Monday 25 June 2018
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
Football: Safe Standing
I remind Members that the House has agreed, in its resolution on matters sub judice, that cases that are active before the courts should not be referred to in debate. There is currently a case involving six people who have been charged with offences relating to responsibility for the Hillsborough tragedy. That case and the individuals concerned may not be referred to in today’s debate.
As right hon. and hon. Members can see, this is a very heavily subscribed debate. I am therefore imposing a three-minute speaking limit and suggest that interventions are not made.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 207040 relating to allowing Premier League and Championship football clubs to introduce safe standing.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to open this debate on what is clearly an incredibly important issue for football supporters across the country. The petition was launched by supporter Owen Riches and calls for current legislation to be changed to allow football stadiums in the top two divisions of English football to install safe standing in certain areas. I commend Owen for the hard work and passion he has invested in his campaign and for all the time he has taken to work with my office ahead of the debate.
I represent Yate in South Gloucestershire and my local club, Yate Town football club, was the first in the UK at which supporters watched from rail seats in 2011. Our country has both a glorious heritage and an enduring past in football ground safety. It is therefore vital that we debate the issue with the respect it warrants. It is right that we seek to ensure that football supporters across England and Wales have the best possible match day experience but equally important to remember the lessons the football world has learnt and why changes were first introduced.
The hon. Gentleman rightly indicates that there is a case to be made. Indeed, West Bromwich Albion, based in my constituency, produced a very well researched case for safe standing at The Hawthorns, looking at national and international experiences. Can he imagine the disappointment when the proposal was slapped down by the Minister?
I will talk about specific clubs later on. Standing was common practice at football grounds across the country until Lord Justice Taylor’s recommendations were acted on following the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. The findings from the final report in 1990 have shaped supporter safety ever since, and from August 1994 clubs in the English premier league and championship have been required to have all-seater stadiums. This matter remains complex and sensitive, but the debate’s purpose is to explore safe standing in a modern era and new climate of technological advancements.
As football clubs’ capabilities and technology to enhance the security and safety of supporters have evolved, there have been renewed calls for an examination of safe standing options. Paramount in the debate is maintaining supporter safety. Concerns about introducing safe standing have stemmed from genuine efforts to guarantee and uphold supporters’ safety and wellbeing.
Lord Justice Taylor remarked in his 1990 report that:
“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 therefore right that the Government have asked for clear proof that an alternative could deliver the same levels of stability and safety.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Taylor report led to no standing areas. He will be aware that Margaret Aspinall, who speaks on behalf of the Hillsborough families, has said that this is a “sensitive time” and that most families of the victims
“don’t want standing ever brought back”.
Does he not agree that those views should be given some weight?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for putting those remarks on the record and commend him for all the work he has done to represent his constituents on this matter.
Rail seating, the most commonly advocated safe standing system, is the method currently operated in all examples of safe standing. It can be found at Celtic Park as well as several top-flight German football clubs. It operates in much the same way as existing seats, with each ticket holder allocated their own seat in the stadium. The rail seating design allows for the seat to be folded and locked upright when necessary, allowing supporters to stand. Each row has a safety barrier, which spectators can hold on to or lean against for stability. Those barriers seek to aid crowd control by keeping groups of supporters separate and restricting movement around the terrace.
On that point, Nick Dale, Grimsby Town football club’s stadium manager, suggests that weight should be given to the argument that safe standing in small areas should be made permissible and licences more freely available to clubs such as Grimsby Town. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point. I will talk later about suggestions from my local football clubs and the mechanisms by which they could be introduced.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. He referred to rail seating at Celtic Park, which has been in operation since July 2016. Does he agree that, since its installation, there have been no safety concerns whatever and it has been highly successful for the club and its fans?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting that point on the record. That highlights the potential for devolution. Importantly, Celtic’s application was just for a change in the type of seating; there was no increase in the number of people in the stands. The density of people at Celtic Park was therefore the same, which is important when we look at safety in that example.
The Football Supporters Federation has consistently argued that the controlling of crowds at football games, as well as crowds’ entry into grounds and the ability to monitor capacity has drastically improved in the last 10 to 15 years. As the hon. Gentleman alluded to, that may be best evidenced by the fact that Celtic football club has reported that there has been no increase in incidents.
On that point, a broad range of supporters have come to me in favour of rail seating. That includes a 24-year-old female Liverpool fan and a much older male Man United fan, both constituents of mine in Leeds, as well as a Leeds United supporter.
The hon. Gentleman is right to put his constituents’ comments on the record, which are duly noted and replicated by many Yate Town football fans who have spoken to me on this matter.
As we explore the various arguments, we are tasked with comparing a 30-year period of improvements in supporter safety with the relatively early years in the introduction of safe standing and some of the examples already mentioned. The Government are asking for a long period of time to assess the impact of rail seating.
One solution is to devolve responsibility on safe standing to local authorities, who could in turn take advice from the safety advisory groups, which often consist of a local authority, the police, fire and ambulance services, and other relevant groups. We already trust local authorities to listen to SAGs when making recommendations and decisions on rugby matches, horse-racing events and music concerts. It is argued that there is an opportunity for those bodies to take on a new and enhanced role, with the Government allowing the decision for a club to introduce safe standing to be recommended and determined by authorities already in place.
Ashton Gate is the home of Bristol City football club and Bristol Rugby—the matches are held in the same ground. Yet the ground regulations on standing, for each sport, are in stark contrast to each other. Bristol City football club previously applied to the local safety advisory group to consider the possibility of introducing safe standing. Rail seating was considered at the start of the redevelopment of Ashton Gate in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, when the club was in league one. The possibility of progress on that was part of the reason why Bristol Rugby started to play at Ashton Gate. However, Avon and Somerset police have explained that it never took off following advice from the local safety advisory group. That clearly shows that football clubs already adhere to the advice and guidance of local experts and authorities.
The sort of devolution I am describing would require only for the Secretary of State to direct the Sports Grounds Safety Authority through secondary legislation under section 11 of the Football Spectators Act 1989 to allow safe standing in specified areas of the ground. That would allow clubs to future-proof their grounds in case their league status should change, and would allow for grounds such as Ashton Gate to adapt to their dual purpose. If they moved up or down a division, they could make changes to rail seating and whether seats were locked or not, depending on their status.
With the ability to install such seating, each club could be in a position to comply with the legislation but could also have the opportunity to consult their SAG on whether safe standing in certain areas could be pursued. Introducing safe standing could become an individual case-by-case decision, taking into account the varying opinions at each club, and the differing circumstances. It is argued that local authorities and SAGs are best placed and most suitably equipped to recommend safe standing.
Would the hon. Gentleman say that there is an exception in which it might always be important to install safe standing, because away supporters tend to stand? At Newcastle United the away supporters are right up in the gods, and stand in a dangerous position. Might that be an exception for every ground?
The point that the hon. Lady highlights is right. The important point is that devolving the decision to local authorities, which would take into account the police’s experience of dealing with issues at specific clubs and in specific stands, would provide more flexibility.
The debate centres on enhancing safety and control. It is about the extent to which devolution is required, and to which we trust local authorities to make the decisions in question—while ensuring that supporters get the best possible match day experience. I would welcome clarification from the Minister of the exact evidence that will be required before progress can be made. I would also welcome her thoughts about whether the sport might be best served by devolving the decisions to local authorities, which might be better placed to consider each application to install safe standing on its individual merits. The matter is one of particular sensitivity to people on all sides of the debate, and I hope that the points that are raised during the debate will receive fair and careful consideration and understanding.
Order. There will be a three-minute time limit on speeches.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I want to thank the chair of the Pompey Supporters Trust, Simon Colebrook, for talking with me about the issue, as well as our excellent shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), who has led our party in backing safe standing across the football league. I thank, also, the owner of Portsmouth football club, who has written to me about this important issue today.
In a debate about safe standing in championship and premier league games, Pompey fans will be painfully aware that, despite a prolific history of European and top division football, not to mention multiple FA cup wins, our club are currently enjoying a short break from the pressures of the premier league. Nevertheless, our time in this country’s top two divisions means that, under current legislation, we are required permanently to remain all-seater. Our club is therefore a prime example of the injustice of the Government’s stance on safe standing, because in reality the issue is not whether to bring safe standing into football grounds; it is already there. When Portsmouth fans travel to the grounds of Bristol Rovers, Peterborough United, Wycombe Wanderers and countless other sides in the football league, they see stadiums where fully licensed standing sections are operated. Yet back at Fratton Park they have no choice: standing sections are not allowed. That is all because we previously spent more than three seasons in the top two tiers. I must admit that I am puzzled about why the Government think standing becomes safer as the quality of football gets worse. If that is true, Southampton fans should not be made to sit.
Why should divisional status—and historical divisional status, at that—have implications for whether clubs can have standing sections at their grounds? It is nonsensical, and fans in my constituency are understandably frustrated. Listening to supporters is not just a courtesy. It is important for securing the future of the game. Not every fan wants to stand, but nearly every fan I have spoken to wants to have the choice. I implore the Government to trust fans. They know their clubs best.
The Minister is well respected and highly sensible. However, she is a Spurs fan and so, like Pompey fans, cannot stand safely to watch her team; but her colleague, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), can. Why? It is because the legislation is outdated and unjust. Surely, as a fellow victim of the Football Spectators Act 1989 she shares my frustration and that of Pompey fans. I urge her not to review the issue—which many fans consider to be shorthand for ignoring it—but to listen to fans, listen to common sense, and change the law.
As the hon. Gentleman suggested, Cheltenham Town football club is in league two, and therefore we have safe standing. Does he agree that it will be regrettable if, when the time comes and the club is catapulted into the premier league, it has to rip out the safe standing? That would be to snub some of its most loyal and passionate supporters.
I could not agree more.
Opportunities for any Government to do something that an overwhelming majority of people want, and that will boost community assets and generally make people happy—for free—are few and far between. The Government have an open goal. Yet, like a Southampton striker, they have skied it. On behalf of supporters in my constituency I urge the Minister to reconsider and back fans in their call for safe standing across the league.
Order. Members may remove jackets if they wish.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I shall try to make some comments while ignoring the taunting of the Portsmouth fan on the Opposition Benches to my right—although it is difficult to ignore. If we want to see who is successful in football, we need only note that Southampton has survived in the premier league again this year, while Pompey languishes somewhere closer to the Sunday leagues.
All-seater stadiums have been required by law since 1994. There were good reasons for introducing them, but I think that now is the time to consider whether we can have safe standing as well as seating. Safe standing has been trialled and is now accepted as being safe. In 2011 the Scottish premier league relaxed its requirement for all-seater stadiums and Celtic, as has been mentioned, now has a safe standing space for 3,000 supporters. Next season, league one team Shrewsbury Town will join Celtic and have its own safe standing area.
The stunning St Mary’s stadium in Southampton has a capacity of more than 32,000. Frequently 32,000 fans attend to watch—unlike at Portsmouth, not far down the road. The Saints moved from the iconic Dell ground in 2000. We used to stand on the terraces until the move to the new stadium. Many football fans want to continue to stand, and Southampton fans are no exception. Fans in the Northam stand all too often still stand, although by law they should not. That presents the club with a difficult decision about how to police the situation; thus far it has not managed to do it. However, the situation proves that safe standing, even in an environment where there is standing between seats, has been safe for some 18 years at Southampton football club.
A recent survey by the Football Supporters Federation received more than 33,000 responses and discovered that 94% of fans wanted the choice of whether to sit or stand at English Football League matches. Personally, I prefer to sit, which perhaps is an age thing—but not everyone does, and thousands would prefer to stand. That said, if safe standing can be introduced we must not lose sight of the fact that there are those who want to sit.
