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Fan-led Review and Football White Paper

Volume 728: debated on Monday 20 February 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if she will make a statement on the fan-led review of football governance and the publication of a football White Paper.

Our national game has become a worldwide sport, loved and followed by millions. The growth of the premier league, English football’s top division, is an achievement to be celebrated. Our grassroots game is a force for good to bring people and communities together across the country. However, the findings of the fan-led review made it clear that the underlying financial and governance structures that support English football are unstable and fragile. The review highlighted the perverse financial incentives that encourage clubs to overspend on chasing success. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for her considerable work in this area.

The issue is exacerbated by poor corporate governance. Some clubs lack scrutiny of decision making, are poor at communicating with fans and lack transparency in decision making. Defective industry self-regulation throughout football has led to a high and growing risk of financial failure among clubs. Indeed, one of my first meetings as the Minister for Sport was with fans groups. I heard at first hand how poor ownership and governance can leave clubs at the mercy of careless owners.

The structural weakness, along with the risk of breakaway competitions such as the European super league, threatens the stability of the football pyramid as a whole and risks leaving fans powerless and our national game in peril. The unique importance of football clubs to their fans and local communities means that the social cost of financial failures and the loss of clubs would be significant. That includes the risk of irreversibly damaging our valued cultural heritage.

Reform is needed to avoid those failures and prevent those impacts from arising. It is clear that the game is in need of significant reform. As I have stressed to the football authorities on several occasions, there is much that football could already be doing to protect the game. This includes reaching a much-needed agreement on a new package of financial redistribution for the football pyramid, and, again, I urge them to solve this issue.

The Government responded to the fan-led review in April 2022, and we will publish a football governance White Paper this week. This will set out a clear and well thought-through package of reforms that will ensure that the foundations of the game are strong and that the game can continue to thrive.

I make a commitment that Ministers will come before the House to make a statement with a full announcement on how we intend to reform our national game for the future and for fans, and we look forward to ensuring that hon. Members have the opportunity to fully scrutinise those proposals.

I thank the Minister for his response, but it is just not good enough. Three weeks ago, the entire White Paper was conveniently “leaked” to the press. He and I both know that it was ready to be given to the House before recess, yet he has still not published it today, and the Secretary of State has not even turned up. The very well-received fan-led review, conducted by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), was published more than a year ago. It was welcomed by both sides of the House, and the Government committed to implementing it in full. However, five months later, they dropped the ball and would commit only to a White Paper, which we have been waiting for ever since. Fans, football clubs and their communities deserve better and this Government are letting them down. Can the Minister tell the House why he has not published it today, or before today, given that it was clearly expected before recess?

There is widespread support for an independent football regulator, and for the recommendations of the review. The arguments for that grow stronger every day: Bury FC has collapsed; and Derby County nearly went under. From Southend to Scunthorpe, other clubs stand on the brink. A European Super League is back on the table. Manchester City and the Premier League face years in the courts. Negotiations over the sale of Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton are going on as we speak, and we are still nowhere on those financial settlements for the pyramid.

Fans are desperate for a proper say and for assurances about ownership and sustainability of these global and local assets, yet without a regulator these assurances cannot be made. Will the Government take responsibility for clubs that go bust, that spiral into decline or that are bought by unsuitable new owners, in the years they have wasted bringing in the regulator? As we will see again today, Parliament fully supports these proposals. Labour is fully committed to them. The Minister is facing an open goal, so instead of constantly passing it back, can he just put the ball into the back of the net?

Just before the Minister responds, let me add that the Secretary of State did tell me that this was a serious leak. In which case, I would like to know whether there has been a full investigation, and at what point the House will be updated on that investigation, which I presume has started.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I make no apology for taking time to ensure that the White Paper, which we will publish this week, actually addresses what are essentially quite complex and sometimes difficult issues. It is important that we think about all aspects of the game. We do not want to do something that might damage the commercial success of the premier league. The Opposition may think that they can just publish a report in a week, but I have taken a considerable amount of time—and I am glad that I have done so—to meet all the stakeholders involved in this and to listen to their varying views. If the shadow Secretary of State had had the same conversations, she will have seen that there are competing views. It is important, therefore, that we take those carefully on board, listen to them and ensure that we come up with the best advice possible. We have also ensured that we have sought the best external advice from those who have been involved in the establishment of other regulators. That is the right thing to do.

I must point out that it was this Government who commissioned the review in the first place and, as I have mentioned a number of times, that football need not have waited; it could have got on with this, but it has not. We will publish our intention with the White Paper this week so that we can celebrate what is good about football and reform it where it is needed.

Thank you; I will.

