Monday 14 June 2021
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
Israel and Palestine
[Relevant document: e-petition 585309, Condemn Israel for their treatment of Palestine and Palestinians.]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
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Before I move on, we will have a formal time limit of three minutes, given the amount of interest and the number of people speaking. After Catherine McKinnell, there will be a limit of three minutes, and I exhort Members to stick to it, or we will have to drop it down a little.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 585313 and 585314, relating to Israel and Palestine.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and to lead this incredibly important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. As hon. Members will be aware, the Committee decided to schedule a single debate on both petitions related to this topic.
Before I begin, I draw hon. Members’ attention to something that will be depressingly familiar from previous conflicts in the middle east. According to the Community Security Trust, there has been a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents in the UK in the past month, since the violence began. That is totally unacceptable and should serve as a reminder to everyone in public life that words have consequences and that we must always avoid the kind of inflammatory language that fans the flames of hate and racism, and puts the security and safety of Jewish communities at risk.
We were all shocked and horrified to see the tragic and heartbreaking violence in Gaza and Israel last month. I know this issue provokes strong emotions, both in the country and in the House, and the roots of that conflict are deep, complex and highly contested. I hope, however, that we can begin this debate with a point of agreement among all Members: the latest round of violence has improved conditions for no-one, be they Palestinian or Israeli. The loss of life, including so many children, is heartbreaking and my thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones. I am sure hon. Members will have shared the horror at the indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets by Hamas from Gaza into Israel, and the Israeli actions that have killed Palestinian civilians.
More than half a million people have signed the two petitions. One petition calls on the Government to recognise Palestine as a state, while the other advocates the blocking of all trade between the UK and Israel. As vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel and a parliamentary supporter of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, I share the deeply held concerns for the plight of the Palestinian people. Colleagues who have visited the region will know that the desire of the Palestinians to live in dignity and peace in a state of their own is unmistakable. Their aspiration for self-determination is one that we should wholeheartedly support; it is right for the Palestinian people, and it is right for the Israeli people.
I do not believe, however, that sweeping sanctions of the kind proposed by the second petition would bring the prospect of a two-state solution any closer. As the Government’s written response says, we should
“not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever …necessary,”
but sanctions threaten to drive the two sides further apart, increase polarisation and extremism, and weaken the voices of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. Blocking all trade between the UK and Israel would destroy our relations with Israel and reduce our influence in the middle east. The only long-term sustainable solution to the conflict, and the only way that we can end the sporadic and sickening outbursts of violence, is for the two peoples of that beautiful land to have states of their own, with Israel safe, secure, and recognised within its borders, living alongside an independent Palestinian state.
Former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres famously remarked that the tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that
“there is light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there is no tunnel”.
He meant that most fair-minded observers know what a peaceful resolution to this long-running conflict would look like: a gradual sequence of confidence-building measures, eventually culminating in a two-state solution. The lack of a process and a foundation to get to that point is the key problem.
It is an immense reliefthat the ceasefire in Gaza is holding up, but if we want to look back on this as the point at which a peace process became possible, there must be meaningful dialogue between Israel and Palestinians. For too long it felt as though Palestinian groups did not really want a peace process, while the Netanyahu Government felt that they did not need a peace process. The latest eruption of violence shows how unsustainable such notions are.
The approval of a new coalition Government in Israel offers an opportunity to kickstart the process towards a peaceful two-state solution, but peace is not within the gift of one side alone. It will require painful compromises and concessions by both sides and the kind of leadership, imagination and generosity that has rarely been evident on the part of the Netanyahu Government or Palestinian representatives in past negotiations. A two-state solution can be brought about only by bringing Israelis and Palestinians closer together, but as we all know too well, the response of the international community has too often been marked by a combination of frenzied activity followed by long periods of inaction that are interrupted only by the occasional futile gesture. It is time for a new approach—one that does not ignore the necessity and centrality of the political process, but that is not held hostage by its ups and downs. It involves a massive programme of international investment in peacebuilding in Israel and Palestine—one that can begin to construct the civic society foundations upon which any lasting peace deal will have to rest.
Earlier this month, I was pleased to join 64 parliamentary colleagues in support of the establishment of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Such strong cross-party backing was also evident in the Westminster Hall debate that I led on this topic last November, and in the widespread support for the Bill that was introduced by the former Member for Enfield North in January 2017. Designed by the Alliance for Middle East Peace, such an international fund would invest $200 million annually in grassroots people-to-people projects. Some might question whether sports and summer clubs, tech training and environmental projects can really help to bring 70 years of pain and suffering to an end, but I believe they can, because we have seen such an approach work in the recent past.
The example of the International Fund for Ireland shows the transformative impact that civic society peacebuilding work can play in helping to end seemingly intractable conflicts. Established in 1985, a dark time when the Troubles seemed as intractable as the conflict in the middle east does today, the IFI eventually grew to encompass more than 6,000 people-to-people projects. The fund opened new space for politicians and helped to bring about a reservoir of public support in both the Unionist and nationalist communities, which has sustained peace in Northern Ireland, through multiple ups and downs, over the past two decades. Not for nothing did Britain’s chief negotiator, Jonathan Powell, later hail the International Fund for Ireland as “the great unsung hero” of the peace process.
The middle east need be no different. Indeed, there is now a robust body of academic research and evidence to suggest that the peacebuilding projects already operating on the ground significantly improve Israeli and Palestinian participants’ attitudes to one other and lead to higher levels of trust and co-operation, more conflict resolution values, and less aggression and loneliness. The problem is that such projects have not received the attention, focus and money that they need and deserve to really have an impact. Although the International Fund for Ireland has invested $44 per person per year in peacebuilding work, only around $2 per person is invested every year in Israel and Palestine. That could all be about to change, however. In December, the US Congress passed the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act with strong bipartisan support. It will invest $250 million over the next five years in peacebuilding work—the largest such investment ever—and the legislation is designed to evolve in a multinational direction if other countries wish to participate. Indeed, it specifically creates seats on its board that are reserved for foreign Governments or other international actors.
