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Sport: Football Clubs

Volume 756: debated on Thursday 30 October 2014

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to giving football fans a greater say in the running of clubs.

My Lords, I am very pleased to have the chance to open this debate on giving football fans a greater say in the running of their clubs. In doing so, I declare my interests because I have for a long time been a season ticket holder at Bolton Wanderers Football Club; I should also mention that I receive hospitality from that club or, as the chairman said in the summer, “You can suffer with the rest of us”, which sometimes is the case for all football fans. I want also to mention that I am president of the parliamentary football club, a group that has done much to raise funds for charities and awareness for groups such as Prostate Cancer UK. The club also has a great interest in these issues.

Football is important to me and my family. We are all somewhat addicted, we are all regular match-goers and, like many others in this House and on these Benches, the results at the weekend will determine our mood for the rest of the week. We tend to look forward to the very end of the football season and the relief from the tension that that brings, and then immediately get withdrawal symptoms and realise that summer Saturdays are just not the same. This is because football is more than just a business or a sport. Anyone who does not realise this just does not understand the importance of our national game.

It is true that football is tribal. My husband actually believes that when you register a child’s birth, you should also register the team that they support and that this should not be a matter of choice. Football being tribal can and has brought some difficulties and problems, although I am glad to say that that is less the case today. By and large, this is a positive factor, giving fans a sense of community and belonging. Good clubs and their players recognise this by giving back to their communities, as indeed does Bolton Wanderers.

However, that is not always the case. There are owners of football clubs who are genuine fans and who suffer defeats with the rest of us. But there are owners—and this seems to be an increasing problem—who regard their clubs as just another business and who forget or ignore the essence of the club, the fans and their community. Some owners have no links and little loyalty to their club. They think that you can change club colours on a whim. Some even want to change the name of the team. As we have seen recently from the BBC’s Price of Football survey, average ticket prices have increased almost twice as much as the cost of living since 2011—all without any reference to the core supporters, local communities and fans. These owners are treating the club as a commodity and nothing more.

This is why my colleague in another place, Clive Efford, the shadow Sports Minister, has put forward on behalf of the Labour Party plans to give football fans a greater stake in their clubs. Put simply, the idea, which has been drawn up after considerable consultation, is that supporters should come together and form an accredited trust along the lines of industrial and provident societies, with their own governance standards. Then those trusts should get the right in the first place to appoint and remove up to a quarter, and not less than two, directors of the club’s board. Supporters would also get the right to purchase, if they wished, up to 10% of shares when a club changes hands. This would allow fans a say at the top level and help to hold owners to account for issues such as ticket pricing, shirt sponsorship, strip colours and even the name. My honourable friend in another place is now undertaking further consultations, and I hope that all those in authority in football will look at these details carefully.

I understand that the Government have been promising action on this issue for quite some time. Indeed, there was reference to this in the coalition agreement, which stated that it would encourage,

“co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters”.

I know that recent pressure is eventually leading to the establishment of what has been called an expert group of supporters who are going to consider all these issues. That sounds like the long grass to me. It does not give great prospect of action and that is not good enough at this stage.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has a Private Member’s Bill on the governance of sport. It is quite a substantial Bill—very substantial for a Private Member’s Bill—but I would like to see it go further in this direction. The noble Lord has asked me to apologise for his absence in this debate; he is inevitably abroad today. However, he has said:

“The principle of representation by supporters on the boards of the professional clubs seems to me essential.”

I welcome that, but we have to find the mechanisms to deliver that representation.

I also welcome the Premier League’s statement that it,

“welcomes the invitation to discuss with Labour their ideas on football governance”.

The Premier League has pointed out its work to get clubs to engage with supporters, which we welcome, and its funding for the Football Supporters’ Federation and for Supporters Direct, an organisation that we can all be proud of because of the work that it has done in recent years. I hope that the Premier League will look carefully to see the benefits of these proposals, because they are really positive for football in the future.

We have examples of supporters’ trusts up and down the country making a positive contribution to football. At present, eight of the 92 trusts own more than 10% of the shares of their clubs and some—Exeter City, Portsmouth, Wimbledon and Wycombe Wanderers —are wholly owned by supporters. A premiership club, Swansea, has the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust holding 20% of the shares. They may be at the centre of what happens to their club in the future. Two days ago it was reported that there was a new potential bid for the club. To have supporters there at that time is extremely good for football.

We can also remember the remarkable developments at Heart of Midlothian, when the club’s foreign owner refused to sell to the fans. The club then went into administration. However, it was rescued by the fans with the establishment of the Foundation of Hearts, with help from Ian Murray MP and my noble friend Lord Foulkes. This group managed to get 8,000 supporters —they only get 14,000 for a match against Hibs—to sign up to a regular direct debit to purchase the club out of administration. They have had support from a local fan and businesswoman, Ann Budge, and the club is now literally on the way up: it is top of the Scottish championship. That was a remarkable achievement.

