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Safe Standing (Football Stadia)

– in the House of Commons at 4:34 pm on 7th December 2010.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath 4:37 pm, 7th December 2010

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give all football clubs the freedom to build, or maintain existing, safe standing sections in their stadia if they choose;
to establish minimum safety criteria that must be met for standing sections in football stadia;
and for connected purposes.

Any debate on football stadiums will inevitably, and quite rightly, raise the spectre of the tragic events at Hillsborough in 1989 and those that preceded it such as in the Heysel stadium in 1985. No debate on this topic can avoid addressing those tragedies and their repercussions, which still resonate with us even now. The events of 15 April 1989, which saw the deaths of 96 people and the injury of hundreds more, were uniquely horrific. An entire city has struggled with that day's trauma ever since. The annual memorial services held at Anfield and elsewhere show that that day is still keenly felt and will never be forgotten, and nor should it be.

Nor should anyone believe that in raising the possibility of introducing safe standing in football grounds now, I am critical of the actions that were taken more than 20 years ago to outlaw standing at matches in the top two football leagues. I am certainly not calling for a return to the old-style terraces, which were poorly designed, overcrowded, poorly monitored and entirely unsuitable for the purposes for which they were used. A return to that world would be a retrograde and wholly unacceptable step.

Today, I propose something very different-another step forward to more modern, safe football stands that provide what fans want, but do so with maximum safety. After all, standing is not inherently unsafe. Lord Taylor's report into Hillsborough cited many reasons why the disaster occurred, but the fact that the crowd was standing was not one of them. It happened, rather, as a result of gross overcrowding, a lack of concern for the safety and comfort of spectators, a lack of awareness of existing safety regulations and the poor design of the old-style terraces. The disaster happened because of a culture of negligence, not because standing is inherently unsafe.

Lord Taylor went on to recommend all-seater stadiums, because he argued that seats establish individual areas for individual fans and give them more space and comfort, prevent crowd surging, and make it easier to identify troublemakers in the crowds. I shall discuss how modern safe standing preserves those features in a moment, but it is worth noting that in making his recommendations Lord Taylor believed that fans would become accustomed to sitting and come to prefer it. Some 20 years later, the views of thousands of fans in the premiership and the championship demonstrate that that has not been the case.

When fans stand in all-seater stadiums today, it causes problems: it ruins the experience for those who want to sit. Equally, sitting ruins the experience for the many fans who prefer to stand. When they do stand, as many do, it is particularly unsafe. Yet, as we know, preventing large numbers of people from standing in all-seater stadiums is extremely difficult for stewards and the police. If it can be done safely, as I believe it can, it would be far better to have a mix of safe seating and safe standing areas in stadiums where clubs choose to offer such options. That way, children, families and others who want a more peaceful experience could have it, while those who want to stand could exercise that right. This can be done.

Countries such as the United States, Canada and Germany are certainly not negligent towards their citizens' safety. They have harnessed technological developments to create standing areas that truly are safe, and such areas are a popular choice with supporters. In such areas, as with seated areas, there are designated spaces for each fan, and there are barriers between rows, preventing surging, pushing or jostling. Individual fans can be easily identified if they are causing trouble, because they are limited to their own individual spaces. Thus, the key reasons why Lord Taylor recommended seating can also all be met with safe standing. In many cases, each individual standing area comes with its own flip-down seat. That corresponds with UEFA and FIFA rules that require international and European matches to be seating only. There is absolutely no evidence that such standing areas, where properly designed, managed and maintained, are unsafe for domestic matches. As numerous polls have shown, they are overwhelmingly backed by supporters and, as they create more space for fans, clubs could then reduce the price of tickets, thus offering another benefit for fans.

The question of standing is even more pressing for fans of Scunthorpe United football club. For them, promotion has come at a very high price. After Scunthorpe United FC's third season in the top two tiers, it will have to have converted its ground into an all-seater venue. That will reduce the ground's capacity, which is already the lowest in the championship, from 9,000 to 8,000. Neither the club nor its supporters want that. More seats mean less space, and so fewer supporters will get to see their team. If Scunthorpe United FC is demoted in future, it will not be able to convert some of its seating back into standing areas. The conversion will have come at tremendous expense, and Scunthorpe United FC will have paid for the privilege of ruining its own ground. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), on whose constituents this change has an impact, for their support for this Bill.

I am also grateful to the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, who I see in his place, for agreeing at least to consult relevant bodies. Sadly, I suspect that he will hear, as I continue to do, some outdated criticisms. Some will raise the issue of cost but, as my Bill proposes, that should be a matter for individual clubs to decide. Some will suggest that spectators have become used to sitting and like it, but that is patently untrue, as the long-running campaigns by football fans' organisations show. Some will argue that statistics prove that seated stadiums are safer than standing ones. For some years, the Football Licensing Authority did claim that. However, when its statistics were challenged as inaccurate, it subsequently withdrew them. As my Bill makes clear, minimum safety standards would be nationally established before any new safe standing areas are permitted.

Some might claim that seating has reduced hooliganism, but even before Hillsborough, hooliganism was declining. Inside grounds and outside, in clubs that are all seated and in clubs that are terraced, hooliganism has receded. The character of this country's fans has changed for the better. For example, no England fans were arrested at the World cup in South Africa with the exception of the practical joker who sneaked into the England team's dressing room. The decline in football hooliganism is not directly because of a move to all-seater stadiums. Last week's Home Office arrest figures show no evidence of any link between grounds where standing is still allowed and the number of arrests. There is no reason to believe that a move to introduce safe standing areas would mean an increase in hooliganism.

Finally, I have no doubt some will raise the issue of the UEFA and FIFA rules, which I mentioned earlier, that games under their jurisdiction must be played in all-seater stadiums, but with the inclusion of flip-down seats in each standing area, those regulations present no problem, as was demonstrated in the Veltins arena in Germany, which was used for the 2006 World cup, and the Tivoli Neu stadium in Innsbruck, Austria, which was used during Euro 2008.

I defy opponents of safe standing to demonstrate that those stadiums are unsafe and that those countries are neglecting the safety of their fans by allowing standing. Following the Hillsborough disaster, it was right to take action against the old-style standing terraces, but modern developments mean that, as other countries have shown, it is perfectly possible to introduce safe standing into the stadiums of premiership and championship clubs if the clubs want to and when stringent safety standards are met. I hope the House will support moves to allow clubs to consider such options.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Mr Don Foster, Andrew Percy, Nic Dakin, Greg Mulholland, Mr John Leech, Mr Mike Hancock, Bob Russell, Mr Roger Godsiff and Kate Hoey present the Bill.

Mr Don Foster accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 June, and to be printed (Bill 121).