Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Blizzard.]
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
“There is no panacea which will achieve total safety and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control. But I am satisfied that seating does more to achieve those objectives than any other single measure…It is possible that in the early stages of conversion there may be instances of fans standing on the seats or in front of them because they are used to standing or in order to register a protest, but I am satisfied that in England and Wales as in Scotland and abroad spectators will become accustomed and educated to seating.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
“more chance of Martians landing”
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.
I welcome this debate. To put it in context, I stood on the 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.
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.
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 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:
“Progress on tackling persistent standing in seated areas continued to be disappointing…a vocal minority insist on standing…We have long recognised that, if a significant numbers of spectators are determined to stand, the options available on the day are limited.”
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:
“Having been made to sit to watch the match, supporters then walk en masse to the railway station and car and coach parking areas, many walking in the road weaving between traffic. They stand to queue to enter the railway station and then onto crowded platforms where approaching trains pass—often on electrified tracks with no protective guard rails. Then they board the crowded trains with many people having to stand. All this is legal and allowed by the authorities.”
The caller then posed this question:
“Having been told by a senior railway manager that commuters must expect to stand at peak periods, how come I’m not allowed to stand when watching my football team but told that I must stand when I’m commuting, when the football stadium isn’t moving at 70 mph?”
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
“there is no reason to ignore technological improvements made since Taylor reported, which might now allow for safe standing.”
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.
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.
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 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.”
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 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. 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 naïve 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.
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.
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.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small 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 it. My experience is that that would be a lot safer than some of the all-seater stadiums that I have witnessed.
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.
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
“combined with effective and professional stewarding and intelligence-led policing has seen public disorder all but eliminated from Premier League grounds”.
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:
“while there is no panacea which will achieve total safety and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control, seating does more to achieve these objectives than any other single measure”.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
There is no doubt that the introduction of all-seater stadiums has helped to improve crowd management and behaviour. When the issue last came up about a year ago, I took part in a Radio Five Live phone-in on the subject, and I was absolutely amazed by the number of women who contacted the programme to say that if all-seater stadiums were removed, they would stop going to top-flight football matches. If there was one thing that came out of that hour-long phone-in, it was that conclusion, which rather surprised me.
There is a thought that the German solution is not applicable in this country, for very simple technical reasons: the effect of the weight of the crush barriers on the rest of the football ground’s structure would make them impossible to implement; accommodation spaces and concourses under those areas could not support the weight of those barriers; the gradient—in technical terms, the rake—of seated areas is too steep to introduce safe standing; if one were to herd in a greater number of people, one would have to make technical improvements to the emergency exits, which would not be safe; and the facilities at grounds are calculated on the basis of all-seater stadiums, so toilets and food areas would all have to be expanded. To correct all that and reintroduce some seating would involve considerable cost, and if that sort of money is to be invested in football, I am not sure that it is better to invest it in stadiums than in driving up participation at the grass roots. It would be a brave chairman who took that decision rather than invest money in the community, as clubs such as Charlton Athletic have done so successfully.
There is also the European issue. As has been said, UEFA and FIFA regulations demand that all matches at club and national level be played in all-seater stadiums. It remains the case that in just over two years of doing this job, with the exception of the Football Supporters Federation, no football body has lobbied or come to me and said, “We want this to happen.” The Football Association said to me yesterday that, outside that small and persistent group, it is not sure that there is a big lobby for the idea. That is partially because the debate has moved on. The viewing experience in modern stadiums is so superior that the issue is becoming less important. It is, in a way, yesterday’s argument.
As does the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I think that there is an extraordinarily strong argument that the price of tickets to watch premier league clubs is too high. However, I am not sure that there is a direct correlation between that issue and the argument today. They are two separate issues, which are best tackled separately.
In conclusion, it is difficult not to characterise the debate in the terms in which it has traditionally been couched. Football supporters are understandably campaigning for a return to standing areas, at least in part; however, those charged with managing safety and security in football grounds continue to champion all-seater stadiums. As an Opposition spokesman, I do not have access to up-to-date assessments, so I am happy to make the commitment today that if we win a general election and I keep my current job, I shall consider the issue again with all the evidence to hand. However, I still suspect that if a Minister with responsibility for sport from any party reviewed the matter, and there was evidence from football’s regulatory authorities that showed that they wanted to retain all-seater stadiums, and evidence from the police that showed that it would be unsafe to change, it would be an extraordinarily brave and, many would say, foolhardy Minister who, with the Hillsborough issue sitting on their shoulder, overturned the current situation.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing this important debate. I thank him for his work in football, not only with the Charlton Athletic community trust, but with the all-party football group, where on several issues we have shared meetings at which he has been at the forefront expressing his views.
