I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of Coventry Football Club.
We have known each other a very long time, Mr Gapes, but I think this is probably the first time that I have taken part in a debate that you have chaired—if I am wrong, I am not far off being right. I take this opportunity to thank Mr Speaker, who, over the years, has been very good in granting a number of debates on the future of Coventry City football club. The people of Coventry and the fans very much appreciate that he has been able to do that.
I welcome the Minister to her place. I have known her for quite a long time, too, but this is the first time that we have participated in a debate together. I hope that at the end of the debate she will have some constructive comments to make. Some weeks ago, I wrote to her about the problems at Coventry City football club, and in her response she gave us a little bit of hope, as she said she hoped to have something positive to tell us at the end of this debate.
Coventry City football club faces an uncertain future, and the ongoing saga has spanned many years. I have met Ministers in the past, along with my Coventry colleague from past Parliaments, Bob Ainsworth, and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson). I have asked questions in the House and tabled early-day motions. I recognise that there are differing views about what has happened to Coventry City football club, but at the end of the day the club is ultimately responsible for its own future.
Hon. Members will remember the recent damaging rent dispute between the football club’s owners, Sisu, and Arena Coventry Ltd, which operates the Ricoh arena. That dispute led to the football club playing its home games in Northampton, more than 30 miles away, which was, to say the least, expensive and inconvenient for the fans. Since then, the Ricoh arena has been sold to Wasps rugby club, and amidst all that, Sisu continues to take legal action. I do not propose to discuss that legal action today, as it is sub judice and a different matter, but it has helped neither the situation nor the relationship between the fans and the club—so much so that dialogue now seems impossible.
Big questions remain. The deal that sees Coventry City play at the Ricoh arena expires at the end of the 2017-18 season, and talks to reach a new agreement have broken down. A long-term solution for home matches remains far away, and the threat of the club once again moving out of the city remains. The football club’s academy is under threat. The club has approved a proposal for the training centre to be redeveloped for housing. We have to ask ourselves what Sisu’s future intentions for Coventry City football club are. What possible plan could Sisu have for the club’s future?
At the heart of the issue lies the question of how a football club should be run, and for whom. This season has seen disappointment on the field—just a single win in the first 11 league games—and the manager has recently quit. Off the field, there is further unrest. The man in charge of resolving the future use of the Ricoh arena by the club, the managing director, has stepped down. A petition started by the Coventry Telegraph calling for Sisu to sell up has amassed nearly 20,000 signatories. That petition has my support and that of my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) and for Coventry North West. Just imagine if the club was succeeding and that number of fans attended home games.
I believe that every football club should work for the community that it represents, the community whose name it bears—in this case, Coventry City. That is the name on the shirt. The community is so tied to the club that the council recently renamed a road after the famous Jimmy Hill. A football club should not be viewed as a way to make a quick buck by faceless and unaccountable owners. The club, the community asset, has been mismanaged by a select few for their own benefit. Decisions have been made in the interests of the parent company, and the football club has been sidelined and relegated to second place behind the business interests of a hedge fund. The Football Association and the Football League must explain how such a company can pass the fit and proper person test and then proceed to run a club into the ground. It has no stadium, no manager and its academy is under threat. By every conceivable measure, the club is heading backwards. The existing regulations have clearly failed.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this issue, on which we strongly agree. He makes a really powerful point. One of the tragedies of Coventry City is that it demonstrates the weakness of the owners and directors test—the fit and proper person test—and the weakness of the FA or the league in making any sort of proper intervention in such a club. Does he agree that that shows the need for proper transparency of ownership and a greater number of independent directors on the boards of clubs, who could represent the city and the fans?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and pay tribute to him, because over the years he and I have done quite a bit of work in this area. I particularly thank him for the support he has given to the Coventry football supporters. The FA and the Football League have been highly critical of FIFA, but they should start by putting their own house in order—I fully agree with him about that. As I have the opportunity, I will mention that I hope he might also consider that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, on which he sits, might want to have a look at this issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am sure he will raise the issue of Coventry.
There are potential solutions that would make the club work for the community again. Other clubs have shown us that giving fans an increased say can work. AFC Wimbledon is owned by the fans and the team was promoted last season, and Portsmouth is owned by its fans and is now turning a profit. I am not saying that is the only model to follow, but workable community solutions that put the fans first exist and should be considered. However, any solution is closed off unless Sisu decides to engage in a dialogue in good faith.
