Sunday, 12 July 2015

Silverstone with questions to answer on guide dogs

I don't know about you, but I often find it tempting to treat mainstream media reporting with a rather large dosage of caution. Particularly when the subject matter is one that appears close to home. And so it was yesterday when news articles appeared in the self-same mainstream media claiming that a blind F1 fan was not allowed to attend the recent British Grand Prix with their guide dog (see here, here and here). 'Surely it can't be so?' I thought. Surely the fourth estate must have misinterpreted something or other? Well it seems upon some digging that they might have something here. That the Silverstone circuit quite possibly has acted illegally and at the very least has got questions to answer.

Sadly, not everyone who wanted to got to
attend the British Grand Prix
Photo: Octane Photography
The coverage while not especially expansive on Silverstone's side of the story did mention that a guide dog at the event would be a "health and safety" risk as the fan was told "someone could fall over her golden retriever".

The first stop in seeking to work out whether this is indeed the case was provided by the reports also citing a Silverstone spokesperson saying "their rules about animals at the British Grand Prix are set by the Motor Sports Association". And from looking at the 2015 MSA yearbook here it is indeed so that on p89 under its 'Common Regulations for Circuits and Venues' we have 2.1.2. stating: "In the interests of safety, animals should not be admitted to Race, Speed or Kart venues, but if present they must be secured inside a vehicle or building whenever practice or competition is taking place."

So on this basis rather than considerations of the crowd, having animals around when the track is live is a no-no, which seems fair enough given the consequences of a dog getting onto a live track don't bear thinking about (ask Bruno Senna on that one...). Indeed I'll hold my hands up and admit that my first response to the stories yesterday was that this would be the explanation. After all the reporting also included gleeful mention of Lewis Hamilton's dogs being inside the Silverstone circuit which was rather beside the point given they presumably were locked away when the track was live. But I had the error of my ways pointed out by a couple of people.

Mainly that guide dogs are an exception. Not only that their training and the like makes them much less of a risk of getting loose onto the track but also that not allowing them into a motor racing event appears to go against the Equality Act 2010 that means among other things that it is against the law to deny someone a service because they have their guide dog with them. So far as I can tell no exception is made for motor racing nor for the British Grand Prix specifically.

The MSA regulations don't mention guide dogs specifically from what I can find, yet equally a simple Google search will show you that many British tracks make it clear that while animals aren't ordinarily allowed into the circuit guide dogs are in fact welcome. Thruxton and Donington Park were two that I found saying that.

While for Silverstone its stance is a little more curious. Its website states currently that "All assistance dogs are welcome. However, before your arrival please contact the circuit on 0844 3728 251 (Mon-Fri 8.30am-5.00pm only) so that arrangements can be made. If you do not call you maybe refused admission with your dog. It is not recommended that animals be subjected to loud noises from some of our Motorsport activities especially at the Formula 1 Santander British Grand Prix."

So in an apparent inconsistency it's not about the general throng at the Grand Prix event, instead it's about noise. And further the person that was subject of the newspaper reports did claim to call ahead which is when she got her snub. So on that basis either someone involved got their wires crossed or there is more to this.

Curiouser still though a fan called Katherine Vickery got in touch with me on Twitter this morning to say that she in a similar situation had a similar advance refusal to taking her guide dog to the British Grand Prix this year, and had tweets from Silverstone in January confirming as much.

The tweets from the Silverstone circuit's official account are below:
She also said that as far as she was aware the Silverstone website at the time she enquired did not have anything on its policy on guide dogs specifically either way - including nothing on them being "not recommended" - and that she has an email from Silverstone again from January saying it would be updating its website information to confirm no assistance dogs would be allowed at the British Grand Prix.

It all appears to back the story reported yesterday, that Silverstone indeed was refusing people with guide dogs from the British Grand Prix this year.

And most pertinently unless there is some arrangement or other making motorsport, or the British Grand Prix more to the point, an exception it appears Silverstone is bang to rights in this falling foul of equalities legislation. As I said I'm not aware of such an exception, while the Mirror article on the subject quoted a spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive saying: "There is absolutely no health and safety legislation that would prevent guide dogs attending a sporting gathering, or any other gathering for that matter. Yet again we see a company or individual using health and safety as a convenient excuse to hide behind. Health and safety laws exist to prevent death and serious injury in Britain's workplaces, not for jobsworths to use as a catch-all to prevent people going about their business."

Curiouser and curiouser. Silverstone it seems has questions to answer. Its advice on guide dogs in itself - and how its advice compares to its practice of admitting people with them - seems at best muddled and perhaps too has been changed discretely more recently, as a tacit admission that it was wrong before. Clarity from the circuit would be welcome.

But perhaps it's not that curious, as it seems Silverstone is far from alone on this. The coverage of this has also cited a report released this month by the Guide Dogs association that says that three-quarters of guide dog owners have been refused access somewhere at some point, and that the number of successful prosecutions as a result is so "woefully low" that it is an "ineffective deterrent for future refusals".

This is a rather unfortunate episode, one that the circuit and the sport could really have done without, And by far the worst aspect of this is the human side of F1 fans not getting into an F1 event through no fault of their own - indeed so far as we can tell they sought to do everything by the book. I'd suggest that if it hasn't done so already that Silverstone changes its ways on this one, and quickly.

UPDATE 13/07/15:
Silverstone has got in touch with Katherine and me on this via Twitter. The circuit has confirmed that it did indeed refuse access to the British Grand Prix to those with guide dogs but say that it offered a free 'PA service' instead. It claimed this was refused at which point it "did get in touch with the regional guide dog coordinator for the indoor space but never heard back from them". It's not clear whether the circuit is referring to Katherine's case or that of the person that was the subject of the original newspaper articles, but Katherine has since replied to Silverstone denying that she was offered contact with her Guide Dogs team or offered indoor space, rather merely was given a blanket no by the circuit, as well as that she would not have found a PA service instead of being allowed her guide dog to have access to the event ideal.

I have also responded to ask the circuit whether it was not still in breach of the Equality Act 2010 to refuse a guide dog to the event, even if an alternative is offered, and I await their response, which I'll add here if and when I get it. I have asked Silverstone too if it would like to comment too on that its stance on this matter seemingly has shifted recently from not allowing guide dogs to them being "not recommended".

A selection of the tweets are below:

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