to it. Let us stop the ridiculous situation in which football supporters are treated as sub-human.

10.23 am

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small
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Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate and on the manner in which he presented it.

I have two admissions to make. First, I had hoped to come here this morning on the back of a great Colchester United victory at Ipswich last night. Until the 71st minute, that would have been the case, but we lost 3-1. The second admission is that I was a member of a working party of Liberal Democrats who brought forward a wide-embracing sports policy document, one tiny section of which opposed safe standing. I was a minority voice—we had to go with the majority—but I live to fight the battle.

I am in my 51st season as a Colchester United supporter standing on the terraces, and I am a season ticket holder. For 11 years, I have managed to turn down the generous offer from the club of a seat in the directors’ box. My view is that watching football from the terraces is completely different from going to an all-seater stadium. This will be the last season that Colchester United will play at Layer Road, which is the smallest club ground ever to be used in the championship and where the majority of the 6,000-limit crowd stand and watch. It is no coincidence that when the sound people came into every championship club last year, the loudest fans were those at Colchester United, where people stand—there is a totally different atmosphere.

When we move to the new ground—the eloquently named Cuckoo Farm—next year, it will be an all-seater ground. Last season, I made a point of going to as many away games as I could—I managed 15, all of which were at all-seater stadiums. The atmosphere at those grounds comes nowhere near to the atmosphere when fans can stand. I have not been to Dagenham and Redbridge, but I appreciate the situation. I shall miss standing at football matches. I also endorse the point that people frequently stand in all-seater stadiums, which I think is unsafe.

Another point is that people are built in different sizes, but the seats in a stadium are all the same size. Whereas on the terraces people can do a bit of moving about to be with friends or to go and chat at half time, that is a physical impossibility in an all-seater stadium. The other thing that I found out last year was that the grounds vary in quality, in the size of the seats, in the legroom provided and so on.

A situation that could arise—this has not been investigated, but I think that it should be—is deep vein thrombosis. If people are on a coach to an away game for five hours, and then spend two hours in the stadium followed by a five-hour coach trip back, they are crammed in for more hours than they would be on a transatlantic plane, so there are health issues.

Surely we are talking about consumer choice. If clubs think that there is capacity for safe standing areas, perhaps they could have pens, perhaps no more than four or five deep and 20 or 30 yd long. As a consumer who has stood on the terraces for 51 years, I would like to continue to stand on the terraces, because my experience of watching football the length and breadth of the land is that all-seater stadiums are not as good for atmosphere and consumer choice as those where we have the opportunity to stand.

I urge the Minister to relax the rigid regulation. When supporters and clubs can come to an arrangement whereby they can have small, secure areas, let them do
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it. My experience is that that would be a lot safer than some of the all-seater stadiums that I have witnessed.

10.28 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate. Like him, I congratulate the Football Supporters Federation on the excellent document that it has produced on this issue. I congratulate, too, all those who have spoken. I do not think that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for whom I have enormous respect, is going to like what I have to say, and I think that she will now accuse me of being part of what she describes as “the establishment”.

As I listened to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath talk about the ridiculous situation that we are in because we have no legislation against overcrowding and standing on high-speed trains, I could not help but reflect that, rather bizarrely, we have legislation that prevents the overcrowding of chickens on trains, which shows how we get our priorities somewhat wrong in this place.

As others have said, we should always be looking at new evidence, and I welcome that which has been brought forward in this report. We should be listening to the strongly held views of football supporters such as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), but I do not believe that the case has been made strongly enough for the current arrangements to be changed.

As has been pointed out, particularly by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), the changes to the all-seater stadiums of our top-flight clubs were introduced as a result of not only the tragic and horrific events at Heysel and Hillsborough, but the broader environment at football games of hooliganism and violence, coupled with a poor safety record and low investment in football stadiums. However, that debate related to this country only, and not to what was happening in, for example, Germany, or to the similar record of hooliganism and violence at pop concerts and so on. We were talking about football in this country at matches between our top-flight clubs.

The introduction of all-seater stadiums has helped to facilitate a sea change in those clubs. The latest figures demonstrate a continuing downward trend in injuries at football matches. The most recent Home Office figures show a further 6 per cent. decrease in the number of arrests for violent disorder, which is the lowest that the figure has ever been.

Bob Russell: Will my hon. Friend accept that the club with the smallest number of arrests last year in the championship, with only nine, played at the only ground that allows standing—Colchester United?

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend is wrong. I can assure him that in other grounds, such as Bath City’s excellent ground—

Bob Russell: I was talking about the championship.

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Mr. Foster: Well, my hon. Friend should have made himself clear. Across the divisions, his claim is wrong, although he might be right with respect to championship matches.

It is worth reflecting on what the premier league said recently, which was that the introduction of all-seater stadiums

I accept that a combination of the two is required. That does not mean that we can be complacent. There are still incidents at football grounds during which it is hard to control crowds. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath rightly pointed out, the problem remains of fans standing when they are not meant to. There is a need for greater enforcement, as well.

I accept that there is no simple solution to crowd control, and there will always be the potential for trouble at grounds. However, surely the point is that when fans are in all-seater stadiums, it is far easier to stop incidents getting out of hand than it is if they are standing, whether they are in the most modern pens or on old-style terraces. We have heard already this quote from the Taylor report:

Surely, that is the bottom line. Although terracing is not inherently unsafe, it is not as safe as seating. Although architectural and structural developments have made standing safer than it used to be, the fact remains that standing is still not as safe as sitting.

