Football supporters have called for their clubs to be allowed to reintroduce terracing to stadiums.
The Liberal Democrat MP Don Foster has tabled a private member's Bill seeking freedom for clubs to construct standing areas within stadiums at all levels of the game, giving renewed impetus to an issue that brings together fans of all clubs from Manchester United downwards.
Stadiums in the top two divisions in England have to be all-seated, a requirement that came out of the Taylor report into the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. But there is a groundswell of support for change, headed by the Football Supporters' Federation. Of their 180,000 members, 90 per cent are in favour, while in Scotland a survey produced by another fans' group returned a similar level of support.
The Liberal Democrats have been in favour of allowing the reintroduction of standing for the last two years, and their involvement in the Coalition has raised supporters' hopes. Mr Foster is a long-term backer of the move, and he claims that such areas would now be safe, secure, allow more fans into grounds and lead to cheaper tickets.
His views have been endorsed by the FSF and Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (Imusa). Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the FSF, said: "All the evidence is that a large number of fans want it. It is possible to have modern standing areas that are completely safe and give fans choice. It is a customer care problem. It is about choice. Large numbers of people are standing and that shows the level of demand."
Mark Longden, chairman of Imusa, is also a firm believer. He said: "It was one of the founding reasons for our organisation in the first place. We have won all the safety arguments. Now the authorities are saying it is about security, but CCTV can work on standing areas.
"It is a massive issue and has been one for years and years. If they do it in Germany it must be safe. Eventually the authorities will get the hang of it."
The Westfalenstadion in Dortmund has the largest terrace in Europe, holding 24,454 fans for matches in Germany's Bundesliga. For European games (standing is banned in Uefa competitions) seats are installed, which takes a couple of days. Schalke, who play in Gelsenkirchen, also have a terrace that has a barrier on each step in which flip seats are installed. The barriers prevent crushing. It means more fans can get into grounds and the clubs charge lower prices – it costs £7.50 to stand at a Schalke game.
The Premier League is happy with the status quo, pointing to the increase in numbers attending games in the top flight in England since all-seater stadiums were introduced, and a greater diversity among spectators, too.
In response to Mr Foster's urgings, the Sports minister has written to the football authorities to canvass opinion, but in a debate in Westminster Hall yesterday Hugh Robertson did little to raise hopes of a change in the law.
He told MPs: "I am not convinced at this stage that a compelling case has been made to change the policy on standing areas.
"There is a balance to be struck. We are in the process of collating football authorities' responses. I am keeping an open mind, but to be honest there is no groundswell of opinion from the football authorities in favour of a change.
"I think that they are just as scarred by the Hillsborough experience as many of us who are or have been in government. That is a powerful backdrop and should always be so. There is considerable nervousness about moving, given that backdrop."
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee will consider the issue next year as part of a wide-ranging inquiry into the governance of football.
Proponents of the move suggest that the new systems being used in places like Germany, Austria and North America ensure that it would be safe to stand. "We do not want a return to large unsafe areas of terracing," said Mr Clarke. "We don't want to return to anything. This is about moving forward with new designs."
Mr Foster's Bill is unlikely to lead to a change in the law, but this is an issue that strikes a chord with large numbers of supporters. "We just need one big player to break ranks," said Mr Longden. "It is catering for what customers want, and isn't this government supposed to be all about choice?"
Q. Why do some football fans want to be allowed to stand?
A. After the Taylor report into the Hillsborough disaster that saw the death of 96 Liverpool supporters at an FA Cup semi-final in 1989, the government banned terracing in the top two divisions in English football. But terracing was not the cause of the disaster and there has always been a large number of fans – 90 per cent according to several surveys – in favour of its return. At many Premier League games there are areas of the grounds where fans firmly refuse to sit down. Bring back standing and it allows fans to watch games alongside their friends, leads to a better atmosphere and cheaper tickets and creates more room for more fans to get into grounds.
Q. But standing is not safe.
A. The vast old Kop-style terraces were often not, but those in favour of its reintroduction stress that this is about "new designs". It is the German model of smaller areas with rows of barriers to prevent crushing. Since standing was banned, arrests at football grounds have declined markedly but again backers point to the German example of careful regulation of tickets; fans get tickets for specific areas of the standing pens.
Q. Who is opposed to its reintroduction?
A. It is largely a split between the game's authorities and fans. Clubs are governed by the Premier League and the Football League, neither of whom is keen on the change.
Q. What is the point if standing is also banned in Europe and for international football matches?
A. For all games governed by Fifa, eg, the World Cup, and Uefa, the European Championship and the Champions League, standing is not allowed, but again Germany has a simple answer. In some grounds they reinstall seats, which takes a couple of days, or have flip seats permanently installed on the barriers that divide each step.
Q. What chance is there of it happening?
A. There is little immediate prospect as the Government is not supporting Don Foster's Bill. But next year a parliamentary committee is to consider the issue and it is one that is not going to go away.