HC Deb 19 April 1991 vol 189 cc732-6

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered. Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Sir J. Wheeler.]

1.52 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir. J. Wheeler) on his enterprise in bringing forward the Bill and the good judgment that he displayed in securing its speedy passage through Committee to Third Reading today. It is a considerable achievement and all who are concerned to see football in this country rid of the offensive and violent behaviour that has too often disfigured it in recent years will welcome the measures contained in the Bill.

In Committee, hon. Members asked me to look again at a number of issues. I hope that the House will bear with me if I seek to reassure those hon. Members that it is right for the Bill to be left in the form in which it left Committee and in which it is now.

I have given further consideration to the point raised about the condition in clause 1 restricting the offences to a period of two hours before kick-off, or the advertised time, whichever is earlier. Some hon. Members questioned whether two hours was long enough. The Government believe that the provision of pre-match entertainment to encourage supporters to turn up early, which I think lay behind the worry, is a good initiative, which we support. However, even at the largest fixtures, it is unlikely that a significant number of supporters will arrive more than two hours before kick off. A two-hour period is used in part IV of the Public Order Act 1986 and I am not aware that it has proved inadequate. I believe that the amendment that we made in Committee will prove wise and sufficient.

I have thought with the greatest care about the points made in Committee about the formulation of clause 3. However, I remain of the view that the wording that we now have is right. I will briefly explain the policy considerations and practicalities that have influenced me in reaching that conclusion.

Clause 3, as amended in Committee, creates a new offence of taking part in chanting of an "indecent or racialist nature." Any spectator at a football match who repeatedly utters any words or sounds of an indecent or racialist nature, in concert with one or more others, is guilty of an offence.

Lord Justice Taylor considered that the provisions of the Public Order Act would not always cover such objectionable behaviour. Under section 4, chanting or a single shout would be an offence if another person feared that immediate unlawful violence would be used against him or that the chanting would provoke violence. Under section 5, the chanting must be likely to cause "harassment, alarm or distress" to a victim—I stress, to an identifiable victim. Lord Justice Taylor considered that racialist chanting at a football match should be an offence without the need for an identifiable victim, and I agree.

We needed to think clearly about the context in which the proposed offence would be committed. At a designated football match, attended probably by thousands of people, the crowd may sing, shout, groan, gasp or sound like the House of Commons on a particularly good evening, in an atmosphere of considerable tension and excitment—again, like the House on occasions that we can all remember. The volume of collective sounds will be considerable. In that noisy and volatile atmosphere, racialist or indecent chanting is not only socially objectionable but becomes, potentially at least, a risk to public order.

Against that background, it would be a mistake to criminalise a single racialist or indecent remark that might not be widely audible in the ground; to do so would set the threshold for criminal behaviour too low. We wish to prevent group chanting, which is repeated and loud and may spark trouble, and if it occurs, to prosecute and punish the offenders.

There are other practical considerations. Some hon. Members questioned the ability of the police to identify and remove those committing the proposed offence. The police do not foresee too much difficulty. Police inside a ground will generally be able to identify those who are chanting repeatedly. Some officers may be directed to the offenders, and in particular to their ringleaders, by their colleagues operating closed-circuit television. An officer may then be in a position to hear the words or sounds uttered by offenders, but securely identifying a person uttering a single shout would be much more difficult. The police will decide whether offenders should be arrested, either during the game or at a later stage.

Evidence from closed-circuit television will play an important part in identifying offenders and securing their conviction for offences in the Bill. I hope, therefore, that the House will accept that there are persuasive reasons of policy and enforceability for preferring the formulation adopted in Committee.

Clause 3 is designed to deal with group chanting of indecent and racialist matter, which presents the public order and social problem. The Bill sets that offence at a lower threshold than current law. Such conduct should be an offence only when it is made especially objectionable by being carried out in concert with others.

Some members of the Committee asked about the removal of perimeter fencing. Lord Justice Taylor recommended that, for the safety of spectators, fences should be lowered and spikes and overhanging projections removed. He considered that if fences were lowered, it would be prudent to have a criminal sanction against running on to the pitch. I agree, although it is beyond the scope of our discussions on the Bill to consider whether the perimeter fences should be lowered or even removed. That is a matter for the local authorities issuing the safety certificates. The Football Licensing Authority will be working closely with the clubs, the police and the local authorities to ensure that adequate provision is available for spectators to escape on to the pitch in an emergency.

The Bill embodies the three recommendations made by Lord Justice Taylor in his report following the tragic events at Hillsborough by making it an offence to throw anything at or towards the players or spectators, to take part in racialist or indecent chanting or to go on to the playing area "without good reason". That latter qualification will ensure that, if there is an emergency and the pitch is a necessary way of escape, no offence will be committed.

This is a welcome and necessary Bill. I commend it wholeheartedly to the House and express my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North for his initiative in bringing it before us.

2 pm

Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

I am glad to welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister and to confirm that the Bill has been considered in great detail by the Standing Committee and has received the wholehearted support of all that Committee's members, who also agreed with the Government's improvements and amendments.

Those of us who serve on the Select Committee on Home Affairs are especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his courtesy, his interest in the progress of the Bill and his support for it. His comments were welcome indeed, and I add my support to what he said.

In Committee, we had a useful debate on clause 1. The Bill sets a time limit of two hours before the start of a match. In that regard, my hon. Friend's reference to the Public Order Act 1986 is entirely appropriate. It is a perfectly fair and reasonable prescription with which I know that those who take an interest in the game of football agree.

