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Football Governance (Supporters’ Participation) Bill

Volume 606: debated on Friday 4 March 2016

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak, albeit a little later than I had hoped, following the Minister’s tour de force in dragging out the previous Bill. [Interruption.] Well, it certainly was a tour, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) says from a sedentary position. It is a shame that more Members are not here. Had we been more certain of the time of the debate, I think that it would have been well attended. I understand that the Government do not support what I am trying to achieve, but many Members on both sides of the House are interested, as are the football teams in their constituencies, and could have contributed to quite a significant debate. Sadly, the vagaries of how the House operates on Fridays did not allow that. None the less, that does not detract from the importance of the issue.

I thank the Football Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct, which helped me consult supporters trusts and fans groups up and down the country. Nearly 100 groups responded to the consultation. I had telephone conferences with them and held meetings in Manchester, London and other places to discuss the issues. We surveyed their attitudes towards fans’ involvement in the governance of football and their football clubs.

Some 97% of respondents said that they were not given enough representation. Nearly 86% said that they supported the concept of the right to buy shares and nearly 84% wanted representation on their club boards. When we look around football today, we cleary see that football fans are under-represented and not listened to. No matter what level of the game we look at, we see examples of where things could be improved if football fans had greater representation. The Football Association has a 123-man council; it is almost entirely male. There are a handful of women, but I am not sure how many, and there is just one fan representative on that council. That cannot be right. We need to improve representation and the voice of football fans at every level.

A lot is going on. Only a week ago, a new president of FIFA was elected. Just prior to his election, FIFA agreed a whole load of reforms. Anyone who follows football knows that FIFA needs fundamental reform. In fact, my view is that FIFA cannot be reformed; it needs to be put into some form of administration. A new body needs to be created and put in its place.

I congratulate Gianni Infantino on his election as president. I have been critical of FIFA and the system that elected him, which I still think is corrupt, although that is not to suggest that Mr Infantino is corrupt. The system is corrupting, and I will be a critical friend of Mr Infantino’s to ensure, along with many others, that the reforms are adhered to and delivered in full.

Many people have said that the election of Infantino is a breath of fresh air, but he is part of the previous establishment and football has a difficulty in breaking away from that. He was the best candidate among those who were available. It is disappointing, however, that in what was almost his first press conference he said that the 2018 and 2022 World cup bids would not be rerun. Investigations are going on that could determine whether the decisions awarding those tournaments were sound, and it is far too previous to conclude that the bids will not be rerun.

With the FIFA reforms, we are supposed to be drawing a line over what has gone on in football, yet the two World cups coming up in 2018 and 2022 are mired in the history of what has gone on at FIFA; it is difficult to see the changes as a result of a new broom and to think that the organisation is completely clean of what has gone on in the past. I wish Mr Infantino all the best with his changes and I am sure that we will return to the FIFA issue. As Mr Infantino said at his press conference, it is the fans and the game itself that are most important.

Even the highest debating and decision-making chambers of football such as FIFA have to remember the fans who make the game so special. The way in which football is part of the communities where the football clubs are based is so important to the beating heart of football. Everyone who is involved in making decisions in the game must remember that.

Fans are becoming increasingly important because big business is moving into our football clubs in a way that it never has before. We are now hearing talk, yet again, of a breakaway league of all the top clubs across Europe. If clubs were foolish enough to move into such a super-league, I would be inclined to say to the FA, “Tell those sides ‘Good riddance.’ Close the doors to the FA cup to them and let them go, and let’s continue to run our football league and have the confidence in it to create new super-clubs.” There is something special about the English football league. People around the world enjoy watching it. They enjoy the atmosphere created by the fans, which is reflected in the football played on the pitches that makes it a product that people around the world so much want to watch. There is something special when one of our top clubs such as Arsenal or Manchester United is drawn against one of the big European football clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Borussia Dortmund. If that were to happen regularly within a football league, the special nature of those international clashes and the excitement of those tournaments would be lost. Those clubs would be making a serious mistake if they moved away into a super-league.

