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Independent Fan-led Review of Football Governance

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 25 November 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on the independent fan-led review of football governance.

First, may I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), the advisory panel of experts and the thousands of football fans up and down the country who have contributed to this report? Football clubs are at the heart of our local communities, and fans are at the heart of those clubs, but there were problems in football governance and the voice of fans was not always being heard. That is why we committed to the fan-led review of football governance in our manifesto. The events seen at Bury and at Macclesfield Town, and with the European super league, made it vital that we looked at what reform was needed to protect those fans, and we triggered the review back in April. My hon. Friend has today presented her final report, setting out her recommendations. A copy has been made available in the Library, and of course the Government will formally and fully respond to the independent report in the new year.

The review is a comprehensive examination of English football, founded on more than 100 hours of engagement across the game and the views of more than 20,000 fans. I am grateful to all those who have given evidence, but most importantly to the fans who have had their voice heard. That voice will remain at the heart of our thinking in assessing the recommendations. The final report is a thorough and detailed examination of the challenges faced by English football. It shows the problems in football and is clear that reform is needed to solve them. I will not go through the 10 strategic recommendations and the 47 detailed recommendations here, Mr Speaker, but they are wide-ranging and comprehensive, addressing the need for an independent regulator, improved financial sustainability, better governance and a proper role for fans.

The report shows that fundamental change is needed in our national game, and fans deserve that. We are at a turning point for football in this country. The review is a detailed and worthy piece of work that will require a substantive response and plan of action from across government. However, the primary recommendation of the review—that football requires a strong, independent regulator—is one that I, and the Government, endorse in principle today. The Government will now work at pace to determine the most effective way to deliver an independent regulator, and any powers that might be needed. That is what the fans want, and this Government are on the side of fans.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and her panel on their work, and thank the Football Supporters’ Association and every fan who took part in the review. We have known for a very long time that football is broken—this is not a new thing—and we on this side of the House have called for years for an independent regulator to fix it. We are therefore delighted that that is the report’s key recommendation, and I anticipate there will be a great amount of consensus across the House on that. We would like to see a bit more fan involvement, so just as the Football Association will be allowed observer status on the independent regulator board, we believe the FSA should too.

I was somewhat concerned to see the Secretary of State’s tweet this morning. She said she is

“endorsing in principle the primary recommendation’’

of the review. Will the Minister allay my fears and confirm that the Government accept both the principle and the detail of the review’s recommendations on the independent regulator, and that they will enshrine that in primary legislation? The Secretary of State’s words in that tweet and the Minister’s words just now appear to suggest something less than that.

Does the Minister agree that there is no need to delay further? Will he commit to bring forward a Bill in the new year? If not, when are we going to see the Bill? As the review makes clear, the recommendations should be taken as a package, not as a pick ’n’ mix—anything less could leave us with a botched job—so will the Minister commit to accepting all the recommendations of this very thorough review?

On the golden share and supporters’ shadow boards, does the Minister agree that any proposals for a breakaway league must be discussed with those supporters’ shadow boards, regardless of any confidentiality agreements that might have been signed by the clubs involved?

Finally, have the Government had discussions at any point with the Welsh Government about the reform of football governance in respect of Welsh clubs that also take part in the English club structure?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and for the cross-party approach to the issue of football governance taken by the Opposition Front-Bench team and, indeed, the whole House. I hope that that tone and co-operation will continue throughout, because our goals and intentions are absolutely aligned.

I am sure the hon. Lady understands the process. This is an independent report and if anybody knows my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford—she is behind me—they will know that she has taken a robust and independent approach. The Government need to respond formally, and I am sure that the hon. Lady and everybody else will understand that I cannot today pre-empt every single element of the Government’s response to the conclusions. I only saw the full report myself just a couple of days ago. We take the recommendations incredibly seriously, and I am well aware of the strength of feeling behind many of the proposals, but I am sure the hon. Lady will appreciate that I cannot commit 100% to all the proposals today.

On how we go forward, I intend to proceed at pace—in fact, I had a meeting this morning with my officials to discuss how we move forward and how fast we can move. The whole House wants us to move quickly; please, watch this space.

