HC Deb 24 July 1987 vol 120 cc640-7 11.45 am
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

Madam Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friends are already aware of my interest in the subject of safety at sporting events because of my contributions on Third Reading of the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987. We all know that the Government have generated a considerable effort in encouraging independence of mind. The population should be encouraged to stand on their own feet and think for themselves. The Government have spent much effort on encouraging those attributes in recent years, and the benefits of that encouragement are to be found through the considerable improvements in the economy.

At the same time, the Government have been conscious of the need to protect the weak, and in that regard to ensure that people who venture into areas that are not always familiar to them are adequately provided for. We have noticed that while removing the population from the nanny society — catering for the individual from the cradle to the grave—the Government have nevertheless ensured that the population are not preyed upon by people who would take advantage of them. In that regard I refer to those who, in the past, have taken advantage of people on the doorstep. For example, doorstep salesmen have been curbed and the Government have ensured that in future people will have plenty of opportunity to ensure that they are not subject to onerous conditions that have been hastily entered into.

In looking after vulnerable sections of the community it is clear that central Government and local government will be called upon to provide protection in areas which the population visit on rare occasions. For example, regulations have been laid down that set out what is required of a cinema exhibitor. Requirements of this sort have been set out in a number of Acts. Legislation has improved the design and construction of buildings, and fire and planning requirements are improved every year. The disabled are protected in a major way, and the provisions that attach to new building require consultation with fire departments to ensure that use is made of the latest knowledge and experience. If there have been any recent catastrophes, care is taken to incorporate in new buildings the lessons that have been learnt. This means that any commercial building must meet certain provisions and requirements.

Licences are required for the exhibition of films under the Cinemas Act 1985. Section 1 states: no premises shall be used for a film exhibition unless they are licensed for the purpose under this section. Subsection (2) provides: A licensing authority may grant a licence under this section to such a person as they think fit to use any premises specified in the licence for the purpose of film exhibitions on such terms and conditions and subject to such restrictions as, subject to regulations under section 4 below, they may determine. It is clear that that lays the onus upon the local authority, which is subject to the provisions that are set out in section 3. Subsection (1) states: An applicant for the grant, renewal or transfer of a licence shall give to—

  1. (a) the licensing authority,
  2. (b) the fire authority, and
  3. (c) the chief officer of police,
not less than 28 days' notice of his intention to make the application. Subsection (2) states: The licensing authority may in such cases as they think fit, after consulting with the fire authority and the chief officer of police, grant an application for the grant, renewal or transfer of a licence notwithstanding the fact that the applicant has failed to give notice in accordance with subsection (1) above. Subsection (3) adds: In considering any application for the grant, renewal or transfer of a licence, the licensing authority shall have regard to any observations submitted to them by the fire authority or by the chief officer of police. That is the important provision. The licensing authority is required to listen to what a fire officer and a police officer have to say. It cannot issue a licence without having taken into account the observations of those officers. Whether it listens to what it is told remains to be seen, but it is required to take their observations into account.

There are certain provisions that allow for exemptions. If a film is exhibited in a club that requires membership before members of the public are allowed to attend, the provisions to which I have referred do not apply unless the club forms part of a building that is licensed for use by the general public. If, for example, on the ground floor of the premises there is a public cinema that is in use and in the basement a private cinema club is opened, the club would be bound by the provisions of the 1985 Act. If the club were in separate premises and entirely private, the provisions would not apply.

The law is different for discos. If a disco on a ground floor, for example, is licensed and there is a basement operation, the advantages of the regulations do not apply.

There is a need for a greater measure of safety at sporting events. I think that that is accepted generally by all responsible bodies. For example, the Jockey Club has laid down rules carefully and it does not allow racing to commence unless there is adequate provision for the safety of the participants and the general public. However, that is not the case everywhere. It came as something of a surprise to me to learn that the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive for first-aid applies only to employees and does not extend to facilities for the general public. The employer in a place of sport must comply with the regulations when making provision for his employees, but, where other persons are regularly on the premises, the employer may extend the facilities to them, provided that the employees are not adversely affected. The employer must therefore examine carefully the element of risk in the provision of both equipment and personnel.

We all appreciate that safety is of paramount importance, and the announcement today of the report on the Zeebrugge disaster highlights the issue. Many people lost their lives in a very short time in that disaster, which has concentrated our minds upon it. I am sure that the regulations will be tightened to make such catastrophes less likely in the future. However, I believe that we have many other opportunities to improve safety arrangements, and that we should introduce them without waiting for major disasters.

Several fires have taken place at football stadia, and that, too, has concentrated the minds of the authorities on using fully the facilities which have been made available under various Acts of Parliament, but which have not previously been used to the full. The Popplewell report is an important contribution: it makes absolutely clear the need to improve existing conditions in first-aid rooms, including equipment, number of personnel and the provision of in situ ambulances when they are required, to make adequate provision for those likely to be affected in both indoor and outdoor activities.

