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Grassroots Football Funding: Wembley Stadium

Volume 653: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2019

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Order. Would those who are inexplicably not staying for the next debate about Wembley Stadium please be courteous enough to leave quickly and quietly?

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of Wembley Stadium and the funding of grass roots football.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Football, as we know, is our national sport. We invented the modern game and have the most popular league in the world, viewed by millions around the globe. I grew up playing and watching the game, and while I still play and watch when I can, I also have an interest in ensuring that our national sport can be enjoyed and participated in by as many people as possible at all levels.

Members will recall last year’s controversial proposals to sell Wembley Stadium to the American businessman, Shahid Khan. At the time, the Prime Minister rather dismissively told me that the proposed sale was a private matter. I have to say that I consider the sale of the national football team’s stadium—the home of the FA cup final and countless other important matches—to be a matter of some considerable public interest.

The deal did not go through in the end, but we need to talk about the consequences. The sale falling through has left a hole where the grassroots strategy was. The main justification put forward by the Football Association for the deal was that it would have enabled the release of hundreds of millions of pounds to fund grassroots football. Although I was a little bit sceptical about the deal and what it would mean in the long term, because sale and lease-back agreements often do not work well in the long run, it was beyond doubt that it would have enabled significant investment in grassroots football. It is important for us to discuss how to replace that funding.

One of the greatest footballers who ever graced the football field in this world, certainly in my lifetime, was Geordie Best. Pelé, another of the greatest footballers in the world, said that his favourite footballer was George Best. Geordie Best was a product of local academies, played his football in the back streets of Belfast and became a world star. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those are the sort of people we want to encourage?

As a Manchester United fan, I would say that, if we can encourage more George Bests, I will certainly be very pleased to see that. I will talk a little more about how we can encourage more youngsters to participate a little later.

Football in this country is in a very strong position. The premier league is the envy of the world. Most of the world’s top players come here, and England’s youth teams have enjoyed unprecedented levels of success in recent years. Whether those kids who have enjoyed great success with the national team recently get to play at the highest level remains to be seen. We should be concerned about the declining number of home-grown players, such as George Best, coming through the leagues, although I am sure someone with that talent would still make it today.

About 35% of players who started games in the premier league last season were English, on average. That represented a huge reduction on the 69% of English players who started games in the inaugural season of the premier league in 1992-93. There are huge questions about how professional clubs operate and about how our younger players can hope to get a chance against the huge influx of imported superstars, and I also sometimes wonder about the effect of giving a 17-year-old who has never played for the first team 10 grand a week—what does that do to their chances?—but that is probably outside the scope of today’s debate.

What we can do today is discuss how to improve the game below elite level. One in six grassroots matches were cancelled last year, and I recall my own kid’s games getting repeatedly cancelled over the winter period, although I do not think it was a particularly extraordinarily bad winter. Cancellations have a detrimental effect on both an individual’s and a team’s development, and we need to encourage that development. There are of course plenty of distractions and reasons why kids may find something else to do rather than play football, but we should do what we can to support it by encouraging a little bit more of the wealth that flows through the game to trickle down to the grassroots. We cannot expect the superstars of tomorrow to emerge if we are not prepared to invest in them.

One thing we can and, in my view, must do is improve the standard of facilities for younger players of all abilities, and for everyone involved in grassroots football. We should not tolerate second-rate facilities in our national sport. We know the pressure local authorities are under to balance the books and how there is little left for discretionary spending on improving sporting facilities. Pitches are often in poor condition, with poor drainage and areas of the pitch that are more mud than grass. Many pitches have little or no changing facilities connected with them.

My hon. Friend is making a wonderful case for grassroots football. A club in my constituency, Otley Town, wrote to me to outline its concerns about facilities. It said:

“The key issue that we have is the quality of training facilities in winter. Most junior and senior clubs need access to all weather pitches so they have good environments to train in.”

They went on to talk about the need for funding for girls football, veterans football and disability football, to ensure that everyone can enjoy the game. Should we not ensure that the money trickles down from the billionaire owners to the grassroots?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A whole range of groups are participating in football that possibly traditionally did not, and we need to encourage them as well.

