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Football Grounds (Regulation)

Volume 520: debated on Wednesday 8 December 2010

It is a real pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. When I submitted my request for this short Westminster Hall debate, the title had the words “Keep Scunthorpe Standing” in it. The Table Office informed me, in its own inimitable way, that that was sloganeering and would need to be improved. Hence the title that we have today. Nevertheless, it is on Scunthorpe United that I wish to focus my attention. I should certainly declare my interest as a season ticket holder at Glanford Park, albeit in the seated Grove Wharf stand.

Before I go further, let me take the opportunity to praise all associated with Scunthorpe United. It is a small club that, despite a recent run of results that we would rather forget, is punching above its weight. It has, in Steve Wharton, a chairman who, like his father before him, has run the club sensibly and in a businesslike manner that some might say could be a model for other clubs up and down the land.

Scunthorpe United is not a club that changes its manager every five minutes. Instead, it grows managers out of its coaching personnel. It has been well served by Brian Laws and Nigel Adkins, and it is now being well served by Ian Baraclough. They have built good teams out of scarce resources, and the players are to be applauded for their achievements in recent years. Having said that, the “team” of a football club includes all the other staff who work day-in, day-out, to make all the backroom activities happen, and those other staff at Scunthorpe United are also brilliant.

Scunthorpe United is a club rooted in its community that does excellent work in education through its “Study United” programme, and it takes on apprentices each year as part of an ongoing commitment to sports development. It also has loyal and dedicated fans, such as David Beverley and his colleagues, who have been working with the Football Supporters Federation on the “Keep Scunthorpe Standing” campaign.

Currently, the rules state that once a club has been in the championship for three years, its stadium must become an all-seater stadium. Everyone fully understands the awfulness of the Hillsborough stadium disaster of 15 April 1989, and the recommendations for all-seater stadiums were a key component of Lord Justice Taylor’s excellent report into the disaster. There have been many significant strides forward in ground safety since that time. Thankfully the world—in terms of stadium safety—is a different place today.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) made an excellent speech yesterday introducing his ten-minute rule Bill, in which he very ably set out all these issues. As he explained, it is perfectly possible for the United Kingdom to have safe standing in the same way that the Bundesliga does.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue to the House. AFC Bournemouth is doing very well in the first division at the moment, and this issue concerns AFC Bournemouth, too. There is a change in technology, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise, that makes things very different from how they were at the time of the terrible events at Hillsborough, to which he referred. I hope that that change in technology is something that we might be able to embrace, and I hope that we will say, “Can we actually introduce this now?”

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I compliment AFC Bournemouth on the good season that it is having. He is right to draw attention to changes in technology and stadium management, and more modern methods of properly policing football grounds and ensuring fans’ safety. Those are the issues that we need to look at. The rules on all-seater stadiums need to be revisited for modern times. There should be no compromise on safety, but there should be common sense. If Scunthorpe’s standing capacity has been safe for all these years and appropriate safety management is in place, there is no strong argument for replacing it with seating.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although it is very important to have safety, it is surely not impossible to marry safety with the finance available? Finance has to be a key factor for any football club and any football ground at the present time.

I absolutely agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Safety is crucial and should never be compromised, but there also needs to be a sensible way forward. In these difficult financial times, that is very important. The Glanford Park terracing has stood for more than 20 years. It is under threat solely because the football team has been successful. It is my contention, and that of the Football Supporters Federation, that Scunthorpe United and its supporters should not be penalised and lose the safe standing option because of the club’s success.

If the current rules are adhered to, a very small club will have to spend significant amounts of money during these difficult financial times to convert the safe standing area into seating. That would mean that the club would have the invidious choice of paying even more for a larger seating area, to maintain the maximum ground capacity of around 9,000, or reducing the ground capacity significantly.

Seating the Doncaster road end would reduce Glanford Park’s capacity by about 1,000. That would mean fewer tickets would be available for big games, such as the recent Carling cup game against Manchester United or the forthcoming FA cup visit of Everton. In turn, that would mean more disappointed fans and less revenue for the club. There is a danger that such a move would harm the club because it would be forced to divert its limited financial resources and energy into redeveloping the stand; that money would be better spent on improving the team or enhancing the experience of supporters.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and, as he is obviously aware, Glanford Park is in my constituency and I am delighted to work closely with him on this issue. However, is there not an even more important issue here? We talk about localism a lot; this issue is about what the fans want, and what the fans of Scunthorpe United are saying very clearly is, “Let us make our decision about what we want, and let us keep our terraces.”

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right in many respects. It is important to listen to what local people and local fans are saying. However, we would not and should not compromise safety. Nevertheless, it comes back to looking at this issue in the modern circumstances of today and recognising that Scunthorpe United’s stadium is a 9,000-capacity ground, with average crowds of 5,000. I will just make a little more progress now before taking any other interventions.

The Football League, in its letter to the Minister for Sport and the Olympics of 22 October, stated quite clearly:

“Football League clubs, particularly in Leagues One and Two, are evidence that standing at football is safe when managed correctly.”