No one is saying that standing is inherently dangerous, as we have seen from circumstances in Germany, but we talking about this country. The Football Safety Officers Association told me yesterday that even if standing areas were designed to the highest safety specifications possible, they would still not be as safe as reserved seating. That is a view shared by the Football Licensing Authority, the premier league, the Football Association and a large number of international regulatory bodies.

Of course, there are arguments against the status quo. Some suggest that a return to some standing would broaden the appeal of football, but the evidence suggests that having introduced all-seater stadiums has done just that—far more children, including, most pleasingly, girls, and women, now go to football matches. We should welcome that greater interest shown by women and, in particular, girls. It is great that football is the fastest growing participation sport among women.

Some would argue that football’s popularity has suffered as a result of the introduction of all-seater stadiums, but I have indicated that its appeal has broadened. That is true of attendance as well—the average attendance for a premiership game is now more than 30,000—which, as has been said, has enhanced our ability to host more international events, such as champions league and UEFA cup matches, where standing is outlawed. Being able to host those games means that fans have a greater chance to go to high-profile, high-quality games.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) suggested—he has left the Chamber now—that the introduction of seating has meant a hike in ticket
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prices. There is no question but that ticket prices, particularly for the premiership, are far too high. For example, research that I have done demonstrates that, this season, the cheapest possible regular adult English season ticket costs more than five times as much as it would in Spain, and four times as much as in Italy. That is despite the huge income from television rights. Frankly, that is a disgrace—it is real rip-off Britain.

The point is that although clubs have spent £1.5 billion converting their stadiums as a result of the Taylor report, huge additional sums would have to be spent on the introduction of so-called safe standing. The Minister has quoted already the Bradford City chairman, who was addressing the Bradford City Supporters Trust, which was arguing the case for safe standing. When he asked whether the trust would prefer safe standing or a new right winger, the clamour for safe standing died away very quickly. Of course ticket prices could and should be lower, and fans should not be priced out of the game, but the move to safe seating has not been the root cause of the ticketing rip-off, and the introduction of safe standing is certainly not the solution.

Some have argued—this was a major part of the contribution by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath—that football has been separated out from every other activity. He referred to pop concerts and other sporting events. In response to that, I return to the beginning of my contribution: football’s history is very different from that of other sports and pastimes. The troubles of hooliganism, violence and poor stadium maintenance are not unique to football, but the difference is that they have led to some tragic events in the history of that game. I believe that with the introduction of all-seater stadiums, football has changed. It is more popular and has a broader appeal, which is the way that I want it to stay. Football has changed in part at least because of the safety measures introduced over the past 20 years, in which seating has played an important part.

Although I shall, of course, continue to look at any new evidence, nothing that I have heard in this debate, or read in the report, persuades me that there is a strong enough case to call for a change to the current arrangements. Safety is paramount, and as long as sitting at top-flight football matches is safer than standing, I certainly shall oppose the introduction of any change.

10.38 am

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): I start, as others did, by congratulating the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing this debate. I noticed that he is a former chairman of the Charlton Athletic community trust. As a Kent MP, I thank him for the work that that club does in my community. It is a terrific example of a really good community club, and it does fantastic work in many schools and clubs.

Mr. Godsiff: It is very kind of the hon. Gentleman to say that, but may I correct him? I am not a former chairman, but the current chairman.

Hugh Robertson: I am delighted to hear that, and presumably there is a connection between that and the excellent work that it does. I thank the hon. Gentleman even more.

As others have said, this is an important subject, which, through the work of the Football Supporters
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Federation and the Stand Up Sit Down campaign, received a lot of coverage, and I congratulate them on that.

I often say to people that for a politician, opposition has very few advantages bar the opportunity to have a real think about some of the issues, which in my case are in sport. Since taking over as the Conservative party’s sports spokesman two-and-a-half years ago, I have had the opportunity to talk through this issue at length with many of the game’s regulatory authorities, the police, several club owners, Lord Moynihan—one of my predecessors, who introduced the initial legislation—and several fans groups.

I have also had the opportunity to listen to the views of many different Members: I remember having a conversation about the issue with the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) at a cricket match some years ago; I attended the study day that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) organised on the subject in March; and I listened to the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), who, as a Sheffield MP, has very firm views on the subject.

Broadly speaking, the arguments in favour of a limited return to standing are many of those that we have heard this morning. As the Stand Up Sit Down campaign has shown, a genuine group of fans want such a return, and they aim to secure at least one area of each ground where supporters can stand, subject to a code of conduct. The fact that that idea is popular is surely indicated by the fact that the campaign’s supporters cover 130 clubs. The measure would be limited, in that it would apply to only one small section of the ground, and it happens anyway—at least in part—as anybody who has been to a premier league ground will know. The technological improvements in ground design mean that it can be carried out more easily and safely than before, and it works on the continent in Germany, although we have heard that there may be a rethink over there. There is an issue about choice, in that supporters who wish to stand should not be forbidden from doing so, and it would improve the atmosphere, so some say. It will for ever be known as the Roy Keane “prawn sandwich” argument, but there is a feeling that the atmosphere at football matches is not what it ought to be. The elephant in the room, which I thought would not be discussed but was, is that the measure has driven up the cost of football tickets.

Set against that, the arguments are equally easy to itemise. I have heard many people, particularly those closely connected with Sheffield, say that it is simply too soon after the awful events at Hillsborough to countenance any change, and that to do so would provoke an understandable backlash. I had a long conversation with the Minister’s predecessor, and anybody who has talked to him, as a Sheffield MP, about the issue will realise the extraordinarily strong feelings that it understandably still provokes.

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