The user-led charity Level Playing Field – which promotes good access for sports fans – spoke out after peers criticised clubs during a short debate in the House of Lords this week.
The disabled peer and retired Paralympian Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson told fellow peers that Manchester United was one of the worst offenders.
She said the club refused to sell season tickets to wheelchair-users and provided only 42 per cent of the number of spaces for wheelchair-users that it should.
Guidance suggests that the club should have about 280 wheelchair spaces.
Baroness Grey-Thompson said it was “impossible” to buy a season ticket at some other Premier League clubs because of the lack of accessible spaces.
The disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Brinton, a season ticket-holder at Southampton, one of only four clubs which meets the relevant guidance, suggested there should be mandatory training for staff.
She said she often had to sit with the home fans when attending a match as an away supporter.
Lord [Chris] Holmes, another retired Paralympian and now the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability commissioner, said EHRC was undertaking work to promote diversity and equality in sport, including encouraging clubs to improve access to stadiums on match days from local transport hubs.
The Labour peer Lord Faulkner, a vice-president of Level Playing Field, said the situation was “woefully inadequate” and the time had now come “for equality law to be properly enforced”.
Lord Gardiner, the Conservative culture, media and sport spokesman in the Lords, agreed that Premier League football clubs “have considerable means” and “should be looking to do very much better”.
He said he would not rule out introducing further legislation “if it becomes necessary”, but he added: “Clearly, it is the responsibility of each club to look at how it is dealing with access for disabled people.
“We think that is the best way to go because legislation can very often be a blunt instrument.”
And he said that his department and the Department for Work and Pensions were working on “a range of measures to ensure that the rights of disabled spectators are met by professional sports clubs”.
Joyce Cook, chair of Level Playing Field, said after the debate: “How can it be that the corner shop has to abide by the Equality Act to ensure that disabled people are welcomed and not discriminated against, yet the football club at the end of the road seems to ignore disability legislation?
“This shouldn’t be left to individual disabled fans to have to challenge on their own – that can’t be right – football is our national game.”
She said Level Playing Field had been calling for change for more than 10 years, and had a “very straightforward” and “very sensible” plan.
It calls for: a short-term football stadium improvement fund to help poorer, lower-league clubs; working examples of good access and expert guidance for clubs; and mandatory access audits.
Cook added: “The governing bodies should oversee these actions as a part of their remit to ensure that stadiums are safe and fit-for-purpose for all fans and to ensure that their member clubs are fulfilling their legal obligations.”
A Manchester United spokesman refused to say how many wheelchair spaces there were in the ground, Old Trafford, or to clarify whether the club allowed wheelchair-users to buy season tickets.
But he said in a statement that the club provided season tickets for “disabled fans” in its “disabled access stand”, and that those fans have access to the club’s Ability Suite, which “houses the best disabled facilities in the country”.
He said: “The club also provides over 280 parking spaces for wheelchair-users or those with other disabilities.
“The club caters for all categories of disabled fans and the majority of these tickets are provided free of charge, with additional free tickets for carers.”
A spokesman for the Premier League, the organising body of the top tier in English football, which is owned by its 20 member clubs, refused to say whether it accepted that some of its clubs were breaching equality laws.
But it said in a statement: “All Premier League clubs have arrangements in place to provide access and facilities for disabled fans.
“The highest standards of access are generally at clubs with new grounds but all clubs, even those working within the constraints of older stadia, work hard to make sure that disabled fans can attend matches and enjoy their football.”
The statement said that clubs use the Accessible Stadia Guide to “assess existing provisions and guide them on how to make improvements”.
It added: “We will continue to work with our clubs, fans and their representative organisations to make sure that the views of disabled supporters are taken into account as improvements are made in this area.”
17 July 2014