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Football Referees

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

The times being what they are, I feel I should declare an interest at the very start: I have always wanted to be popular. Some would say that being a Conservative Member of Parliament is not exactly the best way of going about that. If we add the fact that I am an active and qualified football referee, one could think that I have chosen what we might call a “challenging path” to that popularity. I took my referees’ course at the age of 12 and qualified shortly afterwards, which I believe means I have just finished my 33rd season as the man in the middle. I have been a member of the Referees Association for all of that time. I should also declare a financial interest. For each game I officiate I receive a fee. I have tried to register it, but the relevant authorities got bored after a while and told me to stop wasting their time.

I have to admit that I love the game. Like anyone who volunteers, coaches or officiates at any sport, I am passionate about the sport I practise every week. One has to be passionate to go out there in most weathers doing one of the least popular jobs in the country week in, week out. I have officiated at all types of games in the UK and abroad at amateur and semi-professional level. I have been very lucky not to have personally experienced what too many referees have experienced: I have not been assaulted while officiating at a game of football.

Every ref I know looks forward to his or her next fixture. While we get paid a small amount, we do not referee for the match fee. We receive good in-service training from the Football Association and the Referees Association, and we go out to do the best job we possibly can in every game. Occasionally—I know this will be hard for Members to comprehend—match officials do make the odd mistake. The vast majority of times, however, we get the decision right. Alas, on some occasions—Members may have seen some well-publicised examples—players do not like the decisions we make. Referees have to deal with that by using common sense.

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the introduction of goal-line technology and a fourth official would reduce some of the friction between footballers and referees on the pitch?

I am sure that that would help at the highest level of the game, but at my level I am lucky to have two club linesmen, let alone a fourth official. I hear where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but I do not think they would necessarily help in this particular situation. There is no goal-line technology in Northamptonshire Combination football league games as of yet.

We deal with challenging situations by using common sense, people management skills and the odd yellow or red card. In most cases, while the teams and their supporters might not like some decisions, everyone just gets on with the game. Sometimes they do not, however. Recorded assaults on referees are thankfully few and far between. The number of physical contacts against officials has fallen quite dramatically by 21% since 2010-11, from 618 cases to 528, but that is still 10 physical assaults on football referees in England and Wales each week.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the number of recorded assaults on referees has decreased because it is often difficult for referees to have those assaults taken seriously by the authorities?

Yes, that is absolutely the case, and it is something I intend to come to later, so I thank my hon. Friend for his point.

In fact, over the past year, the number of cautions has fallen: all cautions fell 10%; dissent cautions fell 13%; dismissals fell 13%; and in general all misconduct on the football pitch fell 9%. Some put this gradual improvement down to the Football Association’s respect agenda, and I would tend to agree, but whatever the reason, it is obviously to be welcomed. I still find it astonishing, however, that in the last year for which full records are available 528 referees—more than 10 a week—were assaulted during a match.

Obviously, in these cases, the Referees Association and the FA step in, the first helping the assaulted and the county FA offering some punishment post-disciplinary hearing. There were concerns that county FAs were being too lenient in the punishments handed out, so several changes were made to the appeals process. Now anyone, not just the person subject to the violation, can appeal a decision and ask the FA to review the case. For the police to take action, referees must report incidents to the police themselves. The FA recommends that they do this but cannot intervene or compel an official to do so. If criminal action is taken in a case of assault or physical contact on a referee, the player in question is automatically suspended pending the outcome of the case.

The purpose of this debate is singular: to ask the Minister for his help. Referees up and down the country are becoming more and more concerned that neither the police nor the Crown Prosecution Service is following through with the investigation of assaults, believing that footballing sanctions—bans for a certain period—are enough of a punishment. It would be fantastic, therefore, if he could help. The FA could do with improved feedback from the courts.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which one might think a game of two halves: the soft cop in the early part and the rougher stuff coming later. Does he agree that the FA could improve conviction and prosecution rates by launching private prosecutions where other parties do not wish to get involved? That would, I suggest, still be possible.

That is true, actually. The Referees Association offers insurance to referees, so if someone joins it—not all referees do, but most do—it will help and guide them down that route. If, though, there is a physical assault on a football pitch, it should first be a matter for the police, but if they choose not to act, perhaps there could be this second way of doing it.

