Premier League clubs are facing the twin threat of losing their stadium safety licence and litigation over their “outrageous” failure to meet minimum guidelines for disabled fans.
A survey of Premier League clubs by the Telegraph showed that just three of the 20 stadiums currently reach recommended spaces for wheelchair users. The Football Task Force, of which the Premier League was a part, said in 1998 that these numbers should apply to all grounds and these guidelines were then also outlined in the 2003 Accessible Stadia guide for new stadiums.
Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are all in the bottom half of the Premier League table for their relative provision, despite generating hundreds of millions in revenue each year and being among the top 15 richest clubs in the world. With campaigners losing faith in the willingness of the Premier League to force change, even after the announcement of a new £5.136 billion broadcast deal, they are now preparing to take action both through Parliament and the courts.
Richard Faulkner, a Labour peer, has revealed the private members’ bill that he will put forward on the state opening of Parliament next week that would make meeting the Accessible Stadia numbers a mandatory part of all clubs receiving their safety licence and staging matches.
“Given the money in football and the size of the new broadcast deal, it is regrettable that the top level professional clubs have still not addressed the reasonable needs of their disabled fans,” he told the Telegraph. “They have had many years to make the necessary changes and many have been simply unwilling to act. There is now no alternative to legislation to force the clubs to address this situation as a matter of urgency.”
Lord Faulkner has already been promised considerable all-party support in the Lords and is hopeful of backing from the new Conservative Government. Chris Holmes, a Conservative peer who chairs the disability committee at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has also warned clubs that “there is a legal obligation under the Equality Act to ensure they are not discriminating”.
He said: “All options are on the table but it would seem fair to suggest that, over the coming months, there could well be litigation. It’s outrageous that we can have one of the richest leagues in the world and yet, far too often, the beautiful game can be an ugly experience if you are a disabled spectator.”
Club Wheelchair places Recommended number Percentage met Swansea City 226 150 151 Leicester City 197 186 106 Arsenal 250 250 100 Southampton 170 186 91 Hull City 147 165 89 Manchester City 199 226 88 West Bromwich Albion 145 168 86 Newcastle United 170 234 73 Sunderland 160 228 70 Stoke City 116 174 67 West Ham United 111 195 57 Everton 118 210 56 Liverpool 115 220 52 Chelsea 108 215 50 Manchester United 120 282 43 Aston Villa 89 214 42 Crystal Palace 66 168 39 Tottenham Hotspur56 198 28 Burnley 42 156 27 QPR 24 145 17
Source: The Telegraph
David Bernstein, the former Football Association chairman, and Paralympic legend Baroness Grey-Thompson, a cross-bench peer, have also added their support in interviews with the Telegraph. “Diversity is not about cherry-picking,” said Grey-Thompson. “It is not a game of top trumps, where you get most points if you play a particular card or shout the loudest.”
Bernstein, who stood down as FA chairman last year and is now president of Level Playing Field, the disabled supporters’ charity, said: “I am extremely disappointed with the speed of progress in dealing with disability discrimination issues. It is clear that this subject continues in the opinion of many in positions of authority and their organisations to be less important than other forms of prejudice. This is grossly unfair to the millions of disabled in this country who deserve better.”
Approximately one per cent of the population uses a wheelchair but the guidelines for football, which have been adopted as a starting point by Level Playing Field, are set at 0.34 per cent for larger stadiums. This is considerably lower than the minimum one per cent standard set out by Sport England and the International Olympic Committee.
Just 0.16 per cent of the places at Manchester United are for wheelchair users. Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Tottenham, Burnley and Queens Park Rangers have fewer than 100 places. Those clubs with the lower numbers generally cite the age and design of their grounds for being unable to increase access.
“Many of the top clubs that hide behind this excuse have been virtually rebuilt from the inside out, usually with significant additions to their VIP, hospitality and media areas,” said Joyce Cook, the chair of Level Playing Field. “It is a straightforward matter of priority and will. We have to take our heads out of the sand.”
Lord Holmes, who won a record six gold medals in swimming at the 1992 Paralympics, said it was “dreadfully disappointing” the Premier League had not led on this issue. “When there is a need to bring in new technology, more camera positions, space for different rights holders, the platforms are found in a trice,” he said. “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.”
Both QPR and Spurs have pointed to their desire to build new grounds and improve wheelchair space. West Ham United will exceed guidelines when they move into the Olympic Stadium while Manchester City will be “fully compliant” this summer. Sunderland can increase their numbers according to demand and their space is fluid. Swansea City, Leicester City and Arsenal meet or exceed guidelines.
The Premier League says clubs are aware of their responsibilities to be as accessible as practically possible. “The Premier League is also working with the clubs to ensure best practice is met wherever possible, with the proviso that the Accessible Stadia guide relates to the building, or development, of new grounds and stands from 2003 onwards,” said a spokesman. “One of our strategic priorities is ensuring better accessibility, so we will continue working hard, as will individual clubs, to achieve this.”
Manchester United also interpret the guidelines as being applicable to new stadiums. Level Playing Field are adamant that the Accessible Stadia numbers were always also intended to apply to existing stadiums, as recommended by the Football Task Force and as stated by Gerry Sutcliffe in 2008 when he was the sports minister. They also point to the 2010 Equality Act that says all service providers must make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure they are accessible to disabled people.
Story and photo reproduced from The Telegraph