This morning I met representatives of the fans, who gave me a document that could form a basis for bringing both sides together to try and resolve the dispute—the Minister might want to look at it. They note in the document that the supporters expect a number of things from the owners of the club, which include a commitment to the football club, decent investment on and off the pitch, honest communication and engagement with the fans, fans being given a stake in the club, respect for the club’s traditions, a good relationship with the wider community and an offer of a quality matchday experience for all the fans. Those are reasonable requests and are in line with some of the points I have made this morning, but such solutions are closed off unless Sisu decides either to engage in a dialogue in good faith or to sell up, move on and leave its toxic legacy behind.
The future of the football club hangs in the balance. Having watched the club together on the terraces for decades, we now stand to see it fall away—to see it all lost—because of the poor choices of a hedge fund. It was all completely avoidable. At the end of the day, it is the fans and the community that lose out and suffer. Look at other clubs across the UK: when a club succeeds, the city and the area surrounding it succeed too. Football can provide a sense of identity, community and pride.
Will the Minister update me on any discussions that have taken place between her, Sisu and the FA? Will she intervene where appropriate? If she feels it is unacceptable for her to intervene herself, will she appoint somebody of repute to bring both sides together to try to resolve the dispute? Pressure must be put on Sisu to engage with other parties and the wider community, including the fans, with the Minister arbitrating if necessary. She should also consider appointing somebody of good repute—it could be a judge—to arbitrate.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He knows of my personal involvement in this issue over the past few years. He will obviously agree that Sisu’s record and the position that the club finds itself in are absolutely lamentable. Does he agree that clubs need to be seen to be representatives of communities, not franchises that can be bought and moved about by owners? That is why it is key that we intervene strongly when a club finds itself in a lamentable position like that of Coventry City.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who for years before coming to the House played a role in trying to bring both sides together. I think the Minister can play a significant part if the will is there. I do not want to criticise the current Minister, because she is fairly new in her job, but previous Ministers have done the “Grand Old Duke of York” routine: we had meetings with them and got to the top of the hill, but we all ended up back down it again—in fact, we rolled back down.
I ask that the Football League reviews the appropriateness of its fit and proper test. As a minimum, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee should look at the regulations that are in place—I have already said that to its Chairman—so this can never happen again. Lastly, I ask that Sisu ends its involvement with Coventry City football club so the damage it has caused can begin to be undone, unless it is prepared to talk reasonably with the fans and use the charter as a basis for an agreement to resolve the dispute.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate. He has been involved in this issue for many years, as was my constituency predecessor.
In the short time available to me, I want to make two points and echo all that my hon. Friend said. First, the Football League allowed Sisu—the owners of the Sky Blues—to move the club away from Coventry in 2013 temporarily, having been assured by Sisu that it would build a new stadium in the city. Since then, there have been numerous stories about its plans for a long-term stadium solution in or around the city of Coventry, the latest of which—apparently its preferred option—is a new stadium and ground-share agreement at the Butts stadium.
However, nobody who knows the local area and understands the issues involved has ever believed that any of Sisu’s plans are feasible or anything other than a smokescreen. There has never been any evidence of serious intent to build a new stadium. In reality, the only viable option to secure the club’s long-term future in Coventry is an extension of the agreement to play home games at the Ricoh arena, which is due to expire in 2018. The club’s owners know that, whether they admit it or not. They must now do everything within their power to ensure that the agreement is extended. If they are incapable of achieving that, they should sell up and go, as the Coventry Telegraph has called on them to do.
Secondly, the Football League claims to be a genuine regulatory body, not just a representative organisation acting in the interest of club owners and its own narrow self-interest. If the Football League is indeed the effective and responsible regulatory body it claims to be, it will surely have sought and received clear evidence from Sisu to show that it has a plan to secure a long-term stadium solution in Coventry. Similarly, it will have monitored the situation to ensure that real progress is made to achieve that ambition, and it will wish to take appropriate and robust action, including the removal of the golden share from Sisu, should the situation remain unresolved. I urge the Minister to ask the Football League for sight of that evidence. I intend to do the same during a meeting I have with it later this week, but I fear that it does not hold such evidence because it simply does not exist. If I am right, that demonstrates the inadequacy of its role in the Coventry City saga and its inability—or, worse, its unwillingness—to properly regulate the game of football. For the sake of the thousands of loyal Coventry City fans, we need to find a resolution to this situation, which has gone on for far too long.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) for securing this debate. We have been friends across the Chamber for many years, and he is extremely passionate about this issue. There has not been a moment in our friendship when Coventry City has not come up as a topic of conversation. With his knowledge and passion, he made some incredibly insightful contributions, as did other hon. Members.
