Monday 14th June 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
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It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing this extremely important debate, and for the way he introduced it.

In the brief time I have, I want to highlight two key issues. First, I remind colleagues that although it is the English Football League pyramid, four Welsh teams are part of that: Swansea, Cardiff, Wrexham and Newport. We are always aware of the Union of the United Kingdom, and we share our passion for football and sport in the same way. Therefore, although Welsh teams share the privileges of the English Football League structure, we are also subject to the same risks as all the other clubs. We must remember that fans come from all over the United Kingdom and beyond. Whatever actions come out of the petition and review, they will be relevant to fans wherever they are in the UK or around the world.

The second issue I want to highlight is that the presence of four clubs in the English pyramid system does not detract from the importance of the Welsh pyramid structure. I refer to an experience that is relevant to the English structure: Barry Town football club, which is now known as Barry Town United. I declare an interest as the honorary president. It was a highly successful club over many years, with a long history that included European success. It has passionate fans, just like every other football club, but it also has the most professional coaching structure. I pay tribute to Gavin Chesterfield and his wife Hannah Chesterfield, and the whole structure behind him, for what they have achieved. I hope hon. Members will indulge me for a moment to highlight that.

In 2013, we ended up with a disgruntled owner who had lost interest in the club and initially allowed the supporters to run the club for most of the season. He then decided, for whatever reason—we can all make judgments on that—to withdraw the club from the league with two games left in the season, in spite of having an extremely successful season. Of course, we wanted to qualify as a phoenix club, but the regulatory challenges meant that we, a local club, ended up in the High Court, costing us tens of thousands of pounds to get reinstated. We eventually won, but that was purely because of the passion of the supporters, the coaching structure and the supporters committee that ran it.

In the 15 seconds I have remaining, I must say that much of the attention of this debate has understandably focused on wealth and the exploitation of fans through overcharging, merchandising and drawing them to a super league. But there are local clubs with owners that are disgruntled for whatever reason, and the structures and laws as they stand do not lend themselves to the fans taking control, unless they are as determined as the fans and supporters of Barry Town United.

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Nigel Huddleston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Nigel Huddleston)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. You must have been biting at the bit to contribute directly to today’s debate, because I know how knowledgeable and passionate you are about this topic.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) from the Petitions Committee for having brought forward this debate on reform of the structure of football in this country, and to all colleagues from across the House and from various nations who have made constructive contributions. Again, their knowledge, insight, passion, experience and expertise has been incredible, and I am sure that many stakeholders in football have been listening.

I also thank Aston Villa fan Angus Yule, who started the petition on the 50+1 rule, and the Blackpool Supporters Trust, which started the petition for an independent regulator for football, as well as the tens of thousands of people who took the time to sign those petitions. We are having this debate because football fans want changes to be made to the structure of football in this country, and I thank them for their passion and their commitment to improving our national game. Both petitions received well over 100,000 signatures, which clearly signals the level of interest in this subject.

I also note the responses of fans to the Petitions Committee’s survey, which the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) mentioned and which asked the original petitioners for their views on the most important issues facing football governance in England today. They have highlighted areas of concern, including the need to protect the football pyramid, how revenue is distributed, club ownership, and the ability of fans to influence decisions. The Government’s independent fan-led review will look at those issues closely, as well as fans’ views and suggestions for how we can change the structure of our game for the better.

Fans have a crucial part to play in the reform of our national game. They bear the brunt and fallout of bad ownership decisions; they see where the structures are not working for the good of the game; and they can articulate most clearly how important local clubs and grounds are to the local community, and how club badges and names give a sense of heritage, belonging and place. Our independent review has already started its work at pace and is hearing from fans, football authorities and experts from the worlds of finance, governance and regulation to build the framework for the future of football in England. The review’s chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who quite clearly commands the respect of many who have spoken today, has already met many fan groups. I have regular meetings with the chair, but I also meet fan groups myself, most recently in Manchester, and I look forward to meeting more fans over the coming weeks and months.

In addition, the review team will shortly launch a survey to allow all fans to contribute their views. I will ensure that Members are notified when that survey is launched. That is quite important, because we have a lot of football fans in the country, and some of them are not necessarily specifically fans of an individual club, so it is important that their views are heard as well.

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns
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I pay tribute to the Minister for his work and the way he is following this issue. Will he consider engaging with fans outside England? The point has been made that across the United Kingdom, there are fans of clubs that may predominantly be in England.

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.