For the benefit of the House, I remind colleagues that after the proposer has finished his speech there is a limit of five minutes on each Back-Bench speech. There is also an informal hope or expectation that the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) will be able to confine his remarks to approximately 10 minutes, but I am in his hands.
I beg to move, that this House has considered the future of non-league football.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall endeavour to comply with that informal guidance.
First, may I thank all those who have supported this important debate on the future of non-league football? I thank the Backbench Business Committee and colleagues across the House today for taking part and for other work they have done on football issues. I also thank the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport; Supporters Direct, which has provided tremendous additional help; and, above all, the Hereford United Supporters Trust, the Hereford United Independent Supporters Association, the dozens of Herefordians who have shared their feelings and views with me, and the thousands more who have poured their passion and commitment into the local game in Herefordshire over many years.
You do not have to be a football supporter to know how important this game is to the people of Great Britain. Every week during the season hundreds of thousands of people turn out to watch premiership and football league games, and millions more watch at home or catch up with the highlights. Football is the lifeblood of many of our towns and cities: it is what parents and kids do on a Saturday afternoon; and it is the subject of endless banter and gossip during the week. But the premiership and the football league are just the glamour at the top. There is huge activity below the surface, in non-league and grass-roots football. It is very easy to forget the significance of those parts of the game, and the roles those clubs play in the community and their importance in seeding the players and supporters of tomorrow.
That carries with it a crucial point: football clubs are not purely private organisations. They are not merely the private playthings of their owners—they are public as well. What gives the clubs their life and energy, even in the premiership, is the passion and love of their fans. I am talking about supporters who turn out every week, who yell their heads off at the match, who make the trek to away games and who buy the season tickets and the merchandise. So it is entirely appropriate that Parliament should take an interest in football and, specifically today, in non-league football: how it is funded, regulated and managed, balancing private interests with the public interest.
In large part I have called this debate to focus public attention on what has happened at Hereford United, which has been the result of a disastrous catalogue of mismanagement and poor regulation. We will come to that, but first I want to look to the good. In Herefordshire, despite many competing sports and other outdoor activities, the high cost of coaching and a shortage of access to good pitches, the non-league and grass-roots game is flourishing. We have 42 grass-roots senior football teams, some 150 junior teams, a schools league and midweek leisure games. Every weekend during the season about 2,000 youngsters between the ages of nine and 16 turn out in teams such as Ross Juniors in Ross-on-Wye and Pegasus Juniors in Hereford. Over the summer some 78 girls took part in girls week football, and I had the privilege of barbecuing several hundredweight of sausages for the different nationalities’ teams in the first-ever Herefordshire world cup in July.
The issue of finance is a very important one, and I know colleagues will have a lot to say about it—indeed, it deserves a separate debate in its own right. But it is important to recognise the £1.4 million in Premier League, Football Association and Government grants that has been given to grass-roots football in Herefordshire since 2000 and the further £240,000 that has been received from the Football Stadia Improvement Fund, which is funded entirely by the Premier League. As always, however, what really matters is community spirit and local organisation. I pay tribute to Jim Lambert and the Herefordshire Football Association, whose president is a distinguished former Member of this House, my predecessor but one, Sir Colin Shepherd. I also pay a special tribute to all those who play in these teams, to the families who support them and to the volunteers who give up their time to referee games and organise the league. Many of those people have supported and nurtured football in Herefordshire for generations.
Much of that good news has been cast into the shadows by events at Hereford United, which have been a catastrophe for the club, for the city, for the county and for Bulls fans everywhere. This debate has special significance for Herefordians, because the terrible truth is that our club, my club, Hereford United—the club of Ronnie Radford and what has been described as the most famous goal in FA Cup history, against Newcastle United; the goal that launched the career of John Motson—with its famous tradition and international name, in the year of its 90th anniversary, is likely to go into insolvency next Monday, with a court judgment on its outstanding debts.
How did that occur? How has a club that was solvent and competitive three years ago suddenly found itself on the brink of annihilation? It is a long and tortuous saga, which I will not recount here, but let me tell the House that Hereford United stand as a case study in mismanagement and poor regulation, of a kind all too prevalent in lower league and non-league football.
In 2008-09 Hereford United were playing in league one against teams such as Leicester City, now in the premier league, and Leeds United, currently in the championship. They were relegated to league two in 2009 and to the football conference in 2012. That is when the financial problems began to bite. Their share of rights income dropped from £750,000 a year to a tiny £50,000. That was offset by a parachute payment of £215,000, much less even than one year’s drop in rights income, much of which will have been returned to clubs in the league and to the FA itself.
The 2013-14 season was beset by financial crises but the fans rallied, funds were raised to see off the threat of a series of winding-up petitions and Hereford United secured an astonishing last-gasp 2-1 victory over Aldershot, thus narrowly managing to avoid relegation. However, in June, Mr Thomas Agombar became the 57% owner of Hereford United. When he arrived at the club, he reassured staff that
“all payments and wages due to themselves, players and football creditors would be paid in full this week, subject to Conference status”.
Despite those promises and the deadline for payment being extended three times, Hereford United failed to pay their football creditors and failed to post the bond as required under conference rules. They were then expelled from the conference on 10 June 2014. That created, indeed reinforced, the strong impression locally that Mr Agombar was less interested in football than in taking over leases to the Edgar Street ground and using them for commercial development. We now know he met repeatedly with Herefordshire council, which to its credit has taken no steps to allow him use of the leases.
There was also immediate local concern about the suitability of Mr Agombar to own a football club, not least because he has convictions for conspiracy to steal and theft. Furthermore, two other directors appeared likely to fail the FA’s owners and directors test. One, Mr Philip Gambrill, was subject to an individual voluntary arrangement and another, Mr Thomas Agombar Jr, had been banned by Essex County FA.
I wrote to the Football Association in early June, asking it to consider whether Mr Agombar met the requirements of the owners and directors fit and proper test. However, perhaps because of the World cup, it was difficult to get a rapid response from the FA, despite the answer being vital to Hereford United’s survival. Indeed it was not until 4 August, some six weeks later, that the FA finally confirmed to me that Mr Agombar Sr had failed the test, along with Mr Agombar Jr and Mr Gambrill. Even then, despite my repeated requests and warning of the reputational risks to the FA itself, the FA refused publicly to announce the results of the test. It pleaded confidentiality, although the club was even then in negotiations over a company voluntary agreement, with Mr Gambrill’s name on the CVA document. It took until 12 August for news that Mr Agombar and those two other directors had failed the test to be made public. I must tell the House that the FA has still not made a statement on the matter. Not only that: the Southern League accepted Hereford United as a member in mid-June, despite the fact that it is supposed to abide by FA rules and that Mr Agombar had not passed, and as it proved would never pass, the fit and proper test.
This whole fiasco raises very serious issues about governance and the need for greater transparency; about funding and financial fair play; about the negative effects of the football creditors rule; and about the importance of supporters trusts. I would encourage the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport to revisit in the next Parliament its 2011 report on football governance to reconsider some of the issues.
Today I want to focus on the FA’s fit and proper test and how that was administered. How could it be right for the FA to refuse to publish the results, which were clearly material to a proceeding in court? The creditors should have been immediately informed, so that they could judge the CVA in that light. Some of those were football creditors, to whom the FA arguably owed a special duty of care. I can see no reason why the FA should not be able to make public in a timely fashion whether an individual submitted the relevant form for the owners and directors test; and whether, if they have, they passed the test. After all, this is the practice in the parallel case of financial services and, although that industry is no poster child for good regulation—goodness knows that is true—its approach has been proven to deter some very dodgy individuals from seeking senior positions.
Moreover, how can people who buy shares in football clubs be able to register their directorship with Companies House when they have not passed the test? Surely people who would be likely to fail the test should not be allowed even to get to that stage. The FA, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Companies House should work much more closely to identify potentially unsuitable club shareholders, owners and directors as soon as they appear.