Does my hon. Friend accept that it has become very expensive to attend football matches, and standing areas might allow cheaper access to football for genuine fans?
I think that has been said—that it may be cheaper if tickets are sold for standing. I have no evidence of it, but there is no reason why it should not be part of the mix.
As a Southampton fan, I am no stranger to nail-biting finishes to the premier league, and last season was no exception. I am not especially vocal, although by all accounts people with offices near mine could hear me shouting my relief when we managed to stay in the premiership for at least one more season—which Portsmouth, of course, failed to do. Many people are vocal and spectators at football like to sing, chant and explain to the referee when he may need to review a decision or change his glasses. That is part of the enjoyment of the match.
There are laws that are made for good reason—goodness knows that this law was made for good reason; no one could deny that—but that, in their implementation, do not always work in the way they were intended. This is one such law, and I am pleased that the Minister is open-minded about changes. With safety as the top priority, of course, I hope that a compromise can be reached to accommodate everyone.
I will start with a fact: standing happens at every football match, whether that is legal standing up the pyramid to league one or the blind eye turned to it in the premier league and the championship. Every match-going fan knows that that away from home they will stand whether they want to or not, and they know the areas of their own ground where stewards will let it go. The choice before us is not between football fans standing and not standing; it is a question of how to make it safe and as enjoyable as possible. The rules are out of date and we need our Government to act.
It is clear from the turnout how many MPs this campaign has reached. I was pleased to host an event on this important issue for the Football Supporters Federation, safety experts and parliamentary colleagues before today’s debate. Safe standing is an issue whose time has come, a fact borne out by the simple numbers. It is borne out by its successful use outside the top two flights week in, week out. It is borne out by the 94% of fans surveyed by the EFL, who made it clear that they wanted a choice in the type of match day experience they had. It is also borne out by the more than 100,000 football fans and supporters who signed the petition to secure today’s debate. Fans want safe standing even if they do not want it for themselves, and it is increasingly clear that clubs want safe standing, too.
I was delighted that earlier this month my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) announced that the Labour party backs safe standing. I salute her leadership on the issue.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin- Khan) made that announcement in my constituency, at Queens Park Rangers. I am blessed to be probably the only MP whose borough has three top-flight football clubs: my club Fulham, Chelsea and QPR. We hope to see QPR also in the premiership quite soon, making it three out of three. There are two questions to be asked here. Can standing be made safe? Yes, it can. Is it safe at the moment? No. That is why my hon. Friend is right to change our policy and that is why we want to see the Government follow suit.
I appreciate that intervention and I could not agree more. Now we need the Government to catch up, because they are out of step with public opinion. Two weeks ago the Minister, in response to multiple written questions I had tabled, said:
“An announcement will be made shortly.”
I hope we hear today when that announcement might be.
The crucial thing, from my own experience, is that match-going fans want safe standing to be part of the mix. I have been one of them for 30 years; I will confess to my constituents, although it is not a secret, that I am a Manchester City fan rather than a Nottingham Forest or Notts County fan.
My hon. Friend gives me support from a sedentary position. I am very grateful for it. I have been going for 30 years and I have been a season ticket holder for the last 20. Not long ago, I moved from an area where there was a weekly pitched battle between fans and stewards about standing up, because it stopped being fun. My instinct is not to break rules—funnily enough, I suspect that is the case for everybody here—but I had to stand because people in front of me stood. The stewards, who are often on low wages and just doing their job, have to try to manage an impossible situation. That is no fun for anybody. Anyone who thinks that the current, arbitrary rules on standing are being enforced is kidding themselves. It is a muddle that pleases nobody.
I want to briefly address Hillsborough, because it is exceptionally important and I would hate to think that any of my campaign activities would ever, even inadvertently, cause pain for those families. I rang Spirit of Shankly to talk about the issue. I learned a lot from my conversation with Jay McKenna and I am grateful for it, but what I took from that conversation was his suggestion that we let Merseyside MPs talk about the views and experiences of Merseyside fans. That seemed reasonable to me and that is what I will do. As might be expected, I have talked to Nottingham Forest fans about it; I have spoken at length with both Forza Garibaldi and the Nottingham Forest Supporters Trust. Both are supportive, some because they want to stand and others because they are sick of people standing in front of them.
I will conclude by saying that these calls for safe standing are not only rooted in what fans want, but based on engagement. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting had an incredible event with 40 different clubs represented. The calls are based on research and an understanding of the reality in the stands week in, week out, that the default is not good enough and that we have to change. They make a compelling case for choice, not for a one-size-fits-all approach. We do not need Whitehall to tell us what to do at Meadow Lane or the City Ground. We should let our safety advisory groups do it; we should let our clubs and fans get hold of it and come up with something sensible and safe, because our game would be better for it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), who opened the debate.
In recent years, the call to change the requirements for all-seater stadiums has become louder and louder. People look at the change of culture within football and the environment within the grounds, which has lost much of its more troubling element, and see an opportunity to return to some standing, whether in the form of terracing or a variation of safe standing.
The overwhelming response that the English Football League received on this issue reflects why we need to change the existing arrangements. In just two weeks, the English Football League received 33,000 responses to its survey on the issue, with 94% being in favour of a choice between seating and standing. That shows the level of interest in changing the current situation and also that fans overwhelmingly support having the option to stand. It is not a marginal decision to have that option, but an overwhelming one.
At the end of last season, Bolton Wanderers just about held on to their position in the championship by their fingertips. If someone is going through a tense game, which will determine the future of their club and whether they stay in the championship, they do not want to sit down. They want to be standing up, on their feet, part of the experience and not merely a spectator to it. It is natural for fans to want to stand up and it is reasonable for us to look at the current arrangements, which are not safe for fans when they stand up.
Fans naturally want to be part of things. Just as when we speak and engage in debates in the Chamber, it is better to stand up to engage with people. If someone is at a rock concert and enjoying music, it is much better to stand up and be part of that experience. That is what we must reflect on for football, because it applies just as much, if not more, when someone is viewing a football match. We have examples in Scotland and further afield that demonstrate that a standing option can not only be safe, but give that far better experience for the fans. There will also be less time spent by stewards telling people to resume their seats.
There needs to be a change of mindset that allows a devolution of decision making to enable collaboration between fans, clubs, local authorities and the police, along with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, to ensure the right provision is made at each and every ground. That may be completely different from one ground to another; we have to respect and appreciate the local culture within each football club.
I welcome the debate. We need to listen to the fans. We cannot allow a loss of safety, but we can make the football spectator’s experience far better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I apologise that I may not be able to stay for the end of the debate and the winding-up speeches, because I will need to be in the Chamber.
I am a huge admirer of Brentford football club in my constituency, just around the corner from where I live, although I cannot call myself a football fan and I do not go regularly to football. On the occasions I have been, I have stood on the terraces there and have enjoyed the experience very much, but I recognise that, after the tragedy of Hillsborough, those terraces are no longer appropriate for the 21st century.
When the 2018-19 season kicks off in August, Brentford football club will be the only club in the championship with standing terraces. In June 2018 the club received special dispensation to continue standing terraces for another season, given that they have started construction work on their new 17,250-seater stadium near Kew Bridge in my constituency. The chief executive of Brentford football club, Mark Devlin, recently said:
“It is clear to us from our discussions with supporters that Brentford fans want the option to stand to watch their football. New stadiums, and even older grounds like Griffin Park, are now very safe places to attend matches. Safety is paramount whenever we hold a game, procedures are rigorous and all our staff are highly trained.”
Brentford will support the Stand up for Choice campaign and would like to be given the chance to gather evidence to inform the debate when they move to the new stadium. They want the change of legislation. They have seen the rail seats. I have seen the rail seats, and I now understand the difference between rail seats and the old-fashioned terraces. There are other clubs around Europe that already have standing areas that we can learn from. Brentford fans are used to standing, so the education process for fans would be minimal. Brentford have designed a brand-new, purpose-built stadium, ready to accommodate dual-purpose seating. They are willing to put in the very latest rail seats to become an effective pilot for standing.
Brentford need a quick decision on this, because of the cost of the rail seats and the project planning for the new stadium. The west stand provides a number of different options and they want to get on with it. They are working closely with the Football Supporters Federation and other groups to understand best practice on safe standing from all clubs and how to work together to deliver it.
The operations team at Brentford is well used to managing standing audiences and already working on detailed operations policies and procedures, including for managed, zoned areas to restrict the amount of movement within a stand or specific rail seat allocation to ensure that all concourses and exits are managed safely at all times. On behalf of the Brentford fans, I would like the Government to support safe standing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) for putting the case for safe standing so clearly. This is a day for huge congratulations to all the fans who have made that case and lobbied with such passion, thoughtfulness and commitment for many years to move the debate to the point that we have reached today.
The first Middlesbrough match I ever went to was a thrilling 0-0 draw with Wimbledon on 26 October 1996. I was hooked. That was the year after the Riverside stadium opened. It was one of the first truly modern stadiums to open in the aftermath of the Taylor review and was financed by Steve Gibson, the man who more than any other has come to embody the saving of Middlesbrough football club. Why did the Taylor review happen? We all know the tragic Hillsborough story and the very good reasons why standing was abolished.
However, I returned to the Riverside a few weeks ago to meet a delegation including Middleborough’s chief operating officer, Mark Ellis, Chris Joseph from the Middlesbrough Supporters Forum, Rob Nichols from the Fly Me To The Moon fanzine and Dave Roberts, the commentator. We enjoyed a really good discussion on the pros and cons of safe standing, which are actually quite complex. Whether the club would even choose to go ahead with it, were it an option, is not a done deal, given that, in essence, the cost of a ticket would not be reduced. Only one rail seat can be installed in place of an ordinary seat, so there would probably be no change in the cost of a ticket for a fan.
None the less, this comes down to other things, including safety—it is not safe to stand in an all-seater stadium; the trip hazard of a low plastic seat in front of a fan is very real—atmosphere and the fan experience. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), it is simply not sensible to expect people in a highly passionate environment to sit down politely throughout the experience.
Several Crewe Alexandra supporters are currently in Russia enjoying the World Cup and are tweeting at me all the time about the atmosphere. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as football fans around the world and in Europe enjoy safe standing, UK fans should be given the same choice?
I agree. The case that rail seats work has been well made in Germany over a number of years, so the idea that we would be taking a step into the unknown is simply untrue. We see that this works abroad; indeed, I think most people would say that the atmosphere in German stadiums is better than in ours. The case for safe standing has been made. We will obviously need to consult on this change if we are to make it; it would not be appropriate for us politicians to prejudge all the different aspects of this debate. I hope the Minister will encourage a review of this, because the case deserves sensible consideration.
In that meeting at the Riverside, we watched a really impressive presentation put together by a Bristol City fan. I can certainly obtain it and I urge hon. Members to watch it, because it sets out that case very clearly and emphasises that we are not returning to the bad old days of the ’80s and terraces. This debate is obviously in the shadow of history and it is all too easy to imagine that we are calling for a regressive step, which this is not. It is absolutely about embracing the latest technology.
The hon. Gentleman has actually taken the words about those ’80s terraces right out of my mouth. There is a perception among some that we are going back to crowded terraces with far too many people being admitted. I thank the Huddersfield Town Supporters Association and Stand Up For Town. I was initially very cynical about safe standing, but they taught me about what it involves.
I think that that is right, and I absolutely agree that this is something about which we need to listen and learn. The ground has moved.
