Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Stephen Crabb.)
I am delighted to have been granted the opportunity to debate this issue. I am equally delighted to have been joined by Members from both sides of the House; their presence confirms the interest in and importance of the subject at the highest level. I also welcome the many people in the Public Gallery.
I am aware that a debate on this subject in this very Chamber was initiated in February by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd). That debate touched on many of the ills currently afflicting our national game. I am keen to establish from the outset that I do not seek to open up a brand new wide-ranging debate today; I simply want to continue a dialogue that has already begun and to highlight an idea that has already gained considerable traction. I should add that I am aware of the excellent work carried out by the all-party group on football, and I acknowledge its commitment and expertise. I am pleased to see members of that group here today and I look forward to their contribution to the debate.
It is important to acknowledge the progress made on football governance by the previous Government—particularly that made by senior members of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Thanks to their efforts, much of the ground work has been done. I hope that colleagues will welcome my humble attempt to build on that foundation.
I do not propose to discuss football governance per se or any other of the plethora of football-related topics. Instead, I intend to address one specific aspect: the role of supporters in the governance of football clubs. Today’s debate feeds into the wider debate on the reform of football governance. In my view, a broad package of reform should include changes at every level of the football hierarchy—but that is a debate for another day.
I declare an interest at this juncture. Not only am I a self-confessed football fanatic, but my constituency happens to play host to two renowned football clubs—Everton, which I have to mention first, and Liverpool FC. I also declare an interest as a season ticket holder for the red half of that duo. I hasten to add that that is not the sole reason for my being keen to secure this debate—not entirely, at least. Indeed, Northampton Town Supporters Trust, the country’s longest established supporters collective, says that this subject has an inescapably political dimension. I shall elaborate on what I mean by “politics” a little later.
I start with the basics. In 2009, the all-party group on football found that those who are most under-represented in football are those who should have the most say—the fans. One of the biggest problems connected with football governance is that, at most levels of the game, those who pay for it are excluded from the decision-making structures in clubs, leagues and governing bodies. This debate would be an entirely academic exercise if football fans were satisfied with that state of affairs and if there was no appetite for change. However, the evidence suggests otherwise. A YouGov poll conducted in April this year reportedly found that 56% of fans wished to take control of their clubs. In Manchester and Liverpool, where fans are outraged at the way in which their clubs are being exploited by wealthy foreign businessmen, the figure rose steeply to 82% and 72% respectively.
We might expect such findings in relation to supporters themselves, but there is a broad in-principle consensus among politicians, sport analysts, football governing bodies and clubs that fans have a role to play. In 2003, the then chairman of the Football Association, Lord Triesman, said that clubs should be owned by people who embrace the history and values of football and who want to see their clubs succeed. In 2008, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), urged Liverpool supporters to take back the club from within. In 2009, UEFA president Michel Platini told a newspaper:
“I think it is a great idea…that the supporters invest in a club because they at the end of the day defend the club’s identity”.
Parties across the board profess to be supportive. What is more, the concept of support and engagement is neither new nor—at least in theory—controversial.
A range of ownership and governance models exist, from token support and representation on club boards to outright ownership. In the United Kingdom, football supporters’ trusts have been established at more than 160 clubs, and 15 clubs are owned or controlled by such trusts. More than 110 trusts have shareholdings in their clubs, and almost 60 trusts have directors sitting on the club boards. Progress has clearly been made, largely due to the effort and commitment at grass-roots level, and that is to be commended.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I have to declare an interest; I am a season-ticket holder at Port Vale football club. Does my hon. Friend agree that the way in which the fans of Port Vale bought out their club when it was in administration also suggests a way forward? The dilemma and the main cause of tension is that football clubs depend on investment. The degree of investment now needed because of the unlevel playing field brought about by the premiership gives the impression that people can simply come in with that money, but it is not necessarily available at the local level.
I imagine that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) and Robbie Williams are both Port Vale supporters. She is probably right that the premiership is top-heavy, given its revenue.
I return to the question of football governance. The problem, as I said earlier, is that it is patchy and sluggish, and is largely the preserve of lower division clubs and non-professional governing authorities. They might be proactive and continue to reform their own governing structure, but it happens at a snail’s pace; the premier league, however, remains a law unto itself, with little apparent interest in seriously engaging with the very fan base that sustains it. It is no coincidence that supporters of nearly 70% of clubs in the top five divisions of English football and the top four divisions in Scotland have established supporters’ trusts. However, a 2009 report indicated that only 19 of the 92 Football League and premier league clubs have supporters’ representatives on their boards, which suggests that the supporters’ movement is thriving but that the clubs do not take them seriously.
The mood is changing, however, and momentum is growing. Premier league supporters are not prepared to do things by halves. They are pushing for outright control. Supporters of Manchester United and Liverpool FC, both iconic premiership clubs, have taken collective action and set their sights on more than token representation on their boards; the Manchester United Supporters Trust and its equivalent on Merseyside, SOS-ShareLiverpoolFC, advocate a long-term vision of outright club ownership.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining what is probably the most popular debate ever in Westminster Hall. He is clearly making history here today.
As my hon. Friend knows, in 2005 the Glazers took over Manchester United. The club is now £700 million in debt, with £69 million a year being paid in interest—and that money comes from the fans through tickets and merchandise. It is an appalling situation. Does my hon. Friend support a more rigorous “fit and proper person” test in respect of takeovers of football clubs? In Germany, every club has to be 51% owned by the supporters. Does he support a similar provision for clubs in this country? Such a scheme would make a real difference.
Absolutely. As for the “fit and proper person” test, it was one of the recommendations in the 2009 report, and it needs to be acted on. I will come later to my right hon. Friend’s point about the German model, in which supporters have a 51% stake, and to the models in Spain. It is interesting that a YouGov poll survey earlier this year found that supporters would be prepared to invest on average £600 each to buy their football clubs. If we do the maths, the prospect of supporters seizing control is not quite as far-fetched as it may initially seem.
The amount of money that my hon. Friend mentions demonstrates the extent to which such a suggestion is out of reach for many people. At one time, football was very much the working man’s game, but it has become an increasingly expensive pastime. If one has to have £600 to own a stake in a club, the prospect will be out of reach for a large percentage of our society. The example of the Glazers, who bought the club with the club’s own money and then put it into debt, shows how the game has been stolen away from the supporters and become merely an interest to big business.
Just to build on what I said, the proposal is very doable. A recent example of democracy in action has been demonstrated by Arsenal Supporters Trust, which invited fans to invest in a new “fanshare” scheme. For as little as £10 a month, Arsenal FC supporters can now contribute to a pool, which, in time, will be used to buy a stake in the premier league club. That will entitle shareholders to vote on club policy, receive financial and corporate information and attend the annual general meeting. The club is fully behind the scheme. The chief executive described the enhanced supporter-club relationships as
“good for the club’s soul.”