I have listened closely to the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech. Wrexham has had similar experiences, and the club has gone through a very difficult period. I am interested in what he has said, and he has come to the nub of the matter. Regulation must precede ownership. The key decision on whether someone is a fit and proper person must be made by the FA before it sanctions any transfer in ownership. For the life of me, I cannot understand why that does not happen.
My hon. Friend is doing a fantastic job in laying out this sad story of mismanagement. Does he agree that the FA’s failure lets down not just football but the people we all represent, the people who go to watch football every week, the people who really care? It is they who have been most bitterly let down. Some of them work for the club and will not receive the money they are owed.
As my hon. Friend knows, it is likely that many of the creditors, including football creditors, at Hereford United will never be paid. He raises a serious issue. I am not by any means critical of the FA as such; I think that many of the things it does are good. There is a specific issue in relation to the owners and directors test that I want to focus on. Serious concerns exist in that regard.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. Mr Peter Kneale, company secretary of Prescot Cables in my constituency, has contacted me to make three suggestions. I would be interested in the hon. Gentleman’s response to them. The first is that admission to non-league matches below conference level should be exempt from VAT. The second is that non-league clubs could automatically be given exemption from the business rate. The third is that the Government look at giving greater flexibility to the community amateur sports clubs scheme to help clubs. Does he think, as I do, that those are sensible suggestions?
That is a formidable array of questions. May I respond briefly? As a member of the Treasury Committee, I am a bit leery of exemptions from VAT because I know how hard it is to recover those funds elsewhere and the precedent that they tend to set. On the issue of business rates, this is a local issue and councils should be encouraged to look closely at questions as they specifically arise. On the final issue, anything that the Government can do to support and enhance community ownership of supporter-led clubs would be valuable. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point.
As I have said, the FA, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Companies House should work much more closely to identify potentially unsuitable club shareholders, owners and directors as soon as they appear. Incredible as it sounds, as we debate today, Mr Andrew Lonsdale, a long-time associate of Mr Agombar, is the current chairman of Hereford United, despite a criminal conviction in 2008 and despite being disqualified at Companies House from 2006 to 2012. That raises in the starkest possible form the question: how on earth have the football authorities allowed such a person to be a club chairman?
Will the Minister write to the FA asking it to demand answers to those questions, and in particular to demand early completion—or pre-registration, as the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) mentioned—by potential owners and directors of the fit and proper test and rapid publication thereafter, so that we all know who has put up for it and who has passed or failed?
As a Newcastle and a Gateshead fan, I remember those ventures in the past with some pain, I am afraid to say. Because of the lack of oversight and transparency that the hon. Gentleman is in essence saying the FA has demonstrated, does he not think the FA itself is guilty of what it often accuses others of doing: bringing the game into disrepute by its lack of oversight of football management?
Order. I think there was an expectation or hope that we can start the last debate no later than 4 o’clock. We are all enjoying the informative and learned speech of the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire and he will continue it until he has concluded, but I should just point out that there are 11 hon. Members who also wish to contribute.
I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker, and I am about to wind up, but I am also grateful for the intervention and I can only sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s pain, still felt in many parts of Newcastle, as a result of that great goal. I think there is a degree of truth in his question. It is a balanced judgment, and if I may, I will leave it there.
Will the Minister write to the Football Association and other relevant authorities, requesting that they investigate the rules which may have been contravened by Hereford United and its owners and directors recently, and in particular how Hereford United was allowed entry into the Southern League without Mr Agombar passing the owner and directors test and despite its failure to pay its football creditors, and whether Mr Andrew Lonsdale’s continued role as club chairman is in contravention of existing rules?
Hereford United’s motto is “Our greatest glory lies not in never having fallen, but in rising when we fall.” The situation there has been a tragedy for everyone who loves the club, but there might be some small comfort for fans if it now leads to genuine and sustained improvements in the non-league game.
I am sure the FA is listening in and I have a few suggestions for it. The first point is that it cannot fill Wembley—it could not last night and Mr Roy Hodgson says it cannot be filled for all the England qualifiers—yet I have a load of kids in my constituency who have never been to a major sporting event of any kind. I am prepared to provide the buses and raise the money to enable them to do that, if the FA will give me the tickets, and I will fill Wembley on my own, every time, with kids from Bassetlaw, including kids who play for Worksop Town. I am prepared to do that for all the England qualifiers, and, indeed, any other major sporting event that needs some noise, passion and support.
We have 600 kids who play for Worksop Town alone, and those kids—boys and girls—say to me, “I’ll wear the shirt of my town.” Well, if we think the situation is bad in Hereford, I can say that the situation at Worksop Town is worse, because we cannot even go insolvent. At Worksop Town, the owner announced just before the start of the football season that he was putting no more money in. The directors—including the chairman, whom he appointed—immediately put the club into football abeyance; they said, “We’re not going to play any more, anywhere, ever.” There were some quick interventions, but they also wrote a letter withdrawing from the league. So without the fans or anyone else having a say, Worksop Town goes down a league, and when I go to the FA, it says, “Well, it’s too late; the letter’s gone in.” I say, “Well, what’s the fear?” and the FA says, “The owner won’t put any money in. The owner owns all the shares in the club.”
So I look at the club accounts. They show that Worksop Town’s assets are worth £669, because the previous owner somehow managed to get rid of the ground, so the club owns no ground; it owns nothing despite having been there since 1861. Yet with a turnover of £101,000, the new owner is apparently owed half a million pounds. He owns the club, however; he took it over. He decided, I think, that he was going to put some money in, and it is down in the accounts as administrative expenses. Last year, on a turnover of £101,000, there were admin expenses of £223,000, and the same the year before. That is down to an unnamed creditor, and I think that is Mr Jason Clark, the owner. I think he decided, “I’ll put money in, but I’ll put it in as a loan,” and then he said, “I’m not putting any more in, but I want someone to buy the club off me.” But the club has no assets—yet there are all these kids wanting to play, and go up and play for the full team.
Some are doing so, because we have managed to do a few little deals on the side, using the supporters trust. We have sorted a bit out. We have got support from the community. Mr Lee Westwood has put in some sponsorship, and Mr Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden has put his hand in his pocket as a Worksop lad, and Mr Graham Taylor, former England manager, and many supporters have put in, but they are having to put into the supporters trust because they cannot put into the club, because the club owes money, because the owner has decided to put in money that no one asked him to lend but he put it in as a loan.
What can the FA do about that? The answer is, at the moment, it can do nothing. It ought to be feasible in that situation for us to set up a new club, with the players and the managers and the supporters in support, and for the FA to recognise that club, and for that club to play in the same league. I am sure then, with helpful council support and support from private business and the rest—there is plenty of good will—we can build a new ground as we built the old one with the help of the fans. I am confident of that. Therefore, those 600 kids can aspire again, and we can have what we want in the town, which is everyone being proud of the name of the club and all those kids and people in the community being able to play. That is the kind of change that is needed in football.
If a party wants an idea for its manifesto, I suggest that in football the youth side and the stadium should be separated out from the semi-professional side. We should not be giving Government money or any other money if that can be siphoned off by an owner.
In future where clubs find themselves without a ground to play in, if the stadium still exists might we be able to find some mechanism for getting the supporters trust to be allowed to recognise and register the ground and stadium as an asset of community value?
Absolutely, and we have got a community interest company and if we had a stadium, it would be in the CIC—and when we have a stadium, it will be in. I am sure I can get a stadium built; I am confident of that, but it will be owned by a CIC, and who will play at it? The owner will have a veto, because the FA will let the owner have a veto. We could set up an alternative club, but it has to start right down at the bottom. That is nonsense.
These rules will be simple to sort out, and we should use the leverage of any money that goes in—state money of whatever form, whether grant money or Football Foundation money via the Premier League and the rest of them, or whether section 106 agreements, which is one way in which we can develop a stadium with relative ease in Worksop over the next couple of years. Those guarantees need to be there, but the FA rules need to ensure that if we do this, we can ring fence it. That should be for all clubs, and, by the way, this is not just about the FA, because if we are dealing with the FA, I can get to the FA. But if we are dealing with the blazers running these leagues, with the power to decide who is in and who is out, we cannot even get to find out who they are, never mind get to meet them.
