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Soccer Violence

Volume 80: debated on Tuesday 11 June 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Donald Thompson.]

11.58 pm

I am sad to have to raise on the Adjournment the question of soccer violence. Now that the dust has settled and temperatures have dropped after the tragic European cup final between Juventus and Liverpool, perhaps we can take a cooler look at the causes of the disaster.

Let me, at the outset, make my position clear about the terrible rise of soccer violence and state unequivocally my condemnation of hooliganism at football games or anywhere else. I speak not as a Liverpool supporter but as a lifelong Evertonian. Like a true sportsman, I have for many years marvelled at and envied Liverpool's magnificent record in domestic and European football and its unique record of 22 successive years in European competition. In none of those years were Liverpool fans involved in any violence on opponents' grounds. On 1 March 1984, following violence at the France-England international, I told the Minister that I was concerned about football hooliganism at home and abroad and referred to the examples set by Liverpool and Everton football supporters over the years. The Minister replied:
"I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and endorse his statement I am confident that on 25 March the two great clubs from that great city will continue with their excellent behaviour." — [Official Report, 1 March 1984; Vol. 55, c. 396.]
That was prior to the Milk Cup final, when Liverpool played Everton.

On 4 April 1984, following a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) — he is the chairman of the all-party football committee—I congratulated both Liverpool and Everton supporters on their outstanding behaviour at the two finals. I said that I wished that Everton would reach Wembley in the FA Cup. The Minister replied:
"I must refrain from partiality, but I pay the highest tribute to the football supporters and spectators from both clubs, not only for their exemplary behaviour in recent weeks, but for their continuing good behaviour over many years."
— [Official Report, 4 April 1984; Vol. 57, c. 955.]

In view of those replies, one must now ask, how did this great Liverpool reputation get trampled in the dust at the Brussels stadium? The name of Liverpool football club and its supporters, the name of our great city and its citizens were knocked by the media hastily in days of tension following the tragedy.

UEFA's decision to ban English teams from competing in European competitions was a panic decision, but FIFA's decision to ban all English teams from playing in foreign countries was a shattering blow to most sane football fans, including the Football League. I understand that the chairman of the Football League, Mr. Jack Dunnett—a former Member of Parliament—has made his feelings clear. The Football Association has also let its feelings be known.

I am not speaking as a Johnny-come-lately football supporter or a know-all, like some of the commentators who made wild statements following the tragedy. I played amateur football for many years in the Liverpool boys' association league, the Catholic men's society football league and the Liverpool and district Sunday football league. When I was 17 I played in trials for the Everton football club. I have been a lifelong Everton supporter and have a great love for the game.

I had the misfortune to fracture my right ankle and break my nose when playing for my local team of Holy Cross. I am therefore aware of football violence in the field, not off the field. For the past 14 years I have acted as president of the Liverpool and district Sunday football league—the biggest league in Europe.

Now that temperatures have cooled, UEFA and FIFA should think again and allow innocent teams to compete in European competition. A small team like Norwich City, which has been relegated from the first division of the Football League but which would have had its first taste of European football, should not be penalised or its fans prevented from seeing their team play in Europe.

A team like Everton, which won the first division championship by a record number of points, should not be banned from the champions' cup. We all recall that Everton played in Rotterdam only two weeks before the Brussels disaster, and 20,000 Everton fans attended the game. The Dutch police made it quite clear that they felt that the Everton fans were the best supporters they had ever seen. Everton football club went to Wembley not once or twice but four times last year, and there was no trouble whatever among Everton fans at any of those games. Therefore, a team such as Everton and its fans should not be penalised.

I believe that appropriate measures should be taken to ensure that there is never again a disaster such as the one in Brussels, and I hope that the Government will give deep consideration to the question of sensible measures to prevent such a disaster.

I have given my deepest condolences and sympathy to the families of the Italians who were killed. I also offer condolences on behalf of scores of thousands of my constituents and Liverpool citizens who grieve deeply for the people of Turin. Recently there were services at the Roman Catholic cathedral and the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool. Both those great cathedrals were full to overflowing. At the latter service the Italian ambassador and the Secretary of State for the Environment were present, together with other people showing their deep distress at the Brussels disaster.

I am greatly concerned — as are many of my hon. Friends — about the large number of National Front supporters who were present at the game. I have here a book called "Hooligans Abroad". It is a first-class book and I urge the Minister to read it. On the front cover it shows a Fascist thug with a Union Jack painted on his face. Anyone who has watched football on television in recent years will have seen those people, in different parts of the country, carrying Union Jacks with them, sometimes with Union Jacks tied round their necks, and shouting racist slogans from the terraces at coloured footballers. I am sure that those people played a part in the Brussels disaster.

In a ground with 60,000 people the tensions are very high. It does not take many people to get others excited. Unfortunately, when flags are flying all over the ground, people tend to become nationalistic or patriotic. The chants and the shouts then tend to bring out the baser instincts of ordinary, decent football supporters.