That is a very helpful statement.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being generous in taking interventions. It is important that safety is stressed. Cost is also critical. AFC Bournemouth is in dire straits, as are many other football clubs. The solution of allowing standing by using new technology would help. However, the point that I wanted to underline—I want to ask the hon. Gentleman if he agrees with this—is about the atmosphere that would be created by having standing capacity. Every time that a goal is scored or play builds up towards a goal, everybody ends up standing up anyway. There is a sense of atmosphere in standing areas that will encourage more people to come through the gates, which will help the gate receipts and the running of the club, from a cost perspective.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the atmosphere in grounds, which is an important part of the football experience. Scunthorpe United is a well-run football club, which stays very carefully within its means. The club moved to the purpose-built Glanford Park in 1988, where the affectionately named “Donny road end” has always been a safe standing area.

That small club, with a ground capacity of just over 9,000 and average gates of around 5,000, is being caught up in safety rules designed in another age for much larger grounds. If the club remains in the championship for another year, the safe standing capacity will have to be removed and replaced with seating. That will cost money at a time when resources are scarce; it will reduce the ground capacity, and it will take away choice and enjoyment, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has pointed out, from those fans who prefer to stand. Moreover, once the ground has become all-seater, it will not be able to revert back to having a standing area, even if the club spends the rest of its life in the lower divisions.

Cardiff City was allowed to retain standing for six years in the championship league. Why should Scunthorpe United, the smallest ground in the league, not be given a similar dispensation? There are much larger grounds in the lower leagues, such as the Carlisle United grounds, that are not affected by the rules. Will the Minister examine the experience of safe standing in other parts of the world, including Germany, and review the current requirements for all-seater stadiums in the premiership and championship leagues?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate; it is only right and proper that the issue should be debated fully. Will he explain or tease out the assurances regarding ground safety that he outlined that will ensure that we never return to the circumstances that resulted in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989?

My hon. Friend asks an important question. Lord Taylor’s report was thorough and found many causes for the problems that occurred. Standing was not one of them, but none the less, all-seater stadiums were seen as an important part of the solution. We must consider the experience around the world, particularly in Germany, whose strong record of safe standing demonstrates that it can be done. I agree with my hon. Friend that there should be no compromise on future safety in the interests of standing; we should ensure that any standing is safe standing. However, I draw attention to the fact that Scunthorpe United’s ground has always had standing and has always been safe.

The hon. Gentleman has secured an excellent debate. I echo his comments about Scunthorpe club being a role model. On the point just raised, I have every sympathy with what he is saying, but I am extremely nervous. Since Lord Justice Taylor’s report, safety in grounds has been improved and transformed. The prospect of a change makes me nervous.

As I have said all along, safety should never be compromised, but we need only look across to the Bundesliga to see an example of how one of the best leagues in the world manages safe standing alongside seating, using modern technologies. I agree with hon. Members’ comments. I welcome the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) that this is the right debate to have, but in no way should we prejudice safety in this debate. That would be wrong.

My second question to the Minister is this. Will he review the requirements that apply to small grounds such as Glanford Park, and allow the Football League to use its discretion, where local circumstances and common sense allow, to provide dispensation for small clubs such as Scunthorpe United to retain some safe standing capacity? Scunthorpe has had safe standing for its whole history, during which three England captains have played for the north Lincolnshire side: Kevin Keegan, Ray Clemence and, of course, Ian Botham. I thank everybody who has attended and contributed to this debate. Up the Iron!

I congratulate the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on securing this debate and on how he has conducted it. I pay tribute to him for his work on a number of football issues since his arrival in the House, and I join him in paying tribute to his club, which has done exceptionally well. It is a proper community club in every way, and he is absolutely right to pay tribute to the current chairman and his predecessor for their running of it. It is an example of the sort of football club that we all want to encourage, and I wish Scunthorpe the best of luck for the remainder of the season.

Having said that, I remind the hon. Gentleman, as will the hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe), that the Minister’s powers in this area are limited. I can ask the Football League to re-examine the issue, but I could not sign an order forcing it to, even if the hon. Gentleman convinced me to do so today. The issue concerns not only many of his constituents but supporters up and down the country. As he correctly stated, the current rules go back to the Taylor report, published in the aftermath of the unnecessary loss of life at Hillsborough. He is absolutely right that that tragedy is the backdrop to this debate, and as he will know, many in his party as well as mine feel strongly about the issue. The Minister for Sport who preceded the hon. Member for Bradford South was among those who felt strongly that there should be no return to safe standing.

Having considered the basics of the case, I think that it is now generally accepted that most football grounds, for a vast number of reasons, are safer and more comfortable than they were 15 or 20 years ago, although I understand why many supporters miss the tradition, the feel and the atmosphere that some grounds had before. I checked the injury statistics for the past few seasons collected by the Football Licensing Authority. They suggest that spectators are less likely to be injured at all-seater grounds than at those that retain standing accommodation. I am aware that those statistics rely on self-reporting, which is always a dangerous statistical basis, and therefore might not provide a wholly reliable indicator of the relative injury rates, but I think that it is generally accepted across football that standing still presents a greater risk of injury, although the extent of that risk is open to debate.

