Monday 14th June 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliot, particularly in the light of your expertise in this subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing the debate and on leading it ably. We have had many such debates in my time as a Member of Parliament, and yet again, the subscription to the debate shows what an important issue this is to us all.

I congratulate in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on her excellent contribution—her dad would be so proud—even though she reminded me of the 1988 FA cup final, which sends a shiver down my spine even to this day.

I do not know what is going on in Kent, but we had brilliant contributions from the hon. Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), and everybody wishes the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) the very best in her endeavours, so thanks to Kent for sending us MPs who are doing such great work on football reform. I think it is fair to say that many of the points they made are supported not just by those Members who have spoken but by others right across the House.

We want to see change happen. I will make three very brief points on what I think that change should look like. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) pointed out, previous Labour party manifestos—in 2019, 2017, 2015 and 2010 —called for reform of football governance, so this will come as a surprise to nobody. Indeed, I apologise to the Minister because he will have heard me say much of this before, but my hope is that the repetition affirms our cross-party position that we want to see that change and we will make it happen. If anybody in the world of football is in doubt about that, they should read the contributions made to this debate, because we have made our intentions clear.

First, on football finances, I support the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, as well as all the contributions that she and her expert group have made about the need for an independent regulator. If we are to have an independent regulator, many people will rightly ask, “To what end?” The answer has to be finances. As the ESL debacle made abundantly clear, if we believe in competition, we cannot let the finances of football undermine that principle. We need competition not in name only, but in reality. At the moment, what we call the football pyramid has very significant financial cliff edges—to get into the Championship and to get out of League Two. Those are significant problems in our football pyramid. We need an independent regulator to change how the football finance system works, so that we have a real pyramid and real competition again.

To anybody who thinks that that is too hard, I say that, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North pointed out, we did it in banking even though people said that that was too complicated and difficult. We in this country are good at creating regulators, and we need to do that for football so that there is an independent voice to speak up for the fans, not least to protect the existence of clubs. We heard from the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) just how horrendous it is for people when the existence of their club is threatened. They must have protection so that their clubs cannot be ripped away from them because of someone else’s poor financial management. It is not just league clubs that need genuine redistribution; it is the grassroots as well.

My second point is about fans. We as football supporters need to ask ourselves what we want our role in this to be. That is why I am pleased that the review is fan-led, and I know that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford is talking to lots of fans. Do we want this veto that many have talked about, and if so, how do we get it? I ask the Minister what legislation is being prepared to look at that. What constraints do want on the behaviour of owners? We know that the test for owners and directors is good for nothing, so what kind of test do we really want? We need not a snapshot but an ongoing check on behaviour. As many Members have said, the development of different ownership models requires support, similar to that provided in the past by Supporters Direct, so what preparation work is the Department doing?

My third and final point is about inclusion. Let us be honest with ourselves: we are not in a good moment when it comes to the fight against racism in the beautiful game. We have to be really frank and honest about this. Proper football fans do not boo their team. One of the things that I remember most about first going to Anfield is being told, “We never boo our players. If they are wearing our shirt, those are our people and we do not boo them.” That, for me, is the end of it, so I suggest we all get behind our team, not least because there are significant challenges that we need to fight together, including racism and misogyny.

The fact is that in UK sport, approximately 96% of broadcast time is for men playing football, which leads to a 99% pay gap between women and men. We now have the example of Lauren James and Reece James, who are equal in talent but, because of their gender, face widely disparate prospects for income from football. I ask the Minister: how can we make progress on that and—I know that this will receive support from across this House—on disability football, which is also very important? We need to get it on the agenda.

We have a lot to do. I hope that we will do it together and make progress quickly, because we have had many debates of this type, and now is the time for action.

--- Later in debate ---
Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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I am confident that we will be able to do that, in electronic form, through surveys and through other mechanisms, for the very reasons he expressed. I had the pleasure of visiting Wrexham last year, and it has interesting new owners; that shows commitment and shows that it is possible to invest appropriately if international owners have the right attitude. That is important, because we should not taint all potential investors, including overseas investors, with the same brush.

The first petition calls for the enforcement of the 50+1 rule for professional football club ownership, in reaction to the—thankfully unsuccessful—move to create a European super league. The House’s opposition to that showed that football can unite us in opposition to certain things, as well for things that we want. On that point, the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) mentioned the incident that occurred this weekend, which we were all very alarmed by. I wish Christian Eriksen a speedy and full recovery.

As Members will be aware, the 50+1 rule has been used in German football, during which time English football has pursued a very different model. There are clearly pros and cons to both approaches, and the terms of reference of our fan-led review include the consideration of models from other countries, so we are looking at that model. Members will be aware of the complexities of retrofitting the German model into the English system and of the benefits that some—though by no means all—wealthy individual owners have brought to our clubs. The review will consider whether any aspects of these alternative ownership models could be beneficially translated into the English league system. At this stage, it is for the chair and panel to consider all the options available. I would not want to prejudge their recommendations, but work is under way and the review’s interim report is due next month.

The review is also looking at other options that fans are keen to explore, such as voting rights, with fans having a greater say in how their clubs are run, and whether that would mean direct engagement and involvement with the club’s board and executives. The review will also consider giving fans some form of voting rights or golden share on key issues affecting the club. The Football Supporters’ Association supports that option, and it was supported by hon. Members today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) and others.

What the panel, the Government and, most importantly, fans seek from the final recommendations is a stable and sustainable framework for our national game for the future and beyond. Key to that sustainability is responsible club ownership; integrity in club governance; recognition of the proud footballing history and heritage of our national game, as mentioned by many hon. Members; recognition of and understanding the value that football clubs bring to their local communities; and most importantly, recognition of the value and expertise that fans can contribute to their clubs.

We do not want to see again the destruction of clubs like Bury. Neither do we want to see clubs seeking to break the framework of English football simply to become wealthier at the expense of other clubs. We do not want our cherished and historic football grounds to be taken away from their communities. We do want stable and responsible ownership of our football clubs. We want fans to be involved in the crucial decisions affecting their clubs, and we want to maintain the thrill, excitement, uncertainty and competitiveness that give English leagues their status and make them the envy of the world.

I turn to the second petition, which calls for the introduction of an independent regulator for football in England by December this year. The strength of feeling on this issue among hon. Members was fairly clear. Again, I cannot pre-empt or prejudge the chair’s recommendations or the Government’s response, but there has been a clear message in this debate and many others that I have attended with the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). I fully understand the weight of feeling behind the huge amount of support for the petition, which has had more than 140,500 signatures. It clearly demonstrates fans’ appetite for better regulation of the structures in football.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern
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Has the Minister seen the open letter on the issue of regulation, whose lead signatories are Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand and Jamie Carragher? We are all aware of their work in this area. The letter suggests that regulation should not be diluted by Premier League representatives or anyone else employed by, taking fees from or on the board of professional football clubs or football authorities. Will the Minister confirm that he has seen that letter, it is being taken account of and it will be covered by the review?