Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 25 June 2009

Safety of Sports Grounds Statutory Rules

25 June 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:

Mr Greg Magee ) Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure
Mr Colin Watson )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr McNarry):

We will now receive a briefing from officials from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) on proposed safety of sports ground statutory rules. I ask the Committee Clerk to go through the memo.

The Committee Clerk:

The memo is to remind members about the importance of the Committee’s role at SL1 stage, which is to carry out a policy scrutiny of the proposed statutory rules. Obviously, the Committee is quite well briefed on the background to safety of sports grounds as it has been involved with that issue for some time. However, the meeting with the officials is a time for it to satisfy itself that it is content with what is being proposed by the Department. Once the rules are laid in the Assembly, which will probably be around December, they cannot be changed; they can simply be annulled by the Assembly. Therefore, if members want to make any amendments to the proposed rules, now is time to suggest those to the Department.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you. Members should understand that this is the last chance saloon before the statutory rules go to the Assembly.

Pat Ramsey is leaving the Committee for the last time. Pat, you pass the door with the best wishes that you were given earlier. Good luck to you and your family; we will see you about. The drinks are on you in the bar. [Laughter.]

I welcome to the Committee Colin Watson, head of sport in DCAL, and Mr Gregg Magee, a DCAL official. I invite you to make a 10-minute opening statement. It should take no longer than 10 minutes; if takes less time, you get a brownie point. Thereafter, members have a number of questions.

Mr Colin Watson (Department of Culture, Art and Leisure):

Thank you. I will endeavour to keep the statement to 10 minutes. If I fail, hold up a yellow card.

The Deputy Chairperson:

You will get a red card. [Laughter.]

Mr Shannon:

You have got the yellow card to start with. [Laughter.]

Mr Watson:

I thank the Committee for inviting us to brief it on the proposals for the three pieces of subordinate legislation under the powers conferred on the Department by the Safety of Sports Grounds ( Northern Ireland) Order 2006. The three pieces of legislation are a commencement Order, a designation Order and regulations, which relate to fees and appeals. All three will be laid before the Assembly in due course under the negative resolution procedure.

I begin with the commencement Order. Following a presentation given by Paul Scott and me last week, members are aware that articles that relate to the issue of prohibition notices and powers to make regulations came into operation in March 2006 as a part of the Safety of Sports Grounds ( Northern Ireland) Order 2006. The Department now proposes to bring into force the articles from the 2006 Order that relate to the designation of sports grounds, the safety certification scheme for designated sports grounds and regulated stands and the appeals procedure. That was all subject to a full public consultation at the policy proposal stage and in the drafting of primary legislation. The commencement Order will now bring into force the remaining articles that appear in the 2006 Order. That will bring Northern Ireland into a position similar to that which exists in Great Britain. The Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 provides for the designation of sports grounds as requiring a safety certificate from the local authority and requires that authority to detail what should be included in the safety certificate and who should apply for it. The Act also provides for the issue of prohibition notices by local authorities when they believe that there is a case of serious risk. The Fire Safety and Places of Sport Act 1987 provides for the issue of safety certificates for regulated stands at sports grounds in Great Britain. As part of the process, we have given consideration to equality and regulatory impact assessments. Those aspects were addressed at the primary legislation stage.

The designation Order will list those sports grounds that the Department, in consultation with Sport Northern Ireland, has decided to designate as requiring a safety certificate from their district councils. It will apply to grounds with accommodation for more than 5,000 spectators. The designation of sports grounds will help to address the risk of serious accidents occurring as a result of more spectators being admitted to a ground than can safely be accommodated. I advised the Committee last week that the Department proposes to designate 30 sports grounds in the first phase: 15 football grounds, 14 GAA grounds and one rugby ground. The Minister has agreed to consider the designation of further grounds as part of a second-phase designation process.

Consultation on the proposed grounds for designation was carried out by the Department with the owners/operators of the grounds, the district councils and the relevant Government bodies. We received one formal response about the grounds that were identified for designation, which came from the GAA. It was generally content for the Department to proceed to designate the grounds that we consider to be priority cases. It advised, however, that it has no current plans to bring larger games or crowds to two of the proposed grounds, namely Glen GAC in Maghera and Ballinascreen GAC. It suggested that, on that basis, we might want to reconsider the need for immediate designation. Having discussed it with Sport NI, we decided to include both grounds in the planned second-phase designation process.

The position in Great Britain is very similar. The Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 provides for the designation of sports grounds as requiring a safety certificate from a local authority. We conducted a full regulatory impact assessment at the primary legislation stage. We revisited that assessment and found that, although the majority of sports clubs or organisations that are affected by the Order are considered to be small businesses or voluntary organisations, it is difficult to determine how they will be impacted upon until district councils decide grounds’ safe capacity levels.

An owner/operator may accept a safe capacity that is below the maximum capacity if it is felt that the ground can continue to accommodate the average match-day attendance. No remedial work would be required in that instance. On the other hand, the owner/operator may wish to increase the safe capacity in agreement with the council. That might involve remedial work being done to the ground, the costs of which may be incurred by the owner/operator. It is difficult at this point to determine the impact that designation will have on individual clubs.