The Bill goes on to deal with the objectionable practice of racialist chanting, and chanting of a threatening nature. My hon. Friend the Minister explained carefully why the Committee felt able to agree amendments requiring the offence to be proved where one or more persons are engaged in the action. I am satisfied that the police will have adequate powers to deal with incidents that cause great offence and that the Bill will be extremely useful to the game of football.

The Committee agreed to one other amendment, omitting the reference to Scotland. When it first considered the subject, the Home Affairs Committee felt it proper that Scotland should have the opportunity to enjoy the protection of the creation of offences under the Bill. However, the Committee and others concerned with the game of football fully agree that the law in Scotland is adequate and that the Scottish police have no particular difficulty. I am glad to assure the House, therefore, that the removal of the reference to Scotland is entirely satisfactory from every point of view.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

My hon. Friend will know that when the Select Committee investigated the policing of football hooliganism, its members went to a number of fixtures. Our junior Clerk and I went to the Skol cup final at Hampden Park in Glasgow and witnessed the entire police operation with the chief constable. The chief constable told me that he was anxious that we should not, in the course of our deliberations—from which this Bill follows—do anything to impede or impair the flexibility that the police in Scotland enjoy when policing football. Scottish common law is very different from ours. There are clearly occasions when the law in England, Wales and Scotland should run in parallel, but in this case Scottish law is superior to the law of England and Wales. The police in Scotland appear to have done a tremendous job of ridding Scottish football of much of the hooliganism that was, until five or six years ago, associated with the game there.

Sir John Wheeler

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments and his agreement to omitting reference to Scotland from the Bill. My hon. Friend was burdened by the Committee with the duty of attending a game of football in Glasgow to witness the effectiveness of the policing operation—

Mr. John Greenway

On a Sunday.

Sir John Wheeler

Such is the measure of my hon. Friend's devotion to the inquiry on which the Committee had embarked. He is right to say that the Strathclyde police have worked out a formula for the policing of football. That formula, in association with the common law of Scotland and other legislation, has provided them with a highly effective method of policing. I have no wish to see those arrangements disturbed by the Bill and we are delighted to agree to the omission of Scotland from it.

Football has gone through a difficult period in recent years. The Committee's report on policing football hooliganism, which was well received by all with an interest in the game, will help to deal with improving the game for players and spectators, and will also help the clubs and be in the interests of the public. The adoption of the three offences originally recommended by Lord Justice Taylor will set fair the game of football in the coming season, assuming that the Bill receives support, as I believe it will, in the other place. The future of football also depends on the establishment of the new Football Licensing Authority, which will do an important job for the game. I am glad that the authority, together with officials from the Home Office, is doing such excellent work in support of the game.

I conclude by referring to the work of the national football intelligence unit. During the Committee's inquiry, we formed the view that it is an organisation of great merit, containing especially dedicated police officers. The offences created under the Bill will be especially useful to the police, and the unit will be able to ensure that the police are possessed of all the information that they need to manage the game of football. The Bill leaves the House for the other place with the ringing endorsement of all those who have an interest in the game, and in the belief that it will contribute to the future of that important sport. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), has been able to lend his support and prestige to it.

2.10 pm
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I am glad that the Bill has reached this advanced stage so soon after publication of the report by the Select Committee on Home Affairs into the policing of football hooliganism. Today's debate brings to an end a period of three or four years during which Parliament has tried to wrestle with the problem of football hooliganism.

I was not in favour of the proposal in the Football Spectators Bill for an identity scheme. We have had many debates about the best way to deal with football hooliganism and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) said, that Bill contained an extremely important proposal for the establishment of the Football Licensing Authority. My Bill and that authority will form a pincer movement for the better policing of football and for the greater safety of spectators.

The horrific tragedy at Hillsborough two years ago showed that better policing and the safety of spectators cannot be considered separately. From the time that I watched on television the events at Sheffield that Saturday afternoon, I have been convinced that the erection of fences to stop people running on to the pitch was the ultimate cause of the tragedy. There was no means of lawful escape from the ground. The erection of fences, a measure designed to deal with the problem of hooliganism, gave rise to a far worse problem and caused the deaths of 95 people. Folk will say that there were other causes and contributory factors, and that is true, but if the fences had not been there people would have had a chance to escape.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should commend the greater resources that have been made available to the game following publication of the Taylor report? Those resources will enable clubs to bring their grounds and amenities up to date and provide for the greater safety of spectators.

Mr. Greenway

I entirely agree. Perhaps I should remind the House of my interest as president of York City football club. The measures in last year's Finance Act, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor, were warmly welcomed throughout football. They are another feature of the change in atmosphere to be perceived in the world of football and its relationship to the House. The Bill is part of that change.

The help provided by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in guiding the Bill through Committee and on to the statute book must not be underestimated. I know that he agrees that the House should remind people, particularly those associated with football—spectators, those running the clubs, the Football Association and the Football League—that the measure has not been introduced to enable the police to arrest more young people on a Saturday afternoon and lock them up. We are introducing it because we want to prevent the sort of tragedy that occurred at Hillsborough. It is a preventive measure. People should know when they attend a football match that if they misbehave—three specific forms of misbehaviour are specified—by chanting abuse, throwing missiles or running on to the pitch, the wrath of football and of the law will come down heavily upon them. We are talking of behaviour that can lead to a considerable tragedy if it is not curtailed. It is not merely anti-social behaviour. It must be the hope of us all that the Bill will discourage such behaviour. In the long term, that will be why the measure will be recognised as a great boost for the game of football. It can help us to rid football of the hooliganism that has besmirched our national game for far too long. I greatly welcome the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.