To return to the subject on which I would like the Minister’s help, the FA would appreciate automatic feedback from the courts on football cases to ensure that any criminal cases involving footballers are also subject to football disciplinary hearings. A simple communication would suffice to ensure that if a banned player tried to play for a different football club, they would not be allowed to. Furthermore, assaulting a referee should automatically mean a formal interview by the police. It has been suggested that sometimes the police only log details and do not formally charge a player with assault, saying that it is a footballing matter. Any player who assaults a referee should be formally interviewed by the police as a matter of course, and witness statements could be taken to prepare for appropriate action. A simple interview after an assault would also act as a strong deterrent.

In the more serious cases, we need to urge the CPS to treat this type of assault seriously and to ensure that football offences do not receive more lenient sentences than the same crimes committed off the football pitch.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He has mentioned serious offences, suggesting that some are not so serious. What would he say is the difference?

Less serious offences would include one that the hon. Gentleman might have seen Paul Gascoigne commit in a football game not so long ago—taking the yellow card out of the referee’s hands—or a gentle shove. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to the details of more serious offences, but there is a gradual scale, as there is in all matters to do with assault.

Essentially, referees would like the police to be more willing to charge those who assault match officials, rather than leaving the issue to be dealt with in-house by local county football associations. Police action is a far greater deterrent and would ensure that referees felt more supported, thus helping to retain the number of referees we need in our game.

I said earlier that I had been lucky. I have not been physically assaulted while officiating, although I once had to go to the police because of what I perceived to be a very real threat made against me. However, I had a horrible experience once when I gave a penalty and the manager of the team, who thought he was a bit like Alex Ferguson, did not like my decision. Unlike Alex Ferguson, he decided to charge on to the pitch. Fortunately, one of his own players rugby-tackled him, inches away from me on my blind side before he got to me. As I did not really know that he was coming at me, who knows what could have happened? That happened on what I chose as my last ever game of Sunday morning football.

Others have not been so lucky. Anyone who goes to a referees’ society meeting and talks to those present will hear some horrific tales. In 2011, a Coventry referee was assaulted at a match that took place on Sowe common on a Sunday morning. He was taken to hospital by ambulance and needed stitches inside his mouth and other things. Two police cars attended with four officers. Two of the officers went and spoke to the assailant, but decided not to arrest him and walked off the pitch saying that the football authorities would deal with the incident.

Last year in Manchester, an individual walked out of court with a suspended jail sentence and community service for a cowardly assault on a referee. The referee had sent the player off for aggressive behaviour and swearing during a Manchester amateur Sunday football league match. As he recorded the red card in his notebook, the player ran towards him, jumped with both feet off the ground and kicked him in the face—a karate kick of some kind. The referee needed a number of stitches around his eye and was left scarred for life. Doctors told him that he was lucky not to have been blinded. The player was eventually charged and pleaded guilty at a Manchester Crown court to the charge of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. The judge did not give him a custodial sentence—he said he had escaped “by a whisker”—but suspended a 10-month jail sentence for two years. The player was also ordered to carry out 100 hours’ unpaid work and pay the referee £750 compensation. However, if that had happened on a Saturday night in any town or city across the country, the result would have been very different.

Referees across the country are concerned that assaults of this nature are not always taken seriously by the authorities. We are seriously worried about that, because we know of recent examples elsewhere, such as the case of Richard Nieuwenhuizen in the Netherlands, who was killed in December 2012 as he officiated at a game of football in Holland, or, just last month, that of Ricardo Portillo in the United States. In both cases, the assault of an official resulted in their death. I am not saying to the Minister that he must act now or this could happen here, but I would like assurances from him that, after this debate, he will send the appropriate message, as strongly as he can, that officials of all sports across the country can pack their kits for this weekend, comforted in the knowledge not just that they are appreciated, but that there is an extra deterrent that will stop those who use violence to show their disappointment at a decision that the ref has just made.

Before I begin, I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on securing the debate and on raising the important issue of how we deal with violence in sporting events. As he says, it is an issue that we need to take seriously, and we will. Such violence can be damaging not just for the individuals directly concerned but for all those who enjoy sport. They should be able to continue to do so in safety and in an atmosphere where the rules of justice and fair play are accepted and upheld. The respect that we show for the rules of a game such as football very much reflects our respect for others, for society and for the rule of law.