The four major shareholders all fully endorse the scheme. Arsenal FC is one of the more enlightened premiership clubs, but the success of its trust demonstrates that supporters are quite capable of forming intelligent, committed and influential collectives.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his choice of subject for today’s debate. Does he accept that the incremental nature of the Arsenal model is one way of getting over the difficulties of the vast sums of money involved in fans’ taking over at any given club, particularly in premiership land?
I totally agree with my right hon. Friend; there is not a one-size-fits-all response to this problem. First, we must identify that there is a problem, to see what we as Members of Parliament can do to alleviate it. Football supporters are shouting from the rooftops about it.
In my own neck of the woods, the pressure group Keeping Everton in our City achieved its objectives by stopping its club from being used as a pawn by big business. The aforementioned SOS-ShareLiverpoolFC has more than 30,000 members and a board packed full of expert professionals with a detailed proposal for funding and securing a buy-out of its club and for governance restructuring along more democratic lines. Supporters are thinking and talking big.
On the specific point about governance from the fans, does the hon. Gentleman know—perhaps the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) can help as well—what the fans who may be running a club would think, say, of the commercial viability of a ground share between Liverpool and Everton? Would that be an example of fans’ passions overriding the business case?
Give us an easy one! The tribal nature of football, which I will come to later if I have the opportunity, can sometimes override the common-sense approach. The example that the hon. Gentleman gives is a good one. Although the economics stack up in favour of Liverpool and Everton sharing a football ground, there are not many examples in the whole of the United Kingdom of such ground-sharing schemes. It is like suggesting to a Man United supporter that they share Manchester City’s stadium. If that is what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, it would be a difficult proposal to sell on the doorstep.
There are those who would say, “Leave them to it. Keep politics out of football and football out of politics.” The UK Government have traditionally veered away from being heavy-handed in football business, leaving the sport to its own internal devices and regulatory systems. However, the game itself is now a huge, complex and lucrative industry, which, by definition, impacts on the economy. Premier league clubs alone are saddled with an estimated cumulative debt of about £3 billion. We ignore that and the culture it has permitted it at our peril.
Another major money-yielding industry that, until recently, was deemed untouchable and was pretty much left to get on with things on its own went belly up. On that basis alone, there is a strong case for the Government to intervene. I will go even further and say that the Government not only have a right but a responsibility to get involved. Football has received much financial and political support from Government over the past decade or so, and, at a national level, with Government support, it is bidding to host the World cup. Therefore, in return, the Government have a right to expect the highest standards of governance and a duty to step in when the game falls short of those standards, which it currently does.
However, the case is more nuanced than that; for many, it is personal. The football industry is unique because football is a product like no other. Supporters in general are not simply consumers who can exercise purchase power and walk away from the product if they are unhappy with its quality or performance. Football fans invest emotionally as well as financially in their clubs. Club allegiances, as we have just identified, are deep-rooted and passionate and are often passed down from generation to generation. They are inextricably bound with community ties and identities. In that respect, football, like politics, is tribal. It commands loyalty and constancy and requires member engagement if it is to thrive. The industry itself should recognise and respect that.
The issue is political in other ways. It is said that the new politics is about transparency and accountability, and about more rigorous and meaningful forms of democracy. It is precisely those democratic principles—transparency and accountability—that football followers wish to see enshrined in the conduct of their clubs. It is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the age that football fans should seek greater influence in how their clubs are run, particularly when they see the clubs being run into the ground by profit-fixated asset strippers with little or no understanding of or empathy with a club’s heritage or culture.
I congratulate my fellow Liverpool supporter on securing this debate. However, I do not agree that Governments should intervene in this matter. The whole issue has arisen, particularly for the supporters, because of the financial engineering that has been going on. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that instead of trying to regulate in a particular way, we should use tax incentives to encourage mutuals, such as the Arsenal share scheme? Instead of debt-financed football clubs, which rely on tax incentives, we should have a different approach that encourages supporters’ ownership of the clubs.
I think that if that recommendation emerged from this debate and was supported by Members in the hon. Lady’s party, that would be a fantastic outcome. Hopefully, during the rest of the debate, we can tease out some further recommendations.
This is a timely debate, because the calls for greater supporter involvement chime with the coalition Government’s much-vaunted big society idea. It is altruism that drives supporter activism. Supporters’ trusts are run by people who give their time, money, effort and skills for the love of the game. Their overriding motive is to see their clubs prosper, on and off the pitch.
If the big society is all about citizens engaging proactively with activities and institutions that impact on their lives and the shared life of their communities—although, frankly, it all depends on which Minister is trying to define it—football governance reforms provide an ideal opportunity for the Government to push for improved supporter representation and involvement.
The social benefits of supporter involvement are already in evidence. A report recently commissioned by Supporters Direct entitled “The Social and Community Value of Football” examined this issue in full and detailed the specific advantages of supporter ownership, including
“a greater sense of engagement and inclusion with fans and wider stakeholders; better integration with the community; more open and responsible governance; good relationships with local authorities, and partnerships with voluntary organisations.”
So there is really no excuse not to take this idea on board.
The Conservative party made the right noises in its election manifesto, pledging that
“we will reform the football governance arrangements so co-operative ownership models can be established by supporters”.
I note with a little concern that the coalition Government made a rather more non-committal promise to “encourage” reform in its coalition agreement in May. I may be splitting semantic hairs here, but I sincerely hope that that did not signal a downgrading of the commitment.
My own party has a proven track record on football governance reform. It was the Labour Government who introduced the umbrella organisation for fans, Supporters Direct, in 1999. It also commissioned the Burns inquiry into football governance in 2005, and tackled the Football Association and other football governing authorities in 2009 over their failure both to work together and to implement reforms. The new Government have talked the talk on the big society and the role of football supporters in the governance of football clubs. The challenge now—I throw down the gauntlet for the Minister—is to walk the walk.
I should say a word about supporters’ trusts, as they are crucial to the success of this kind of democracy in action. They are formal, democratic and not-for-profit fans organisations and they aim to extend supporter ownership, representation and influence at their respective clubs. Sadly, if unsurprisingly, they have commonly been founded in response to financial or mismanagement crises at a club; crises that have compelled supporters to take matters into their own hands.
On a far more positive note, supporters’ trusts are generally voluntary, they operate effectively on minimal funding and members are motivated purely by their passion for the game. In that respect, they are true grass-roots movements and their successes prove that fan ownership, control or representation can work. Many of them are run along the lines of the extremely professional Northampton Town Supporters Trust, which was established in 1992. At that time, it was the first collective of its kind. It enjoys a shareholding in the second division club, as well as representation on the board of directors.
In Barrow, many people share their love of Barrow AFC with support for other successful clubs; I would say that those clubs are Liverpool, Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the supporters right across the country—who would imagine that there are Manchester United fans right across the country?—who have lobbied Members of Parliament to get involved in this debate? I find their energy extraordinary and it is a real sign that this can be a successful venture for football organisations.