I am not saying that there is no investment. Since 2000, the Football Foundation, funded by the FA, the Premier League and Sport England, has invested more than £600 million in projects. My constituency has recently benefited from such investment, with fantastic facilities at the Vauxhall Sports and Social Club, where two new fourth generation pitches, which I occasionally grace, have been opened alongside a fantastic new clubhouse. About half the money for that came from the Premier League and the FA facilities fund, but the other half had to be raised locally, and I pay tribute to the incredible work done by Dave Edmunds and Tony Woodley, in particular, who really fought to get those facilities off the ground.

We see hundreds of grass pitches close each year because of cuts. Although the football world does its bit to invest in the grassroots, more could always be done, especially given the billion-pound TV deals. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need the Government to get tough if we are to see any action?

My hon. Friend is right. As the shadow Sports Minister, she will know far more about the challenges than I do. When we compare our facilities with other countries, we are lagging behind. We have half the number of third generation pitches that Germany has and, shockingly, only one in three grass pitches are of adequate quality. Some 5 million playing opportunities were lost last year because of inadequate facilities. With the NHS struggling, schools facing a funding crisis, and the challenge of affordable housing, it is fair to say that we cannot expect the taxpayer to find the resources for this. However, as my hon. Friend said, there are huge opportunities for the grassroots in terms of the cash that is washing around the game.

There are some really good examples. The Sheffield junior football league is the largest junior football league in Europe. The Isobel Bowler Sports Ground in my constituency is part of the Parklife project, funded by the FA and the Football Foundation. It has a great artificial pitch and a wonderful gym, where Disability Awareness with Sport runs facilities for disabled people. That is all wonderful and very positive—as is Mosborough rugby football club, where the Rugby Football Union has come in with support—but let us contrast the £300 million that local authorities spend on pitches in parks with the more than £200 million that the premier league’s clubs spent on agents’ fees alone in the last financial year. Is that not a contrast that we simply should not accept?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and for his excellent work with the parliamentary football club and with the Football Foundation. He is absolutely right about the cost: £200 million on agents’ fees, more than £1 billion in transfer fees every year now, and the direction of travel is only upwards. I know a levy operates at the moment on transfer fees, but a significant amount of that goes to players’ pensions and academies. There is nothing wrong with that, but that is for the professional side of the game and we are talking about the grassroots. I believe a small levy or a redistribution of existing funds could do an awful lot more for grassroots football.

My constituency benefited recently from half a million pounds from the Football Foundation for new training facilities at Mansfield Town, which will be a huge benefit for the constituency. The hon. Gentleman is talking about the money involved in football. Obviously, the success of the premier league drives up wages and prices in that market, but premier league clubs and players pay something in the region of £3.5 billion a year in tax to the Chancellor, and there is even more tax revenue as we filter down through the Football League. I am interested in whether the hon. Gentleman thinks there is an opportunity there to ring-fence some of that money to be reinvested back in the grassroots of the game.

That is an interesting point. Of course, we can debate ring-fenced taxes all day—there have been discussions about that in the context of the NHS, for example—but I think we can divert some of the other money, particularly agents’ fees. I go back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) said about that, because I believe that people in that arena, particularly agents, are getting an awful lot of money from football for very little effort.

I do not want to turn this speech into a tirade against agents, but Mino Raiola is reported to have earned—using the word “earned” in the loosest possible sense—about £20 million when Paul Pogba transferred to Manchester United. That is £20 million for advising on one transfer; that is money that is going out of the game, and we need to look at getting some of it back in. I am not saying that we need to get rid of agents’ fees altogether, but that case demonstrates that these sums are going through the game and do not benefit the players, do not benefit the clubs, and certainly do not benefit the wider game in this country. A small levy on fees could generate significant funds and would not distort the transfer market. That idea was highlighted by Gary Neville in his excellent evidence to the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, when he proposed a 25% levy on agents’ fees. On that note, I will give way to a member of said Committee.