As my hon. Friend has made clear, football is one sport that has seen particular examples of violence on and off the pitch. Such violence sets a damaging example to young and possibly impressionable fans. We know of cases in which fans have been tempted to emulate the behaviour they see on the pitch. We must therefore make absolutely sure that we have the means available to prevent such violence where possible, and to punish it effectively if it does occur.

Looking at the cases that my hon. Friend has detailed, I can entirely share his concerns. I understand the frustrations felt by all the victims who do not feel that justice has been done. It seems that we have three fronts on which we should be tackling this issue. First, each sport’s governing body—in the case of football, the individual clubs—needs to deal with the incident to ensure that future events are not disrupted. They can and should discipline players and fans when enthusiasm spills over into violence and aggression. It is not clear from the cases that we have heard about whether clubs or the Football Association have always used the full extent of their powers, but my hon. Friend will appreciate that that would be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Secondly, the criminal justice system has a role to play. My hon. Friend has rightly asked me and my Department to concentrate on the issue of effective sentencing, particularly for violence against referees. From that perspective, we would not want to see offences, sentences or procedures that applied only to football referees. The law must be seen to apply equally and consistently to everyone, and we would therefore need at least to deal with violence at all sporting events. We already have adequate offences, sentences and procedures in place that apply across the board, and ample guidance to help to ensure that they are applied consistently. With that in mind, let me first explain the offences available.

There is a range of offences that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service can use in the case of a violent incident of any kind, including when the violence occurs in a sporting context. These range from common assault through to actual bodily harm and to grievous bodily harm, and ultimately to manslaughter and murder. The penalties available range from a maximum of six months’ imprisonment for common assault to a maximum of life for wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. The police and the CPS have a full spectrum of offences that can be charged, and severe maximum penalties are available for those convicted.

Within those sentencing powers, it is for the courts to decide what the penalty should be in individual cases. The courts have the full facts of the case before them, and they can make an informed judgment about the overall seriousness of the incident. Sentencers are trained and experienced in arriving at appropriate penalties, and it would be wrong for any of us, particularly Ministers, to try to substitute our judgment for that of the court. I will not therefore comment on the individual cases that my hon. Friend has raised; instead, I will concentrate on how the courts arrive at their decisions.

The courts have guidance in the form of guidelines issued by the independent Sentencing Council. Courts are obliged to follow the guidelines or to explain why, exceptionally, they are departing from them. The guidelines are therefore rather stronger than the term “guidelines” might suggest. There are guidelines covering the general seriousness of an offence, and specific guidelines on offences of assault, and they can be found on the Sentencing Council’s website. As with offences, I do not think that it would be helpful to have specific guidelines that applied only to football referees, or even to sport in general. They must apply across the board.

The guidelines help to determine the seriousness of the offence by reference to the harm that the offence has caused, and to the culpability of the offender. Those factors can mitigate or aggravate the potential sentence. For example, in the case of assault, factors given in the guidelines as increasing the seriousness include the location and timing of the offence, and the community impact. General guidelines on the seriousness of any offence also include aggravating factors such as whether the victim is serving the public. That might arguably include functions such as refereeing a football match, as my hon. Friend does on a regular basis.

People often ask, not just in this context, why the maximum possible penalties for offences are not imposed more often. Sentences must be proportionate to the offending behaviour, and the guidelines help to ensure that the courts sentence in a proportionate and consistent way. The maximum penalty is set to deal with the worst possible case for each offence. The maximum is, therefore, rightly rarely used. Violence and threats towards match officials may be regarded as an aggravating factor, but should not be looked at in isolation as meriting the most serious possible penalty. It needs to be seen alongside all the other aggravating and mitigating factors in a case.

The third strand that emerges from the cases we have heard about this evening is how the police react in cases of violence against officials. That, I have to say, is partly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but it is largely, as my hon. Friend will understand, an operational matter for the police. I understand entirely what he says about the need to send the clearest possible message to the police about taking these matters seriously. We need to work with officers to ensure that they have guidance and training about cases involving match officials, so that those cases are treated in a way that properly reflects the harm such cases can cause.

I am afraid to say to my hon. Friend that there is no magic solution to the problem that he has rightly highlighted. I think he recognises that. I accept that we need to work together to raise awareness and to ensure that the system we have works better. We need to ensure that we signal that violence against match officials is wholly unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.