23.Level Playing Field receives about 400 complaints from disabled fans every year. It may therefore seem surprising that supporters have not yet exercised their rights under the Disability Discrimination Act to bring an action against a club. However, as we found from some of the written evidence submitted to us, disabled supporters were unwilling to take legal action partly out of loyalty to their clubs and partly fearing that other fans would target them or the clubs penalise them. One of our witnesses said: “fans will not complain due to being known as a trouble-maker or even having their tickets removed from them.” Consideration should be given to devising a confidential reporting regime to enable complaints to be made without adverse consequences for those who complain.
24.Level Playing Field’s evidence to us in May and July 2016 made it clear that all the problems found during the Government’s consultation had persisted. They told us that six of the 20 Premier League clubs and ten of the 72 Championship and League 1 and 2 clubs still made all wheelchair users sit together, whether home or away supporters. Moreover, they confirmed that eight Premier League clubs would not achieve the minimum standard for wheelchair provision by August 2017. They said that one of the premiership clubs that failed to meet the minimum requirements stated that it did not need to do so as there was little demand for access by disabled people: Level Playing Field had tested the system for buying tickets and had found the website made no provision for access by disabled people, it was very difficult to find the appropriate place on the website to buy tickets for wheelchair users and then the information seemed to apply to season ticket holders only, and there was no guidance or assistance for other disabled people to buy tickets.
25.So far, the emphasis has been on football, as the largest spectator sport in the UK. Level Playing Field focused initially only on football, but from 2008 it began to advise other sports, in particular cricket, premiership rugby union and rugby league. We discussed with the Minister for Disabled People the example of Twickenham, with 336 spaces for wheelchair users, only 64 of which are raised above pitch height and all of which are uncovered, in a stadium built for 86,000 people. Joyce Cook told us that the situation was still dire, with only 5% of first class county cricket grounds and only one of the premiership rugby clubs meeting the minimum requirement for wheelchair spaces. However, she described the attitude of the clubs and governing bodies of these sports as “extraordinarily supportive”, given that the issue of provision of facilities for disabled people had not been on their radar. Lord Holmes of the EHRC concurred, describing the attitude of the top rugby and cricket clubs as “very positive, very engaging, exactly the right approach that one would want, taking it wider than just the physical access point and a very good result in these two sports.”
26.The sports clubs consulted by Government appear to have been largely unaware of the inadequacy of the overall response to the needs of disabled spectators. Most provided wheelchair user spaces and easy access seating, but fewer did so for both home and away fans, and not all accessible seating had a good view of the pitch. Many said they provided assistance in entering and leaving and moving round the venue. They also said they had some adapted facilities. Audio descriptive commentary was rare (and was dependent on local radio). Few clubs provided hearing loops. Individual clubs listed a range of other facilities (such as match buddies, accessible match day programmes, rain ponchos for those in uncovered wheelchair places) but none was widely available. Some clubs gave disability awareness training for their staff. Some had links with local disabled supporters groups, with the link ranging from occasional meetings to close consultation. Bill Bush of the Premier League emphasised that all clubs in the league had to employ a disability liaison officer, who oversaw training and ‘customer care’ issues and a disability access officer, who dealt with the built environment.
27.As far as improvements were concerned, clubs cited the design of the venue, its age and its location as being limiting factors (for example, the location of the venue was often a problem in respect of providing enough accessible parking). They were less likely to consider finance a constraining factor on making improvements. Some clubs suggested they did not know enough about disabled people’s needs.
28.Level Playing Field revealed that Liverpool, which was in the process of rebuilding part of its stadium, would still have only 75% of the minimum wheelchair places available if the project was completed—and it was not guaranteed that the second phase of reconstruction (which included a number of spaces for wheelchairs and seats for the other ambulant disabled) would be built unless the club made sufficient money from hospitality facilities in the first phase.
29.West Ham’s changes to the Olympic Stadium have resulted in some former wheelchair spaces being allocated a dual use: for wheelchair users or for hospitality facilities. Bill Bush of the Premier League assured us that the prime use was for disabled fans. We expect the needs of disabled fans to receive priority over the desire to charge a premium for extra hospitality accommodation.
30.In relation to the cost to football clubs of the changes required, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Disabled People noted that a figure of £100 million had been mentioned; he described this as “random” and “absolute nonsense”. He suggested that estimating such a large figure enabled clubs to postpone thinking about the issue, including improvements that might be made cheaply and immediately: “This comes back to the football club saying: ‘We fear it is £100 million, so that is a problem we will worry about another day,’ when actually, having a lot of conversations and getting that training done will solve most of those problems.” He cited the Football League’s decision to take responsibility for improving online accessibility and information in the disability access pages of all 72 Football League clubs.
