HC Deb 24 October 1985 vol 84 cc564-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

3.15 am
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybriclge and Hyde)

First, I offer my congratulations and, I am sure, those of the entire House to the new Minister with responsibility for sport. I am sure that he would have preferred to make his ministerial debut at a better hour, but we wish him well in the two years or so ahead of him. In so doing, sports lovers on both sides of the House should also extend our very best wishes to the Minister's predecessor now that he has gone to the Back Benches to recharge his batteries. I hope that we shall have as cordial a relationship with the new Minister as we had with his predecessor.

This is a serious debate. It concerns the future of our national game, association football, and it concerns literally millions of our fellow countrymen, whether they be Conservatives, Liberals, Social Democrats, Labour supporters or those who do not even vote at all. As most football supporters realise, it would be political suicide for any Government to set out to kill our national game, but at the moment it looks very much as though that game is in jeopardy as a result of Government action.

We can all be critical—I certainly can—of the way in which soccer is organised in this country. It is a product of 19th century Britain. Clubs have grown like Topsy around old-established industries of yesteryear and are desperately hanging on to their former glory. No doubt the football league structure should be rationalised, but to try to do this through the blunt instrument of Government edict would be folly indeed.

As one who has studied the football scene over many years, I have observed a clear breakthrough from the patterns of thinking and attitudes which prevailed hitherto in soccer. A new leadership has emerged in the game determined to rid football of the image that it is still living in the last century. Many of the new leaders are chairmen and senior directors of our leading clubs — Martin Edwards of Manchester United, Irving Scholar of Spurs and John Smith of Liverpool, also chairman of the Sports Council. The new president of the football league, Jack Dunnett, formerly a Member of this House, has also breathed new life and vitality into the game. All of them see a new and exciting concept of what genuine football fans require and expect from their clubs. More important, they have taken positive steps to deliver a new and better environment in which those fans can watch their favourite game, free from the risk of disruption from the small hooligan element.

The evidence is all about us. In the first division, Tottenham Hotspur has recently installed a new 13-camera closed circuit television system, erected additional fences and anti-hooligan roll bars in the visiting supporters' area. Southampton has constructed a police control box at a cost of approximately £25,000 and an additional crowd segregation barrier costing £4,000. Newcastle United has provided additional emergency exits at a cost of approximately £100,000 and further improvements estimated at between £300,000 and £500,000.

I could cite many more top clubs, but the same applies to all the divisions. In the third division, small York City has taken considerable measures to provide for safety at its ground, including new exits, turnstiles, staircases, toilet accommodation and fencing costing about £200,000. I could give many more examples. As I am sure that the Minister knows, the sums involved range from a massive £7 million at Bradford, for obvious reasons, to £15,000 at Chelsea and at Middlesbrough. In between, there are clubs such as Doncaster Rovers spending £365,000 and Portsmouth spending £250,000.

Unfortunately for football, the hooligan element in society has attached itself to the game in some numbers, for obvious reasons. The hooligans have decided that in terms of the coverage that they can get out of it, disrupting our national sport is far more productive than hitting old ladies over the head in local shopping precincts. Football has acquired a bad name because of that fringe element. Any Government would be failing in their duty if they did not address themselves to the recent problems in Brussels, Birmingham, Luton and elsewhere, where either because of unruly behaviour or because of inadequate grounds and safety facilities the game has been brought into disrepute. Following the Bradford fire disaster in which 56 people were tragically killed because of the antiquated stand and less than perfect safety precautions, it was right to establish the Popplewell inquiry. However, the Government introduced the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985 in great haste and without prior discussion with interested parties. They have not addressed themselves to the real problems of the hooliganism in football.

The evidence is clear—the Act is not working. What many said at the time has come true. There is no evidence to suggest that the sale or consumption of alcohol at football grounds has been responsible for any large-scale acts of hooliganism. The matches that led the Government into that foolish legislation—Brussels, Birmingham and Luton—were all played in dry grounds when the trouble occurred.

Since the Bill became law, Liverpool football club has reported that a factor of 4.6 people were arrested outside its stadium and that only a factor of 2.6 were arrested in it during the 1984–85 season. After seven games this year, the figures are 2.4 and 0.3 respectively. Those statistics can be repeated for ground after ground. The main problem lies, as we always said, outside football grounds. Thanks to the Act, off licences, supermarkets and pubs around grounds are doing a roaring trade. Football is the poorer financially and I suspect that football fans are merrier as they go through turnstiles than they were before the Act was introduced.

