§ 15. Sir Michael Neubert
To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage what plans he has to review the policy for all-seater stadiums for Football League clubs.
§ Mr. Mellor
I announced last week that I was re-examining the all-seating requirement, with a particular focus on third and fourth division clubs and clubs in the second division with low average attendances. I have set a four-week period for the receipt of further views, and I intend to make an announcement before the summer recess. I am grateful to the all-party football committee and others in the House for their advice on this important matter.
§ Mr. Hicks
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's interim statement on that subject. Does he agree that, whatever arrangements are eventually introduced, there must be maximum flexibility? The arrangements must take account of sides such as my local team, Plymouth Argyle, which seems to vacillate between the second and third divisions with amazing frequency. Would it not be sensible to adopt a formula whereby, if the average attendance is less than 50 per cent. of the ground's capacity, the club should be eligible for exemption?
§ Mr. Mellor
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's suggestion. I take the House with me when I say that we all agree that large clubs should be all-seater. Equally, we all agree that small clubs should not be all-seater if that is consistent with safety arrangements, as I believe it is. The difficulty is in deciding into which category each club will fit. That could be achieved by membership of a particular 635 division or by maximum gate. We are considering that important detail and I will bear my hon. Friend's advice in mind.
§ Sir Michael Neubert
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, although improved arrangements for safety inside stadiums are very welcome, the public outside stadiums also need to be safeguarded against the activities of the kind of empty-headed, beer-bellied louts who once again besmirched our national name in Sweden this weekend? Is not the key factor that they should be kept as far away as possible from alcohol?
§ Mr. Mellor
I did my best to express in Sweden what I feel certain is the feeling in the whole House about the disgraceful behaviour of a small minority of British—
§ Mr. Mellor
—of English football fans in Malmo at the weekend. That have very strongly reinforced my view that alcohol and football supporters—certainly English football supporters—do not mix well. We need to bear that in mind for the future.
§ Mr. Pendry
Will the Minister accept from me the congratulations of all football lovers in the House for taking the stand that he took with regard to relaxing the Taylor recommendations and for listening to the football world, while ensuring that safety standards are not relaxed as a result of the review? Will he now consider the related problem of the admission charges of certain premier league clubs, which receive Football Trust moneys, which are forcing many genuine football fans away from those grounds? Will he meet the Football Trust and urge it to ensure that its grants are related to realistic admission prices?
§ Mr. Mellor
Before the Football Trust decides what grants to make available, it must bear in mind resources available to clubs. Increases in admission prices are plainly a matter for the directors of the clubs concerned; they are not my responsibility. However, I hope that all clubs will use their best endeavours not to price out of their grounds their most loyal supporters, some of whom do not have the means to withstand major increases in seat prices.
§ Mr. Grocott
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the serious damage that is done to the finances of the third and fourth divisions—and, indeed, to the second division —by the deal that has been struck between the BBC and BSkyB for the coverage of live matches? Will he now link his responsibility for sport with his responsibility for broadcasting and acknowledge the simple truth that, far from extending people's freedom of choice, the proliferation of channels is restricting freedom of choice for many people—including many of my constituents who, like his, will no longer be able to watch live league football? Does he not think that that is a disgrace? Is it not time that he used his authority to encourage the football authorities to think again?
§ Mr. Mellor
When the Broadcasting Act 1990 was going through Parliament a couple of years ago, it was never suggested that league football should be on the list of protected events. Not so long ago, live league football was not available on any channel. It would be wrong for us to seek to intervene in the ability of the premier league to sell its product as it chooses. The real test for the 636 premier league will be what it does with the money. I hope that the arrangements will lead not to an escalation of transfer fees and of the money paid to footballers but to an improvement in ground conditions, so that fans are housed in ways more appropriate to the 21st century than to the beginning of the 20th.
