On October 18 I gave evidence to the Culture Media and Sport select committee’s inquiry into the accessibility of Premier League football grounds. This follows much work, by many Parliamentarians, across both Houses, to attempt to bring football, in inclusion terms, into the 21st Century.
Last year, Lord Faulkner of Worcester Accessible Sports Grounds Bill was a significant attempt to highlight and resolve the matter.
At second reading, there was support across the House of Lords for what the Bill was seeking to achieve; reasonable access for disabled spectators to sports grounds, including those of football’s Premier League. I was delighted to take part in the debate on the Bill.
It was an excellent Bill, a straightforward Bill. A Bill which demonstrates many things, not least Lord Faulkner of Worcester’s long standing support for those who simply want to access sport.
The mechanism for achieving this aim was simple, that clubs failing to meet the minimum guidelines would not be licenced with a safety certificate and so be unable to stage matches.
Unfortunately the Government felt unable to support Lord Faulkner’s Bill but efforts seemed not to have been totally in vain when in September last year the Premier League announced that by the summer of 2017 all grounds would meet accessibility guidelines.
Just three of the 20 Premier League stadiums currently reach recommended spaces for wheelchair users. The Football Task Force, of which the Premier League was a part, said in 1998 that the recommended number of accessible spaces should apply to all grounds and these guidelines were then also outlined in the 2003 Accessible Stadia guide for new stadiums.
It is not only seating, other cases of discrimination at some of our top flight clubs include:
Liverpool: During the last match of the 2015 season at Anfield, a small group of fans displayed a large banner in front of disabled fans which completely blocked their view of the pitch. When the disabled fans asked a steward to intervene, a fan became extremely abusive and violent.
Manchester United: In May 2015, an elderly male, in his 80s with a walking stick and a male in his 20s who had a cast on his foot and was on crutches were refused to Old Trafford due to the walking stick/crutches they had as it was claimed that they could be used as weapons.
I have no desire to single out the stewards, although I would be very interested in what diversity and inclusion training they received, but it is clear that poor access and discrimination against disabled fans has tarnished the reputation of football for too long. Unless action is taken soon to address the glacial speed of progress, major sponsors should think long and hard about whether it remains ethical to continue with their relationship with football.
The time for the same old feeble excuses has passed. Particularly hiding behind the age of stadiums to explain inaction, just look at the positive achievements at Tranmere Rovers and Wrexham to counter this.
It seems clear that, when there is a need to bring in new technology, more camera positions, space for different rights holders, changes are made in a trice. Many stadiums have been virtually rebuilt from the inside out, with significant additions to VIP, hospitality and media areas but it has been a different story when it comes to accessibility.
And what is the score at half time? Despite promises to meet accessibility guidelines by summer 2017 more than a third of Premier League clubs, including two of the richest teams in the world, will not have adequate facilities for disabled fans by August. Chelsea, Liverpool, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth are all set to miss the deadline, according to the disabled fans organisation Level Playing Field (LPF).
This is not acceptable. If you can make the Cambridge college that I went to accessible, with buildings that date back to the 15th century, it is entirely possible to solve this problem. It’s time for Premier League clubs to show leadership and stop treating disabled fans like second class citizens.
Football is our national sport. Sadly, all too often, for many disabled supporters, the beautiful game is an ugly, ugly experience.
Premier League Statement
"Premier League clubs are working extremely hard to improve disabled access in their grounds.
"The commitments made in this area are wide-ranging and will set new standards for sport and other sectors. They have challenged all clubs, some of which will have significant logistical and built environment issues, involving old stands, planning issues and new stadia. All are working towards making their grounds meet the appropriate standards in the agreed timescale and improving the experience for their disabled fans."
Tim Vine Director of International and Government Relations