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Supporters enjoying their day out at Old Trafford (© Alamy)

Football arrest stats: Home Office moves the goalposts 

Every year the Home Office releases the previous season’s arrest figures and yesterday saw the release of the 2022-23 season’s full dataset.

The BBC picked it up and reported that “the number of arrests at football matches in England and Wales have reached a nine-year high, according to Home Office figures”.

Let’s get something out of the way – the number of arrests is higher than last year because the Home Office has included (without consultation by the way) a new statistic that we are not at all convinced is valid.

Arrest rates for 2022-23 are marginally higher than 2021-22 because of the inclusion of arrests which took place in England and Wales “relating to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar”.

So if you were in a pub last December watching the World Cup and managed to get yourself arrested then – bingo! – you too could be part of the football-arrest statistics.

That accounts for 101 arrests and 4.5% of the total number of 2,264 arrests – remove those and there’s actually been a small decrease in the total number of arrests from the previous season.

Similarly Class A drug arrests have also been included for the first time (more on that below).

When the media reports that football arrests or disorder are rising they are not comparing like for like as the police and Home Office have moved the goalposts by adding new datasets.

This year’s figures also included the WSL and Women’s Championship for the first time although no arrests took place at any game in these competitions.

Football Banning Orders (FBOs)

Class A drug arrests are included in the figures for the first time in 2022-23 and account for 200 arrests – a further 8.8% of the total amount.

Drug use was obviously illegal at football anyway but thanks to a change in legislation FBOs can now be issued by courts to otherwise non-violent offenders who are caught with Class A drugs. 

This means the total number of FBOs handed out has jumped up by 32% which is then reported as though there’s been a massive increase in disorder when, in reality, it’s a consequence of a change in legislation and data collection.

Everyone knew it would equate to a rise because, as The Athletic reported last year, the Home Office uses FBOs as a measure by which it allocates police funding. “Cocaine is an easy arrest,” it reports one senior industry source as saying. “You are bang to rights and the paperwork is easy.” More drug arrests leads to more FBOs and more police funding.

Without that combined statistical change football arrests were lower than the previous season and around the same levels they had been in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

We’re certainly not advocating drug use at football but there are already laws to deal with drug possession and FBOs have very serious consequences – you have to surrender your passport when England / Wales or your club plays abroad. 

Imagine being caught with Class A drugs at Glastonbury and having your passport confiscated as a result. The civil liberties debate and outcry from the media would be huge. 

That now happens at football regularly and there are serious questions as to whether it’s a proportionate punishment for a non-violent offender.

Are the statistics valid?

The idea of these football-arrest statistics is surely to give a comprehensive picture of matchgoing and the general sense of disorder (or not) at games.

Police will talk about the stats providing a deterrent effect but to our mind they’re more likely to deter new fans than deter the small minority who do cause bother. 

And everytime the police and politicians throw in another set of stats it clouds the picture and means the media isn’t comparing like-for-like as the seasons go by. 

There are more things than ever before which can now be included in the data and some of them have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with being around or inside a football stadium.

They now potentially include people arrested in a pub while watching a match taking place in Qatar, non-violent drug users and people who’ve never been to a game in their lives but used discriminatory language on social media while watching a game on the TV.

None of that is acceptable behaviour but you’d think from some of the sensationalist coverage that football stadiums were a lawless Wild West. 

That’s not true and we’ll always push back against attempts to portray fans as so out of control that special laws are needed for football and football only.

Football is a safe, enjoyable environment that millions of supporters experience without any problem every season – the low arrest rates compare favourably to many other large events.

Not to pick on Glastonbury, which is a fantastic event and runs across a full weekend, but for comparative purposes these are the arrest rates:

  • Premier League average 4.3 per 100,000 
  • Championship 4.8 per 100,000 
  • League One 5.2 per 100,000 
  • League Two 5.3 per 100,000
  • Glastonbury 17.5 per 100,000 (based on an ITV-report and 200,000 attending)

We suspect Glasto’s drug arrest rate might be higher as well if the police employed sniffer dogs in the same manner that is now increasingly commonplace at football stadiums. 

What next?

Here at the FSA we’re not trying to kid anyone – see the raw data yourself here.

Football arrests have risen post-COVID, from a record low in 2018-19, but they’re still at a historically low level and there’s a definite sense that after society’s post-pandemic blip things are settling down again.

The number of matches with reported incidents has decreased by 6% with half of matches being entirely incident free.

We don’t want any trouble makers in stadiums as the people most likely to be on the receiving end of football-related violence are fellow matchgoers. 

But we do think the media should subject the data to more rigorous analysis prior to publication as some of it is built on shaky foundations – leading to negative perceptions, bad law and poor treatment of supporters.

We’ll be writing to the Home Office to make these concerns absolutely clear.

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