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Sporting Events (Safety)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:10 pm on 24th July 1987.

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Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 12:10 pm, 24th July 1987

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) for giving me this opportunity to explain the method by which Parliament and the Government try to ensure the safety of those who attend spectator sports. I shall outline in general terms the statutory framework governing safety at sports grounds and shall respond to the points that my hon. Friend made so clearly.

Until this year the relevant legislation was contained in the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975. The catalyst for that legislation was the disaster at Ibrox park in 1971 in which 66 people died. Following that disaster a committee of inquiry was set up under Lord Wheatley. As a result of the recommendations contained in the committee's report, this House passed the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975. It might be helpful if I described the nature of the 1975 legislation. Its main feature was the creation of the concept of "designated stadia". They were a class of sports ground that was required to have a safety certificate. Perhaps that statement requires some amplification. The stadia that were liable to have a safety certificate were those that provided spectator accommodation for more than 10,000 persons in stadia form including covered accommodation.

The power of designation was given to the Secretary of State. The power to grant the safety certificate was conferred on the local authority, which had a duty to ensure the reasonable safety of spectators. It did that by the power to impose conditions through the safety certificate. Its obligation and power was to impose such requirements as were necessary or expedient to ensure the safety of spectators. Thus, the essential provision of the 1975 Act was the creation of the designated stadia to which the safety certificate must apply.

The 1975 Act contains another significant power — the power given to the local authorities to apply to a court for a prohibition order. A court could make such an order to prohibit or restrict the admission of spectators to grounds if there was a serious risk to the spectators. That power of prohibition was not confined to the designated stadia but applied to all grounds.

As a result of the 1985 tragedy at Bradford, Parliament looked again at the safety of sports grounds. The Bradford disaster focused public attention on the need to take further positive steps to ensure spectator safety. The first and most obvious consequence of the fire was a substantial extension of designation status. Designation status was extended to a greatly increased number of grounds. Prior to the disaster designation status had been extended to soccer clubs in divisions one and two of the Football League, to several international football stadia, including Wembley, Twickenham, Cardiff and Murrayfield, and to the Premier League in Scotland. As a result of the Bradford fire the remaining clubs in the Football League were designated as and from August 1985, as were Rugby League clubs having spectator accommodation for more than 10,000 people. That meant that an additional 58 grounds were designated under the 1975 Act. That was the first consequence of the Bradford fire.

Of later consequence was perhaps the establishment of the committee of inquiry to which my hon. Friend has referred, the inquiry under Mr. Justice Popplewell, whose report was published in January 1986. It was followed by a consultative document published in the summer of 1986, which led directly to the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987, which we passed in May.

The 1987 Act made five major changes in the law which governs the safety of sports grounds. First, it required local authorities to carry out annual inspections of sports grounds that are designated under the Act. In the 1975 Act local authorities were not under a statutory duty to carry out periodic inspections, although the majority of them did so.

The second change was the introduction of the concept of the regulated stand. A regulated stand is a covered stand providing accommodation for 500 or more persons in grounds which are not designated grounds. A regulated stand requires a safety certificate. We believe that this requirement will affect 400 or so sports grounds. The issue and contents of the safety certificates will be similar to those required for designated grounds. The safety certificates will be wider in scope than mere fire safety and will extend to structural safety. The requirement will extend well beyond football clubs into race courses, dog tracks, motor racing tracks and, for example, Wimbledon. Therefore, the creation of the regulated stand with the safety certificate requirement will make a great improvement in safety.

The third change relates to the issue of the prohibition notice. Under the 1975 Act the power to issue a prohibition notice was granted to the courts on the application of the local authority. As a result of the 1987 Act the power to issue a prohibition notice has been granted to the local authorities, although there is a right of appeal to the courts. Perhaps it is right to emphasise that although there is a right of appeal to the courts the effect of the appeal is not to suspend the efficacy of the prohibition notice. One does not suspend it simply by applying for an appeal; it remains in force until the appeal is determined.

The fourth major change removes what was always an artificial distinction between grounds and stadia. Now, the concept that governs legislation in this area is not one of stadia, but one of grounds. The legislation applies to grounds, not to stadia, as was previously the case.

Finally—I shall return to this matter to answer my hon. Friend's comments—licences will now be required for a whole range of indoor sporting events. However, the legislation is drafted in such a way as to ensure that it does not catch premises where the sporting event is only ancillary to the use to which the premises are put. For example, a pub in which there is a darts match will not be required to have an indoor sporting licence of the sort contemplated under the 1987 Act.

The primary legislation was the 1975 Act, but that has now been modified in at least five major respects by the 1987 Act, which now governs legislation in this area. The 1987 Act received Royal Assent on 15 May. It is our intention that most, if not all, of the major provisions of that Act will be brought into effect in 1988.