Seating also offers higher standards of comfort, as is probably self-evident, and provides spectators with their own defensible spaces, which can only contribute to encouraging families and increasing the diversity of those attending football matches in recent years. I am sure that we all support that. I know that no one is suggesting that we should return to the arrangements in place 15 or 20 years ago, but I am not convinced at this stage that a compelling case has been made to change the policy on standing areas.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the tone in which he is responding to this debate and for acknowledging that the power does not lie with him, but I hope that he will also acknowledge that there were other factors leading to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Yes, seating was one, but there were also crowd control issues, and there were no spill-over areas. The many changes that have been implemented and are now displayed every Saturday or Tuesday night mean that standing or seated, we can avoid what happened on that day. I hope that new technology might allow clubs not in the premier or championship leagues to consider piloting that idea in certain parts of the stands.

I do not believe that the presence of all-standing areas was the contributory factor at Hillsborough; that is self-evidently ridiculous. A basket of factors contributed to that disaster, including crowd control, as my hon. Friend says. He is also right that technology has moved on considerably during that period. That said, there are also new elements of technology that rely on fans being seated—the police, for example, say that crowd control via CCTV is much easier if fans are seated than if they are standing—so the argument cuts both ways.

As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe knows, our coalition partners previously agreed a conference motion asking for the provision of some safe standing areas to be considered. I remember that the hon. Member for Bradford South and I kicked about the issue, if that is not an unfortunate pun, a year or so ago when we were on opposite sides of the House. At the urging of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), I have reconsidered the issue, as I promised in opposition we would. I have written to all the football authorities, and we are in the process of collating their responses.

I say gently to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe that he was right to quote the letter from the Football League. As he correctly said, they replied:

“Football League clubs, particularly Leagues One and Two, are evidence that standing at football is safe when managed correctly.”

But the next sentence reads:

“However, we cannot support a retrograde step that would lead to clubs seeking to replace seating with terracing. The Football League strongly supports existing legislation.”

There is a balance to be struck. We are in the process of collating football authorities’ responses. I am keeping an open mind, but to be honest, there is no groundswell of opinion from the football authorities in favour of a change. I think that they are just as scarred by the Hillsborough experience as many of us who are or have been in government. That is a powerful backdrop and should always be so. There is considerable nervousness about moving, giving that backdrop.

I think that the Minister would agree that this country has had an exemplary record since the Hillsborough tragedy, but that is not necessarily the case for the rest of the footballing world. Because of all-standing stadiums, there are tragedies all too regularly in which people are crushed to death, and it is obvious that that fear is the backdrop against which my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe has put forward his proposals.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and, once again, for the excellent debate on football that he secured in this Chamber a few months ago. He has put his finger exactly on the issue. The matter is characterised less by people being at either one end of the argument or the other, and more by a balance of risk somewhere in the middle.

I absolutely accept the arguments that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe has put forward, and many people feel that the risk could be safely managed in such a way that retains the traditional feel of football clubs. On the other hand, a considerable body of opinion on the other side of the line would argue that there are a number of reasons why that should not happen. On the balance of opinion, therefore, and given the backdrop of Hillsborough, we must do nothing that could in any way lead to such a tragedy. That, in a nutshell, is the argument about balance that I am trying to sum up.

We have looked at the experience of other countries and will continue to do so. I am aware of the arrangements in Germany, funnily enough, because I attended football matches there when I was serving in the forces in the early 1990s. I am also aware that things have moved on considerably in the 18 or 19 years since then. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe might be interested to know that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is planning to look at the matter in the new year as part of its wide-ranging inquiry on football governance and intends to visit Germany to look at the experience there, so the matter remains current and is being examined.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s football club, to which I once again pay tribute for its achievements, the difficulty is that it has had three years to comply with the requirement. I understand why it does not welcome any sort of financial outlay in the current economic situation, particularly to make a correction that it does not feel is necessary on grounds of safety. However, since Hillsborough there has been a set of basic criteria governing the regulation of football. That has been lifted only once, for Cardiff City, because of a particular set of circumstances.

I can promise the hon. Gentleman today that we will most certainly keep the experience in other countries in the forefront of our minds. It is not a matter that we will review once and then drop. The fact that the hon. Member for Bradford South and I discussed that at considerable length when he was in government and I was in opposition should give the hon. Member for Scunthorpe confidence that it is something that the Government keep permanently under review. There are also pressure groups that ensure that we keep it permanently under review, and we will continue to do so. I will wait until I have received all the responses and then have some proper police advice, so for the moment I am keeping an open mind.

However, it would be dishonest not to tell the hon. Gentleman today that in my view the judgment will very much relate to the balance of opinion, and there is not a groundswell of opinion, from either the football authorities or the police, that would support a change in the legislation. For the moment, I simply congratulate him on securing the debate and on the way in which he has raised the matter. I appreciate the sensible and constructive way in which he has brought the problem forward. Most importantly, I wish his club good luck; it is a fantastic example of what we are looking for in community football. We will keep the issue under review, but I am afraid that I do not think that there is a compelling case at the moment for altering the rules, set against the backdrop of the Hillsborough disaster 20 years ago.

Sitting suspended.