HC Deb 25 January 2000 vol 343 cc22-8WH 11.30 am
Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

First, I should say a word about the title of this debate. The aspect of safety that I wish to talk about concerns goalposts. I should make it clear that I am talking not about professional football, but about football played locally on sports fields and recreation grounds, in or out of school, by organised clubs or by groups of people informally.

It is an unfortunate and tragic fact that at least nine children have been killed in such circumstances in the past 13 years. Some may be surprised that children are being killed by something as inert as a set of goalposts. The most recent incident occurred last summer. A seven-year-old boy in Dewsbury was killed when free-standing goalposts toppled over, causing a fatal blow to his head, after children had been swinging on the crossbar. That case is being pursued by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). That tragedy was made all the more appalling by the fact that a fatal goalpost accident was first recorded as long ago as 1986, when a seven-year-old boy was killed. In 1990 an eight-year-old boy was killed and then a 12-year-old girl, when a ball kicked with some force again caused a frame to topple over. In 1991 an 11-year-old boy was killed at Witham in Essex. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), whose constituency contains that town, wishes to say a word about that.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

My hon. Friend mentioned the tragic death of the son of my constituent, Mrs. Brenda Smith of Witham. Mrs. Smith has campaigned for many years to draw public attention to the continuing deaths and injuries from dangerous goalposts. Indeed, late last year Mrs. Smith and I met my hon. Friend the Minister, and we were encouraged by her positive response. Does my hon. Friend agree that the way forward is a combination of safe equipment and greater public awareness?

Mr. Blizzard

I agree with those points, but other steps can be taken. One important feature of that incident was the fact that the goalposts were not factory made by a reliable manufacturer—a point that I shall develop later.

In 1994, a six-year-old boy was killed on holiday. Again the crossbar, which was a piece of scaffold pole, toppled over. In 1995, a 13-year-old boy was killed and in 1996 a two-year-old girl. Again in 1996, a 10-year-old girl was killed when posts toppled over: one set had been leaning against a wall. It is possible that there were a couple more deaths in 1996, but I do not have details of them. Each of those deaths was a tragedy, but collectively they are a disgrace, because they were all preventable.

I should explain my constituency interest in this matter. A firm in Lowestoft in my constituency, Harrod UK, is the country's leading goalpost manufacturer. It has nothing to do with Harrods, the Knightsbridge version. Harrod UK supplies nearly all the premier league clubs, including Manchester United. It supplied goalposts for Euro 96 and for the new Cardiff stadium, and will probably do so for the new Wembley stadium, too.

The chairman of the company, Mr. Ron Harrod, has campaigned on goalpost safety since 1991. He is a recognised technical expert. He represents this country on the CEN—the European Committee for Standardisation—and has done so for the past seven years. He took his campaign to the "That's Life" programme in 1991 and made representations to lain Sproat, the Minister in the previous Government, but received little response.

If we analyse this sad list of fatal accidents, we find that they almost all involve free-standing, movable goalposts, particularly the smaller 6 ft size used for five, six and seven-aside games. The goalposts topple forward when someone swings on or applies pressure to the crossbar. Almost all are home made or adapted from factory models by well-meaning people, but with disastrous consequences. That is exemplified by the police report into the Dewsbury case and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury for showing that to me. The goalposts were originally full-sized posts and had concreted into the ground, but they had been taken down and adapted. They were heavy—it took three adults to move them—but they were not anchored and of the 21 strong steel spikes that were supplied originally, only one was left and the remainder had been substituted with 10 camping-type pegs, which were not up to the job.

An expert witmess from the Health and Safety Executive stated that, because of the design, only a small amount of force was required to make the posts fall forward under their own weight. Design is the key, and it is important to maximise stability to minimise weight. Harrod UK has developed technical solutions to make the posts safe, particularly with the use of anchors, but also with prominent labels on the equipment and bold instruction leaflets. As a result of the campaigning and committee work of people such as Ron Harrod, a European standard—BSEN 748— now exists for full-sized goalposts. Guidelines and safety warnings have been issued by various organisations, including the HSE, the British Association of Advisers and Lecturers in Physical Education, the Institute of Sport and Recreation Managers and the National Playing Fields Association. The Football Association, through the county associations, advises referees to check them before use. Indeed, the laws of association football require that frames must be anchored securely to the ground". Many games, kickabouts and training sessions all over the country do not take place under FA rules and the guidelines have not stopped accidents and deaths. Above all, there is not yet a standard for small, free-standing goal posts.