The third issue for discussion today is fees and appeals. The legislation will set a maximum fee that a district council can charge the owner/operators of sports grounds for an application for the issuing of a safety certificate, or its amendment, replacement or transfer. It will also prescribe the time within which appeals under certain articles of the 2006 Order may be brought by applicants. The figures and timescales are included in the SL1.

I advised the Committee last week that we received two responses from district councils to the consultation on fees. Both those councils were concerned that the proposed £100 fee would not meet the full cost of the process. We agreed to reconsider that after the system has been up and running for a couple of years. The legislation in Britain is different; it provides for a local authority to determine a certificate application fee for itself. The fee must be commensurate with the work that is undertaken by the local authority. However, the GB legislation has led to a wide range of fees being charged that range from nothing to full cost recovery.

We had extensive discussions about fees with the Sport NI oversight body, representatives of the various council areas and Belfast City Council. Opinion varied between charging no fee and full cost recovery. The proposed structure represents a compromise. We appreciate that the fee will not cover the total cost that is incurred by the district councils, but setting a maximum of £100 for a general certificate will help to mitigate against the cost of compliance for owners. It allows councils to recoup some of the cost of the process, provides for consistency across all council areas and ensures that we do not have the disparity of costs that exists between local authorities in GB.

If the Committee is content for the Department to proceed with the legislation, our next step is to forward the drafts of the three statutory rules to the Department’s solicitors for scrutiny and clearance. After the rules are made and registered, they will be laid before the Assembly under negative resolution procedures. It is anticipated that the rules will come into operation on 31 December 2009, which will allow time for Sport NI to circulate guidance, provide training and ensure that council staff are happy with what they are doing and that they understand the process and what needs to be included in the safety certificates. We are allowing time between now and the end of the year to enable all that to happen.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That was first class; thank you very much.

Mr K Robinson:

I beg indulgence to ask a fairly straightforward question that can be dealt with quickly and allow people to expand on other questions.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That is not a problem, Ken, but bear with me for one moment while I get Colin and Gregg to clarify something. Will the Department’s introduction of the statutory rules bring the entire Safety of Sports Grounds ( Northern Ireland) Order 2006 into effect?

Mr Watson:

Some of the articles of the Safety of Sports Grounds ( Northern Ireland) Order 2006 are already in force, such as prohibition.

Mr Gregg Magee (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure):

The statutory rules will bring the rest of the Order into effect.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Will this be a job of completion?

Mr Magee:

Yes.

Mr K Robinson:

Larne Borough Council suggested that there should be a review after two years, which seems quite sensible. Could that sort of suggestion be written into the rules at this stage, or would a further statutory Order, which may needlessly complicate matters, have to be brought in?

Mr Watson:

No, the Order already has a provision that allows the Department to vary the fees.

Mr K Robinson:

The Larne request, being sensible, is already catered for by the Department.

Mr Watson:

Yes, it is.

Mr McCarthy:

On the benefits of the legislation, a letter to the Committee Clerk from the Department states that:

“Owners/operators of sports grounds will be aware of the remedial work that is required to increase safe capacity, should they choose to do so.”

What support will be available to owners of grounds should they wish to do remedial work? Furthermore, if owners of grounds choose not to do remedial work, will the legislation mean that parts of those grounds may remain unused?

Mr Watson:

A safety at sports grounds scheme is operated by Sport Northern Ireland, which will assist clubs in ensuring that their grounds have safe capacities. Much depends on what the council survey reveals to be the safe capacity of a ground. It may be that the safe capacity of a ground in its current form is a lot higher than the average crowd that it attracts, so its owners may decide that they do not need to do any remedial work.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I know that it is not part of the legislation, but do you have the resources to police what Kieran is talking about? Do you have the ability to check that everything is in order?

Mr Watson:

That is a matter for councils, which will provide the safety certificates.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Do they have the resources to check whether everything is in order?

Mr Watson:

We have consulted widely with the councils, and the issue of policing certification has not been raised.

Mr Magee:

Sport NI staff will continue to liaise with the councils between now and 31 December 2009 and will publish guidelines and advice.

Mr K Robinson:

What sections of the councils are responsible for this? Is it the environmental health departments?

Mr Watson:

Normally, responsibility will fall to the environmental health departments of councils.

The Deputy Chairperson:

There are a lot of double-jobbing councillors on this Committee. [Laughter.]

Mr Watson:

I would not like to comment on that.

Lord Browne:

I welcome the regulations; they were long overdue, and I hope that they will be implemented soon.

You said that some 30 grounds will be designated. Can you estimate how many of those grounds will require remedial work to bring them up to the necessary safety standard? Are you

confident that the operators of the grounds that require remedial work will be able to bear the necessary costs? Also, are you confident that they will be able to obtain the necessary financial help to bring their grounds up to standard?

