[Julie Elliott in the Chair]
[Relevant document: Summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee on football governance, reported to the House on 8 June 2021, HC 243.]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 583310 and 584632, relating to football governance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott, for this hugely important debate, and it is great to see so many Members in attendance and on the call list, even more so after a thumping 1-0 victory for England against Croatia. I am sure that Members from Wales and Scotland may not be feeling as perky, but obviously I look forward to the big game on Friday, when I expect England to give Scotland a sound thumping.
In this place, we often split along party lines in our debates, but I am confident that there will be an unusual level of consensus here today, because I think we all recognise the vital role that football plays in the communities that we have the privilege to represent. Before I get started properly, I must thank all those who took the time to share their views with me before this debate. I heard a wide range of opinions on this issue, but across the board—from club owners and ex-players to the fans who are the lifeblood of the game—it is fair to say that there is now widespread acceptance that change is needed.
I also thank Our Beautiful Game, the campaign group that includes senior figures from the game, such as David Bernstein, a former Football Association chairman, and Gary Neville, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who really got this debate rolling with her private Member’s Bill earlier this year. I thank Our Beautiful Game for lending its time and expertise to help me to prepare for today. I will give a special mention to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who is leading the fan-led review of football for the Minister’s Department. I thank her for that and for the time that she has shared with me.
The recent debacle of the European super league, which for football was the equivalent of the 2008 banking crisis, shocked everyone involved in the game. It showed why there is a real need to shake things up. Let us be clear: had the so-called big six succeeded with their breakaway attempt, football as we know it in our country would have died. Our premier league, the most watched and indeed the best league in the world, would have been split apart, and the pyramid of English football would have crumbled.
It was quite right that the ESL was met with disgust and ridicule across the board, and I am very pleased that for now it has been seen off. However, we know that football is now big business and the ESL is not the only reason why change is needed. Fans already had long-standing concerns.
There have been many examples of the identity of football clubs, which are essential to the identity of so many communities, being changed, with fans unable to resist that change. A couple of glaring examples spring to mind: the relocation of Wimbledon from is traditional home in London to Milton Keynes; and the decision by the owner of Cardiff City to change the club’s colours from the traditional blue to red.
Inappropriate owners may come in and run clubs in an unsustainable way, with devastating impacts on their local communities. Two examples of this came recently, with the sad demise of Bury in August 2019 and Wigan entering administration in July 2020. Unless we change the way football is run and ensure that clubs are treated not only as businesses but as community assets and heritage brands, these events will be repeated.
That brings me on to the first of our petitions, on the 50+1 model, submitted by Angus Yule. Angus launched the petition because he feels that this model of ownership would ensure that the decisions of our clubs fall into the hands of a collective of people who care about the good of the game, instead of just one owner. In Angus’s opinion, elite clubs especially are now run as businesses, with profit appearing to come before anything else and with fans’ loyalty exploited through expensive tickets and merchandise.
I have been a supporter of Leicester City since I was a wee boy of 16 years old—52 years. I say that because it does not have to be a big team for people to support it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that fans care about the nature of the team? They care about more than the price of a ticket. They care about the integrity and history of their club. They care about team pride. That is what it is all about, and that is what fans want. They do not want a super league; they just want to support their club.
In advance of the debate, I spoke to members of the Foxes Trust, who were very complimentary about the dialogue they have with Leicester City’s owners. I know the hon. Gentleman was buzzing from Leicester City’s recent FA cup victory, and I am sure he will be cheering on Blighty in the upcoming game against Scotland; I will not put him on the spot with that one, but I am sure he will, secretly.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. Football clubs are massively important to the history and identity of their communities. In fact, communities were built around such clubs, as we saw in Bury. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) has banged on relentlessly about that; I do not think there is any doughtier a champion for Bury football club’s return to its proper ways. In Burslem, the mother town of Stoke-on-Trent, is Port Vale, surrounded by the terraced houses of the old potbank workers. It very much is the beating heart of the community, as the Minister saw at first hand when he recently came to visit.
As Angus says about the 50+1 model, having fans in charge of key voting rights around the club would help to stop the clear greed of some owners and would allow clubs to be run in a way that benefits the fans, local communities and the good of the game. Clearly, there are some good owners who run their clubs sustainably and allow fans a good level of access to the behind-the-scenes running of the club. My bias will be obvious, but I will mention the Wembley of the north, Port Vale football club’s Vale Park, and Stoke-on-Trent’s second team, Stoke City; obviously I was being sarcastic there, before I get a deluge of abuse on Facebook. I am very lucky to have Port Vale in my constituency and Stoke City FC within the community. Both are run in a truly sustainable and fan-friendly way. To give just a few examples, Stoke City offer free travel for their fans and have frozen their season ticket prices for 14 successive years. Port Vale recently became the English football league community club of the year, having distributed more than 300,000 meals to local people in need during the pandemic. It also has the Port Vale Foundation; with the Hubb Foundation, it was one of the early pioneers in the holiday activities programme, which started in 2017 with the Ay Up Duck programme.
A small club, Milton United football club, raised £1,000 for a local lad, Ashton Hulme, who is getting a top-quality prosthetic leg. Sadly, due to a rare type of bone cancer, he lost his leg, and the academy at Crewe Alexandra have been doing fantastic work to support Ashton and his family at this difficult time, with more than £110,000 raised by local givers. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, there are great clubs in the Premier League, such as Leicester City football club. The Foxes Trust tell me that it is broadly happy with how the club’s owners operate and the access it gets to the inner running of its club.
There are many more examples of owners who do not operate in this way, so I agree that there needs to be some reform, giving fans greater input into their clubs. There must surely be a way to protect key aspects of clubs, which are so much more than just businesses, so that their identities are not changed unrecognisably and they are run sustainably. However, the 50+1 model is not realistic for English football. It is hard to see how this kind of ownership structure could be brought in. I also have concerns about the impact it could have on our game. A range of voices, unsurprisingly including club owners but also fan groups, have said that the 50+1 model could seriously discourage investment.
In Germany, which made the 50+1 model famous, Bayern Munich has now won the Bundesliga nine years in a row. There is no significant investment into other clubs in the German league—unless we look at RB Leipzig, for example, where the fans and supporters are all Red Bull employees. One could say that that brings the beautiful game in Germany into disrepute. I do not think that anyone wants to see such things in our country. The 50+1 model is not the only reason, but it does seem to prevent ambitious owners coming forward. Frankly, owners will not want to invest in a club without being able to control its direction. If the 50+1 model is not the answer, what is?
One way to safeguard clubs for fans was suggested by Gary Neville. We could look at the 50+1 model as a veto or a voting structure rather than an ownership structure. Something along the lines of a golden vote on key decisions could be viable. To make changes to the club on heritage issues such as the name and location of the stadium, owners would need to seek the approval of supporters. Another option, as suggested by the Football Supporters’ Association, would be to let supporters buy equity in their club up to a certain percentage—10% or 15%, say—to give them a real say in how the club is run.
As well as giving fans more say in how their clubs are run, wider issues in football need addressing. That is really the crux of the debate and brings me to the second petition, which calls for the introduction of a new, independent football regulator. The petition, which was started by Alex Rolfe, calls for the Government to use the fan-led review of football’s governance to establish an independent regulator. Alex says:
“Like a referee, an independent regulator would safeguard our beautiful game impartially.”
