We have to be clear about what we are asking for here, what we are talking about and what the long and short term solutions are.
Barry Brotherton is absolutely correct to say that TMBC are legally responsible for licensing the safety of Old Trafford. This means that they have to, and be seen to be, making sure that Ground Regulations are enforced, amongst other things (such as approving new stands, checking exits etc etc). In doing this they are guided by the relevant legislation.
The Football Licensing Authority(FLA) are responsible for granting football grounds a license to stage football matches, under the legislation Barry refers to (the Football Spectators Act 1989, the Football Spectators (Seating) Order 1994). The latter of these is not a law as such ('not primary legislation'), but a "statutory instrument pertaining to the Act" (the FSA1989). This can be changed only by Government (I don't think it requires new legislation, but the minister would have to go before the House to announce a change, as David Mellor (I think) did when he exempted 2 and 3 division clubs.)
TMBC are the people who grant a SAFETY certificate for the ground (as opposed to a football license) and to do this they are legally responsible for ensuring that the ground meets the requirements of the legislation, in this case the FSA1989 (but also the Fire and Safety at Sports Grounds Act 1985, the Sale of alcohol legislation etc. etc.) Thus, they must ensure that it is all-seater.
However, that safety certificate is also dependent on other criteria being met. One of these is that the Ground Regulations are upheld. GRs are determined nationally (I think with some small amount of discretion) , set by the Football Licensing Authority, and approved by government, and these stipulate that fans must remain seated at all times, except in moments of extreme excitement.
If TMBC grant a safety certificate for OT in the full knowledge that GRs are NOT being upheld, then they could be legally liable should someone be injured. This could result in them being sued, potentially for millions. I think I am right in saying that the local authority have to be satisfied that the club have done everything possible to enforce GRs. If they are not, then they have to close the ground, or 'problem' sections of it. This is the current threat. Persistent standing suggests that GRs are not being enforced and therefore puts TMBC in a very difficult position.
This is all very depressing because it paints everyone (club, TMBC, fans) into a corner. But I can well understand the legally binding position which Barry Brotherton and TMBC are in. Therefore attacking him or TMBC will get us nowhere and isn't even very fair. Even if we managed to elect an entire council of IMUSA members onto TMBC it would not change this situation ONE JOT.
Now, before being dismissed as a soft-bellied, sell-out academic, there are numerous contradictions which neither club nor local authority are dealing with, such as:
- the fact that persistent standing is tolerated sometimes (Songs of Praise, Juventus) and not others, which makes a mockery of legal arguments (ie they can do all they like during PL games, but an incident at another time could still lead to them being sued)
- that some local authorities seem to ignore the issue, whilst others don't (are half the local authorities in danger of being sued?)
- that ejecting people from the ground causes public order, safety and other issues which are arguably worse in terms of supporter safety (although because they are in the context of meeting their legal duty, would probably NOT make club or authority liable for any resulting injury)
- that the process of ejecting people actually causes MORE people to stand - and therefore increases the 'dangers'
- that this issue could result in a huge breakdown of relations between fans and club.
There are also questions over legal terminology: how is 'persistent' defined? How is 'extreme excitement' defined? I imagine the response of the club would be: 'when we decide it is and we reserve the right to eject anyone not complying with GRs (and we reserve the right to refuse admission/eject for other reasons, if you read your Season Ticket)'. However, this is may be why they have used 'foul and abusive language' rather than 'persistent standing' as the reason - it may be easier legally.
What IS curious is why have other local authorities suddenly started raising this issue as well? I know that Leeds fans all had the same kind of letter we have had; that Leeds council 'got tough' toward the end of last season - causing many of the same problems as SPS have here; and both Boro and Derby are making it an issue as we know to our cost. TMBC's renewed interest in this issue fits into this pattern and it would be good to know why this is happening and why now (have they all received new guidelines on enforcement of GRs, or a reminder of their obligations?)
Therefore the only LONG TERM solution to this is a change in NATIONAL government policy. In this case, we have to welcome TMBC's willingness to participate in trial safe standing and we should respond very positively and develop this. The technology is now there and having TMBC on board for trials of this technology is absolutely invaluable - let's make no mistake about this. We already know that the club privately would like to see it (Edwards said as much a couple of years ago, and others have said so privately, although they may be very nervous about the reaction they'd get from press, police, the Premier League and Govt if they went public).
If the issue becomes a crisis at a number of clubs, as seems likely, it might have to go public and there may be more pressure on the govt to change tack, although I simply can't see this happening before the next election at the very least. Pressure on Hoey would be one thing, as would writing to your MPs, but we know from the Task Force process that No10 is in control over such policy. We should not be under ANY illusions about the likely success of this - it will be a remarkable turnaround if the Govt. changed policy. That's not to say supporters shouldn't try - Sky would be in charge if everyone took that attitude!
However, to help that cause, any information, technology, experiences etc about foreign grounds - especially Germany as winners of 2006 (how much time and effort was wasted in the FA's campaign talking about how great our all-seater stadia were?) - will be very, very useful. Post articles, messages from other fans groups etc and even try and get stadium specs, technological details - it's all useful. Any information of this kind should also be sent to Barry Brotherton.
The SHORT term outlook is less straightforward and just as unpalatable. Fans must make up their own minds about how they respond to requests to sit, but should not be under ANY illusions about what might happen. For instance, losing a season ticket may be the least of the problems: you could be prosecuted (not for standing but for resisting etc); and, more seriously, whether prosecuted or not, under the new Disorder legislation which has been passed, you could receive a banning order on the basis that you have been ejected (whether right or wrong) from a ground. Ejection is one of the grounds specifically mentioned in the Disorder Bill. This could (subject to police, magistrates) restrict your travel abroad at any time for up to ten years. The threat to close sections of the ground should also be taken seriously - one aspect of the 1970s we don't want to see return.
However, should this situation blow up, as it clearly has the potential to do, IMUSA need to be ready. It should be made it clear at all opportunities:
- that WE don't want standing in seated areas, we want safe standing areas
- that it is patently obvious that there will be serious security and safety problems if they take a hard line on this (as they seem legally bound to do)
- that there should be consistency in how they apply regulations as inconsistency leads to greater problems
- that the key to solving the issue is properly involving supporters in the process and seeking a long term solution (one oft forgotten recommendation of the Taylor Report was that fans' reps should be on local authority stadium safety groups)
- that this has the potential to undermine progress in fan relations in other areas: if they don't involve supporters, the club could lose any advantage it has gained or may gain, in terms of better relations with fans.
One solution to this last point for the club would be to stick their necks out and call for a national change, or at least that they should be allowed, with TMBC, to explore possibilities, technology etc, whilst at the same time upholding existing legal requirements. In this sense they'd be doing as TMBC have done. Someone should approach them about this. Another would be other kinds of concessions, such as unrestricted seating areas, to be developed whilst a longer term national solution is sought.
Sorry if this sounds negative, I just don't think there's any quick fix to this and the only straightforward solution - changing government policy - will be very difficult.
The views expressed on this page are the views of the individual contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IMUSA.