HC Deb 26 May 1994 vol 244 cc227-9W
Mr. Anthony Coombs

To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage if he will grant time extensions to any of the premier league and first division football clubs in respect of the Government's 1 August all-seater deadline.

Mr. Brooke

The Governments policy has been that premier league and first division football clubs should eliminate standing accommodation from their grounds by 1 August 1994. The policy was first announced in January 1990, when the Government accepted the recommendations in Lord Justice Taylor's final report. This policy was reaffirmed in the Government's response to the Home Affairs Committee report on policing football hooliganism in May 1991 and again in July 1992, following a review of the policy by the former Secretary of State. In recognition of the costs involved, the Government reduced pool betting duty in the 1990 budget, making available to clubs some £20 million each year since then via the Football Trust, on the understanding that these funds will be used for major projects associated with Taylor implementation.

I am pleased to report that the majority of clubs in the top two divisions will meet or are planning to meet the deadline. I congratulate those clubs on the great strides they have made in improving the safety and comfort of spectators at their grounds. I have, however, indicated that I will consider extensions to the deadline in exceptional cases.

The all-seater policy will be enforced by means of the licensing system operated by the Football Licensing Authority under the Football Spectators Act 1989. Under section 11(1) and (2) of the 1989 Act I am empowered to make an order directing the FLA to include certain specified conditions about seating in the licences that it issues to clubs. Before making such an order, I am required to consult the FLA, which in turn is required to consult local authorities before making recommendations to me. The FLA consulted local authorities and clubs on 17 December 1993, asking for comments by 28 February. It submitted its main recommendations in mid-April together with copies of the representations made by local authorities and clubs. It submitted further representations in relation to two late applications at the end of April.

Of the 12 clubs that have formally applied for an extension, one—Oxford United—has been relegated to division 2, which is not subject to the 1994 deadline. I have considered the case made by the remaining 11 clubs, taking into account the recommendations made by the Football Licensing Authority.

On the basis of the information I have before me, I have today written to the chairmen of both clubs to inform them of my preliminary view in each case, and offering them the opportunity to submit further representations.

I have written to the chairmen of the following clubs, all of which are actively engaged in relocation to new stadiums, indicating that I am minded to agree that they have a valid case for an extension to the 1 August deadline:

  • Derby County
  • Grimsby Town
  • Middlesbrough
  • Portsmouth
  • Sunderland

I have warned, however, that although I am considering whether to grant an extension, my general policy remains, and I have in mind that any extension should be for a limited period only.

I have also explained that any decision to allow the retention of standing accommodation for a limited period will not affect safety requirements at the ground. Clubs will still be required to observe the terms and conditions of the local authority safety certificate issued under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975, and any requirement placed on the club as a result of the FLA exercising its powers under section 13 of the 1989 Act. The responsibility of each club to ensure that the ground meets the necessary safety requirements remains unchanged, irrespective of whether or not an extension is granted.

I have also written to the chairmen of the following clubs indicating that, while I appreciate the very real difficulties faced, I do not consider that the case presented to date is sufficiently strong to warrant an extension of the deadline beyond 1 August 1994:

  • Barnsley
  • Chelsea
  • Manchester City
  • Newcastle United
  • Oldham Athletic
  • Swindon Town

In arriving at my preliminary view, I have applied the criterion adopted by the Football Licensing Authority, which were set out in the FLA's letters of 13 November 1992 and 17 December 1993 as follows: Clubs seeking an extension in order to relocate to a new ground are expected to produce clear evidence that such an extension would be for a strictly limited period and that the club could realistically complete its relocation within a reasonable and definite timescale. Clubs applying for an extension in order to redevelop their existing grounds are expected to show why their circumstances are wholly exceptional, why the reasons for the delay could not reasonably have been foreseen, and why they could not be attributed to the actions or inaction of the club.

I must stress that I have not yet made my final decision, and before I do so I think it only right that the clubs affected should have the opportunity to comment and to make further representations to me if they feel that this would be appropriate.

In reaching my final decision I will consider each case on its individual merits in the light of the above criteria, having regard to all material facts and to the need to be consistent where circumstances are similar and fair to all clubs in the premier league and football league, first division. I will also take into account any other relevant points which the clubs wish to make in response to my letters.

I am acutely aware that it is important that clubs have as much time as possible to prepare for the 1994–95 football season. I therefore propose to end any uncertainty about the outcome of my deliberations within a matter of weeks rather than months. Clubs have been asked for any comments they may have on the contents of my letters, or for any further representations they may wish me to take into consideration, by Thursday 16 June at the very latest. My final decision will follow as soon as possible thereafter.