He says that a regulator
“could protect the game against another attempt at a super league or other efforts to put money ahead of fans.”
Gary Neville and Alex agree that, like water companies, energy providers, financial services and the media:
“Football matters to millions and should also have a regulator of its own.”
It does seem that without an independent regulator, the glaring issues in English football will not be resolved. There is no overall leadership, so vested interests continue to prevail. The financial disparity between rich and poor has become obscene, frankly. The game is devoid of agreed priorities. The high-ups in football all know what the problems are, but to date there has been no collective will or incentive for the decision makers to get on with sorting it out.
As many of the people I have spoken to before today have spelled out, the issues are financial disparity and unsustainability, owner suitability rules, a power structure that is fundamentally out of balance, societal issues such as racism and homophobia in the game, and the exploitation of clubs and fans. Gary Neville put it well when he said that the banking crisis was the moment an independent regulator was needed. The European super league is the equivalent crisis in football, and if we are to ensure that the game remains something that we can enjoy as fans, as well as export around the world, the crunch time has arrived.
I will give a few examples to illustrate the scale of the problems. The team placed 20th in the premier league—thankfully, it is not my team, Fulham, which my grandmother indoctrinated me into supporting at the age of five—gets £100 million, whereas the winner of the championship gets just £6 million. Financial sustainability is in real danger, with clubs in the championship spending £837 million on wages despite receiving only £785 million of income in 2018-19.
My hon. Friend has just made the key point. The fixed costs and wage structure of 99% of teams involved in English football are completely unsustainable. The wages paid out currently are simply unaffordable. My team, Bury, had 3,000 or 4,000 people watching every two weeks, and players were paid thousands upon thousands. How do we address that problem?
I know that Gary Neville is actually working on the salary cap committee that the EFL has set up to have a look at that very thing. My hon. Friend is right. Although Gary Neville used the term “redistribution of wealth”—as a Conservative, that made me shudder at the idea of socialism coming down the line—he meant that, at the end of the day, the Premier League holds all the wealth.
The Minister spent what probably felt like a long 10 months locked in a room with the head of the Premier League and the head of the EFL to come to some sort of consensus on bailing out clubs such as my beloved Port Vale in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. It should not have taken 10 months to come to that conclusion. Ultimately, football is for the fans, and in that moment, the fans were almost forgotten. I am very grateful to the Minister, who spoke regularly with me and other Members from across the House to keep us informed about what was going on in the negotiations. I am very grateful that he was able to bang heads together and get that important deal over the line.
Stoke City football club is owned by those who run Bet365, and although it would openly submit that it is not in need of financial support, it is very aware of clubs around it and below it that are, including Port Vale, which gets similar crowds to Bury. We need to see a fair share of the money in football trickling down, particularly to the grassroots, where the future generations will be coming through.
Those in the premier league have so much power that they can set their own punishment. The big six premier league clubs have been able to decide their own punishment for trying to break away and join the ESL, paying just £3.6 million each as a gesture of good will. Let us put that into context. These clubs spent more than £150 million over the last year on agents’ fees alone, and they seem to think that offering £3.6 million each is a suitable punishment for trying to destroy our beautiful game. Football has proven itself incapable of sorting itself out, and there is now a widespread consensus that an independent regulator is needed.
What would that independent regulator look like? We all agree that for a regulator to have real bite, it must be independent of current structures such as the premier league clubs and the FA. It must sit above the existing bodies and be able to enforce targets and judgments without the game structures. As voices such as the former Governor of the Bank of England Lord King have emphasised, the regulator will need an emphasis on financial as well as legal knowledge, to enable it to decide on new ways of distributing funds to the wider game, based on a funding formula to spread funding more fairly throughout the English football pyramid. This will also be important in introducing a new, proper, robust process to check owners before they take on a club. Indeed, it is not just the fans I spoke to who agreed on the need for a proper test of an owner’s suitability; that opinion was also shared by the owners I spoke to.
Supporters’ groups and those with experience of the game at the highest level agree that the regulator must not have any role in how the game is played. For example, it must not have a role in deciding on the place of VAR—the video assistant referee—in football, but must be limited to governance issues. There is also the question of how long a regulator would need to operate for. There seems to be a consensus among a cross-section of people involved in football that the FA should really be the regulator. However, it is a commercial organisation, as well as having some regulatory functions, so it does not really work. It is also reliant on the Premier League for its income, so is not independent in any meaningful way. An independent regulator could be set up, lead change in the game for a few years and then hand over to the FA once it has been made fit for purpose.
On the societal problems in football such as racism and homophobia, as well as representation of different groups, there are already targets in place. However, a regulator could enforce those targets and punish those who continue to pay only lip service to them. As David Davies—former executive director of the FA and member of the Our Beautiful Game campaign group—has said, football has the power to be a fantastic force for good. How to enable it to be a power for good is the question.
It is always a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for his excellent introductory remarks and my Neath constituents for signing the petitions, and I congratulate Wales on securing a draw in their first Euro match last Saturday, despite not playing their best.
The anger and furore over the recent efforts of six English premier league clubs to a form a breakaway European super league sparked universal condemnation from fans, yet it demonstrated the importance of football to the sporting community and wider society, and was evidence of a deep disconnect between football clubs and the communities they once represented. Many clubs are now global business, far removed from the supporters and communities from which they were established.
At the heart of the problem is ownership. The defining feature was once supporters and their interests, but now the footballing model pushes clubs into greater financial insecurity at the hands of unscrupulous owners with scant regard for fans and communities. Fans are taken for granted, and it is taken for granted that they will always support their club, irrespective of their having no say in how it is operated. The UK Government’s fan-led review is welcome, but wholescale reform is needed, putting ownership at the forefront.
Fan ownership has been part of a campaign that the Co-operative party has been conducting for the past 20 years. In 2007, the Labour party and the Co-operative party founded the fan ownership organisation Supporters Direct and campaigned for funding and resources to enable supporters to start fan-owned trusts and then progress to take over their clubs. We fought for supporters to have a place on club boards, so that fans could have a voice. We campaigned for the community shares model often used in supporters’ trusts and to strengthen community asset legislation to prevent the sale of football grounds.
The Football Association and governing authorities should welcome community ownership as a necessary means to safeguard clubs and ensure their survival. Football clubs are too precious to their communities and supporters to be at the mercy of unregulated, unscrupulous owners, and suffer weak governance from the Football Association, which is unwilling to take on those with vested interests in the game. A robust, effective, independent regulatory framework, with statutory backing, is vital to safeguard football.
Unless supporters can influence or have ownership of clubs or assets, we will continue to be second-class spectators. The 50+1 rule is the ownership model in the majority of German football clubs; commercial investors are unable to gain a majority share and supporters retain a majority of voting rights. The rule would not be suitable for shared ownership of the top English premier league clubs that have invested millions of pounds, but would be suitable as a voting structure. The five parts of the game should work together for the benefit of football.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. Football governance has been debated in Parliament and has been the subject of Parliamentary and Government reports over the last 10 years. What all those reports have in common is a consensus that there needs to be more independent regulation and supervision of what happens within football, to stop bad things happening.