A favourite story of my family’s is about my grandfather taking my uncle-to-be to watch Hartlepool United in the late ’70s. He famously remarked, “We are probably going to win today; our star striker is back.” My uncle asked, “From injury?” My grandfather replied, “No, from prison.” The days of that sort of culture in football are long gone, as I think the debate has reflected. We have heard Members from across the parties express passionately that our fans want to see safe standing. I hope the Minister listens and responds with favourable news in due course.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. My constituency is home to some of the most passionate football fans in the world. Manchester City and Manchester United—the premier league’s top two teams last season—have large fan bases in my constituency, and supporters of both clubs have been in touch with me in recent months to voice their concerns about the current legislation on safe standing.
Those fans are not as fortunate as fans of another local team, Rochdale AFC, who have a standing section in their Spotland stadium. The Minister will recall that I recently questioned her about the dual use of that stadium for football and rugby league and the differing attitudes to safe standing dependent on the type of game being played. It is therefore particularly important to me to make the case for safe standing in the debate. It is important to say that there are understandable sensitivities owing to the Hillsborough disaster. We are all aware of the tragedy of Hillsborough and we respect the views of the families. However, we are debating the introduction of safe standing, which has the support of many fans, and much evidence to support it.
It is also important to look at the technological advancements that have developed since the Taylor report. We have seen the introduction of rail seating in several European stadiums, particularly in Germany. Notably, seats in Borussia Dortmund’s stadium can be locked upright, allowing supporters to stand, and each row has a safety barrier to improve crowd control. Dortmund’s fans have a reputation for being among the most boisterous in the world, so if Dortmund can have good crowd control in a safe standing environment, it sends a clear message to the rest of Europe that those advancements are working.
We must also look at our own stadiums and how they are adapting to the modern game. My recent visits to Old Trafford have involved standing in the singing section, and as somebody said to me earlier today, there is a reason why people stand up in church to sing hymns. The seats in that singing section are not used by anybody, and those fans would be far safer in a railed safe standing area than being hemmed in by tip-up seats. Hon. Members who have visited Wembley stadium will have encountered this problem too, and I am told that the same thing happens at Manchester City’s Etihad stadium, although I am not a frequent visitor to that particular ground. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) says that they would not have me.
Football supporters have made it clear that they want this choice, which is provided at rugby matches, music festivals, horse racing and other events. The Government now need to listen to supporters who, along with clubs and safety experts, want reform of the all-seater legislation.
Safe standing has been a somewhat vexed issue for many years; it actually predates the times that hon. Members have talked about. I think back to when I first started getting interested in and following football. Sometimes we do not know why we have done some things, but I decided to become a fan of Coventry City. That was around the time in 1981 when the late, great Jimmy Hill, who was Coventry’s chairman, decided to change the Highfield Road ground in Coventry from being mainly all standing to an all-seater stadium. That was seen as revolutionary at the time. Sometimes we do not like revolution that much in this country, and that decision was quickly found to be very unpopular. The upshot was that the all-seater stadium lasted for approximately two years.
I commend to the Minister a very interesting report released by the University of Leicester’s sociology department in 1984, which actually looked into that experiment and discussed it at some length. While things have moved on greatly since that time, some things in that report are extremely pertinent today. However, we all know the events that took place following that decision and the deeply distressing disaster at Hillsborough in 1989. Although I do not want to go into the detail of that, when we look at the context for this debate, we need to look carefully at the history and why we went to a system of all-seater grounds in the top two leagues in 1994.
I have been watching football for 30 years and I know that, back then, at many grounds that were all-seater, most people sat down, but there is a challenge now. I take my son to watch Coventry City—some people would think that is a good thing; he seems to enjoy it. When I took him to an FA cup game against Arsenal when he was only eight, he spent 90 minutes standing on a seat because we could not see, and he would not have seen a thing if he had not done so. We went to Brighton this year in the FA cup, and he stood for another 90 minutes. Fortunately, he is nearly as tall as me, which is not that tall, and he managed to see.
The point is that there are large sections of our football grounds where people choose to stand in seating areas, and we should consider that in the context of this debate. I ask the Minister to reflect on that choice that people are making and on whether, as many hon. Members have said, there is another way of doing things, given the more modern technology and the advances that we have made in football over the period from 1989, the time of the Hillsborough disaster, to where we are now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I should start by declaring an interest as an officer of the all-party parliamentary group for football supporters, as the Football Supporters Federation has been the driving force behind the campaign to allow standing safely at premiership and championship grounds in England and Wales.
I have canvassed the views of football supporters in my constituency of Cardiff Central—it will not be a surprise that many are supporters of Cardiff City, newly promoted to the premiership—through face-to-face discussions and through social media with the different stakeholder groups, such as the supporters club and trust, but also through discussions with Cardiff City directors and senior management. I am delighted that Cardiff City’s operations manager, Wayne Nash, and supporter liaison officer, Adam Gilliatt, are here listening to the debate.
Much of the debate will rightly concentrate on safe standing through rail seating. For those clubs with grounds that can accommodate rail seating, it is an obvious choice to make, but my club, Cardiff City, has taken and will continue to take a different approach to standing safely. Cardiff openly allows standing in designated areas and has published a sixth update to its 2013 report, “Management of Persistent Standing at the Cardiff City Stadium”—I recommend it to colleagues—saying why it believes that the current law does not preclude it from offering standing areas.
Cardiff City has been on what it describes as an incredible journey since the wake-up call that it received in 2001. From a near-bankrupt club, in an antiquated stadium, with management constraints, cultural apathy and infamous supporters, it has been transformed into an award-winning, supporter-friendly business, and our fans have a vastly improved reputation. The club’s success is demonstrated in season ticket sales and other revenues, awards won and record low arrest figures.
We have two famous stands at the City ground: the Canton and the Ninian. The majority of fans in the Canton stand want to stand to watch a match, and the majority in the Ninian want to sit. Since 2013, the club has enabled both things to take place safely by ensuring that any security and service risks are actively and properly managed. The club takes reasonable and proportionate action through stewarding against the tiny minority of fans in the Ninian stand who continue to stand despite it being a seating area. If someone is standing persistently and will not respond to advice from stewards, their seat number is sent to the control room. The identity of the spectator is verified using CCTV and the club’s season ticket database, and they are sent a text message to warn them of the implications of persistent standing.
I have chosen today to focus on Cardiff’s approach to emphasise one specific aspect of the campaign for safe standing. This must be about choice. All clubs want to deliver the best possible experience for supporters and visitors, and to do that by offering a choice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I, too, declare interests as a member of the Cardiff City Supporters Trust and Cardiff City Supporters Club, as an ambassador for the Cardiff City FC Foundation and as someone who has been a fan for 31 years. I have stood and sat at games home and away during that period and I have seen remarkable change. I will be frank: some of the experiences that I had as a youngster going to watch Cardiff games were quite scary, particularly at some of the away matches. I have seen an absolute transformation, not only in the club at home but at away matches, during those 31 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) spoke of the incredible journey that Cardiff City has been on, and I absolutely second that. It is why the family stand—the Grange stand—was nominated for and won the best customer experience award at the StadiumBusiness summit in Barcelona in 2011. The same year, the club won the family football club of the year award, and it has won the family club award every year since 2011. In 2018, we won the EFL family club gold award. That shows the transformation that we have been through as a club
I commend the club for the steps that it has taken in encouraging standing safely. It has commissioned a series of independent reports and has been working with academics and experts. There is a fantastic team at the club. My hon. Friend mentioned Wayne Nash and Adam Gilliatt, who are here today and who have worked with supporters and the relevant authorities to ensure that we can facilitate a differentiated customer experience for all fans, so that everyone can enjoy the matches.
We have referred to the difference that the club facilitates, particularly between the Canton and Ninian stands. That shows that things can be done—that clubs can have different approaches and meet the different needs of fans. A club can introduce proportionate and differentiated responses to ensure that the experience is safe for all involved. The reality is that safe standing already occurs up and down the country. There are many aspects to that success. Examples include ensuring an even spread of fans throughout the stand by checking tickets and stopping that movement towards the back, as we have seen at Cardiff City, ensuring that gangways are kept clear and that fans are encouraged not to overflow into gangways, and looking at issues in stand design—for example, the differences in rake at different stadiums. Our rake is below 25° in all our stands. That enables, I believe, a safe environment. It is obviously not the case at all clubs. People have to look at those issues. There are also the issues of the wideness of seats and seating row depths and the ticketing policy overall and whether stands are being sold to capacity. Of course, safety goes much wider than whether there are seats or no seats. It is about a whole series of other issues, including access points and safety arrangements with the relevant authorities.
All the things that I have mentioned need to be considered by the Government, but fundamentally I very much support the position taken by the Football Supporters Federation. We have already seen the example of the Scottish premiership. We have seen the response in the EFL-FSF survey, with 94% of fans wanting a pro-choice situation. Fundamentally, just as the technology and the evidence have evolved, so too the Government’s policy needs to evolve. I fully support the campaign.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I have taken particular note of the advice that you gave at the beginning of the debate, about what can and cannot be mentioned.
I represent many members of the Hillsborough Family Support Group executive committee. That group represents the majority of the families bereaved at Hillsborough. It has recently considered this matter privately and still opposes standing at football grounds.
As has been mentioned, all-seater stadiums were one of the main recommendations—a really important one—that came out of the final report of the Taylor inquiry, which was the public inquiry designed to establish the cause of the disaster, in which 96 people were crushed to death on the terraces while standing at the Leppings Lane end of the football ground. No one has been crushed to death at a football ground that is all-seater since then in the UK.
That matters to the Hillsborough families. Safety at football grounds is one of the biggest issues for them and has been for almost 30 years. I would say that they have the most locus of anyone. They have opinions, experiences and views that deserve to be heard and taken into account in this debate. However, they cannot say what they think, and why they think it, publicly at this time, and the House will understand why. I cannot engage in the merits of the debate today and the merits of this case, because I cannot say what I think at this time as a result of the sub judice rules to which you have referred, Mr Robertson—quite properly, I might add. I do not believe it is right for the debate to be concluded and for changes to be made to the current arrangements without those affected by the Hillsborough disaster being fully consulted, their voices being heard and their views being considered.
How can it be right that those who have the most to say about this matter cannot publicly say what they think or why, while those who wish to promote the change have no such constraints on them? I do not criticise those who are campaigning for the changes that they want. I congratulate them for the effort and work they have put in, and both Front Benchers for the work that they have done. I criticise nobody. It would be wrong, however, to make changes to the rule without those who have been most affected over the last 30 years having a full say in what those changes ought to be and being able to say fully why they believe what they believe.
I know that it is frustrating for those who have been campaigning to contemplate any kind of delay, but the Hillsborough families have faced frustrations over the last twenty-nine and a half years. I promised my constituents that I would put these points in the debate. I hope that both Front Benchers, whom I commend for their receptiveness to these difficulties, will understand and act on those concerns in a way that ensures that the bereaved families of the 96 can be at the heart of the consideration of this issue, as I would say they must be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). It is an honour for me to represent the constituency of Liverpool, Walton, which is home to our two great football clubs. This issue is of enormous significance to the people in my constituency and my city. The solidarity shown by both clubs, their fans and the city as a whole following the Hillsborough disaster will forever remind us that the power of the people is greater than the people in power. Twenty-nine years later, however, the issue of standing at football grounds sharply divides opinion across the city.
