At least eight Premier League football clubs are set to break their promises to meet decent standards on access for disabled supporters in time for next August’s deadline, MPs have been told.
Joyce Cook, chair of the user-led charity Level Playing Field, told the Commons culture, media and sport committee’s inquiry into the accessibility of sports stadiums that the continuing failure of some Premier League clubs on access was “obscene” when there was so much money at the top end of the sport.
The Premier League announced last September that all 20 clubs had agreed to comply with the Accessible Stadia Guide – which was published 13 years ago, and includes guidelines on accessible information, the minimum number of wheelchair spaces for spectators and the location of viewing areas for disabled fans – by August 2017.
It was forced into making the pledge by a series of embarrassing reports on the discrimination faced by disabled supporters at many Premier League grounds.
But Cook (pictured giving evidence) told the committee this week that she believed many Premier League clubs would not meet the August 2017 deadline, and that one club had even suggested it only had to produce a plan for how it would comply with the guidelines by August 2017.
When Jesse Norman, the Conservative chair of the committee, pointed out that Premier League clubs were spending hundreds of millions of pounds on transfer fees, Cook said: “I personally find [the lack of action on access]obscene when you look at the money available, particularly money at the top end of the Premier League level.”
She said that Premier League clubs had ignored the issue “time and time again”, and had had 20 years to make the improvements since the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995.
She said: “We were so excited by the Premier League pledge, but now we are increasingly worried.”
She added: “We have eight clubs we are seriously worried about.”
The Premier League club Liverpool received the harshest criticism in the evidence session.
Cook said that the first phase of redevelopment work taking place at the club’s Anfield stadium was focused on improving hospitality facilities, which would leave the club with only 75 per cent of the number of wheelchair spaces recommended by the guidelines.
The club insists it will only proceed with phase two of its plans if it raises enough revenue from the sale of these hospitality spaces, she said.
Cook said: “It’s deeply frustrating and we think deeply unacceptable, considering how long disabled fans at Liverpool – home and away – have had to put up with extraordinarily poor conditions, a complete lack of facilities, [and]a huge waiting list that goes on forever.
“Their own disabled fans are frustrated about it, but they are not budging.”
Another Premier League club criticised was Chelsea, which hopes eventually to build a new, more accessible stadium.
But Cook said current access for disabled fans at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground was “appalling”, even though the club was owned by “one of the richest men in the world”, Roman Abramovich.
Cook was more positive about the commitment of the Football League, which governs clubs in the three divisions beneath the Premier League, and she highlighted Derby County’s “ongoing commitment to access and inclusion”, and also praised measures taken by fellow Championship side Bristol City and the non-league club Wrexham.
Cook said the access situation was “dire” across a range of sports, although the governing bodies of Premiership rugby, cricket and rugby league had recently been “extraordinarily supportive, as have the clubs”.
The following day, giving evidence to the same inquiry, Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, said the Premier League would produce a progress report on the pledge in July, which would be published.
He said he did not want to introduce legislation yet, because he wanted “to give people time to get their houses in order”.
But he said: “If a sport decided for whatever reason that they would not do that, we have to look at all options.”
And he said he would “pass judgement” on the Premier League clubs when the report was published in July.
He said: “Where there are problems then there is not anything off the table. I wouldn’t want to be one of the clubs that wasn’t receptive.”
Liverpool and the Premier League had not commented on the claims by noon today (26 May).