Many financial failures could have been resolved before they happened if there had been proper independent scrutiny of the finances of the clubs. Issues around ownership could be resolved if there were a fit-and-proper person test that could be administered against people when they buy clubs or during their management of those clubs. Time and again, we have seen that no such effective operation exists and that the football leagues simply do not have the resources to enforce that. Too often, when a club gets into difficulties, fans speak up, but find the football authorities can do nothing to help and, when they turn to Parliament, we do not have any legislative power to intervene.
If the fan-led review, the latest football governance review, is to be meaningful in its outcome, it needs to recommend an independent regulatory body that can oversee the financial management of clubs, have the power to intervene when things go wrong, see accounts to ensure clubs are spending within the limits of their rules and not overspending, and ensure that clubs are being run in a sustainable way, so that they are there for the future. These are the basic common failings. Why do they exist? Because football does not have an effective governing body in this country. It is run by a combination of vested interests that do not always agree with each other and at league level it is run by a rule book that is set and voted on by the chairs of the clubs themselves. Historically, they have not been interested in independent scrutiny of what they do.
Football clubs are unlike any other business. They deserve to be run in a sustainable way. The community should expect that they will be there for future generations to enjoy. They are cultural assets, really. Yes, they can be run in a commercial way and they can be competitive, but they have to be run in a sustainable way as well.
In other industries, such as broadcasting, we have regulators in place with certain special powers that mean they can intervene and even withdraw the licence to broadcast, should they need to. Such a regulator in this country for football would similarly need a golden share. I believe it should be independent of all the existing football bodies, including the FA, have a strict and limited remit regarding the financial performance and governance of clubs, and have very clear powers to intervene and even to put clubs into a form of sporting administration if things go wrong.
The review should also consider other aspects of commercial pressure in football that can have a detrimental impact, particularly the relationship between agents, clubs and players, where agents can end up representing all three parties in a transaction. It is difficult to break that model when clubs want to sign players. These are other financial issues that a regulator could look at. This is a reform that has been long needed to make football sustainable.
The state of our national game has been a story of rich man, poor man, with the very rich clubs with billionaire owners seeking to make themselves even more revenue. We have seen that with Project Big Picture and the European super league. At the same time, much-valued and cherished local clubs such as Bury, Bolton and Wigan have not survived, or are struggling to survive. The major organisations in England—the Premier League, the Football Association, and the English Football League—are becoming both unable and unwilling to act responsibly in the interests of the wider game of football, and of supporters and their communities. It is therefore important to review the ownership structures and mechanisms of football clubs in this country so that they can be made to act responsibly, and to look at the governance of football clubs going forward so that they can be obliged to behave responsibly and conduct themselves in a manner that satisfies all the stakeholders in the game.
There are also a wide variety of levels of effective engagement and communication between clubs and their supporters throughout the various leagues in England. This can be improved in a number of ways, such as by allowing fans on to club boards and examining new methods of allowing fans to take some ownership of the club they support. In addition, carrying out comparisons between the organisation of leagues in other countries and those in this country could yield some answers. The often-cited 50+1 model in the German Bundesliga may not be implementable in England—although the Prime Minister has threatened that—but there may well be other ways of increasing fan influence over club decision making that fall short of that model. There is also some discussion about the ownership of golden shares, which could give some special ownership rights or privileges to fans, enabling them to bring additional influence to bear on decision making.
There is a view that foreign owners should be treated differently for a variety of reasons, some relating to human rights and some political. Those views could be put under the remit of the football regulator and taken into consideration when the licensing process takes effect. However, in my view, where clubs have been shown to have conducted themselves responsibly over the years, there should be no attempt to not grant a licence when the owners of the club are not responsible for the behaviour of the Government or regime of the country in which they reside, or from which they come. The review should not be an excuse to bash foreign owners who have made investments in, and brought tremendous footballing talent to, this country.
There is no doubt in my mind about the need for a regulator who can exercise his or her powers through such a licensing system. Too often, clubs have not taken their responsibilities seriously, or indeed have not accepted that they have them. Their financial responsibilities have been made clear, but clubs should have additional responsibilities in how they engage with fans, and social responsibilities to ensure that players and fans do not engage in behaviour that would bring the game into disrepute. By that, I do not just mean violence or hooliganism: I believe in taking a firm stance on issues such as racism and homophobia. In my view, the regulator should have the power to do what individual football clubs, the Premier League, the FA and the English Football League have failed to do over the years, which is to properly regulate and police the game so that clubs have responsibilities as well as rights. That approach is far preferable to commentators, fans, and even Government Ministers giving their views from the sidelines, and nothing changing in the process.
The governance of English football is broken; our national game, the beautiful game, is certainly in crisis; and now is the time for fundamental reform, reform that can only be achieved through the creation of an independent football regulator. This was the central recommendation of “Saving Our Beautiful Game—Manifesto for Change”, a report co-authored last year by a group of which I was a member. These experienced individuals, with a deep interest in football, brought everything together and produced a document that has proposed the creation of an independent football regulator. That regulator would be absolutely independent; would be funded from within football, not by public money; and would not require Government to run the game, which is extremely important.
The impact of an independent regulator would be more far-reaching than any of the specific responsibilities it would have, because an independent regulator would change the culture of the business of football in our country. Such a step would be a crucial milestone in the long-overdue process of rebalancing our national game, to make it a game that works just as much for the grassroots, the community, and the lower-league clubs as it does for the big six in the premier league. An independent football regulator would be an affirmation from this place that football is part of our history, our culture and our communities, and deserves protection.
I pay tribute to the Minister for the leadership he has already shown on this issue in recent months. I am also delighted that the concept of an independent regulator is to be considered by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She is well suited to the task, and I know she will carry out a review that is both broad and forensic, and that places the opinions of the fans at its very heart. We know that an independent football regulator would enjoy enormous support from the footballing public across the country. The fact that the petition reached 100,000 signatures in less than 12 hours speaks for itself.
Association football is the most popular sport in the entire world and is played by more than 250 million people in over 200 countries. It was born in England over 150 years ago, and it has a huge connection with communities across the length and breadth of our country, but if we want to protect and preserve that fabulous heritage for generations into the future, our football governance needs emergency surgery, and it needs that surgery now. Let us drive through the radical change required, let us create an independent football regulator, and let us make the governance of this beautiful game, which we all know and love, fit for the 21st century.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott, and I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for leading this important debate.
I want to begin by mentioning the league two club in my constituency, Tranmere Rovers. Tranmere were unfairly relegated during the first lockdown because the season ended. Behind the English Football League’s decision to end the season for league one and two clubs lay one thing, and one thing alone, and that was money. Maintaining the prize of entry into the premier league for three lucky championship clubs meant that Tranmere and others were relegated without a ball being kicked. That is one example of why I firmly believe that the fan-led review of football governance must result in the establishment of an independent regulator for football in this country. It is a burning necessity in the light of the scandal of the recently proposed, and thankfully abandoned, European super league.