In the Westminster Hall debate that I secured last November, Ministers promised to examine the feasibility of British participation in the new US initiative, as a step towards its development of a truly international institution. Sadly, despite endorsing the concept of an international fund in 2018, thus far the Government have dragged their feet. Last year, they even eliminated funding for the People for Peaceful Change programme, the UK’s own small-scale investment in peace-building work.
Despite the Prime Minister’s talk of a global Britain, last week he failed to seize the opportunity of the G7 summit to work with President Biden to galvanise international support for the fund. With or without Britain, this is a project whose time has come. It reflects the reality that no successful peace process happens without the will and the engagement of the people, as they come together and demand a better future for their children.
I will close today with the words of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet:
“‘Me’ or ‘Him’—
Thus begins the war. But it
Ends with an awkward encounter:
‘Me and him.’”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, and I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I begin by congratulating the new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, and Yair Lapid on forming a new Government in Israel. This is the first time in half a century that an Israeli Arab party has sat in a coalition Government, and it is a very welcome development. It is a clear demonstration of Israel’s vibrant democracy, and I wish the new Government every success.
It is regrettable that the petitions being debated today do not reflect the reality that Israel is a beacon of hope in a region of instability, and an important ally of the United Kingdom. I have been involved in Israeli-Palestinian affairs for almost 15 years now—that is, for a little longer than Benjamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister. People may judge which of us is the genuine survivor in all of this.
It is a simple fact that boycotts of Israel harm Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom work for Israeli companies on higher wages than they could earn elsewhere. The implications of blocking all trade and sanctioning Israel, as the petitions call for, are grave, not only for Israelis and Palestinians but for the British people. More than 500 Israeli companies operate in the UK, employing thousands of British workers. Before covid, UK-Israel trade reached more than £5 billion a year, and it continued to grow despite the pandemic.
Generic medicines produced by the Israeli company Teva save the NHS billions of pounds every year, and I expect that at one point or another many of us have benefited from these treatments, as no one provides more medicines to the NHS than Teva. British scientists work with Israeli scientists on groundbreaking medical research, and our two countries are working closely in the fight against covid-19.
I welcome the Government’s firm opposition to Israeli boycotts, and I hope that the Minister will reiterate how harmful and divisive they are. The petitions were signed during the latest violence between Israel and Hamas, when Hamas targeted Israeli civilians and put Palestinians in harm’s way. Israel’s strikes in response to those indiscriminate attacks were, by contrast, precise, targeting only militants and terrorist infrastructure. Every civilian casualty is regrettable—a view also held, incidentally, by the Israel defence forces, but not, it would seem, by Hamas. The crucial context is often neglected by those who call for arms embargoes and say that Israel’s response was disproportionate. On that, I shall leave the matter in abeyance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd.
Like many thousands of my constituents, I watched in absolute horror a few weeks ago when violence was used against worshippers gathering during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at the al-Aqsa mosque. The scenes were truly shocking. They were deeply painful to watch and they motivated many thousands of my constituents to write to me. Like me, so many of them were thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I”.
The ceasefire is, of course, welcome. We all pray that it holds and is strengthened, and that a path forward can be charted, but it is essential that all holy sites in that holiest of cities—holy to so many people of many different faiths—are protected and respected. I press the Minister to do whatever he can to ensure that there is no repeat of the scenes we saw just a few short weeks ago.
The history of Palestine and Israel is in so many ways a perpetual cycle of loss, sorrow and conflict, pierced only occasionally by moments of hope and fleeting opportunities for positive and lasting change. Even those moments have become ever rarer in recent years, with a cycle of violence that has decimated entire communities, led to the loss of countless lives, and laid bare the shaky foundations on which any aspirations of a negotiated, diplomatic settlement have been built. The goal of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel remains the shared objective of so many in this House and all over the world, but in truth, it has rarely seemed further away. The end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12 years as Prime Minister of Israel at least suggests that a path towards a settlement, political and practical, could be charted. Indeed, the high-wire balancing act that led to his removal points to a long-missing political tenacity that could bode well.
However, among those who have removed an indisputable roadblock to peace are some with still greater belligerence, with opinions more extreme and entrenched even than Benjamin Netanyahu’s. The fact that they will serve alongside those with an unequivocal commitment to a viable two-state solution is welcome, and it is perhaps to them that we must reiterate that the illegal occupation and proposed annexation of the west bank is violating international law. Only when they accept that can we make progress in the field of peace. Any and every road towards a just and lasting peace requires that the occupation is brought to a permanent end, with both Palestinians and Israelis enjoying true and meaningful security, dignity and human rights.
Some may try to argue that formal annexation has been stopped—that we no longer need be concerned. It is impossible to articulate adequately how dangerous and misguided such counsel is. The truth is that illegal settlement expansion has continued, and Palestinians are still being evicted from their homes. I cannot condone these violations of international law, nor should anyone in this House or in the international community. The Labour party has repeatedly called on the UK Government to object to the expansion of settlements in the strongest possible terms, and we have raised this issue in Parliament, in public, and directly with the Israeli ambassador to the UK. I urge the Minister today to change the dial on the facts on the ground by recognising the state of Palestine.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Dowd. Today’s debate on recognising the state of Palestine and holding Israel accountable for its complete contempt for international law and human rights is not timely, because it should have happened a long time ago. I find it heartbreaking that after decades of violence, illegal occupation, the demolition of Palestinians’ homes and complete disregard for their lives, we are still debating the very basics. This Government have a policy of a two-state solution, but paradoxically they are yet to even recognise the state of Palestine. This lip service has cost lives and entrenched the de facto annexation of Palestinian land, and it sends a loud and clear message that Palestine is not equal.
Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, 138 have recognised the state of Palestine. The UK is not one of them. I recently received a response from the Minister stating that the UK would recognise a Palestinian state at the time when it best served the objectives of peace. If we truly believe that the time is not now—frankly, it is already too late—we must deeply rethink our religious, moral and political philosophy.
