By Henry Porter
Supporters are starting to question their position at the sharp end of bad laws, police abuse and vindictive prosecutors
“It was kick-off and my son had not yet arrived,” says Professor Keith Ewing, recalling the moment when he phoned his son before a match between Luton Town and Cambridge United last year. “On completing the call I turned round to find that I was being videotaped by police standing only a few yards away.”
“For what purpose?” he demands in the preface to his new book The Bonfire of Liberties. “With what legal authority was the police officer acting? What would happen to the images? … What exactly is going on? Random surveillance by the state? Militarisation of the police?”
These are question that are at last being asked by football supporters, who by any objective standards are one of the groups who suffer most from bad laws, abuse by the police, the flagrant denial of rights, unwarranted intrusion and vindictive prosecutors. At a question time event organised by the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) this week in London, no one could doubt the strength of feeling among supporters, least of all the police officer and prosecutor on the panel.
The panel – chaired by Tony Evans of the Times and including Nick Hawkins from the Crown Prosecution Service, Duleep Allirajah from Spiked, Superintendent Roger Evans from the Metropolitan police, James Welch from Liberty and me – was bombarded by incisive and coherent questions from the floor, as well as many accounts of supporters suffering from disproportionate and unjust punishment and being treated contemptuously by police and stewards.
It’s clear that if we applied the laws and regulations that football supporters tolerate every Saturday to society in general we would have a very good idea of a dictatorial regime where individual rights count for nothing. The big question is how football supporters can regain the rights that were denied them after a long history of violence and the disorder in the 1970s and 80s because there is no doubt that the laws are unfair and allow for disproportionate reaction by the authorities.
Football banning orders, heralded as the great weapon to control violent fans here and abroad, work on a basis that if a fan is accused he is almost certainly guilty. As Amanda Jacks of the FSF pointed out, an action in everyday life that might not even draw a caution and is not a crime can, in the context of a football match, be punished by a three-year banning order, which may include a ban on foreign travel.
Since the Football (Disorder) Act 2000 there has been a large increase in the number of people prohibited from attending matches here and abroad because orders can be imposed on those who are merely suspected of hooliganism. As Geoff Pearson from Liverpool University wrote in a recent paper: “The (2000) act fundamentally extended the remit of the Football Spectators Act (1989) and allowed magistrates to impose a banning order on complaint even when they have not been convicted of an offence.”
Yet again we see New Labour’s legal principle in operation – the state only needs to believe that you are guilty of a crime before imposing a punishment – this is a world where accusation and complaint somehow come to mean the same thing as proof. And of course the Human Rights Act does nothing to prevent the arbitrary suspension of a person’s liberty when they have not been found guilty of a crime or the invasion of their privacy when police use what Pearson describes as “general surveillances to compile ‘profiles’ on suspected hooligans”.
Given the sort of treatment fans receive as a matter of routine, it is surprising that they don’t cause more trouble. Sarah Ricca of Deighton Guedalla, a legal firm that has represented many fans, suggested that policing policy is often the cause of dangerous situations where fans get angry because their rights as citizens have been removed. “Fans are discriminated against – the unspoken prejudice is that everyone going to a match might cause trouble,” she said, later adding: “The more power you give to the police the more dangerous they become.”
Few in the audience disagreed and what was striking was the number of women who spoke about the way the laws operate to deprive innocent people of their rights. The most obvious example of this is the use of the Section 27 form, which is summarily issued by police under the Violent Crime Reduction Act and bans a person from an area for up to 48 hours. There have been several well-documented cases where police have issued these en masse to fans and prevented them from attending a match. The most notorious case involved innocent fans being forced home to Stoke by Manchester police before their match. (They received payouts and an apology from Manchester police)
When such blatant abuse is allowed to stand it becomes part of accepted practice, which is why it was so vital that the FSF and Liberty prevailed in the Stoke case. Important principles are at stake that concern us all. For instance, the tactic of “kettling” – forcing demonstrators against their will into a confined area, which we saw at the G20 demonstrations – was developed in the policing of football supporters. The regimenting of travel and forced marches that fans sometimes have to endure clearly breach their rights and show the kind of disrespect that you find in a police state. When ordinary members of the public are caught up in these operations they are absolutely astonished by the attitude of the police.
It’s time for a complete review of the laws. If football supporters get their act together they could just pull off something that would benefit us all the reassertion of the rule of law. But first more people need to be asking Professor Ewing’s questions.