That is the problem with football. It is a great challenge, but I believe there are solutions there, and obvious ones if people are prepared to act. The whole country would be behind that kind of action.
This is an incredibly important debate, because it is really important that non-league football should survive. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing the debate. My knowledge of non-league football goes back to about 1973, when I started watching Buxton, and I wear my Buxton football club tie today with pride. I remember when Buxton won the Cheshire league, and I was a member of the committee that ran the club in the early 1990s. I used to travel to home and away matches.
The thing about non-league football is that it binds communities; it binds towns and areas together. When we used to go to watch Buxton, we used to travel up to Morecambe in the north-west. I can see the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) in his place, and I can also remember many a famous victory at Bower Fold. I remember an auspicious 3-2 win in which I still reckon that the guys behind the goal got the penalty that won the match, but that is another story.
It was about the community. We used to go to matches, and we used to go into the bar beforehand and talk to the opposing supporters. We used to sit there and chew the fat about the good of non-league football and about how our team was better and their team was worse. It was a day out and it bound the community together. I remember the non-league football annual guide coming out at the beginning of each year, and I would buy my copy and tick off the grounds that I had been to. And people might think I am sad, but I always used to have season ticket No. 1 at Buxton. That is the kind of thing that non-league football does to people.
I recently went with my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson)—who I believe is wearing his Swindon Supermarine tie today—to watch that team play, and I was very much reminded of Buxton. I shall also talk about Glossop North End in a moment. This is about local people working together for the good of the community and the good of the club. We see people rolling the ground and marking the pitch. Some of the white lines might not be very straight, but the work gets done, and it is done by local volunteers.
I look at non-league football today and I worry. I remember the day when Goole Town came to play Buxton, and they had Tony Currie playing for them. He looked like he had had a few more curries by then, but it was still Tony Currie. Even then, he had fantastic ball control. I think he still has—I do not know if he is watching this.
I am sure that Tony Currie will be very grateful to my hon. Friend for that. He was an example of a player coming down from the higher leagues to play in non-league football. I remember watching Goole Town, freezing my toes off, as a youngster. We had a player called Tony Galvin—does my hon. Friend remember him?—who was sold to Tottenham Hotspur for £5,000. That was a huge amount of money for Goole Town. On a more serious point, does my hon. Friend feel that the obsession on the part of the larger clubs to import players from abroad denies that revenue to non-league clubs and denies their players the opportunity to get into the professional league?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He talks about freezing his toes off. He should try watching Buxton in February, playing on the highest football ground in England. He would freeze more than his toes off, I can assure him. The point he makes is absolutely right. We sold Ally Pickering to Rotherham—I think the fee was about £16,000—and Rotherham then sold him on to Coventry City, for which Buxton received a fee. That brought extra capital into the club. My hon. Friend is right: we now have what Alan Sugar used to call the Carlos Kickaballs coming into the premier league, plugging the gap through which footballers used to go up the pyramid, as well as coming down it. I am afraid that the days of old professionals playing at non-league football clubs are gone, and that is very sad.
I can assure my hon. Friend that it was pure luxury!
We also had cup runs. I mentioned Glossop North End, who got to the final of the FA Vase in 2009. That gripped the town of Glossop. There was a train that went from Glossop, with seven or nine carriages. We got on the train at Glossop and—for those whose geography is pretty good—we got to Manchester after about two hours. Then we had to come all the way down to Wembley. The sense of occasion on that train was fantastic. At the time, I was a member of High Peak borough council. It was the first time I had been to the new Wembley stadium and, regrettably, there were not quite as many people there as there were last night, although we were not far short. Afterwards, we decided to organise an open-top bus parade for the team, even though they had not won the trophy. I remember that the streets were lined with people, and there was a fantastic community spirit. We just do not get that with the glitz and glory of the premier league.
For those who cannot sleep tonight, if they read my profile on any website they will see that I prefer football at non-league level because it is the glory game, the people’s game—call it what you will. That is what football is about. Whether it be Glossop North End or Buxton or New Mills in my constituency, it is all about the proper game of football. The premier league has its place and it does a great job, but I prefer non-league football because of what it does for communities. We hear a lot about local activism and people helping each other. My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) has just walked into the Chamber; he has been to Buxton with me, and I am sure he remembers it with fondness.
My hon. Friend shakes his head, but it is the people’s game, the glory game. It is about the lads and the dads. It does not cost a father and his son £100 to go and watch a match. They can go to a match and have their Bovril and their pie and peas at half time. Anyone who watched non-league football knew that the best pies were at Frickley Athletic, and that Horwich RMI was the place to go for hotpot. We knew all those things; that was what football was all about.
That is why it is crucial that non-league football should survive. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) said, it gives young lads who want to play football a chance to rise to their level, and they might make it. They might be another Ally Pickering who goes on to play first division or premier league football. They can play football at their level, and they can play it for love. People can also watch non-league football for love, and they can afford to do so.
The contrast with premiership football is huge. We hear of premiership footballers earning £300,000 a week, but we need to get more money down to the non-league clubs to help support them. I heard the earlier comments about VAT and community amateur sports clubs. In my days on the committee in Buxton, I remember having to wrestle with the vagaries of the tax system and all the rest of it. Many people who are involved in non-league football, particularly lower down the pyramid, are doing it for the love of the game. If we can make it easier for them to run these clubs, it is better for the communities and better for the game.
I know which non-league teams I have watched. I can pretty much name the Cheshire league winning side of 1973—apart from a couple whom I am not sure about. It is in the blood; people find it stays with them. They still look for their local team’s results. It is different with premiership footballers. I notice when Chelsea are doing well because there are a lot of Chelsea shirts about. I am a Manchester City fan and have been for a long time. There are a lot more City fans now than there were when they were playing in the old third division. Non-league football always stays with its fans, which is why its future is incredibly important.
Before I sit down, let me just mention football for people of a more senior age. The Minister will no doubt say this, but only this week we had a walking football match here in London between the Glossop Gentlemen and the Parliamentarians. Again, it is something that gets people involved in the game and pulls communities together. Non-league football is incredibly important and we must do all we can to support it both for us and our constituents. I hope, in a few years’ time, to be able to stand up and remind the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde how, once again, Buxton have given Stalybridge Celtic a good thrashing.
Let me congratulate the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on his thoughtful and passionate speech, especially with regard to the club that he supports. It is great that we are having this debate, because non-league football is important to our country and our communities—indeed the point about the importance of community involvement has been made. Of course non-league football gives so much pleasure around the country to hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people.
I am fortunate because Halton has two clubs—Runcorn Linnets FC and Runcorn Town—both of which are doing very well and are in the premier division of the North West Counties League. Runcorn Linnets were formed in 2006 by fans of what was then the defunct Runcorn football club. I can remember the joy on the faces of the fans and the chairman, Derek Greenwood, on the day it was reformed.
Non-league football has existed in Runcorn since 1918. I am pleased to say that Runcorn Linnets FC now have a brand-new stadium, which was the result of a combination of efforts from the supporters, the chairman and his committee, the borough council, which played a pivotal role, and the local Members of Parliament who supported it. I was there on the opening day to see the inaugural match. Up to 1,000 people actually watched the game that day. We are really proud to have two teams in that league.
Runcorn Town is the other team— I am trying to be as even-handed as possible here, as we have two teams in Halton—and they were formed in 1967 under the name of Mond Rangers. They were a well-known and famous football club in the area. Ahead of the 2005-06 season, they changed their name to Runcorn Town and improved their facilities. Their club site is at the popular Pavilions Club in Runcorn. Again, the supporters play a pivotal role in its success, and I am pleased that the club has done so well since it became Runcorn Town.