I believe that the Brussels stadium was in a very bad and dangerous condition. There should be a full investigation into it. I hope that the Government will take a keen interest in the state of the ground. Indeed, the chief fire officer of the London fire brigade has made it clear in a recent report that the ground was not suitable for staging the match and would not have been licensed even for a friendly game in England, let alone a cup final between teams from two different countries.

I should like to read the conclusion of the report, which was given by a professionally qualified person with no axe to grind. It says:
"The stadium is 50 years old and all the installations (in section Z)"—
that is where the trouble arose—
"appear to be of the same age. There is no evidence of any recent repairs to the barriers, walls, fences or terraces. The general impression is that of long-term neglect, with the exception perhaps of the pitch perimeter fence which appears to be fairly new. Under our legislation the stadium would not have been allowed to operate. It appears that while the attack by Liverpool supporters caused the panic and the resulting stampede, the main direct cause of the deaths was the collapse of the safety beirriers near the bottom of the terraces."
I make a plea to the media to realise that the majority of Liverpool supporters are decent people. Anybody who knows the Liverpudlians or the Scousers knows that they are warm-hearted, good people with a sense of humour. We feel this tragedy, and I hope that we shall not be blamed as animals; in fact, I would not even call some of the thugs animals, because that would be an insult to animals.

I hope that the Government will seriously consider supporting the football league and football associations in appealing against the hasty ban by FIFA and especially UEFA in view of the fact that there appear to be other factors involved in the terrible disaster. It is wrong that English football should be isolated from the world football stage, and that we should be considered as the football lepers of the world. I hope that in the near future we shall see English football taking its rightful place in Europe, that both we in England and UEFA have learnt from this terrible tragedy, and that in future all major matches will be played on first-class grounds, which are examined and inspected regularly and policed by professional policemen who are properly equipped and have experience in dealing with riots and big crowds. 1 hope that the Minister will not speak from a prepared brief but will answer my points.

12.11am

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) is to be warmly congratulated on raising this issue. I am sure that hon. Members will wish me to refer to the fact that the hon. Members for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) and for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) are present, showing the concern of Liverpool Members of Parliament on this sad occasion.

We are discussing an event the like of which no one would have foreseen. It is of such a scale and magnitude that during its aftermath many decisive measures must be taken and much thought must be given to restoring the position both nationally and internationally.

I fully respect the view of the hon. Member for Riverside that certain actions taken are detrimental to the standing of English football and to the prospects for English clubs. However, in all seriousness, the scale of the event in Brussels requires action to be taken on a scale which will impose some penalty on English football clubs so that we may put our house in order. That is what the UEFA and FIFA bans are about.

I shall now deal with certain constructive measures. First, the Belgian Government have appointed an inquiry into events at the Heysel stadium on that ghastly evening. A parliamentary commission of inquiry consisting of nine members of the chamber of deputies has been set up to investigate the causes and circumstances of the disaster and the lessons to be learnt from it. The House will be interested to know that it is intended that it should report by 6 July. The commission includes deputies from the four Government parties in Belgium and from the three biggest Opposition parties. It will therefore be a commission of broad representation, as is suitable for such an investigation.

The House will also be aware that UEFA is conducted an inquiry into the events, and will recognise that we cannot prejudge its outcome. There is no question, however—the hon. Gentleman was fair enough to make his opinion clear on this—but that English supporters played a significant part in the tragic events. Immediately after the scenes in Brussels the United Kingdom Government offered the fullest condolences to the bereaved relatives of those who tragically died and the fullest assistance in the aftermath. The hon. Gentleman will realise that I have responsibility for the police, and the police in Kent offered the Belgians any assistance that they required. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Merseyside police were subsequently in touch with the Belgian police to offer any assistance required in their investigation. Both the Merseyside and Metropolitan police forces are examining film of the riot to ascertain whether they can identify any of the troublemakers. A number of people have so far been positively identified on the film, and they will be interviewed by police officers.

I am glad to hear that the Metropolitan police are involved in the investigation. In tonight's edition of the Liverpool Echothere is a full supplement on the disaster in Brussels, based on the evidence of those who were there. I shall give the Minister a copy at the end of the debate. There are clear signs that Chelsea, Arsenal and other London supporters were involved. It seems that they had strong London accents and that they were obviously supporters of the National Front. These hooligans must be eradicated from English football.

Many allegations have been made about the presence at the match of those not connected with Liverpool football club or its bona fide supporters. I assure the hon. Gentleman that any evidence that can be provided —I shall be grateful for a copy of the Liverpool Echo to which he has referred—will be used as source material to secure, if at all possible, the positive identification of those responsible and the organisations to which they belong. The hon. Gentleman will understand that this will require considerable assessment, as well as police inquiries, and that I cannot prejudge that. However, that assessment must be followed up.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene and to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) for initiating the debate. Did the Merseyside police give any advice to the Belgian authorities before the match was played? If it was given, what notice was taken of it? Can the Minister say anything about the availability of alcohol, especially on the duty-free ferries, on the way to the match and the condition of some of the supporters when they entered the Huysel stadium?