As the hon. Gentleman said, football clubs up and down the country remain a matter of great importance. They are valuable parts of our local communities, and every care should be taken by their owners and stakeholders to protect their long-term future. The preservation of Coventry City football club in particular is not a new issue. As the hon. Gentleman said, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), debated the subject in the House in September 2014 and October 2013. I am sure I was not alone in welcoming the club’s return to the Ricoh arena in late 2014, so it is with regret that two years on we are once again talking about our concerns about the club’s ownership and the uncertainty surrounding where the team will be playing its football in the foreseeable future.
There is a great deal of focus on the amount of money at the top end of professional football, but we must remember that the majority of clubs compete in the lower divisions and operate on a considerably different scale. Such clubs cannot rely on huge sums of money from broadcasters or sponsors. They need the continuous support of local businesses, local councils and, of course, the club’s supporters. That applies to Coventry City. I am aware of its illustrious past—as the hon. Gentleman knows, the first time I ever cried at a football match was when Coventry beat Tottenham at Wembley in 1987. Despite that, I have great sympathy with the fans of Coventry City, as I have with the supporters of any club that is suffering as a consequence of either poor performance on the pitch or financial struggles off the pitch.
The financial state of clubs in this country is better now than at any time over the past 20 years. The football authorities have made progress over recent years to introduce new ownership and financial rules, including a means and abilities test, which requires proof of funds from prospective new owners, transfer embargoes to help to curb club spending and the financial fair play principles across the 92 professional clubs. Financial fair play, in particular, has led to more responsible spending by clubs and, as a result, fewer incidents of club insolvencies. I think I am right in saying that Coventry City’s owners have in recent years reduced the debt the club once carried, and the return to the Ricoh arena has improved the club’s financial position. However, I hear what both the hon. Member for Coventry South and my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) said, and I can reassure them that the test will always remain under review.
Ensuring the long-term financial sustainability of clubs must be the primary responsibility of the football authorities and of all owners. That said, I also believe that supporters have every right to protest against the way they see their club being run if they believe that the plans or methods the owners are deploying are not working, so long as those protests are carried out in a non-threatening manner. It is clear from the ongoing protests at Coventry City that genuine concerns remain about the owners’ ability to take the club forward and to resolve the matter of where the first team and its academy will train and play. Those would be real concerns for any club. Although I am not privy to the owners’ thought process or the discussions that have taken place among the relevant parties about residency, it is clear that there remains a distinct lack of clarity on all those fronts. I call on all those interested parties to come forward and to provide the clarity that is needed, for the good of the club and its loyal supporters.
The Minister said that the owners and directors test is kept under review. Does she share my concern that, as it is defined at the moment, it is a fairly narrow test of whether someone has unspent convictions that make them incapable of being a director? It gives little discretionary power to the league or the FA to come to an opinion, based on a range of factors that are part of the experience of that director, about whether that director is fit to hold that role.
We always keep all such things under review, and I am looking forward to seeing the outcome of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s meeting next week with the FA. It is important that we have healthy football clubs and owners who care for and respect those football clubs and the communities in which they sit. There is a gamut of reasons for that, including more than just financial conduct and criminal activity. It is important that we keep such things under review, but I am looking forward to seeing the outcome of the Select Committee’s meeting next week with the FA.
I return to the need to ensure that all interested parties come forward and provide clarity. It is important that the club’s owners and Coventry City Council sit down and try to resolve the ongoing row between them, which began with rent disputes and resulted in the football team temporarily relocating to Northampton, and continues to cast a shadow over the new and progressive measures that are needed to take the club forward. I am aware of the ongoing legal dispute and I do not want to prejudice it or take sides. It is for the two parties and Wasps Rugby to decide how best to resolve that dispute and set about finding ways to work together, for the sake of the local community.