Currently, both clubs are in the top half of the league, with Runcorn Linnets at the top and Runcorn Town seventh. The matches between them are always interesting and competitive, often bringing in crowds of more than 500 plus. There is good support in the town for both clubs, and I am really proud to see them doing so well. Those clubs play an important role in our communities, and will continue to go from strength to strength. I hope to see more and more local people going along to support them.
It is difficult for such clubs, because Halton is between Manchester and Liverpool so we have four of the biggest clubs in the country, Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United and Manchester City, which means that it is always difficult to attract supporters. However, the clubs in Halton are doing that and I think that big clubs should do more to support the smaller clubs through marketing and helping them to get more supporters. It is always a struggle for the clubs that are sandwiched between these massive world-famous clubs and we must take note of that.
As I come from Widnes, on the other side the river—I am very proud to represent both Widnes and Runcorn —I should mention briefly that although it is a rugby league town, of course, football has been played there at an amateur level for many years and is very popular. In fact, a Widnes club has even been formed as part of the Widnes Vikings sports brand. I hope that it does well, too.
I am very proud of the two Runcorn clubs in particular. Football is such an important part of the community in Halton and many young people and adults play the game. As we know, it is one of the most popular sports around. I have been written to by Dave Bettley of Runcorn Linnets FC, who is the trust secretary. He raises some important points about the role of supporters trusts, which, as we all know, are very important, about the tax and revenue system—we know about that from our earlier discussions about VAT exemptions, business rates and what help can be given when clubs get into trouble—about the football creditors rule, about the financial viability of football clubs and about the transparency of club ownership, which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members today.
This has been an important debate and I am glad to have been able to raise the issues and explain the importance of the clubs in my community. I am sure the debate will add to our understanding.
The main focus of my contribution to the debate will be to highlight the importance of a football club to the local community, where it can achieve much more than just entertaining the fans every couple of weeks. This debate shows clearly that just because a team is not in the football league does not mean that it cannot contribute greatly to the local community. I am a Grimsby Town supporter, and they are temporarily residing in the conference—but, as I say, that is only temporary.
Grimsby are unusual in that they always play away from home, as their ground is in Cleethorpes. I share with thousands of others concern about what happens at Blundell Park each week. It is not just important to football supporters; the local club is part of the local identity. It is tribal, although we might still support other teams. When I was a schoolboy, Tottenham were the team and I can still reel off the team that won the double in 1961—Brown, Baker, Henry, and so on.
My close association with the Mariners, as they are known, began long before my father started taking me to the match. Indeed, my first home at 11 Fuller street in Cleethorpes was about 200 yards from the goal at the Osmond stand at the Cleethorpes end, so I could hear the cheers and groans from the terraces. Long before my father got home and—in those pre-local radio days—before “Out of the Blue”, the famous theme tune for “Sports Report”, came out of the ether to herald the first reading of the classified football results, I would know by the cheers who had won.
It is a matter of regret that my first public appearance after my election in May 2010 was at the game against Burton Albion, which resulted in Grimsby Town dropping out of the football league and into the conference. That followed a proud history in which the Mariners managed to reach fifth in the old first division in the 1930s and appearances at Wembley at which they won such august trophies as the Auto Windscreens trophy. We had a number of semi-final appearances, one of which was against Wolves. At that game on 25 March 1939, we set a ground attendance record at Old Trafford that, I am pleased to say, still stands; for the aficionados, it was 76,962. Sadly, because of an injury to our goalkeeper we let Wolves slip five goals past us but, other than that, I am sure that it was a great day out for those who were fortunate enough to be there.
Like the majority of clubs at different levels, Grimsby’s survival has depended over the years on a number of generous individuals, but surely the important thing is that they keep faith with their local fans. Grimsby is their club. The club’s role in the community is of major significance. The Grimsby Town sports and education trust is a registered charity and among the projects it delivers is one with the National Citizen Service. I was fortunate, last Thursday evening, to be a speaker and to present certificates at this year’s graduation ceremony. The mayor of North East Lincolnshire, another of the speakers, drew attention to the fact that we often hear the promotion of the big society, but the NCS not only seeks to address a range of social problems concerning young people, but influences their attitudes to civil and civic society. The young people last Thursday evening were a credit to their families and the local community. Could that have happened without the involvement of the football club? Of course, but the club is an attraction, particularly for youngsters, especially when players become involved. Credit should go to Shaun Pearson, the player-ambassador, who was present last Thursday evening.
It is an added bonus to have a league club, but it is important that what goes on in the community around the club is recognised. Grimsby Town tell me about an anomaly, which I shall shortly be writing to the Minister about. My understanding is that there is currently an automatic core payment to the community departments of football clubs, to the tune of £30,000. At the time Grimsby left the football league, that was £24,000, with a 50% reduction for the first year only. That parachute payment is then lost, so that the funding to community departments ceases immediately the club leaves the football league. There are funds available for specific projects, but it does suggest a degree of injustice when a community department, the work of which can have a significant off-field positive impact on its parent club’s catchment area, is penalised—
I am delighted to be able to speak in today’s debate, coming as it does just two days before non-league day. I add my tribute to the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) for securing the debate and for his speech. I am proud to have three non-league teams in my constituency—a number that very few Members can boast. I hope to be able to raise some of their concerns today, but I also want to provide some background to them, as they are all proud clubs whose story deserves to be told.
First there is Hyde FC, formerly known as Hyde United. Hyde are fresh from a two-year spell at non-league football’s highest level, after winning the conference north in 2012, playing the type of attractive, pass-and-move football that the World cup-winning Spain side would have been proud of. However, it is fair to say that times have become slightly tougher recently, with only one win in our last 48 games. It could be worse, though, as the team hold the record for the highest defeat in an English competitive match—a 26-0 thrashing by Preston North End way back in 1887. It is worth remembering, though, that Preston were probably the best side in the world at that time. The club have also recently become something of a Twitter sensation, with almost 45,000 followers, which has helped them crowdfund £10,000 for much-needed work on their social club. I am sure that good times are again just around the corner.
There is also Stalybridge Celtic, an ex-league club back in the 1920s, who play at the impressive and idyllic Bower Fold stadium, nestled in the foothills of the Pennines, with a stand named after one of my predecessors, Lord Pendry. That is also where I took my daughter to watch her first ever live game of football—an important moment in any child’s life, I am sure Members will agree. She calls Bower Fold the Stalybridge Wembley, which I rather like.
Finally, there is Mossley FC, slightly lower down the football pyramid than Hyde and Stalybridge, but up and coming, with their ground, Seel Park, offering a truly stunning backdrop, and under the astute stewardship of Lloyd Morrison and non-league legend Peter Band.
Today I want to raise several issues on behalf of those clubs. Unsurprisingly, money is a real cause for concern at that level, with many clubs constantly struggling to survive. We heard at the start of the debate about the plight of Hereford United and the problems that they have been facing; unfortunately, we hear that story all too often in non-league football.
Given that we have just seen a transfer window where in excess of £800 million was spent, it is fair to say that non-league clubs feel forgotten, that the money does not trickle down to the grass roots of the game, and that those at the top all too often come across as being too focused on themselves. That was no more apparent than in the ludicrous proposals for the A and B teams of premier league clubs to play in the lower leagues—something that would kill non-league football. I should have thought that was obvious to anyone who was aware of the lower leagues. Clubs are going bust at that level, while premier league clubs pay millions of pounds in wages and rake in lucrative sponsorship deals from around the world. A player can be on in excess of £100,000—perhaps £200,000 or £300,000—a week in wages, while the local non-league club down the road is struggling to survive and relies on a dedicated army of volunteers to get by. How can the balance between those two things be right?
Another issue is travelling, especially by northern teams, particularly at steps 1 and 2 of the league. Travelling to mid-week matches on the other side of the country can be a logistical and financial nightmare for semi-professional teams; greater consideration is needed. Travelling distances can also hinder clubs’ progression, as the costs involved put them off taking promotion, even if they have earned it, as often happens in the northern league.