The Football League has estimated that the annual loss of income from alcohol sales will be £1.5 million in addition to the £4 million that accrues to certain clubs from the leasing of executive boxes. The Act is not helping football; rather the opposite is true.

Crystal Palace football club reports that, previously, every match was sold to a sponsor until the Act came into effect, whereupon every sponsor withdrew. It has been a revenue disaster for that club. Manchester United reports a loss of £3,000 per match because of the loss of private box catering, and it anticipates further financial catastrophe next year when the majority of its executive boxes are up for renewal because of dissatisfaction among box holders at their inability to entertain guests acceptably. Chelsea football club reports that only five out of 30 boxes are definitely taken up next season and estimates a loss of £390,000 for that season. Newcastle United has expressed fear at the fact that 18 of its 20 boxes are up for renewal at the end of the season. Aston Villa reports the loss of £100,000 in catering revenue and match sponsorship and fears a possible loss of £300,000 next season due to the loss of more box renewals. Out of 60 boxes, 15 are up for renewal.

During the passage of the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Bill, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), promised me that he would monitor the workings of the Act after some five months into the season. That is not this Minister's responsibility, but the effects of the Act are. The season is already two and a half months old and fair warning has been given to the Government that matters are unacceptable. The entire league is expressing extreme disgust and anger at the futile attempts that the Government have made to deal with the real issue. Corporations and box holders — most of them good Conservative supporters—have withdrawn their support.

I am happy to report that the Minister of State has responded to my invitation to go to Manchester United next week to see for himself the nonsenses that the legislation has brought about. It must be amended. If Mr. Justice Popplewell's final judgment is in line with his interim report—much of which, of course, is acceptable —it will cost clubs a lot of money. Some will simply not be able to conform. It is ironic that the clubs that have long recognised the main arguments of Popplewell are the main sufferers from the legislation. Those who have helped pay for the safety improvements at their grounds are the very clubs that are now being clobbered. As clubs take constructive action to increase police presence and security measures, gate receipts from attendances and corporation revenue are decreasing due to the adverse publicity that the game has attracted. In the first division, gates are down by about 10.5 per cent. on last season. They are down by 9 per cent. over all the divisions.

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

Is it being suggested that the Act is the cause of the fall in gate receipts; and, if so, why?

Mr. Pendry

I was not advancing that argument. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention. He is a keen football supporter and he has been active in helping the game overcome some of its problems. I was saying that, because of the hooligan element, the problems that are associated with the game and the high profile that they assume, there are many people who are not passing through the turnstiles. The Act is not helping clubs overcome some of the problems because gate receipts have declined, but declining attendances are nothing to do with the Act directly.

Manchester City football club has reported to me that it is erecting a perimeter fence at a cost of about £50,000. The local authority is insisting that the club carries out work at the cost of £100,000. The club estimates that it will be out of pocket by tens of thousands of pounds by the end of the season. Tottenham Hotspur projects that it will experience a decrease of £225,000 on last year's takings. It claims that the position will worsen as the season continues.

Football is in a crisis, and for the most part that is not of its own making. Its plight has been made worse by recent Government action. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will not trot out the old chestnuts that were borne by civil servants before he arrived at the Department. We do not want remedies such as sponsorship of the FA cup, an FA membership scheme where 250,000 players, amateur and professional, would have to be levied, fund-raising matches and further competitions. We all know now that there are too many matches and too many competitions. The Full Members' Cup is very poorly attended, for example. We have heard about video matches of games. Is that really an option at a time of declining gates? I do not know who thinks of these schemes, but they are not produced by genuine football lovers or those who understand the game.

I hope that the Minister will address himself to declining gates, the losses that clubs have suffered following the introduction of the Act, expenditure following the Popplewell report and the expenditure on identity cards, on which the Prime Minister is insisting. These are the areas to which the Minister must address himself. The Government must positively assist football financially in one or two of four respects. They should amend the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act, reduce the pool betting levy by at least 1 per cent., which would yield £5 million to football, make a direct grant to overcome current problems or introduce a pool betting levy board. I know that that is in line with the Prime Minister's philosophy of money being regenerated within an industry. It would be an example of football helping itself, bearing in mind that the football pools provide so much revenue to the Exchequer.

I know that the Minister is aware of these arguments and there is not time at this hour of the morning fully to rehearse them. I hope that he will address himself to the crisis areas. The football world requires and even demands of its new Minister, who is charged with the responsibility of its health and welfare, a positive approach to the problems that are facing the game.