A two-state solution and equality cannot be discussed without talking about the occupation, which is the root cause of so many of the issues at hand, from evictions to inequality. Such acts only entrench divisions and make peace harder to achieve. Will the Minister openly condemn illegal annexations and evictions, and urge the Israeli authorities to end their impunity? These shocking scenes during the holy month of Ramadan—far-right Israeli groups chanting “Death to Arabs”, the storming of the holy al-Aqsa mosque and the bombing of the media building in Gaza—are beyond contemptible, and yet there is zero accountability for Israeli actions.
The reality is that the Minister already knows all this. We must move away from a debate on Hamas versus Israel’s right to defence, and tangibly work towards a peace process that respects and demands human rights, equality, international law, accountability and the recognition of Palestine. If the Minister is serious about a genuine two-state solution, will he commit to ending the arms trade with Israel? The UK has a moral obligation to uphold international law.
I begin by saying that I made a serious mistake, though I was not alone in making it: in the period when hostilities were diminished, I deprioritised the issue of Israel and Palestine, prioritising instead the things that seemed most pressing. The problem, of course, is that the conflict has not gone away; it has returned with a dreadful ferocity, only made worse by the intervening events. I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I will not do it again; I will come back to him again and again and ask what the Government are doing to further the cause of a two-state solution. I voted to recognise the state of Palestine. If we are serious about a two-state solution, it is important that this Parliament, and Parliaments and Governments elsewhere, recognise the state of Palestine.
There is enormous passion on the issue in Wycombe. About 17% of my electors in the last census are British Asians. I think overwhelmingly that means that they are British Muslims, they are Kashmiris. I say to my right hon. Friend as gently as I can that there is a real problem that on the issues of Kashmir and Palestine British Muslims feel that people are being persecuted, and that that persecution is being neglected—a blind eye is being turned—because they are Muslims. However true or untrue that may be, it is incumbent on me, as their Member of Parliament, to call it out and to say that of course that would not be acceptable if that is what is happening. The very thought that it might be happening would tend to radicalise opinion. We cannot have that—not one bit of it. We must act, and we must be seen to act.
I wish to say a huge thank you to community leaders in Wycombe, in particular the imams. Having seen some conduct elsewhere in the UK on this issue, when a protest was held in Wycombe I feared what might take place, but I could not be more pleased or more proud of what our imams said. One speech in particular was brought to my attention that I think anyone of good faith, in particular any of the three Abrahamic faiths, could get behind as a speech of humanity and dignity.
Finally, there is a book that it has been suggested that I read over the summer that I recommend others reflect on. It is a book called “I Shall Not Hate” by a doctor called Izzeldin Abuelaish. In 2009, his three daughters were killed by Israeli shells. What a terrible thing, but if he shall not hate then I recommend that approach to everyone.
As a new Administration takes over in Israel, we debate the Palestinian question in the mother of Parliaments. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has previously stated:
“I will do everything in my power, forever, to fight against a Palestinian state”.
My welcome message to Mr Bennett, and those who support him in the Knesset, is that the mood music is changing. The world is waking up to Israel’s actions, and all those who want to see lasting peace in the region know that to achieve such peace we must end the occupation, injustice and oppression, and that starts with recognising a viable Palestinian state.
In the past, Prime Minister Bennett has ruled out the transfer of even a centimetre of land to the Arabs and boasted:
“I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life—and there’s no problem with that.”
The unwelcome news to him is that those of us around the world who condemn the killing of all civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinian, will not remain silent if even a centimetre more of Palestinian land is illegally annexed, and we will not be silent in pushing for Israel to be tried in the International Criminal Court for war crimes if any more Palestinian blood is unjustly spilled under a perverted interpretation of a right to self-defence, while completely ignoring the crucial principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality.
For five decades, the Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the west bank and Gaza have been under occupation—the longest lasting occupation in the world today. If Palestinian children in Gaza make it to the age of 21, they will have witnessed five brutal wars, 14 years of which they have spent in one of the largest open-air prisons on the world, under a land, air and sea blockade. Human Rights Watch has declared the situation in Israel as “apartheid”. Amnesty International has stated that Israel’s
“systematic discrimination, dispossession and displacement”
of Palestinians is
“at the root of the ongoing violence we see today.”
War on Want declared:
“The UK government regularly approves military technology and arms exports to Israel, including for weapons of the type used in clear violation of international law. This means that the UK is providing material support for Israel’s illegal use of force, and an infrastructure to sustain that force through the ongoing trade in arms.”
Our Government have an immediate moral and political duty to act on Palestine. The Government cannot meet their word about a two-state solution while they recognise only a single state—it will not work. Let me be clear: the only party stopping the UK from recognising the state of Palestine is the Conservative Government. While they send empty words, the only thing stopping the UK supporting, rather than blocking, a United Nations inquiry to investigate the underlying root causes of the conflict in the region is the Conservative Government.
In the recent siege, for every Israeli killed, more than 21 Palestinians were killed. For every Israeli child killed, 33 Palestinian children were killed. While all the parties condemn aggression and illegality on either side, the only party that turns a blind eye to Israel’s actions and questions of violation of international law is the Conservative Government. The blinkers have been taken off the eyes of the world. The reality of Israel’s actions is clear. The Palestinians have suffered for too long. The time for empty words is over. The Government must act or the electorate will.
The desire of Jewish people to have their own homeland existed for a long time before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. I want to see Israel exist as a secure state, at peace with all its neighbours and free from the appalling rocket attacks that its people suffered recently at the hands of Hamas terrorists. It is vital that Jewish people all over the world can live in safety and complete security, and free from fear. I have been struck by the heightened sense of fear that my Jewish constituents have expressed to me in recent days. Our commitment to the safety, security and wellbeing of Jewish people in this country must be complete and absolute.
Palestinians on the west bank and in Gaza and the occupied territories all share that same desire for self-determination and a state of their own. The British Government are committed to the creation of a Palestinian state, and said in February that they will recognise the Palestinian state at the time of their choosing and
“when it best serves the objective of peace”.
That has been the position the British Government for many years. I want to probe the Government further on when the time of their choosing will be. My particular concern is that the increase in the building of illegal settlements in the occupied territories may mean that any recognition comes too late, because the land will simply not be there to create a viable Palestinian state.