As we have heard today, non-league clubs are also important parts of their local community. That is certainly true of the teams in my constituency. Stalybridge Celtic, for example, have a dedicated community development officer to ensure that this is at the forefront of their priorities. That work is often underestimated. I think the true worth of every non-league football club to the community is vast and, frankly, cannot be measured. More recognition is due to non-league clubs for that work.
People asked me to raise other issues, including the possibility of a salary cap such as operates in the football league, which would be linked to a percentage of turnover.
I am delighted that we have this debate today. I hope that non-league day on Saturday is a success around the country, not least with victories for Hyde, Stalybridge Celtic and Mossley. I also hope that the footballing authorities pay more attention to the plight of non-league clubs, and at the very least recognise the valuable work they do in their communities. Non-league football may not be seen as the glamorous end of football, but it is real football, it is the grass roots and it keeps the game alive. Without it, football would lose its soul.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on bringing this important debate to the House. Clearly a great number of hon. Members on both sides are enthusiastic football supporters and know a great deal about the subject. I am not one of them. I have to confess that I am not the most enthusiastic football supporter in the country, and I think that any constituent who sees an MP trying to “ham it up” will see through them straight away, so I do not pretend that I am the world’s leading expert. Instead, I rely on my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), a son of Kidderminster who keeps me in touch with the Kidderminster Harriers, the leading team in my constituency, alongside Bewdley Town football club and Stourport Swifts—I too have three non-league football clubs in my constituency.
In the years I have been involved in Wyre Forest as a parliamentary candidate and as the local MP, I has been my sad duty—albeit one I relish each time it comes about—to work with successive chairmen to raise funds to try to save the Kidderminster Harriers football club. It is, I am afraid, one of the great problems of the smaller, lower league football clubs that most of them, despite enormous support from supporters and fans who give personal contributions, are, broadly speaking, ultimately supported by the patronage of private individuals. Most recently, the Kidderminster Harriers were got on to a sound financial footing through the incredibly hard work done by one such individual, Mark Serrell, and his wife, and through quite substantial personal financial sacrifice.
As we heard from the previous speaker, there is an awful lot of money in the broader football economy—probably enough money to keep the whole thing going, were it not for the huge amount of leakage at the top end, where a great deal of money seeps out of the football economy into the pockets of star players. They are probably worth it, but at the end of the day even an investment banker might blush at £300,000 a week in salary. The sport needs the non-league clubs to bring on the players of the future, and that is why more should be done to support them. At the moment, because of the complex interconnectedness in the football economy, people such as Mark Serrell of the Kidderminster Harriers are, in effect, subsidising Wayne Rooney’s salary.
It is important to recognise the huge contribution that clubs such as the Harriers make to their communities, and I will go through in detail some of the stuff they do. Kidderminster Harriers run a number of community and charitable activities. The club’s community scheme has football courses for children aged between five and 14 during the school holidays—an incredibly important time when they are not being supervised. They are held not just in Kidderminster, but across the entire county and in neighbouring south Shropshire and south Staffordshire. Malvern, Worcester, Bromsgrove, Droitwich, Cleobury Mortimer and Kinver—all benefit from the Kidderminster Harriers.
The football academy, which is run in association with Birmingham Metropolitan college, holds trials for players aged between 16 and 18. Importantly, this enables potential Harriers stars of the future to combine football training with a range of full-time courses at Birmingham Metropolitan college. We all know the importance of having a plan B, especially when one is in sport.
The Harriers have recently been recruiting teenagers to a five-a-side indoor football team that will play against larger league clubs in the midlands. Aggborough stadium occasionally hosts charity fun days. The club’s official charity partner for this season is Prostate Cancer UK. It linked up with the charity at the start of the new campaign in August, with the players posing in special “Men United” shirts during the traditional team picture. The use of Aggborough stadium is also available for other events. It is right that any organisation with assets to sweat should do that as much as possible, but it is encouraging that Kidderminster Harriers lets the community use its stadium. On 27 August, Aggborough hosted an international match between England Under-17s and Czech Republic Under-17s.
We have heard that the “fit and proper” test is incredibly important, and a great deal has been said about that. Two issues are worth looking at. First, there is inadequate distribution of money throughout the entire football economy, and the Football Association needs to deal with that. I call on the Minister to use her substantial powers of persuasion to help it to come to the right decision and conclusion.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The Football Association has a surplus of about £80 million per annum, which basically comes from the England team. That money is given 50% to the grass roots and 50% to the professional game. There is absolutely no reason why it should not all go to the grass roots. Front Benchers on both sides of the House should be applying pressure on that. It would result in an additional £40 million for Hereford, Worksop, Kidderminster and Warrington.
I entirely agree. It is absolutely right that we should be pushing as much money as we possibly can down to the non-league football clubs.
Secondly, as we have heard, the Government can probably do a little more to help these football clubs directly. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire that we should not go round handing out VAT breaks to them. However, given the great amount of charitable and community activity going on within some of them, there is a case to be made for having charitable or quasi-charitable status for the element of the club that is giving back to the community. The Government could do a great deal of work in looking to provide such help so that clubs benefit, as other charities do, from a reduction in business rates. Furthermore, there could be help for the businesses outside in the community that support the clubs through donations whereby they get tax breaks on those donations.
This has been a very interesting debate. I am learning a great deal about football, having, as I said, come from a very low base to start with. It is important that we support these clubs. Many football supporters recognise that they are fantastic, enthusiastic centres of the community, but people like me who are not supporters, but work with our communities, also recognise absolutely that the work they do is incredibly cohesive in a town. Even if one hates football, one has to recognise the value of the game in supporting the community.
I want to follow on from what the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) said. We are debating three issues: first, his point about resources; secondly, regulation, particularly with regard to the openness and transparency of the operational boards; and, thirdly, the right to community representation on the boards of football clubs.
I am honorary vice-president of Hayes & Yeading United. I was honorary vice-president of Hayes football club, as it was formerly, and I have supported it for 35 years. Hayes has been a successful club over the years. We produced Cyrille Regis, Les Ferdinand and Jason Roberts. In fact, the chair of the FA, Greg Dyke, is a Hayes boy. We had a successful track record but, like many non-league clubs, we ran into financial difficulties because, as is particularly the case for a London non-league club, the pull of the premiership and other teams is enormous, and maintaining a supporter base is extremely difficult. We tried to reduce costs by finding alternative sites and so on. We looked to sell our ground and to purchase from the local council, Hillingdon, the football stadium within half a mile of our club site that it was going to close and sell off, but it refused to sell it to us. It was right next to a local school. We were looking to take over the ground, set up a football academy, work with the local school and act as a community resource, but Hillingdon council was too greedy and refused to sell us the site. In fact, it refused to enter into a partnership.
Hayes sold their ground and merged with Yeading, and I became the honorary president of Hayes & Yeading United. Unfortunately, however, even the income from the sale of the ground was not enough to cover their debts. We were looking to move to the Yeading site, but there was not sufficient money to finish off the work we had done on that ground, so we are now nomads. We played at Woking’s ground last year, and I spent more time on the M25 than actually watching matches. We are now at Maidenhead and are desperately trying to raise funds to finish off the Yeading site.
We should pay tribute to all the volunteers out there who have kept non-league football going—they work so hard. We have all come here with our traumas and we have all gone through various experiences where not everything has been completely open and transparent, but people work hard to help these clubs survive.
Hayes produced two England players—Cyrille Regis and Les Ferdinand—as the result of a youth policy. They worked with youngsters, gave them basic training and the opportunity to play—getting that opportunity is difficult for many at semi-professional level—and brought on grass-roots football, which I think produced good national teams in the past. The reason our national team has problems at the moment is that a lot of grass-roots football has been undermined. The cost of pitches in my area is pricing out local teams. The local non-league clubs represent not just the grass roots but the heart of football and its development. That is why they need more support.