At the inquiry into the Dewsbury tragedy, the coroner recommended that such a standard be developed. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport has taken a close interest in that. She kindly met me and Harrod UK in December and progress has been made. The British Standards Institution has agreed to draw up a standard, but that takes two years to develop, so it will introduce a publicly available specification—a PAS—which can be developed more quickly. We hope that that will be done this year. The FA has agreed to fund the development of that and is sending out new safety guidelines, of which I have already seen a draft.

Vital issues remain outstanding. Although a British standard and FA guidelines will make a valuable contribution, they will not alone solve the problem or stop the deaths. The standard will not cover existing goalposts. A standard in this country is voluntary and a manufacturer does not have to adopt it. Most important, we do not have a law making it illegal to make, sell or use non-standard equipment. The new standard will not overcome the main problem, which is the use of homemade or adapted goalposts. By their nature, the pieces of equipment are not made by recognised manufacturers, most of whom would follow the recommended standard. Will my hon. Friend consider the possibility of legislation, so that when safety is involved only equipment that meets the recognised standard is allowed to be sold and used in this country? Will she consider the position in France, where the standard is incorporated into legislation? I understand that it is now illegal in France to make, distribute or use non-standard goalposts. In Germany, a standard is not incorporated in legislation, but I understand that insurance is invalid if non-standard equipment is used, leaving providers and users open to civil proceedings by the injured party. That concentrates the mind and introduces a safety culture.

The standard may give us a safe product, but how do we ensure that goalposts are used properly and safely? How do we ensure that the anchors, which are the answer to the problem, are utilised routinely? The police inquiry into the Dewsbury incident made an interesting point in its conclusion. It said: There is some concern amongst staff about the role of the HSE and its relationship to Local Authority Environmentally Health for these issues. It is not clear who has responsibility for enforcement. This needs clarifying so that it is clear who has responsibility for enforcement and any future cases. The HSE wrote to my constituent, Ron Harrod, in 1996, and made the important point that: sports equipment does not usually fall into the category of work equipment. This means that the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 concerning the design and manufacture of equipment will not apply. The HSE therefore has no remit in this respect, and all matters of design of sports and play equipment fall to the Department of National Heritage"— now the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

I wrote to the HSE at the end of last year, and was told that only two of those nine incidents occurred in circumstances in which the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act applied, and in which the HSE was the enforcing authority. In the other cases, which often involved children playing with home-made goalposts during their own free time, there was no legal duty on anyone under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act. The activities of voluntary football clubs or of children playing on their own would not be covered by the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act.

Which is the responsible enforcement authority in these cases? The questions of enforcement, inspection and responsibility need to be clarified so that they can be comprehensive in their coverage. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree that we need a high-profile campaign to get across to people playing in these circumstances what they have to do, and the importance of carrying out the safety checks and procedures.

In conclusion, I emphasise the following points. A British standard for small free-standing goalposts, which we are now going to have, is an important step forward, as are more guidelines from the Football Association. However, if we are to take safety truly seriously, and to ensure that our children do not continue to be put at risk of being killed by goalposts, we must ensure that only safe goalposts can be made, sold and used in this country. We must do that if we seriously want to avoid more children being added to the tragic list that has accumulated over the past 13 years.

11.43 am
The Minister for Sport (Kate Hoey)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on securing a debate on such an important subject. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and thank him for his short contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney outlined a difficult problem, which concerns all of us involved with the safety of young children, especially when they are involved in sporting activities. Many other hon. Members share that concern, and have expressed their regret at not being able to be here for the debate.

