Regular attendee of football matches in the UK? Then read this, it's important. Welcome to IBWM Alan Smithy.
Start talking about legislation and most people will more than likely switch off. I realise it's not the sexiest of subjects, or even a particularly interesting word. But it's one that football fans should take a good deal more interest in, or at least the bits that refer to them specifically. You see, football supporters in the UK are amongst the most heavily legislated-against groups in our society.
Football fans whinging about police is something of a divisive cliché. To those outside the game we’re all hooligans and yobs, and any arrests are welcomed in the interests of protecting the public at large. It divides opinion even amongst supporters themselves – the ‘you must have done something wrong’ brigade who say they’ve never witnessed repressive policing and never get into any bother with boys in blue against those who have, or at least have had their eyes opened to it. I guess it largely comes down to individual experiences.
There’s a contradiction at play, however. Whichever side of the fence you sit with regards to the policing of football there are laws governing fans which, if applied to almost any other group in society, would be shouted down by all and sundry as draconian, even totalitarian.
The problem is that we, as supporters, acquiesce. There’s an ‘expect and accept’ culture that comes to repressive policing and legislation as if we should just get on with our lot in life. Uniting football fans behind a common purpose, when that purpose isn’t club or national team specific, is something like trying to herd cats. And while we lack support of those outside the game, this makes building a consensus against such repressive legislation virtually impossible.
The particular piece of football-specific law that’s got my goat recently is Section 14(B) of the Football Spectators Act 1989 as amended by the Football (Disorder) Act 2000.
For those of you unfamiliar with Section 14(B) - and I’ll assume that’s virtually all of you at the same time questioning the sanity of those few of you who already are - it is the partner to the piece of legislation that deals with banning orders after a criminal conviction. We can presumably all agree that football banning orders, where they concern fans who have committed acts of violence, are justified. Section 14(B), however, is a civil complaint brought by police, and is remarkable because it allows for the police to seek to ban you for up to seven years, and you don’t have to have been convicted, never mind even arrested, of a criminal offence. Not only that, but because it’s a civil offence, the burden of proof is much, much lower than a criminal case.
It is one of the more pernicious pieces of legislation passed by the Government in the name of public order, and one that police forces up and down the country are using more and more to ban supporters on the strength of spurious, circumstantial 'evidence'. It’s these recent cases that have caught my attention and have, quite frankly, scared me.
The police have a category of supporters known as ‘risk supporters’. It is these fans who they are keeping an eye on, and who they suspect of being at risk of contributing to football-related disorder. They keep tabs on thousands of supporters up and down the country through their network of police intelligence officers.
The national police definition of a risk supporter is someone "whether known or not, who can be regarded as posing a possible risk to public order or anti-social behaviour, whether planned or spontaneous, at or in connection with a football event.”
In short, the police think you pose a risk if the police think you pose a risk. Take a minute to let that wonderfully tautological logic sink in. Now consider the fact that there are no objective criteria. To make things worse, you are not told that you are assessed as a risk supporter, instructed as to what behaviour has placed you on this list, given any right to challenge the police‘s assessment, or told what you can do to be removed from it. It’s positively Orwellian.
If the dangers weren’t immediately apparent to you, let me tell you about some of the applications and implications of S14(B).
There are any number of normal match-going activities that the police can use to assess you as a risk supporter and use in a complaint under Section 14(B) that can see you banned from football matches.
Let’s say you go to a pub before an away match. Well unless you know the past and present activities of everyone in that pub you can find yourself in trouble with the police. You see, if there are any supporters in the pub who are serving banning orders or who are also classified as risk supporters then you find yourself giving the police “evidence” - after all, you are consorting with known risk supporters. The fact that you could not possibly have an idea of the background of everyone in the pub is irrelevant, as is the fact that some of these supporters, like you, may have no idea that they are classified as risk.
The beautiful contradiction in all this, of course, is the Home Office’s much trumpeted statistic that 93% of people with expired football banning orders no longer pose a threat of football related disorder. But that’s not the point - we left logic at the door a long time ago.
If the pub you’ve chosen is near the ground, or is a mixed home and away pub, then police can use that as “evidence” that you have planned disorder with home fans. The only problem is that now you are blessed with this knowledge you might choose a pub well out of the way at your next away game. Unfortunately for you, the police will use this as “evidence” that you were deliberately trying to avoid them and were planning disorder away from the ground. After all, in their eyes, why else would you deliberately choose a pub nowhere near the ground?
Have you ever travelled to a match without a ticket? It doesn’t matter if you were hoping to pick one up off a tout, had already arranged to collect one from a mate or had just travelled for the atmosphere and to watch the match in the pub, the police can use this as “evidence” that you are planning or contributing to football-related disorder.
Ever been filmed by the police? Why else would they need to film you if you weren’t a risk supporter? Yet more “evidence”. And on and on it goes.
If you think that the above is just scaremongering and a bunch of ‘worst case scenario’ bullshit then you’d be wrong - police have used each of these arguments in Section 14(B) cases already, and will continue to do so. While you or I or tens of thousands may ‘get it’ as normal match-going behaviour, magistrates often don’t feel that way, and find the police’s arguments very persuasive. Mitigating circumstances, it seems, need not apply.
Now typically there will have to be an act that pushes the police over the edge to seek a banning order - it’s not always a case that a combination of circumstantial evidence alone is enough to get you banned from matches. Of course there will always be the argument that those who get banning orders ‘have it coming to them’, or that if they didn’t break the law, however minor the infraction, they wouldn’t have been banned. To an extent that argument is true, but it spectacularly misses the point.
In any other walk of life the tipping-point misdemeanour would result in little more than a slap on the wrist. It might not even be enough to result in you being arrested in ‘real life’, never mind being given a police caution. It certainly doesn’t have to be something that would lead to a court appearance in its own right. The powers of Section 14(B) and the fact that you are a football fan, however, mean that the police will aggressively push for sanctions way beyond what any reasonable person would consider appropriate for even trivial disagreements.
It's time for a complete review of the laws governing football supporters. If enough of us can get out act together, we might just pull off something that would benefit all of us.
To read more from Alan, visit his blog, Football Hobo, and follow him on Twitter @alansmithys.