I welcome the Chair’s guidance to hon. Members to avoid commenting on matters that might be considered to have a bearing on the responsibility for what happened on that terrible day in 1989. I simply want to set out briefly the position of those groups that I have met and which I represent in my home city. I have met with the Hillsborough Family Support Group, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood. I have spoken to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and Liverpool supporters’ groups. It should be noted that the Hillsborough Family Support Group committee asked for this debate to be postponed. I, too, ask for all hon. Members to be vigilant in their contributions. In any event, hon. Members must be mindful that we are having this debate at a time when the families themselves are unable to engage fully and frankly with it.
I will briefly relay the positions of the groups in my constituency that have asked for their views to be heard in this debate. The HFSG position has been set out thoroughly. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign has not taken an official position on standing at football grounds. A spokesman for HJC told me:
“Safety will always be paramount to the HJC, but equally so is respecting the choice of supporters. It has never been our role to dictate on wider football issues.”
The Spirit of Shankly supporters union, after consultation with fans, fully supports the introduction of safe-standing rail seating at football grounds.
Hon. Members will appreciate that my constituency, like others, is at the heart of this debate. For my part, I ask the House to bear in mind the sensitivities surrounding this issue, particularly for the Hillsborough families and survivors, who have fought so valiantly over the last 29 years in pursuit of truth and justice. Although we now know the truth, the fight for justice goes on to this day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I pay tribute in particular to the previous two speakers, my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). They speak from experience and their discussions with people who have been through a huge amount.
I do not want to talk specifically about the principle of safe standing, but an issue related to the design of football grounds that crops up in this general policy area. It is an issue of great importance to supporters at the largest of my local football clubs, Oxford United FC. Oxford United currently plays in League 1 and is hoping soon to move back up into the Championship, where it used to play. There are a number of fans at Oxford United who consistently stand. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have made that point. From my discussions with the club, it is clear that it is difficult to prevent some of those fans from standing. We have heard interesting examples from parts of the country where that process goes better and from others where it is harder.
In many areas of the country, we are asking stewards—who are relatively low-paid people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) said—to carry out a difficult and potentially quite confrontational task, when they have many other activities to conduct at the same time. That is not the case at Oxford United FC, where the stewards are paid the living wage—I am pleased that they are—and where the approach to safety generally is very consistent.
Oxford United wants to put in place a special system of rails in the ground. Known as the Ox-rails method, it involves the erection of rails, independent of the seats, as an additional control measure. That is not on the assumption that everybody will stand—quite the opposite —but it could give additional support to fans who end up standing, thereby hopefully obviating some of the safety problems that have occurred in other places. It also enables banners to be hung on the rails, which is obviously important to a lot of fans.
The Ox-rails approach has been supported by local fans and has largely been supported by the local safety advisory group. The problem is that the club cannot get a guarantee from the Sports Grounds Safety Authority—and, by extension, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—that if it moves up to the Championship, it can retain the Ox-rails. I find that pretty ludicrous, because it is a safety measure. If it is good enough for League 1, surely it will be sufficient when the club move up into the Championship, but it cannot get that guarantee.
It is unclear to me what the logic behind that is. From what I can see, the rules for voluntary and compulsory all-seater orders have identical implications for the Ox-rails approach, which is quite a bit fairer than the approaches adopted in some other places, so it would be helpful if the Minister spoke specifically about the Ox-rails method in her response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I have been contacted by many constituents and by my local football team, the Imps. They all support giving fans a choice on safe standing. Lincoln has one of the highest numbers of respondents in support of this e-petition of any area. A huge proportion of my local community are Imps fans. Weekly games at Lincoln’s Sincil Bank bring our whole community together. The atmosphere is electric.
Lincoln Imps are a club on the up. We were promoted in 2017 to league two and earlier this year, we won the Checkatrade Trophy. We are really proud of that. The managers won the Lincoln civic award, too.
Danny Cowley—an Essex lad, actually—who manages the Imps with his brother Nicky, has said many times how struck he is by the allegiance people have to their club and city, and how proud people are to be Lincoln. The bottom line is that communities identify with their football clubs and football connects communities. That is why we have to get it right with safe standing.
Norwich City football club supports safe standing, as do many of the fans. One concern many fans have, however, is that some clubs may use the increase in supply as a cash cow, to generate more money from sales, rather than increase the supply of tickets for those loyal fans, who are currently priced out of many football games.
Coincidentally, I was just coming to the point that in my view, safe-standing spaces should be capped to keep numbers at a safe level. Safe-standing zones would then be more safe than they currently are.
Anybody who has been to a football match knows that people still stand in narrow seated areas that are dangerously unsuitable for 90 minutes of standing. That obstructs the view of people who want to sit, which is particularly unfair for children, families and elderly fans. The Lincoln people who have contacted me, like a lot of football fans, believe that they should have the option to stand in safe areas of football stadiums and safety experts support their view.
I believe we should listen to our constituents—the fans—and grant them the choice to support their team in a manner that is safe and preserves that special atmosphere, which brings communities together at Sincil Bank and stadiums across the UK. I will be cheeky here and say, “Up the Imps!”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is always nice when parliamentarians can bring their personal experience to debates. I can bring thousands of hours of lived experience as a Manchester City fan, going back to the ’70s and ’80s, standing and sitting on terraces.
The first point is that nobody wants to go back to those bad old days. I have stood on terraces in the past, in the old days, when I was genuinely fearful for my safety. There must be no return to poorly managed, overcrowded and badly designed terraces. The football environment, however, has changed. Crowds have changed. Stadium design has improved and we have learnt the lessons of the past. In my view, the standing ban is a 1990s solution to a problem, the nature of which has changed in recent years. In my view it is time for change.
There are good reasons for change, including choice. The overwhelming evidence is that fans across the country in almost all clubs support safe standing—it is one of the few things that unites United and City fans in Manchester. Other reasons include the betterment of our national game’s atmosphere and the lack of logic in the current regulations.
None of those reasons would be enough in themselves if safety were compromised in any way, but I agree with many hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who made an excellent contribution, that the key point is that at the moment, in almost every ground in the country, people are standing on terraces designed for sitting, which must be less safe than people standing on terraces designed for standing. When I am at the Etihad, the seat in front of me comes to just about halfway up my shin. I do not stand, but if I did and somebody pushed me, I would tumble straight down on to the person in front of me. It is even worse for people in the steeply raked terraces in the third tier at the Etihad and at St James’ Park. The potential for an accident if people are standing in those sorts of sitting areas is a consideration.
The other point to be aware of is the difficulty of maintaining order and peaceful relationships on terraces. Many hon. Members will have experienced the friction that develops when people who want to sit and people who want to stand are next to each other on the terrace. It cannot be properly managed by the stewards and it is very unsatisfactory for older people, disabled supporters, children and anybody who wants to sit but who ends up on a terrace where the majority stand, as we have heard. That is a big problem at the away end.
Given that the current rules clearly do not make grounds safer, the status quo is no longer justified. I add my voice to the overwhelming number of hon. Members we have heard today, and fans across the country, who say that it is time for change and time for safe standing on our terraces.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am proud to represent Burnley, not least because of our fantastic premier league team, the mighty Clarets. Burnley were founding members of the Football League. They finished seventh in the premier league this season, and next season, for the first time in 51 years, they will compete in Europe—a tremendous achievement for a town of fewer than 100,000 people. I put on record my thanks to our manager Sean Dyche, the players, the board and everyone at Burnley football club.
On behalf of all Burnley football fans—I must declare an interest because I am a season ticket holder—I support the introduction of safe standing areas. I have been going on Turf Moor since I was six years old and for many years, I stood on the terraces with my dad and brother. The atmosphere was terrific even though, as a little girl, I was regularly lifted off my feet as the crowd surged forward.
It was clearly right that steps were taken to make stadiums safer after the Hillsborough disaster. Now, however, it is time to revisit the issue. It is a fact that many fans prefer to have the option to stand; some fans would like to stand throughout the match and others would like to stand for parts of the action. In all-seater stadiums, the situation is that some fans stand for long periods, which leaves fans behind with no option but to stand as well, so large numbers of fans are standing with no rail to hold on to. In an animated crowd, there is a real chance that fans will fall forward over the seat into the next row, which could create a domino effect that pushes more people forward. It is incredibly dangerous.
Introducing designated safe-standing areas with rails would be a sensible option for fans who wish to stand. There are many examples of that, as we have already heard. I would like clubs to be given the right to introduce safe-standing areas as part of a package that would include a requirement to ensure that people in seated areas remain seated throughout the game. I would also like clubs to see it as an opportunity for some increased capacity and to offer less expensive match tickets. Football used to be the people’s game, but many people have been priced out. I want to see more families and children enjoying the beautiful game in the certain knowledge that their safety is prioritised.
Order. Because hon. Members have been disciplined, I will relax the time limit on speeches to four minutes, but that change can be reversed.
I only wish Scunthorpe United’s finishing was as good as England’s last night. During my time supporting the mighty Iron, they have played in leagues one and two of the Football League, with occasional visits to the championship. When Scunthorpe moved from the Old Showground to the newly built Glanford Park in 1988, it was the first new Football League stadium to be built for 33 years. Home fans have enjoyed standing there for the last 30 years.
An examination of the league one play-offs this season illustrates the problems with the current legislation. Sadly, Scunthorpe lost to Rotherham, who went on to beat Shrewsbury and will play in the championship next season. Rotherham’s ground is an all-seater, so they have no issue with the current law and regulations, but had Shrewsbury been promoted, they would have been able to use their brand new rail-seating area, which was installed in May, for just three seasons. Assuming they stayed in the championship, under the current arrangements, they would then have had the Football Spectators (Seating) Order 2016 served on them, which would have required their ground to provide seated accommodation only. It would have been necessary to replace rail seating with conventional seating in the fourth season. That so-called three-year rule forced Peterborough United to demolish their standing terrace in 2013, despite the fact that the club and the fans wanted to retain it. Needless to say, as many hon. Members have observed, many fans continue to stand in the seated area.
Had Scunthorpe been promoted to the championship next year, the existing regulations would have meant that over the summer, they would have had to install seating on the terrace that has provided safe standing for thousands of fans for 30 years—clearly nonsensical.
Football fans want a choice between sitting safely and standing safely. The Sports Grounds Safety Authority and safety advisory groups are expected to enforce legislation and regulations that are not viable and have failed. Some fans will always stand. The time is right to review and change the legislation, which was introduced in 1989—an age ago—to try to solve problems that existed then. The right solution is for clubs, along with their local safety advisory group, the police and fans, to be allowed to implement what is safe, risk assessed and reasonable for their ground. There should be no one-size-fits-all approach.
I support an evidence-based review that will fully involve fans groups such as the Iron Trust, and use the knowledge of people such as John Needham, the Iron Trust’s secretary, and others, who see safety at football grounds as paramount but believe it can be better delivered through rail seating or safe standing.
I hope that the law and relevant regulations will be changed in time for the 2019-20 season, by which time Glanford Park will be going through redevelopment. Hopefully, it will be third time lucky for the mighty Iron and they will be back in the championship. I wish safe standing to continue at Glanford Park, as it has for 30 years.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. Now I have four minutes, I can take a bit longer. I have to declare an interest: I was the chairman of Forest Green Rovers. I was then vice chairman until I was re-elected as a Member of Parliament, and standing down from the board was one of the sacrifices that I have had to make. I will make a couple of pertinent points.
I heard what my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) said, and I deeply sympathise with all that has happened as a result of Hillsborough, but the big difference is that directors now have direct responsibility for the crowd’s safety. That was never previously as clear as it is today, and it is a responsibility they take seriously. CCTV, active stewarding and the grading of games, for which clubs rely on the police, make a huge difference; those safety measures allow more flexibility with regards to the crowd’s willingness to stand or sit.