I have spoken of the statutory changes, but there are at least two other changes that I should mention. There has been an extension in the number of designated grounds. I have already said that, as from August 1985, almost all soccer clubs in the Football League were designated, as were the main Rugby League clubs. The Popplewell inquiry recommended the extension of designated status to soccer, Rugby League, Rugby Union and cricket grounds. That proposal was accepted. As a result,:in England and Wales, a further 52 sports grounds were designated with effect from 23 August 1986. From 1 October 1986, 14 clubs in the Scottish Football League were also designated. At the moment some 200 grounds are the subject of designation.

Another consequence and change brought about by the Popplewell inquiry was the publication of a green guide. Previously there was a guide in existence, but following the Popplewell recommendations and the report of a working party a further green guide has been published. It is a voluntary guide as to the safety standards and measures that can be adopted. It is guidance both for the management and operators of the relevant ground and for the local authorities.

In the course of his helpful speech my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South raised two issues with which I wish to deal. The first was the provision of medical care at sporting events and the second — an issue he also raised in May on Third Reading of the 1987 Act — related to the provision of safety at private functions as opposed to public functions. My hon. Friend paid great tribute to St. John Ambulance and the other voluntary services that provide emergency medical care. I echo and support my hon. Friend's remarks. In my constituency and in the county of Lincolnshire we have considerable cause to be grateful to the St. John Ambulance, the Red Cross and other such bodies. I entirely welcome what my hon. Friend said about those organisations. They provide essential medical care at sporting events and elsewhere.

The legal position is as follows: as regards sporting events, the local authorities are solely in charge of the imposition of terms and conditions that can be made the terms and conditions of the safety certificate. It is for the local authority to determine the extent to which it wishes to insist on the provision of emergency medical care as a term of the safety certificate.

Most safety certificates, hitherto granted, that dealt with sporting events made provision for first aid. I believe that that will continue. I shall consider whether it is desirable to write to local authorities drawing specific attention to the fact that it is within their jurisdiction and competence to impose such a condition. My present feeling is that because that practice is so widespread it is probably not necessary to contact the local authorities, but I will consider it.

A different position applies to indoor sporting events because there the changes are substantial. I shall consider whether, when we issue a circular to the local authorities, it would be desirable to draw their attention to the fact that when they license an indoor sporting function or the premises they have a power to require the provision of first aid or similar facilities.

Another point, which my hon. Friend raised more directly in the debate on the Third Reading of the 1987 Act, although it also arose in today's debate, was the distinction between public events and private events. My hon. Friend is naturally anxious about that and, by implication, he would say that those who attend private events, which are in substance public events, should receive the same protection as those who attend events which are obviously and ostensibly public events. It might be helpful if I reminded him of the statutory framework. As a result of the 1987 legislation, Parliament has provided that licences are required for any entertainment which consists of any sporting event to which the public are invited as spectators. Then there is the qualification that the licence is not required when the sporting event which constitutes the entertainment is not the principal purpose for which the premises are used on that occasion. That proviso would benefit the pub where a darts march is held which the public might be invited to watch but which is not the principal purpose for which the premises are used.

That statutory requirement governs those entertainments to which the public are invited as spectators. For a truly private event, the legislation should not provide similar requirements, because the regulatory framework that we would have to set up would be oppressive and would overwhelm the regulatory authorities. But the question whether something is private or public is a question of law. When called upon to determine it, the courts will have regard not to the form but to the substance, and it is plain that where members of the public are invited to roll up on the day and pay their membership fees at the door, that will almost certainly be treated as a public event to which the regulations will apply, whereas they will not apply to a truly private event. It is a question of substance, not of form.

My hon. Friend referred specifically to Queensway ice rink. Hitherto, Queensway has not been licensed, but I understand that it has applied to Westminster city council for a public entertainment licence and that the council will consider that application. Although I do not wish to express a concluded view as to the law in such a case, at first blush it seems that Queensway ice rink is right to do so. I understand that members of the public turn up to watch what goes on there, they pay their fees at the door and they are admitted. If that is a correct analysis of what happens, the ice rink is certainly caught by the 1987 legislation and, consequently, it requires a licence. The question is always one of reality, not of form, and if in substance it is a public event, the operators require the relevant licence.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter and for giving me the opportunity to spell out the general legislative framework that applies and my understanding of the law insofar as it applies to the specific points that he made. Since the Bradford fire, we have all become more conscious of the dangers that are inherent when large crowds gather at sporting events, and I believe that as a result of the practical changes that have been made since the Popplewell inquiry, and as a result of the legislation that the House passed earlier this year, the public can be certain that when they attend sporting events they are reasonably safe.