Mr Speaker, I recognise that it is quite unique for the chair of a Government review also to be a sitting Member of Parliament and do not intend to abuse that position by—you know—urging the Minister to accept the recommendations as a whole package and advising that, obviously, if he says so in the Chamber, it has to happen. But will he join me in thanking the thousands of fans who took part in the fan-led review? Without the input of the fans who served on the expert panel, the fans of the 130 clubs across the whole of the pyramid who gave oral and written evidence and, of course, the 20,000-plus fans who contributed to the survey, the recommendations would not be as they are in the report.

Absolutely—I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I again offer sincere thanks to her, not only on my behalf but on behalf of the whole Government, for the work she has done at incredible pace. The work done has been extensive: she has travelled up and down the country and been involved in Zoom calls and so many other calls and, of course, 20,000 fans contributed online submissions to the review in an incredibly short period of time. We all need to recognise that we have already moved at pace and that my hon. Friend moved at pace. I respect everything she has done and look forward to continuing to work with her as we formulate the Government’s response. I am hopeful that we will all get a positive outcome, because football needs it.

I am immensely proud to be a supporter of Scotland’s most successful team in the past decade: having waited 130 years for their first major trophy, St Johnstone have won three in the past seven years and are currently the holders of both cups.

I am also proud that the SNP Scottish Government’s recent changes to club-ownership governance have been based on the development of a fan bank to help supporters to take control of their clubs. Fans already have a controlling interest in a quarter of the top flight: the three clubs being Hearts, Motherwell and, of course, the mighty Paisley St Mirren. By contrast, English football is now fully awash with blood money from dictatorships and oligarchs—similar to the Tory party conference, it must be said.

The Scottish Government fan bank will support more fan ownership where the supporters want it. Does the Minister agree that such a move in England would help to freeze out the spivs, gangsters and murderous regimes that are trying to sports-wash their image and are now running and financing many English clubs? What further actions do the Government plan to take to counter investors such as those now at Newcastle United?

The hon. Gentleman knows of course that sport is a devolved matter. I am sure that there are many learnings from the review for English football that the Scottish football ecosystem would perhaps take on board and consider. The clear message that I would like to send to Scotland and to football in the UK is that the report has made many recommendations, some of which may require legislation that we are likely to pursue, but there are many other things in the report that football itself can do anyway, and, as I have said, that applies in both England and Scotland.

I welcome the excellent report that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) has prepared and I welcome as well the fact that the Minister has said that, in principle, the Government accept the creation of the independent regulator. Obviously, it is vital that the independent regulator, when created, has the powers that it needs to do the job. Can he confirm that, in principle, the Government accept that that must include real-time access to financial information about the clubs if we are to prevent more club failures?

I thank my hon. Friend as well for his commitment, interest and insight into football and, indeed, into sport in general over many years and I appreciate what he is saying. Yes, I can say that, of course, we could not have an effective regulator without also having adequate powers, and the elements that he has considered will, of course, be part of that package. When I say that we accept in principle and are therefore considering moving forward with legislation that includes not only the regulator itself, but the powers that the regulator may have.

I thank my honourable football friend, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), for the report that she has produced. We look forward to further discussions with her at the football group meeting next week. Richard Caborn, a previous Sports Minister, convened a group of football parties in Sheffield, and we put forward a submission to the review, promoting the independent regulator, the golden share, and important elements of the review that have now been published and supported by the hon. Lady. That is really welcome. Does the Minister accept that, at the end of the day, the regulator must have real powers to redistribute the funding of football to do away with the cliff edge between the premiership and the championship and the cliff edge within the championship that is caused by parachute payments?

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman. We have had many discussions about football and I know of his interest. In fact, most people in the House today have shown great passion and enthusiasm for football over many, many years and have all contributed to the review. He is right to point out that the regulator needs adequate powers. That is exactly the kind of thing that we are looking at and he will be well aware as well that, in the report, there are recommendations about flow of finance. I do not believe that we can completely divorce governance from financial flows, so, in our response—and I cannot pre-empt the response today—those will be exactly the kind of things we will be considering.

I welcome this report and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). As the review states, Bury FC was founded in 1885,

“existed through countless economic cycles, several wars and 26 different Prime Ministers”—


“ceased to exist in 2018-19 with a devastating impact on the local economy and… a devastated fan base”.