We are a very small club—potentially the smallest club ever to enter the Football League—and this issue matters because we are in the process of trying to get a new ground. One of the problems is the lack of clarity from the Football Association and the Football League about what our future progress should be and what that entails for how we should design our ground.
As someone who has stood for decades, I would always prefer to have safe standing, but we need clarity now. If clubs are looking to move, they need to know what their future requirements will be. It is about time the football authorities realised where the demand is coming from. It is important that we realise that that demand can be satisfied with safe standing, but it has to be designed into the ground. As we all know, it is much more difficult to do so retrospectively, and that is where some problems may arise. For football to flourish, however, we need to allow it.
I say this without a note of irony, but rugby supporters and cricket supporters can drink to their hearts’ content in the ground without anyone thinking that that is in any way alien. Anyone who takes a glass into a football ground is immediately thrown out, so compared with other sports, our standards and requirements in football are much tougher. All we ask for is a degree of flexibility. We have to remember that fans are on CCTV, so the days when they could just get away with it are long gone. They will get a lifetime ban if they misbehave. The clubs are responsible if they fail to organise what happens at their grounds efficiently. That is why things have moved on. It is about time we gave the fans what they want, which is the ability to stand as well as sit, if they so desire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. This year it is 60 years since I first went to Hillsborough to watch Sheffield Wednesday. For more than 30 years, I had a season ticket on the Kop. I stood watching Wednesday play along with friends and family, including my father until he died at the age of 84. Standing at football grounds is a different experience and a different atmosphere, and I enjoyed it most of the time. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) said, there were concerns at the time about standing at all grounds in the country. Frequently, there was at least a degree of discomfort around it, if nothing else. No one is talking, however, about going back to having that sort of standing in that sort of way. Indeed, I was at Hillsborough on the day of the disaster. I thoroughly understand the views and feelings of survivors, families and friends. We have to respect and understand that.
I did not really read the Taylor report, but I spoke to Lord Justice Taylor after his inquiry. He clearly believed that seating was the safest way, but he did not say that standing was inherently unsafe. We also have to remember that he was dealing with a situation where it was compulsory to have fences around grounds. I hope that that is a very different sort of arrangement from one that anyone is suggesting for the future.
I want to pick up on two points. Other Members have referred to the fact that all-seater stadiums are compulsory in some leagues, but not in every league. If standing is safe in some grounds in some leagues, why is it not safe in others? That point has to be addressed, but I want to speak in particular about standing in seated areas. As well as being a home season ticket holder at Hillsborough, I am also an away season ticket holder, so I have been to most football grounds in the country. Last season, I do not think I sat down once in an away ground. A few years ago, stewards and police tried to get people to sit down, but frankly they have given up these days. It is not possible to do it.
We have a situation that is fundamentally discriminatory, because it depends on someone’s size. Women are likely to be smaller than men and therefore have the most problem seeing when stood up in a seated area. As the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) said, children have the same problem. Whatever the dangers of standing in seated areas, it is really dangerous for children to have to stand on tip-up seats, and that happens. I have taken my godson Dan to games for many years. When he was younger, he had to stand on a tip-up seat. At Charlton one day, a steward came over and said, “Get him sat down. It’s unsafe.” I said, “He will sit down when everybody in front of him sits down, because he cannot see otherwise.” That was at the age of eight, nine or 10, and that problem has to be addressed. Not allowing standing is also discriminatory against people with disabilities. If someone is not disabled enough to go in the disabled area—they might have bad arthritis, a problem with their back or a heart condition—but cannot stand up for 45 minutes, they cannot go and follow their team at an away ground. That is the reality at present. It is discriminatory, and we have to address that.
I hope we can have the discussion. The answer could be rail seating. I had emails recently from Grand Stand Seating Systems, which has another way of looking at the problem. In the end, we have to find a way of having safe standing and safe seating at football grounds so that everyone can enjoy the game they love in the way they want.
I will never forget my first proper experience of football. It was Christmas 1989. I remember the anticipation walking through the streets to get to Roker Park. I remember how close I felt to the action once I was inside. I remember the freezing cold wind off the North sea that used to hit me on the terraces. What I genuinely do not remember was feeling unsafe, because I have never felt unsafe in a football ground. I tell that story not because I am nostalgic about the past—I think Members have correctly said that we are not trying to look back to the past in this debate; by the way, there is far too much nostalgia in some of our policy debates in this place—but because it is a reminder of what football is really about. I did not just discover football as an experience that day; I discovered my tribe. Football is about sport, of course, but it is also much more than that. It is about culture, family and identity. That is why it is so special, why it matters and why so many of us are here today when some serious business is going on next door.
It would be wrong to say that such issues as hooliganism and racism, which scarred football in the 1980s, have gone away entirely, but the situation today is fundamentally different. This country is fundamentally different—for the better—from how it was in the 1980s. Most of all, policing is fundamentally different. I am proud to see my predecessor Lord Pendry of Stalybridge in the Gallery, because I know he tried to influence the Taylor report at the time to allow for safe standing. As shadow sports Minister, I think he tried to introduce a policy similar to the one our current shadow sports Minister has introduced.
Football fans like me would like two things: first, to be treated with respect, and secondly, to have the choice that so many Members have talked about today. If I go to a football match, ideally I would stand if I could, because football is a participatory event. At a music gig —this is not as good an example as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who talked about singing in church—people can be seated at the sides or be in front of the stage standing up. Where is the best place to be? It is standing up, being right in the centre of the gig. I want to jump up and down when we get a chance or a corner, because as a Sunderland fan, you have to take what you can get, frankly. I want to sing songs. I do not just want to go and watch a live version of what we see on TV. I want something different from that. I want to be with my people, sharing in that collective experience.
A lot of people have mentioned the World cup, and how much we are enjoying it so far in this country for once—I have probably jinxed it. It sounds ridiculous, but it is a proven fact that while the World cup is on, suicides decline in participating countries. That is not because a country is doing particularly well or badly, but because that shared experience is genuinely good for people. There is a book called “Soccernomics” that looks through some of the data around football. That fact is also true for big collective events, such as when Princess Diana died or when JFK was assassinated. The shared experience makes the game what it is. It is why I can sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is a Newcastle fan. The derby games are so important for that.
In terms of the practicalities, people can stand up and watch horse racing or rugby, or football in Germany and now in Scotland. They can stand up and watch football in the lower divisions. It seems particularly egregious that league one clubs that have been promoted and sustained that success have to remove their standing areas. In reality, as so many Members have said, people stand up at matches anyway. That is particularly so for away matches, which are by far and away the best way for someone to watch their team. We need to look at the law, and we need to change things. We need to consider just how far we have come from the 1980s and celebrate what football means for this country. Most of all, we need to give football fans the respect and choice that they deserve.
I remember going to the football with my dad when I was a child, holding on to his hand as we headed for the terraces, wearing our team’s colours, laughing and joking with other fans, and the whole stadium would be standing cheering the team on throughout the match. The excitement and the atmosphere were electric. Everyone should be able enjoy supporting their team, whether standing or sitting.
Having heard Huddersfield Town Supporters Association’s views about safe standing last summer, the demand and support for the campaign has become more and more apparent. My local team, Huddersfield Town football club, is the first premier league club to survey season ticket holders about standing tickets, and 96% of those who responded were in favour. The Premier League’s research shows that 70% of people surveyed are in favour.
There are times during matches when the whole crowd are already on their feet, but, as stadiums are seating only, no safety precautions such as rail bars are currently in place. We have had tragedies in our stadiums where safety has failed, and we must never forget the victims and their families. Technology, design and safety standards have moved on since then, and our stadiums are hopefully safer for it.
Standing at sporting events happens across the country. Teams such as the Leicester Tigers, who are in the rugby union premiership, still have terraces where fans can enjoy the thrill of cheering on their team without being confined to a seat. Further afield, there is evidence of effective safe standing practice. In Germany, the Bundesliga team Borussia Dortmund has a stadium that has a rail between each row of seats, and there have been very few incidents or accidents since they were introduced. The solution is simple: if there is sufficient evidence that standing can be safe and fans are in support, it should be introduced. I would argue, however, that it should not be enforced across the whole stadium but in designated parts, as some people would prefer or need to be seated and it would not be fair on those fans if they had people standing in front of them.
We need to catch up with practices in Europe and deliver on an energetic but safe environment for spectators. They are integral to their clubs and should have their voices heard. Let us make sure that a generation of children can experience the excitement and enjoyment of standing at a football game, as I had the opportunity to do with my dad.
I call Gerald Jones.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I have a confession to make. When the idea of safe standing—
Order. I am sorry; my voice did not carry. Gerald Jones.
I am terribly sorry. [Laughter.]
I started having an identity crisis there, Mr Robertson. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship as we debate the e-petition on allowing premier and championship football clubs to enable safe standing. I will be brief because I know other Members want to speak. May I say at the outset that I am not a typical premier football supporter? However, I am a season ticket holder at Merthyr Town football club and enjoy spending time watching home games at that club and supporting the many activities that it organises in our community. Whatever the outcome of the current discussions, any decision on safe standing will have no direct impact on supporters at Penydarren Park, Merthyr Tydfil—at least until they graduate to the premiership in the perhaps not too distant future—or at any other clubs in my constituency. Many people from my constituency travel to support premier and championship matches, and my contribution to today’s debate reflects my conversations with them.
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
As we know, there has been much in-depth consultation with football clubs, fans and safety authorities, and the outcome of that consultation suggests it is time for change, as recognised by Labour’s recent policy announcement. I share the view that it is important to give the power to fans and clubs, in consultation with and with guidance from local safety authorities, to allow safe standing areas to be designated in stadiums. As with most grounds, it is the clubs, local fans and local authorities who know their stadium far better than anybody else. It is therefore sensible that the decision should rest with them and that they are empowered to take such decisions.
I am sure we all agree that safety has to be paramount. We have to recognise that the current system, as we have heard numerous times this afternoon, is not working. People routinely stand in seated areas and that creates dangers in itself. I have seen evidence of that. In seating areas that are not designed for standing, seats are often damaged, potentially making them more unsafe.
I feel, Ms McDonagh—we have had another change of identity this afternoon—that the proposal for the installation of specialised rail seating where appropriate, or standing in current seated areas where it can be made safe to do so, is a sensible approach. Surveys from the Football Supporters’ Federation demonstrate that fans want that choice, with 94% in support.
Fans have told me that they want that choice, not least because they see specifically designed safe standing areas as also offering the potential to offer better sightlines than is currently the case when smaller fans like me stand up in seated areas.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She outlines a point already raised today and I totally agree with her.
We have heard about the Government’s planned review of the issue. However, the Government’s actions do not suggest that they are addressing the issue with any urgency. We need to make progress, and I urge the Minister to hear the calls from football fans and supporters’ organisations across the country and to respond positively and in good time.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), I have stood in the Roker end and felt very unsafe indeed. [Laughter.] As a founder member and chair of the all-party group for football supporters, I felt it was vital for me to be here today to represent the interests of football supporters.
I attended my first game at St James’s Park in Newcastle in the 1966-67 season, so not quite as long ago as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). I have visited 70-plus football league and premier league grounds and dozens upon dozens of non-league grounds, many of which I have heard mentioned today. For me the issue is not an abstract concept. It is something that I and many fans experience week in, week out through the football season. Standing in football grounds in all-seater stadiums happens now. The problem currently exists. We are not advocating a return to the large open terraces of the past.
Hillsborough was a tragedy, but it is not the only tragedy to befall football fans in this country. Ibrox in Glasgow has had two significant disasters in the past century. Bolton Wanderers had a significant disaster at Burnden Park. Bradford had a dreadful fire that took many lives. There have been other smaller incidents where walls have fallen down or crush barriers have gone.
