The House of Lords Calls for an End to Discrimination of Disabled Fans in Sports Grounds

lfwOn Friday the 17th July 2015 access and inclusion for all in watching Sporting events took a massive step forward. Lord Falkner lead a debate on the Accessible Sports Ground Bill, and peers who took part in the debate held back no punches in the way they explained how poor, Leading Premier League Clubs were in meeting even bare minimum standards in Sports Ground Accessibility.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport responded to the debate in the House of Lords by confirming that the Accessible Stadia applies to both new and existing stadiums.

This could end the long running dispute clubs like Manchester United and Organisations such as MUDSA (Manchester United Disabled Supporters Association) have, that the Accessible Stadia Guide does not apply to them as the stadia is Old.

The Minister went on to state that the Equality Act clearly sets out the anticipatory duty of “all service providers to make adequate provisions for disabled people”. She went on to state that the “Government stance being that the Equality Act provides sufficient legislation, with Baroness Neville-Rolfe expressing her surprise that a legal challenge had not yet been taken against a football club”.

Our call for Accessible Family Seating and the woeful Disabled Policy’s at Manchester United were also mentioned by a number of peers during the debate. In his opening speech Lord Faulkner of Worcester stated,

“Recently, a father of three young sons, a Manchester United fan, was told to go and support Stockport County if he wished his disabled son to sit with the rest of the family.”

Baroness Grey Thompson

Baroness Grey Thompson

Baroness Grey-Thompson also held no punches back when she read an extract from an email from Manchester United that seemed to class the 11 times Paralympic medallist as Uniformed on the subject of Disability and Inclusion. It stated that,

“Your exchange on Twitter, as attached, could be seen by some as indulging in matters which you remain uninformed of and accepting our invitation could be the beginning of an understanding which brings to the fore the many operational features that come together on a match day in a stadium capable of holding upwards of 75,000 people”.

Baroness Grey-Thompson went on to point out that she indeed was informed after all she was a peer debating on the subject, and stated

“I have been privileged to be at a lot of very big sporting events—six Olympics, seven Paralympics, 11 World Championships, Europeans, Commonwealth Games, plus individual events at venues with far more than 75,000 seats”

It is very clear that some staff at Manchester United require a refresher on how to respond to Customers and Complaints. To direct such an email at a House peer can only be seen as arrogant, and to Highlight Manchester United’s arrogance on the subject the good Baroness ended her speech by again referring to our campaign,

“It was the fact that a really big, powerful, rich club is able to tell 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. Those clubs do not deserve those fans, and that is why we should support this legislation”

Mentions of our campaign didn’t end there though, and during his speech on the bill Lord Rosser is quoted as saying

“Manchester United telling a father of three young boys to follow another team if he wished to attend with all his sons. His eldest son is a wheelchair user, while he is a lifelong fan who hopes that his sons will follow in his footsteps. Sadly, that hope does not appear to be shared by Manchester United Football Club”

Lord Rosser

Lord Rosser

Lord Rosser went one step further and seemed to take a swipe directly at MUDSA the Manchester United Disabled Supporters Association, he stated that

“Four of the biggest Premier League clubs require disabled fans to be members of both the club and their disabled supporters’ association before they can even qualify to apply for tickets. This practice is surely discriminatory. Non-disabled fans are not required to become a member of a specific fans’ group at the club to apply for tickets, and those non-disabled fans who are not club members can still purchase tickets on general sale”

This is presently the case at Manchester United, as disabled fans must presently be MUDSA members as well as Club members in order to purchase a disabled ticket.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara challenged the Premier League themselves by highlighting how Disabled Seating issues and Media Seating is compared in the FA Premier League Rule Book.

The Premier League Rule book is a binding document that all Premier League clubs must adhere to. The provision for Disabled supporters is covered in the rule book in the following way.

Rule 1 (there is only one rule by the way)

“Each club shall provide sufficient and adequate facilities for disabled supporters”,

Yet when you look at how the Premier League Rule Book stated clubs should cater for the Media the rule book goes into quite some detail,

For example,

  • Rules 53 and 54 require clubs to provide, “at least three UK TV Commentary Positions on the Television Gantry” and that each seat must, “be no less than 3 metres wide and 1 metre deep”.
  • Rule 66 provides that, “each club shall make available … at least 25 seats for the use of accredited representatives of Overseas Broadcasters, to be situated in close proximity, and with easy access, to the tunnel area”.
  • Rule 86 requires clubs to provide,“a minimum of 50 seats for the use of accredited representatives of the media”.