31.Greg Clarke, Chairman of The FA, also expressed frustration at the slow pace of change in the Premier League. He said:
we are working very hard with the experts, Level Playing Field and our inclusion advisory board, we are working with the Leagues. They all have the standards. The trouble is a lot of clubs are not meeting the standards. There are no sanctions. If you say, “We have an old ground, there is nothing we can do. We are going to have to displace 50 season ticketholders who have been here for 100 years to build a new disabled facility. We can’t do that, that wouldn’t be right”. Maybe it is right to do that.
What we need from each club is a plan on how to solve quickly their own problems. It is exactly the same problem as you get when you put in new floodlights. You say, “Oh, you need this many lumens, not that many lumens and you need to move to LEDs rather halogens”. They say, “Oh, we are moving ground in two years”. It is so easy to give them an extension until they have the new ground.
He insisted that, for the Premier League, the problem was not money.
32.The Minister for Disabled People told us that if the Premier League clubs did not meet the deadline of August 2017 for improvements to be made (not just planned, as some have suggested), then the Premier League itself would hold those clubs to account. We questioned him about what this would mean in practice, worried that it would be no more than a mild rebuke. He told us that the clubs would be in breach of the League’s rules. Bill Bush explained that, depending on the severity of the case, the Board of the Premier League could impose a wide range of sanctions, including fines of up to £25,000. More serious breaches might result in the matter being referred to a specially appointed independent panel which would be able to impose heavier fines or, potentially, deduct points from clubs.
33.When asked whether legislation was a possibility, the Minister for Disabled People suggested that legislation would be a rather clumsy and inadequate response, making improvements in a tick box fashion rather than bringing about a real change of culture in which every aspect of a disabled person’s experience of attending the venue would be considered. He also pointed to the Twickenham Stadium example as showing how standards evolved over time: legislation would not necessarily enable changing expectations to be met.
34.We asked the Ministers about progress in relation to aspects of access other than physical facilities. They commented that the Sport Strategy launched at the end of 2015 was very useful in providing a new focus on increasing the number of spectators (not only those playing) in sport and, in the course of that, concentrating on traditionally under-represented groups such as disabled people. This meant that not only was there greater effort on spreading best practice through training and the provision of targeted and easily digestible information through all levels of sport but also that the success of this part of the strategy would be assessed through reported participation levels. The Minister for Disabled People also described the work being done with other bodies, such as the Security Industry Association (which licenses security personnel at stadia and elsewhere) in disability awareness, especially hidden impairments. He mentioned the role of young supporters groups (who played a key role in the developments at Wrexham Football Club and whose example had inspired his own local team, Swindon Town, to emulate them). He praised the vital work done by Level Playing Field, noting that it had been given three years’ funding by the Premier League, but saying that he would like to see it placed on a more secure financial footing. He suggested one improvement easy to implement, which was for every sports club to appoint one named contact to provide advice and help to people with disabilities about the facilities available and what else might be done to help them with their visit.
35.There is plenty of guidance available as to what adjustments might be considered reasonable for sports grounds (listed, for example, in Annex A of the Inclusive and Accessible Stadia Report) and many of the obvious ways to ameliorate the problems described above do not require considerable capital or disruption to the stadia and those visiting. Disability awareness training, professional access audits and design appraisals are not expensive and are available from a number of organisations. The start-up cost of a full Audio Descriptive Commentary Service is only £4,000 per club. While the provision of extra wheelchair spaces, adequate lifts and more disabled toilets may require substantial building work, many clubs have made, are making or are planning major building works in which these might be included.
36.Other clubs are exemplars of best practice. Level Playing Field cited Derby County in league football and Wrexham in non-league football. Lord Holmes named Tranmere Rovers. Greg Clarke, Chairman of The FA, talked about Egham Town. It is striking that none of the examples cited for overall excellence is from the Premier League. Derby County’s stadium is not old, but the plans for it were approved before the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. The club has simply been committed to making reasonable adjustments from time to time to meet the needs of disabled people. Wrexham already had 50 wheelchair spaces pitch-side but these were open to the weather. They are currently in the process of building three viewing platforms which they hope will all be in place by the summer of 2017. The money for them was raised jointly by the club (which is 100% owned by the Supporters Trust) and the club’s Disabled Supporters Association, with significant help from a grant from the Football Foundation. Wrexham’s determination to make the ground accessible to everybody has extended beyond seating and toilet facilities to adaptations such as putting announcements about substitutions and extra time on the scoreboard, to help those with hearing difficulties.
