HC Deb 18 December 2002 vol 396 cc975-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

11.11 pm
(Norwich, North)

I rise to introduce a debate on football head injuries, which have emerged as an important issue not only to the football world, but to many people up and down the land who are concerned about events that happened some years ago and which demand a Government reaction. First, however, let me describe the background.

In the treatise "The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy", usually called the "Principia", Isaac Newton proclaimed the three laws of motion and the law of gravity. He addressed the problem of the drag on a spear moving through a medium. One of his laws states that change of motion is proportional to the motive force impressed and takes place along the straight line in which force acts.

Loosely translated, that means that a football's behaviour is covered by the statement that the rate of change of momentum of a football is equal to the applied force. That is often translated as describing football rotation in terms of change of angular momentum brought about by an applied torque. It is Christmas, so I am allowed such a deliberate physical and mathematical analysis of a ball moving through the air.

A book entitled "The Science of Soccer" by John Wesson has just been published. It describes how David Beckham can bend a ball in mathematical and physical terminology that I would not dare to translate in the House. Although I have great respect for the Hansard writers, they would not be able to take down the mathematical terms. I do not want to defer to them, as the problem is real.

The book describes the ideal bounce of a ball, kicks, bending the ball, intercepting a pass and rebounds from the crossbar. There is a phenomenon to describe, as it would excite people. Equations have been developed in relation to those particular events. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who represents Norwich, South, is looking for a way to excite people so as they understand physics and mathematics. What better way than understanding such issues as how a ball is thrown in, the torque involved and the forces that apply to a football as it rotates through the air? I suggest that they might return the interest of many young people to science.

Heading, which is the subject of our debate, is also described in the book, which states: Sometimes the head is struck by an unseen ball,"— my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport might avidly remember that from his youth, as he paraded around the playing fields of England— or before the player can prepare himself". That would certainly be true of my right hon. Friend, although earlier this year I managed him very successfully through 45 minutes of sheer magic as he kept out the forces of the British embassy on a Japanese playing field.

The book continues: It is then possible for all the ball's loss of momentum to be transferred to the head. In a severe case of a 50 mile per hour ball, the head could be moved an inch in a hundredth of a second., the force on the head corresponding to an acceleration of 50g"— which would be some speed up the M6, and quite unachievable in transport-torn Britain today. It continues: Accelerations larger than this can lead to unconsciousness. When a sodden leather ball used to hit people's heads, the lace faced a certain way—unless Stanley Matthews kicked it across the penalty area at Tommy Lawton's head; the lace was always facing the wrong way as far as the opposition was concerned, but it hit Tommy Lawton on the head at the right time. When the head is hit by a ball, it moves a few inches. The speed of the head's movement depends on the velocity given to the ball. The head cannot move faster than a kick, because it is restricted by being anchored to the body.

The problem is that people mistime headers. If people are hit on the head by a ball, momentum may be lost and transferred to the head. Many footballers will remember how, in the early years of their careers, they were hit by that sodden leather ball that came out of the sky, and their heads moved back. That sometimes resulted in unconsciousness; it often resulted in sore heads and blackouts, and players in the 1950s and 1960s were frequently taken off the field for such reasons.

Let us think in terms of medical science. The brain can be likened to a blancmange in a bowl. When a certain part of it is hit, it wobbles. It is not restricted to one area; it moves around the circumference of the brain. I would expect the force of a wet ball to be some 180 lb. That might cause bruising, damage to the brain and some bleeding.

(West Bromwich, West)

I am glad that my hon. Friend initiated this debate. As he may know, January saw the tragic death of Jeff Astle, the former West Bromwich Albion centre-forward, renowned for his heading abilities during the era of hard, wet, heavy leather balls. At his post mortem the neuropathologist made it clear that years of heading a ball had contributed to his premature death at the age of 59. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Football Association should provide a fund to benefit the families of footballers who have effectively been victims of industrial injuries?

Other players have sustained similar injuries, and they deserve respect and a response from the Government.

The worst that can happen is more extended bruising to the brain. A subdural haematoma can occur—a sort of blood clot. That has happened to many players. In this regard football is not unlike boxing or horse riding. Many injuries are caused to people falling off horses. I am quite sympathetic to riders as long as they do not chase foxes, if I may refer to a debate we had earlier in the week.

