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Inconsistent safety checks at football grounds poses ‘serious risk’ to supporters, review of football policing finds

Inconsistent safety checks at football grounds poses ‘serious risk’ to supporters, review of football policing finds

Football - Image credit: Fotalia

Inconsistent safety checks of football grounds in Scotland poses a “serious risk” to supporters, a review of football policing has found.

The Independent Review of Football Policing in Scotland raised a “significant concern” about handling of football ground safety by Scottish councils and warns that there could have been a “critical safety incident” in a number of Scottish grounds.

Among the concerns raised with the review were some councils sending safety certificates through the post without visiting the ground, clubs not being asked to submit operational plans before being given a safety certificate and clubs being told their old safety certificate could be used for the next season.

Ground safety checks fell outwith the intended scope of the review, which was tasked with reviewing policing of football matches by Police Scotland ahead of next year’s Euro 2020.

However, the review team, led by the National Police Chiefs’ Council football policing lead DCC Mark Roberts of South Yorkshire Police, said it felt obliged to flag up the safety concerns that had been raised in the course of the review.

The report raised particular concerns about “serious safety issues” around Rangers matches after the club went bankrupt and joined the third division, playing against teams in the lower divisions were not used to attracting the number of fans that Rangers did.

The review heard evidence of clubs selling more tickets than their stadium capacity, altering safety certificates to increase the maximum capacity of their grounds, erecting unsafe scaffolding as terracing for away fans and selling tickets for part of grounds that did not exist or were inaccessible.

The review also heard that this problem affects Scottish Cup matches “where teams with large travelling support are drawn away to smaller clubs who occupy small stadia and lack appropriate infrastructural support”.

Unlike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is no single body with responsibility for oversight of safety at football grounds in Scotland, with councils issuing certificates and safety advisory groups made up of multiple services advising on safety planning.

While the highlighted the “professionalism” of many individuals “stepping beyond their strict remit in challenging and addressing these issues”, it said “the safety of spectators has been placed at risk” and “there could have been a critical safety incident at any of the grounds cited in the examples heard by the review team”.

The report says: “The review takes the view there is a clear lack of oversight and grip by some local authorities and SAGs [safety advisory groups] in discharging their duties relating to ground safety management.

“This lack of oversight should be seen as a significant risk to the safety of spectators, which needs to be addressed with the utmost priority.”

Back on the main purpose of the review, the team concluded that Police Scotland’s model for policing football is “certainly fit for purpose” and “compares well” to operations across other European countries.  

However, it also identified several areas for improvement.

It suggested there should be greater consistency across the country in areas such as traffic management and that in some cases the numbers of officers deployed seemed high compared to similar matches elsewhere, which was having an impact on community policing, with officers being taken away from other duties to cover matches.

It said Police Scotland was going “above and beyond” its responsibilities, in some cases due to poor stewarding by clubs.

Another area identified as needing improvement was around communication and engagement.

The report highlights the use preventative measures such as filming of fans by police and affirmed that they “may have the clear benefit of de-escalating offending, minimising the use of force and reducing the risk of injury” but police need to explain the use of such tactics due to a “clear gap” in the understanding by supporters.

The review group also found Police Scotland was missing a “structured engagement strategy” and encouraged police to continue to engage with supporters despite groups such as Fans Against Criminalisation refusing to be involved in the review.

While positive work is being done by police, this is not being communicated, the review said, and warned that in some cases warnings ahead of high-profile matches gave the impression that people should expect trouble, while “formulaic” press statements and responses to criticism around football contrasted with “upbeat” messaging around other major events such as golf tournaments.

DCC Roberts said: “The review highlights the excellent capability of Police Scotland in policing football as well as specific areas where the service can develop further good practice and ensure appropriate consistency.

“The Scottish public should be confident that Police Scotland has a proven track record of effectively delivering all manner of high-profile events, football included, and has the requisite capability to work with relevant stakeholders to discharge its responsibilities in keeping football fans safe.