The Home Office in the past has not been as demanding as it might have been. As recently as March this year, it was saying: Thus, the local 'certificating' authority determines the terms and conditions of the safety certificate including whether or not it should include a condition relating to first-aid facilities. In our experience safety certificates do contain such conditions. Even so, in July 1985 we drew … attention … to Recommendation 8 of the Popplewell Inquiry Interim Report, specifically asking them to consider inclusion of a condition within safety certificates for adequate first-aid facilities. In its "Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds", the Home Office reminded ground management of its responsibilities to provide such facilities for visitors and staff. However, it was not considered necessary to impose such a requirement on the licensing authority as a duty, and that is where the matter seems to go wrong. Although the Home Office has offered to suggest to the local authorities that they should consider that point in granting licences for indoor sporting entertainments in general, it does not appear to consider it a high enough priority to put further pressure on the authorities to take it into account. If it is not taken into account, the attitude of the officials is likely to be more low-key.

I am not saying that that is the case throughout local government. In many cases officials take such matters very seriously and try to require a very high standard. However, the public should not he exposed to hit-and-miss arrangements. They should be able to expect a uniform standard of safety. It is not for the man in the street to find out whether the fire and first-aid precautions are to his liking at sporting events or in clubs. I am thinking in particular of the Queensway ice rink, a private club that does not have to comply with any licensing regulations. Furthermore, it does not come under the Health and Safety Executive. Adequate provision is made for the members of the staff, but club members are not covered by those provisions. I seriously question whether they understand that fact.

The 1966 Act states that the various venues for exhibition purposes — for example, the Wembley conference centre and the Kensington design centre — are not necessarily covered by the licensing authorities. However, those venues should be carefully monitored. We must ensure that the necessary standards are applied.

Paragraph 3.99 of the Popplewell report says: The value of the presence of the St. John's Ambulance at a sports ground cannot be over-estimated. If it be the case that a first-aid room is either not provided or inadequately provided then that should be remedied, and I recommend that, where practicable, that should be done. I recommend that on grounds which are designated it should be a term of the safety certificate. That is a significant contribution to the debate.

Adequate first-aid provision is needed. My hon. Friend the Minister will remember that there has been more than one accident in the House when first-aid has been of great importance. I remember being in the Chamber when one of my hon. Friend's Welsh ministerial colleagues collapsed at the place where my hon. Friend is now sitting. First-aid was of the greatest importance. We are lucky to have first-aiders as members of the staff, and we have revised our arrangements to ensure that the necessary equipment and facilities can easily be reached. We have learnt the lessons of that occasion.

Provision must be made for the public. St. John Ambulance is not the only organisation that provides such cover. The Red Cross also provides it. That cover is provided on a voluntary basis. The Government are anxious that the voluntary sector should play its full part. Therefore, we must ensure that adequate facilities are made available so that sufficient volunteers are encouraged to come forward. If such provision is not made, the voluntary system will collapse. That is why the existing law and regulations should be used to the utmost benefit to guarantee volunteers the facilities that they need to continue to participate. If there are no adequate rooms for equipment to be kept in, and if refreshment allowances are not forthcomong, one can hardly expect organisations such as St. John Ambulance to subsidise sporting events. If my hon. Friend's Department were to be more insistent in its demands that local authorities incorporate such provision in their licensing considerations — before anyone embarks upon an event he or she will wish to inquire what the likely cost will be — that would be taken into account in planning.

As far as I can make out at the moment, a sporting event is planned, and if there is no specific reference to the necessity to provide for safety, it is slipped in at the last moment. I understand that cricket authorities have no provision within their funds for first-aid payments. A football trust fund helps with expenses, but I understand that no fewer than five members of St. John Ambulance must be on duty at any one time to qualify for the provision. The amount that they are paid to defray expenses, which of course must cover their travelling expenses and refreshment allowances, is often completely and utterly inadequate. In the circumstances, often as little as £100 is allocated for a five-day cricket test match, which is as little as £20 a day to finance the travelling expenses and refreshment allowances of five people. That is totally and utterly inadequate. If the Home Office were to insist that adequate provision be made during the licensing, it would properly be provided for.

Section 42 of the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987 amended schedule 12 to the London Government Act 1963, paragraph 3A(1) of which reads: no premises in a London borough or the City of London shall be used for any entertainment … to which the public are invited as spectators … except under … the terms of a licence granted … by the Council. A council should specify the terms and conditions under which a licence is issued. By section 31 the Secretary of State may make regulations for the issue of safety certificates for sports grounds and, has a duty to consult such persons or bodies of persons as appear to him to be requisite. The legislation should specify that such bodies should be qualified. It is the duty of the local authority to enforce and inspect. The local authority must act in accordance with such guidance as the Secretary of State may give. That is the foundation on which it should be done.

I remind my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that, prior to the Bradford football club fire, the provision of suitable accommodation by professional football clubs was totally inadequate. The Bradford football club fire caused a complete rethinking of the subject. The initiative to improve facilities in London has been taken by St. John Ambulance. We must thank the people concerned, particularly Commander Derek Fenton, who has been an important influence in drawing our attention to the need for adequate provision.

We must accept and acknowledge that a little pre-planning could save a vast amount of trouble at a later date. We should give great care and consideration to what the St. John Ambulance and other interested bodies advise on this, and we should urge the Secretary of State to use the full powers at his command to implement the type of safety standards that the public has the right to expect.

12.10 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

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.

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