Football Matches (standing Spectators)

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): May I also congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) on securing the debate? I suspect that his support for Charlton Athletic is tactical and means that he does not upset half his constituents, who are going for either Aston Villa or Birmingham City. He made some interesting points. It is rare for we in this House to discuss the national game, which is close to my heart. I always appreciate it when the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) invites me to all-party football group events. I am only one of a few Conservatives with a passion for the game and I want to say several things in this debate.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath cited a lot of the historical analysis. We had fences because of the hooligan debate in the 1970s and 80s, as a result of which there was a sense of penning in a whole lot of fans. I would not disagree with what he said about terrible disasters: the two in 1985 at Bradford City and Heysel, and then that at Hillsborough four years later. Of course, the authorities were partly to blame for locking gates at Bradford, which was why the death toll was so high. There were no fences and many fans in that wooden stand who were able to save their lives were able to come on to the pitch. However, that lesson was not learned four years later on that terrible day in April 1989 when, although a lot of drunken hooligans contributed to the problem, the main issue was that a fence could not be removed quickly and also the authorities were very slow on the uptake. Those issues still live with us. It is legitimate for us to have a debate about footballing matters, as has been pointed out, because many tens of millions of pounds of public money?more than £100 million?was spent on improving our football stadiums following the Taylor report.

I have had the opportunity of watching two games in London in the past six weeks and I have seen both sides of the argument. I went to Loftus Road to watch a Queen?s Park Rangers match in the championship, and I visited the newest football ground in not just London, but England?Victoria Road, which is the ground of Dagenham and Redbridge?for a league 2 game three or four weeks ago. There was little doubt that the atmosphere there, even though it is a much smaller ground, was tremendous. There were seated and standing areas. Dagenham and Redbridge is clearly a great little family club and it prides itself on that. I was there to watch Bury, who I have followed through thin and thinner over the years, and I was particularly delighted to find both their fans and Dagenham and Redbridge fans having a drink together in the bar before going to watch the game, albeit in segregated parts of the ground.

The atmosphere has clearly been affected by the fact that we do not have the opportunity and option to have standing areas. I have some concerns about the notion that we now turn the clock back. In many ways, discussing whether we have seated or standing areas is yesterday?s argument. The reality is that if are to have the voluntary code suggested by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath, I am not convinced that that many clubs will want to change things. I fear that this is down, in part, to the management of the clubs.

There are those of us who have been passionate football fans. I remember what it was like in 1985, when attendances were at their post-war low and there was a real question about whether this national game was sustainable and, certainly, whether 92 professional clubs could be sustained. I wonder whether the ebb and flow might mean that we see lower gates in years ahead.

Speaking as a keen watcher of football on Sky Sports, it is evident, even for a number of premiership games, that matches are played in half-empty stadiums. The route forward might be that the Bolton Wanderers or Middlesbroughs of this world take the view that a voluntary code provides them with the opportunity to have a flexible policy over a period of time.

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I fear for our national game. In many ways, it would be useful if, at some point, we had a much broader debate about issues beyond standing. It is easy to blame agents, but there is endemic corruption throughout much of our game. There is administrative incompetence to a large extent, whether in the premier league or the football league, which has allowed, or meant that a blind eye has been turned to, all sorts of financial irregularities. They are not just something of the past; they are ongoing. I am sure that he, like me, has read Tom Bower?s book about the greed of football. I suspect that that is an ongoing issue. It is easy for the professionals in the game and all their friends in the media to point the finger at the greedy agents. A lot of greed and financial corruption is going on in the game as it stands, and little regard is being paid to the paying public?the spectators?who want to play their part. I fear that if there was a voluntary code, it would not achieve all that much, because the clubs would be happy to carry on with the situation as it is.

We now have some tremendous international stadiums. I have had the privilege of going to the Emirates stadium on two or three occasions in the past 18 months since it got up and running. However, we in London have particular concerns in respect of a number of premiership clubs and their stadiums getting ever larger, including at Arsenal. We are seeing possible expansion at Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, and Fulham, as was mentioned earlier, is now a premiership club, whereas only 10 years ago the team was playing in the lowest professional league. In all these cases, there is enormous pressure on transport services, although little attention and money has been given to that in relation to football and its wider responsibilities.

I fear that, in many ways, this is yesterday?s argument. There has been a great improvement in safety. I think that all of us are delighted that the endemic hooliganism that blighted the national game for so many years in the 1970s and 80s, when it was felt by many that our national game was a disgrace and our fans abroad were an absolute disgrace, is not so apparent. I am not so naïve as to suggest that there is no hooliganism at all in the game any more, but things are certainly considerably better.

In my visit only a few weeks ago to Loftus Road, I was surprised that in Shepherd?s Bush, within a couple of hundred yards of the ground, the pub I went into beforehand insisted that we showed our tickets so that the end of the ground that we were going into could be seen to ensure that we were being segregated. I had assumed that it would be all pints of beer, which I quite like occasionally, but this was a wine bar in which everyone was drinking wine. There was a different culture, not just in respect of the alcohol being consumed, but because there was a family environment. A lot of women now support our national game. All this suggests that there is a positive route forward and I worry that we passionate football fans are getting worked up about the issue of standing and all-seater stadiums.

There is little doubt that there are smaller attendances. Going back to my visit to Victoria Road to see Dagenham and Redbridge, there were only 1,700 fans in the ground. I suspect that, notwithstanding Colchester United?s great success in recent seasons, only 5,000 or 6,000 people turn up at Layer Road regularly. There are, therefore, broad issues to do with atmosphere that I think that we all want to encourage. We need to ensure that we encourage the next generation at a time when football will no longer be quite as high profile or attractive a game.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and I will now allow the representative for Colchester United to have more than his say. This has been a useful debate, and I hope that we will have many more along these lines in the years to come.