However, my fear is that, like the Terminator, the ESL will be back unless action is taken now to reform the governance of the entire sport. Compare and contrast the fabulous wealth of the premier league with the tragic scuppering of clubs such as Bury. Compare and contrast the attempt to set up a selfish and permanent closed circle with the work that Tranmere Rovers do in their local community. During the lockdown, the club invested £60,000 in an abandoned recreation facility in one of my town’s most deprived estates, the Beechwood. They have installed a gym and transformed it into a community asset that is giving youngsters an alternative to the lure of county lines drug dealers, and Tranmere fans have supplied 50,000 meals to vulnerable people, more than 1,000 shopping and medication drop-offs, and hundreds of toys to those in need at Christmas. That highlights the reality that most football clubs are community assets. They are there for the local people and the fans, and the best of them work with their fans for the common good of the club and community. I know that many hon. Members have local clubs that do similar activities, but we need to go beyond simply applauding the good work of some and address the key issues that could so easily undermine the game in a way that the threat of the ESL almost did.
There are two issues that I believe an independent regulator can and should tackle. First, we need to reform the distribution of money in the game. The Independent reported the following comment from an official of one of the premier league’s top six:
“We don’t want too many Leicester Citys.”
That outrageous comment comes from a representative of a monopoly—not just in this country, but across European football. The financial giant Deloitte estimated that football clubs require a minimum of £400 million a year to compete at the top level. That needs reform, because it creates a scramble for money, instead of a scramble for sporting glory. The No. 1 priority on the independent regulator’s list must be to devise a genuinely fair and equitable distribution of wealth throughout the football pyramid. Otherwise, there will be a lot more Burys and Boltons.
The No. 2 priority on the list must be to tackle the fractured nature of football governance. We now have the Premier League, the FA and the EFL all pushing different agendas and looking after different aspects of the game, without checks or balances. I believe that the regulator we need is one that represents the whole of the game and ensures that, rather than sacrifice the long-term interests of the game for short-term financial gain, the entire football pyramid works as one. That way, we can put paid to the ESL Terminator ever coming back.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for securing this extremely important debate, and for the way he introduced it.
In the brief time I have, I want to highlight two key issues. First, I remind colleagues that although it is the English Football League pyramid, four Welsh teams are part of that: Swansea, Cardiff, Wrexham and Newport. We are always aware of the Union of the United Kingdom, and we share our passion for football and sport in the same way. Therefore, although Welsh teams share the privileges of the English Football League structure, we are also subject to the same risks as all the other clubs. We must remember that fans come from all over the United Kingdom and beyond. Whatever actions come out of the petition and review, they will be relevant to fans wherever they are in the UK or around the world.
The second issue I want to highlight is that the presence of four clubs in the English pyramid system does not detract from the importance of the Welsh pyramid structure. I refer to an experience that is relevant to the English structure: Barry Town football club, which is now known as Barry Town United. I declare an interest as the honorary president. It was a highly successful club over many years, with a long history that included European success. It has passionate fans, just like every other football club, but it also has the most professional coaching structure. I pay tribute to Gavin Chesterfield and his wife Hannah Chesterfield, and the whole structure behind him, for what they have achieved. I hope hon. Members will indulge me for a moment to highlight that.
In 2013, we ended up with a disgruntled owner who had lost interest in the club and initially allowed the supporters to run the club for most of the season. He then decided, for whatever reason—we can all make judgments on that—to withdraw the club from the league with two games left in the season, in spite of having an extremely successful season. Of course, we wanted to qualify as a phoenix club, but the regulatory challenges meant that we, a local club, ended up in the High Court, costing us tens of thousands of pounds to get reinstated. We eventually won, but that was purely because of the passion of the supporters, the coaching structure and the supporters committee that ran it.
In the 15 seconds I have remaining, I must say that much of the attention of this debate has understandably focused on wealth and the exploitation of fans through overcharging, merchandising and drawing them to a super league. But there are local clubs with owners that are disgruntled for whatever reason, and the structures and laws as they stand do not lend themselves to the fans taking control, unless they are as determined as the fans and supporters of Barry Town United.
I begin by proudly declaring my interest as an AFC Wimbledon season ticket holder—a club with historically symbolic roots in this debate. We all know that football clubs have meaning far deeper than any result on a Saturday afternoon. I have cherished childhood memories of Wimbledon match days with my dad, and particularly his joy at receiving tickets to the famous 1988 club final against Liverpool, to see the Crazy Gang beat the Culture Club. I will never forget him racing down to the King’s Head from the post-match reception to show off his autograph book bursting with his heroes’ signatures. But just three years later, his joy turned sour: our club left its home on Plough Lane in 1991, being stolen 60 miles up the M1 to Milton Keynes—an event that shook sport and, just like the super league, exposed the hyper-commercial world of football.
So began one of English football’s greatest stories: the birth of fan-owned AFC Wimbledon—according to the FA commission, a club that was not in the wider interests of football. How wrong they were. A democratic supporters organisation, the Dons Trust, owns AFC, giving fans control of the future of our club. After six promotions in 13 seasons, we soared our way to league one, coming an awful long way from the open trials on Wimbledon Common, where a team was cobbled together to face Sutton United just a few weeks later. The result that day did not matter; our dream was now real. Anybody who wants a little light summer reading might want to read the book by our former chief executive Erik Samuelson, “All Together Now: How a Group of Football Fans Righted a Wrong and Brought Their Football Club Home.”
When a club is truly fan-led, the results for the community can be remarkable. Throughout the pandemic, the Dons Local Action Group, a 2,000-strong volunteer group of AFC fans, expertly led by Xavier Wiggins, honoured in the Queen’s birthday list, Cormac van der Hoeven, and Craig Wellstead, has distributed hundreds of thousands of food boxes, tablets and laptops across south London—a club that gives heart and soul back to the community to which it belongs.
Dad would have been so proud to see our team back at Plough Lane next season. Margaret, my sister, and I hope to sponsor a match in his memory in his birthday month of February. I assure all Members that people will be able to hear us shout as far away as Milton Keynes: “Come on you Dons!”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott, and, as ever, to take part in any debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) is involved in. What we have just heard is what football is about. I am fed up to the back teeth of football being talked about through the prism of only five or six clubs in the premier league who think that they have a God-given right to dominate football and to decide what happens to other clubs in their vicinity. I would not have believed the lack of care within English football from those major clubs, the EFL and the FA regarding Bury until I became an MP and found out the complete negligence of the history, hope and passion that has just been displayed.
Every single person in Bury was let down and nobody cared, and still nobody cares. I support the call for an independent regulatory body. Bury football club is not very important to the football pyramid—two times FA cup winners. Gigg Lane was built in 1885, and is one of the oldest football stadiums in the world. Along with Ashington and Greenwich in London, we produce more English footballers than any other town. Stewart Day took over the club in 2013. Four years later, wages had jumped threefold to £4.5 million. This was the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. During the same period, the club’s revenues grew by less than 50% to £3.2 million. That meant that Bury was spending 140% of its entire turnover on wages. The club was persistently late paying other clubs and making loan payments. The EFL and the football regulatory bodies did nothing. When Mr Day’s property business collapsed, the club was effectively insolvent. The EFL and the FA knew that and did nothing. What they did was allow the club to be taken over by a man called Steve Dale.