I agree with the hon. Member for Wyre Forest: the economy is wrong. There needs to be a redistribution of wealth to grass-roots football and an honest discussion with the FA and the premiership about a proper levy beyond what currently exists, to enable more grass-roots investment in terms of not only pitches but revenue support.
Secondly, Hereford is a good example of the problems we have had. Only a few years ago, Hayes came fifth in the conference. Then we were relegated to conference south, and we got relegated last year but survived only because other clubs went into administration, which was an horrendous experience. We need openness and transparency on how club boards operate, so that people can be aware of the financial situation and how it is being managed.
Thirdly, the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) mentioned the supporters trusts. If a grant is given from the FA or the premiership, it should be linked to automatic supporter representation on boards, because that will gain not just openness and transparency but community control of the clubs.
There are simple solutions to tackle some of the key issues facing non-league football. I agree with everybody else: this is about not just football but community spirit. It is at the heart of community life in many of our constituencies.
Order. We are very short of time for this debate, which needs to finish at 4 o’clock and to accommodate all those who still wish to participate I am going to reduce the time limit for Back-Bench speeches to four minutes. The Minister and the shadow Minister have also agreed to reduce their time, so we are sharing the burden. Each Back Bencher has four minutes from now, and I hope that interventions will be less frequent—although I am sure they will be relevant—in order to help us stay on time.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) for securing this excellent debate. I remember visiting that great club Hereford United in January 1990 for an FA cup fourth-round match in front of 13,770 people. I also remember going to a football match in 1975 in which Tony Currie played for Sheffield United; on that day they lost 5-1 in front of 61,000 people.
Weaver Vale is blessed with several football clubs. The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) mentioned Runcorn Linnets, which is an excellent example of a community coming together to start a new football club. It is very well run and very well supported. We also have Witton Albion, which was formed in 1887 and is a very popular club. We also have a new club called 1874 Northwich FC, which was formed by supporters of Northwich Victoria football club, which, unfortunately, does not play in the town any more. Indeed, it no longer plays in the county. It suffered a similar fate to Hereford United.
As the father of two young boys, and as a touchline dad, my proudest moment at the weekend is seeing my sons put on their football boots and run on to the pitch, although I am a little concerned that my younger son’s nickname is “Cruncher Evans”.
I want to talk briefly about the recent decline in the number of regular players. There are now 250,000 fewer participants in grass-roots football than there were only a year ago. The figures show that there is a real need to engage with grass-roots football to help support organisations, supporters and players. In my experience, it comes down to mums and dads organising the participation of younger players.
Having said that, I am proud that the Government have invested £80 million in football facilities over the past year via Sport England and are working jointly with the FA and the premier league. The Government are also committing £100 million for the Football Foundation to continue delivering higher-quality facilities. I remember visiting the excellent facilities in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds)—all I can say is that we in Cheshire are very envious. In addition, Sport England will be investing £1.6 million to create a grass-roots city of football, an innovative trial looking at new ways of encouraging people to play the game, including casual and small-sided matches.
I want to pay tribute to Sport Cheshire and to Cheshire FA. Sport Cheshire’s excellent chief executive, Anne Boyd, works tirelessly to encourage young people to take up sport, not just football. I am impressed by the number of girls who are taking up the sport.
In conclusion, the Government can play a role, but I believe that communities also need to come together. It is down to mums and dads, working with local authorities. There is still an awful lot to do, but I believe that, by working together, we can secure an optimistic future for grass-roots and non-league football.
Like many other Members, I am saddened by the struggles faced by non-league football. I am particularly saddened by the loss of Great Harwood Town FC, which no longer exists. That is symptomatic of the troubles faced by many non-league football clubs and of the decline in participation. There is a challenge. Although most of today’s debate has focused on the semi-professional level, I would like to make three quick points about the challenges faced by grass-roots football.
First, there is a huge challenge to increase the level of participation. When I played, my local combination had four divisions, but now it has two. Participation is severely hampered by the number of people who are attracted to premier league football or other forms of entertainment. Those clubs are essentially the feeders for the semi-professional clubs that are picked for Sunday leagues and out of the combination. If non-league football at the semi-professional level is to survive and thrive, the tier below is just as important.
Secondly, I think that participation is about health, community and all the other aspects that Members have mentioned, which is why we should be encouraging people to get involved. There is a big challenge facing senior football at the grass-roots level. The amount of senior football played is threadbare. In constituencies like mine, it is really important that people engage in some form of recreational activity, and football is a great participatory sport. I think that people should be more involved, particularly those who are getting on in years and might think that they are past their prime. There should still be a game out there for them, but sadly there often is not.
Thirdly, I want to mention the state of recreation grounds. We need to look at how grass-roots football is funded, right down at a basic level. With the demise of teams and the reduction in the number of players, some of our recreation grounds are becoming tired and unused, and they need investment. I believe that there are many people out there who would respond to that need and who would like to see clubs thrive. Whinney Hill football club has taken over a recreation ground and it now has several teams, including junior teams and female teams. It has invested in the recreation ground, partly through public funding and grants and partly through its own initiative. That club and that recreation ground are thriving. We should look at that model and put more investment into our recreation grounds, rather than letting them wither away as unused pieces of land that are not particularly attractive.
I join other colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing this debate.
I am saddened by the plight of Hereford United. I grew up and went to school in Herefordshire. Nearly 30 years ago, in January 1985, I remember seeing the Hereford United of Chris Price and Stewart Phillips draw 1-1 with the Arsenal of Charlie Nicholas, Kenny Sansom and Viv Anderson. In 1990, the famous Manchester United FA cup run, which brought Alex Ferguson his first trophy, very nearly ended in the fourth round at Hereford United on what Alex Ferguson rightly called in his autobiography a “pudding of a pitch”. Even the bull that is traditionally brought out for cup ties before the kick-off at Hereford United was glad to get off the pitch. The romance of the FA cup—the romance of non-league and league football—is what makes football in this country so special. To see Hereford United go through what it has gone through is a tragedy born out of poor management and poor oversight by the Football Association and other football bodies.
Non-league football in my constituency has had its ups and downs. Folkestone Invicta has had recent financial problems. Those have been resolved. I pay tribute to the work of the former chairman, Mark Jenner, and his team in stabilising the club’s finances. I have met officials at the club to talk about what they could do. They now have the club on a secure footing and are clearing the debts. I am grateful to the Football Association, which had a meeting with the club to discuss how it can access funds to carry out essential ground maintenance. It has entered into a proper lease agreement with Shepway district council and the future of the club looks much more sound than it did a year or two ago.
That club had a bonus when something happened that again shows the romance of non-league football. A young player, Johan ter Horst, was brought up in Folkestone and Hythe and started playing football on Saturday mornings with the juniors at Folkestone. He started in the under-13s team and then, at the end of last season, was sold to Hull City in the premier league. The club will get a financial reward directly from the transfer and, depending on how the young player’s career develops in the premier league, may get more money in the future. That is an example of how the trickle-down effect can work.
For many football clubs, sustaining themselves is the greatest challenge they face. Other Members have asked whether more financial support could be given through tax breaks to community sports clubs, just as such opportunities exist for amateur sporting clubs in the community. Although non-league football clubs pay some of their players part-time wages, they are very low and the costs of running the club are often very high. They are basically not-for-profit organisations that do a great deal not only to entertain the people who watch the clubs play, but to support grass-roots sport in their communities. There should be some special recognition of that. If there could be incentives for the community ownership of clubs, such as a more sound financial model or tax breaks, we should champion them.
In the brief time available, I want to pick up on what my hon. Friend said about the fit and proper person test. It is failing time and time again. It is failing because that is what football wants to happen. It is within the power of football to devise a more rigorous test and impose it more rigorously, but it consistently fails to do so. Football will change only through external pressure that it cannot resist; it never changes voluntarily. I was proud to serve on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in 2011 when we produced a report that made a series of recommendations on football governance. Most of those have been ignored by football bodies and more has to be done to put pressure on them. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) secured a debate in the House earlier this week on the plight of Coventry City. Again, that is a failure of ownership. There has to be intervention by the Football Association to impose a proper owners and directors test and to sanction clubs and owners when they fail to comply. I agree with my hon. Friend that that information should be made available to the creditors of the club and the fans.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I want to raise the plight of Salisbury City football club, the oldest and biggest club in my constituency, which is in dire straits, and its experience over the past few months.