I was struck by the words of Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations and associate fellow of Chatham House. He said:
“For too long, the issue of recognition has been framed as a prize waiting for the Palestinians at the end of negotiations. This has always put Palestinian negotiators in an inferior position around the negotiation table vis-a-vis Israel, which is not only a superior military and economic force that is occupying its land, but one that is formally a state. Laying to rest the question…of Palestinian self-determination would accelerate the peace negotiations and give them a better chance of succeeding.”
Is that not the central point? A peaceful and viable Palestinian state would also be in Israel’s best interests, and profoundly in its long-term security interests as well. The dividend to Israel of having a generation of young Palestinians growing up next to it who no longer hated Israel would be immense. Recognition could be a spur to achieving peace. Many of us are left thinking, “If not now, when?”
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I declare a non-pecuniary interest as the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for the reasonable and conciliatory tone with which she introduced the debate. Like her, I am committed to a two-state solution as the only way that the Palestinian and Israeli people can hope to live in peace and security.
It is my view that, following the recent conflict, we cannot just settle for a ceasefire and another stalemate. We should take advantage of events such as the formation of the new Government in Israel, the Abraham accords and President Biden’s support for an international peace and reconciliation fund as an opportunity to push for fresh peace negotiations. It would be really heartening to hear from the Minister that, following the G7, the UK will commit to playing our full part as a member of the international peace and reconciliation fund.
I say to colleagues who disagree with me that, like them, I want a viable and democratic Palestinian state, but I doubt the wisdom of willing it as a unilateralist gesture. I remind those who are keen to use international law in such debates that conditions for statehood in international law include an independent Government who exercise control over a defined territory. Those conditions are not met. The reality is that there are now two Palestines—one under weak Palestinian Authority control, and the other under Hamas military occupation.
What exactly are we being asked to recognise? Hamas has already taken advantage of the weakness of Abbas. What is the incentive for a negotiated outcome, if we capitulate to them now? Are those who push for sanctions saying that they oppose Israel’s right to defend itself? Is it okay to live each day with the threat of an air raid siren? How would we feel if a bomb shelter was part of everyday planning requirements for a new home? How would we feel about going to bed with the threat of a tunnel attack occurring in the night?
Those who deny the threat from Hamas and the existence of its propaganda, and who fail to acknowledge the actions that it engages in, are making excuses for it. They are too willing to condemn Israel, and too ready to turn a blind eye to Hamas atrocities. We need a better approach to this. We need an approach that is diligent, serious and designed to bring about proper and lasting peace.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I find myself agreeing with virtually every word that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) just said, and I concur with his viewpoint on this issue. Clearly this debate is very timely, with the formation of the new Government in Israel. I am sure we all wish them well, as they have managed to bring together different partners in the new Government. Many people’s hopes for reconciliation and peace rest on them.
I long for us to be able to recognise the state of Palestine, as one of the petitions calls for, but we have to be absolutely clear about the main roadblock to being able to achieve that: Hamas. For as long as the Palestinian territories are in the grip of a proscribed terrorist organisation whose the stated aim is to wipe Israel and the Jewish people off the face of the earth, Hamas is the biggest roadblock to our being able to recognise the state of Palestine and move forward with a peace process. I am convinced, as I know the vast majority of people in the House are, that the only answer to peace in the region is a two-state solution, but that cannot be achieved while we have one party in that process in the grip of a terror organisation. I often think how we in the UK would react if camped on our doorstep was a terrorist organisation the stated aim of which was to wipe us off the earth and drive us into the sea. We would not welcome other parties recognising that state officially, and we have to be realistic about the real roadblock.
I do not believe that Hamas are friends to the genuine, decent people of Palestine. Let us remember that in the recent attacks, one in seven rockets launched by Hamas were actually misfired or landed on Palestinian territory. In that conflict, more Palestinians were killed by Hamas rockets than by any action by the Israelis. I do not say that the Israelis are blameless; sometimes what they do is provocative and disproportionate, and they do have to take some responsibility, but I will always stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself against those terrorist attacks, which are the key block to peace.
I am privileged to chair the all-party parliamentary group on Christianity in the holy land. The APPG works to promote the rights of Christians and other religious minorities in the middle east. I know that the Minister is aware of the work that we have done, and I have invited him to meet Christian leaders there. Israel is a beacon of democracy and freedom in the middle east, and we should stand up for the rights of all religious minorities in that place. No one other than Israel in the middle east is doing that, so I believe that we need to stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself and be clear about what the main roadblock to peace is.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. The decades of conflict and violence between Israelis and Palestinians have been a source of unimaginable horrors and of pain and suffering for generations with little hope of peace. What we saw in the attacks on the al-Aqsa mosque, and in the cycle of violence between the Israeli military and Hamas, is the reality of civilian suffering in the latest escalation of the violence.
Although the ceasefire is welcome, let us ensure that our Government take the necessary steps to make sure it is maintained. Let us take stock and remember how many people have sadly lost their lives: a total of 256 Palestinians, including 66 children and six people with disabilities, were killed during the 11-day military assault on Gaza, while nearly 2,000 were injured between 10 May and the ceasefire announcement on 21 May. Since 7 May, 35 Palestinians have been killed in the west bank and occupied East Jerusalem, and, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, 7,056 have been injured. In Israel, 13 people were killed by rockets fired by Palestinian armed factions.
We need to ensure that the international community, led by the US with our Government and others, works together to ensure a negotiated settlement to secure peace in that region, otherwise the cycle of conflict and violence will continue. That is why it is so important that our Government listens to the many, in Parliament and across the country, who have campaigned for the recognition of Palestinian statehood. Some of us were in Parliament when campaigning for statehood came up previously. We need our Government to work with our international partners to ensure that the Israeli Government, as well as Hamas, are held to account for the atrocities that they have committed. We need to ensure that civilians are not caught in the crossfire and that they are protected against the conflict.
Ultimately, the only way we can prevent the cycle of violence is through a negotiated settlement. That is why it is vital that our Government play their part and, frankly, their actions have been found wanting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in congratulating the new Israeli Government, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, on gaining a majority in the Knesset yesterday. I say to him, mazel tov and good luck.