I absolutely join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those supporters. I think that we ignore football fans at our peril. It is not just about Manchester United or Liverpool, or the other big clubs. Bees United acquired a 60% stake in Brentford football club in 2006, which made Brentford, who are in league one, one of only two Football League clubs to be majority-owned by their supporters. My hon. Friend mentioned Sheffield Wednesday; I think that it was Brentford who enjoyed a resounding victory over Sheffield Wednesday at the weekend.
As I have said, no discussion on this subject would be complete without reference to the Spanish and German models of club ownership, which I suspect are feared and grudgingly admired in equal measure by the corporate football world in the UK. Both Spain and Germany boast thriving, long-established equivalents to our premier league. Clubs in those two leagues exist in a culture of mutual or co-operative club ownership. In both leagues, it is a matter of civic pride that top-flight football clubs should be controlled or owned by their supporters. Spain’s FC Barcelona, which is the “big daddy” in this respect, is routinely held up as a utopian ideal of football club governance and is structured as a co-operative society owned by some 170,000 members, with a democratically elected president—and Barcelona do not do so badly, generally. It is a case of “horses for courses”.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. However, it is only fair to say that Spain has an entirely different model for distributing television revenues from Britain. Spanish clubs negotiate TV rights individually and they go directly to Barcelona and Real Madrid, so the majority of TV rights and therefore the majority of TV money goes directly to those two big clubs, and the smaller clubs underneath them, which constitute the larger Spanish football family, suffer accordingly. By contrast, here there is collective negotiation for those TV rights, putting British clubs on a very different financial basis.
I hear what the Minister is saying. I myself do not think that the Barcelona model or any other model is a panacea. I am not suggesting that, all of a sudden, the fans of every single football club will go out and seize control of their clubs in a revolution, but regarding the way in which clubs such as Barcelona are structured, the argument cannot be made that those structures make them less likely to be successful.
As I was saying, it is a case of “horses for courses” and it would be naive to suggest that we should simply adopt the Barcelona model or anything else off the rack. Clubs such as Barcelona are long-established products of their respective cultures, politics and histories, and there is little evidence that their ownership models would prove suitable, or even desirable, here in the UK. It would be equally naive to suggest that supporter ownership or control of major clubs in the UK would prove to be some kind of panacea. Teams will always have lousy seasons, as my team did last year. There will always be controversy surrounding management decisions, many clubs will intermittently struggle financially and there have been failed, or at least unworkable, experiments in supporter ownership before now.
A useful lesson that might be drawn from those experiences, and from the European models that I cited earlier, is that mutuality alone is not enough. Mutuality must be coupled with effective business practice and regulation. Supporters fully appreciate that. Manchester United Supporters Trust has declared that
“we have neither the desire nor the intention to run the day-to-day affairs of the club. A club like United should be run by professionals whose experience and expertise will ensure its success.”
Such a sentiment should allay the fears of those who view supporters as little more than a bunch of amateurs who wish to take over the show, or lunatics taking over the asylum. Supporters are not stupid—they want and recognise what is best for their club. The point is not to establish some type of cure-all for the systemic problems in the game’s governance but to seek ways to make that governance fairer, more robust and more fitting for a global sport in the 21st century.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the timeliness of this debate. Does he not agree that an essential element in coming to grips with the problem of the modern-day game is that however difficult it is, we must grasp the nettle of the obscenity of the six-figure-sum-per-week footballer, which is totally unsustainable and is corrupting the game from within?
It is a difficult issue. I am a supporter of one of the supposedly big four—Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool—and that is how we and some other clubs attract the big footballers. Implementing that idea would be like turkeys voting for Christmas, but I understand the rationale behind the obscenity of somebody earning such huge sums when the people paying his wages are on a fraction of what he earns a year.
I have described the “Why?”, so the next question is “How?”. What can we as politicians do to assist? The social value report that I mentioned concluded with several recommendations on how national Government can do their bit. Time constraints prevent me from listing them, but they are excellent ideas worthy of serious exploration, and I urge interested colleagues to take a look at the document.
Having made a fundamental commitment to encouraging reform, the coalition Government have not yet revealed how they intend to proceed, but the previous Labour Government published a raft of proposals before the 2010 election. They include making Government support—especially financial support—conditional on co-operation, creating the right framework for better regulation from the top down and grassroots up, and working with governing bodies to enshrine supporters’ rights to buy their clubs and/or be represented in the ownership and governance of the club.
One thing that people have mentioned to me is their concern about admission fees. A well-heeled Chelsea supporter can attend matches on a regular basis; an Arsenal supporter does not have to be as rich, because Arsenal’s system allows admission; a Bradford supporter can probably go to every match. A Leicester City supporter like me unfortunately cannot attend due to distance. In the governance Act that the hon. Gentleman proposes, will supporters’ clubs have input into admission fees?
The dichotomy is that in some of the foreign models where football supporters are represented on boards, match ticket prices are much lower than in the premier league. Anyone who goes to Europe—as we will do this year, although on a much lesser basis than in previous seasons—will find out when they buy tickets that European games are always much cheaper than their equivalents in the premier league. One does not always go with the other. Football supporter representation at least gives that concern a voice.
It is more easily said than done. In the current political and economic climate, many difficulties and setbacks lie ahead. Any lack of will or any outright resistance by the parties involved—the Government, the governing authorities and the premiership clubs—will make the task more challenging. In its 2009 report, the all-party parliamentary group on football recommended a straightforward, one-size-fits-all solution: an elected supporters’ representative drawn from the relevant supporters’ trust should sit on the board of all 92 football league and premier league clubs. The group also suggested that a requirement to involve supporters should be a prerequisite for future takeovers—that is interesting to a few of us here—and that the football regulatory authority can evaluate that as part of the reformed “fit and proper person” test.
I am a Portsmouth fan, so I welcome the momentum behind football reform, but I would like to introduce a note of caution. I support fan ownership, but we might be asking fans who are already paying clubs large amounts of their disposable income to have a stake in those clubs that is not genuinely meaningful. A Portsmouth fan might want a veto on a new owner or the sell-off of land. I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says about focusing on governance structures, and I hope that we do not miss some quick wins on that front by focusing solely on ownership.
What happened to Portsmouth is an absolute disgrace. Football supporters on the relevant boards might at least have been able to inform other Portsmouth supporters what was going on. Apparently, one owner did not even know that he was no longer the owner after the club was sold. That is an absolute disgrace to football governance, which is why something needs to happen and the Government need to take some control.
The football regulatory authority is a good starting point, but it makes no provision for supporters seeking outright control or ownership or those locking horns with the behemoths of the game. We need to go further and faster. Given all that, and in the absence of any overarching, fully independent body to propel matters forward, I urge the all-party group on football to undertake a fresh and specific inquiry into the subject of this debate, with the aim of developing a spectrum of practical solutions and models allowing for a range of supporter involvement options.
