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Football Matches: Violence

Volume 830: debated on Wednesday 14 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of concerns expressed by the Professional Footballers’ Association about violent incidents at football matches; and what consideration they are giving to strengthening (1) stewarding, (2) policing, and (3) other legal powers, to protect professional footballers and football club staff.

My Lords, the safety of everyone at sporting events is of paramount importance to His Majesty’s Government. Stewards play an integral role in ensuring that safety, and the Sports Grounds Safety Authority is working to improve the quality of stewarding at football matches. The police and courts have a wide range of powers to protect footballers and club staff, including the use of football banning orders, which can now be applied to a wider range of offences thanks to recent changes made by the Government.

My Lords, this year’s EFL play-off semi-finals and final provided huge drama. The FA Cup had the first ever Manchester derby and the fastest ever cup final goal. However, despite multiple announcements in advance of full time, pitch invasions by fans were commonplace, putting players, staff and officials at risk. I have raised football disorder several times at the Dispatch Box. While I accept that Ministers alone cannot solve this, we need signs of progress. I remind the Minister that we are bidding, with Ireland, to hold the 2028 Euro championships. Will the Minister commit to using his off season productively to meet governing bodies and clubs to identify possible ways forward?

It is an offence under Section 4 of the Football (Offences) Act 1991 for a person at a designated football match to go on to the playing area. Anyone found guilty of unlawfully doing so can be fined or can have a court preventive football banning order imposed on them. As I say, we have strengthened the football banning orders, and we keep these important matters under review. My department commissioned the Sports Grounds Safety Authority to conduct research into the long-term sustainability of stewarding. It is now working with football’s governing bodies and others to identify the challenges that it identified in its research. It has refined guidance and issued fact sheets to the football authorities. We keep these matters under review, including, as the noble Lord rightly reminds us, as we pursue our bid for Euro 2028.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the chair of the Football Regulatory Authority. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, is right: throughout the season, commentators and pundits rightly condemn pitch invasions. However, somehow, at the end of the season, when it is the fans of teams who have secured promotion—or, in Everton’s case, fortuitously avoided relegation—streaming on to the pitch, those same commentators and pundits think it is a wonderful thing. It is actually very dangerous for players, match officials, stewards and the spectators themselves. Would my noble friend the Minister take note of the FA’s consistent work in this area and take this as an open invitation for him and anybody from his department to meet with me or anybody else at the FA to discuss these matters further?

I congratulate my noble friend on his recent appointment. I am sure my right honourable friend the Sports Minister would be very glad to speak to him. He will be a great impartial referee for football, even if he has strong views on certain teams. As I say, unlawful entry on to the playing area is already an offence. Even in exuberant moments of celebration, that should not be happening. It is not always possible to keep spectators off the pitch in moments of high celebration. Stewards and police make every effort to prevent it happening. Of course, the police investigate these incidents after the event as well to make sure people are prosecuted where appropriate.

My Lords, will the Minister agree that one of the ways of solving this is to make sure that the culture within the fan groups accepts that there will be consequences to attacking or going over the fence? Will the Government encourage football to make sure that, if fans behave like this, there will be a penalty for their club and the individuals, to encourage those around them to restrain them if necessary, or at least to deter them in some way? The fans can police themselves.

Of course, the vast majority of fans want to go to and enjoy football matches safely; it is only a minority who sometimes seek to spoil that. The Government have worked with authorities across football to help to co-ordinate action in this area. We welcome the additional measures that have been introduced. The FA, the Premier League and the English Football League announced tougher sanctions, including automatic reporting to the police for anyone participating in anti-social or criminal behaviour, increased use of sniffer dogs and club bans for anyone who enters the pitch or uses pyrotechnics. The noble Lord is right: there is a role for fans and clubs themselves to help to maintain order and an enjoyable day out.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a lifelong supporter of the greatest team in south-east London, known to its supporters as “Charlton nil”. Can the Government encourage the football authorities to get the players to set an example on the field and not challenge authority in a way that only encourages hooliganism?

I mentioned some of the football authorities with which we work closely, and we also work closely with the Professional Footballers’ Association, which represents the safety of players. This was part of a round-table discussion that we held recently about fan disorder at football matches. My right honourable friend the Sports Minister recently sent a joint letter, with the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, to the authorities to remind all clubs of their duties with regard to player welfare and the maintenance of good order.

My Lords, I have attended a great number of football matches, and I see what appears to be an inconsistency in various clubs’ attention and response to individuals running on to the pitch—they are probably the most dangerous individuals, because they have a contempt. I have an interest in Carlisle United, and we have a policy that, if someone comes on to the pitch, we exclude and ban them. Will the Minister consult every club in the Football League to make sure that they take the same strong action against individuals?

The noble Lord makes an important point, and, yes, we work with clubs of all tiers and sizes across the country to look at this issue. The policing of football matches is an operational decision for local police forces—the local police commander will make a risk assessment and deploy resources accordingly. That is of course right, but we and the police speak regularly to clubs of all sizes about these issues.

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Clark. Part of the answer is mainly in the hands of the clubs: even when there are mass invasions of pitches, they usually have CCTV of the pitch, and they often have images of their members, which is the only way they can buy tickets. The only question is whether they investigate to discover who these people are and then give them a penalty. The most effective penalty for most football fans is to exclude them from the ground via a season ticket. I am afraid that there is no incentive for the club to do that if it ends up with an empty ground or less revenue, so the regulators have a role to play with the clubs to ensure that these investigations happen, even when one can understand the emotion of the moment and why it happens. But there ought to be a consequence for it—perhaps the Minister will agree.

I certainly agree with the noble Lord, who speaks with great authority. There is an important role for clubs, fans and the police in all of this. As I say, after the event, police investigations follow up using CCTV and other things, as the noble Lord mentioned. While the Sports Minister was in Istanbul for the Champions League final, he took the opportunity to meet Chief Constable Mark Roberts, the head of the UK football policing unit—I hope that reassures the noble Lord that we are in constant contact with the police on this issue.

My Lords, the Minister has rightly referred to the excellent work of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, which is, of course, operated from his department. Can he give an assurance that, instead of the rather hand-to-mouth funding arrangements with which the SGSA operates at present, he will be able to give longer-term funding so that it is able to do even better work than he has described? In particular, can funds be provided for sports grounds outside the professional game, such as non-league football, stadiums that stage women’s matches and so on? I declare an interest as vice-president of the National League.

The question of budgets and resources is one for the authority and my right honourable friend the Sports Minister to discuss. I will certainly pass on the point made by the noble Lord, but as I say, they have taken action following the review which we commissioned to issue guidance and fact sheets to clubs on some of the action that can be taken to help the situation.

My Lords, could the Minister tell us what arrangements he is making to ensure that football clubs pay the proper costs of policing the matches, both inside and outside the grounds, particularly those clubs that are perhaps less assiduous in making sure their fans behave?

This is a long-standing matter on which we are in discussion with the police, the Home Office and clubs themselves. I will take the point made by the noble Lord back to my right honourable friend the Sports Minister and make sure it is heard again.