I am deeply concerned by the substance of the petitions. I consider myself a friend of both Israel and the Palestinian people, and I do not believe that these petitions will result in any positive outcome for either. The language that these petitions employ is clearly inflammatory, breeds misunderstanding and foments hatred and hostility.
As we have seen in recent weeks, divisive language has directly fuelled antisemitism in the UK, leading to attacks on our Jewish communities, including in my constituency, in Prestwich and in Whitefield. The Community Security Trust recorded more antisemitic incidents in May than in any month since records began. I pay tribute to CST for its important and fantastic work in protecting the community, but it should not be necessary. We should not need security guards at our schools and places of worship. In my very first meeting with its staff, I told them that it is my duty to make sure that guards are no longer needed, and I will continue to do that work.
We have seen vehicle convoys intimidate Jewish people and mezuzahs removed from Jewish homes and desecrated. In my constituency, Jewish people have told me that they were afraid to even walk to synagogue. This is a truly terrible state of affairs. Openly antisemitic banners were held at last weekend’s rally in central London, with Israel described as a Nazi state. It is shameful that British politicians were present and did not condemn the overt antisemitism on display.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply complex, and it is reckless to make over-simplifications by suggesting that Israeli actions are disproportionate or that Israel is persecuting Palestinians, as these petitions do. We are talking about a liberal democracy, the world’s only Jewish state, being attacked by an internationally proscribed terror group committed to its destruction. There cannot be any justification for these attacks, which have targeted communities, homes, schools and even nurseries.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to ban boycotts against Israel, which divide our communities, and I hope this legislation is brought forward soon so that we can provide the peace of mind that my constituents seek.
The overdue EU study of the Palestinian Authority’s school curriculum has reportedly found evidence of antisemitism and incitement to violence. Will the Minister ensure that that report is published as a matter of urgency? It is a troubling prospect that teachers supported by UK taxpayers’ money use textbooks that normalise violence. Just as we rightly call out antisemitism in the UK, we must call it out abroad, in the west bank and Gaza.
It is only through direct peace talks that a two-state solution will be achieved. Although I will not start my own petition on this subject, I hope that such a petition will gain far more support than those we are debating today.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. It is a real honour to speak on such a critical issue. I also wish to declare a non-pecuniary interest as chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East.
We recently passed the 54th anniversary of the occupation of the Palestinian territory, one of the longest occupations in history. The daily lives of Palestinians are worse than ever. This is a disgrace, and the British Government, who have an historic responsibility in this area, should work with the international community to take action now to end the deterioration of the situation and improve the lives of Palestinian people as well as of Israeli citizens.
I condemn violence whoever perpetrates it, and I feel strongly that those perpetrating violence should be held accountable. The reality of the recent violence is that since 7 May, during the 10-day military assault on Gaza, 256 Palestinian people have been killed, including 66 children and six people with disabilities, with almost 2,000 injured. In Israel, 13 people were killed by rockets. This is the disproportionate nature of the violence. This is not self-defence by Israel—this is aggression. I defend Israel’s right to self-defence, but this is not that. Every one of those deaths and injuries is wrong, a tragedy and should not happen. Accountability, whether for the Israeli Government or Hamas, should follow. The Government have a responsibility to try to make that happen through the international courts.
The situation post ceasefire is not the status quo, which in itself is not good enough. Only this morning in occupied East Jerusalem, municipal inspectors in the Al-Bustan area of Silwan were handing out demolition notices. The situation in Gaza is deteriorating, not de-escalating, not improving. The medical situation in Gaza is desperate. During the assault, two prominent Palestinian doctors were killed and nine hospitals were damaged, as were 19 clinics, including a covid-19 testing centre and Gaza’s only covid-19 laboratory. In East Jerusalem, 48 attacks happened, damaging 16 ambulances, and there were 18 incidents of denying medical access. These latest attacks are examples of decades-long violence against healthcare.
The violence may have stopped but the situation on the ground has not improved. The Government should ban goods from illegal settlements and recognise the state of Palestine now. They should take action with the international community to ensure that international law is upheld.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd, and thank you for squeezing me into the debate.
All of us will have been appalled at the loss of life in the conflict in Gaza and in Israel last month, particularly the loss of life of non-combatants and many children, who we saw on our television screens. The real tragedy is not that, but rather that this will happen again—next week, next month, next year—and it will keep happening until the root cause of the conflict is tackled. As the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) has just said, the root cause of the conflict is the fact that Israel is in military occupation of the Palestinian territories that were designated for a future state of Palestine.
From an Israeli point of view, it makes sense to continue that occupation. Not only do the Israeli Government not set any policy to end that occupation, but with every day and week that passes, through the process of settlement building, evictions and other measures, that occupation is entrenched, to the point where, in the words of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, there is now a “one-state reality”.
Within that one-state reality, people’s life chances and how they are treated are fundamentally different depending on whether they are Palestinian or Israeli. For more than 50 years, Israel has maintained this policy almost consequence free. Of course, there have been many UN resolutions and people have wrung their hands and said, “It’s not right,” but Israel has been able to maintain this military occupation pretty much unrestricted.
The petitions before us today are from people who are clearly concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people. I ask colleagues, particularly those on the other side of the argument, to see things through their eyes for a moment. If we do not take action to persuade Israel to end the occupation and bring about a two-state reality, we are breeding further despair among Palestinian communities and galvanising the extreme right wing of Israeli politics, resulting in a situation where groups such as Hamas fill the political void. That is why we need to take action.
The new Israeli and American Governments provide a moment for this country to step up to the mark and do something. If people say that a boycott of Israel will not work, the question that the Government have to answer is, “What sanctions should be applied to try to make the Israeli Government behave in a manner consistent with international law?” Surely this must be the time to recognise Palestine. If we are sincere about a two-state solution, we cannot say that on the one hand and refuse to recognise one of those states on the other.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I remind the House of my interim entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and that I serve as a director of the advisory board of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding.
