The government has ignored key demands made by disabled fans in its new white paper on football governance, say campaigners.
The 99-page A Sustainable Future document mentions disability just once, and even then it calls on clubs to improve accessibility for “those with disabilities”, rather than disabled people.
The white paper comes only three months after a survey by the disabled-led charity Level Playing Field, which represents disabled sports fans in England and Wales, found increasing numbers of disabled supporters were facing barriers to watching live sport.
Now Level Playing Field has raised concerns about the white paper’s failure to deal with crucial issues relating to disabled fans.
Among the proposals in the white paper, published last week, are a new independent regulator for the men’s elite game; a guarantee for fans to have a greater say in the strategic running of their clubs and helping to protect their clubs’ heritage; and new tests to ensure suitable owners and directors of football clubs.
The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said the “bold new plans” would “put fans back at the heart of football, protect the rich heritage and traditions of our much-loved clubs and safeguard the beautiful game for future generations”.
But Level Playing Field (LPF) said the white paper had “under-delivered” and showed “a lack of vision or action” when it came to ensuring “a more equitable and inclusive match day for disabled football fans”.
The white paper follows the Fan Led Review of Football Governance, which reported to the government in late 2021.
In its evidence to the review (PDF), LPF had called for football clubs to meet minimum, measurable accessibility standards; for disabled fans to be represented on club boards; and for there to be regular, “structured” dialogue between clubs and their disabled fans.
LPF wanted the new regulator to have powers to ensure these standards were met.
But its proposals were all missing from the white paper.
The government’s white paper says instead that “equality, diversity and inclusion” will “fall outside” of the new regulator’s “immediate scope” because the football industry “has taken on greater accountability”.
It claims the Premier League and the English Football League have set their own standards on equality and diversity which are “clear, coherent and proportionate”.
But Owain Davies, chief executive of Level Playing Field, said the single reference to disability in the white paper was “not good”.
He said: “We feel what’s been written lacks the teeth to drive change and to ensure access and inclusion is delivered and there is not just lip service.
“It was our moment in the sun to be able to make meaningful change for disabled people and it has under-delivered and we are really frustrated.”
Tony Taylor, Level Playing Field’s chair, added: “Tracey Crouch [who chaired the Fan Led Review] stated that football must seize a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ to reform, and we wholeheartedly agree.
“We are disappointed that this white paper proposal lacks the vision to future-proof the game for disabled sports fans and bring about real-time improvements to disabled match-going fans.
“Once again, we find it necessary to emphasise the need for disability representation in footballing governance to shape and deliver appropriate inclusion.”
Davies said there was evidence that lots of football clubs, when it comes to disability, “do it really well”, but he said that others “struggle”, and “that’s where the independent regulator could have supported” that work.
He said: “We wanted the government to invest in this, to prioritise the matchday experience for disabled fans.
“We want disability to be talked about at board level, so that it cascades across a whole organisation and it lives and breathes disability because it is prioritised at the top of the tree.”
But he said the white paper suggests instead that equality issues are not being treated as a priority.
He said: “It feels like it’s been like that forever. It’s time to make the change now.”
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport refused to comment.
Picture: Tony Taylor (left) and Rishi Sunak
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