Safe-standing in the Premier League and Championship could be debated in Parliament after an online petition calling for the government to scrap all-seater stadiums reached 100,000 signatures.
Ipswich fan Owen Riches started the petition on the Parliament website, which had under 5,000 signatures two weeks ago, when it emerged sports minister Tracey Crouch rejected an application for West Brom to trial a safe-standing section at their home ground next season.
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That decision, and Crouch’s subsequent remarks to about safe standing only being of interest to a “vocal minority”, galvanised campaigners and made it the fastest-growing petition on the Parliament website.
According to the website, petitions that reach 10,000 signatures get a Government response, in this case from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and petitions that hit 100,000 backers “will be considered for debate”.
Responding to the petition’s popularity, Crouch said on Wednesday: “Over a million people watch football every week and I am grateful for the engagement of fans from across the country in expressing their views on this issue. This will now give me the opportunity to discuss at length the nuances and complexities of sports ground safety in Parliament, if and when the Petitions Committee agree to it being debated.”
In a statement, the Football Supporters’ Federation said: “We’d like to thank every last fan who signed the petition and helped take standing to Parliament – the sheer number of fans involved shows the strength of feeling on an issue that isn’t going away.
“This is not just a ‘vocal minority’ as the sports minister presumed – the overwhelming majority of fans back the choice to sit or stand, as do most clubs and a growing number of MPs who will look forward to the debate.
“The sports minister is looking increasingly isolated from fans, clubs, the EFL, the Premier League and even the Government’s own safety advisory body, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority. We hope the upcoming debate will help change her views.”
Jon Darch, who runs the Safe Standing Roadshow that has been promoting Bundesliga-style rail seats as a solution for several years, also welcomed the news.
“It’s fantastic to have hit 100,000,” Darch said.
“I hope that having now seen the extent of football fans’ passion about our particular issue, the government will similarly do us the courtesy of granting a full-length debate in the main chamber.”
A dress rehearsal of that debate is scheduled to take place in Westminster on Tuesday, when the All Party Parliamentary Group for Football Supporters hosts a meeting that will be attended by Ronnie Hawthorn, the head of operations, safety and security at Celtic, who installed 3,000 rail seats two years ago as the all-seater rule does not apply in Scotland.
Furthermore, the English Football League is understood to be ramping up its efforts to persuade Crouch to scrap the rule and give the clubs the right to install rail seats, which can be flipped up and locked in place, or some other option with an appropriate safety barrier.
The Premier League, on the other hand, is still consulting its clubs on the matter but last week revealed some polling it has done which showed a clear majority want the choice to sit or stand but only one in 20 actually want to stand for a whole match.
The current all-seater rule has been in place since the 1989 Hillsborough disaster which left 96 Liverpool fans dead.
Campaigners, however, have repeatedly pointed out that the official report into the disaster did not blame standing for the tragedy.
They also say standing is allowed in the lower divisions, Scotland, other sports and music events, and fans are standing at games every week in large numbers, which causes difficulties for stewards and those who do not want to or cannot stand to see the action.