I can confirm that there we visits by police officers from Brussels to the Merseyside police at, I believe, the invitation of the Merseyside police force, to discuss the latter's experience and knowledge of policing football crowds. I cannot answer the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question on the availability of alcohol. He will appreciate that what goes on in a foreign country or outside territorial waters is different from that which occurs in the United Kingdom. I accept the relevance that the hon. Gentleman places upon alcohol in terms of football hooliganism.

Film in addition to that which has been seen already is being sent to the Merseyside policy by the Belgian authorities and Belgian police officers are expected to visit Merseyside police shortly, possibly even this week, in an attempt to identify those involved. I assure the hon. Member for Riverside and his colleagues who are present that every possible step is being taken by the police to provide the assistance that those from Merseyside and elsewhere would wish to see in the aftermath of the scenes in Brussels. Anyone who has evidence that the National Front or any other organisation was involved in organising the violence in Brussels should make it available to the police, who will consider it carefully. That would be the most appropriate step for individuals to take.

Hon. Members will be aware that, in the aftermath of this tragic event, the Government have seen fit to take certain immediate steps, a list of which bears repetition. We recognise that, as a consequence of this event, firm action to deal with hooliganism has been taken on various fronts, by the Government, the police and the courts, the Football authorities and the football clubs to control this cancer that is affecting the game.

Does the Minister accept that it is wrong for British football to be completely isolated? Is there any way to ensure that at future European cup games, no fans from here can go to the other country, so that the other team can have its supporters in both legs of the game? There must be some other way than isolating English football from the rest of the world, and allowing ourselves to be treated as football lepers.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's conviction, but there is no way in which the English football crowds, or the English football clubs, can assume that, in the aftermath of what has occurred, the bans imposed by UEFA or FIFA are either unexpected or unacceptable. The hon. Gentleman must note that the football authorities have recognised that these bans are virtually inevitable and have accepted them in the knowledge that the condemnation of international football organisations is a verdict passed on the quality of the English game and its supporters, to enable the English football clubs in time to justify their re-admission to the full competition abroad. This is a severe penalty, but it is a penalty in the light of severe circumstances, which every hon. Member fully understands.

We accept the serious nature of what happened in Brussels, and no one can condone the action of those responsible for the tragedy. The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry), because there is now an opportunity for cooler minds to look at the position. My hon. Friend is saying that many people in the city of Liverpool, its clubs and supporters, believe that the problem of hooliganism, which is a decade or more old, has been passed on to the city. The city is suffering a great deal as a consequence of accepting the guilt for something that, as the Minister will know, is not a problem of yesterday or last week, but of two decades—we have seen the thing growing. I hope that everything will be done to contact those who were at the stadium, to ensure that the truth of the tragic circumstances there comes out, and that the guilt that belongs to football as a whole will not be placed wholly on the shoulders of Liverpool.

I respect the way in which the hon. Gentleman has made that point. I can assure him that we are concerned with a cancer that has afflicted football in this country for far too long. I amplify that by saying that in the Metropolitan police district alone, in the 1984–85 season, some 1,600 people were arrested either inside or in the vicinity of grounds, and a further 1,800 persons were ejected for breach of the ground regulations. Therefore, 3,400 people in the Metropolitan police district alone were in one year involved in hooliganism in football grounds.

I accept that we are not dealing exclusively with the Liverpool clubs, or any individual club, but with a range of increasing violence all over the country year in and year out. Hon. Members present recognise that the problems have occurred with Birmingham, Luton, Millwall, Chelsea and Leeds. With this disaster, the problem has reached such a level that we can no longer delay purging the problem from the football system. We therefore have to take action.

The Government's action is on many fronts. We must remember the tragedy of the Bradford fire when considering stadiums and safety. A ban on alcohol is shortly to be introduced through legislation. All grounds in the third and fourth divisions are to be designated in terms of safety. There are extensive police inquiries here, in Belgium and in UEFA into what happened at the Heysel stadium. Discussions with the football authorities are in train. They will resume tomorrow when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will try to encourage them to find means, through membership schemes and providing proper access, to isolate supporters who are clearly not part of the normal supporting activity of the game.

As for the operation of the law, we must ensure that hooligans are identified and brought to justice. The House will be aware that telecine equipment being provided through the generosity of the Football Trust to about 30 clubs will help to control crowds. Much investment must be made in the security and safety of grounds. Separation of fans is important, and alcohol on transport must ve eliminated so that fans arrive in safety and sobriety and so that arrangements in grounds can be more effective.

There must be progress on all those fronts to restore normality to the game. Football is a national game and should command a substantial family audience. We want to make it once again a normal event to which people can go in perfect safety with their children. We must ensure that there is a national will to do what I have described.

In the wake of the disaster at Bradford, the Government initiated a judicial inquiry under Mr. Justice Popplewell which, among other things, will have terms of reference broad enough to take evidence about the Brussels event. The primary purpose of the inquiry is to see whether the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 is up to the standards that are now required to deal with the problems that have beset the game. I accept entirely the need for a broad assessment of changes to the game, so that we can—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty eight minutes past Twelve o'clock.