My right hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the huge degree of unanimity across the House on the need for urgent reform, given the many crises that we know have affected and continue to affect clubs at the top of the game and further down the pyramid. On that basis, I am pleased to hear that we will see the White Paper later this week, but he will be aware that that is only one step in the process. The White Paper will need to be followed by legislation before we see a regulator or any of the other reforms we want. Can he tell me whether it is the Government’s intention to legislate in this Session, and if not, is it their intention to legislate in this Parliament to introduce these much-needed reforms?

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the issue. We will set out our plans for reform of the game in the forthcoming White Paper. As with all Government policy, when the Government commit to reform, legislation only follows when parliamentary time allows, and we will be working on that at pace.

Will the Minister just stop trying to deflect attention by saying that football will sort itself out? The mess that the game is in is because football has not sorted itself out. That is why we need the Government to come in with a clear statement, a White Paper and a commitment to legislate speedily. The message is simple—he must have talked to the English Football League, which says there is no chance of an agreement on funding with the Premier League, because the Premier League holds all the money and all the cards and it will never give to the rest of football that which is enough to make the rest of the game sustainable.

The hon. Gentleman likes to tease me regularly on this issue. I agree with him; that is precisely why we will publish the White Paper on Thursday, and I am sure he will be pleased with its contents.

Supporters groups are doing hugely important work. It has taken groups such as Action for Albion and Shareholders for Albion to highlight the genuine concerns about owners’ financial mismanagement of West Bromwich Albion. Will the Minister ensure that supporters groups have an enhanced role in football governance when the White Paper is published later this week?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been an active campaigner on this issue and has worked incredibly hard with the fans groups in her area. She is right, and that is why the first meeting I had was with fans groups. I want to ensure that they are the ones we consider most when we publish the White Paper.

I am concerned that the Minister, in his response, has pointed the finger at least to some extent at the EFL and implied that he has listened to owners as much as he has to fans. That deeply concerns me. Two great challenges that football faces are: bad and dodgy governance, and institutionalised unfairness of income. Some 93% of football television income goes to the premier league clubs, despite the fact that a majority of fans going to watch games each weekend are going to EFL and non-league games, not premier league games. Only 35% of transfer revenue from premier league clubs goes to the EFL, even though the majority of British premier league players have played in those lower divisions. Does the Minister understand why many of us are concerned about the tardiness of this process and the fact that Ministers seem to be listening to the owners more than to the fans?

I totally reject that accusation; if anything, I have spent more time with EFL, the Premier League, the Football Association, and fans groups and supporters groups than with any of the owners, because I recognise that the changes we need to see arise from the evidence that the fan-led review highlighted, much of which came from hundreds of hours of work listening mainly to fans. The hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of what I have said, as meaning that I am spending more time with owners, is factually incorrect.

The Minister is a diligent man, and I am pleased that he has taken the time to look into the system and is coming forward with a White Paper next week. He cannot comment specifically on the Manchester City issue, but the fact that there are more than 100 charges—particularly about not co-operating —does raise questions. Will he confirm that the independent regulator will have the power to compel clubs to co-operate with the Premier League and the authorities when they are dealing with such important issues?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that I cannot comment on a live investigation. However, the case that he highlights does not affect the reforms that we will introduce, which we know are needed in football. We want football authorities to take action where they can, and they have in this instance. I am sure that he will be reassured by the contents of the football governance White Paper that we will publish shortly.

The Government commissioned the fan-led review of football governance, and it was the Government who published it. They did not make it clear at the time that they intended to prevaricate and then announce further consultation through a White Paper. One wonders what it is the Government think they will find out from the White Paper that they have not already found out from the fan-led review. Will the Minister commit to implementing all 10 recommendations of the fan-led review, or is the White Paper going to unpick them?

I absolutely welcome the Minister’s statement and the Government’s commitment to implementing the fan-led review, because although next month marks the first anniversary of Southend becoming a city, our treasured football club, Southend United, faces severe financial difficulties. Supporters’ clubs have done a huge amount, but will the Minister meet me to discuss what the Government can do, if anything, to help? Will he also confirm that the upcoming White Paper will address the hugely unfair redistribution of Premier League solidarity payments, which is one of the reasons why Southend United is in the position that it is?

I commend my hon. Friend for her work, particularly in support of her local football club. I would be more than happy to meet her. I can assure her that we are taking action exactly because of examples such as the one she raises, as she will see in the White Paper when we publish it.

I noticed that the Minister did not answer the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) on when we will see the implementation of the White Paper in primary legislation. Given the way things are going, the danger is that it will be delayed until next year. That is too late. A number of clubs are already in serious financial straits, and a number of them could go under within the next few months. As we have seen over the past few years, that situation will get graver and graver, not better.

I absolutely recognise that the issue needs addressing. That is why we have taken a considerable amount of time to get this right, and I believe that we have. I think that the White Paper will help us to secure our national game, but—as I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green)—when parliamentary time allows.