I would need hours to talk about Steve Dale. He took over the club for £1 with no way of funding it. That situation was a scandal, and it led to my town’s club being kicked out of the league. This does not just involve Parliament; it involves passion. I have seen personally how people in Bury have been affected by the loss of something that for 70 or 80 years people have been going to watch. It is part of their lives, their heritage, and what makes them proud of the town of Bury. The big premier league clubs around us did nothing. Manchester United and Manchester City did not come knocking on the door, saying, “What can we do to help?” There was nothing, and no local authority. The fans of Bury have been left to themselves.
The recent debate regarding the EFL super league was very nice. It suited certain people on TV to be outraged by that, but those same people never defended Bury or AFC Wimbledon because they do not care. Once we have, hopefully, a regulator that can at least give some responsibility to the football league pyramid that we have, perhaps that care will be back in the system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for introducing this really important debate.
Many football clubs were created by workers at the heart of their communities. Luton Town, the club that I am so proud to have in my constituency of Luton South, was founded democratically when John Charles Lomax and George Deacon arranged a public meeting at the town hall on 11 April 1885 to form a town club. Lutonians opposed another group’s secretive plans to create a club and instead supported the transparent, democratic creation of the club that we are so proud of now.
As industry grew in Luton, so did the club, and that cuts to the heart of what football represents for so many. Sports clubs are not a business like any other; they are intrinsically linked to the communities they represent. Having met Luton Town Supporters’ Trust and Loyal Luton Supporters Club, what stands out to me most is how much they care about the club as a central feature of our town’s identity that should be celebrated.
The driving force of football is the comradeship among fans and communities, and at the weekend we saw an overwhelming display of heartfelt solidarity in response to Christian Eriksson’s collapse, and I wish him a speedy recovery. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The principal—indeed, the only—concern of all fans across the world was Christian’s health, and to see the Danish and Finnish fans united in showing their support when the match restarted was truly moving.
Football transcends borders and communities, and fans come together through our shared love of the sport. I have experienced that first hand with the passionate Scandinavian Hatters from Norway and Sweden, who are an excellent part of Luton Town’s fan base, and I call many of them friends.
Measures must be put in place to protect and extend fans’ influence in their clubs.
The Labour party has called for reform of the governance of football for more than a decade. We need the Government’s review to be truly fan-led, in order to make this a watershed moment that reforms our game’s dysfunctional governance. We must put an end to the billionaire owners of the biggest clubs running our sport purely for profit—they clearly cannot be trusted to regulate themselves—and strict measures must be put in place to prevent any further attempts to create a European super league and to stop clubs such as Bury suffering the awful situations they have experienced.
As one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for football supporters, I support the Football Supporters’ Association’s “Sustain The Game!” campaign, which outlines a plan: to protect our clubs as community assets; to improve transparency, to ensure that everyone knows who owns their club and how they operate; to impose financial controls with teeth, to ensure that clubs and leagues are regulated; to strengthen the football pyramid, in order to safeguard its long-term sustainability; and to ensure that supporters’ voices are at the heart of their clubs.
The fan-led review needs to bring about lasting change through the introduction of legislation to create a thoroughly independent regulator. As Saving Our Beautiful Game has put it:
“This is an unprecedented opportunity to reboot the game and side with millions of fans during a summer of football.”
I hope to read an interim report from the fan-led review in July that lays the ground for systemic change in our game.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott.
I first thank the 412 people in my constituency who have signed these petitions. Football is deeply rooted in the fabric of our society, particularly in Loughborough, the national centre of sport. Football unites local communities and brings together people from all backgrounds and all walks of life. As one of my constituents said:
“Football is a living, breathing part of British culture, which must be protected from the heights of European football all the way down to the Sunday league.”
As we know, there has been a huge backlash against plans for a European Super League. I very much welcome the Government’s fan-led review of football governance. Loughborough University has offered to assist in that review, and I would be grateful if its offer and its expertise were taken up.
I also hope that examples of good ownership shine through in the review and serve as reminders of how football clubs can do right by their fans and support their local communities. For example, Leicester City football club not only delivers football and other physical activity sessions for local people, but supports refugees to rebuild their lives in the area and has facilitated donations from fans to refurbish a hospital unit at the Leicester Royal Infirmary. The groundsman at the club’s training ground has even shared his expertise with the bowls club in Sileby in my constituency, to help to improve its bowling green to Commonwealth games standard. That is a fantastic example of what club owners’ priorities should be and the contribution they can make to the area in which their club is based.
Ahead of today’s debate, I met the Foxes Trust, a non-profit supporters’ trust for fans of Leicester City football club, to discuss the Government’s review and to hear its thoughts on the petitions. The trust stressed that its relationship with the owners of Leicester City works very well, because the owners fully understand the community aspect of the club, and that understanding is backed up by prudent financial management. However, given recent incidents throughout football—including many that we have heard about today—the trust believes that meaningful dialogue with properly constituted supporter groups needs to be legislated for.
The trust feels that the 50+1 share model will be difficult to instigate in the UK. Furthermore, while fans should not have the ability to veto all decisions made by the board, the trust has said that it should absolutely have more say over the club’s finances and business plans, and be able to veto certain decisions to protect a club’s heritage, location and playing facilities. For example, that could be through a golden share, which would be administered via an elected fan to the club’s board and an independent executive director with responsibility for club heritage who is elected by fans’ groups via a vote of key stakeholders, such as season ticket holders.
With regards to the independent regulation of football, a local resident has contacted me to say that an independent regulator is needed to
“preserve the integrity of the English football pyramid and prevent its destruction by overseas owners and investors who do not understand its importance to the people of this country and wish to impose their own vision purely for profit purposes without understanding its place in the community.”
I would be grateful if the Minister could take those comments into account as part of the discussions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this hugely important debate.
Like football fans up and down the country, I strongly opposed the European super league proposition—not only because it contravened basic sporting principles of integrity and competition, but because it was driven entirely by the greed of a few wealthy clubs. Ultimately, sport and culture should be for everyone, not just for millionaire owners and investors to make a profit. I congratulate all football fans who made their voices heard and forced the big six into an embarrassing U-turn. That showed how sport can bring our communities together, and it was a reminder that the ultra-rich owners are merely temporary custodians of the teams that were created by working people.
Despite the increasing commercialisation of the game, football clubs—nearly all of which were forged from working-class communities—continue to provide a strong sense of belonging and civic pride to so many people in Leicester and across the UK. I support all proposals to increase fan ownership of clubs, including the 50+1 model that is successfully used in Germany to ensure that fans have majority voting rights. That can shift the balance of power away from rampant profit-seeking and back towards fan accessibility and affordability, and help to ensure that nothing like the ESL fiasco ever happens again. To that end, I fully support introducing an independent football regulator to prevent the ultra-rich owners of elite clubs from using our game as their plaything.
I am a Leicester lass, and winning the FA cup for the first time in our 137-year history was a fantastic achievement that speaks to the excellent work done by everyone associated with Leicester City football club. This sustained success provides the perfect antidote to the greed and unfairness that define the recent European super league proposals. Leicester City provides the best example of why that is an unjust model, and is an excellent case study of the need to reform the game in favour of fans and communities.
