Pressure growing for end to football alcohol ban

Jim Murphy at New Douglas Park before the Hamilton v Aberdeen football match yesterday. Picture: SWNS
Jim Murphy at New Douglas Park before the Hamilton v Aberdeen football match yesterday. Picture: SWNS
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MINISTERS are facing growing pressure to lift a controversial alcohol ban at football matches as Scotland’s most senior police officer said he was ready to discuss the move if it shown to have public support.

Police Scotland Chief Constable Sir Stephen House said he would be “extremely concerned” at any proposal to change the law, but that he was willing to hold formal talks with the football authorities depending on the results of a consultation exercise.

His remarks came as it emerged that thousands of Scots are to be asked for their view on the law in a series of focus groups and polls later this month commissioned by the Scottish Football Association.

Scottish Labour leader Mr Murphy, who has run a high- profile campaign on the issue, last night invited Scotland’s 42 football clubs, supporters, the SFA and the police to a summit on Friday aimed at relaxing the ban, that also applies to the national team’s home games such as World Cup and Euro qualifiers at Hampden.

Mr Murphy, a Celtic season ticket holder, has said the ban smacks of “class prejudice” because of the availability of alcohol at rugby fixtures.

The Scottish Government would have the final say, although backing for a change in the law from the country’s most senior police officer would add to the pressure on ministers.

Alcohol has been banned from football stadiums north of the Border for more than three decades, although drink is available at grounds in England, as well at Scottish rugby games such as Six Nations clashes at Murrayfield.

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Fans at England’s Wembley stadium are allowed to drink alcohol before kick-off and at half-time in bars at the ground, although drink cannot be taken into the stands. Meanwhile, Sir Stephen in his first public intervention on the ban, said Police Scotland had held initial talks with the football authorities on the idea of a small controlled pilot in one stadium selling only low-strength 2 per cent beer.

His remarks will be a breakthrough for the nearly two-thirds of fans who polls show support scrapping the ban, which was put in place after fans of Celtic and Rangers rioted at the 1980 Scottish Cup Final.

Sir Stephen, in a letter to SNP MSP George Adam, who is campaigning to get the ban lifted, said that he “remains to be convinced it is the right thing to do”.

He wrote: “You are quite correct when you say I would be extremely concerned with any proposal to amend legislation in respect of alcohol at football grounds in Scotland.”

But he added: “I do recognise the ban was introduced nearly 35 years ago and it is only right that Police Scotland reviews its policing and position in respect of such significant matters.

“Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins [the police’s lead officer on football issues] has insisted football authorities conduct a full public consultation to ascertain how much desire the Scottish public has for such a significant change.

“If the outcome of the consultation is that the public supports the idea, then we will of course enter into formal discussions with the footballing authorities.”

Alcohol can only be consumed at Scottish grounds in corporate and hospitality areas – not in sight of the pitch. Last year, Scottish Premier League club St Mirren put on a successful “fan zone” event in a marquee in its car park ahead of a match which sold alcohol to fans. A trial lifting of the ban has been suggested, possibly involving low-alcohol lagers.

Mr Murphy, who does not drink, said Scotland’s football supporters are treated “like second class citizens”, as he called for a change in the law ahead of Scottish Labour’s summit at Hampden on Friday.

The East Renfrewshire MP, who campaigned on the issue at football grounds over the weekend, called for the ban on alcohol to be phased out, as he announced a summit on the issue.

He said: “The sale of alcohol at football was banned 35 years ago. Times have changed, football has changed, the stadiums have changed; so I believe it’s time we had another look at the ban and stopped treating football supporters like second class citizens.

“I’ve already spoken to a number of club representatives and the next stage is to hold a summit with all interested parties to take this forward. I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone has to say on Friday.”

Opinion poll results, which police chiefs demanded went beyond the football community and licensed trade association, are expected to be back with the SFA by next month.

The findings will be presented to the Scottish Government and police chiefs.

A study published last year suggested nearly two-thirds of Scottish football fans want to see the ban on alcohol at games lifted, although the majority of women who responded were against ending the restrictions.

SFA head of communications Darryl Broadfoot said: “We are working on a cross-party basis, and across the football community, to build the case for what we feel is the long overdue return of alcohol to stadiums in a controlled, responsible manner.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The vast majority of football fans in Scotland are well behaved, and a credit to their clubs, but the current policy on alcohol at football grounds was introduced for good reasons.”

ANALYSIS

Craig Davidson: Labour leader bidding to win back voters angry with party

There are three things we all know about Jim Murphy – he is teetotal, loves his football and is a ruthless political operator.

As someone who doesn’t touch the stuff, no-one can accuse him of self interest by suggesting we lift the drink ban at his beloved Celtic Park and other grounds. But he knows it is in Labour’s interests to have a popular policy for middle-aged men in Scotland who like football.

During the referendum campaign, it was clear women were more reluctant to back independence than men. Well if the SNP has a woman problem, the reverse is true for Labour. Polling shows large numbers of men who once voted Labour are now angry about a party they see as no longer representing them and have been persuaded by Alex Salmond’s bravado and patriotism. They won’t be won back easily.

As leader, Jim Murphy has ditched his Blairite reputation for the politics of pragmatism and populism and his pitch to football fans is typical.

Need to win over students in the cities? Convert to free tuition. Losing votes to the Greens? Call for a moratorium on fracking. People worrying about the NHS? Pledge 1,000 nurses paid for by a mansion tax.

His new found commitment to devolution and a stronger Scottish identity for Labour north of the Border surprised many. But when the facts change, so must he and the referendum changed these arguments forever. Dividing the population into groups and targeting them with populist policies may seem crude and cynical but we know it can be brutally effective.

The SNP used these tactics to win power in 2007 and have kept that winning formula ever since. Mr Murphy has just a matter of weeks to stem the flow of votes to the SNP and save Labour from disaster.

He doesn’t have the time to set out a grand vision. This was Ed Miliband’s job and, in Scotland at least, it hasn’t worked. It seems Labour’s only chance of stopping the SNP is to play them at their own game.

• Craig Davidson is a journalist and writer. He is a former adviser to Labour’s Johann Lamont

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