All those playing sport, especially children, should be able to do so in safety. As my hon. Friend pointed out, nine children have been killed in accidents involving goalposts since 1986. That is nine too many. It is worrying that of the nine, five children aged between two and 13 have lost their lives since 1994. It is important that the coroners noted that the accidents were not just the result of kids being kids. Many of the mobile goals collapsed during normal use in the course of matches. Many adults have also been injured in this way.

Figures from the Department of Trade and Industry's consumer safety unit show that 1,943 people suffered injuries in accidents involving goalposts between 1990 and 1997. However, that figure includes full-size, permanent equipment as well as mobile goalposts, and by no means all those incidents were caused by faulty equipment.

I became Minister for Sport shortly after the tragic death last July of Jack Sheerin, who died after being hit by the falling crossbar of a mobile goal. That tragedy led to much publicity, and Jack's parents—together with parents of other children recently killed or injured—are determined that such a tragedy should never happen again. Mrs. Sheerin rightly drew the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) who, in turn, raised it with me. This week, I received a petition signed by 1,071 people from Jack's home town of Thornhill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree came to see me last October with Mrs. Brenda Smith, the mother of Jonathan Smith, who was tragically killed in 1991. I pay tribute to her work over the years in bringing the issue to the attention of those in authority and to everyone in the sport. I gained much valuable information from her and I was struck by her determination to raise awareness of the issue.

I regard it as a priority to make progress on minimum standards for mobile goalposts. Mobile goals designed for use in five-a-side are different from permanent, full-sized goals, which are secured to concrete or other mountings. Permanent goalposts are subject to the British standard BSEN 748, which was introduced in 1996. Mobile goals serve a different purpose, often enabling children to play competitive matches on appropriately sized pitches. They are designed to be dismantled and stored easily, particularly at the end of the match or training session when there is often little room for storage.

A range of mobile goals manufactured by reputable firms in a variety of sizes and specifications has been available to clubs for many years. They are either lightweight constructions of plastic or aluminium or are made of heavier steel pipes, which are designed to be securely anchored in the ground. If fitted and maintained in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions, this equipment is safe to use. However, many of the goals in children's matches are adapted from full-size goals or are constructed on a do-it-yourself basis—often by well-meaning parents who are anxious to help out their sons' or daughters' clubs. The goal that killed Jack Sheerin was cut down from a full-sized one and it was not secured to the ground. The collapse of home-made equipment contructed from scaffolding poles led to the deaths of Jonathan Smith in 1991 and David O'Neill in 1994. I am sure that those goals were built with the best of intentions, but there is no place for dangerously unsafe equipment in sport and there is a clear need for an effective safety standard.

The variety of mobile goals in use makes it difficult to impose standards, which are the responsibility of individual clubs rather than of local government or the football authority. Local authorities are responsible for the design and maintenance of their own facilities, including goalposts and other sports equipment. The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said, requires those who control football pitches used by others to take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of the equipment that they provide. However, the Act does not apply to equipment provided by the users themselves. Most mobile goals owned and used by adult and children's amateur football clubs throughout the country are the responsibility of the clubs themselves, even when club matches are played on local authority pitches.

I have been asked to consider introducing legislation to set minimum standards or to hold local authorities and other sports ground owners responsible for all equipment used on their property. I understand those calls and why people feel so strongly that that is necessary. I am prepared to reflect further. However, we must consider whether such legislation could make a difference. I am prepared to take into account what is happening in France and Germany. We could learn from what they have achieved in France using a combination of legislation and standards.

I have been holding discussions with goalpost manufacturers since the autumn. As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said, I have had a meeting with Harrod UK, a leading company in the field based in his constituency. It is clear from those discussions that all the manufacturers are concerned to do as much as they can to ensure that the 3,500-odd sets of fixed and mobile goalposts that they produce each year are safe. Problems with mobile equipment arise when clubs use home-made or unsuitable goalposts. While I can see how people immediately assume that legislation would help, we must consider carefully how it would work. However, I undertake to look into the matter again.

