A disabled peer is to write to broadcasters and sponsors of football’s Premier League to suggest they should withdraw their support if clubs do not do more to improve access for disabled fans.
Lord [Chris] Holmes, a retired Paralympian and now disability commissioner with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said that sponsors should “consider their connection and relationship to football and how that fits with their ethical state” if clubs do not make progress on access.
The Conservative peer was speaking as the House of Lords debated the second reading of a private member’s bill sponsored by the Labour peer Lord Faulkner.
His accessible sports grounds bill would give local authorities the power to refuse a safety certificate to sports grounds which do not comply with accessible stadia guidelines.
One of the reasons for the bill, Lord Faulkner told fellow peers, is that disabled fans do not feel comfortable taking legal action under the Equality Act against their own football club.
Lord Holmes described how disabled fans at Liverpool had received death threats from other supporters when they complained that they couldn’t see the action on the pitch, and how – as reported by Disability News Service last month – an Arsenal supporter in his 80s had his walking stick taken away by Manchester United stewards.
Lord Holmes said the Premier League’s own handbook, which all clubs have to follow, contains pages of provisions that they have to make for broadcasters and other media, but just one line on disability access.
He said: “I believe that what we see is nothing short of shambolic. Feeble excuses begone! They have been used for far too long.
“The Premier League has been in existence for more than 20 years and we do not have even minimal access for disabled fans.
“Yet when it comes to new cameras and media positions the changes are made in a trice.”
Another disabled peer and retired Paralympian, Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, described how Manchester United (pictured) had described her views on the club’s access failings as “uninformed”, despite her attendance at six Olympic Games, seven Paralympics and 11 World Championships, as well as European championships, Commonwealth Games, and other events at venues with far more than Old Trafford’s 75,000 seats.
She said she was persuaded of the need for legislation when she heard how United had told a family with a disabled son “that they should perhaps go and support a smaller club like Stockport, which might be able to accommodate them”.
She said: “Those clubs do not deserve those fans, and that is why we should support this legislation.”
A third disabled peer, Baroness Brinton, president of the Liberal Democrats, spoke of her experience at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
She was unable to sit with other trustees of UNICEF UK at the opening ceremony because there were no spaces for wheelchair-users in the VIP seats.
Baroness Brinton welcomed new regulations by European football’s governing body UEFA which mean that each club will have to appoint a disability access official.
But she said there had been “disturbing reports” from some of the big Premier League clubs mentioned in the debate that disability access officers “sometimes prevent disabled supporters from getting tickets because they have ‘caused trouble’ in the past” about access arrangements.
Lord Faulkner, who is vice-president of Level Playing Field (LPF), the user-led organisation that works to improve access to sporting venues, said disabled away supporters at 55 of the 92 clubs in England’s top four football leagues are forced to sit with home fans.
He said: “Disabled fans are often asked to hide their team colours and to refrain from celebrating goals. It can be an intimidating and hostile experience.
“They have been verbally abused and threatened, and some have had coins, cigarette lighters, urine and other items thrown at them.”
Another Labour peer, Lord Rosser, also a vice-president of LPF, pointed out that only two Premier League clubs allowed online ticket purchases for disabled supporters.
He said the estimated cost of meeting football’s own minimum standards on access at every Premier League club was less than £8.5 million, and to make the same improvements “to the very highest standards”, with wheelchair-user spaces in the upper tiers of stands and across the stadia, would cost less than £25 million.
The annual wage bill for players at all 20 Premier League clubs in 2013 was £1.85 billion.
Baroness Neville-Rolfe, the junior culture, media and sport minister, said the government did not back the new bill because sports stadia already had to make reasonable adjustments for disabled fans under the Equality Act.
But she made it clear that equality legislation applied to older stadia and not just newer grounds.
She said the government would be consulting soon on its new sports strategy, which will include a section on access, and “will be asking how to tackle this issue, not just from a narrow safety perspective, as the bill does, but more broadly”.
She said: “We need to do consultative work before considering whether legislation or indeed other measures are necessary, but I am sure that today’s debate will be an important input into this very important process.”
Lord Faulkner replied: “Disabled people do not need yet another period of consultation on what they need when they attend sports grounds.
“Rather, the consultation that has gone on almost without cessation over the last 20 years needs to be taken into account, and action needs to be taken now.”
Picture: Old Trafford by Wikistadiums.org is licensed under https://creativecommons.org/