I am grateful; my hon. Friend is very prescient and ahead of the game. One of the issues that has come up again and again is the difficulty posed by the multiplicity of agencies involved in football: we have the Premier League, the Football Association, the Football League and others. Does my hon. Friend agree that a levy is a tool to get those organisations to work together and come up with results, encouraging our young people to play more football on decent surfaces?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; that is what I was trying to convey. There are lots of agencies involved, there is lots of money there, and Government need to guide, advise and maybe even compel those organisations to do more to help the grassroots. There is also the issue of prize money, which totals £2.5 billion; even a fraction of that amount could be put into grassroots football. I passionately believe that a modest level of redistribution would not destroy the premier league’s allure, but it might just enable the millions of people who enjoy playing our national sport to do so in slightly better conditions.

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is lots of money in the game of football, with footballers on as much as £500,000 a week? Should we not be tapping deeper into the billions of pounds that come in as a result of television deals before football clubs get hold of that money?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. That is one of a number of ways in which we can harness the wealth that is in the game to better effect, and as I say, that is something I encourage Government to look at closely.

While we are here, I will say a few words about the future of Wembley. Obviously, the proposed sale split public opinion, and I, like many others, had concerns. I do not know whether another offer will come along, but I understand that the Government will have a say over whether any sale goes ahead, so if that does come to pass, I ask the Government first to consider what we have discussed today about harnessing that money. Secondly, I ask the Government to consider whether safeguards could be put in place so that important domestic and international games always take precedence at that stadium; what measures we could put in place to meet the needs of fans, in terms of kick-off times and the availability and price of tickets; and what assurance there would be that any future purchaser beyond the initial one could be held to any agreements that were made on initial sale with the FA. As I say, we are not in that place now, but I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

Finally, I will take this opportunity to say a few words of thanks to the thousands of people who give up their time to voluntarily run the teams, organise the fixtures, paint the lines, mow the pitches, put up the nets, and all the other jobs. Without those people, grassroots football would not exist. Their love of the game means that millions of people up and down the country get to participate, and their dedication gives youngsters opportunities to emulate their heroes. They often have to do so while getting changed in car parks in the freezing cold, facing frequent cancellations and bobbly pitches that are mud baths, so it is not surprising that kids sometimes prefer to spend their time playing football on the Xbox, rather than in real life. We all know about the need to encourage healthy living and exercise, and we all know about the many distractions kids have that do not involve them getting off their couches, so we need to make the playing experience as genuinely enjoyable as possible. There are probably not many pastimes that bring as much pleasure as scoring the winning goal in the last minute of an important game, but we know those occasions are few and far between, so we need to make sure that when kids play, they are encouraged; they are comfortable; and most of all, they enjoy themselves.

Football is more than just a game, and certainly more than just a business. It is an integral part of our culture, something that needs nurturing and protecting, and I firmly believe that the fruits of this golden age in the professional sport should be used to help secure its future so that everyone can enjoy it.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) for securing this debate and for his insightful contributions, and to other Members for the points they have made.

I am happy to be interrupted by my hon. Friend if he has something equally as insightful to say, which I am sure he does.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I would not claim to be particularly insightful, but I know how much Ministers enjoy being urged to enter into negotiations with Treasury colleagues. Will she urge them to look at the UK guarantee scheme and how it relates to educational facilities, and whether that could be used to provide financial guarantees for bodies wishing to invest in community sports facilities?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. As we head towards the spending review, our Department is consistently urged to hold conversations with the Treasury.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston raised issues relating to volunteers. I echo his love for the game. People in our communities give so much to the grassroots, and that should be encouraged because of what it gives to our children and to the game as a whole. My father-in-law did exactly that as a football ref in Wales for many years, and he also organised games for homeless youngsters. It is important that we recognise the volunteering that takes place up and down the country. It is absolutely vital. Football is not just a business; it has a responsibility to the grassroots, as we all do.

I absolutely hear the message regarding the safeguards for Wembley ticket pricing, future purchase and controls. I will come on to some of those issues further into my speech, but as we heard earlier Wembley is iconic in terms of what it means to football and to us as the public. It is important that we have a national stadium that is able to host the biggest sporting events; Wembley has delivered that over many years, and we want it to continue to do so. UEFA’s decision to hold seven matches, including the semi-finals and finals of next year’s European championship, is proof that Wembley remains a top-class venue, hosting some of the world’s biggest and most important sporting events. If we are to bid for any future major sporting tournaments—Members might know what I am alluding to—we will need to make sure that we have the right stadium for World cup finals, one that resonates with the rest of the world. That is essential.