The two petitions address probably two of the most substantial issues that we could have hoped to have before us. I thank the Petitions Committee for allowing this debate, but I am afraid that the belief that any meaningful analysis of the issues at hand can be achieved in a three-minute speech represents optimism beyond even that which I possess.
Picking up on the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), I have visited Palestine twice and have seen what he refers to as the “one-state reality”. I know exactly what he means. However, the point about the one-state reality, as he describes it, is that it is no solution. The only solution is a two-state solution, and if it is a solution that does not involve two states in a meaningful way, it is no solution.
The yardstick by which the Minister and British foreign policy should be guided is always to ask one simple question: will this make the achievement of a two-state solution more or less likely? Looking around Palestine, we see that the settlement-building programme on the west bank makes the achievement of a two-state solution manifestly less likely, and it should be condemned by our Government accordingly. It is also beyond peradventure that Britain should recognise Palestine as a state. To those who have suggested that that is not possible because it is not quite the right time, I gently say that the reason that Palestine does not control her own territory goes back to the circumstances that pertained in 1967 and subsequently. There is now no good reason for that not to be the case.
In the context of the recent conflict in Palestine, I hope that the Minister and our Government will look very closely at the deployment of arms that would have come from this country. Like others, I bow to no one in my acceptance of Israel’s right to defend herself, but we all know that self-defence in law, wherever we find it, must always be commensurate, appropriate and proportionate, and what we saw was none of those things. The idea that these events were contributed to by arms sold from this country is something that many people, wherever they stand on the debate, find disturbing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Dowd. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this important debate at a crucial fork in the road for Israel’s Government, following Naftali Bennett’s replacing Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister yesterday. I hope that the new Administration will listen to the voices of Governments around the world on the issue of justice in Palestine and urgently change direction, because for too long peace and the hope of peace has been crushed by military might. I know that a large number of my Labour colleagues wish to speak in the debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum), whose constituency had the highest number of signatories, alongside mine, to the petition that urges the UK Government to recognise the state of Palestine.
In recent weeks, we have witnessed millions of people marching in almost every major city in the world. Israel’s illegal occupations, annexations and bombardment of the Palestinian people and those trying simply to exist in Gaza can no longer be ignored. Indeed, there is an enormous sense of anger and injustice in my constituency of Ilford South, which has the highest number of signatories to the petition, at around 6,000. Individually, 5,000 people in my constituency have written to me. This has happened during the covid pandemic, which shows that people care deeply about what is happening around the world. My constituents rightly feel that human rights abuses should be challenged, be they in Kashmir, Myanmar, Yemen or, indeed, in Gaza.
Although people are rightly concerned about events in the middle east, I want to be clear that it is never acceptable for members of the Jewish community, both in my Ilford South constituency and across the UK, to be subject to criticism, abuse and attacks because of the actions of the Israeli Government. It is clear that there is a huge groundswell of support for justice as the escalation of this conflict has continued, with the needless deaths of civilians on both sides, the recent illegal seizure of land and the incendiary storming of the al-Aqsa mosque. The proliferation of evictions, demolitions and new settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories not only runs counter to international humanitarian law, including the fourth Geneva convention; it also serves to make a viable two-state solution ever more distant.
The Labour party has long urged both sides to come together to ensure a just two-state solution that enables Palestinians and Israelis to peacefully co-exist. I have travelled to Israel and Palestine extensively, on more than half a dozen occasions, and I have seen at first hand the conditions in which Palestinians are forced to live. However, I have also met many progressive activists and politicians in Israel, and I encourage Members from both sides of the House to forge links with those groups and with partners for peace on both sides of the divide. As we have seen in recent weeks, they were highly effective in helping to bring the latest conflict to an end. The many powerful protests in the likes of Lod, Ramla and Umm al-Fahm show that hundreds of thousands of Israelis are united with the Palestinian people in their condemnation of the events in Palestine and Gaza.
The UK Government should therefore consider every possible avenue to put pressure on the Israeli Government. That includes reviewing the £360 million-worth of arms that they sell to Israel, and challenging—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. We are discussing two very important petitions: the first is a call to recognise Palestine as a state, and the second a call to implement sanctions on Israel for continued breaches of international law. Scottish National party foreign policy is based on principles. It is human-centred, feminist, egalitarian, ecological, multilateral and, above all, about the promotion of international law. We are not an aspiring international rights non-governmental organisation; we are an aspiring state, from my party’s perspective. Small countries need international law in a way that big countries do not, so international law is at the heart of everything that we do. We view Israel and Palestine, and everything else, through those prisms.
I am a friend of Palestine. I am also a friend of Israel. It is worth making a few things clear for the record. We condemn all violence, whoever it is perpetrated by and whoever is a victim of it. We utterly reject false equivalence. There is hurt and heartbreak on all sides of this dispute, and it is not just between two sides; it is far more complex than that. Israel has a right to exist and to security within its borders, and the Palestinians have a right to live in dignity and peace in a state of their own. We do not view those statements as exclusive. We view them as quite compatible, but how can there be a two-state solution, which we all say that we are in favour of, when there is not a two-state reality?
We believe that we should indeed recognise Palestine. We recognise the flaws, which we have heard about, in the Palestinian Authority, and that Palestinian unity is not where it needs to be, but we believe that recognition would level the discussion and give it an impetus that is, sadly, sorely lacking. It is not an outlandish position; we are actually in the majority, as 139 of 193 United Nations members already recognise Palestine as a state. The UK should do the same.
On sanctions, we have a rather more delicate call to make, because we need to consider the effect of any policy change on the ground. I said that Israel has a right to exist and to security, and I will defend that. It does not have a right to annex other people’s land and then to claim victimhood when there are consequences to that illegality. Settlements are, on a daily basis and in fundamental ways, making a viable, just peace less achievable. They are illegal. Their products are illegal. We should not deal in them. The UN agrees. UN Security Council resolution 2334 is clear on their legal status; we should not deal in settler goods, but ban them. At the very least, we should ensure that they are properly labelled.