I have spoken at length, because I have taken many interventions. I thank everyone for their patience, but I ask to be indulged for a minute or so longer. As we have heard in Members’ passionate interventions, football is not just our national sport and a source of national pride—even for the Scottish Members here today, who will remember that 97th-minute winner. At one end, football is a multi-billion-pound industry; at the other, it is a local business offering local employment opportunities. It cuts across age, class and geographical boundaries, and is one of the few unifying activities in our society. Every one of us here today, irrespective of the demographic profile of their constituency, represents significant numbers of football supporters.
For some time now, the beautiful game at its highest level has stood in danger of being blighted by controversy, debt, bitterness and poor performance, because it is structurally and organisationally out of kilter with modern Britain and the expectations and aspirations of our 21st-century democracy. Many football fans feel disillusioned and disfranchised by this great British institution. Let us put that right by doing all that we can as enlightened and socially responsible politicians to help to return football to the very people in our heartlands who made it so great.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on enticing a bigger attendance than even the antics of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. He is greatly to be congratulated. I suspect that I speak for virtually everyone here when I say that I share the sentiments in his final peroration about his passion for the game. I am also a keen and lifelong football fan, having followed the fortunes of Bury. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) is here; he will point out, as I suspect will many hon. Members, that it is the only Greater Manchester football club to be located in a Conservative constituency, although we will hopefully work on that in time.
I have been the vice-chairman of the all-party group on football, and I played a role in the debates and reports of 2003 and 2009, to which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton referred, on the governance and finance of the game. We have long argued that football as a whole is far too loosely regulated.
English football has undergone a dramatic transformation in the 18 years since the creation of the premiership, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley)—perhaps I should say the hon. Member for Burslem and Stoke—pointed out in her intervention. There is now an unprecedented and in many ways unbridgeable gulf between the top clubs and the rest, partly as a result of lax governance and the absence of effective regulation. The fact is that English football is a multi-billion pound global branding industry, with a hugely complex domestic structure and turf wars between the Football Association, the Football League and the premier league. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton pointed out, frankly, such a situation works only to the interest of the very largest premier league clubs.
The new coalition Government have sought to introduce more co-operative types of club ownership, for example, by the fans. However, in reality, that will be virtually impossible to impose without ripping up company law and effectively nationalising privately owned businesses.
If my hon. Friend will excuse me, I will not. I know others want to contribute, so I shall speak for only a few moments.
Those people who push a somewhat idealistic view are a little misguided. In citing both Barcelona and Real Madrid as model clubs, the Minister made the important point that the massive advantage those two Spanish clubs have over any of their potential competitors in their home country is that they can sell their television rights in that market individually rather than collectively, as happens with the premiership. Before the world is too much older, I fear that there may be a big push to do something similar in this country—if not from the big four then from a big seven or eight that might emerge. That should be resisted at all costs.
I should also point out that the role of the president of a club such as Barcelona is similar to that of an owner in the UK—one must not get confused by the terminology. In Spain, a club that narrowly came fifth in its league, Real Mallorca, has been disbarred from European competition this year because of the magnitude of its debts. That is obviously a debate that will particularly affect Liverpool and Manchester United in their current state.
Some clubs do flourish under co-operative ownership; for example, Exeter City briefly dropped out of the league and have come back much stronger. However, co-operative ownership has also led to some big problems. Stockport County is a good example of a club that has ended up in administration. It has only just come out of administration after a damaging period in its history, which occurred after following that particular model. Forcing a single one-size-fits-all ownership model on all clubs is wrong. I am sure that some clubs would gain from co-operative ownership models, but others could fail. One ownership model will not necessarily fit the demands of every single football club. The reality is that vast majority of clubs are in one form or another owned by fans. Sometimes that might involve individuals—men and women—pumping millions of pounds into their team. They might get very little credit or support from the supporters of a club for doing so.
I would like to mention a couple of things that are happening outside the premiership, because much of the debate has inevitably focused on the big four—or at least the big 20—within the premiership. The attendance of Football League games last year exceeded 17 million, and the league clubs’ community teams worked locally with more than 1.5 million people. I have had a chance to see one or two of those projects over the years and, most recently, I have watched what has been happening with Crystal Palace. That club has been in great financial difficulties, but it has done a tremendous amount of work with its academy and has ensured that educational standards have remained tremendously high for young players, some of whom are breaking into the first team already. Such clubs are very much at the heart of their communities, and I think that many hon. Members in this Chamber who are here to represent football clubs will share the community values referred to by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton.
The reality is that there are quite effective cost controls in league two—the fourth tier of the English professional game—because clubs cannot spend more than 60% of their turnover on players’ wages. That measure has been extremely effective and I hope that it is rolled out to other parts of our professional game. There is no doubt that the championship—the second tier of football—is massively financially overstretched because of the huge incentive of going into the premiership. Parachute payments have been extended from two to four years for clubs that come out of it—in other words, provided that a club spends one year in every five in the premiership, the road seems to be paved with gold. However, all sorts of problems arise as a result of that.
We need to make it absolutely clear—I hope the Minister will do so—that it is important to pay immediate attention to proper cost controls within our national game. If we can find a way forward in that regard, it will allow our clubs to focus on what they do best in their communities. We need to ensure that they have proper community facilities and are engaged in youth development at academy level and within their local vicinity. The funds required for that crucial work, which is very much part of the big society, can be obtained only through having proper cost controls within our game. There is a vicious cycle that must be broken at the earliest opportunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate; he spoke very well. I am not speaking as a football fan, but am here to represent fans. I have received more than 50 notes from constituents who are supporters of Manchester United. I am sure many hon. Members in this Chamber have also received such correspondence—those from Salford and further afield.
And those from much further afield. The constituents who have contacted me are also members of the Manchester United Supporters Trust. They have become disillusioned with how their club is being run and are concerned about the state of the national game. They think that football must start to be regulated properly and have its governance reformed.
Many Manchester United supporters in my constituency are greatly concerned that their club is now the most heavily indebted club in the world, after a hostile and highly leveraged takeover by the Glazer family in 2005. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) touched on the debt situation of that club. Prior to the takeover, the club had no debt at all. It now services debts in excess of £750 million. Although the club is still reporting a healthy operating profit, the money is not necessarily going into improving the club; it is being spent just on servicing the debt. The 2009 report by the all-party group on football points out that supporters paying off the debt in such situations do not even have a tangible influence over the direction of the club. As with Portsmouth’s situation, the longer-term future of the club is no longer assured.
That level of debt and uncertainty has a clear impact on supporters. Many feel that the decisions made by controlling interests in the club in the boardroom do not demonstrate long-term commitment to the club and its supporters. That is why dissatisfaction sometimes breaks out and there is a sea of green and gold instead of red at big matches at Wembley. My constituents rightly feel it is time for dedicated football fans to be given some sort of stake in the clubs that they and their families have helped to build over many years.