Last year, when the FA said that it was considering selling Wembley Stadium as a means of generating extra funds to re-invest in the grassroots, the Government were, naturally and rightly, keen to listen. Nobody would argue that a sport with more than 2 million regular participants could fail to be further helped by the promise of such additional funding. However, at the same time we recognised that Wembley has a special place in the heart of football fans. When listening to the proposal, the Government’s prime consideration as a public funder of the stadium was to protect the public interest, as is absolutely right. Going back to the hon. Gentleman’s point, custodianship of it would be absolutely important in any future new arrangement, no matter who owned Wembley stadium. The stadium should always be protected for future needs. The fact that the FA executive was considering the sale of its most prized asset raised more than a few eyebrows. In its response, the executive was clear in its view that the sale would free up funds to help provide greater financial support, which it felt was needed to help the sport from the bottom up.

I thank the Minister for her response to the debate secured by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). Does she not feel, as some of us do, that we should not sell our national stadium and that it should be retained because of its importance? What we could do—I believe the hon. Gentleman referred to this—is take a revenue from transfer fees. That would create some money that could then be used for the grassroots football we want to see. There are ways of achieving things without having to sell the national jewels.

I absolutely see the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Ultimately, we have a stake in the matter and we will very much be keeping it on the radar. We are not in the place he suggests at the moment, but I will continue to make the case I have made so far in my speech. Whatever the FA does, we have a stake in ensuring that it is absolutely right for football as a whole.

We have heard some of the headline statistics. Only one in three grass pitches is of adequate quality and one in six matches is, sadly, called off due to pitch quality. England has only half as many 3G pitches as Germany. Where there is an opportunity to see more coming into the game, it is absolutely right to take it. We should look at the active lives survey and recognise that what has been cancelled this season may impact on the opportunities our youngsters have to participate. The statistics are a harsh reminder that, despite the unrivalled success of our domestic football at the elite level—we cannot forget the premier league, which is the wealthiest and most globally popular league—there is still a way to go in ensuring that we replicate that consistent success in what we provide at the grassroots level. We must and will provide playing opportunities across our towns and cities so that current and future generations can enjoy football.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. I recognise that the job of Sports Minister often tends to be to drag different Departments together to manage things more effectively and to find funding. Can more be done within her brief to bring together such bodies as Sport England with governing bodies? Sport England’s remit these days is more focused on grassroots activity and the community. Are there opportunities not only to invest in football, but to work with Sport England to invest in brilliant community facilities, too?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. In asking me to do this role, the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Order. I am so sorry to interrupt the Minister, but a Division has been called in the House. I understand that there may be more than one. If there is one, we will return in 15 minutes. If there is more than one, we will return 10 minutes after the last Division is called.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

As I was saying, before we were interrupted to do our absolute duty, we must and we will provide playing opportunities, to be enjoyed by people now and by future generations, across our towns and cities. I want clarity for grassroots football and balanced provision of local assets, as well as a good pathway for our next generation of stars.

The figures appear to suggest that the grassroots are somewhat underfunded compared with the investment going into professional clubs, but the professional game rightly cares about the grassroots, as demonstrated by the funding it provides. As the Minister for Sport, however, I will always champion the grassroots and focus on them, examining the commitment given to them and providing challenge.

The Premier League is investing £100 million each year into football participation programmes and local facilities. That is a significant amount and is in addition to the other areas that it funds and supports in football, at all levels of the game, including vital payments to the English Football League and national league clubs.

I am grateful to the Minister for picking up so well from where she left off, all that time ago. The central thrust of what I was saying, which I think most Members agree with, is that we do not dispute that the professional game puts money into the grassroots, but we think there ought to be a little more. Does the Minister agree with that analysis?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point: we must absolutely keep a focus on the grassroots. In Parliament today there has been constituency-wide MP engagement with the Premier League. He mentioned the existing levy of 4% on Premier League clubs and the fact that the money goes to all tiers of the game, supporting welfare and pensions.