On the petition’s call to implement wider sanctions on the state of Israel itself, however, we disagree for the moment. We do not think that that would help the situation. We think that it would do more harm than good—just. However, I urge our Israeli friends, who I know are paying attention to the debate, to pay attention to where that call is coming from. We cannot simply say that there must be consequences to the illegality but then not implement any of them. We must do better than we have done to date. We respect individual organisations that feel a need to implement such a policy themselves, though we would stop short of sanctions as a party.
It is not good enough to say that we are in favour of a two-state solution but to do nothing to bring about a two-state reality. We will continue to be part of the problem unless we give impetus to the discussion, and we can do that from here because we are bound to the people of Palestine and Israel by empire and by international law and trade. We have influence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) says, perhaps there is a moment for new momentum with the new Israeli Government and the new US Administration. Colleagues, let us seize that moment and build a just peace, which we all want to see.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Dowd. I am pleased that this debate is taking place today, because there is tremendous public concern about this issue: witness the fact that two very significant petitions have been submitted to the House, and I am pleased that the Petitions Committee has brought them forward for a debate. Let me say at the outset that there can be no justification whatever for antisemitism in any shape or form, whatever people’s views are on the Israel-Palestinian issue: let us be clear about that.
Just a few weeks ago, nearly 300 people, Israelis and Palestinians, lost their lives in a violent conflict between Hamas and the state of Israel. The Labour party strongly condemns the firing of rockets by Hamas, and we strongly condemn the air attacks by Israel that led to such a large loss of life. Labour called for an immediate ceasefire, and we were pleased that international mediation led to a ceasefire. The immediate issue that led to the conflict was the appalling violation and desecration of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. That was disgraceful, and the international community must do all it can to ensure that such scenes never happen again. Religious sects must be respected at all times.
The second immediate reason for the conflict was the prospect of the forced eviction of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and in particular from the community of Sheikh Jarrah. Labour believes that the occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel is completely wrong, and we do not recognise the annexation of East Jerusalem by the state of Israel. The city of Jerusalem must be shared by Palestinians and Israelis. It is totally unacceptable that illegal Israeli settlers are trying to displace Palestinians from their homes—homes that their families have lived in for generations.
There are also longer term issues at the root of the conflict, which must be addressed. They stem from the Israeli occupation of 1967. Since then, and especially over the past few years, we have seen an increase in the size and number of illegal Israeli settlements. International law states clearly that those settlements are illegal, and we stand four-square behind international law—no ifs or buts. We have also seen a dramatic increase in the number of demolitions of Palestinian structures on the west bank by Israeli authorities, which again contravene international humanitarian law via the fourth Geneva convention and the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court.
At the same time, we have seen the totally unacceptable treatment of Palestinians throughout the occupied territories. As a former youth worker, I have long taken a keen interest in the treatment of children by the Israeli authorities in the occupied territories. The military court system operates in a cruel and unacceptable way: young people are denied basic rights, frequently denied contact with their parents, and incarcerated in a way that inevitably leads them to be psychologically scarred for the rest of their lives.
If we are talking about injustices, we have to focus on Gaza, too. Before the recent conflict in Gaza, the situation was bad: now, it is much worse. Whatever the profound disagreements that the Israeli Government have with Hamas, there is no justification for the present blockade, which exacerbates the humanitarian suffering of the people of Gaza. Those injustices cannot be resolved through conflict. They can be addressed and resolved only though meaningful negotiations, which must lead to a two-state solution: a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel. In 2014, this Parliament called on the UK Government to recognise the state of Palestine. The Government say that they are committed to such a recognition, but as the Leader of the Opposition made clear last week, it is high time for that recognition to happen.
While it is certainly politically expedient to call for the recognition of Palestine right now, given certain by-elections, does the hon. Gentleman not agree with his own colleague: how can we recognise something when we cannot define it? What borders would it have, and without any real borders, is it really a state?
With all due respect, what I am saying is what I believe to be right, and what the Labour party deems to be right. There is no expediency about it—it is a long-standing commitment that we have, and we stick to it. Of course, there are issues to be worked out, but it sends an important signal that we believe that there should be an active Palestinian state and that we recognise it as a matter of principle.
I am sure that the Government would wish to see a peace process recommence as soon as practicable, but if the goal of negotiations is a two-state solution, it would seem sensible for the UK to join 139 other countries across the world to recognise the state of Palestine now. With regard to sanctions, particularly on arms, it is important that we take stock of the changing situation. Some Members will recall that Labour called on the Government to implement a ban on goods from the illegal settlements and any annexed territories. I am pleased that the Trump-Netanyahu plans for annexation were not implemented, and President Biden has called for all new settlements to be stopped.
We have a newly elected Government in Israel, and I for one am pleased to see the back of Netanyahu. It is sensible to wait a little to see how the Israeli Government respond to the situation. The British Government must assess, in line with all our obligations, the use of exported arms and equipment in the recent conflict. We need a report to Parliament setting out whether any licences for exports could be used to commit acts of internal repression, external aggression or violations of international law.
The reality is that a peace process will not be established overnight, let alone a lasting peace. What is the case, however, is that for peace to be negotiated, achieved and maintained, we need an ongoing process of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), I very much hope that the Government will make real their commitment to a peace fund, and join President Biden to ensure that it is established as quickly as humanly possible. I genuinely believe that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian and Israeli people want to live in peace. It is our responsibility in Parliament to make sure that we do everything we can to make their dream a reality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate, and I pay tribute to the work that she has done on the issue. I am grateful, too, for the thoughtful contributions made by Members on both sides of the House on this delicate issue.
We welcomed the announcement of a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza on 20 May. It is an important step towards ending the cycle of violence and the loss of civilian life. The UK offers its deepest condolences to the families of all those who have lost their lives. We echo the condemnation of the antisemitic actions that, unfortunately, we saw on the streets of the United Kingdom, and I am pleased that Members across the House have condemned those actions.
The tone of the debate has been incredibly helpful in condemning the antisemitism on our streets. Does the Minister agree that every single Member in the House has a duty to do so, and when we see banners calling for Palestine to be free from the river to the sea—which is actively calling for the ethnic cleansing of Israel—we need to condemn that wholeheartedly? Will he make a statement in the House doing so?