3.29 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Richard Tracey)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) for his kind words of congratulation and welcome, and for inspiring this debate on an important topic—safety and sport. Those two words do not feature in the title that he has given to this debate, but I think he will agree that they are our prime concerns. They are the right and true ends of the Government's interests and endeavours and, I hope, of all of us involved in the debate.

I should tell the hon. Gentleman at the outset that the timing of this debate is appropriate if his objective is to lobby the Government. However, it is not appropriate if he hopes to have firm conclusions or decisions from me. I shall explain where we have got to, first giving the House the necessary background, and I shall then look forward to what appear to be the best outcomes for the sport of football from the crises of recent months.

The House is well aware of the crises of recent months and of why those crises attracted the concerned attention of the Prime Minister and the Government. Those events brought British football to its darkest hour. Since then the Government have been in discussion with the football authorities about the measures to be taken to combat the problems of hooliganism and to restore public confidence in the safety of football grounds. I think that everyone will agree that we have acted with speed and with the utmost concern to achieve the necessary changes and improvements in the grounds and in behaviour.

Perhaps I can concentrate principally on the safety issues as they are the main concern of the hon. Gentleman. After the Bradford tragedy, my right hon. and learned Friend the then Home Secretary took a number of immediate steps. He extended designations under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 to all clubs in divisions 3 and 4 of the Football League. He asked chief fire officers to inspect all sports grounds, and he set up the inquiry under Mr. Justice Popplewell to consider and recommend any further steps that should be taken to improve ground safety and control at sports grounds. Subsequently the Home Secretary extended designations under the Act to the top two divisions of the Rugby League.

In taking these measures, the Government were not unaware of the financial implications for football clubs. But, after Bradford, our primary concern was, and still remains, the safety of spectators. The House will, I am sure, agree that this must be the Government's first priority.

But we recognised the potential problems for football. Thus, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set up a working group, which I now chair, to consider the programme of work for safety improvements and how this might be funded. This working group's considerations have been careful and thorough, and have taken full account of the scale of the need and the problem, and of the resources available.

Our most recent meeting took place last week on 16 October. The group first set out to establish the overall scale and costs of the safety improvement work needed at the football grounds. For this assessment, the Prime Minister asked the chairman of the Football Grounds Improvement Trust, Mr. Tom Wharton, if a survey could be carried out speedily. It is to the credit of Mr. Wharton and of his trust that this survey was not only carried out immediately but with considerable efficiency and thoroughness, and that at no stage did the chairman or trustees seek Government funds for the task. The trust's survey looked at all grounds in the Football League and the Scottish League, including those already designated under the Act, and gave estimates of the work required at each, and, from those assessments, gave an indication of the likely total cost.

The working group found that a very valuable input to its considerations. However, it recognised that the scale and costs of the work could be altered as a result of either the inspections around the country by the chief fire officers or action following Sir Oliver Popplewell's interim report.

In giving the House my assessment of the current position, let me first deal with the Government's concerns about safety on behalf of the whole community. Here I speak on behalf of the Home Secretary, whose primary responsibility this is. We strongly maintain that the Government have responded to the public concern about safety at football grounds in the wake of the Bradford fire. We have had the inspections by the chief fire officers, and the local authorities have now issued certificates to all the newly designated League clubs.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the provisions of the Safety of Sports Grounds Act. Once designated, clubs must apply to their local authorities for a safety certificate; the safety needs and possible improvements are then assessed; but certificates can be issued in advance of those improvements being carried out through the imposition of restrictions on crowd numbers, and perhaps on access to particular parts of the ground. Such restrictions can be lifted as and when the improvements are made and a fresh certificate issued. All grounds now have safety certificates, many of them containing restrictions on attendances.

It is important to stress that the restrictions imposed on attendances at matches are not necessarily impractical or unrealistic. The opposite is perhaps the case. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that many of our football grounds were built to entertain vastly larger crowds than clubs can expect to draw now. There has been only one instance this season—in Scotland—of a larger crowd arriving for a match than could be allowed in under the restrictions in force.

The hon. Gentleman will agree that it follows that clubs should plan their ground improvements on a similar realistic basis. It would be nonsense for clubs with average gates of about 1,000 to claim financial help for expensive improvements aiming at crowds of 30,000.