Football can of course be an immense force for good, yet the sport has a deeply unhealthy side that is in need of regulation. The appalling racist abuse of footballers online and in stadiums remains endemic. It is shameful that the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet did not forcefully condemn the booing of England players by a small minority of so-called supporters. The Government’s tacit endorsement of such hatred gives oxygen to the far right. We must reform football in favour of the fans and the working-class communities that created the beautiful game. While we do so, we must eradicate all forms of hatred from the sport.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott.
I want to begin by congratulating England on their win against Croatia. This group of players showcase the very best of a multicultural, socially conscious country. Sunday’s goal was assisted by a player of Jamaican and Irish descent, and finished by a striker who was born in Jamaica and raised in a diverse borough in north-west London. However, what is special about this team goes beyond the pitch—from Raheem Sterling, who was recognised this week for his anti-racist work in sport, to Marcus Rashford, who has ensured that millions of working-class kids have been fed during the holidays.
It is not just the players. In response to boos by supposed fans and to Conservative MPs who said that they would boycott the team, the manager has been clear that we have a duty to stand up for our values, so I would like to commend Gareth Southgate, the players and the vast majority of the fans, who backed the decision to take the knee.
Our clubs are not just businesses; they are part of our communities and the social fabric that binds us together. The European super league debacle showed once and for all that clubs should not be the playthings of billionaires, but that was not the beginning of the problem. Football has been going down this trajectory for a number of years, as can be seen in the ever widening gap between the clubs at the top and the rest of the pack. In a single season, the premier league clubs made combined operating profits of £900 million, compared with the combined losses of more than £400 million for the 72 clubs in the championship, league one and league two. Financial unsustainability for these clubs is now an ever present danger. We know this also from Coventry, where financial challenges prevented the Sky Blues from owning the stadium that they had helped to build, repeatedly forcing the team to play home games outside the city. I am pleased to say that next year they are returning to Coventry, but the underlying problems remain.
The European super league plans might be gone, but billionaire owners will continue to put their greed before our clubs and our communities. Instead of tinkering around the edges, we need to address the problem at its root. That means taking ownership out of the hands of the out-of-touch elites and giving it back to the fans, and that is what the 50+1 rule would do, as it does in Germany, where no teams were part of the super league plans and where ticket prices are significantly lower. Football was created by the working class, but it has been stolen by the rich. It is time that we took it back.
Diolch, Ms Elliott; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing this vital debate. It is also an honour to follow my good and hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana). Like her, I am a proud Liverpool fan. Football, and specifically the huge range of issues that the game has faced in recent years, is a topic that I know is particularly close to all our hearts. It is a privilege to speak in today’s debate.
Football is clearly beloved by many, yet far too often it finds itself in a huge mess. Widespread and meaningful reform is urgently needed. The structures in place at the moment are failing at all levels. Currently, clubs, including my beloved LFC, have a huge amount of power if they are in the premier league, yet shockingly it is absolutely clear that at that level no one is truly accountable to the supporters and their interests. And make no mistake, it is the fans—the ones who turn up come rain or shine, and win or lose, and who pour their hearts, and often their earnings, into the game—who should be at the very centre of the game’s governance.
I was pleased to see that some clubs, including Manchester United, have finally decided to engage with fans through a fans forum, but clearly, given everything that we have witnessed over the last few months, those forums should have been in place decades ago. The Government’s fan-led review of football is thankfully in the safe hands of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), but we also must remember that sports clubs are not just a business, as other Members have said. These clubs are at the very heart of our communities. My area has a number of thriving local teams, including Tonyrefail AFC, Pontyclun FC, Ponty Town FC, Treforest FC and Church Village FC, among many others. They have all helped our local area through the pandemic and will be central to the recovery, too.
Alongside the big premier league teams, these much-loved clubs at grassroots level desperately need support. Indeed, we need only look at the situation that Wigan Athletic found themselves in last year for a stark reminder of how urgently widespread reform is needed. It really does not have to be this way. It will come as no surprise when I, as a proud Welsh Member of Parliament, invite colleagues to look across the border at the success that national league side Wrexham have seen in recent years. The takeover of the club was fairly unique, given the new owners’ links to Hollywood, but it is a model that others across the UK could do well to take note of. Soon after the deal was announced, the new owners launched their mission statement, which had transparency at its root. Met with overwhelming support from fans, Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds do not describe themselves as owners, but rather as custodians of the historic football club that they have the privilege and honour of guarding.
In short—as I realise time is short—it is absolutely vital that the Government use this opportunity and their fan-led review of football to make lasting, impactful change for a sector that for too long has remained unregulated. On a personal level, I will always stand ready to work with colleagues across the political divide for the good of the beautiful game. Diolch, Ms Elliott.
Ms Elliott, you have a succession of Liverpool supporters, I am afraid. I am a member of the Spirit of Shankly supporters club. We are currently in discussions with the club about the role that supporters will play. I can say to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) that I was at Wembley when the Crazy Gang beat us—I am still trying to work out how, to be honest. I am also a season ticket holder at my local club, Hayes & Yeading United. We are the club that discovered Les Ferdinand, Cyrille Regis and Jason Roberts. It is the sort of club that contributes so much, even though it is not in the league itself.
Fans have now made it absolutely clear that they want immediate safeguards for supporters to be able to protect the best interests of their clubs. That is why I support the idea of legislation that requires every English club to secure the support of a 51% majority of its registered season ticket holders for any major decision that fundamentally affects its identity or future—for instance, the competitions in which it plays or any change of home ground, name, club colours or badge.
Fans also need longer-term control, and we need to adopt the German 50+1 rule on supporter ownership of clubs. How do we get there? It is simple: where club shares are being sold, either by shareholders or through new share issues, legislation should require vendors to make shares available on a first-refusal basis to recognised, democratically controlled supporters clubs. This rule would apply until the trust owned 51% of the club shares.
While we are talking about football, let me throw in one other issue. I make a plea to include in legislation control of the sporting “crown jewels”, so that at least 20 Premier League games a season, equally split among the clubs, are shown on free-to-view channels, allowing fans to enjoy at least 2 of their club’s matches every season. That would give a fairer distribution of access to football on television.
I support the overall campaign for a new regulator. The regulator could be responsible for the approval of takeovers, the application of a strengthened fit-and-proper person test process, the oversight of a club licensing scheme to ensure high standards of governance, and the management of a system of redistribution of club revenues to ensure the health of football at every level of the pyramid. Most of those policy proposals were developed by us and were in Labour’s 2019 manifesto, but it would be gloating to refer to that.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I thank all those who have signed the petitions and the 9,000-plus people who responded to the Committee’s survey.
More than 10 million people sat down yesterday to watch England play Croatia. Football is our national sport, and football clubs stand as historic institutions in our communities across the UK. Although I acknowledge that a move towards a 50+1 ownership model for clubs in England cannot be achieved overnight, the forthcoming review must be used as an opportunity to rebalance the current ownership structure in favour of match- going supporters.
In April, I co-ordinated a letter from more than 60 MPs and peers, cross-party, calling for a simple change in the law to force Premier League and English Football League clubs to give their long-standing season ticket holders a 51% voting majority on any decision affecting a club’s identity or future. The ESL debacle highlighted why it is essential that supporters are given the majority vote in their clubs. It underlines a growing sense that our clubs are all too often run in the interest of remote and unaccountable owners.