37.Joyce Cook identified the main factors in determining whether a club took the needs of disabled people seriously as: “a champion within the club. … an enlightened chief executive and .. a real commitment and a business plan year on year to keep improving.”
38.The Minister for Disabled People said:
What we need is leadership in each of the relevant sports bodies to then filter through to the leadership in the individual sports clubs. Somebody can take ownership of this and make sure it then becomes embedded and a given, so it is not a one-off training exercise and then in six months’ time when those staff have changed over or volunteers have changed over it is then forgotten. It becomes a given and that is the sports clubs, it is the security staff, and it is those who are then designing the next generation of stadium and facilities at the top end.
39.Since May, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been reviewing progress in the Premier League towards meeting the August 2017 deadline for making all its clubs compliant with disability access requirements. It told us that Chelsea, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth are likely to miss the deadline; the recently promoted Watford, Burnley and Middlesbrough have been told that the deadline does not apply to them—they have another year to achieve the improvements. West Ham, which has reduced provision for disabled supporters since it took over the Olympic Stadium, is not included in this list. Lord Holmes, the Disability Commissioner at the EHRC, told us that the Equality Act provided for a number of sanctions that could be taken against individual clubs—and the Premier League itself, if non-compliance were systemic. The Minister for Sport said that, if the Premier League and Football Leagues did not make the changes that are needed in this area, she would “stand squarely behind the Equality Commission in taking legal action on this.”
40.We strongly applaud the work done by a number of football clubs in meeting both the letter and the spirit of the Disability Discrimination Act. We accept that other sports have made less progress to date, but we note Level Playing Field’s belief that rugby league, rugby union and county cricket clubs are taking the issue seriously. We encourage these sports to persist. However, we consider it completely unacceptable that a number of Premier League clubs—some of the richest sporting organisations in the UK—have failed to carry out even basic adaptations in over 20 years. Given the huge public investment in converting the Olympic Stadium into a Premier League football ground, we would expect all the partners involved to ensure that West Ham, at the very least, becomes an exemplar regarding disabled access.
41.We concur with Ministers that it is in the sports’ own interests to pay more attention to the—often very moderate—needs of such a large proportion of the UK population. Most clubs do not sell all the tickets for games, and a reputation for being well adapted and welcoming to disabled supporters should enhance their reputations generally. Conversely, it could be considered a reputational risk—and one which sponsors would have to take seriously—if clubs continued to fail to engage with reasonable adjustments and thereby be in breach of the law.
42.The Premier League told us that it would consider imposing sanctions on clubs that fail to provide sufficient accessibility. However, it is not clear whether this relates only to the physical modifications that should be made to stadia, rather than the broader view of the quality of the overall experience for supporters with disabilities. Given 20 years of comparative inactivity by the football leagues, we are not convinced that the Premier League would impose suitable penalties on clubs, even for failing to meet building regulations.
43.The Equality and Human Rights Commission has told us that it is minded to start legal proceedings against clubs that continue to flout the law. We support them in this action.
25 Q 16
26 () (Plymouth Argyle Disabled Supporters Association) See also Q43 (Level Playing Field)
27 Qq 5 and 9 and ()
29 Qq 106–108
30 Qq 1 and 8–10
31 Q 202
32 Qq 185–187
33 See, for example, Q 139
35 Q 175
36 Q 67
37 Q 71
38 Q 71
39 Oral evidence to the Committee, The governance of football, 17 October 2016, Q 178:
40 Q 181
41 Qq 68–69, 79–80, 93–95, 112–114
42 Qq 168–172
43 Qq 68 and 85
44 Qq 71–78
45 Q 77
46 () (Level Playing Field)
47 In addition to those listed in the paragraph, Watford, Swansea, Bournemouth, Sunderland, Yeovil and Newport were given very positive reviews for different aspects of their provision for disabled spectators—the last three in particular for their work with people with sensory and learning disabilities: (), ()
48 Qq 12–13 and 133–138
49 Q 195
50 Oral evidence to the Committee, The governance of football, 17 October 2016, Q 181:
51 Q 16 and ()
52 Qq 133–136 and 138
53 Q 179
54 Q 15 See also Qq 176–177
55 Q 89
56 Qq 191–193
57 Oral evidence to the Committee, Work of the Sports Minister, 13 December 2016, Q 72:
13 January 2017