As for broadcasting, there is more choice for sport on television today than there has ever been. We have to accept that we cannot opt out of the satellite revolution —nor should we try to do so. It would be perverse if we in Britain, one of the great centres of broadcasting, were somehow or other to try to restrict the development of satellite broadcasting from which so many other countries are benefiting.
§ Mr. John Carlisle
As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) said, the Taylor report was primarily concerned with hooliganism within grounds, but last night's scenes in Sweden, disgraceful as they were, highlighted problems that could exist outside grounds, whether in this country or elsewhere. What consultations has my right hon. and learned Friend had with his colleagues in the Home Office regarding those so-called fans, who would have been recognised on television? Were British police there? Does my right hon. and learned Friend have any ties through which those people can be brought to justice and, I hope, banned from football grounds in this country?
§ Mr. Mellor
The British police were much in evidence in Malmo and are working very closely with the Swedish police. Assistant Commissioner Malcolm George of the Greater Manchester police is leading our police team. The police have been looking at the videos that were taken of the incidents and have been identifying fans. Some of those fans who can be proved to have committed criminal offences are being charged in Sweden. If convicted, they could be prohibited from entering football grounds in the United Kingdom. Even if they are not convicted, if they can be identified, their names can be provided to other countries which may be hosting football matches. If those countries see fit, they can exclude those players—[Interruption.] There may be a few players whom we want to exclude as well, but that is another matter. Those countries will be able to exclude those fans from admission. That is very important. Half a dozen fans were excluded this time. It should be more the next time England plays abroad.
§ Mr. Fatchett
Further to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's reply to his hon. Friends the Members for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) and for Romford (Sir M. Neubert), does he accept that Opposition Members totally condemn the behaviour of a small number of English football supporters? Will he recognise that their behaviour has put back the reputation of English football and damaged England's reputation in Europe?
What steps were taken to liaise with the Swedish police so that known troublemakers were recognised and isolated, and appropriate action taken? Was the Football Association responsible for selling tickets to individuals who have already been prosecuted for offences in this country? If so, what action will be taken to stop a repeat of the events of the past two nights? Will the Secretary of State make it clear to other countries with which English 637 football is involved that the Government will take every possible action to ensure that there is no repeat of what happened in Sweden?
§ Mr. Mellor
No one can ever guarantee that some people will not behave badly. There was great understanding on the part of both UEFA and the Swedish authorities of the real job that the football authorities, the Government and the police in Britain have done to improve arrangements. That included supplying the Swedish authorities with the names of nearly 300 known troublemakers so that they could be excluded if Sweden saw fit. It also included the advice which was formally minuted in the Council of Europe minutes of the official meetings before the championship that beer should not be served to English football fans.
I very much regret that, once again, we have had the opportunity of proving that beer and certain English football fans do not mix. That is not to say that that in any sense excuses the lamentable behaviour of some of those fans, flying in the face of the warmest of welcomes. Certainly, everything possible is being done to ensure that those who can be identified as playing a part in those events are arrested. Already, serious charges have been preferred by the Swedes. I certainly hope that serious charges will be preferred wherever there is evidence to justify it. I hope that we shall be able to exclude those convicted from going to football matches again for a long time.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans
Does the Secretary of State agree that the action that is taken following the incidents during the weekend in Sweden should fall on the heads of those who perpetrated those deeds, thereby protecting the vast majority of fans who went to Sweden to enjoy the matches, were peaceful, and did, indeed, enjoy the matches?
§ Mr. Mellor
There is no doubt about that. When I walked around Malmo yesterday, there was plenty of evidence of fans who appreciated the warmth of the welcome that they had received and themselves apologised to local residents for what had happened. I also make it absolutely clear that the Swedish authorities have done nothing to blow up the incidents out of proportion. If anything, they have sought to minimise them. There is no question but that there was anything other than a warm welcome in Sweden for Britons, whether football fans or others. I congratulate the Swedes on the generous hospitality that they showed us and on their willingness to overlook the disgraceful behaviour of a small minority.