The Welsh Conservatives are a party of choice, and the overwhelming majority of football fans want to see standing trialled in designated parts of the ground. That’s why we want to see the responsibility for stadium regulation devolved to the National Assembly for Wales.
At the Assembly Elections in May the Welsh Conservatives will be the only party in Wales seeking the devolution of sports ground safety. We want Wales to lead the way with a pilot so that we can sensibly assess the evidence and reconsider a piece of legislation that stigmatises ordinary fans.
It’s a campaign that we have long been involved in, and I have held numerous discussions with colleagues in Westminster and officials at the Sports Ground Safety Authority (SGSA) in recent years; not to mention working closely with groups like the Football Supporters Federation, Copa 90 and the Safe Standing Roadshow.
Our plans would allow a limited pilot of safe standing areas in Welsh grounds. Let me be clear, we don’t plan to rip up the rulebook around sports safety; advances in stadium technology have made stadiums a far more safe and comfortable environment for fans of all ages, genders and backgrounds. In fact it’s those advances which make ‘safe’ standing areas a straightforward proposition.
This isn’t about revolution, it’s about common sense and fairness, and we would commission the SGSA to continue to perform the sterling work they do. But the transfer of this power is necessary to enable clubs to press on with a pilot in Wales; a pilot that would address the concerns of sceptics and build a case for a wider roll-out throughout the UK of limited areas, akin to those routinely available in stadiums across the continent.
Every weekend hundreds of thousands of supporters make the weekly pilgrimage to watch their football team. It’s a ritual shared by men, women and children all over the UK and central to that is the collective bond: the songs, the atmosphere. Without the atmosphere football is a shadow of itself and it’s time to give something back to the most important people in the ground, the ‘twelfth man’.
Working with the Football Supporters Federation, the Welsh Conservatives have long led the way with calls for safe standing in Wales. When I commissioned a survey of fans in December 2014, 96% of you backed a return to standing areas at your ground. Those calls were backed by the Supporters Trusts of Newport County, Swansea, Cardiff and Wrexham.
I also tabled a debate in the National Assembly which attracted cross party support and led to the Assembly becoming the first legislature in the UK to formally back a return to standing areas at football grounds. It’s an issue that both my Shadow Minister for Sport (Mohammad Asghar AM) and I care passionately about.
Several years ago now I attended an FSF-sponsored event at the Cardiff City Stadium and on subsequent visits I’ve been impressed with the way City handle the issue of standing; with a dedicated, if unofficial, ‘singing section’ where fans who want to stand can do so free from nagging stewards, and those who prefer to sit can enjoy the game without their view being hindered.
The club have reported no incidents, the atmosphere has audibly improved, and everyone seems to be pretty happy with the compromise. That’s why it’s so hard to explain the reluctance of politicians to formally sanction similar arrangements throughout the country.
Clearly there are sensitivities, and the subject of Hillsborough often comes up whenever standing is discussed; but the UK Government’s ongoing inquiry arguably makes this a sensible time to look at the issue. Standing did not cause the disaster, overcrowding and catastrophic mistakes in crowd management did.
Meanwhile, the Independent Football Ombudsman is actually advising government ministers that the rules are, in any case, no longer enforceable.
For me it’s a question of fairness. How can it be safe to stand at a rugby match or a concert yet somehow inherently unsafe to stand at the football – often in the same stadiums?
That simple distinction has never made any sense outside of the context of social attitudes towards football supporters in the 1980s. We wouldn’t accept that kind of discrimination against any other social group or demographic, so why accept it when it’s levelled at football fans?
Today’s crowds are as family friendly and diverse as they’ve ever been and we don’t want to change that. But we do need to accept that things have changed and start treating football fans with more respect.
That’s why we, the Welsh Conservatives, are backing the campaign for safe standing.