Football clubs are an integral part of the community, and their ownership and financial management should not just be dealt with through company law. Indeed, I remember when Manchester United behaved as if it was part of the local community in Trafford, where the club is based. When I was a Trafford councillor, a young David Beckham came to open a new centre for young people leaving care. Members of the team made visits to schools to read to children during reading weeks and the players were much more involved in the community that was home to their club. That changed and the players started to be seen more as a corporate resource. Prices for tickets and kit increased dramatically and players’ salaries soared. It has become much harder to see clubs such as Manchester United as part of our local community.
There should be stronger regulation to ensure that those owning and running football clubs understand their wider responsibilities to the community. Football clubs should not be run on the basis of massive debt, which can threaten the stability of both individual clubs and the health of the game as a whole. At the moment, the game has clear laws enforced by referees and assistants on the field. However, off the field, it is like trying to play a game with hardly any pitch markings, unclear laws and no referees. That is why, off the field, various forms of financial crisis are appearing all over the place—from Cardiff City to King’s Lynn, from Chester City to Southend, and from Manchester United and Liverpool to Portsmouth. We could say that governance in the football industry is no better than the governance of the banking industry over recent years.
There is plenty of legislation on football, but it is directed at the fans—for example, on all-seater stadiums, football banning orders and controls on drinking in sight of the pitch. What about some legislation to constrain what goes on in the boardroom? Legal models from elsewhere could be adapted to work in England and Wales. We have heard about examples from Germany, but there are also examples in France, the United States and Canada. Spain already has a national sports law that establishes a statutory national sports council and a special company status of sporting limited company. That law is not perfect—I understand that the Spanish Parliament is considering reforming it—but it does give a clear legal context for professional and amateur sport and recognises the unique characteristics of professional sports clubs. Will the Minister say whether he has considered or intends to consider other models of governance for professional sports clubs?
The Minister can do so when he is summing up, given the number of hon. Members who wish to speak.
It may also be time to consider the tax regime that gave financial incentives to leverage buy-outs, such as the takeover of Manchester United by the Glazers, and whether such tax breaks are any longer appropriate.
Supporters and fans need the Government to take action to improve the governance of football in this country. The Sports Minister made commitments to do that, but more recently he seems to have softened those commitments, saying:
“We’ll give football the chance to sort itself out first by seeing how they plan to reform over the summer, and if it doesn’t work then the Government will step in. We need to take a serious look at reforming the governance and structure of football in this country.”
Will the Minister tell us today what plans the Government have after the summer to step in and take action, and when does he propose to start?
On fans owning their clubs wholly or in part, I believe that ordinary company law is insufficient because football clubs are not ordinary companies, which is shown by the fact that they are called clubs. That is how most of them started: they were clubs that were rooted in their local communities, not profit-making entities. They trade on the name, history and traditions of the city and the community they come from. They are unlike other businesses and should be treated as such. Football clubs are unique, and their sole purpose should not be to make profit for one individual or company at the expense of their fans and the wider community.
I will finish by saying that one never hears of anyone wanting to have their ashes scattered on the car park of their local supermarket or business park after they die. However, fans do want their ashes to be scattered in their football clubs. That is why football clubs are different.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this important debate. I agree with many of the sentiments that he expressed and with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on tax incentives to encourage more democracy in football clubs. Football is close to my heart. I am proud to have a good and strong club in Harlow, and regularly meet its owner to discuss its plans; it is good to see the club back on track after years of difficulties. The new management team have some exciting plans, which I am sure will mean a great season.
I am a community Conservative, which is why I support moves for co-operative ownership of football clubs and other football institutions. I believe that we must have a democratic revolution that will give fans a greater say in the running of their local clubs. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton mentioned, the Conservative pledge was to reform football governance arrangements so that co-operative ownership models could be established by supporters as part of a wider package of reform of football finance and governance. To adapt what Abraham Lincoln famously said of democracy, I hope that our Government will give football clubs a new birth of freedom, so that football of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
However, the problem is not only with local clubs ignoring their fans. In my view, the real obstacle is the failed managers, failed contracts and the failed payouts—some say that it is up to £50 million or £60 million—of the Football Association itself. Some Members will have read my early-day motion 329, tabled before the recess, which called for the FA board to resign following the England World cup debacle. I said that that was the time for a democratic revolution, led by the fans, to transform football governance in our country.
The FA board is run like a Byzantine court, with decisions being made like puffs of white smoke appearing from the Vatican rooftops. The FA enjoys a virtual monopoly over the sport. It is a semi-public body and its activities are of great public concern, so the public must have some means of redress. Currently, its board is not democratically accountable to fans, and it is not even bureaucratically accountable to any outside body. That is why I tabled early-day motion 374, which calls for a complete overhaul of the way the FA is run so that the organisation can become truly accountable to England fans. There must be a form of voting rights that would give England supporters the opportunity to have their say on who should be in charge at the FA. If the FA board can be booted out by the fans, it will start to sit up and listen.
My solution would be the introduction of a paid subscription system—perhaps £50 a year—whereby England fans could exercise voting rights in the FA. It would be like a co-operative shareholding, but limited to one vote for each person. It would be in the national interest for England fans to be able to vote for the FA board and chairman and to fire them if they did a bad job. Fans could vote for the board and chairman for a three or four-year term. They would also have the right to decide the level of spending on grass-roots and community football, and to vote on the annual budget report.
I wholeheartedly support our coalition agreement, which refers to reforming football governance and institutions so that co-operative ownership models can be established by supporters. My plea is that the FA should be included in those reforms and freed from the iron grip of the premier league. As a Conservative, my hope is that the FA would adopt those reforms voluntarily. Just as the people of this country elect the Government, so the fans should have some say in the state of our national game. I want all England fans to be able to say genuinely that we are all in this together, and for that to be backed up by real community power. Enough is enough: if England are to win a major tournament, we cannot go on as we are. If the FA does not reform itself, I urge the Minister to develop a framework for serious reform.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) for securing the debate—he has been in the House only since May but he is already making a major impact, both here and in his constituency. I declare an interest as a lifelong member and supporter of Liverpool FC. Ever since my father first took me to the Kop at age seven, I have been lucky enough to be a supporter of the most successful club in Britain, and the one with the greatest fans—there, I have started my comments with an uncontroversial point.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that the recommendations in the report and the suggestions that he has made today are the right way forward to ensure that no further clubs fall into the same position as Manchester United and Liverpool, but I do not think that they will address our problems with those clubs. When one looks at the finances of both clubs, it is hard to see how they will reverse their terminal decline and move forward in a positive way. That is because the politicians and the football authorities have badly let down the fans by accepting that football is nothing more than a business.