The Glazer family takeover of Manchester United is a prime example. Before the Glazers took over in 2005, Manchester United had no debts. Today, the club’s net debt stands at around £455.5 million, yet the Glazer family continue to pocket huge dividends. The forthcoming review must recommend additional criteria to prevent rogue owners from buying clubs solely for their own gain.
I represent thousands of Newcastle United fans in my Jarrow constituency. Their club has stagnated under Mike Ashley, who applies to his football club the same business model as that used by his Sports Direct empire—minimalism, low spending and little or no regard to decent, hard-working people. It would be remiss of me not to mention that I also have a few thousand Sunderland fans in my constituency.
There is no doubt that the football pyramid needs reform and improvement. It must ensure that a proportion of money from Premier League clubs trickles down to teams below them and to grassroots football, in turn securing the future of the game. It goes without saying how much grassroots clubs matter to our communities. Earlier this year, Hebburn Town won the FA vase, which got the town noticed and had a massive impact on Hebburn’s civic pride. However, a huge number of our grassroots teams are on the brink. If they go, it will not just hit the football pyramid, but tear the heart out of many post-industrial communities that are already struggling. That is why it is essential that the forthcoming review recommends an independent financial regulator to represent the interests of supporters, protect against bad practices and generally seek to prioritise the wider good of the game rather than allowing clubs to act solely in their self-interest.
Football must act as an equaliser. Clubs must do all they can to ensure social justice in their own communities and in the wider football community. We cannot allow further disconnection between fans and their teams while a wealthy few line their pockets, because, ultimately, football is nothing without its fans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliot, particularly in the light of your expertise in this subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on securing the debate and on leading it ably. We have had many such debates in my time as a Member of Parliament, and yet again, the subscription to the debate shows what an important issue this is to us all.
I congratulate in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on her excellent contribution—her dad would be so proud—even though she reminded me of the 1988 FA cup final, which sends a shiver down my spine even to this day.
I do not know what is going on in Kent, but we had brilliant contributions from the hon. Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), and everybody wishes the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) the very best in her endeavours, so thanks to Kent for sending us MPs who are doing such great work on football reform. I think it is fair to say that many of the points they made are supported not just by those Members who have spoken but by others right across the House.
We want to see change happen. I will make three very brief points on what I think that change should look like. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) pointed out, previous Labour party manifestos—in 2019, 2017, 2015 and 2010 —called for reform of football governance, so this will come as a surprise to nobody. Indeed, I apologise to the Minister because he will have heard me say much of this before, but my hope is that the repetition affirms our cross-party position that we want to see that change and we will make it happen. If anybody in the world of football is in doubt about that, they should read the contributions made to this debate, because we have made our intentions clear.
First, on football finances, I support the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, as well as all the contributions that she and her expert group have made about the need for an independent regulator. If we are to have an independent regulator, many people will rightly ask, “To what end?” The answer has to be finances. As the ESL debacle made abundantly clear, if we believe in competition, we cannot let the finances of football undermine that principle. We need competition not in name only, but in reality. At the moment, what we call the football pyramid has very significant financial cliff edges—to get into the Championship and to get out of League Two. Those are significant problems in our football pyramid. We need an independent regulator to change how the football finance system works, so that we have a real pyramid and real competition again.
To anybody who thinks that that is too hard, I say that, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North pointed out, we did it in banking even though people said that that was too complicated and difficult. We in this country are good at creating regulators, and we need to do that for football so that there is an independent voice to speak up for the fans, not least to protect the existence of clubs. We heard from the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) just how horrendous it is for people when the existence of their club is threatened. They must have protection so that their clubs cannot be ripped away from them because of someone else’s poor financial management. It is not just league clubs that need genuine redistribution; it is the grassroots as well.
My second point is about fans. We as football supporters need to ask ourselves what we want our role in this to be. That is why I am pleased that the review is fan-led, and I know that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford is talking to lots of fans. Do we want this veto that many have talked about, and if so, how do we get it? I ask the Minister what legislation is being prepared to look at that. What constraints do want on the behaviour of owners? We know that the test for owners and directors is good for nothing, so what kind of test do we really want? We need not a snapshot but an ongoing check on behaviour. As many Members have said, the development of different ownership models requires support, similar to that provided in the past by Supporters Direct, so what preparation work is the Department doing?
My third and final point is about inclusion. Let us be honest with ourselves: we are not in a good moment when it comes to the fight against racism in the beautiful game. We have to be really frank and honest about this. Proper football fans do not boo their team. One of the things that I remember most about first going to Anfield is being told, “We never boo our players. If they are wearing our shirt, those are our people and we do not boo them.” That, for me, is the end of it, so I suggest we all get behind our team, not least because there are significant challenges that we need to fight together, including racism and misogyny.
The fact is that in UK sport, approximately 96% of broadcast time is for men playing football, which leads to a 99% pay gap between women and men. We now have the example of Lauren James and Reece James, who are equal in talent but, because of their gender, face widely disparate prospects for income from football. I ask the Minister: how can we make progress on that and—I know that this will receive support from across this House—on disability football, which is also very important? We need to get it on the agenda.
We have a lot to do. I hope that we will do it together and make progress quickly, because we have had many debates of this type, and now is the time for action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. You must have been biting at the bit to contribute directly to today’s debate, because I know how knowledgeable and passionate you are about this topic.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) from the Petitions Committee for having brought forward this debate on reform of the structure of football in this country, and to all colleagues from across the House and from various nations who have made constructive contributions. Again, their knowledge, insight, passion, experience and expertise has been incredible, and I am sure that many stakeholders in football have been listening.
I also thank Aston Villa fan Angus Yule, who started the petition on the 50+1 rule, and the Blackpool Supporters Trust, which started the petition for an independent regulator for football, as well as the tens of thousands of people who took the time to sign those petitions. We are having this debate because football fans want changes to be made to the structure of football in this country, and I thank them for their passion and their commitment to improving our national game. Both petitions received well over 100,000 signatures, which clearly signals the level of interest in this subject.
I also note the responses of fans to the Petitions Committee’s survey, which the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) mentioned and which asked the original petitioners for their views on the most important issues facing football governance in England today. They have highlighted areas of concern, including the need to protect the football pyramid, how revenue is distributed, club ownership, and the ability of fans to influence decisions. The Government’s independent fan-led review will look at those issues closely, as well as fans’ views and suggestions for how we can change the structure of our game for the better.
Fans have a crucial part to play in the reform of our national game. They bear the brunt and fallout of bad ownership decisions; they see where the structures are not working for the good of the game; and they can articulate most clearly how important local clubs and grounds are to the local community, and how club badges and names give a sense of heritage, belonging and place. Our independent review has already started its work at pace and is hearing from fans, football authorities and experts from the worlds of finance, governance and regulation to build the framework for the future of football in England. The review’s chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who quite clearly commands the respect of many who have spoken today, has already met many fan groups. I have regular meetings with the chair, but I also meet fan groups myself, most recently in Manchester, and I look forward to meeting more fans over the coming weeks and months.
