Football policing unit impeding key law change for return of fans to stadiums

·7-min read
Clubs are desperate for fans to return to stadiums but the government are yet to give the go ahead (PA)
Clubs are desperate for fans to return to stadiums but the government are yet to give the go ahead (PA)

A core element of meticulous plans to gradually reintroduce fans to stadiums when it is safe to do so is being blocked by the United Kingdom Football Policing Unit, despite clashing with the predominant feeling of those policing the games, The Independent can reveal.

The English Football League issued guidance to clubs recently revealing it would be campaigning for a review into the law that prevents supporters from drinking alcohol “in view of the pitch.”

This is in addition to discussions that have been taking place for months among Premier League teams pushing for the removal of that legislation.

After several unsuccessful attempts in recent years to change the law, the global pandemic has presented another opportunity to force a rethink.

Repealing The Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol Act), introduced in 1985 to curb the hooliganism that marred that period, would ease social distancing concerns around congestion on concourses - one of the government’s stated barriers to allowing smaller crowds back in at grounds.

Over three decades after being enforced, the blanket ban which has been termed “outdated and based on prejudice” by the Football Supporters' Federation is viewed as disproportionate with the current level of risk.

The United Kingdom Football Policing Unit, however, are advising government against any changes to the law, saying they "strongly object" to it. They cite the game's "unique public order risks” to maintain the status quo.

In a document dated 30 September 2020, seen by The Independent, there is an insistence that the policy is “not discriminatory in nature” despite it not applying to other sporting codes or mass gatherings like music concerts.

The letter, being put to government, offers that some supporters prefer alcohol “to be confined to concourse, bar and hospitality areas. This is particularly so in relation to family groups with younger children. Changes to the legislation would mean these groups would not be able to avoid the ‘drinking culture.’"

Multiple sources - from governing bodies, fan representatives at clubs and the police force - have informed The Independent that no active research was done to establish this point, which was presented as fact.

The linking of a rise in reported hate crimes to alcohol is also not borne out in any official research.

One individual from the policing sector with intimate knowledge of the UKFPU highlighted their lack of interest in gaining accurate information on a matter by flagging their use earlier this year of feedback from an external stakeholders survey, which featured a total of just four respondents.

“They have a habit of presenting a narrative that suits their own prejudices as fact and then say it reflects the police position nationally,” the source said. “Their views, though, are separate to the police force, and in the main, it contradicts it.

“Government ministers can’t ignore it because UKFPU work with the Home Office and National Police Chiefs Council Football Lead. Even if their take is different to the evidence and expertise of local police, who have spent years learning about their specific crowd behaviour, it is seen as gospel.”

The UKFPU have been accused of “ignoring public safety issues in their obsession with public disorder” as was the case when they heavily campaigned for neutral venues - championed by NPCC Football Lead Mark Roberts of South Yorkshire police.

What is the UKFPU?

The United Kingdom Football Policing Unit (UKFPU) works with the Home Office and the National Police Chiefs Council Football Lead (NPCC). Its aim is to reduce violence, anti-social behaviour and disorder at football events involving UK football teams. UKFPU co-ordinates national football policing policy on behalf of DCC Mark Roberts of South Yorkshire police, the current NPCC Football Lead. The Football Banning Orders Authority (FBOA) is part of the UKFPU. It deals with all football banning orders issued by courts in England and Wales, including the surrender of passports for football matches involving UK domestic and international teams when playing outside the UK. The UKFPU gives advice, assistance and training to all police forces in England and Wales to provide a consistent approach to football events. UKFPU provides the football arrest figures released by the Home Office. The UKFPU is the National Football Information Point (NFIP) for the UK. UKFPU collates, assesses and distributes information to all those that need it, ensuring that appropriate action is taken and feedback is given for all relevant information and intelligence. The UKFPU co-ordinates police deployments overseas when the English or Welsh national teams play.

Supporters were viewed as a “threat” to be “reduced” then as football was planning its return from a Covid-enforced suspension, and as one crowd policing expert noted, the language used in the letter continues that theme.

“Their assumption and argument is that - despite the evidence - alcohol is a causal factor in disorder and that at the core of football is a mob of thugs given their use of the term “drinking culture,” he said.

“They paint a picture that ordinary law-abiding families need to be protected from this group by forcing them onto the concourse at half time.

“As we have seen from the pilots [11 successful test events across the EFL, Premier League, Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship] nothing could be further from the truth. But the truth doesn't seem to matter.

“Just take their point about ‘beer throwing in crowded bar areas’. The fact that happens is precisely because all fans are forced onto the concourse at half time if they want a drink.”

An EFL official, meanwhile, circled UKFPU’s mention of other sports moving in the direction of alcohol controls as proof that a change in the legislation allowing fans to drink in view of the pitch doesn't remove the ability to reimpose localised restrictions if authorities judge that risk is high. 

There is mass annoyance as well as disbelief from several Premier League and EFL clubs at the way safe standing has been portrayed in the document.

Earlier this year, an interim report from the Sports Grounds Safety Authority concluded it “has had a positive impact on spectator safety, particularly in mitigating the risk of crowd collapse.”

Behaviour at Celtic Park and Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, Shrewsbury Town, Wycombe Wanderers and Oxford United was studied.

“This is another example of UKFPU’s disregard of hard evidence in favour of pushing football as a public order threat to keep themselves relevant,” one governing body official said. “They have a worrying culture and a complete lack of accountability that needs to be rectified.”

Several clubs are livid at the amount of time, consultation with experts, effort and the cost undertaken to prep stadiums for fans to return in a safe, socially distant matter only to be regularly curtailed by a government whose guidance they stringently followed.

Manchester United, for example, "spent two months working with the guidelines to develop the right processes and measures to make sure that we can have around 23,500 people in this stadium safely social distancing," as their chief operating officer Collette Roche explained.

Clubs have shown a willingness to be pro-active on the matter but frustration is evidently rising.

This development with UKFPU will not aid football’s frayed relationship with a government that has provided a £1.5 billion rescue package for arts during the pandemic while as EFL chairman Rick Parry stated the sport “is told to support itself and its clubs have to play behind closed doors.”

He reminded culture secretary Oliver Dowden "the onus remains on you to remedy the situation rather than thinking of it as ‘job done’. After all, it is the government that is currently preventing fans from going to games not the Premier League.”

Parry’s feeling that football is “at best being ignored by a government that doesn’t understand our national sport and at worst being victimised by it” will only be enhanced if the ban to restrict drinking alcohol “in view of the pitch” is not removed.

The UKFPU have been approached by The Independent for comment.

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