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Responsibility for developing long-term plans to ensure public safety at sports venues in Northern Ireland rests with the owners and operators of those venues. However, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is taking forward a safety at sports grounds initiative, which aims to assist owners and operators of major sports facilities to improve public safety at their grounds in the longer term. As part of that process, the Department is implementing new legislation on safety at sports grounds — the Safety of Sports Grounds (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. In addition, Sport Northern Ireland, which is responsible for the development of sport, including the distribution of funding, has been running funding programmes designed to assist owners and operators to improve public safety at their venues. The programmes include a stadia safety programme and a previous interim safe sports grounds scheme.
I will answer the last part of the Member’s question first. I do not envisage any venue closing as the result of an audit. Funding is being considered for some grounds through the programmes that I have outlined. The names of those grounds can be supplied to the Member, but I am reluctant to mention them, as that would open Pandora’s box. However, operators of all sporting grounds should be aware of the grant-aided schemes that are available. If they are not aware of them, they should become aware of them and make applications, because it is essential that everyone using a sports ground in Northern Ireland, for whatever legitimate purpose, should be able to do so in the knowledge that they will be safe as they go there and safe as they return from it. That is the aim of the scheme, and, hopefully, it will be fully operational shortly.
I am taken by the emphatic nature of the Minister’s answers. Will he comment on a ‘BBC Newsline’ report on 20 August 2008, which referred to a letter written by the chief executive of Sport Northern Ireland to the Department in September 2007, in which he wrote about the many unsafe sports venues and about the safety of spectators being compromised?
I am aware of the report to which the honourable Member refers. There were some inaccuracies in it. For example, there was reference to Great Britain’s Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 being rushed through — but the legislation was actually enacted four years after the disaster that pre-empted it. Therefore, it was not rushed through.
The Department was already aware of a number of matters contained in the report. Northern Ireland, through Sport Northern Ireland, will have an overseeing body that will be very similar to the Football Licensing Authority in GB. The Department is in the process of ensuring that it will be in a position to guarantee that — even though some concerns in the programme were inaccurate — the underlying concern is for the safety of the public using stadia in Northern Ireland. That is a very real and present concern.
However, it is a concern that Sport NI and all of us should be acutely aware of. We must take steps to address those problems.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a thabhairt don Aire as a fhreagra.
I asked the previous Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure about the legislation in March 2008. He said that Sport NI wished to delay the legislation because it wanted the inclusion of an independent oversight function that it would carry out. Will the Minister explain why, now that we are in October, that still has not been established? Is the delay related to the crowd capacity problems that would ensue at Windsor Park if the legislation were to be enacted?
Whatever about issues of delay in the past, I know that agreement has already been reached with Sport NI on the issue of the oversight body. That body will provide advice and guidance to all interested parties on safety matters, and will monitor the implementation of a planned new sports grounds safety-certification scheme. Sport NI recently completed the recruitment exercise for the oversight body. I cannot comment on what may have happened in the past, but the facts are that the body is now in place, recruitment has been completed, and the body will be up and running shortly.