When I was a young person going to football matches, I remember people being crushed on crush barriers on open terraces on a regular basis, and the accident and emergency wards of our local hospitals were testament to that. However, 27 years have passed since the Taylor report. Grounds, fans and football have changed, but there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Having seen the improvement, I was a fan and MP who remained to be convinced about safe standing at football grounds, but now—regularly attending football games at St James’s Park where I am a season ticket holder, and travelling round the country going to away games—I am part of the experience where fans stand week in, week out in the away ends and in many parts of home grounds as well. Safe standing is much safer than standing in designated seating areas. There is no doubt about that whatever. In designated seating areas where fans are standing in numbers, the seats in front of them are undoubtedly a trip hazard. I myself have tripped over seats, and seen many others doing so as well.
It is unlikely that safe standing will reduce ticket prices. In the Bundesliga, Dortmund, for instance, has one and half people standing for every seated place, but at Celtic—the experiment in Scotland—it is one for one. There will not be any real return from the football clubs’ perspective, but there is demand. No one wants it to become compulsory; it will be in selected parts of football grounds. However, there is no doubt that standing in sitting areas is less safe than safe standing. We need to think about it, and do something about it as soon as we can.
Order. Owing to the previous Chair’s great chairing and the great behaviour of all Members, I am unprecedentedly extending the length of speaking time. Members may now speak for five minutes, and if anybody wants to take interventions that will be okay as well. I call Clive Efford.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I think this is the first time I have spoken in a debate with you in the Chair, so it is a pleasure to see you in your place.
In this debate, we must listen to fans, because the fans we are talking about are those who commit themselves passionately to their club. They give up their time, go to the matches and create the atmosphere in the grounds that make football in the British Isles a brand that is popular across the globe. People are prepared to pay money to watch the English Football League, English football matches and British football clubs, because of the atmosphere created in the grounds by those fans. Imagine if those games were played in empty stadiums and then broadcast around the world. They would not be as attractive as they are, so the fans are incredibly important to the future of football, and we need to listen to them.
We are speaking particularly today about those fans who go to away games—the ones who make that extra commitment—because they are the ones who predominantly stand. I am a Millwall season ticket holder. I do not have to stand when we are at home games, but people in large sections of the ground do. When I go to an away game, I have to stand. If anyone wants to go to an away game who cannot, or does not want to, stand, they are discriminated against, because they have no choice. If they want to go to the game, they have to stand, so what about those fans?
We need to create these designated areas. I pay tribute to the Football Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct for their persistent campaigning to get recognition for the voice of fans. It is not about recreating areas where clubs can cram people into a standing area; this is about creating rail seating where someone will stand in the place of a seat. We can therefore designate areas where people who choose to stand can do so safely, and those who want to sit can do so without the interference of those who want to stand.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether the current situation, where people stand in areas that are designed for seating, is safe. The answer to that is clearly no, so the next question to the Minister has to be: “What are we going to do about it?” The Government cannot continue to put the telescope to a blind eye and say, “I see no fans standing.” They are, and they are standing in areas that are dangerous and not designed for it. We should deal with that.
When fans have been asked whether they want to stand, they have said in large numbers that they do. More than 3,000 Middlesbrough fans were consulted, and 99% of them said they wanted to stand. More than 7,000 Arsenal supporters were consulted, and 96% of them said they wanted to stand. Spirit of Shankly consulted 20,000 of its fans, and the overwhelming majority wanted to stand. Consistently, throughout the football league, fans are telling us that they want to stand in safe areas.
The Minister could allow a relaxing of the regulations to allow rail seating to be introduced in grounds. For games where the regulations demand that fans have a seat, seats could can be put down and it would become a seated stadium. For those games where an area is designated for standing, those seats could be locked back by the grounds staff and the area could be used for standing. When we have consulted with the local authority, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, the police, the fans and the local club, I do not see why we cannot designate safe areas where fans can stand. I do not see why we cannot relax the regulations to deal with a situation that is currently unsafe.
In answer to some questions last week, the Minister very helpfully said that she was looking to hold a fundamental review of safety in football stadiums, but over the weekend we heard rumours of No. 10 pushing back against that. Can she assure us that that did not happen over the weekend, and that we will get a full, fundamental review of safe standing in football stadiums?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on initiating the debate. In the late 1990s, I initiated a similar debate and introduced a private Member’s Bill, which the Government of the day, in their wisdom, talked out. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has better luck with his current campaign.
Every week, hundreds of thousands of people attend football matches in leagues 1 and 2, and non-league games. They attend rugby matches, rugby league matches and horse racing, and they can stand up at all those events. Indeed, if one wishes to include fishing as a sport, one could say that for fishing—the most popular participatory sport in the country—one can choose to stand or sit. However, at championship and premiership matches, one cannot choose to stand. Furthermore, literally hundreds of thousands of people attend pop concerts such as Glastonbury, many of which are held in football grounds where the fans cannot stand up to watch a game. Yet they can stand up to watch a concert. They can jump up and down, and that is perfectly legal.
The Minister is on record as saying:
“While I appreciate there is a vocal minority who want a return to standing, I don’t think they speak for the majority and I remain to be convinced of the case. The clubs aren’t convinced either. I know there have been surveys done and there is no desire among the top clubs to change this policy.”
That is just not true. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) and other speakers pointed out, club after club have asked for the right to have a safe standing area.
Reference was made earlier to the fact that West Bromwich applied to the Minister when they were still in the premiership to be allowed to have a safe area for 3,800 people. She turned it down. The great club of Aston Villa, on the edge of my constituency, wrote to me saying, “Here at Aston Villa, we believe that existing legislation should be changed to afford all EFL clubs the opportunity to offer their supporters the choice to sit or stand at matches in safe, licensed stadiums.” One after another, clubs in the championship and premiership have said that they would like to have that option.
Ever since I initiated, many years ago, the debate that I referred to, I have never had a satisfactory answer from any Minister to this question. How can it be safe for hundreds of thousands of pop fans to jump up and down at pop concerts, but not safe for a few thousand football fans to stand up behind rail seats? It happens in the Bundesliga and other European leagues, and it is perfectly safe. Nobody has ever given me a convincing argument about why it is safe for hundreds of thousands of people to jump up and down and not safe for a few thousand people to stand up.
The Scottish Parliament rightly recognises that ridiculous contradiction and has allowed clubs in the Scottish Premiership to trial safe standing. Celtic, which 50,000 supporters watch every week, has introduced safe standing in a small segment of the ground, and it has proved very popular. It is about time that we in England caught up with Scotland. It is about time that football fans in England were allowed to stand up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) for her work on raising this issue.
When I was a child, it was evident to everybody who came to my house that I had an incredibly obsessive football-supporting father. They spotted it from the moment they stepped into the lounge and saw the football shrine made up of memorabilia collected over years, which outgrew the area it was originally assigned to. The evidence of my father’s support for his team even pushed away the family photographs. If people failed to miss that, they would notice the football programmes in frames throughout the house and up the stairs, which my dad would happily point out to anyone who showed a bit of interest in them. I witnessed the weekly rituals he went through. Every time his team played a match, we had to make mum sit upstairs in the bedroom, because if she set foot in the lounge, the opposition would score against the team we were all cheering along. I learned from a very young age how important football is. I believe that the vast majority of football fans are entirely decent, law-abiding people—although some, like my dad, are utterly obsessed.
I am very proud to have Hull City in my constituency. In 2012, it announced that it supports safe standing in principle. In June, representatives of the club came to Parliament to lobby MPs about this issue, although I was sadly unable to attend that event. Geoff Bielby, the chairman of the Hull City Supporters’ Trust, and Barbara Wilkinson, the secretary of Senior Tigers—a supporters’ group for over 55s—expressed a preference for safe standing. They suggesting designating a small area of the KCOM stadium for safe standing—they suggested it could accommodate 7,500 people.
A survey has shown that 47% of fans would be more likely to attend a football match if there was safe standing. I cannot speak for everyone else’s team, but Hull City certainly want to encourage as many people as possible to come down and cheer it on. If this is one way to do it, I say, “Let’s go for it.” If more fans come to matches, that will hopefully bring in a lot of extra income.
As many hon. Members have said, people stand anyway. A Hull City supporter who is unable to stand as he finds it difficult told me that he wants safe standing. I asked him why, and he said that he wants to be in a seated area where the stewards can enforce sitting and can make sure people in that area sit down. He said that, at the moment, people stand all over the place, but giving people the choice and saying, “If you want to stand, go here. If you want to sit, respect the fact that everybody in this area wants to sit,” would be a practical solution to the problem.
It is time that we allow local clubs to make these decisions, based on local information. I am not saying that we should create a rule that affects every club in every city, but for clubs such as Hull City, surely it should be up to the local authority, the police and the football club to work together and think about what really works for our football fans and our city. I do not believe that one size fits all. Allowing a local decision-making body to decide on the amount of safe standing means that it can adapt quickly to changing circumstances. We would not need to have a big debate if, a bit further down the line, we want to reduce or increase the amount of safe standing. That would be the best solution and the best decision for obsessive fans such as my dad and clubs such as Hull City.
I call Hilary Benn.
I have got it this time. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh.
I confess that, when I was first approached by constituents who said, “We would like safe standing,” my gut reaction was to say, “I really don’t think so.” I remember replying to, I think, the first person who ever wrote to me on the subject, that, “Nothing we do should in any way jeopardise safety, because we all remember the horror of Hillsborough.” I am here today because I changed my mind.
I pay tribute to the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust for its work—Jon Darch is its lead campaigner on safe standing. It polled its members—to add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) just said, 97% were in favour—and recently organised a safe standing roadshow at Elland Road. Angus Kinnear, the managing director of Leeds United, wrote to me, as the local Member of Parliament—it is a great honour to represent Leeds United and Elland Road—and said, “The club wants to see a change in the law.”
My initial reaction was as it was for the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) set out. It should be obvious to the Minister, who is passionate about football, that two truths have been expressed in this debate: the current situation is not working and it is not safe. It is not working, because fans are standing. We have heard evidence about that. Everyone can see it with their own eyes when they go to matches or watch them on the telly, and hon. Members have talked about that today. It is not safe for reasons that my hon. Friends the Members for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon), for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Burnley (Julie Cooper) set out very clearly. I am quite tall, and it is a terrible risk for me to stand with a seat in front of me, because if I am knocked, I will tumble forward. I do not see how we can accept the reality that some fans want to stand, but allow the safety risk to be incurred.
I had never heard of rail seating—I did not know what it was—but as part of my education I saw the pictures and read the evidence, which has been referred to today, from places where rail seating has been used. It is not a return to the standing of the past; it is a completely different method. It is safe and gives fans the choice.
I simply say this to the Minister: this is an idea whose time has come. I hope very much that, after listening to the debate, she will respond in a similar way to my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan), who has announced our party’s support for safe standing. If she wants to have a trial in the premiership or the championship as a way of demonstrating its safety in that context, fine. I, for one, look forward to the day when Leeds United fans who want to stand are able to do so, and when those who want to sit are able to do so and see, because they are not sitting behind people who are standing.
This point will appeal particularly to the Minister—I am revealing my true passion, as well as my representative pleasure and privilege. I look forward to the day when safe standing is also permitted at the new White Hart Lane.
I genuinely appreciate your including me in today’s debate, Ms McDonagh. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) for bringing this timely debate to the House.