So although I fully support the recommendations—they are our vision for the sport going forward—the town of Bury should not be left behind. Does the Minister agree that, as Bury FC is mentioned 15 times in the review, one thing that should come out of this is that all stakeholders should work together to ensure that the community buys Gigg Lane for the people of Bury, allowing football to continue in our historic stadium?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. We have had many conversations about the situation in Bury. Indeed, I support the goals of trying to get Bury back again in some form, as it is so important. One of the underlying principles and thrusts of this very review is to make sure that another Bury situation never happens again. I agree with what he is saying and I would be happy to provide what support I can to him directly.

The 15th of May 2010 is etched in my memory as the sad day that Ross County was beaten by Dundee United in the cup final. Football is for everyone, particularly in Scotland, as the SNP spokesman, hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), has pointed out. Will the Minister have the closest possible negotiations with Ministers in the Scottish Government, and will he think about consulting the Scottish fan base, because the fans will have a lot to say?

I am sorry that that date 11 years ago is still scarred in the hon. Gentleman’s memory. Indeed, he is right; we have constructive meetings at both ministerial and official level with the Scottish Government. Just last week or the week before, I met Scottish sports Ministers and sports Ministers from across the devolved Administrations precisely to share learnings, experiences and best practice. The fan-led review will be part of future discussions. I understand that fans from Scotland—I am not sure how many—have already contributed to the review through online submissions. We appreciate their involvement.

As my hon. Friend has said, football clubs are at the very heart of local communities, including the mighty Leicester City, which has its training ground in my Loughborough constituency—and I am very proud about it too. Does he agree that the fans are at the centre of the national game, so it was absolutely right that the review was fan-led, and that it is what the fans deserve?

Absolutely. It is always a pleasure to talk all things sport with my hon. Friend, who represents one of the sportiest constituencies in the country, which appropriately has an incredibly sport-loving Member of Parliament. She is right to praise Leicester City and to focus on the fan-led aspect of the review, which is precisely why we had such levels of engagement from fans across the country. The outcomes of the online survey show overwhelming support for many of the measures outlined in the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, and we need to take that very seriously indeed.

I also join the congratulations to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who I call my hon. Friend in this case.

The reports of the report are extremely promising, but if we are going to create the post of a regulator, that regulator must have not simply legal power, but the resource base needed to do the job. The same is true if we are going to give some control to supporters. Will the Minister guarantee that the supporters will have both the resource and the legal capacity to exercise that kind of control? Importantly, will it be clear that the objectives of the regulator will include the fact that football is a sport belonging to the community, not simply a commodity to be bought and sold like my club Manchester United or my other club Rochdale, which recently fought off a malicious takeover?

I recognise that the report is rather hefty at 160 pages, so perhaps not everybody has yet read every single element of it, but the summary reports are broadly accurate. I would not misread my comments; in principle, we support the regulator, but of course the details need to be worked on, including the scope, powers and resources, exactly as the hon. Gentleman has articulated. That is why I cannot come here today and say, “Absolutely, 100%”. We need to work on some elements, including the ways of working. In principle, we absolutely accept the idea of a regulator. It has overwhelming support in the country, and I hope that everybody watching can see that it has overwhelming support in this House.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on this review.

The English football pyramid includes five Welsh football clubs, including Wrexham football club, which is the fourth-oldest professional side in the world. Therefore, if my hon. Friend is going to take forward the proposals into legislation, will he assure the House that he will be liaising closely with the Welsh Government and obtaining all necessary legislative consent?

Yes, indeed; I can give my right hon. Friend that confirmation. He is absolutely right that we need to consider the clubs in Wales. I was delighted last year to visit Wrexham, which has some interesting and enthusiastic new owners, but we also need to consider the other clubs. Any changes in the English system would have implications for a limited number of clubs in Wales, and that would be taken into account in any forthcoming recommendations.

This is a brilliant report by a colleague of ours that everyone regards as their friend and a brilliant Sports Minister in the past. However, everyone knows that there is something not quite right at the heart of football, and it has to be sorted out. With a team and a club like Huddersfield right at the heart of the community, it is much bigger than just where it comes in the league; it is what it puts into the community. Real fans in Huddersfield and elsewhere will welcome this report. For too long we have had rich Russian oligarchs and rich Americans who do not really care about our communities doing what they will. As a Co-operative Member of Parliament, I would like all the clubs to be co-operatives and mutuals, but I know that is not in the report. This is a good report and I hope the Government will support it.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the pivotal role that our football clubs, and indeed many sports clubs, play in their community on an ongoing basis—and boy, did we see during the covid crisis how pivotal they were to their communities. I thank them for all the work they have done up and down the country in that regard. He is right that there are many elements in the report, some of which will require legislation. However, I repeat the appeal to the football authorities and football clubs: there are many recommendations in the report that make a lot of common sense, and they do not need to wait for legislation in order to move forward with changes on, for example, heritage, financial flows, aspects of governance and other things. In fact, I encourage them to start working and moving now.