I remember having a discussion with someone from the premier league who said, “It’s just like Tesco; it’s a business.” I replied that there was a massive difference between a football club and a supermarket. If I do not like the product or the price in Tesco, I can go to Asda, but it is highly unlikely that I, as a Liverpool fan, would go to watch Everton if I did not like the product or the price. It is unlikely that a Manchester United supporter would go to watch Manchester City—that is not going to happen. There is a massive difference, and we must take that into account when looking forward at how to deal with the problems.
I know that that club has an illustrious past. I remember that a prominent member of the Liverpool squad—Tony Hateley—signed for Prescot Cables in later life, and he did well.
We need to think about how we can move on. We have let the fans down badly by allowing people such as Glazer, Gillett and Hicks to take over our clubs, frankly, with no money. They borrow money from elsewhere before taking over a club and treating it like a cash cow. When Glazer wants some money for his other businesses, he goes along and takes the money out of the club. In the case of Hicks and Gillett, they bought the club to sell 12 months or two years later for twice the price they paid, without having put anything into it. We cannot accept the current situation or trust the football authorities any further. We need an independent regulator who will put the fans first and take into account the vested interest that already exists in the premier league.
I agree with the comments made the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on the need to reform tax legislation, and with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on company law. We will address the problem only if we make special provision for football and take into account the fact that it is not just a business, but something that is important to people. As footballs fans, we might be politicians or take a great interest in politics, but the one thing that normally overrules that—I see it all the time—is people taking as much interest in their football team as they do in politics. For ordinary people, it is a way of life, but we have already priced millions of fans out of the game.
I support the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, and hope that Ministers will listen to them and take them on board. We need to ensure that no other clubs fall as Manchester United and Liverpool have fallen, but also to look carefully at their situation. We need to see what we can do to get rid of those three individuals and to ensure that people who have the best interests of the club and the community at heart take over the clubs.
I shall be brief because I have a bit of a cold.
I am probably in a unique position. When I was seeking to stand for Parliament, and my party was interviewing candidates, one question was a catch-all about any indiscretions I might want to describe. My reply was, “Actually, I don’t like football.” I am here not because of that but because many of my constituents are passionate about football. It is an essential part of the fabric of the English character. I am here not only because many of my constituents support national football teams, but because of the work of the Bedford Eagles Supporters Trust, which is a community organisation supporting football. It has worked through the generations to support our team, even when we were sometimes competing against the likes of Arsenal, Everton and Newcastle in the FA cup—relatively successfully. Bedford Town is not one of the big teams, but it is a home for people who believe passionately in football. No more vivid illustration of the character of supporters is drawn than when, as many hon. Members have mentioned, clubs are in trouble—and the supporters come to their rescue. Why do they not have a voice in the good times as well?
I am here because of the supporters’ work and because I am passionate about the concept of the big society. The Government have a huge opportunity to make real the concept of the big society, and to introduce plans about what they will do to support organisations such as the Bedford Eagles Supporters Trust in the case of community teams and, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) said, the supporters of large teams, to make real and tangible to the people of this country what is meant by what my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) called community conservatism. We can all agree with that. We do not want to hear vague recommendations about trying to work with people or trying to get support. We want real action from the Government to support the people who, every day and every week, in their hearts, believe in the clubs they support and represent.
Thank you, Mr Robertson, for the opportunity to speak in this important, significant and—judging by the number of hon. Members here and the number of people in the Gallery—popular debate. I, too, have had e-mails from members of the Manchester United Supporters Trust. I am sure that nearly everyone has. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), is present, but I suspect that she might have had the most of all.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate. As he said, his constituency is home to two professional clubs, which have had problems at various times over governance, ownership, fan involvement and stadiums. My constituency does not have any professional clubs—Celtic and Hamilton are just outside the boundaries—although it is home to the junior clubs of Rutherglen Glencairn, Cambuslang Rangers and Blantyre Victoria.
I wish to declare an interest, as a Co-operative Member of Parliament: Supporters Direct was born out of the co-operative movement, and the Co-operative party was very involved. As the founding chair of the Fulham Supporters Trust, I would like to speak from the perspective of being involved with, establishing and running a supporters’ trust. I was involved in that long before I had any pretensions to enter elected politics.
The Fulham Supporters Trust was born from a specific and ultimately successful campaign about a football stadium. The people running Fulham football club deigned to believe that the future of the club would be better served by moving away from our traditional community and catchment area to a new ground, for the financial benefits that they prescribed would follow. Such circumstances are typical, and many trusts have come into being in response to a campaign. The issues arise when people running clubs make a mess of things: of the finances, of the issues around the stadium or of how they communicate with and involve supporters.
Such a situation shows where the importance of supporters’ trusts lies and what we need to make clear in discussion. Often, club ownership, which is so disparate in character, is not the issue. However, the people below the level of ownership—those who are in charge of running clubs—often take the attitude that football supporters and fans have no business in being interested in or involved with, or in taking a view on, what is happening in the running of their club. Yet we have seen from examples, to which hon. Members have alluded, that they can in fact do a far better job than some of the paid professionals. Supporters have had to ride to the rescue on far too many occasions.
One of the most important aspects to be dealt with is the involvement of trusts other than at a time of crisis—that is, not just when rescuing a situation because no one else is prepared to take up the challenge. The role of Supporters Direct is therefore crucial. For those of us involved in establishing and running trusts, Supporters Direct has been a superb resource—an efficient and effective organisation run, as far as I can tell, on very little money. It has done a great job of providing guidance and advice to supporters’ trusts. I have asked questions of the Minister and we corresponded on the issue early on in the Parliament. I hope that since our exchange he has had the opportunity to meet Supporters Direct and to understand its work. I hope that he will refer to that in his closing remarks.
As other Members have mentioned—I welcome the words of the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) in particular—the coalition Government have said a lot about mutualism, the big society and such issues. It would be great if we could see a concrete example of that sometimes rather difficult-to-grasp concept in how supporters are involved in their clubs—not just football clubs, but rugby league clubs and other sports that are starting to develop the trust model.
My main point is that supporters are often underestimated and quite often dismissed. Too often, the attitude of clubs is to see supporters as an irritant. If the clubs expended as much energy and time in involving supporters and their organisations as they do, in some cases, denigrating them, that would be a much better use of time and energy. I hope that that message comes out of today’s debate. It is not about what some people have alluded to as imposing a model on all clubs and all situations. It is about involvement and awareness, which can help the way in which clubs are run. That is why I commend the direction in which Arsenal has developed: a progressive trust that might allow early involvement, to prevent some of those problems that would need trusts and fans’ organisations to ride to the rescue. I hope that the Minister can respond to some of the issues that have been raised and give assurances about how Supporters Direct will exist in future.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate. We have all enjoyed having lots of football-related e-mails, which makes a pleasant change from some of the casework that is sent to us.
I will be brief because I am conscious that a lot of other people want to speak. Many Members have made excellent points, but I want to touch briefly on three issues. The priority has to be to tighten up the “fit and proper” test. As we have seen with Manchester United, Liverpool, Portsmouth, some of the previous owners at my local club, Swindon Town, and huge swathes of non-league football clubs, unsuitable individuals rip out the heart of the community and decimate something that is so important to many people.