I am rather sad that my hon. Friend and I are on opposite sides of the argument today, but I thank him for welcoming me as the new Minister with responsibility for sport. I am not sure that I can be held personally responsible for the failure of the England rugby team—indeed, was it a failure?—which did very well to get to that final, and I was very pleased to be there to see the team almost secure victory. Lewis Hamilton has not become a world champion, but as a rookie, he has done tremendously well, and we wait with bated breath to see what happens to the England football team with their European championship qualification.
I welcome the debate and the document from the Football Supporters Federation. The FSF is passionate about the case, and it wants a return to standing. It has been interesting to listen to the debate and to the diversity of views among the numerous colleagues who have spoken. I know that the issue provokes passion. As somebody who stood at football matches as a youngster, I enjoyed the benefits of standing and loved the fact that we stood and shouted for our team. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) is right: the issue is the culture, and the culture has changed. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) is right, too: we are moving on, which we need to do. Nevertheless, it is important that we respond to the points that have been raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has had to leave for a constituency engagement, but I would have said to her that the issue is not about Ministers being briefed by officials on a particular line. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) has said that we must consider the issue in great detail, which I have done because I have been lobbied by a number of bodies.
As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has said, I was at the Bradford City supporters trust meeting on Sunday night, and I pay tribute to the work of supporters trusts throughout football, because they do a tremendous job. The co-chairman of Bradford City football club, Mr. Mark Lawn, when asked about safe standing said, “The choice is clear: do you want us to spend money on improving players or on changing the configuration of the ground?” Hon. Members have said that there would have to be a massive reconfiguration of grounds, and the supporters to a person told Mr. Lawn, “We want the new player.” That sums up some of the issues.
I also spoke recently to Jarvis Astaire, who was involved with Wembley. He was passionate about all-seater stadiums being the way forward, because they provide opportunities for ground safety and crowd control. People know who has tickets and where they are going to sit, and the stewards can take care of the situation.
As has been said, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), the previous Minister for Sport, is passionate about the issue because of what happened in Sheffield. So am I, because the impact of the Bradford City disaster in 1985 on the city was immeasurable, and it is still there. People attend a memorial service every year, and what happened is still alive in their minds.
As a Minister, I fully understand football supporters saying that the running of football should be left to football and that the Government should not be involved. However, we had to be involved on the basis of those disasters. I want to return to a situation where sports run themselves, because the debate should not be about Government interference. As has been said, however, there is a history of safety failures, violence and disorder that is not found in any other sport. Rugby league has been mentioned, and I was at Old Trafford, where supporters stood together—there is no segregation in rugby league, because the supporters get on. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston is right that that has not been the culture in football, and that violent scenes have taken place. We have made tremendous strides forward, but we cannot be complacent. Even this season events have taken place.
The first duty of the Government in considering the issue is to ensure that spectators can watch matches in safety and without fear of violence, disorder or antisocial behaviour. Proportionality is the key, and we must strike the right balance between ensuring safety and security and unnecessarily restricting the choices of clubs and fans. There remain good reasons for the all-seater policy, and I wish to set out the context of the current arrangements before returning to the relative merits of all-seater and standing accommodation.
The current system did not start with the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Lord Taylor’s recommendations were brought about in the context of all the lessons learned from a number of official reports into high-profile incidents at football matches in this country from as long ago as the 1923 cup final. His report was an attempt to wrap everything up, including safety and disorder issues, and to put an end to what was seen as the English disease. His recommendations were set out specifically to meet
“the needs of crowd control and safety”
at football matches in this country. As has been mentioned, in his final report, which took nine months of evidence and analysis, he stated that
“while there is no panacea which will achieve total safety and cure all problems of behaviour and crowd control,”
he was convinced that
“seating does more to achieve these objectives than any other single measure”.
The hon. Member for Bath also made that point.
It is worth pausing there for a moment, because that is at the heart of the debate in many ways. Lord Taylor acknowledged that a blanket approach to all-seater stadiums was by no means a perfect solution, but said that, on balance, it was a better approach than the alternatives. I shall come to those alternatives in a moment. I believe that the current available evidence supports Lord Taylor’s insight and bears out his understanding of the issue. In simple terms, his final report made it clear that the all-seater policy would help to bring about modern, safe systems and facilities, improve crowd management controls and ensure that there was no repeat of the disasters that had occurred in football grounds over the years. All-seater stadiums became the key part of a wide package of measures to bring safety and security arrangements into the 21st century.