Football is no longer looked on as a way of wealthy business people having an interest aside from their business by running a football club. It has often been said in the past, “If you want to make £1 million out of football, buy a football club for £4 million”, because it has not been a way of making money; owners of football clubs have invested in them and seldom taken money out. That has completely changed. Looking back at the finances of the premier league, and, to some degree, the championship only a few years ago, there was enormous debt. There is still debt in the championship, but the TV deals that have been done for the premier league have almost completely wiped out the debt there, and football clubs are looked on much more as money-making businesses. Those clubs’ links to the communities in which they are based are therefore even more important than they have been in the past. These people sweeping in on their private jets wanting to buy football clubs are not looking at the communities that have sustained those clubs through generations over many years, through the good times and the bad times, and the very strong links that they have with the communities in which they are based.

It is the fans who anchor the clubs in that tradition. It is the fans from those communities who have sustained those clubs over many years. It is the fans who are passionate about their clubs who fill the stadiums week in, week out and create the atmosphere that makes the package—for the premier league, in particular—so attractive to sell around the world. Owners who turn their backs on that tradition will do so to the detriment of their football clubs. That is why it is so important that today we are recognising the importance of the role of fans in sustaining football clubs, maintaining these traditional links, and making sure that they are not lost as clubs begin to become more profit-making and more attractive to people who are not steeped in the traditions and the history of the clubs that they are attempting to buy, or do buy.

Fans are increasingly looked on as customers and as no different from someone who shops at a supermarket. If customers get a better deal down the road, they simply change supermarkets. No passion or allegiance is involved; they do not wrap a supermarket scarf around their neck when they shop. The link between a fan and a football club, however, lasts a lifetime. Some are lucky enough to support clubs that frequently play in the top flight, while some of us have heavier crosses to bear. I am a Millwall season ticket holder and, believe me, it is a heavy cross to bear at times.

It is in my constituency. I will be going this weekend to celebrate Jimmy’s Day, and I hope that my hon. Friend will also be there.

I certainly will. Jimmy Mizen was, sadly, murdered in a street attack. His mother and father, Barry and Margaret, have set up the Jimmy Mizen Foundation, which aims to create community safe havens in which young people can seek refuge if necessary. Millwall football club and Charlton Athletic both support the charity, and there will be an event at Millwall tomorrow. I will be there in my usual seat in the stands, supporting Jimmy Mizen Day and cheering on Millwall football club, which is not doing too badly this season.

As I have said, some of us have heavier crosses to bear with the sides we support, but we are no less passionate about them. I could not change my football club. Charlton Athletic’s training ground is in my constituency. Millwall’s training ground used to be there, too, but it has moved to Lewisham now. The team’s fortunes dipped when it moved there, but they seem to have picked up now. People were surprised that I remained open about the fact that I was still a Millwall fan and they asked me, “Won’t you switch to Charlton because it’s the local club?” Fans cannot switch like that, and even if they attempted to do so, they would lose the respect of other football fans. It is imprinted on people from a young age. Fans are not like any other customer. They are passionate about their clubs, and their relationship with them lasts a lifetime. That needs to be stressed to football club owners and to the Premier League.

Stadium occupancy rates are often mentioned, and those for weekend premier league matches are very high. Last season’s annual report states that the occupancy rate was nearly 96%, so the grounds are full. The Premier League is a huge commercial success. It pays £2.4 billion to the Exchequer, and its gross value added is £3.4 billion. It has become an enormous success and one of our greatest exports. In the next three-year deal for its domestic rights, it expects to receive in the region of £6 billion. The international rights will take that figure up to more than £8 billion over three years. That money will go to the Premier League and British football, so it is an enormous success, but, with those sums of money floating around, it is essential that we do not lose sight of what exactly created those football clubs in the first place and why they exist today: the communities in which they are based and their fans.

There are many examples of such communities coming together to protect their football clubs. At the moment, Blackpool’s is fighting hard to get recognition from the owners to protect their football club. One of the greatest examples is that of Portsmouth. The club was in the FA cup final only a few years before it went into receivership and had to be saved by the local community and local fans. People came together to save a great football club, which has some of the most passionate football fans to be found anywhere in any country.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that for every AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester or group of fans who have refused to let their club die, great and noble clubs such as Clydebank exist no longer? It would have been far better if clubs such as Clydebank had had fan representation on its board, because it would not then lead to people going through the agonising process of defending their clubs. The process would be much more automatic, and we would be able to keep the full gloriously rich panoply of names in English and Scottish football.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to some of the recommendations of the expert working group, which may address his point.