This is another good example of where we as legislators are not slightly but significantly behind public opinion. It is clear from the evidence that many football fans are pressing for a change to the situation in our stadiums. Something like 69% of football fans—96% of Arsenal fans according to one colleague—would prefer to have a safe standing area. Right across the country there is a real movement for safe standing, which we need to respond to.
I have been to many grounds, although not as many as some hon. Members in this debate. I have been to a great number of non-league clubs, such as Barnet, Brentford, Leamington football club obviously, and even Nuneaton Borough on three occasions. There is a terrific atmosphere on the terraces, as is to be expected at those sorts of grounds. I have been to the San Siro stadium, home of AC Milan, and to some of the other larger stadiums in Europe, but the most unsafe and threatened that I have ever felt was on steeply tiered seating areas such as at the Parc des Princes , watching Paris Saint-Germain. It can be so dangerous if there is a movement from behind in some of these seated areas. Some sort of tragedy could happen so easily. We need to be cognisant of changes in fan behaviour.
The all-seater stadium is a hangover from another era. Some of us remember those dark days in the 1980s. We are here, 27 years on. It is a significant length of time, and it is worth reflecting on how much the game has changed, particularly since 1990: the approach, the professionalism and the ownership of the game but also how fans engage with it.
Other hon. Members commented about the use of stadiums for all manner of different sports events and for rock concerts. I have been to the Ricoh arena recently to watch Coventry City and also to see the Rolling Stones. I felt no threat and no sense of risk in the crowd in the centre of the stadium. Let us look to Germany and abroad at what happens there. In the Bundesliga, 10 of 18 stadiums have safe standing areas. Borussia Dortmund and other clubs are so far ahead in club ownership, in terms of not just safe standing areas but the introduction of railed seats. There is so much we need to do to change our game in this country. As I said, 27 years is a very long time. It is long overdue that we change our approach to fans’ enjoyment of our beloved game. I very much support the petition.
There are many things I would like to say and many things I would like to challenge. Ten MPs made a point that I would like to challenge, but I am not able to do so because of the ongoing court proceedings. I point that out as a fact but also because there are people with far greater expertise, such as one of my constituents, who has a dramatic amount of expertise in this area and could contribute greatly, who cannot speak because that would compromise court proceedings. The timescale is important, because some issues need to be discussed. I refer specifically to the comments made by 10 MPs today that it would be highly inappropriate for me to respond to.
As it happens, I am a football fan who for 25 years has sat only twice. Because one of those occasions led to a very unlucky defeat, I refuse to do so other than when one could only get a ticket a Wembley. There is not a corner, wall or even roof of Elland Road where I have not stood. The concept of standing is very pleasant and the concept of seating is not.
Spiritually, I am totally in support of what the Football Supporters Federation wants to achieve and the practical way it is going about it, but there are some issues that the Minister ought to consider. First is the safety or otherwise of current football stadiums, which has been raised in a different context. Many MPs have suggested that they are much safer than they were, but I challenge that notion. The ability to get out of a football stadium in a disaster has not been tested in real time in any stadium in this country. Seating is probably worse than railed standing would be. The Leeds University model that is used to test the design of stadiums is flawed. I would like to illustrate my point by giving precise examples that are unsafe, but it would be problematic to do so. When I have challenged football safety officers and owners on this, I have been given confirmation that there is no system. Therefore, there needs to be a review of all aspects of safety, including the remaining banks of seating and the inability to get out of stadiums quickly in an emergency.
Secondly, 11 MPs mentioned Germany. I have been to most of the Bundesliga grounds with the chief safety officer, the chief family liaison officer and with the ultra leader. I went to quite a number of major Italian grounds last season with the safety officers. Safe standing is quite possible, but other issues emerge. The Minister should talk to the safety officers in Italy; there, the big safety issue is the firing of pyrotechnics as missiles from one end of the stadium to the other. That is a major issue in Italy. The supporter who fell to his death in a stadium this year and the racism at Lazio compound the safety issue.
Let us be clear: in the Bundesliga, there is a whole series of safety problems—some in the seating but some in the safe-standing areas, too, which the safety officers have to deal with all the time. Fans have to have a season ticket. The amount of alcohol provided is significantly less in standing areas than in seating areas. The body checks at the entrance are significantly greater because of the risk of pyrotechnics. Culture changes over time. I am not against standing at all—quite the opposite—but I hope the Minister will visit Italy, Germany and perhaps Ajax in Amsterdam and look at what the safety officers say of the problems that they face, so we get it all right, not partially right.
Do any other Back-Bench Members wish to speak?
I’ll have another go.
No, Mr Efford, I think you will find you have spoken already. I call Sandy Martin.
Thank you, Ms McDonagh. I will not speak for long because I was not here at the start and I cannot be here at the end. I just want pay tribute to the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) for introducing the petition, and for being an Ipswich Town fan.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh, for the first time, I think. I am pleased to take part in today’s debate. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on setting out the case and the current situation so well. I add my thanks and congratulations to Owen Riches who launched the petition and all who worked so hard to get this issue brought to the House.
Throughout the debate a number of Members have been dreaming—I use that word advisedly—of the day that their local club will reach the heights of the premier league. Some Members took the opportunity to indulge in a bit of local football banter. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) claimed that he would not retaliate against taunts from the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) before describing Portsmouth as playing closer to the Sunday league than the premier league. As always, politicians are lying.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) made the vital point, since made by others, that standing is happening anyway and we should get on with making it safer. I agree with him and others that in doing so we must remain sensitive to the Hillsborough disaster and the families of those affected by that awful day.
Like the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), I declare an interest as an officer of the all-party parliamentary group for football supporters. Despite that, the sport I played week in, week out for 17 years was rugby. My first love was football, and for my sins I am a loyal St Johnstone fan. The Saints are going through what is probably the club’s most consistent and best footballing spell in their history, having qualified for Europe numerous times in recent years and—touch wood—been a regular fixture in Scotland’s top flight for the last 10 years.
When that top flight was formed in 1998, it followed the Taylor review in England in stipulating that all grounds must be all-seater, with a minimum of 10,000 seats—although that has been reduced to 6,000. That measure cost many Scottish clubs dearly: many are still in debt as a result and some have gone into liquidation. Coincidently, St Johnstone were the first club in the UK to open a purpose-built all-seater stadium, just weeks after the Hillsborough disaster. Indeed, Lord Justice Taylor visited the stadium during his inquiry into that disaster.
The debate has been brought about by the growing appetite across these islands for safe-standing sections to be introduced at grounds throughout the country. More than 110,000 people signed the petition, high- lighting that growing demand. The Football Supporters Federation, referenced heavily throughout the debate, has done an excellent job in championing safe- standing areas in grounds. That grassroots campaign has even managed to unite Manchester United and Manchester City supporters—no mean feat, though not quite Rangers and Celtic, or St Mirren and Morton in my area.
Standing at football has always been part of the game. Even after the Football Spectators Act 1989, supporters have chosen still to stand. Indeed, my first recollection of football was, I think, 1986, for the Stanley Rous cup, standing on the terraced slopes of Hampden against the auld enemy, England. My selective amnesia forbids my telling the House the result of the game. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is correct.
Ninety-four per cent. of respondents to the survey that has been mentioned believed that fans should be able to choose whether to stand or sit at football matches. That does not surprise me in the slightest. However, not one single football supporter would place the safety of other fans at risk. This debate is so important because it is fan-led. Fans can provide a range of examples of where safe standing has been produced in other countries across Europe, including Scotland. I would be grateful for the Minister’s expanding on any recent conversations she has had with the footballing authorities in Scotland, Germany or anywhere else in Europe on that point. In addition, what assessment have the UK Government, FA or premier league carried out on any individual stadiums across Europe that allow safe standing as a means by which to judge whether the policy in England and Wales can be relaxed in some way?
I mentioned that the Scottish Professional Football League’s seating requirements were relaxed. At the time that announcement was made, the chief executive of the then Scottish premier league, Neil Doncaster, said the decision was driven by “supporter demand” and that
“Whenever we talk to supporters about what they’d like to see, safe standing comes up as one of the things they’d like to see”.
Scottish football is doing a lot of work to improve the fan experience for those attending a game at the weekend. I should note that that is not being done at the expense of fan safety. In making that decision, the SPFL not only listened to its member clubs and to supporter groups, but gathered information that allowed it to make an evidence-based decision. It assessed the systems in place in Germany, specifically looking at Borussia Dortmund’s ground, where Mr Doncaster found that they have a fantastic set-up that improves the fan experience and creates a great atmosphere.
In response to fans’ demands, Celtic made history in 2016 by being the first club in the UK to install a safe standing system in their stadium, as was referenced, with 3,000 rail seats put in place at Parkhead. That installation was warmly welcomed by Celtic fans and endorsed by Jon Darch of the Football Supporters Federation. Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers also said that the installation of safe standing at Celtic Park has helped to create an even better atmosphere in the ground.
With its design based on barrier technology and its robust seat and high back, the rail seat forms a strong and continuous handrail to facilitate safe standing. The seats are compact and have been approved for use by both UEFA and FIFA for champions league and World Cup matches. Indeed, St Mirren, Paisley’s newly promoted top-flight club, have visited Celtic Park and are looking very seriously at introducing a safe standing section at St Mirren Park.
It is vital that we ensure the safety of all supporters who trek through the turnstiles each and every week. The memory and legacy of Hillsborough demand that. However, now is surely the time to review safe standing in football stadiums. I hope the Minister hears the demands of supporters and announces a review that assesses the examples in Scotland and across Europe of safe standing at football stadiums.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for their fantastic contributions to this important debate.
I start by paying respect to the 96 fans who went to a football match but never came home after the tragic events at Hillsborough. I pay tribute to those hon. Members who have not only spoken today, but campaigned for justice for many years, even decades. Their continued courage and determination will bring about justice for the 96. I extend my thanks to Mr Speaker and to the Petitions Committee for issuing guidance around the ongoing court case, and I am grateful to the Chair for keeping a close eye on proceedings today.
I also thank Owen, who is here today. For those who do not know, Owen is 17 and he started the safe standing petition online just a few months ago. He is already making footballing history. I am sure my colleagues will join me in thanking him for his contribution to today’s discussion. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
As many colleagues from all parts of the House have said, when discussing safe standing it is vital to understand and acknowledge that it is not a step back for football or a return to the terraces of the ’80s. It is the opposite. It is about moving football spectating forward and into a new era—into the future—so that it becomes safer, more inclusive and gives fans this choice.
The data and extent of the surveys provided by the English Football League and fan groups clearly show that fans want a safe standing option. More than 50 representatives from supporter groups joined me at my parliamentary roundtable, where I heard about a fantastic example of safe standing being used in Orlando. It is an inclusive area that puts wheelchair users at the heart of the action—not seeing them as an afterthought. They are in among the crowd and can experience football along with every other fan. It is a fantastic example of how safe standing can make football more inclusive for all.
However, at the heart of the debate is safety. It always has been and always will be, and it is not something that I will ever compromise on. The safety of fans at football matches is the first and foremost factor that we looked at when discussing safe standing. As many colleagues have already pointed out with interesting examples, the current system is not working. It is not safe. Week in, week out, fans like myself stand in seated areas, which is not safe. Owen himself started the petition because he was injured at a football match by people behind falling on top of him. Stewards are powerless. Clubs do not want to get involved and the police will intervene only if an argument escalates. Anyone who has travelled away with their club will have had the experience of steep upper tiers, where the seat in front barely comes above their socks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) said, it is simply not safe.