Grassroots will always be an absolute focus for my Department and me, so those partnerships with clubs and that commitment to all the broader activities that address health, education, crime and other difficult social issues that football, alongside Government Departments, can reach, are vital. Those programmes add value and must be seen in conjunction with the grassroots opportunities, to ensure that we continue to champion the sport and that we consider the facilities and the wider community value of football.

The league funds also provide a voice for fans and help to fund new stadiums, which we enjoy visiting from time to time—or, hopefully, regularly—and which, as I mentioned, will perhaps help to bring back the World cup to these shores. The FA is not far behind in investing in the way that we would hope, with £70 million going into the grassroots cause, and I will continue to work closely with it, engaging with the new FA management in a time of change but also, I think, of opportunity. The Government will not be shy, either. We recognise the need to continue to support the national game. We are currently investing £25 million each year, including £18 million for facilities, £2 million for grassroots coaches and £5 million for the FA’s participation programmes, which provide vital support for the women’s game and disability football.

This Government, in partnership with the FA and the Premier League, are investing more money than ever before into the grassroots football programmes and facilities. From this year, we will contribute a combined £70 million to provide new and improved facilities through the Football Foundation charity, which we heard about earlier. Since 2000, the partnership has invested about £615 million through the foundation, which has resulted in 700 new and improved 3G pitches, 3,500 grass pitches and 1,000 new and improved changing rooms. I acknowledge that we must continue that work—there is more to be done—but simply throwing money at a problem is not always the answer. We must ensure that investment continues to go into the right areas and that we are having the right local and necessary impacts.

How are we doing that? We are working with our partner, Sport England, which is working on behalf of the Government to create new local football facility plans for every local authority in England. Over the next 12 months, we will know exactly the best places to invest in football on a supply and demand basis. That will include further artificial and grass pitches, school mini pitches and Parklife hubs—a new programme aimed at developing a sustainable model for supporting local football facilities. Some hon. Members may have visited the hub sites in Sheffield and London, with state-of-the-art artificial grass pitches available to people of all ages and abilities. We hope to deliver increases in football participation in every city. New hubs are on the horizon: hubs in Liverpool and, close to my constituency, in Southampton will open this year, with further cities in the pipeline.

The new local football plans will align with the new national football strategy, working together to ensure that we take stock of the facilities over the next 10 years and get closer to the number of facilities that I think we would all like to see. We must ensure that the Football Foundation is the right delivery model, that we have the right mechanisms and that there is sufficient capacity in place to deliver the increase in local investment. We must recognise that there is ongoing and increased demand for local facilities, so we need those local football plans.

Although the proceeds from a Wembley sale would have no doubt accelerated investment into facilities, we are not simply standing still on this issue, despite the changes to that potential deal. Shortly, I will shortly meet the EFL, the FA and the Premier League, looking to them to reaffirm their commitment to working with Government to significantly improve the provision and quality of football facilities, and focusing on participation levels across all demographics. I will also discuss with them whether the levels of investment are sufficient to meet the expected demand, and to address some of those statistics I mentioned earlier. I will ask key questions about what needs to be done and where it will be done. I will be there to champion the grassroots.

I am alive to the fact that there are other issues of concern in football, and I fully intend to work with the sport to address them. Only last week, I responded to a debate about the alarming problems with the ownership of Coventry City. We need to address the other side of football, and I will work with the authorities to do that. The so-called fans who cause discrimination incidents continue to make the headlines. We do not want football to return to its worst days. I will discuss that and ensure that the football authorities and all relevant stakeholders know that further decisive action can and must be taken.

Time is against me, so let me summarise. This has been a very useful debate. I reaffirm the Government’s commitment to strengthening grassroots football. It is absolutely right that the continued commercial success of elite football is reflected in the support it gives all levels of football, and I will champion that. I do not want grassroots football to continue to be seen as a poor relation, and I will work with the football authorities and all stakeholders in the coming weeks.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).