“As such, its operational policing model for football is certainly fit for purpose.

“The policing of football in Scotland compares well to operation across other European countries and has some excellent examples of good practice, which others should seek to learn from.

“I will be sharing the learning with the rest of UK Policing in order that we can promulgate the good practice from Scotland as many of the recommendations identify issues common to us all.”

However, Labour MSP James Kelly, who led opposition to the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, called for more to be done “rebuild trust with fans”.

He said: “Whilst it is welcome that Police Scotland rightly identify that they need to improve their relations with fans, this report appears to have brushed aside the widespread complaints from those same supporters.

“The anger that law abiding fans feel over being overtly filmed has been dismissed as a public relations failure that needs communicated better instead of reviewing if it is a justified technique to use regularly despite the low level of criminality in football stadiums.

“It is matter of concern that six months after the crush at a Celtic v Rangers game, which left five fans injured, questions still remain about the crowd safety operation on that day.

“Police Scotland must do all it can to rebuild trust with fans which has been eroded in recent years.”

And local government body COSLA reacted with anger to the criticism of councils’ management of football ground safety, with COSLA president Councillor Alison Evison calling the report “a regrettable missed opportunity” and complaining about a lack of engagement with councils. 

She said: “With better handling and a more open process involving all the key partners, we could have taken a genuinely strategic and a holistic look at a serious subject. 

 “Given some recent well reported behaviours at football matches, it is crucial that we work together to get this right.

“We are not going to achieve the outcomes we all want, while one part of the system tells the rest of us what we should be doing.

“It is very disappointing that the police in particular are failing to embrace partnership working.

 “Scotland’s councils well understand the numbers within our local communities who attend football matches and other events across the country and we take our community safety role extremely seriously; we have a good record on it.     

 “Unfortunately, even considering our key community safety role and repeated assurances from the police of working together in partnership over recent months, councils are the subject of some sweeping statements within the report, but despite this, we have not been involved in any aspect of it.

“This treatment of our local councils is not acceptable.”

However, the findings were welcomed by the Scottish Police Federation (SPF), which represents police officers.

SPF vice chair David Hamilton said: “The review comments very positively on the operational police response at matches and our colleagues will welcome the fact that their professionalism has been recognised.

“They will also welcome the nudge given to Police Scotland to start explaining to genuine supporters and the public at large the risk that police officers face at some of our games.

“Verbal and physical abuse and injuries are increasing and such an engagement strategy would support a change to the culture of reluctance in deploying properly protected public order units when necessary.

“Police officers will also recognise the comments regarding the resource intensive nature of football policing and the fact that it denudes our communities of officers not just for one but two days.

“The constant interruption to weekends has its own wellbeing pressures on officers and their families too.

“However, we recognise that given the quality of stewarding issues identified, inconsistent traffic management and counter terrorism approaches we are not in a position to reduce this footprint yet.

“Until then, regardless of Brexit pressures, the SPA need to put a hold on any thought of a reduction in police officer numbers.”

Hamilton referred to the evidence regarding safety at grounds “utterly devastating” and said the SPF fully supported the recommendations to enforce safety as well as forcing clubs to take greater responsibility for their fans not just at games but on their way to games.

He added that the football hooliganism and sectarianism were both aspects of the same problem, that some supporter groups believe that criminal behaviour is acceptable at football matches.

He said: “Fans Against Criminalisation’s refusal to even engage with the review has shown themselves to simply be apologists for this criminality.

“They have refused the opportunity to engage with the review, maintain their entrenched opinions and clearly have no interest in acknowledging yet alone fixing the problems of the Scottish game.

“They have no legitimacy and until they change their approach, need to be sidelined while we engage with real fans.

“This is an important point in Scottish football’s history and if the review is implemented, should lead to a safer, fairer, more secure and pleasant environment for fans and those responsible for looking after them.”

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