I have two suggested improvements in governance that could help. The first is about prize money. I believe that there needs to be a reallocation of prize money from the FA cup to the FA trophy and FA vase. It is ludicrous that at the moment, small clubs can find themselves in the third or fourth round of those competitions, yet the cost of travel to an away match outweighs the money that they will gain from winning.
The second suggestion is about the fit and proper person test, which is not fit for purpose and needs to change urgently. As I speak, the ownership of Salisbury City football club is in dispute in the courts and the club’s very existence is threatened. Its fans are bereft and feel badly let down. It is a far cry from just a few months ago, when I saw Salisbury win 3-1 in the last home match of the season to finish in 11th place in the conference south. The then chairman decided that he could not continue to look after the club and devised a plan with a local businessman, Mark Winter, to transfer ownership. Mr Winter put up £70,000, but he needed a business partner. He was introduced to Mr Outail Medi Nader Touzar, who appeared to have a great deal of enthusiasm for the club as an investor. He had previously been presented to Reading and had been publicly linked to a consortium bidding to take over Crystal Palace.
Mr Touzar’s credentials seemed sound. He was presented as a potential chairman and was waved through the owners and directors test without a murmur of dissent. However, the reality was that this man was not fit to be involved in the running of a football club. He said that he would bring huge wealth to the club—promises witnessed by several people but unfortunately never put in writing or subjected to official scrutiny. It was no more than a handshake behind closed doors. His cash did not arrive, and he started behaving rather oddly. He was sleeping in the stadium, removing season ticket cash from the safe and making outlandish claims about foreign signings at a time when the club was barred from registering players. He claimed to have sold shares to other foreign investors, but to this day he declines to name them. Rumours therefore started that he had not had any money in the first place. Mr Winter, the original fan-investor, sought to replace Mr Touzar with another consortium of people who were prepared to invest. However, when they went to the authorities they were met with resistance at every moment, because technically Mr Touzar was still the owner.
Salisbury’s experience highlights the fact that the current fit and proper person test is a rubber-stamping exercise that makes a mockery of the FA. It freely admits that it is a tick-box exercise, not a subjective, full assessment of whether a prospective owner would be good for football. I feel that what is needed is a Disclosure and Barring Service-type check specifically aimed at potential football directors. The verification of claims and means, the taking up of references from previous business associates, proof of assets and basic oversight of business plans is surely not too much to ask.
At every level, football requires more careful financial handling and astute management. My impression is that the FA and the regulatory bodies turn a blind eye because fans want to see their club continue to operate, but my club has nowhere to play this season. Mr Touzar is still not being dealt with, and it is outrageous.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) on securing the debate. He told a tale of woe about local football, as did the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). It saddened me to hear both their stories.
It is with some sadness that I mention that three members of my staff are Baggies fans. When I put my name down for the debate, they said, “Well, you don’t seem to have much prospect at Wolves this season.” It has been a tough few years, but this season has started off quite well. This weekend will be the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the building of Molineux stadium, so I thought a contribution to the debate would be apt.
I want to highlight two non-league football teams whose work at grass-roots level in Wolverhampton and the black country I have seen—Punjabi Wolves and Sporting Khalsa. I have seen much of the fabulous work that they do by affiliating with local gurdwaras and the Sikh community in general.
In the three minutes I have left I cannot wholly encapsulate the full spirit of Punjabi Wolves, but I think that this small anecdote, which is an old story of Punjab United—the initial club from which Punjabi Wolves were formed—will probably encapsulate the general spirit. I am told this story is true as I have spoken to people who were apparently on the coach at the time.
The team were playing a match down in Southall and I think they had narrowly squeaked a 3-2 victory. They were celebrating with the opposite side in a pub in Southall, and the evening went on and it was getting quite late—I think they had reached the 11th hour. One member of the team said, “Look, do we really want to go all the way back to Wolverhampton?” At which point another player suggested, “Don’t worry, my auntie lives round the corner. There is no problem, we can go round and knock on the door.” This was the early 1970s, and times were very different.
At about 11.30 pm, the team knocked on the door. They got auntie out of bed, and she woke up and made about 15 burly young blokes roti, chapatti, curries and all sorts of things. They had a good night—festivities apparently went on until 3 am. They woke up at about 7 o’clock as some of the boys had to get back to work. They were chatting among themselves, and the individual whom I know came downstairs, joined them, and they had a hearty breakfast. At that point auntie walked in and he looked at her and she looked at him. He said, “Boys, we need to drink up fairly quickly.” They said, “Why?”, and he said, “Because it’s not my auntie’s house.” They then had to go round the corner and drive all the way back, but I think that spirit of hospitality really encapsulates the whole well-meaningness of Punjabi Wolves—I am not sure whether that spirit is Punjabi or comes from Wolves, but it is a far gone time.
I digress. On a more serious point, much has been made about the fit and proper person test for football management, but I occasionally still play football with a couple of my friends—we play five-a-side whenever we can—and we often talk about football as it is one thing I really enjoy. To be candid to fellow Members, sometimes when we stand up and ask a decent question at Prime Minister’s questions, other Members will come up to us and say, “Well done,” but that is as nothing to having a good match of five-a-side and scoring a goal. Afterwards, we have a pint with our friends and talk about it, and of course we embellish it, but it is a wonderful feeling.
When we compare that feeling with the news we have had this week—some of the boys I play with are United fans, and I have been speaking to them—when players are getting £300,000 a week, it is a far cry from the class of ’92 when Butt, Giggs, Beckham, Neville and Scholes all came together. Could we really have that in today’s modern football game? It seems an unlikely dream.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) mentioned young players coming forward at grass-roots level. My son plays football at grass-roots level. He is 17 and invariably plays on the right. When he gets the ball, the advice given to him is invariably, “Hoof it up. Kick it forward”, but he wants to take time with the ball and enjoy it. Without investment in the grounds where people can enjoy possession and play football, we will not cement the foundation for the future of our English team.
This has been an informative and enjoyable debate. Although he has not spoken, I am pleased to see the hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) in his place, because he and I made our own contributions to non-league football back in the early ‘80s when we ran Pembroke House youth club football team. His administration skills are legendary.
The hon. Gentleman was, of course, a fantastic coach, and we were the best team down the Old Kent road. Does he agree that what youth football does for the youngsters who play for the teams—instilling of a bit of discipline and team spirit and so on—improves their lives? Those youngsters did not end up being Giggs or anyone like that, but they have all gone on to very satisfactory futures.
They have indeed, and I am still in touch with some of them. Youth football certainly makes a significant contribution, as many hon. Members have said in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman). This is a timely debate because it comes a couple of days before national non-league day. In this period the premier league and many football league clubs are not playing; it is an opportunity for people to support non-league sides, which we encourage them to do.
National non-league day has had a significant impact on attendance over the past couple of years. Vanarama, which—surprisingly enough—sells vans, has said that it will contribute 10p for every fan who attends a conference game this week. If the number gets above 50,000, it will double its £10,000 contribution to Prostate Cancer UK. If that does not make people go out and support their non-league side, I do not know what will. Sadly, I cannot accept the invitation from Cray Valley in my own constituency this week because I will be in central London speaking to and welcoming the Darlo Mums, who are marching down from Jarrow to save our NHS. However, I wish Cray Valley all the best against Rochester on Saturday.