I fully support the need for fan representation on clubs. I am interested in the idea of fan representation being built into any future takeover. Working with the Swindon Town supporters’ trust in previous years, I pushed hard to get fans included for two reasons: first, so that the club would be open and transparent, and, secondly, because surely it makes commercial sense and is a good thing for football clubs to be connected to their supporters—their customers, the people who are digging deep to fund ever-growing transfer fees. Actually, at non-league level, Swindon Supermarine, the other club in Swindon, faced dropping down two divisions this season unless it found £40,000. The fans got together—many hands make light work—and I am delighted that the club is still in the same division and competing well.
My final point, which I shall make quickly, is that there must be reality checks in the system. As was mentioned earlier, not all individuals who invest in clubs are terrible people. A good example was Jack Walker at Blackburn Rovers. Not only did he invest in the club that he supported from his youth—my mother remembers standing next to him on the terraces—but the trust is still putting some £3 million into protecting the club. That is an example of looking after fans in the community, and is a bit of a reality check. For all the bad individuals, there are many good individuals—it is a matter of getting the right balance.
I am deliberately wearing a Merthyr rugby club tie this morning, and I have come to talk about Wales, women and football.
I am wearing the tie because I am a supporter of the soccer club. That sounds bizarre, and it is bizarre, in the sense that Merthyr is a particular place. It has always had an interest in both games, both of which flourish in the town. It is odd, perhaps, to see that in a Welsh valley town. Merthyr soccer club is 100 years old, and is now a trust. It has struggled, kicking and screaming, to get to that position, and it needs assistance. This is not just about Liverpool, Arsenal, London or England. It is about something bigger than that. It is about the game of football, which is also about health and community. It is not about potentates, oligarchs and bandits of various descriptions from around the world manipulating the UK tax regime to make profit. That is not really what it is about. Football has a power beyond that, and we need to get a regulatory framework in place at the top of the game because the money-making process at the top, which we all know is now the real power of sport, perverts and distorts the whole of a process that could be something much greater than that.
Let us be clear on the business of sharing facilities. If we democratise the process a little and speak to the people who are really interested in the game of football, and to those who actually play it, we find that what they really want is for the game to flourish, not for it to be perverted by some process. One of my local pubs has now formed its own team. People are trying to play football—they want to do it—but they are not being helped to do so.
When Merthyr soccer club was in private ownership, it received some television money. They had one game in the FA cup, because they play in the English pyramid—they do not play in the Welsh league. I believe they lost 1-0 to Walsall. Sky was bumping gums about Merthyr Tydfil a lot yesterday. It did one thing for Merthyr: it provided that one game. In one night, a little bit of Sky TV money provided two years’ revenue. Where did the money go? I have no idea. It went into some financial soup that the owner of the club was involved with at the time. There was no transparency.
The one word that we need to hang on to in all of this is “transparency”. We need a process in which people can see what is happening in the game. They will then understand it, and they will exert pressure. A social enterprise model would be the right one for many places. It would build the community, and clubs would run academies if we allowed them to—they have a lot to say about education—and run them properly. We know all those things, so that model is crucial.
I am afraid that, yes, television money has to be part of the discussion. The situation is difficult and unfortunate, but television money is perverting the process—that and the tax regime.
I ask the Minister to deal with those three things: television, tax and transparency. Obviously, everyone is waiting for him to say what he will do. Was he serious when he referred during the summer to drinking in the last chance saloon? I would like to know what plans the clubs have come up with for reforming themselves. If they do not do that, my money is on him as the man to do it for them.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this debate, and on the large turnout of right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House. It is important that football authorities get the message that we will not go away. Some people in the football authorities think that politicians should have no truck with the running of football, and I believe they were rather pleased when there was a change of Government. Perhaps they are not now—we will hear what the Minister has to say shortly.
On the momentum of what the Labour Government were trying to achieve on governance issues, there is always a problem for a Government in their relationship with sport. It is the Government’s role not to run sport but to create the circumstances in which sport flourishes. Football is our national game. Some progress has been made, but not enough and not fast enough.
Supporters’ trusts are important, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that it was a Labour Government who introduced them and, indeed, Supporters Direct. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on funding for Supporters Direct. Richard Caborn, who was then the Sports Minister, entered into an arrangement with the premier league to look at the Football Foundation and new ways of funding Supporters Direct. I hope the Minister can give us some comfort about that funding, because it is important that Supporters Direct continue its work not only in football but in other sports.
So the debate is about momentum. It is about ensuring that we keep the pressure on football authorities. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), now the shadow Secretary of State for Health, wrote, as Secretary of State for Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to the premier league, the Football Association and the Football League about the very issues that we have been discussing today—the “fit and proper person” test, transparency, and clubs looking to their communities and fans for support—but also about the different models on offer. It is right that we do not have a one-size-fits-all model; there are different models, and they should be developed.
We have been told that the Government should not get involved because the international federations would not like it—that UEFA and FIFA take exception to Governments trying to get involved in the running of football. Up to a point, that is true, but I know from discussions I had with FIFA and UEFA that they were concerned about the sustainability of debt in the English game, and that is why it was important that we put pressure on the football authorities to respond.
The FA has a tremendous role to play. Obviously, I am saddened by the demise of Lord Triesman in the role of independent chairman and by the resignation of Ian Watmore as chief executive. The FA has a key role to play, and how it replaces Lord Triesman will be important. The Minister might want to develop that theme. I am surprised at the time that it will take, given what needs to happen.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) spoke about turf wars. The FA has a key role in sorting them out, and in ensuring that, for the good of the game and our communities, supporters’ trust models can develop and we can look at other ways of doing things.
My hon. Friend mentioned supporters’ trusts. Will he congratulate the Tranmere Rovers supporters close to my constituency who ingeniously came up with the Les Aid fund to aid the manager, Les Parry, in developing the squad? The supporters came up with great fund-raising models and are able this season to inject cash into the club and get it through its league one campaign.
I am happy to do that, and to congratulate all supporters’ trusts on the innovative models they have come up with for their own clubs. There are some tremendous examples of supporters’ trusts working with local communities.
Clearly, financing the game is a key factor, and people have spoken about the disparity between the premier and the lower leagues. I was heartened by the conference league’s changing its rules to ensure that clubs have transparency and the right approach. The Football League is now going in the right direction with the league two regime. We cannot say that there has been no progress. There certainly has been progress, and we have seen some real changes in the premier league and Football League. We are happy that they have taken place, but change needs to continue and to happen more.
It is also important that the Government do what they can to support clubs when they are in trouble. The Revenue’s relationships with football clubs needs to be looked at. I understand that Sheffield Wednesday may have a problem at the moment, so the Minister might want to consider that.
