The equality watchdog has asked every Premier League football club to explain how they are complying with their legal duties to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled supporters under the Equality Act.
Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), wrote on 21 December to all 20 Premier League clubs, asking them to answer 18 questions about how they were complying with the act.
The clubs have until 10 February to reply to the questions, but EHRC has warned that it will take legal action against any clubs that cannot prove they are complying with the law.
EHRC released the contents of its letter this week as the Commons culture, media and sport committee published its report into the accessibility of sports grounds.
The committee’s report says that it is “completely unacceptable that a number of Premier League clubs – some of the richest sporting organisations in the UK – have failed to carry out even basic adaptations in over 20 years”.
It adds: “It is high time that sports clubs, particularly those with available finance such as those in football’s Premier League, changed their mindset.”
The Premier League promised in 2015 that every one of its clubs would meet strict access standards by August 2017.
It is due to release its own report this month on the progress made by each club, but Disability News Service reported two weeks ago that Watford had already admitted that it would breach the Premier League’s pledge.
The committee says in its report that it is “not convinced that the Premier League would impose suitable penalties” on clubs that fail to meet the pledge.
And it says that it supports EHRC’s promise to take legal action against any clubs that “continue to flout the law”.
The disabled supporters’ charity Level Playing Field welcomed this week’s report and said that it “validates many of the issues LPF has been campaigning for”, including the lack of accessible information, difficulties booking tickets, inaccessible transport, availability of appropriate seating and provision for fans with hearing and sight loss.
Tony Taylor, chair of Level Playing Field, said: “This hard hitting report confirms what we as an organisation have been saying for many years – that all too often, disabled sports fans have an inequality of matchday experience.
“We know from our own personal experiences that attending a football match or other sporting event really does make a difference for disabled people.
“We will continue to provide expert, user-led advice to clubs to facilitate this, but also to ensure that disabled fans do not have barriers placed before them when buying their tickets and can turn up at a game with the minimum of fuss, taking their place alongside fellow supporters to support their teams.
“Surely, in the 21st century, that is not too much to ask?”
Damian Collins, the Tory MP who chairs the committee, said: “When we see examples of good practice at some clubs that are already providing disabled supporters with a good experience when they attend matches, it is especially disappointing that some of the rich clubs are not doing more.
“Sports fans with disabilities are not asking for a large number of expensive changes – only to have their needs taken into account in the way sports stadia are designed and operated.”
He warned that clubs should consider it “a reputational risk – and one which sponsors would have to take seriously – if clubs continue to fail to engage with reasonable adjustments and are also therefore actually in breach of the law”.
In October, the Premier League was branded dishonest by the equality watchdog’s disability commissioner, Lord [Chris] Holmes, over its attitude to access and inclusion.
He told MPs on the committee that there had not been “anything like an inclusive culture” in the Premier League and among Premier League clubs, which was “a great shame when it is our only national game”.
Among the 18 questions EHRC has put to the 20 Premier League clubs, it has asked clubs to provide a dated copy of their most recent accessibility audit, and the dates of all previous such audits since 2003; details of measures taken to assist disabled supporters to travel to, enter and exit their stadium; and the number and location of their spaces for wheelchair-users.
EHRC also asked the clubs for evidence that these issues had been discussed at senior levels in the last 18 months.
Once it has analysed the information, the watchdog plans to publish a report on its website, alongside the names of any clubs that have failed to respond to its questions.
David Isaac, EHRC’s chair (pictured), said: “Disabled fans have been patronised for decades with every excuse in the book: that there is no demand for disabled access tickets, old stadia cannot be adapted, and even new stadia and stands won’t be compliant for years.
“These clubs are not only breaking promises to their die-hard fans, they are breaking the law.”
He added: “Let’s be clear, teams who are non-compliant will face legal action.”
In a statement, the Premier League said: “The clubs are working hard to enhance disabled fan access and facilities in their stadiums.
“The scale and scope of the commitment made by clubs in this area is unprecedented for a single sport or sector, and the timescale is ambitious.
“Following consultation with specialist architects, extensive improvements are being undertaken and rapid progress is being made.
“At some grounds, particularly older ones, there are challenging built environment issues and, given that stadiums are in use throughout the football season, there is a limited period in which significant structural work can be done.
“For the clubs which are working through those challenges, cost is not the determining factor.
“Instead they are working through issues relating to planning, how to deal with new stadium development plans, how best to manage fan disruption or, in certain cases where they don’t own their facility, having to work with third parties.
“At the end of this month we will present to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Work and Pensions, EHRC and the culture, media and sport select committee an interim report which details each club’s progress ahead of a final report due in August.
“It of course remains the case that it falls to the EHRC to form its own view as to whether the adjustments being made are reasonable, as required by legislation.”