Football fightback

A member of the Football Supporters’ Federation says fans have had enough of being zealously over-policed.

Amanda Jacks

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Being a dedicated follower of a football team involves a lot of emotional and financial sacrifice. Today, it can also mean sacrificing your civil liberties, something that many football fans have come not only to expect, but also to accept.

There is no escaping the fact that, once upon a time, being a football fan was a risky business; it was entirely likely that if you were a regular match goer between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, you would witness some form of violence. Since then, many factors, including a whole raft of kneejerk legislation, have contributed to the decline in football hooliganism, and it is safe to say that today, with an arrest rate of approximately one fan every two games, the so-called ‘match day experience’ has changed beyond recognition.

Football is now widely recognised as a family game and a huge amount of effort by the Home Office, police and the Crime Prosecution Service (CPS) is put into ensuring it stays that way. Yet given how dramatically the demographic of football fans has changed over the years, it is arguable that the game is such a family affair in spite of the increasingly heavy policing, not because of it.

If you type ‘knife crime’ into the CPS’s own search engine, you get 42 matches. By contrast, the search word ‘football’ brings up 78 articles. In 2005, it was announced that arrest-rates for football-related crime had fallen by 11 per cent and, at the same time, the UK Football Policing Unit (UKFPU) was formed, jointly overseen by the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Last season, arrest rates fell further still – and the UKFPU moved into plush new offices in south London.

Many fans find themselves policed as though they’re permanently on the brink of riot. Welcoming parties of cops in riot gear, with dogs and horses, are a common sight for ordinary fans arriving at train stations near football grounds. And in the arenas themselves a dazzling array of police are inevitably to be found on duty. The general tendency among fans is simply to shrug and accept this state of affairs.

That is until last November, when Greater Manchester Police (GMP) served Section 27 notices on approximately 80 Stoke City supporters who were doing nothing more than quietly enjoying a pre-match pint at the Railway Inn, a pub in Irlam outside Manchester. Stoke City were due to play Manchester United that afternoon at Old Trafford, its home ground, which is located just a few miles away from the Railway Inn.

The Stoke City fans fell foul of a new police tool – the Section 27 Order from the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. Section 27 gives the police powers to move on any individual from any place at any time and to ban them from returning there for up to 48 hours. You don’t actually have to have committed any offence for the act to be enforced and arguing your case could see you arrested. Section 27 was most probably not designed specifically to deal with football supporters, but the GMP was able to deploy it to serve a notice on virtually all supporters who had the misfortune of being at the Railway Inn after the police had allegedly been tipped off by an off-duty officer about an unusually large number of males entering the pub.

Not only did the police, under threats of arrest, force supporters quite unnecessarily to sign the Section 27 paperwork – they also forced them on to coaches that they had pre-ordered. Once all fans had been processed, they were escorted all the way back to Stoke City’s home town of Stoke-on-Trent.

For once, football fans have fought back. When the news of this broke, several solicitors contacted the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), of which I am a national council member, offering their services pro bono. The civil liberties and human rights group Liberty also agreed to take on the case and are representing one of the Stoke City fans. Papers were served by Liberty on the GMP shortly before Christmas requesting a judicial review of the use of Section 27 and an outline of which articles of the Human Rights Act were potentially breached. One retired police officer, writing in the FSF magazine, said he was confident that Article 5, ‘the right to liberty’, was breached and that Article 11, which addresses freedom of assembly, ‘has been ridden rough shod over’.

As to the experiences of the football fan represented by Liberty, it included a journey back to Stoke with urine swilling around his feet due to the police making those on board the coach use cups or other receptacles rather than allowing them off to use toilets. The fan is also formally complaining to GMP and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). He told us that ‘there were not even football songs being sung in the pub, no evidence of any disorder whatsoever’. The pub landlord backs his claims, and when we visited him, he stressed that he would welcome back the Stoke fans and even lay on food for them! He was as bemused by the police action as the Stoke supporters were.

The response from GMP to media enquiries about the incident was predictably bullish, with Assistant Chief Constable Justin Curran saying: ‘Officers policing the game between Manchester United and Stoke City had received intelligence about planned violence between hooligan groups. Use of all policing powers must be balanced and in proportion with the risks that we face. In order to prevent disorder and keep communities safe, Section 27 orders were issued on groups that we had identified as a risk. Our priority is to keep Greater Manchester communities safe from harm. I am happy that all action taken on Saturday was necessary to achieve this.’

Putting to one side that this stance calls into question how individual complaints will be dealt with by GMP, like many I wonder what exactly was this intelligence that led 80 people – men and women, young and old – to be issued with these Section 27 orders. How were the police so sure that all these individuals were about to cause or contribute to alcohol-related disorder? Curran’s idea of what is a ‘balanced and proportionate’ response is at odds with how the majority of right- minded people would define it.

The FSF continues to work with the police at the most senior level and hopes that the action taken by Liberty against GMP, as well as one pending against another police officer who similarly abused the powers of Section 27, will herald a change in match-day tactics. We have found that most people are sympathetic to our argument that it is completely unnecessary to treat football supporters as would-be criminals. Until that message reaches every single police officer in the UK, our work to ensure that we’re not deprived of our liberties merely because we’re football supporters will continue.

Amanda Jacks is a national council member of the Football Supporters Federation.

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