I thank my hon. Friend for the question he has asked. As we have seen today, there is widespread condemnation of those acts and where there are small pockets of resistance against condemning those actions, I think that those individuals stand outwith the mass of the viewpoint in the House. This is an issue that I do not doubt will come up in departmental questions tomorrow.
While the ceasefire holds, we must make sure that every effort focuses on making it not just durable but permanent. The Foreign Secretary travelled to the region on 26 May and met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. As he made clear on that visit, the recent escalation demonstrates the urgent need to make progress towards a more positive future and address the long-standing drivers of the conflict in the region. We have worked actively during this crisis to urge all parties to work with mediators towards a ceasefire. We fully support the Egyptian, Qatari and United Nations actions to that end, and we work closely, of course, with our friends and partners in the United States of America.
It is important now for Israel to facilitate rapid humanitarian access to Gaza, and we urge the continued opening of all crossings. The UK will provide £3.2 million of new aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, responding to its emergency flash appeal, launched on 19 May. The funding will help to provide food, water and emergency shelter to Palestinians affected by the recent escalation of violence in Gaza.
Let me make a little more progress; I am conscious that we are a little tight on time.
We thank UNRWA for its support for Gazans displaced during the conflict and for its continued courage and dedication. The UK continues its diplomatic efforts to build confidence between the parties and to find a political way forward. We welcome and echo calls for equality of safety, security, freedom, peace and dignity, both for Palestinians and for Israelis. I have spoken regularly with a number of ambassadors from the Arab states to reiterate the need for progress towards our shared goals—to reiterate the need for a peaceful two-state solution. We also play a leading role in this on the United Nations Security Council.
Let me address the subjects specific to the petitions. There have, of course, been many calls over the years for recognition of Palestinian statehood. The UK Government position is clear: the UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the object of peace. Bilateral recognition in itself cannot, and will not, end the occupation. The UK Government continue to believe that without a negotiated peace agreement, the occupation, and the problems that come with it, will continue. We are committed to the objective of a sovereign, prosperous and peaceful Palestinian state, living side by side with a safe and secure Israel. That is why we are a leading donor in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and why we have set so much store by strengthening Palestinian institutions, fostering private sector-led sustainable economic growth in the west bank.
Economic progress can never be a substitute for a political settlement, but it is vital in the interim that Palestinians see tangible improvements in their daily lives. We call on the Palestinian Authority and Israel to resume dialogue on economic issues, to reconvene the Joint Economic Committee and to address the financial and covid crisis together. The UK enjoys strong relations with the Palestinian Authority, and they have made important progress on state building, which has been recognised by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is so important now that the PA return to Gaza to ensure that good governance is extended throughout the territories that will make up a future Palestinian state.
It has been said by Members representing parties across the House, and I echo it from the UK Government’s position: we condemn in the strongest terms the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and other locations in Israel by Hamas and other terrorist groups. All countries, including Israel of course, have a legitimate right to self-defence and a right to defend their citizens from attack. In doing so, it is vital that all actions are proportionate, in line with international humanitarian law and calibrated to avoid civilian casualties.
On the second petition, the Government have made their position on sanctions clear. Although we do not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel whenever we feel it necessary, we are firmly opposed to boycotts or sanctions against Israel. We believe that open and honest discussions, rather than imposing sanctions or supporting anti-Israel boycotts, best support our efforts to progress the peace process and to achieve a negotiated two-state solution. The Government take their export control responsibilities very seriously, and operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. We consider all export applications thoroughly against a strict risk assessment framework. We continue to monitor the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to keep all licences under careful and continual review as standard. We continue to urge all parties to work together to reduce the tensions in the west bank, including East Jerusalem, so that, hopefully, we will not see images as we saw during May.
Several Members stated their desire for the UK to oppose evictions and demolitions. Let me assure them that the UK position on evictions, demolitions and settlements is long-standing, public and has been communicated directly to the Government of Israel. That position is that we oppose those activities. In all but the most exceptional circumstances, evictions are contrary to international humanitarian law. The practice causes unnecessary suffering for the Palestinians and is detrimental to efforts to promote a peaceful two-state solution. We urge the Government of Israel to cease their policies related to settlement expansion and, instead, work towards that two-state solution.
The Foreign Secretary and I have made the UK view clear in meetings with Israeli leaders. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary did so on his visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories on 26 May. We continue to call on all parties to show real leadership, including the willingness to make tough compromises and to refrain from unilateral steps that move us further from our shared goal of sustainable peace. We will continue our intense diplomatic efforts in the region, focused on creating the conditions for a sustainable peace, and we will work with our international partners towards that goal.
I thank all the contributors to this debate. It is clearly a highly complex situation and will require a range of measures, actions and compromises to resolve it. But I share the hope of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) that the Government, alongside the Biden Administration, will take the opportunity of the formation of the new Israeli Government to push for renewed negotiations based on a safe and secure Israel, alongside a viable sovereign and recognised Palestinian state. The current lack of a peace process has created a vacuum, and we have seen too often around the world that vacuums are filled by violence.
The Government should examine what more they can do to disrupt the flow of rockets into Gaza, while ensuring the delivery of urgent humanitarian assistance, vital medical support and fuel. I hope the Minister will take away what I said in my opening comments about encouraging and supporting the creation of a new climate in Israel and Palestine by backing projects that promote peaceful co-existence in the long term, such as the creation of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Those are not warm words; they need to be met with real, tangible action and funding to make them a reality.
Political negotiations will always have their ups and downs and false starts, particularly in such a complex conflict, but there is no reason why efforts to build understanding and trust between Palestinians and Israelis on the ground should be held hostage to what the politicians are doing. I hope the Minister will take that away to the Prime Minister, and urge him not to row back from our international commitments. I truly believe that the new US legislation, and President Biden’s own strong commitment to multilateralism, could provide a platform to galvanise support for an international fund at this most pressing of times. It is something practical that we can all do to create a more secure future for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 585313 and 585314, relating to Israel and Palestine.
[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 must also say that, because of the weather today, I am very happy if gentlemen wish to remove their jackets. To try to get everybody in, at this point I will impose an informal three-minute time limit.
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.