Football Governance

Rachel Hopkins Excerpts
James Daly Portrait James Daly (Bury North) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott, and, as ever, to take part in any debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) is involved in. What we have just heard is what football is about. I am fed up to the back teeth of football being talked about through the prism of only five or six clubs in the premier league who think that they have a God-given right to dominate football and to decide what happens to other clubs in their vicinity. I would not have believed the lack of care within English football from those major clubs, the EFL and the FA regarding Bury until I became an MP and found out the complete negligence of the history, hope and passion that has just been displayed.

Every single person in Bury was let down and nobody cared, and still nobody cares. I support the call for an independent regulatory body. Bury football club is not very important to the football pyramid—two times FA cup winners. Gigg Lane was built in 1885, and is one of the oldest football stadiums in the world. Along with Ashington and Greenwich in London, we produce more English footballers than any other town. Stewart Day took over the club in 2013. Four years later, wages had jumped threefold to £4.5 million. This was the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. During the same period, the club’s revenues grew by less than 50% to £3.2 million. That meant that Bury was spending 140% of its entire turnover on wages. The club was persistently late paying other clubs and making loan payments. The EFL and the football regulatory bodies did nothing. When Mr Day’s property business collapsed, the club was effectively insolvent. The EFL and the FA knew that and did nothing. What they did was allow the club to be taken over by a man called Steve Dale.

I would need hours to talk about Steve Dale. He took over the club for £1 with no way of funding it. That situation was a scandal, and it led to my town’s club being kicked out of the league. This does not just involve Parliament; it involves passion. I have seen personally how people in Bury have been affected by the loss of something that for 70 or 80 years people have been going to watch. It is part of their lives, their heritage, and what makes them proud of the town of Bury. The big premier league clubs around us did nothing. Manchester United and Manchester City did not come knocking on the door, saying, “What can we do to help?” There was nothing, and no local authority. The fans of Bury have been left to themselves.

The recent debate regarding the EFL super league was very nice. It suited certain people on TV to be outraged by that, but those same people never defended Bury or AFC Wimbledon because they do not care. Once we have, hopefully, a regulator that can at least give some responsibility to the football league pyramid that we have, perhaps that care will be back in the system.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for introducing this really important debate.

Many football clubs were created by workers at the heart of their communities. Luton Town, the club that I am so proud to have in my constituency of Luton South, was founded democratically when John Charles Lomax and George Deacon arranged a public meeting at the town hall on 11 April 1885 to form a town club. Lutonians opposed another group’s secretive plans to create a club and instead supported the transparent, democratic creation of the club that we are so proud of now.

As industry grew in Luton, so did the club, and that cuts to the heart of what football represents for so many. Sports clubs are not a business like any other; they are intrinsically linked to the communities they represent. Having met Luton Town Supporters’ Trust and Loyal Luton Supporters Club, what stands out to me most is how much they care about the club as a central feature of our town’s identity that should be celebrated.

The driving force of football is the comradeship among fans and communities, and at the weekend we saw an overwhelming display of heartfelt solidarity in response to Christian Eriksson’s collapse, and I wish him a speedy recovery. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The principal—indeed, the only—concern of all fans across the world was Christian’s health, and to see the Danish and Finnish fans united in showing their support when the match restarted was truly moving.

Football transcends borders and communities, and fans come together through our shared love of the sport. I have experienced that first hand with the passionate Scandinavian Hatters from Norway and Sweden, who are an excellent part of Luton Town’s fan base, and I call many of them friends.

Measures must be put in place to protect and extend fans’ influence in their clubs.

The Labour party has called for reform of the governance of football for more than a decade. We need the Government’s review to be truly fan-led, in order to make this a watershed moment that reforms our game’s dysfunctional governance. We must put an end to the billionaire owners of the biggest clubs running our sport purely for profit—they clearly cannot be trusted to regulate themselves—and strict measures must be put in place to prevent any further attempts to create a European super league and to stop clubs such as Bury suffering the awful situations they have experienced.

As one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for football supporters, I support the Football Supporters’ Association’s “Sustain The Game!” campaign, which outlines a plan: to protect our clubs as community assets; to improve transparency, to ensure that everyone knows who owns their club and how they operate; to impose financial controls with teeth, to ensure that clubs and leagues are regulated; to strengthen the football pyramid, in order to safeguard its long-term sustainability; and to ensure that supporters’ voices are at the heart of their clubs.

The fan-led review needs to bring about lasting change through the introduction of legislation to create a thoroughly independent regulator. As Saving Our Beautiful Game has put it:

“This is an unprecedented opportunity to reboot the game and side with millions of fans during a summer of football.”

I hope to read an interim report from the fan-led review in July that lays the ground for systemic change in our game.

Jane Hunt Portrait Jane Hunt (Loughborough) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott.

I first thank the 412 people in my constituency who have signed these petitions. Football is deeply rooted in the fabric of our society, particularly in Loughborough, the national centre of sport. Football unites local communities and brings together people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. As one of my constituents said:

“Football is a living, breathing part of British culture, which must be protected from the heights of European football all the way down to the Sunday league.”

As we know, there has been a huge backlash against plans for a European Super League. I very much welcome the Government’s fan-led review of football governance. Loughborough University has offered to assist in that review, and I would be grateful if its offer and its expertise were taken up.

I also hope that examples of good ownership shine through in the review and serve as reminders of how football clubs can do right by their fans and support their local communities. For example, Leicester City football club not only delivers football and other physical activity sessions for local people, but supports refugees to rebuild their lives in the area and has facilitated donations from fans to refurbish a hospital unit at the Leicester Royal Infirmary. The groundsman at the club’s training ground has even shared his expertise with the bowls club in Sileby in my constituency, to help to improve its bowling green to Commonwealth games standard. That is a fantastic example of what club owners’ priorities should be and the contribution they can make to the area in which their club is based.

Ahead of today’s debate, I met the Foxes Trust, a non-profit supporters’ trust for fans of Leicester City football club, to discuss the Government’s review and to hear its thoughts on the petitions. The trust stressed that its relationship with the owners of Leicester City works very well, because the owners fully understand the community aspect of the club, and that understanding is backed up by prudent financial management. However, given recent incidents throughout football—including many that we have heard about today—the trust believes that meaningful dialogue with properly constituted supporter groups needs to be legislated for.

The trust feels that the 50+1 share model will be difficult to instigate in the UK. Furthermore, while fans should not have the ability to veto all decisions made by the board, the trust has said that it should absolutely have more say over the club’s finances and business plans, and be able to veto certain decisions to protect a club’s heritage, location and playing facilities. For example, that could be through a golden share, which would be administered via an elected fan to the club’s board and an independent executive director with responsibility for club heritage who is elected by fans’ groups via a vote of key stakeholders, such as season ticket holders.

With regards to the independent regulation of football, a local resident has contacted me to say that an independent regulator is needed to

“preserve the integrity of the English football pyramid and prevent its destruction by overseas owners and investors who do not understand its importance to the people of this country and wish to impose their own vision purely for profit purposes without understanding its place in the community.”

I would be grateful if the Minister could take those comments into account as part of the discussions.