Clive Betts: Now is the time to allow ‘safe standing’ in football grounds

'Safe standing' rail seats have been introduced at football grounds like Celtic Park.
'Safe standing' rail seats have been introduced at football grounds like Celtic Park.
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I LOVE football and, in particular, Sheffield Wednesday, despite it bringing me a lifetime of trial and tribulation, interspersed with the occasional celebration.

I watch football at all levels – from World Cups to local junior matches in the Sheffield and District League, even on pitches behind pubs, rather like the time that the game first developed.

It was hooliganism in the 1970s that really led to a re-evaluation of safety at football grounds. This led to a decision to segregate terraces and, subsequently, build fences between terraces, and between terraces and pitches.

Despite most supporters, including myself, being strongly opposed to this development, the then government and football authorities were driven by concerns about football violence that were pre-eminent at that time.

On April 15, 1989, I was at Hillsborough to watch Liverpool play Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final.

The worst stadium disaster in English football history, it is absolutely clear that the high fencing, installed for ‘safety reasons’, actually contributed to the 
awful events and the sad loss of so many lives.

Judge Peter Taylor’s inquiry was to identify the main reasons for the disaster and to make recommendations about future sport safety.

Taylor concluded that ‘although standing at football matches itself was not intrinsically unsafe’, all major stadiums in England should be converted into all-seater venues and that every person who attended a football match should be given a seat to sit in.

The then government decided to enforce an all-seated regime for all teams in the higher divisions.

But the row – both emotional and analytical – about whether there should be standing areas at football grounds has rumbled on ever since.

What is clear is that, at most all-seater football grounds in England, the vast majority of away fans, and at some grounds some of the home fans, remain standing throughout the match.

Despite ‘spectators remaining seated’ being a condition of the licence of those grounds, it is only at a small minority that the stewards and the police make any attempt to enforce that condition.

As a regular away supporter of Sheffield Wednesday, I didn’t sit down to watch a single game last season. Standing in seated areas is inherently unsafe but a fact of life with the current legislation.

Although ‘hooliganism’ and ‘crowd disorder’ has not been eliminated, it is massively lower now than in the 1970s. The football authorities and the police deserve credit, along with the vast majority of fans who simply go to watch the game.

Some fans point to arrangements as some stadia in German football – for example at Borussia Dortmund – or Glascow Celtic closer to home to allow what is described as safe-standing. There are other examples around the world which could be considered for adoption in England.

In late 2013, the Football League sent a consultation document to every member club asking their opinions on standing accommodation. About 70 per cent of the clubs said that they wanted the League to lobby the Government for a change in the rules to permit safe standing areas for football matches.

We also have to remember that standing has continued to be allowed and regarded as safe at matches below the Premier League and the Championship.

All the polls that have been done on the issue confirm that the majority of fans want to have the choice as to whether they sit or stand at matches. So far, in response to lobbying, the Government has argued that “all-seater stadiums remain the best means of ensuring the safety and security of fans”.

In April, it rejected a proposal from West Bromwich Albion to introduce safe standing at The Hawthorns. However, a successful petition to the UK government, signed by more than 110,000 people, has resulted in a Parliamentary debate about safe-standing which is due to take place today.

It appears that the Government is now prepared to consider the issue and I will argue that it should.

One aspect of the current policy that is not often referred to is how it discriminates against certain fans. If the reality is that you have to stand in front of your seat, you have less chance of seeing the game if you are smaller.

This therefore discriminates against women and children. Children frequently end up standing on tip up seats which is even more dangerous. Fans who are not able to stand for 45 minutes because of arthritis or a heart problem are effectively prevented form following their team. The sensible outcome is to allow an area of each ground for safe standing learning from overseas experience, allow those who want to stand to do so, and then ensure everyone else can watch the game from their seats.

Clive Betts is MP for Sheffield South East and chairman of Parliament’s Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.