An important way forward is to ensure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree said, that all clubs and coaches are aware of the dangers of inadequate equipment and of best practice in the design, use and maintenance of mobile goalposts. I have encouraged the Football Association and the British Standards Institution to consider a British standard for mobile goals as a matter of urgency.

The FA issued a guidance note on the design and use of mobile goalposts back in 1991, which it has regularly updated. It is a good, clear document and I am anxious that all amateur football clubs and coaches working with young people have access to it. The FA has circulated a note to all affiliated football coaches since the last tragic death in July, and reprinted it prominently in an issue of its magazine, Insight. I have been in touch with the FA to ensure that, having done that, it does not forget about the issue for the next six months; it must continue regularly to bring it to people's attention.

To ensure that the guidance note reaches a wider audience, including ground staff working for bodies that are not affiliated to the FA, I wrote to several leisure and local government bodies last November asking them to ensure that the guidance note receives as much publicity as possible. So far, I have had an encouraging response. The Chief Leisure Officers Association has circulated the note to all its members and including it on its website, and the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management has ensured that its members are fully aware of best practice.

Raising awareness of this issue with the people who run junior teams is vital. Many demands are placed on those who take on the task of coaching junior teams and arranging matches. I was recently contacted by the manager of an under-eights team in Cheshire, who listed the many stressful duties it is necessary to carry out before a competitive match or training session involving children can kick off. Transport has to be organised, subscriptions collected and playing areas checked for sharp and other dangerous or unpleasant objects. It is a demanding routine, which must often be carried out while supervising excited children. However, my correspondent stressed—I am sure that this view is shared by all those who are involved with young players—that safety must be the primary consideration, and that there must be no compromise on the standards of equipment. I hope that, in time, everyone involved in children's sport will demonstrate a similar awareness of safety issues.

As well as ensuring that those running local football clubs are fully aware of the need to make sure that all equipment is in good condition and that it is used correctly, I am also anxious to encourage the setting of a minimum standard. Following my meetings with manufacturers, I was pleased when many of them—including the firm that is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney—attended a meeting with the FA and the British Standards Institution, where much progress was made.

Setting a British standard is a lengthy process involving much research and consultation. As my hon. Friend said, it can take up to two years. While manufacturers of mobile goalposts are working towards that standard, I am glad to say that they have agreed as a matter of urgency to develop, with the BSI, a publicly available specification. That will be a much quicker process. The institution has agreed in principle that when the publicly available specification is published, it will be given fast-track consideration with a view to its forming the basis of a full British standard.

Mr. Blizzard

I am encouraged by what my hon. Friend has said about how much activity is being concentrated on trying to deal with the problem. Could not the authorities include in the circulars that they send out a strong recommendation that every club or organisation checks to see whether goalposts are from a reliable manufacturer or are of the do-it-yourself variety, and couple that with an equally strong recommendation that they cease using the latter type immediately? Dangerous goalposts could still be in use as we sit here now.

Kate Hoey

My hon. Friend is quite right. Even if we get the standard and make things better for the future, dangerous goalposts could still be in use all around the country. I will suggest strongly that it could be put in that light rather than as just a simple piece of information. The FA and the institution are contributing to the costs of the research work and will issue a joint document shortly, covering the design, use and maintenance of existing mobile equipment. I am pleased that the organisations are working together on this, as it is very important.

I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government and I as Minister for Sport take this issue very seriously. Sports safety is becoming more of an issue because increasingly in this country people go to legislation if something happens. Sports, particularly at the voluntary level, will find it difficult if they are involved in costly legislation. It is crucial that they act to avoid the terrible tragedies that can happen to families.

I will continue to meet many of the people involved in manufacturing, regulating and using mobile goals, and to talk to my hon. Friends who have taken an interest. I am sorry that I cannot promise instant legislation. I will look to how we might combine the best efforts of everyone to ensure that the safety aspect is balanced by people themselves being responsible for the measures that they take when they are working with children. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue today and for helping to promote the awareness that is so necessary to ensure the safety of our children.