The requirement for all grounds in the top two divisions to become all-seater provided clubs with the opportunity to transform their grounds from dilapidated, crumbling structures—Bradford City is a good example—into safe, secure and welcoming arenas. As part of the investment programme, the Government have provided more than £191 million of public money to help clubs develop their grounds. Now this country is internationally recognised as having some of the most modern and best-run stadiums anywhere in the world. Some 72 of the 92 premier league and football league grounds are now all-seater. Earlier this year, Sepp Blatter pointed out that Britain had set a great precedent by removing perimeter fences and using all-seater stadiums. In his words, that
“should be an example for everywhere else in the world.”
The all-seater policy was the catalyst for that change.
At the same time as improving their grounds, clubs, with the support of Government, have sought to improve the level of stewarding. All match-day stewards are now required to undergo a nationally recognised programme of training, assessment and qualification equivalent to a national vocational qualification level 2. As the Football Licensing Authority and the Football Safety Officers Association will testify, all-seater stadiums make it easier for stewards to manage crowds, and there is general acceptance that the quality of stewarding is higher than it has ever been.
There have also been improvements in policing techniques and the management of risk. Despite an ongoing problem with football disorder, police banning orders, which help to remove the unwanted element that previously attended matches, have had a positive impact and have largely been a success. Some 43 per cent. of premier league and football league games are now police-free. As the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent has said, the all-seater policy plays an important role in assisting ground management and the police to assess and manage risks and to control disorder when it occurs. Nobody has come to me from the football safety authorities, the police, football authorities or local authorities to say that they want a change.
Other improvements that I should mention are the clear allocation of responsibilities, the role of ground safety officers, purpose-built control rooms with good communications, the use of CCTV and the regular testing of contingency plans. Together with seating, stewarding and intelligence-led policing, they form part of a coherent package that we must regard holistically.
The available evidence supports that analysis. As has been said, in the 2006-07 season there were record average attendances. The average attendance was 34,379 for premier league matches and 9,938 for football league matches. It is interesting to note that, in the past 15 years, attendances in the premier league have increased by 65 per cent., and that on average stadiums are 92 per cent. full. In the 2006-07 season, there was also the lowest ever number of reported injuries. Figures show that injuries to spectators are rare, but spectators attending grounds with terraces were almost twice as likely to be injured as those attending all-seater stadiums. There was one injury per 39,000 people in all-seater stadiums, compared with one injury per 22,000 people in stadiums with terracing.
The Minister will realise from my earlier contribution that I am broadly sympathetic to what he is saying, but he has not really answered a question that was put earlier: why are there such different regimes in the same stadiums for football fans and for those attending a pop concert or another sporting event?
That is a good point, but I think that I have answered the question. It is because of the history of violence and disorder that has taken place. That was why segregation was needed between fans of different football clubs, which has not been the case in any other sport. That is not to say that there have not been improvements and, through such organisations as the Football Supporters Federation, great strides forward have been made. If we are to be brutal, the issue boils down to considering what is best for supporters’ safety in grounds, as the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent has said—I appreciate the support of the Opposition parties’ spokesmen, who are quite right.
I have a huge responsibility as the Minister with responsibility for sport to ensure that people can watch sport in safety. I have considered the matter carefully, and I have not heard anything to make me change my mind. My opinion may be coloured by the events that took place in Bradford and Sheffield, but I have listened to football safety officers, the police and local authorities, and it is vital that we make the right decisions based on the evidence before us. However, I am not shutting the door.
Does the Minister agree that it is vital to keep stressing the difference between football and all the other activities that have been referred to? We need only examine what happened in June at the champions league final in Athens and UEFA’s criticism of Liverpool supporters. The problems are sadly still with us.
That also colours my judgment on the current position. There have been massive steps forward, and I appreciate the work of the FSF, Supporters Direct and football clubs themselves in ensuring that they improve safety and the culture at their grounds. The culture is changing, and more women and children attend games.
The debate has been important, and we shall continue to examine the evidence and ensure that we listen to what has been said. On balance, I think that we have made the right decision in saying that, at this time, there is no need to change the regulations, for the reasons that have been outlined. Safety is paramount—we need to ensure that spectators are safe—but we value the input of the FSF. I look forward to having many more debates about not only safe standing at football grounds but football in general. We need to debate what is going on in football, and we look forward to that in the coming months.
I am grateful for the debate. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath has not convinced me to change my mind, but I recognise the strength of feeling and welcome hon. Members’ contributions to the debate. It is important for us not only to listen to football supporters, but to strike the right balance between safety and security and people’s choice. On balance, we have done the right thing. The debate has been tremendous, and we look forward to future debates on football.