On the Labour party’s election manifesto, we were prepared to legislate, because we had tried to get the authorities on board but that approach was not working fast enough or quickly enough. I am interested in hearing what the Minister has to say about that.
During the election, both major parties promised to tackle the issues of debt, better regulation, transparency and supporter ownership. What practical steps does the shadow Minister suggest that the Minister take to make those things a reality?
A starting point would be to follow through with the seven questions put to the football authorities. People have talked about the “fit and proper person” test, but there are three tests and those need to be reduced to a single one on transparency. My hon. Friend made a good suggestion about the all-party group’s continuing to consider this matter, because that will help the Minister. One frustrating thing about being Minister for Sport—the best job in Government—is the amount of time that dealing with football takes. It is helpful for the all-party group to be involved and to continue the discussion on the issues raised this morning.
I will stop at that point, because right hon. and hon. Members want to hear what the Minister has to say.
Before I start, Mr Robertson, may I pay tribute to the work done by the hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe) in this and so many other areas across the sports spectrum? This is the first time I have had the opportunity to do so, because questions were not asked directly during the first round of Culture, Media and Sport questions. The hon. Gentleman had a good innings as Minister for Sport, and many officials in my Department rate him highly. I thank him for his contribution.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this debate. He reiterated, as he did in his maiden speech, his views about the current ownership of the club that he supports—Liverpool—and his desire for supporters to have a greater role in running football clubs. The twin aims of greater supporter involvement in running football clubs and the reform of football governance are shared across the political spectrum and are, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, part of the coalition agreement. However, I have to tell him that, although the issue is widely agreed in this place, it is not entirely shared in the wider football family. There is a battle to be fought to convince the football family of the merits of this case.
I will deal in a moment with various points raised by hon. Members, but before we get into that, it might help if I say that developments at Arsenal football club have been some of the most encouraging in recent months. I intend to meet that club urgently to examine precisely how we can encourage other football clubs to put in place a similar scheme. If one thing that anybody has said to me or that I have read about this matter has stood out in recent months, it is a quote from Arsenal’s chief executive—an enlightened, able individual—who said:
“I think we are moving into a post-materialistic world.”
That is an interesting phrase, which sums up my approach to football. People who think that football can be run solely and completely as a business have got it wrong. Of course there are business elements in football—it has to be run properly; nobody in this Chamber would deny that—but it is a business with a social conscience. Football is an important part of the lives of the many millions of fans who turn up to watch and play the game, or who follow it casually in the newspapers or on television. Everybody involved in the game ignores that at their peril.
May I caution the Minister against seeing a solution for the rest of football in the example of Arsenal? The owners of Arsenal want to protect the club from the sort of people who have taken over our club, and Manchester United. It is not a typical example and we need to be cautious about that.
Absolutely. Here we get into the problem with the process. It is pointless for me to pretend that there is a one-size-fits-all solution. If there were, I am sure that it would have been implemented in the past few years.
The Spanish model has been cited at length this morning, but, as has been said correctly, two clubs sit at the top of La Liga and they have huge financial resources because they negotiate their own television rights. Hon. Members asked about Spanish sports law. I asked about that a month ago and was told that there were so many faulty aspects to it that the Spanish are now trying to re-regulate. The Spanish model is not always a great example, although some aspects of it might be relevant. We are not starting from the same point as many of the Spanish clubs.
As a young Army officer in the middle of the siege of Sarajevo, I remember saying, “I wish this was different, because this is a disaster.” Someone replied, “You can’t deal with a situation you wish you had. You have to deal with the one that’s in front of you.” That is the problem.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) mentioned the difficulties in dealing with privately owned clubs, particularly at premiership level. The one negotiating chip is the ownership of the fixtures list, with all its consequences in relation to television rights. Is the Minister prepared to consider that?
To be honest with the right hon. Gentleman, whom I know well, I am prepared to consider any sensible suggestion that will move this discussion on. What he has mentioned is part of a much wider debate that many sports are having about betting rights and image protection. There are considerable problems with betting rights, because if a levy were taken from the bookmakers they would simply move offshore. Many Opposition Members who represent constituencies where bookmaking is a big thing would notice that. The shadow Minister will have scars on his back from that debate.
I agree with the point about one size not fitting all. Will the Minister return to a point made by a number of hon. Members about the future of Supporters Direct, which has surely been the key to capacity building for supporters’ trusts, enabling them to find the right business model? The co-operative and mutual business model has been successful, and not just in football.
I am happy to deal with that point, which relates to points made by the hon. Member for Bradford South. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady that the approach taken on either the wider governance agenda or the funding of Supporters Direct is no different from the position that the hon. Gentleman was negotiating at the end of his time in office.
The strength of this morning’s debate lies in its representing the feeling throughout the House that something needs to be done. It is useful because it allows me to go back to the football authorities, put pressure on them and tell them that we had a Westminster Hall debate that was better attended even than those on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. This debate is a pretty good weather vane, showing the strength of feeling on this issue. I am determined to make progress and to push ahead with both the wider reform agenda and football supporters’ involvement.
It all comes back to the issue affecting every Member of Parliament in their constituency surgeries: there is a moment when they face somebody and ask, “What exactly do you want me to do about this?” There are a number of possible outcomes; some might work well for one club, but not for another. Many suggestions were made by hon. Members today and we might follow up on the issue of a tax concession, but no hon. Member in this Chamber will need reminding about the state of the nation’s finances. Currently, six demands for taxation breaks for sport are sitting on my desk, including subs for junior sports clubs—[Interruption.]
The shadow Minister is nodding; he has been through all this. Other demands include corporation tax exemptions for sports governing bodies, so that they can invest in the grass roots; tax breaks to entice international federations back to London, so we can increase our influence; and a levy on the betting tax—and so it goes on. I am determined to ensure that the money that we have as a Government is targeted on getting more people, particularly young people, playing sport. That remains my overriding priority. However, I will consider the demands that have been made.
I am lucky that Huddersfield Town, the football club that I support, which is on the edge of my constituency, is owned by a local businessman who is a lifelong fan. Social conscience is important. Last season’s shirt sponsor for Huddersfield Town was the Yorkshire Air Ambulance charity. More than £100,000 was raised for that charity and for an academy. However, not all football clubs are so lucky; we have heard about Liverpool, Manchester United and others.
Please will the Minister push forward on considering how the Government can intervene? I do not have total confidence in football’s governing bodies at the moment. There are issues to do with fit and proper persons and with transparency. The manager of Manchester United cannot even be made to fulfil his media obligations. Please continue pushing forward, to see how we can intervene and ensure that all clubs can have confidence that they are being run as well as Huddersfield Town is.
The trouble with debates such as this is that they quickly turn into a basket of issues. We have not even touched on the 2018 bid, which I am sure all hon. Members will support and is the Government’s top priority.
I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton for instigating the debate and I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in it. The governance reform agenda and how we secure greater involvement for supporters are both issues that I am—