When football clubs are in distress, we can see how the communities have rallied round to save them. Sadly, Hereford United went out of existence for a short period, but it has been recreated because the fans, refusing to let the name die, were determined to save their club. Let us look at the success of Swansea City, 20% of which is still owned by the fans. Where would it be if the fans had not stepped in to save it? Wimbledon—what a tragic story—was let down badly by the football authorities. The community’s club was stolen away from them, but the way in which they have recreated a club, AFC Wimbledon, to thumb their noses at football’s ivory towers is fantastic.

My Bill is not about giving the fans a veto over what goes on at their clubs. I am not suggesting for a moment that the involvement of football fans is somehow a panacea for all the problems in football. There have been times when football clubs have gone into receivership even though the fans had all along cheered every decision that put the club into financial jeopardy until the receivers turned up and locked the doors. Fans cannot provide the solution to every problem, but they care passionately about their club and they can be an early warning system to alert authorities to existing problems in our clubs, particularly such as those at Hereford.

More recently, clubs have come into conflict with their fans in ways that might have been avoided if there been better communication or if the fans had had a voice on the board when decisions were made. Liverpool comes to mind, as does the Football Supporters Federation’s “Twenty’s Plenty for Away Tickets” campaign. Because of the pricing of tickets at Liverpool, 10,000 fans walked out in the 77th minute to say to the club, “We’re not putting up with this”. That brought about a change, but the conflict might have been avoided if the fans had been at the table when the board discussed ticket prices and the board had put its views to the fans. A more ridiculous example happened at Leeds, where a “pie tax” has been added to the tickets. When people pay for a ticket, they get a voucher for what is probably a very unhealthy pie, and that has been ridiculed. I wonder whether the board would have come up with such a marketing ploy if it had talked to the fans. Similar things have happened at Hull City, Cardiff and elsewhere that I could go into, but I will cut through that because we are short of time.

I want to talk about the expert working group. I welcome its recommendations as far as they go. They will require football clubs to meet fans at least twice a year so that the fans can air their views, but that is not enough. There needs to be a regular dialogue and exchange of information. This does work in clubs already, so there is nothing to fear from fan representation on the boards. The Government should look at what the expert working group says about social investment tax relief to make it easier for bona fide fans groups to take over their football clubs. I wonder why we are saying that we will help fans to take over their clubs only when they are in financial difficulties. If the fans are good enough to have a stake in their clubs in the bad times, they must be good enough to be able to buy shares in the good times, if they wish to do so.

We need to ensure that fans are represented. The expert working group says that the FA must address the lack of representation of fans at the higher levels of the game. I want to hear from the Minister what the Government intend to do about that.

My Bill, as I said, is not a panacea that would solve every problem in football. One of the things that is fundamentally wrong in football now is that fans are not being spoken to and they are not being listened to. Where they are, and where clubs encourage it—Millwall has a fan on the board, who is elected by the fans and is party to all the discussions that go on around the table—that does not create a problem for the club. Where representation exists, the relationship between the fans and the club is improved, as is the exchange of information between them.

My Bill would do three things. It would require the fans to set themselves up as a single bona fide body. I have suggested that that should be an industrial provident society, but that can be discussed. That body would be responsible for electing two members to the club board— two members so that they are accountable to one another— and they would report back to the fans about the board’s discussions. They would need to be trained and taught the responsibilities of being a board member—for example, when they may or may not divulge confidential information when they report back. Where the board is larger, there should be a minimum of two fans or up to 25% of the board, whichever is the greater number.

That bona fide fans body would be empowered to buy shares when there was a change of ownership. I have been advised that in the City that is recognised as occurring when 30% of shares or more are on offer, so when 30% of the shares were exchanged or sold, the fans would have 240 days in which to buy up to 10% of those shares which is 3%.

Those are the three elements of my Bill—it would put fans around the table when the issues that affect them are being debated, and allow them, where they have the will to do so, to take a stake in their club. Clubs have nothing to fear from that. At a time when football is increasingly seen as a global business, it is important to recognise the people who identify with that club and who give it its distinctive character, which comes from the community and has sustained that club for generation after generation. Those people are the fans, and it is time we gave them the recognition they deserve.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on bringing a first-class Bill to the House. It is truly bizarre that here we are, in the most exciting ever premiership season, when the reputation of football and football clubs has never been lower, and there is a profound disconnect between what is happening on the pitch and what is happening in the boardroom. Much of this is to do with the ownership of clubs.