We have heard anecdotes about players of the 1950s and 1960s who played with heavy balls before they were changed in the 1960s. The leather coating then became polyurethane, the bladder disappeared, and players now use a completely different kind of ball. In my professional footballing days, I remember being rather frightened at having to head a ball; however, it was something that we did because, after all, we were real men, we did not flinch and we went for the ball. I remember many of my young colleagues at school being frightened to head a ball, and being called a sissy as the ball descended on them.

A few years ago, Billy McPhail of Glasgow Celtic, who scored a hat trick in the Scottish cup final, tried to take up this issue in an industrial tribunal and failed. He tried to claim that some of his health problems were caused by his frequent heading of a football. The deaths of Alf Ramsey, Danny Blanchflower, Joe Mercer and many other great names have been considered, and it has recently been shown that degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's were associated with their problems in their latter years. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) said, the Jeff Astle case marks an epic moment in this struggle to get recognition of the effects of heading.

(West Bromwich, East)

Does my hon. Friend share my view—it is doubtless also the view of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey)—that Jeff Astle was the best header of a ball since Dixie Dean? Of course, in this day and age the modern footballer would not be subject to the challenges to which Jeff was subjected, because a modern ball weighs only 14 to 16 oz. The new FIFA-standard ball does not have the absorption of older footballs, and the FA is conducting a 10-year study, under the stewardship of Dr. Miles Gibson, on the effects of heading a ball. The study is in its second season, and hopefully recommendations will be made throughout the 10-year programme.

Does my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) agree that another reason why modern footballers would not be subject to such head injuries is the impact of modern coaching? Now, far more young people are taught proper heading techniques, which were not available in Jeff Astle's day. Such coaching is in part the result of the legacy of the late Sir Bert Millichip, who sadly died earlier today. He was a great son of West Bromwich Albion football club—a life president and former chairman—a former chairman of the FA, and a great advocate for the black country. My hon. Friend will doubtless agree that this House should pay tribute to the great man, and wish his family all the best in their hour of need.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I of course go along with that. Many people say that there is danger in playing football and that such risk is part of the fun, but the real difference is that the technology has changed. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the ball has changed and the risk factor has gone down by an inestimable amount. In that sense, the risk factor differs from some others that have been discussed in relation to rugby football.

The coroner at Burton-on-Trent ruled that Jeff Astle died of a degenerative neurological disease, and of an industrial disease, after 20 years of heading a heavy ball. Perhaps it is time to consider how we can declare a disease an industrial disease. Many Members on both sides of the House will remember the difficulties associated with getting diseases such as asbestosis declared industrial diseases. Securing recognition of the correlation between a particular event and a particular disease involves a long, hard fight.

The neurologist who gave evidence at Burton-on-Trent said that the damage to Jeff Astle's brain was localised at the front. He said that, although it was hard to prove, from the evidence the persistent heading of the ball could be a factor in the loss of Mr. Astle's faculties and his behaviour. Although only 59, Jeff Astle was indeed in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Death by industrial disease was recorded, and at that point the whole argument moved forward 100 years in terms of defining what an industrial disease might be. That is why we should take this verdict very seriously.

It is not just professional players such as Jeff Astle who are affected. Many amateur players have headed the ball 2,000 to 3,000 times in a season. I am aware of studies that are being carried out now, but they are studies of young people who are playing the game with a different football and will be studied over their careers. What about the people who played in the 1950s and 1960s and were subjected to this pressure? It is no use glamourising football in those days. Players did not get £25,000 a day; they got £12 a week maximum, for delighting crowds with their skills and performing in front of much bigger crowds than we sometimes see today. We owe them a lot in terms of the heritage of association football.

A psychiatrist said in relation to Jeff Astle: It seems obvious to me that a repetitive mild head trauma over the course of an amateur or professional footballer's career may increase an individual's risk of developing dementia. If we think in terms of 1,500 assaults on the brain in a year, it is clear that something dramatic could happen to someone's brain cells, and those cells would not be replaced as the individual developed in their 50s and 60s as they would have when they were in their 20s and 30s.

There are those who have tried to ridicule the matter, saying that the next thing we will want is headgear for the players, as for boxers. We do not want that; we want a recognition that the technology has changed and that those people, for whatever reason, were subject to that kind of physical assault on their brains.