Mr Watson:

It is a bit early to estimate, because we will not know the scale of what is required until the councils carry out the certification process. Sport NI has a safety of sports grounds programme, and we are doing as much as we can to facilitate the clubs, especially the first 30 that were designated, which were estimated to be at the highest risk. However, I cannot comment until the councils do their evaluations and we know what remedial work will be required to ensure that the grounds meet the required standard.

Lord Browne:

Do you agree that a high number of those grounds will require remedial work?

Mr Watson:

I suspect that not too many will say that they do not require remedial work, but let us wait and see what the certification process brings up.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Jim, will you ask one question?

Mr Shannon:

That is not possible. Like my colleague Wallace, I am keen to see some advancement in safety of sports grounds, and the regulations are good news.

Colin, you mentioned how the issue of fees was brought up and how the figures were arrived at. You said that opinions as to the fee varied, and the Department said that a compromise needed to be reached, so the result was a figure in between. My concern is that the burden of the extra cost will fall to councils. I would be surprised if councils did not comment on that. Have you any idea of the proportion of the cost that will fall to district councils? Does the legislation in GB set the same limits on fees that may be charged? In other words, are fees here comparative to those on the UK mainland?

Wearing my Ards Borough Council hat, which I do outside of this room, I am concerned that we will find the costs to be burdensome. Ards Borough Council is told continually about legislation that comes from Europe, Westminster, which becomes the responsibility of environmental health departments, and you confirmed that. That definitely involves costs. Only so much of that can be absorbed by the staff and resources that are available to councils. I believe that you also made that point earlier, Deputy Chairman.

Mr Watson:

A standard fee was not set in GB, which is why there is a disparity of costs across local authority areas. Even within those areas, costs very much depend on the grounds. For example, Old Trafford, the Emirates Stadium, Stamford Bridge —

Mr Shannon:

Stockport County’s ground?

Mr Watson:

I would not go that far. A major football club can pay anything up to £30,000 as part of its certification fees. Again, however, that depends on whether the local council looks upon its ground as a major venue that holds a vast number of spectators. If that is the case, it takes longer to carry out assessments.

Last week, we mentioned costs of approximately £2,000. Out of a council’s total budget, £2,000 to ensure the safety of spectators at grounds in its area is not a vast sum.

Mr Shannon:

Would it be appropriate to have rolling fees? For instance, should bigger grounds have higher costs and so on?

Mr Watson:

To limit costs to £100 per certificate is quite reasonable for a process that is just starting off. I do not think that we should come up with a convoluted system. At least the limit will provide surety. Everyone knows that the fee is £100, which, I believe, is the best way to proceed. We will review it in a couple of years’ time, when the first phase is finished, to see whether it is burdensome on local councils.

The Deputy Chairperson:

The key issue is safety.

Mr Watson:

Yes.

Mr D Bradley:

Good morning. All three proposed statutory rules state that there is no need for an equality impact assessment because the issues were addressed at the primary legislation stage. Can you confirm that a full equality impact assessment was carried out during the primary legislation stage?

Mr Magee:

That is correct. Equality and regulatory impact assessments were carried out.

Mr D Bradley:

Does the proposed legislation give rise to any human rights issues? If so, have they been addressed in accordance with the guidance?

Mr Watson:

That was before my time. Honestly, I cannot see how the legislation, which is in place to protect people, could have any human rights implications.

Mr D Bradley:

Quite a few human rights issues could emerge from that legislation. Has the Department addressed that issue at all?

Mr Magee:

The SL1s that the Committee received have been copied to the Human Rights Commission. We have not received any comments from it as yet.

Mr Watson:

The primary legislation was also sent to the commission.

The Deputy Chairperson:

When you receive the Human Rights Commission’s comments about whether there are any human rights issues, will you be kind enough to pass them on to the Committee? We would be interested to see them?

Mr Magee:

Certainly.

Mr Shannon:

Did you say that a total of 30 grounds will be affected?

Mr Watson:

That is correct.

Mr Shannon:

Is there any indication of which grounds?

Mr Watson:

We provided a list to the Committee.

Mr Shannon:

We must have it somewhere then.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you very much, Colin and Greg. We got though that well, so I thank you for your professionalism and help. We are much obliged.

Are members content with the Department’s proposals for the three statutory rules?

Mr Shannon:

I have no bother with the rules. The witnesses said that the Department will review the costs in two years’ time. Rather than just having that verbal commitment, it is important that it is on the record.

Incidentally, Deputy Chairperson, you are right; safety is the priority, and no one would deny that. However, cost implications cannot be ignored; therefore, the situation must be reviewed in two years’ time. Whether it involves Linfield Football Club or Comber Rec Football Club, Windsor Park and Park Way in Comber are very different grounds, so it would be unfair if the charges were to be the same.

The Committee Clerk:

Although it will be recorded in the Hansard report, the Committee could write to the Minister to get that assurance in writing.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Do members agree that we should do that?

Members indicated assent.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That is an excellent idea, and it would clarify the position, particularly for smaller clubs.

Are members content with the Department’s proposals for the three statutory rules?

Members indicated assent.

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