One didn’t have to be an anti-capitalist demonstrator to be pretty appalled by the police’s behaviour at the recent demonstrations in London. However, considering the curtailments to civil liberties that have been introduced by the government over the last few years it should come as no great surprise to anybody that the police themselves have been taking something of a pick and mix attitude towards which parts of the law they choose to take any notice of and how they interpret the new laws themselves, or that football supporters should also have found themselves on the wrong end of policing that could at best be described as over-zealous, and at worst as little short of the sort of policing that one would expect to find in a dictatorship.
Last year, Stoke City were celebrating their first season in the top flight of English football for more than twenty years, and their match at Old Trafford was one of their biggest away trips of the season. Prior to the match, however, eighty Stoke city supporters were drinking in a pub in Irlam, Manchester when the police turned up and, citing Section 27 of the 2006 Violent Crime Reduction Act, forced them back onto their coaches where they were made to wait for four hours before being returned to Stoke. They were denied basic sanitation facilities while they waited and were told to urinate into plastic cups. It is also worth pointing out that there is no evidence whatsoever that they were causing any trouble whatsoever, and that no complaints had been received regarding their behaviour.
One Stoke supporter, Lyndon Edwards, was unsurprisingly outraged by his treatment when he hadn’t actually broken any laws. Section 27 of the 2006 Violent Crime Reduction Act was introduced to deal with drunken individuals that posed a risk to those around them. Edwards contacted the Football Supporters Federation who worked with Liberty to force a judicial review of the Greater Manchester Police’s (il)liberal interpretation of this section of the act, claiming that it was never intended that it should be used to deal with large groups of people. In other words, that the police themselves had acted illegally. It hasn’t been the only time that this has happened, either.
In December of last year, South Yorkshire Police used the same legislation to force a group of Plymouth Argyle supporters to leave Doncaster prior to their match against Doncaster Rovers. The South Yorkshire Star falsely accused them of being “known trouble-makers” but they were contacted by the FSF soon after the incident, who also took on their case. It has also been mentioned that supporters of Gillingham and Southend United have been on the wrong end of this illegal interpretation of the law.
The good news is that both sets of supporters have been completely vindicated. Lyndon Edwards has been awarded £2,750 in compensation by the Greater Manchester Police, and further claims from Stoke City supporters are expected. Credit should also go to Stoke City Football Club who, far from trying to distance themselves from the issue (as some other clubs may have done), underwrote Edwards’ legal fees to the tune of £20,000. South Yorkshire Police are currently said to be in negotiation with the Plymouth supporters illegally removed from Doncaster over compensation.
However, the fact that such orders will be granted with such scant regard for the law and with false allegations being leaked to the media in order to cover themselves for their behaviour (and anyone that knows anything about the Hillsborough disaster will be fully aware that South Yorkshire Police have a long and inglorious history in this respect) is obviously something that we should be concerned about. The police guidelines regarding Section 27 and groups run as follows:
There is nothing in section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 that prevents directions to leave being given to more than one individual. If a group’s behaviour represents a likelihood of causing or contributing to the occurrence, repetition or continuance of alcohol-related crime or disorder, directions to leave can be given to the group. However, a constable would need to give each member of the group a separate written direction to leave, recognising the need to avoid displacing potential problems arising from the group. If there are areas where members of the public have suffered intimidation, harassment, alarm or distress due to the presence of groups, and where anti-social behaviour is a significant and persistent problem, then consideration should be given to the use of powers under Part 4 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 rather than a direction to leave.
In spite of the opening sentence of this paragraph, it is perfectly clear that Section 27 was not designed to move people in groups of forty or more. Indeed, the only interpretation that one can arrive at is that Section 27 is being deliberately used by the police in situations in which there hasn’t been any anti-social behaviour using the very vague guidelines on what constitutes being drunk in legal terms. Whilst the news of the successful action brought by Lyndon Edwards is very welcome, there is no reason to think that police forces will take any notice of it and that they will stop issuing these orders. In such a situation, the best thing to do is to contact the FSF. This week’s news has been a small victory for law abiding football supporters, but there is no guarantee that the battle has been won yet.