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Football: Abuse and Violence

Volume 826: debated on Monday 12 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with football authorities about abuse and violence directed against referees and other match day officials.

My Lords, His Majesty’s Government are clear that all forms of antisocial behaviour, abuse and assault against match officials, whether on or off the pitch, are completely unacceptable. The Government regularly discuss the measures being taken by the football authorities to stamp out this behaviour and will continue to press for action against the small minority of people who act in this way.

There are a large number of 14 to 17 year-old children—boys and girls—who are referees. The Football Association tells me that it is 35% of registered referees. Despite their age, these children receive abuse from parents and coaches—from adults. In some cases, when that happens they have to go, without support, into a decentralised system run by the FA and face the person who has abused them. Does the Minister agree that the FA needs a centralised system and that the first principle for these children should be safeguarding, not the football systems that currently prevail?

The noble Lord raises an important issue. One of the great powers of sport is that it brings people of all ages and all backgrounds together. Of course, we want everybody who takes part to have a fulfilling and enjoyable experience. That is a matter for the football authorities, but I will be very happy to undertake to make sure that officials at my department are speaking to them about this issue.

My Lords, will the Government give us some idea of their opinion of the professional conduct in football whereby people sit around and shout at a referee who has given a decision they do not like? Will the Government encourage the FA to make sure that dissent is punishable by a card or a sending off? If you do this, you can rest assured that professional managers will not want to end games with seven or eight players.

We believe that change needs to come from the top and participants in the professional game have the opportunity to be positive role models for people taking part at every level. That is a central message in the FA’s new “Enough is Enough” campaign. Underlining this, last month the FA challenged a decision by the independent regulatory commission only to fine the manager of Liverpool FC following his sending off by the referee for shouting in the face of a linesman. The FA won its appeal and Mr Klopp served a one-game touchline ban.

My Lords, I declare a double interest after that answer, as both a member of the Football Regulatory Authority and a supporter of Liverpool Football Club. As my noble friend has said, all forms of abuse are unacceptable. The FA is doing important work in this area, including safeguarding. There are going to be increased sanctions, more education for both players and supporters and, at grass-roots level, the introduction of the sin-bin—which may be an idea that my noble friend the Chief Whip will take up at some point. Does my noble friend welcome these developments and the increased focus to make sure that every match official is protected from abuse within and outside the stadium, so that we can all make the beautiful game even more beautiful?

I congratulate my noble friend on his appointment and commend the work undertaken by the Football Association. I have mentioned its “Enough is Enough” campaign, which is taking action against anybody whose behaviour is unacceptable. The FA can also ban anybody who is abusive or violent towards match officials, and stricter sanctions have been introduced this season which will see longer bans put in place and mandatory education courses before anyone found guilty can return to football.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that even in the most important football games, referees sometimes make inexplicable decisions—a whole series of them—which have a very adverse impact on the result? In the light of that, will he commend the attitude of the England manager, Gareth Southgate, and the England players, who displayed admirable sportsmanship in the most difficult of circumstances?

I will not speculate on any recent examples of the behaviour the noble Lord mentions, but I most certainly do congratulate the whole England football team for their conduct throughout the World Cup. They have made people, not just in England, very proud of their behaviour and people have enjoyed their very creditable performance.

My Lords, unfortunately I have personal experience of being assaulted on a football pitch as a young referee. I do not recall making any bad decisions, by the way. In all seriousness, the Minister said that this was a small minority of cases; I only wish that that were true. I am the president of a very large kids’ football team, involving some 400 children, and we have to make sure that parents—both mums and dads—who are looking after kids of only five, six or seven years of age, are not shouting abuse at referees or even running on to the pitch. Is it not possible for the county FAs to give very clear directions that, if anything like this happens, the parents should be banned from watching their games and teams for at least a full season?

It is indeed for the FA to make sure that good behaviour is promulgated throughout the football pyramid. Where behaviour is criminal, such as assault, incidents should be reported to the police and appropriate action taken. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service have a range of legislation they can use to address serious incidents of other sorts. However, it is up to everybody in leadership positions in football to ensure that good behaviour is promoted at every level.

My Lords, is this not yet another example of domestic football not being managed properly? When do the Government intend to introduce a regulator to start to deal with some of these problems?

These issues were looked at as part of the fan-led review conducted my honourable friend Tracey Crouch, and it was clear that the Government need to take action. Leaving certain things to the sector has not worked for decades, and fans have been let down by certain owners not acting responsibly. We will be setting out our plans to reform club football governance in the White Paper that is coming soon.

My Lords, I understand that body cameras worn by referees are being trialled by some leagues in adult grass-roots fixtures. It sounds like a sensible initiative. Can the Minister update us on it?

Technology is indeed helping in football, as it is in many sports. That is a matter for the football authorities, but I will certainly reinforce the noble Lord’s point.

Would my noble friend like to take this opportunity to congratulate the England team on a 26-run victory over Pakistan, in circumstances where everyone respected the umpire and the way in which the cricket was played there?

I most certainly would. My noble friend makes an important point about good behaviour, which we see across a number of sporting forms.

My Lords, those who officiate at football matches, at every level, have a thankless task in making real-time decisions in the blink of an eye, mostly without the assistance of VAR. They undoubtedly deserve our respect and admiration for their commitment to fair play. What consideration has been given to using the forthcoming Online Safety Bill to tackle threats to match officials that are made on social media?

We have already had discussions in connection with the Online Safety Bill to make sure we tackle the completely unacceptable form of abuse we see against football players and others in leading positions in sport, following their performances. The Bill is designed to ensure that everybody has a safe and enjoyable experience online, and I look forward to debating it with noble Lords when it reaches your Lordships’ House.

My noble friend acknowledges, as other noble Lords have mentioned, the enormous amount of time that young people spend playing and enjoying football. Does he not think that we ought to be speaking out more about some of the influencers from senior clubs and the language that appears to be permitted in our football grounds?

Yes—verbal abuse and some of the chants that we hear need to be addressed. The FA’s “Enough is Enough” campaign is, as I say, making it clear that anybody who undertakes unacceptable behaviour will have action taken against them.

My Lords, I qualified as a football referee at Dartmouth in 1966, and I gave up after a few years because I was conscious of making wrong decisions. Within the service environment there was not this threatening behaviour, but there is no doubt that, when one has made certain decisions—and the referees do work very hard—such threats are really damaging and dangerous. Something has to be done to stop this happening.

My Lords, 1966 was clearly a very good year for football in this country. The noble Lord makes an important point: there are fantastic role models in the Navy and across the Armed Forces, who demonstrate very high-quality behaviour. That is what we want to see at football matches, so that everybody can enjoy the game.