The club’s owners or senior executives should make arrangements to meet a representative group of Coventry supporters as soon as possible. There needs to be much greater open dialogue on the matters of strategic importance to the club, including what plans there are for its future home.
I come back to something that I said in my speech: we need someone eminent to get both sides together. We can call for people to do that, but we have to get someone of eminence who can actually bring both sides together. That is key if the Minister herself cannot do that.
I am grateful for that clarification. Now I am hurt that he does not think that I am that eminent person. One of the most frustrating things about the Sports Minister brief is that a lot of things happen in football that should have nothing to do with the Government. I am regularly contacted by supporters of various football clubs—Coventry City is one—who wish the Government to intervene and the Minister personally to get involved. That is incredibly difficult to do, because at the end of the day it is not for the Government to intervene in such things. However, I completely hear what he says about trying to ensure that someone mediates between the parties. If the situation has got to the point where the relationship is so broken that the parties cannot come together and come to an agreement, I will take that point away and consider it in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe may wish to think about whether there is a role for him as a passionate supporter and believer in such things or whether there is someone outside the political arena who could perform that role, but I hear what the hon. Member for Coventry South says. Ultimately, this is an issue for the football authorities, and they need to come together to try to sort it out. I will return shortly to the point that the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) made about the Football League.
I thought Pontius Pilate died 2,000 years ago, but it is obvious that he has not died. I understand that Ministers cannot or do not want to get involved, but they have the authority to appoint someone of some standing to bring both sides together. I think that the fans, who, as I indicated, have been constructive, would welcome that. I accept that Ministers get lots of demands from lots of football fans and all that goes with that, but this situation is far too serious; it has gone on for five or six years and something really has to be done about it.
The hon. Gentleman is picking up on a theme that I was getting to: the importance of supporters and of clubs listening to supporters. He will be aware that structured dialogue between club owners and their supporter groups was a key recommendation in the report of the expert working group on football supporter ownership and engagement. That report is the culmination of the work that the Government have done over several years, in partnership with the football authorities and supporter representative groups, to find ways to improve supporter engagement beyond the customer relationship and to recognise supporters as integral to clubs’ success. The leagues have codified that structured dialogue requirement in their rulebooks, and those structured meetings will begin this season. The football authorities are currently working on guidance to clubs on how those meetings should be structured. If that is not happening at Coventry, please let me know, because it is important that those recommendations are implemented at all levels of football. I believe that those meetings will lead the way in ensuring that fans are better informed about and consulted on clubs’ activities, including their financial standing, the identity of their owners and other matters of real importance.
Going back to a point that the Minister made earlier, does she accept that one of the reasons that such cases—be it Coventry, Leeds, Portsmouth or whatever—come back to the Minister’s door time after time is that the football authorities are powerless to do anything when they see a club being run badly? As long as owners are keeping within the narrow confines of the rules, they can run a football club into the ground and the FA will not lift a finger.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will discuss with officials later today. There is perhaps a gap there, and that is perhaps something that we need to look at. I am sure that that issue will be raised by him or other members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee at its meeting next week with the FA.
I will turn briefly to the comments made by the hon. Member for Coventry North East on the Football League. Following all the discussions and the temporary relocation, the league confirmed:
“Any application to move…to a stadium outside the city would need to be considered by”
the league’s board.
“In doing so, the Board would require the club to demonstrate that it had a clear plan for returning to Coventry within a prescribed timeframe.”
I sincerely hope that history does not repeat itself and that the club does not find itself playing outside its city again. However, it is important that supporters know exactly what the rules are, so after this debate I will ask the league to confirm its position. Furthermore, there should be a proposal forthcoming for the league or the FA to ensure that fans are properly consulted.
To conclude, it is right that the Government do not involve themselves in the regulation of football or the business and commercial affairs of any club. Football clubs must be run as businesses, but they also need social consciences; they must consider the impacts of their actions on supporters and the local community. It is important that those who have a direct say or influence over the future of Coventry City stand up and provide the clarity that is needed. It is of paramount importance that the city of Coventry has a football club.
For my part, I will meet the football authorities in the coming months to discuss several relevant matters in the game and will ask them specifically for an update on the progress with Coventry City. In the meantime, I wish the Sky Blues the best of luck against Charlton on Saturday and hope that we can resolve this situation collectively for the hon. Member for Coventry South and the people of Coventry.
Question put and agreed to.