I still coach footballers—one or two people in the House tonight have been subjected to my coaching through the parliamentary football team, and rough I am—and we sometimes play with the ball being kept below shoulder height. If that became a rule, it might destroy the Nationwide first division. Having watched my local team, I see that it is a question of getting the ball out to the wing and crossing it for someone to get their head on to it and, with a bit of luck, it will go in the net. It would be good if players could keep the ball below shoulder height.

The question is how we measure an industrial injury. At what point do we take this seriously and not try to ridicule it? At what point do we recognise that players in the 1950s and 1960s were subjected to a hazard that no longer exists? We should recognise that young people heading a ball may be doing damage to their tender brains, and think about some kind of compensation for the older players.

I know that Jeff Astle is not the only player affected. A famous Norwich City full—back, Bryan Thurlow—one of the great "59ers" who took the giant-killing Norwich team to the semi-final, beating the mighty Manchester United on the way—died recently from Alzheimer's disease. His nickname was "Unconscious" because he spent a lot of time heading the ball off the line and doing all sots of amazing things because he loved heading a ball. He was fearless and that heavy, water-soaked ball probably did something to his head.

Many people here will remember being taught how to dubbin a ball. How to lace up a ball was a skill that we learned at our father's side, and someone who could do it was real star. Those days are passed, but dubbin did not do much to make the ball less of a deadly weapon.

The dizziness, headaches, stars and unconsciousness came from that ball, as did the later problems that have developed in the brains of players. That seems a rational explanation. An inquiry should be carried out and we should do a real assessment of the players involved who might be developing illnesses now.

I did a programme last night in Norwich about Bryan Thurlow and the station received some 20 calls in which the families and widows of players from Southend, Colchester and so on talked about some of the brain diseases that the players had developed. It seems to me that there is a really good project in that. We should consider whether there is a case to be made for recording such injuries as industrial injuries. In this country, we treat many other illnesses as industrial diseases, and we should compensate the players who have suffered in the way that I have described. We owe it to them and to sport in general to show that we care about people.

The Government could act in concert with the Professional Footballers Association or the Football Association, I do not care which. We should show some respect for the many great players whom many hon. Members grew up watching. They deserve a proper assessment of what, in some cases, seems to have killed them.

11.30 pm

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) for securing this Adjournment debate. The subject is clearly important, and I know my hon. Friend has a great love of football: as he said, he continues to coach the Commons football team.

It is fitting that we should be discussing football in the Chamber tonight, and I want to associate myself with what my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) said about the late Sir Bert Millichip, who made a major contribution to football in the UK. We are grateful for that, and send our condolences to his family.

When he described the subject under discussion tonight, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North demonstrated the skill that one would expect from the Chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. It was a great lesson in physics.

I should like to say at the outset that the Government recognise that all sport contains an element of risk, and it would be neither possible nor in many cases desirable to remove that challenge. However, it is essential to look at how sport can reduce and manage unnecessary risks and, in particular, reduce the incidence of serious illness, injury, permanent disability or even death.

As Minister for Sport, I have been actively looking into ways in which we can help sport develop the most up-to-date and responsive safety and medical support in the UK. I therefore very much welcome the opportunity to debate these issues with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North. My hon. Friend mentioned the death of the great Jeff Astle, as well as the circumstances of other ex-footballers. Football has been aware of this issue for some time, but the loss of Jeff at the young age of 59, and the subsequent coroner's report, have brought this matter to the fore.

It is clear to me that football is taking this matter very seriously. Both the FA and the Professional Footballers Association recognise the importance of this subject and have already undertaken significant work on heading in football. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East noted, those organisations have invested in a 10-year study to investigate fully the possible dangers of heading the ball. The study started in 2001 and involves 33 elite footballers, who are the subject of regular MRI scans and neurological assessments. As Minister for Sport, I welcome this very important initiative.

Indeed, both FIFA and UEFA have commended the FA's proactive response to this subject. It is only fair to say that England is leading the way in this type of research.

I am also aware that the football authorities have taken significant steps to improve the game, while at the same time making every effort to protect players involved in what is, after all, a hard physical sport. Those steps have included the development of the modern football, which is now non-porous and produced to very strict FIFA criteria. Indeed, the laws of the game regulate the weight and size of modern balls used for both training and playing. Also, the improved football coaching standards to which reference has been made already have included the development of heading techniques, with a strong emphasis on the quality of training and not the quantity. In 2001, FIFA sponsored a symposium on sports injury and safety issues which considered, among other things, head injuries in football.