I cannot and will not stand by while fans are being injured, especially when we have alternative ways to improve things and minimise risk. That is why I am proud to support the installation of specialised rail seating, where appropriate, or standing in current seated areas where it can be made safe. That could be by the addition of bars or by other means. It is a matter of converting a small section of a stadium to be designated for safe standing—capped at 7,500 safe standing spaces. That is in line with what the EFL has proposed. We want to give fans, clubs and the safety authorities the power to allow a small area inside a stadium to be designated for safe standing. Clubs, fans and safety authorities know their stadiums better than anyone in Whitehall. The decision should rest with them. A different set of rules applies to football fans, and it is not right. At the time of my parliamentary roundtable, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority told me that the last time it met a Minister was more than three months ago. Every supporters group that I speak to tells me that every Minister has refused to meet them in the past few months. It is time that the Government stopped taking fans for granted, and started listening to them.
People who go to a football game at the Emirates or Etihad stadiums on a Saturday will be asked to sit down. At the same stadiums a few days later people can, without the threat of being evicted, stand at a pop concert and jump up and down. They can go to the rugby, stand and enjoy supporting their team without the threat of being evicted. Three weeks ago I was pleased when the Sports Minister announced a review of safe standing; but we have heard nothing since—no details and no timetable. Nothing. I am told there is a rumour—I hope it is wrong—that the Minister will announce the postponement of the review. We must all remind ourselves that while the debate is about how we enjoy football it is also about how we make the current system—which is not safe—safer for all, including the elderly who want to enjoy the national game, families who want to attend with children, and everyone who wants to enjoy football.
Today’s debate is about safe standing in 2018, not the terraces of the 1980s. It has been about how fans can stand safely at a football match and prevent serious injury. There are 112,000 people who have filled in a petition online, and almost 6,000 people responded to my fan survey. More than 30,000 fans gave their views to the English Football League. More than 4 million Twitter uses have seen a tweet relating to safe standing in the past month. The premier league has spoken about safe standing. So have the EFL and the Football Association; and, finally, so have we today in the Chamber. If the Minister is thinking about postponing the Government’s review of safe standing, I strongly urge her to reconsider.
Football can, as has already been shown, have a sensible debate about safe standing that focuses on safe standing in the future. The Minister, for whom I have great respect, has an open goal. She can listen to the vocal majority or choose to ignore us.
It is as always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh.
I have been a football fan for as long as I can remember. I played football, I collected the sticker books —I still do—and as soon as I was old enough, I started to go to football matches. I used to walk across the rec to Reachfields to watch Hythe Town. If I had earned extra pocket money, I used to jump on the bus to watch Folkestone play. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) will be pleased to hear that, when I was at university, I watched Hull a few times a season. Finally, when I started to earn money, I began to watch Spurs, the team I began idolising at the age of eight.
Why do I say that? It is not because of the nostalgia that many have said we should employ in our discussions. I say it to explain that football runs through my veins. It is only because I care so much about the game that I felt so disappointed with my own loose language on safe standing, which rightly led to outrage, but which sadly turned into abuse and threats of violence, both physical and sexual. I did not expect that from those with whom I have stood shoulder to shoulder throughout the years.
Let me say from the outset that I did not mean to suggest that only a vocal minority support safe standing—surveys show otherwise, but they also show that only a small percentage would want to stand throughout the match. I confused the two and we are here today as a result, but the debate gives us the opportunity to talk about the future of all-seater stadiums. In my speech, I will try to reflect some of the comments made by 33 colleagues during the debate, set out Government thinking and explain some of the challenges we face.
I want to reflect on what the Minister has just said. I implore everybody to ensure that all sides can be heard in the debate. That is what is important. We need conduct that enables the broadest possible debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I still feel quite scarred by the response I received on social media to my initial comments. They were loose and wrong, but were not a reflection of my views on football. It was certainly unfair of people to say that I did not understand the game with which I have been personally involved since I was knee high to a grasshopper. That shows a lack of understanding that Ministers and Members of Parliament have views and sometimes make mistakes.
It is useful to start by summarising very briefly the framework in which we operate. As colleagues have heard, Lord Justice Taylor’s report following the terrible Hillsborough disaster ushered in the all-seater policy for the top two divisions of English football, as well as Wembley stadium and the Principality stadium in Cardiff. The wider safety regime, which includes the all-seater policy, also took into account other tragic events, such as that at Bradford. No Government of any political persuasion should ever be complacent about safety or other measures that have enabled us to achieve such consistently high levels of safety since the all-seater regulations were introduced. That must be paramount in our considerations.
One thing that has changed since Hillsborough is that the Government and the establishment have taken safety at football grounds much more seriously. Ibrox had two disasters in the space of less than 50 years, and Bolton Wanderers had a significant one. Crushing injuries occurred week in, week out at football grounds. The evidence of earlier years shows that football’s fans and their safety were not taken seriously by people in the halls of power.
I was about to say that the all-seater policy has served football and football fans well over many years—the hon. Gentleman makes that point. It is not just a domestic measure: FIFA and UEFA both mandate that host stadiums for their main competitions must be all-seater. Let us not forget that all-seater stadiums provided the impetus for clubs to transform their grounds after years of neglect, which meant the widespread improvement of facilities for fans, which has brought about a welcome increase in the diversity of those choosing to attend.
I recognise the increasing support for the Government to change the all-seater policy in the top two tiers of English football, and the interesting innovations in spectator accommodation in recent years. They include various forms of seats incorporating barriers, or seats with independent barriers, which provide both a safety rail and a seat. They have been installed at grounds in Germany and at Celtic Park. More recently, they have been installed at Shrewsbury Town in League One. Those developments led the then premier league club West Bromwich Albion to make the request to the Sports Ground Safety Authority to run a rail seating pilot. The request to install rail seating made it clear that the intention was to create a permanent area within the ground where supporters would be freely permitted to stand. That would have been in breach of the licence conditions imposed on all clubs in the top two divisions under the powers set out in the Football Spectators Act 1989, the current legislative framework.
Ministers make decisions based on the evidence put in front of them within the legal framework permitted. Contrary to media reports, I did not receive a recommendation from the SGSA to approve the application. The club’s request would have required an immediate change in the law as it stands. As the application was for permission to start this coming season, colleagues will appreciate that the processes required would have taken more than the few months that Albion wanted them completed in. However, more significantly, the current legislative framework means that I cannot allow for any pilots. There is no wriggle room. It is either the status quo or changing the legislation.
So, what next? What are we going to do? The one thing we need to do is to collect and analyse the evidence that exists and ensure that all views on this issue can be heard and considered before we make any decision on changes to the all-seater policy—a point that many hon. Members have made today. We need proper evidence and solutions about how risks associated with standing would be addressed and what systems might be needed to achieve this. The first step is to gather that data and to conduct further research if necessary.
Today I can announce that we will commission an external analysis of evidence relating to the all-seater policy. My Department will be going out to tender for this piece of work shortly, and my aim is that the initial analysis work will be completed by the end of the year. As well as looking at what evidence already exists and assessing its reliability, that work will look to identify any important gaps in data, including injury data, and recommend the best ways of filling them.
The premier league has already shared some of its injury data with me, collated in the SGSA format from its clubs. What is clear is that not enough information is collected to determine the circumstances, severity or outcome of injuries. For example, data collected so far shows that, of the 1,550 injuries reported over the season at 19 premier league clubs, none related to persistent standing and 242 may have been caused by some standing—the equivalent of two injuries per 100,000 match attendances. Hon. Members have today made it clear that people are standing in unsafe ways, yet the current injuries log suggests otherwise. Some colleagues have outlined their own experiences of being injured at football matches, yet the injuries log says otherwise. Given that that fan experience is very different from the data, it is clear that the data needs further probing, and that is what I am announcing today.
The precise scope of that work will be defined in conjunction with the SGSA and other expert stakeholders. I am grateful to the Premier League and English Football League, with whom we have discussed this approach, and with whom we will work to improve the evidence base from the start of next season.
I associate myself with the comments made earlier. The Minister is a passionate supporter of Tottenham and dedicated to football, and I know that she is passionate about it. I am sure that we all oppose those who have attacked her on social media. Does she agree that football clubs need to report where injuries are taking place within their grounds? If they are in locations where people are predominantly standing where they should be seated, that may give us a better idea of how those injuries are coming about. I suspect they are not be being recorded properly.
That perfectly outlines the challenge we face. At the moment, we do not have the data or the evidence to make a decision either way on the issue. What I am announcing today is that we will start the data and evidence collection, because as the hon. Gentleman says, it is clear that there are gaps in the injury data. We know that the current format of data collection does not allow people to specify some of the issues around the injuries that are happening at football matches.
I look forward to working closely with the Premier League, the English Football League and other organisations, including the Football Supporters Federation, which I met last week, to make progress together. I would like to thank the FSF, the Premier League, Mike Davis from Shrewsbury Town Supporters and the Plymouth Argyle management, who, in the middle of all the abuse, were kind and considerate in their conversations with me about the issue, which I appreciate. I also thank those at Spurs, and the chairman of Norwich City, for explaining the pragmatic approach that they are taking to ensure fans’ safety while still adhering to the law.
I acknowledge the evolution of stadium design, seating technology and modern crowd management approaches that has taken place in recent years. The data-gathering work will look at the impact of those changes and consider any existing data on the wider impact of introducing the type of rail seating accommodation used in Germany and elsewhere on attendances, ticket prices, the atmosphere, the diversity of supporters, fan behaviour, the management of various parts of the stadiums and, of course, safety.
In the review, will the Minister look at the discrimination that occurs at present? If there is no standing area and people insist on standing in seated areas, it means that there is no alternative for smaller people, such as women and children, who are prevented from enjoying the game and viewing it properly, or for people who have a disability and simply cannot stand up for 45 minutes.
That is why I praise Norwich City’s pragmatic approach in recognising that some fans who were persistently standing in a family section were causing a great deal of distress to people who pay a significant amount of money to watch their team with young children. It has effectively moved those fans to a different part of the stadium, which allows the family supporters to continue to watch the football match.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will carry on.
On top of what I have already announced, the SGSA is currently revising the “Green Guide”, which sets out the standards of sports ground safety that apply in this country. It is influential around the world, as it is absorbed by sports bodies and Governments looking for authoritative advice on sports grounds safety. The revised guide is due for publication later this year, and will offer refreshed technical guidance that sets out the standards for seats incorporating barriers and seats with independent barriers within the prevailing legislation and competition rules.
Clubs and local authorities are responsible for managing their grounds, and I and the SGSA will expect them to continue to apply the all-seater policy while we gather the evidence and data. To be clear, no one expects any fan to stay rooted in their seat for 90 minutes through goals, near misses and last-minute match-winners—or, in the case of Spurs fans, usually match-losers. That was never the intention of the all-seater policy.
There are many different views about the future of the all-seater policy and they all need to be heard. Some people feel unable to contribute to the discussion while legal proceedings are under way, as outlined by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle). We need to be mindful of that. While the proceedings continue, we shall gather the missing data and evidence by working with the authorities, leagues, supporter groups and others.
With something as serious as football ground safety, change cannot and should not happen overnight, but, contrary to the reports on social media, my mind is open about the future of the all-seater policy. However, due process must be followed to ensure the safety of fans now and in the future—fans who, like me, stay loyal and true through the good times as well as the bad, and who spend a lot of money providing the lifeblood of their clubs up and down the country.
A million people watch football every week. I conclude by thanking those who signed the petition and hon. Members for reflecting their views and those of their constituents. I hope that we can move forward with the required data gathering, continue the discussion with key stakeholders and develop the “Green Guide” so that we all know where we stand.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 207040 relating to allowing Premier League and Championship football clubs to introduce safe standing.