Lib Dems call for return to 'safe' standing on terraces

Controversial policy pledge revealed to <i>The Independent</i> gains support from hundreds of thousands of fans

As Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg prepare for tonight's second televised election debate, the Liberal Democrats are again presenting themselves as agents of change, this time in the sporting arena, by announcing their desire for the return of "safe standing" at football grounds.

In an interview with The Independent today, Don Foster, spokesman for culture, media and sport, commits to investigating whether the insistence on all-seater stadiums in the top two English football divisions could safely be brought to an end.

The issue is extremely popular with many fans who see it as a way to combat escalating ticket prices and resurrect the atmosphere stands enjoyed before 1994, when all-seater stadiums became compulsory. The call will be controversial with other fans groups, however, who maintain that in the light of the Hillsborough disaster – the 21st anniversary of which was marked last week – a return to standing should be opposed on safety grounds.

Foster states: "The Liberal Democrats are committed to exploring options for introducing safe standing at football grounds in consultation with fans, clubs and safety experts and have passed a motion at our party conference to this effect. The evidence from countries like Germany shows that safe standing can operate effectively and safely to give fans more choice about how they enjoy the game."

The Liberal Democrats tabled a conference motion on safe standing in 2008, when Foster said: "This is a sensitive issue. But we cannot ignore the large numbers of fans who want to stand."

The Taylor Report into the Hillsborough tragedy, in which 96 fans died, cited errant policing, poor stadium design and bad sign-posting as key factors, and added that standing was not intrinsically unsafe. The report led to a raft of safety regulations that heralded the all-seater stadiums synonymous with the Premier League era.

The move to "safe standing" is not to be dismissed as an election issue. It is important to fans groups and the Football Supporters' Federation, a national umbrella group with 176,000 members, has actively campaigned for the re-introduction of standing at Premier League grounds for years.

The FSF points to European grounds with big, cheap and safe standing areas, like the 24,000-people terrace at Borussia Dortmund, and a terrace at Klagenfurt in Austria in a stadium built for Euro 2008. New stadiums in the United States also have standing, like a 2,500-people standing area opened this season at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, home of the Colorado Rapids, owned by Stan Kroenke, a major shareholder at Arsenal. The Rapids' standing area "was introduced at the request of supporters" say the club, and is the first of its kind in a major American sports league.

Steven Powell, the FSF's director of policy told The Independent last night: "Standing isn't a nostalgic 20th century throwback. It's the future. Look at Germany, Austria, the US and Canada. It's a choice that fans want, including those who prefer to sit. It's safe and it's inclusive. To maintain the ban in the face of the evidence is illogical, arrogant and perverse."

All-seater stadiums retain the firm support of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, which states: "There's no such thing as safe standing." The Government remains opposed to the reintroduction of standing.

As Gerry Sutcliffe, minister for sport and tourism, tells The Independent today: "There have been dramatic improvements in safety and Germany is a case in point but the practicalities of re-profiling new stadiums plus the cost would be a huge issue. It would need a dramatic shift in football authority opinion backed by clear evidence before government would look at supporting any change to existing policy."