In my view, football has recognised the importance of the issue and is responding at a national and international level. However, the effect of heading on former professional footballers is a complex matter, which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North understands. There is evidence documenting subtle brain injuries among people who have played football for many years, while other studies have suggested that there is no significant risk. A number of experts believe that although there may be risks from heading footballs, these are likely to be relevant only to a small minority of professionals with prolonged careers.

Over the past six years, the FA has monitored papers submitted to it or published by scientific journals on heading footballs and whether that could cause changes in brain structure and function. The FA has given full consideration to the medical evidence and the scientific information on this subject. I am aware that the FA takes the view that many of these reports and articles have been of questionable quality, based on very small samples of amateur players. Furthermore, as all the studies have been retrospective, the findings can be affected by many other variables.

What is clear is that most experts agree that the data collected so far are inconclusive and that further longer-term studies are required. Clearly, the joint FA/PFA study will go a long way towards addressing the lack of concrete information.

I understand that the Professional Footballers Association is looking at compensation for injuries on behalf of former players, to which my hon. Friend referred. I take the view that it is only right that sport give full consideration to these cases, but many in football would agree that that must be done in the light of greater understanding of the medical and scientific evidence on the subject.

My hon. Friend has focused on football. The Government recognise that safety and medical issues affect all sports at all levels. Improvements in sport safety and medical services not only increase performance but lead to the reduction of unnecessary illness or injury caused through participation in sport. Those in sport have for some time recognised the vital role that those services play in providing the highest standards of care for our top athletes, as well as ensuring that sport in the UK can be safely and sensibly enjoyed by all.

The Government are therefore committed to ensuring that sport can reduce and manage the necessary risks through the development of appropriate safety and medical support. Greater confidence in the quality of these services can increase the number of participants in sport as well as leading to longer participation. That requires a co-ordinated approach and, as such, the Government are promoting a number of key initiatives across the UK to help sport improve its safety and medical services.

In recognition of these issues, the Government commissioned a working group on safety and medical provision for sport in the UK to look at how best we can prevent the incidence of serious injury, illness, disability and death in organised sport. The working group was chaired by the consultant neurosurgeon Peter Hamlyn. Its report raised a number of important issues in relation to sports safety and medicine and highlighted the need for extra help and support to be given to governing bodies to assist them in managing safety issues in their sport.

This work also formed part of the Government's cross-departmental accidental injury task force, which published its report earlier this year highlighting the ways in which the Government are providing a co-ordinated response to injury prevention across society.

The work is being taken forward by UK Sport, which will be producing guidance information on health and safety issues for sport. The aim is to provide support which will be of assistance to governing bodies but which will avoid overly bureaucratic systems and procedures. It will cover three areas. First, there will be a summary of existing legislative requirements for governing bodies. Secondly, there will be sports-focused risk assessment templates that governing bodies could use and disseminate among their member organisations. Thirdly, there will be case studies covering health and safety policies and practices for different types of sport.

That is not the Government's only involvement in such work. My Department is currently working closely with UK Sport, the National Sports Medicine Institute of the United Kingdom, the British Olympic Association and other key sports medicine professional organisations to look at ways of improving the training and development of sports medicine practitioners. In particular, the recognition of sports and exercise medicine as a distinct and essential medical discipline would have a significant impact on the safety and medical support that we are able to provide to people participating in all levels of sport—from school playing fields to people taking part in elite sport. My Department will also be working closely with Department for Health and the Department for Education and Skills on that development.

Those initiatives provide examples of the way in which the Government are addressing the issues raised by my hon. Friend this evening, but I should like to leave the House with these thoughts. We live in an increasingly risk-averse society and there is concern that, because of that, many people involved in sport, either as participants or organisers, may give up their favourite pastime. They may have concerns about personal injury or, possibly, fear of litigation resulting from a sporting accident. Such action is becoming increasingly prevalent in sport in the UK.

Clearly, safety is paramount in all sporting activity, and it is important that we both recognise the risks involved in sport and acknowledge that sport has a duty to reduce and manage those risks. However, I believe that all the wonderful benefits that involvement in sport can bring to our society, such as improved health, social inclusion and education—to name but a few—greatly outweigh the risks. We have to put the risks in context. Sport can come to the rescue of so many youngsters who might otherwise get involved in drugs or other undesirable activities and take them off the streets. We have to keep things in proportion. The great desire to achieve—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.