The ownership of football clubs may not be as it was once perceived in the glorious sepia days of jumpers for goalposts, when northern clubs would be owned by some Alderman Foodbotham out of Peter Simple, with his iron watch chain, who was a sort of philanthropic local industrialist. Fulham, without doubt the finest football club in west London, was owned by Deans Blindmakers of Putney, and Chappie d’Amato was the chairman. There was a wonderful tradition with those people. Nowadays, people from the middle east and America, consortia, strange groups miles away, distant people own football clubs. I do not see that as ownership. They may have the shares, the keys to the boardroom and an executive car park, but that is not owning a football club. The ownership of a football club is in the hearts of the community and the fans. That is why my hon. Friend’s Bill is so incredibly important.

Football is not a fad. A football club is not something that can be picked up and put down. A football club is not something that just happens to be a feature of a local area. It is a part of the community. It is the living, breathing reality of a local community. When one sees clubs such as Brentford and Charlton putting up candidates in local elections and the degree of local concern when a club is under threat, one realises that this is more than just sport. This is about our culture and our community. Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that many people in your constituency are West Ham fans. I am sure that you are a regular on the terraces of Upton Park. You are probably one of the better behaved ones, I hasten to add.

The important thing about my hon. Friend’s Bill is that we need to reconnect the people, the fans and the communities with the clubs. Sadly, that will not happen organically. It will not fall as a gentle rain from heaven. We need some legislation. That is why the right to buy shares—I never thought that I, an honest socialist, would ever plead for the right to buy, but I do in this specific case only—and the mandatory placement of fans on boards are things that we have to go ahead with. Alistair Mackintosh at Fulham meets Danny Crawford and the Fulham Supporters Trust on a regular basis. That practice is good where it is good, but it is not mandatory or statutory and it needs to be.

I could speak for so long on this subject, but I will not because others wish to speak. I simply implore the House, I plead with the House, to support my hon. Friend’s Bill. It could be the saviour of football—the game that we invented in this country and gave to the world. It is now seen in a pretty poor light because of the great disconnect. We have an opportunity to regain that supremacy, that primacy and, above all, that link, and to make a reality once more of the working man’s ballet, representing our local communities.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound).

I have a lot of sympathy with the Bill. The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) speaks passionately about the way in which football has changed and the importance of making sure that fans are engaged in the game. In the light of the two Select Committee inquiries into the governance of football in the last Parliament and the work of the expert working group, which he referred to, the Bill does raise serious issues in respect of football governance that it is well worth airing in this Chamber. However, I cannot support it because the mechanism that he proposes is not an appropriate one.

I know from my frequent visits to Halesowen Town football club the importance of fans and the community being engaged, even in a non-league club. The club has a long history, but has had recent difficulties. The efforts of the local volunteers who have maintained the stadium in Halesowen and contributed to the revival of the club reveal that across the whole football spectrum, from the premier league or all the way through to the Evo-Stik non-league leagues, fans and local communities have a vital role to play as the custodians of their clubs.

I recognise what the hon. Member for Ealing North said about the changing nature of the ownership of football clubs in Britain. The concerns that he has about the foreign ownership of English football clubs are shared quite broadly. I understand the nature of those concerns—that the traditions of clubs that are taken over by foreign owners will not be appreciated, that new owners may be unfamiliar with the complexities of the English game or that foreign owners might not think about the long-term prospects of the game.

Alternative models along the lines proposed in the Bill must focus on the long-term financial stability of the football clubs to which it might apply. We might all have some kind of romantic or sentimental view about a lost golden age of English football. I remember standing on the terraces at the Trent end of the City Ground when Nottingham Forest was in its heyday in the late 1970s.

As a Tottenham supporter I hope that we will be entering a golden age of football in the next few months. The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent case in support of the Bill. When I go to watch other sports, such as rugby league in St Helens or Gaelic football in Ruislip in west London, I pay a small amount for a ticket. People who go to those games are just as passionate as football fans who pay an inordinate amount. He says that there are no alternatives, but we must find one because it is imperative and important to sustain our national game.