The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire raised some important issues and was right to highlight the problems at Hereford United. He reminded us of the spirit of Ronnie Radford and the way in which John Motson burst on to our television screens in that famous victory against Newcastle. The fact that such a club should be brought to its knees and face extinction because of poor management is a tragedy. The hon. Gentleman also highlighted how the Football Association and the leagues have got to get their act together in deciding who is a fit and proper person to run a club. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) made the important point that there should be registration before ownership. We need to sharpen up that process because too many people are gaining ownership of clubs before it is completed, and that is having devastating consequences for football clubs.
Many hon. Members spoke about the importance of football in their local communities—so many that in this short time I cannot mention everyone. I, too, think it important that the premier league and the FA better support football at the lower levels. When £835 million can be spent in the transfer market, but clubs such as Salisbury City, Hereford and others can nearly go out of existence over relatively tiny sums of money, there is something seriously wrong at the heart of our game and we need to do more.
I do not think we need another division below the football league. When resources and finances are so thinly spread at that level, it does not make sense to add another division and spread them even more thinly. The document put forward by the FA and Greg Dyke recommends strategic loan agreements. I would like those examined in more detail to see if more formal arrangements can be built up between lower league clubs and clubs that enjoy the riches at the higher levels so that investment can be made not just in players on loan, but in facilities, sending coaches down, training coaches and advising clubs on physio, diet and all the sorts of things that improve the game. With such investment at the lower level, we could increase the pool of talent there, and if we can increase the number of players enjoying the best facilities at the lower end of our national game, perhaps those diamonds in the rough will come through and benefit the elite game.
Many hon. Members have spoken about how community spirit is touched by football. There are few public bodies, organisations or businesses that touch our communities like football does. It has been at the forefront of tackling many social issues, such as racism and many forms of prejudice. I would challenge anyone to find another sport that has had a greater impact than football. It has had its problems, and still has problems that need to be addressed, but it makes a huge contribution and a big difference to our communities. It is absolutely vital. The hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire said that football can change the lives of young people, and we have all seen fine examples of that in our communities.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the impact football has had in their constituencies. I wish I could have gone into that in more detail. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) came up with the ultimate anecdote of community spirit, while the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) referred to being a touchline dad and to “Cruncher Evans”. Perhaps we should bear a thought for the players who might come across “Cruncher” in future, as well as wishing him the best for his future footballing career.
Football is vital to our local communities. We have a very rich sport, but unfortunately not enough of the resources at the highest level of the game reach down to the lower levels. Only a very small amount of that money getting down to the non-league level could make a huge difference not just to those clubs, but to the contribution they make to their local communities and to the production of fine footballers for future generations. I hope that the people who operate at the top of the game are listening to today’s debate, because hon. Members have done a fine job in representing football fans and bringing attention to the issues that need to be addressed if we are to save our game for the future.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) for securing the debate. The recent developments at Hereford and other non-league clubs make it timely to consider the challenges they face and the support offered now and in the future. The financial sustainability of football clubs, especially in non-league football, is an important topic that appears to be at the root of many of the issues clubs face today. I know that the Football Association’s governance and regulation divisions are aware of the pressures clubs are under, and they continue to look at what improvements could be made to support clubs directly or indirectly and to assess how regulation and the structures around it can be improved.
Over recent years, many changes have been made to non-league football and the regulatory environment in which clubs operate. While the rules might seem quite interventionist to some, the encouragement of regular reporting has certainly seen clubs at this level generally becoming more financially stable.
Many hon. Members have spoken with great passion about their local clubs and their loyal fans. I want to respond to as many points and questions put to me as possible. I have little time, so I am going to have to gallop through, but I shall do my best.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hereford and South Herefordshire and for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and others spoke about close working relationships, the effectiveness of the owners and directors test and transparency, while the football creditors rule was also raised. I can confirm that there are ongoing concerns about relationships, the test and the efficacy of the rules. I would be happy to ask the FA, which I meet on a regular basis and am seeing this week, to review and look again at the owners and directors test to see whether any sharpening improvements could be made. I would also be happy to see whether any additional powers would help, such as those conferred on Ofcom, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) in a debate earlier this week about Coventry City football club.
On the narrowing or abolition of the football creditors rule, there is no plan to legislate. The industry is taking the steps that need to be made. I hope that the financial fair play rules in the leagues and the financial sustainability requirements imposed in non-league football will reduce the dependency on the creditors rule, which is in any case used relatively infrequently.
The hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), who I know has had to leave, spoke about financial support from the premier and other leagues trickling down. My view is that the redistribution of income is a matter for the premier league and the FA. It is not a matter for the Government, but we would, of course, support and encourage any measure that strengthens the financial sustainability of clubs at all levels.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) spoke of Grimsby Town, its place in the local community and its role as a local partner for delivering the National Citizen Service, which sounds very interesting indeed. He has asked me on a number of occasions to visit him in Cleethorpes and perhaps watch a Grimsby Town game, and I will certainly look into that. I am delighted that Grimsby Town are playing such a key role in the community, which is further evidence of how much more these clubs provide, well beyond football.
My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) also referred to the owners and directors test as an inadequate rubber-stamping exercise that is making a mockery of the FA—I am sure it is listening. Clearly, Salisbury City have had a very difficult summer, and I understand his frustration and that of supporters. However, the ODT is not a rubber-stamping exercise; it does set out disqualification criteria that prevent certain individuals from taking control of football clubs, and I assure him and the House that not all prospective owners are able to pass that test. As I have said, I will ask the FA to review the working of the ODT and see whether more can be done to protect clubs from these various challenges. He also referred to money for the FA Vase and FA Trophy competitions. Again, I repeat that redistribution is not a matter for government; it is a matter for the Football League, the Premier League and the FA, but the Government would certainly support any measure to improve the financial sustainability of football.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) and the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) raised the issue of charitable or quasi-charitable status for non-league clubs. I can tell them that we want sports to get as much benefit as they possibly can, so that they can drive participation and thriving community sport. We are working with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and with sports on reviewing community amateur sports clubs, and I will of course make sure that the issue of non-league football clubs is raised.
I will give way later if I have any time left, but I must cover a couple of matters first. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) spoke with great passion about falling attendances at games. I cannot promise that the FA will take him up on his offer in relation to Wembley, but, as other hon. Members have mentioned, we do have a non-league day coming up this weekend. I encourage all hon. Members to visit their local club and enjoy everything that is on offer.
Lastly, I wish to discuss one potentially strong safeguard, which has been mentioned by many Members: better engagement with supporters. There are many good examples of supporters engaging with their local clubs, some of which can be found at AFC Wimbledon, Brentford and Exeter City, but there is more to do. With that in mind, I have accepted Supporters Direct’s proposal for an expert group of supporters, which will include representatives from across football. I hope that the group will examine, among other things, the barriers to supporter ownership and what more can be done to increase engagement with supporters.
I really am out of time, because I want to leave a few minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire to speak.
In conclusion, I do not want us to lose sight of the exciting opportunities for non-league football to generate and maintain both interest and participation in the sport as a whole. It is with that in mind that I will continue to work with the football authorities on providing a supportive environment for them to prosper in the future.
I would like to thank all colleagues from across the House for taking part in a cracking debate that has shown the House of Commons at its best; it has been full of wisdom, insight, passion and good humour. I know that the Minister has not failed to note the enormous passion and the strong feelings expressed about the ODT, and I am glad that she has committed to asking the FA to review it.
To bookend my earlier remarks about Hereford United, we have one shining example of a great community football club in Hereford: Westfields football club, founded 48 years ago, after England won the World cup. It was the grassiest of grass-roots clubs then, run by a team of people, one of whom was a 16-year-old goalkeeper and is now the chief executive, Andrew Morris. I wish we had more such clubs.
The football pyramid does not work at the moment. We know that. In the early 1990s, when Hereford United were last at risk, Graham Turner, the revered former manager, wrote to all members of the premiership asking them to send a side to help to boost Hereford United’s gate. Only one premiership manager replied: Alex Ferguson, who sent a team including Ryan Giggs. That made a huge difference. That is what we should be seeing a lot more of across the premier league today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of non-league football.