The report received by my working group from the Football Grounds Improvement Trust last week made it clear that its approach to clubs has been on that realistic basis. The trust bases its grants to clubs on their recent history of attendances. Most of all, that means that they must tailor their investment to the cloth of their market potential.

Mr. Martin Stevens

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Football Trust grants are being paid in reasonably good time? One hears stories of clubs having to pay for improvements and wait a considerable time for the grants.

Mr. Tracey

I assure my hon. Friend that we are doing all that we can to make good that point. I was about to deal with the timescale for the improvements to grounds.

My working group considered last week how soon the programme of safety improvements needed to be carried out. The consensus was that five years was a reasonable timescale. As I have already said, the immediate safety concern has been met by restrictions placed on grounds by the responsible local authorities. Decisions on how quickly to bring forward improvement works are therefore for football itself, and especially for the clubs. But such decisions are for them to make and to justify in normal business terms.

The working group has not yet reached any final conclusions; I cannot as yet, therefore, give the hon. Gentleman any Government decisons. But it looks likely that the Football Grounds Improvement Trust will be able to fund the major share of the costs of the safety improvements sought by clubs within a period of five years. That seems to the working group to be a reasonable period. This is not yet to close the door. Some uncertainties remain, and we shall consider further the final recommendations of Mr. Justice Popplewell.

I should say that there is another important consideration on which the working group spent some time last week. That is the contribution that the game of football can make. I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman has been saying about the lack of money in many parts of football; he would also accept that this is not due in all cases to bad luck. Like any business, football must take responsibility for its own mistakes and for its own problems. The governing bodies — the Football Association and the Football League—have a lead to give here, and we discussed within the working group possible ways by which they might raise new money for the game, or redistribute, for safety improvements, some of the existing income. I assure the hon. Gentleman that some leading figures in football agree with some of the ideas that he appeared to condemn at the beginning of the debate. Of course, the decisions are for the clubs, not for me; but the House would expect any responsible Government to take account of what people in a commercial industry are prepared to do for themselves in decisions about dispensing taxpayers' money.

May I deal now with two of the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman—first, the so-called tax burden, which is regularly mentioned in the press and in football. The betting duty on the pools is not a tax on football, as many would have us believe. It is a tax on gambling, and any reduction in the tax would directly benefit the pools promoters, and presumably their customers, rather than football. We also hear about a Government-created levy board.

As regards a Government-created levy board, I must point out that such a body—albeit a voluntary one—already exists, in the Football Trust. I can only praise the work and contribution of the Football Trust.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman discussed the question of the alcohol legislation and its effect on clubs' finances. he is aware why this House, after much discussion, decided not to exclude executive boxes from the controls on alcohol. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who has been mentioned, undertook to review that point and he will do so. What he requires—I have his full authority to say this—is sound evidence from the football authorities and clubs, which has not yet been provided. When it is, I assure the House that my hon. Friend will study it carefully.

Let me close with some general comments, which look forward a little. The game has been hit hard in recent years, and in particular in the past six months. It is now very much at the crossroads. The twin concerns of safety and security to which I referred at the beginning of my remarks must be dealt with. To use a well-known phrase, there is no alternative.

I want to encourage football forward, and I echo what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said on many occasions about the need to involve the family and the community. Families can be involved in football as much as in other matters. Many parents are now frightened to take their children to matches, and even more frightened to let them go on their own. Much damage has been done to the image of the game. There is a need for fresh ideas and marketing. I appeal to the clubs to consider much more closely the role that the family and the community can play. Many clubs have already introduced successfully family enclosures. The examples are well known. I commend them to all football clubs. I commend, for example, the FA's scheme at Wembley, and I am aware that some League clubs have successful schemes of community use of their facilities, for example, Fulham and Arsenal. Oxford United has recently concluded an agreement with the local council whereby its staff engage in community activities in return for financial assistance from the authority. I would like to see these ideas and thoughts extended.

For me, the game and the clubs need to get back into the community. The activities do not need to be large-scale, and the precious grass on pitches can be protected. But clubs can use their local reputations, skills and facilities to aid and develop community programmes with local schools, pensioners groups, youth organisations and clubs and so on. As sports Minister, I have a double interest here. We need new facilities and opportunities for sport and recreation. I see a potential marriage here of great value. Football needs the support of the community, and the community needs more facilities and opportunities for recreation. It would also benefit from more involvement in the football club, established for so many generations as a magnet for local interest and support. I welcome the signs that hands are reaching out to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Four o' clock.