I welcome the report from my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She and I share a passion in that we are both season ticket holders at Tottenham—and you have to be passionate about football if you are a season ticket holder at Tottenham at the moment. Yes, absolutely, the part about the regulator and all the other bits and pieces in the report are important. I agree a little bit with the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) with regard to the money. One of the areas that is really critical is that a successful league attracts money. As co-chair of the all-party Magnitsky sanctions group, I want to make sure that in the end, when the Government implement those, at the heart of it is an ability to stop people bringing money into our sport that actually degrades it and comes in very dangerous and dodgy circumstances.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments; he is absolutely right. There are, understandably, recommendations in the report on the owners and directors test, which is also right. There is an inherent instinct for not really liking too much regulation, but in this case, with football being so unique and so special, because it has shown itself to be incapable of reforming itself, we have to move, albeit reluctantly. Ideally we would not have had to take these measures. He is also right about the huge success and the important economic value of football to this country. A report recently came out that said, for example, that inbound tourism of people going to football matches was worth £1.4 billion alone to the UK economy, with 1.5 million people coming to the country just to watch our football matches. We really do appreciate that value and want to make sure that football is even more successful in the future because it is so pivotal to our communities but also our economy.

I thank the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for her work on this. Newport County is a club run by and for the fans and a stellar example of the benefits that supporter ownership can bring on and off the field. As part of the Minister’s response to this much-needed review of football governance, will he look at the Newport County model of community ownership as an example of how the game should be run—from the ground up?

We should be playing a game of football bingo today and see how many clubs we can tick off. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I am sure I speak for the author of the report and everybody else in saying that we do not want to give the impression that all of football is bad. There are many, many examples up and down the country of incredibly well-run clubs and models of engagement with fans that are admirable and that we really need to applaud. Indeed, we would like to see more of these successful co-operative models adopted in other parts of the country. She is absolutely right to point out the positives as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on producing such an excellent report and doing so at pace. Kettering Town football club is a popular local football club with a proud and long heritage and historical footballing success. It has scored more goals in all rounds of the FA cup than any other football club in the country and was the first club in the country to have sponsorship on its shirts. We need to get more money into grassroots football clubs like Kettering Town. Will the Minister therefore look favourably at the recommendations on the levy on transfer fees, which are currently astronomical? More of that money needs to go down to grassroots football.

I thank my hon. Friend for that piece of trivia—we learn something new every day. He is right that the flow of football finance is pivotal and it is important for the ecosystem that the grassroots succeed as well. We have already seen some changes and movement from the top tiers to grassroots and lower tiers, and the message today is that we would like to see more. Through the arm’s length bodies of Government and indeed football itself, we want to see more money flowing through to the all-important grassroots levels.

Some premier league footballers get paid more for a single match than the entire balance sheet value of clubs such as my local constituency team of East Fife. That indicates the gulf in resources. Can I press the Minister on what action he intends to take to prevent entirely unsuitable individuals or organisations from swallowing up more and more football clubs? Does he agree that it is too important to be left purely to self-regulation? Does he agree that it is time for legislation to prevent people who are unfit to be given a licence to run a pub from taking over football clubs in England, Scotland or anywhere else?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the future regulatory environment needs to look at a whole host of things. We will therefore consider the powers, responsibilities and resources of any regulator. He is also right that—I have said this before, and it is clear in the report—we cannot divorce financial flows from governance. The financial flows within sport, including purchasing and acquisition, are an important part, and we will respond in detail in due course.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on her excellent report. In my constituency I have Worksop Town—the Tigers—who are the fourth oldest club in the world. Worksop Town faced oblivion not too long ago but were saved by the fans and the community all pulling together to raise funds. We also had a generous benefactor as part of that. I am also a very long-suffering supporter of Notts County, who are the oldest professional club in the world, which I admit is hard work. Once upon a time, I was technically an owner of Notts County as I was a member of the supporters’ trust that took over the club. It was very well meaning and seemed to be a great model, but it was a fairly unmitigated disaster: we did not really have any money to invest and that caused problems down the line. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that, as is emphasised in the report, we must concentrate on a partnership between fans and owners and that, unfortunately, one cannot exist without the other?

