Premier League clubs criticised for slow progress on disabled access
Premier League clubs have been accused of failing to act quickly enough to improve facilities for disabled fans and aiming only for minimum legal requirements.
Speaking to MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission's (EHRC) Lord Holmes described the clubs' attitude to disabled access as "defensive" and contrasted it with a more "collaborative, open and honest" approach from other sports.
The EHRC's disability commissioner said: "There hasn't been an inclusive culture within the Premier League.
"Inclusion is not just about bare compliance and satisfying a legal requirement. It can be a powerful message and a beacon to the whole community."
Lord Holmes, a former Paralympic swimming star, pointed out that there are "pages and pages" in the league rulebook about broadcasting requirements in stadia but only "one line on disability access". He also noted the quick fixes clubs made when asked to upgrade facilities for high-definition TV.
"The Premier League is a fabulous export and it's quite right there should be that attention to detail on broadcasting - it's the best league in the world and we should be proud of it," said Lord Holmes.
"But a similar zeal should be there to want sport to be accessible, to it be inclusive to all sections of the community."
Lord Holmes was appearing before the committee's second hearing on the accessibility of sports stadia, with the Premier League's executive director Bill Bush and Steve Gilbert from the Wrexham Disabled Supporters Association also giving evidence.
Bush had opened proceedings with an update on the clubs' progress towards the "accessible stadia guidelines" they agreed to meet by August 2017.
That commitment was made in August 2015, giving them two years, which Bush described as a "very tight deadline", although the clubs first made promises on access for disabled fans in 1998 and have been subject to the Equality Act since 2010.
The guidelines call for a move away from the typical, uncovered bays at pitch-side, to bespoke viewing platforms with good sight lines and easy access to exits, refreshments and toilets.
Bush said the league has made a preliminary "zip-around, dipstick" study to assess progress and it found that several clubs are "short" of those guidelines.
Despite several attempts from the panel, most notably from the Labour MP for Wrexham Ian Lucas, Bush refused to name the clubs but promised a "full club-by-club assessment" would be published in January.
The Premier League's corporate affairs and strategic policy boss also repeatedly denied that clubs did not care enough about this issue and said a lack of progress was not always as simple as it looked.
Using Watford as an example, he said the relatively newly-promoted club had extensive plans in place and would meet the target by next August.
Bournemouth, on the other hand, had a significant challenge in that they do not own the Vitality Stadium and its owners, London-based property developers Structadene, have not granted permission for the required work.
And Liverpool will get close to meeting the requirement when the redevelopment of Anfield's Main Stand is complete but have been constrained by the amount of building work that can be done in a "tight urban environment" at one time.
A lack of money, Bush said, has never been used as an excuse by a Premier League, which is unsurprising when you consider the more than £8bn in TV revenue the clubs will share over the next three years, or the more than £1bn they spent on players this summer.
In fact, a recent Daily Telegraph report found that only three of the 20 clubs - Leicester City, Manchester City and Swansea - currently meet the Accessible Stadia Guidelines and the required work to get the remaining 17 clubs up to scratch would cost no more than £29m.
When asked what sanctions the league might set for failure to meet the August deadline, Bush said the board could impose fines of up to £25,000 but was vague on the detail of how this might happen or if central funds or prize money would be withheld.
The mixed picture in the Premier League was cast in a negative light when compared to the measures taken by the National League's Wrexham.
Gilbert told MPs the club had recognised it was "unfair" to expect fans in wheelchairs to get soaked when it rains so they agreed to take some hospitality seats out and build the first of three planned viewing platforms.
This was paid for by contributions from fans and a £600,000 grant from the Premier League's Football Stadia Improvement Fund.
The final word went to Lord Holmes, who is blind, when he described the steps taken to improve access to the Houses of Parliament.
"If you can make a building such as parliament accessible, or my 15th-century Cambridge college, I think you can do it in 20 football stadia," he said.