I do not argue that there are no alternatives, and one of my concerns about the Bill is that—like so many other Bills—it imbues the Secretary of State with regulation-making powers to intervene in football clubs, which are private concerns. I am concerned about the blunt nature of the proposed mechanism. However, that does not mean that there are no viable alternatives for encouraging greater fan participation in clubs, such as different forms of company structure or community interest companies, as mentioned in the report by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on football governance. For example, there might be other mechanisms in the Localism Act 2011 regarding assets of community value—there is no reason why a football club should not be considered such an asset.

I was speaking about the idea of a romantic golden age of English football. Seeing Leicester City at the top of the premier league reflects the fact that it is possible for clubs that are not traditionally considered to be the most financially solvent or in the top bracket of the premier league to do very well—that is why I referred to Nottingham Forest in the 1970s. It is understandable that the hon. Member for Eltham feels that we need to shake up the ownership of football clubs, but as I said, I am not sure that his Bill adequately addresses some of the complexities of encouraging supporter ownership and participation.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the expert working group on football supporter ownership and engagement, which was commissioned by the DCMS and its Committee, raised important issues about football governance. For example, one recommendation in the Committee’s report was to give the Football Association greater power over licensing football clubs, which speaks to some of his concerns about the threat of foreign ownership of football clubs, and the issues that arise from that. We must have a much tighter regime of football club licensing, and the FA has a role to play in that. How do we define a football supporters association? Can we be sure that the best fans are being selected, and by what process? Who has the final say on the appointment to that supporters organisation? Does every supporter get a vote?

The Bill raises very important issues and the hon. Gentleman is right to bring them to the attention of the House. Greater supporter participation in football is critical, but I am not convinced that the mechanism he outlines in the Bill is the most appropriate way of dealing with the problem he identifies.

Many of us would agree that football clubs are unlike any other businesses. The backbone of any football club is its supporters—or fans, if you like—many of whom have an emotional attachment that lasts a lifetime. Too often, however, this attachment is exploited by clubs. Ticket prices are pushed up and owners attempt to change fundamental parts of clubs for marketing reasons, with no respect for the history or heritage of the club and its association with the local community.

Despite new owners coming in with large sums of money, it is the fans who have sustained clubs generation after generation through thick and thin. It is the fans who will be there for a long time after the owners have gone. Sadly, it is too often the case that fans are ignored on fundamental issues that directly affect them and their club. A whole host of problems are faced by clubs on a regular basis. As has been mentioned, Blackpool supporters have recently expressed serious concerns about the running of their club and have attempted to take it over. Liverpool supporters have walked out over their club upping ticket prices. Soon, the Football Supporters Federation will hold a demonstration to call on clubs to share the TV wealth by lowering ticket prices and providing funds for lower leagues and the grassroots. At Cardiff City, the club I support, the owner changed the club’s strip from blue to red against the clearly expressed will of the supporters—for generations the club has been known as the Bluebirds. I do not believe we can go on like this. It is totally unacceptable. Clubs are becoming more and more disconnected from the communities in which they are based.

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman because he has been speaking for only a short time, but if he and the rest of the House would like to hear what the Minister has to say on the Bill, he will have to leave some time for that.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will take your advice.

The Prime Minister has added his support to calls for change. I believe other moves are afoot—discussions have taken place and must be taken forward—but that is not a reason why the Bill should not be supported. The Bill’s proposals are modest. They have been consulted on and are very coherent. I believe a clear message needs to go out from this House. I very much hope the Government will support the proposals, so that football supporters can have a real sense of participation and involvement, which is absolutely central for the future of British football.

I congratulate my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), on winning a place on the ballot to present his private Member’s Bill. His speech was informative and interesting. His passion and advocacy for football is to be commended, as is his support for Millwall.

I would first like to put on record that my family are supporters of Crystal Palace. My son Tom and my grandson George are season ticket holders. We, too, support strongly the new president of FIFA and the commitment he has made to reform the world governing body of football. Those reforms are critical to restoring the trust and credibility of the game.

I commend the speeches from the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who is always entertaining and informative, and my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris). I thank him for his contribution.

Unfortunately, the Government are not able to support the Bill and are opposing it. We do not believe that legislation is the right way to achieve our aim. The FA is embarking on a review of its governance, and we hope genuine progress will be made, including on giving supporters greater representation on its decision-making boards. In my future discussions with the FA, I shall seek confirmation that this matter is being considered properly, seriously and sensibly. I recommend going forward on that basis.

The debate stood adjourned (Standing order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 11 March.