In total there are around 80 rules in the rule book that deal broadly, with what media facilities have to be provided. Could this be the reason there is such an enormous gap between the attitudes of Premier League clubs like Manchester United towards disability issues as opposed to media and other faculties. Lord Rosser certainly seemed to think that as he continued to state,

“What a ridiculous way to behave. To set out in such detail that sort of provision for media access when the line for disabled supporters is “Each club shall provide sufficient and adequate facilities for disabled supporters”, is to rub people’s faces in the issue.

Chis Holmes speaks

Lord Chris Holmes

Lord Chris Holmes of Richmond also highlighted Manchester United in his speech on the bill, he quoted recent media coverage of 2 incidents that took place at the club,

“At Manchester United, an 80 year-old gentleman had his walking stick taken off him. A man in his 20s who had a cast on his foot had his crutches taken away. I was fortunate to see the police statement on those incidents, which said that the behaviour of the stewards was extraordinary and astounding”

Lord Holmes was quick to turn the blame away from the stewards in question though and instead questioned their diversity and inclusion training. The lord continued further and stated he would write to the sponsors of the Premier League and the broadcast partners to suggest that, if there is not considerable progress in this area—so far, we can describe it as glacial progress—they should consider their relationship with football and how that fits with their ethical state in the market. These sponsors and broadcasters are brilliant brands, fabulous market leaders with great corporate social responsibility programmes. How does football fit with that?

Lord Holmes was again held back no punches by stating that “For far too long, discrimination and a lack of disability access have tarnished football… what we see is nothing short of shambolic” and that “The need has never been greater for football to discover its moral compass. It is our national sport and yet for far too long the beautiful game has been for many disabled spectators an ugly, ugly experience”

So what next?

Many Disabled Supporters Associations and leading Disabled Charities took to social media to show there support for the Bill that day. Level Playing Field had a live twitter feed, that was giving updates on the debate. Yet Manchester United and MUDSA remained very Quiet.

Now it may be me, or it could be completely coincidental but FourFourTwo (regarded as the world’s biggest football magazine, published in 17 markets) rerun an article from June 2013 by Andy Mitten called “Disabled Premier League supporters: They looked at us like they’d never seen fans in wheelchairs”.  This article was rerun on yes you guessed it the very same day, the debate took place.

The article is very ironic as it even states at one point

“A decade and a half on, facilities for disabled football fans have improved considerably; something FFT can experience first-hand as we travel to Old Trafford for Manchester United’s Premier League game against Norwich with Banks and Downs.”

The irony continues as the article quotes Phil Downs himself stating “We used to be behind the away dugouts, It was fun watching Brian Clough in action close up, but it’s much better now.”

If anything this article being republished on the day that the peers in the House of Lords highlight Manchester United as one of the Main clubs that fail to meet basic Disabled Facilities, shows just how far from Reality MUDSA and Manchester United  really are on this subject.  There seems to be something very wrong with the Marketing team at the club.

1506580_992914227403698_1034608253583238261_nMUDSA are no longer a Disabled Supporters Association that strive to highlight the needs of the disabled fans that are forced to Join them in a bid to get a ticket to see a match. But are now a Boys club for the Chosen few.

We have received countless emails from Members of MUDSA who have not seen a match in Months. We have also received emails from fans who are scared of speaking out about MUDSA and the Committee members, as they have seen others do this in the past to be banished from ever getting a ticket. And it would seem we are not alone in hearing this as during the debate Baroness Brinton stated

“There are disturbing reports and stories that some disability access officers at some of the high-profile clubs that have been mentioned today are gatekeepers not facilitators. They sometimes prevent disabled supporters from getting tickets because they have “caused trouble” in the past, in their view.”

After the meeting I had with Richard Arnold (Group Managing Director of Manchester United) I couldn’t help but believe that Richard wanted to change the club for the better, and he promised that progress would be made.

I can’t help but feel that one of the most challenging aspects to that progression will be how to change the Dinosaur that is now MUDSA.

The club now need to take back control of the Ticket allocation of disabled fans, introduce a fair Ballot for all Disabled Fans for tickets, be that MUDSA committee members (who presently get allocated a ticket for every match) MUDSA Rota Members (Who attend one in three matches) MUDSA Ballot  or non MUDSA members equally having the same opportunity for getting a ticket.

This issue will not go away, and action needs to be taken now. The time for talk is over. The issues of Disability Discrimination is one that no matter what will eventually affect us all, in the words of Baroness Deech who also spoke at the Debate

“We all become disabled in the end—it is just a question of how quickly and how severely the conditions present themselves in one’s life.”

(If you are a MUDSA member, or a disabled United Fan and have concerns, yet are worried of airing them through fear of not being able to attend matches, then please contact us, and we can get your comments to Manchester United anomalously, and give you feedback on what the club have to say. Email: uniteddiscriminate@gmail.com)

The full transcript of the debate can be read on Hansard here, you can also watch the full debate again here.

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