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

As has already been mentioned by a number of Members, Southend United is in financial crisis. As well as involving fans, can we involve the broader community? In the case of the Southend United development, there will be an extra 2,400 social houses as a result of the development if the club goes forward beyond the insolvency in two weeks’ time.

I know that my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) have worked incredibly closely together in support of the local football club. He is right to highlight the significant role that all football clubs play in our communities. Addressing many of those issues is precisely what we sought to do in developing the White Paper, and I hope that he will be satisfied when he sees it published this week.

Football without fans is nothing. The delay in the publication of the White Paper should worry every supporter. What we need now is protection for the future of the game: we need a regulator with teeth and a fit and proper owners test that is fit for purpose. As a Liverpool fan, I am worried about what we might face in future—I am sure that every other supporter of a club is the same. The delay in legislation harms the future of the game.

Events this week, with the publication of the independent review of the events in Paris, which exonerated Liverpool supporters, show that governing bodies such as UEFA and Governments have a long way to go with regard to the treatment of supporters. We must never forget that they are the lifeblood of the game, which is why this is important—this is a crucial point in football history. Will the Minister assure me that the White Paper places supporters at the heart of decision making to ensure that their voices are heard and that they can play a major role in shaping the future of football in this country?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We were all glad to see that the Liverpool fans were exonerated. The fact that they faced such disgraceful action was appalling. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will shortly meet her French counterpart to understand what lessons are being learned from that awful incident. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the fans need to be at the heart of this, which is why they were the first group that I met when I was appointed, as I said at the beginning. They have been foremost in my thoughts when I have been working on the White Paper.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to bring forward the White Paper this week. I want to press the Minister on three points. First, it is important to ensure that we have a robust test for the ownership, particularly foreign ownership, of our clubs. Secondly, it is critical to ensure that the parachute payments for relegation do not make it almost impossible, frankly, for clubs to break into what risks becoming the closed shop of the premier league. Thirdly, as several hon. Members have said, it is central to ensure that we legislate in a timely fashion. I gently point out to the Government that we are not overburdened with legislation on Thursdays, for example, so there is scope within the next year to bring forward legislation to deliver a great outcome for the game that we all love.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that the ownership of our clubs is an important area of work. We know that there are some very good owners and some very bad owners; that will be addressed in the White Paper. It will also address the fact that we want to see payments go down the pyramid, so that there is more financial sustainability. On committing to legislative time in Parliament, as a former Whip, I know how much trouble I would be in if I were to step on the Whips’ plans, but I will certainly emphasise his point.

The Prime Minister promised to implement all 10 of the fan-led review’s recommendations before the World cup, including having an independent regulator and giving fans a key role in decisions about selling stadiums or changing a team’s name, colours or crest, yet he failed to even publish a White Paper in time. Can the Minister commit that all those measures will be covered in the White Paper that is now coming out this week, and can he commit to making them law this year?

I am in terrible danger of repeating myself, but I assure the hon. Lady that many of the issues that she has raised are included in the White Paper. We have taken careful consideration of all the points raised, not just in the review, of course, but by other stakeholders, as she will see in just a few days.

I thank the Minister for his response. Obviously, I understand the caution that he is referring to, but as an avid football fan, I know first hand the disconnect between fans and club owners. Does he agree that the owners and directors test, as proposed in the fan-led review, is a workable solution to ensure that the sophisticated business regulations required are produced as a result of the review?

Of course, the owners and directors test is an important element of the White Paper. We want to ensure that the people who own the clubs are not reckless with that ownership—they are custodians of important community assets. We want to ensure that that happens and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will enjoy reading that section of the White Paper.

Over the years, we have seen some owners treat football clubs more like cash cows than the community assets we all want them to be. Pending the publication of the White Paper later this week, will the Minister say whether he thinks there is merit in ensuring that any new owner seeking to take control of an English club is subject to a more stringent fit and proper persons test?

We are on our way to Wembley, and I am sure the Minister will join me in wishing every success to Newcastle United in the league cup final on Sunday. However, he must know that even that success will not erase the years of anger and frustration at unsuitable, unaccountable, and sometimes downright dodgy ownership within a Premier League that is out of touch and does not seem to care about fans. Fans should be at the heart of football, but this Government are messing with the heart and soul of fans. Will the Minister commit now that the White Paper will institute an independent regulator and that fans will have real power in the beautiful game, and that those measures will be in place by the start of the next season?

I am looking forward to attending that match at the weekend, and I already have a list as long as my arm of people who want to join me. The hon. Lady is right; she is an advocate, and other advocates such as my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Sara Britcliffe) have talked about the club Accrington Stanley and all the work it does and how important the fans are. The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue, and I can assure her that throughout this process, I have tried my best to ensure that the voices of fans are heard in the White Paper that will be published this week.