In addition, the review team will shortly launch a survey to allow all fans to contribute their views. I will ensure that Members are notified when that survey is launched. That is quite important, because we have a lot of football fans in the country, and some of them are not necessarily specifically fans of an individual club, so it is important that their views are heard as well.
I am confident that we will be able to do that, in electronic form, through surveys and through other mechanisms, for the very reasons he expressed. I had the pleasure of visiting Wrexham last year, and it has interesting new owners; that shows commitment and shows that it is possible to invest appropriately if international owners have the right attitude. That is important, because we should not taint all potential investors, including overseas investors, with the same brush.
The first petition calls for the enforcement of the 50+1 rule for professional football club ownership, in reaction to the—thankfully unsuccessful—move to create a European super league. The House’s opposition to that showed that football can unite us in opposition to certain things, as well for things that we want. On that point, the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) mentioned the incident that occurred this weekend, which we were all very alarmed by. I wish Christian Eriksen a speedy and full recovery.
As Members will be aware, the 50+1 rule has been used in German football, during which time English football has pursued a very different model. There are clearly pros and cons to both approaches, and the terms of reference of our fan-led review include the consideration of models from other countries, so we are looking at that model. Members will be aware of the complexities of retrofitting the German model into the English system and of the benefits that some—though by no means all—wealthy individual owners have brought to our clubs. The review will consider whether any aspects of these alternative ownership models could be beneficially translated into the English league system. At this stage, it is for the chair and panel to consider all the options available. I would not want to prejudge their recommendations, but work is under way and the review’s interim report is due next month.
The review is also looking at other options that fans are keen to explore, such as voting rights, with fans having a greater say in how their clubs are run, and whether that would mean direct engagement and involvement with the club’s board and executives. The review will also consider giving fans some form of voting rights or golden share on key issues affecting the club. The Football Supporters’ Association supports that option, and it was supported by hon. Members today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) and others.
What the panel, the Government and, most importantly, fans seek from the final recommendations is a stable and sustainable framework for our national game for the future and beyond. Key to that sustainability is responsible club ownership; integrity in club governance; recognition of the proud footballing history and heritage of our national game, as mentioned by many hon. Members; recognition of and understanding the value that football clubs bring to their local communities; and most importantly, recognition of the value and expertise that fans can contribute to their clubs.
We do not want to see again the destruction of clubs like Bury. Neither do we want to see clubs seeking to break the framework of English football simply to become wealthier at the expense of other clubs. We do not want our cherished and historic football grounds to be taken away from their communities. We do want stable and responsible ownership of our football clubs. We want fans to be involved in the crucial decisions affecting their clubs, and we want to maintain the thrill, excitement, uncertainty and competitiveness that give English leagues their status and make them the envy of the world.
I turn to the second petition, which calls for the introduction of an independent regulator for football in England by December this year. The strength of feeling on this issue among hon. Members was fairly clear. Again, I cannot pre-empt or prejudge the chair’s recommendations or the Government’s response, but there has been a clear message in this debate and many others that I have attended with the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). I fully understand the weight of feeling behind the huge amount of support for the petition, which has had more than 140,500 signatures. It clearly demonstrates fans’ appetite for better regulation of the structures in football.
Has the Minister seen the open letter on the issue of regulation, whose lead signatories are Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand and Jamie Carragher? We are all aware of their work in this area. The letter suggests that regulation should not be diluted by Premier League representatives or anyone else employed by, taking fees from or on the board of professional football clubs or football authorities. Will the Minister confirm that he has seen that letter, it is being taken account of and it will be covered by the review?
Yes, I have seen that letter. I have seen many submissions, and a lot of genuinely good ideas are being suggested for the review. Many hon. Members who have spoken have great expertise. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has done a huge amount of work in this area, and we have heard from people who have been involved in various proposals over the years. It is important that we respect and accept the views of people who have been absolutely pivotal in football, and who have led and played football over the years, but the voice that we most want to hear in the review is that of the fans. It is fair and reasonable to say that those who lead football, and who have great expertise in senior leadership positions, are also fans and they genuinely speak for fans, but the most important thing is to listen to fans. We will take on board the many contributions that have come in over the years, in many formats. The fan-led review is genuinely open to all possibilities when it comes to changing the structure of football governance, and we should not prejudge its outcome.
Football governance has had some very public failures, many of which have been referenced today, and it is fans who have borne the brunt of those failures. Again, fans cannot simply move on to a new club, and that is what makes football and sport different from standard businesses. The review is working quickly and will deliver an interim report in July. From the interim report, we will have a clearer view of how any new structure would work and the preferred options for creating a new, more responsible governance model for football, before the final report in October. As has rightly been said by the hon. Member for Wirral South and nearly everybody else in the debate, it is not just a matter of having a regulator, if we should go down that route; it is about what the role, responsibilities and remit of the regulator will be. We need to think very carefully about that.
The Government have been clear that we will move quickly to assess the review’s recommendations and implement any that we agree are in the interests of fans and the game. That includes any recommendations that may require legislation, for which parliamentary time would be found. The tone of the debate suggests that we can probably expect cross-party agreement on implementing the recommendations if they do require legislation.
Football fans in this country have never been simply a backdrop to the game. They are the energy and the commitment that keep clubs alive. They keep the historical traditions of football alive, and they create the new traditions. Fans support their clubs, their communities and each other. Our national game cannot survive without their involvement. I thank all the fans who have made their views known in the two petitions that we have debated.
This is only the start of fan involvement in shaping the next steps in the future of English football. I am confident that together we can look to a brighter future for our national game, in which all voices are heard.
Today has shown the very best of this place: the graft that goes on here every single day—even if it might not be sexy enough to merit a 30-second tweet—as we work in consensus to find a way forward.
I want to mention the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), who gave two extremely powerful speeches from personal experience. If anyone is any doubt about why the beautiful game is so important to fans, I urge them to watch or read those two speeches in order to understand. I love the fact that the hon. Lady is wearing her shirt with pride, and I hope that image goes out across the world.
Ultimately, a statement has been made today by this House: change is coming. I say with all good nature that when the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I agree that governance change is needed, that is the moment that the penny should drop for the FA and others. The right hon. Gentleman and I might not necessarily agree fully on how it should change, but when two such Members in this place agree, it makes a powerful statement.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) pointed out, Wales plays an important part in the English game. Hearing the story of the people of Barry and their fight was very important. There were so many speeches but, sadly, time does not allow me to rattle through how brilliant they all were. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) talked about Tranmere Rovers and its £60,000 investment in helping the community with fitness and in tackling county lines—also a scourge of the city of Stoke-on-Trent and the towns of Kidsgrove and Talke. There will be similar issues in many of our areas.
A message has been sent that change is needed. Personally, I certainly favour the idea of change in football governance. As the Minister said, how that is done, the remit of powers and the implementation need to be very carefully thought through. It is easy to rush into such things in order to look popular, but, ultimately, we must ensure that it is something that will last. One day, I hope, that will be transferred to the FA, which should have those responsibilities. Once we have public trust in the Football Association of England, perhaps it can take on those responsibilities.
All of us—except perhaps those who are not English Members of Parliament—can agree on one thing, which is that football is coming home this summer. As I always like to say when I finish such speeches as this: “Up the Vale!”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 583310 and 584632, relating to football governance.