I agree completely. It is really important that all clubs take their responsibility to their fans incredibly seriously. Unfortunately, as we saw with the European super league proposals, that relationship had broken down with some clubs. However, in the lower leagues in particular, we see much better relationships between owners and fans. Again, one of the important messages is that many owners have a great relationship with the clubs and the fanbase, including some of the international owners. It can work. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of ensuring that that relationship is pivotal in any future business model.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for her work on the issue and for championing the cause. The Minister has said many times to hon. Members across the House that he and the Secretary of State agree with the principle of the recommendations, and he has talked about legislation possibly next year. May I push him further for the detail of the Department’s formal response to the report as soon as possible? Millions of fans across the UK are waiting to know what the Minister and Secretary of State will do on timescales. It cannot be that, in a year’s time, we are still here debating it through another urgent question.

I absolutely appreciate the sense of urgency, because one basis of the report was to ensure that some of the crises that we have seen in the sport do not happen again, so there is an urgent need for action. On the process, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is an independent report that the Government need to respond to formally. I do not want to pre-empt those conclusions today; we need to do some work. I can tell him, however, that my first meeting to discuss the response to the report happened this morning. I will then need to have some conversations with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is sitting next to me, about the process and where we go forward as well—I am sure that he also heard the comments of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore).

I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for all her work on this excellent report. In my constituency, I have a series of very small clubs, such as Didcot Town, Wantage Town and Wallingford Town, which are often run on a shoestring by volunteers who put in their own money to keep them going. Can my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that, when he considers the report’s recommendations, he will think about how we can protect clubs such as those, not just clubs in the top two divisions? If they go, the community loses something important.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the pivotal role that clubs such as his play in their communities, as we have seen particularly in the last two years. It is vital that we put them on a sustainable and sound footing, so financial flows within the football ecosystem were part of the review. There is a lot of money in football, but it is not always in the right place.

The report suggests that the ban on drinking alcohol in the stands could be lifted. Although that may help to bolster club finances, it could have huge consequences for antisocial behaviour, particularly at big games when team rivalries can cause tensions to run high. Have the Government considered the impact that the ban’s removal could have? What measures would they put in place to mitigate that?

The hon. Lady will be aware that one of the recommendations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford is a pilot programme, rather than a full, wholesale removal in one fell swoop. In responding to the report we will consider all the aspects that the hon. Lady and others have mentioned, because there are many stakeholders with views and opinions about that.

Blackpool football club has suffered greatly over much of the past 10 years because of the actions of an irresponsible owner. Thankfully, the club is now in much better hands under its new chairman Simon Sadler and success is following on the pitch. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the new owners and directors test for clubs that the review outlines, which will hopefully help to avoid the situation we saw in Blackpool being widespread among other clubs?

My hon. Friend makes some important points. Without pre-empting our conclusions to the report’s recommendations, everybody is aware that the current owners and directors test has not fulfilled all of its expectations. Many issues and concerns have been raised about it, so my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has made recommendations in the report that we will seriously consider. I praise the new owners because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) has shown, a change of attitude and ownership can change a club’s position in its community overnight.

Like the hon. Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), I am a Leicester City supporter, which proves that the fanbase for the club transcends not only the Chamber politically, but the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I thank the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for her hard work and endeavours. The Minister is aware that the beautiful game can turn ugly when money becomes the only consideration for clubs. How will the reforms allow a structured approach without removing the ability for club governors to be innovative and make new calls? It is a delicate balance, as he has said, but does he believe that the Government have reached that point?

The hon. Gentleman makes some important points. We always need to ensure that the balance is right. The principle is that we want football to be even more successful and sustainable in future, which means encouraging and supporting innovation and investment. We need to make sure that that signal is out there, but that needs to be done responsibly. It is fantastic that he is a Leicester City fan. It is amazing how many new fans come out in this place when clubs are successful.