Of course, not everyone welcomed Labour’s initiative, but most did and I had to look hard to find any criticism. I found an article in the Daily Telegraph that described this as “effectively nationalisation”. Either the journalist did not understand our proposals or he did not understand nationalisation, which was strange, as the same journalist praised Swansea as one of the most successful clubs of the last few years.

I venture to suggest that harnessing the support and wisdom of fans will strengthen football clubs all ways round, in business terms as well as in community terms. I believe that there is widespread support for these proposals and that it is time for action. I look forward to real progress for football fans.

My Lords, some people think that football is a matter of life and death, but I can assure them that it is far more serious than that. The late great Bill Shankly knew of what he spoke. Like it or like it not, there is only one majority sport in Great Britain, and it is Association Football. I love swimming; the Olympic and Paralympic Games were awesome; golf, cricket, rugby and Formula One are all excellent; but only one sport dominates in Britain and that is the sport of soccer.

To go to any of the grounds, many of them now long gone, to walk through the small side streets that lead to Upton Park, to Filbert Street or to my home club at Molineux, the golden palace that is the home of Wolverhampton Wanderers, is to get a true sense of why football currently has this place. It grew up out of the communities that surround the grounds. You can feel it in the streets and in the hearts of the local people who have committed to their clubs since their initiation in Victorian times. There is now an undoubted divide—some may say it is a seismic chasm—between fan and club. It is a divide which has to be narrowed if not eradicated. Anything that we can do to draw the fan, the player, the manager and the club closer together has to be a positive thing and worth striving for.

I want to focus on two areas: safety and inclusion. The Sports Grounds Safety Authority has done excellent work for the last 20 years. It was born out of the tragic events at Hillsborough in 1989. One of the authority’s key recommendations has been to have fans involved in the local authority safety advisory group. There are two important points to make. First, this demonstrates that fans should be involved in every element of football, not just with the governance of the club but in every element of the spectator experience. Secondly, and crucially, sport is nothing without safety.

On inclusion, it is great if we can have champions for inclusion on the board of directors of Premiership and Football League clubs. Spectators should be involved and connected in key positions so that they can give their own personal perspective on how to make football a truly inclusive sport: a sport for everybody. When I was part of the leadership team at LOCOG, we could quite easily have ignored, avoided or minimised inclusion, but we believed that it was the way to make London 2012 the most inclusive and, through that, the most successful Olympic and Paralympic Games ever. Disabled people were involved in key leadership positions, along with people from black and minority ethnic groups, and women, through all the strata of the company. We set up a built environment access panel to focus on the accessible and inclusive build of all the stadia. We had an access, diversity and inclusion board to ensure that everything we did at LOCOG would be truly inclusive. Football is no different.

Now, as a non-executive at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I have the privilege of leading our sports inclusion programme. Working with the professional sports of cricket, rugby union and football, over the next 18 months we aim to make these sports more inclusive by some considerable measure for decades to come. Yes, we want to get more girls playing sport, yes, we want to get more BME people involved across the three sports, and yes, we want to get disabled people involved to ensure that stadia are physically and culturally accessible to everybody.

Football is at the heart of the community. One key way to reconnect and ensure that it holds that place by right and respect is by making the game, the club and the experience truly inclusive. We are working to have access reviews of all grounds, with spectators involved in the process. If we can make rugby, cricket and football accessible and inclusive, it will not just make for better sport, it will make for better Britain.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for initiating this most significant and important debate. There is also in the Labour Party paper that sits behind it a very interesting contribution that is surely worthy of keeping this discussion going for much longer than this evening.

I have one final caveat. When the left gets involved in sport, caution is required. I refer to an article in the Guardian in 2003 involving my club, Wolverhampton Wanderers. In the corrections column—it is unusual, I know, for there to be a typo in the Guardian—it said:

“In our interview with Sir Jack Hayward, the chairman of Wolverhampton Wanderers, page 20, Sport, yesterday, we mistakenly attributed to him the following comment: ‘Our team was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League.’ Sir Jack had just declined the offer of a hot drink. What he actually said was ‘Our tea was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League.’ Profuse apologies”.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my friend the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, even though he plays in blue.

I declare an interest as a lifelong supporter and current season ticket holder at Arsenal Football Club. I know only too well the unique bond that exists between a supporter and a club. Often it brings frustration and despair, but also the greatest moments, such as winning the Cup at Wembley. This bond is a commitment for life and the power of football in people’s lives can bring many positive things, including a focal point for community pride. But we must remember that without fans football is nothing. Most cynically put, fans are vital wallpaper and ambient sound for lucrative TV coverage.

Until recently I was a director of the Arsenal fan-share scheme. This is a pioneering scheme that enabled Arsenal fans to buy a part share in Arsenal. As the price of one share is now £15,000, the scheme allowed fans to come together to own an affordable part of a share—called a fan-share. The FSA-regulated scheme was successful at its launch and hailed by many, including the FA, the Premier League, Michel Platini of UEFA, and Jeremy Hunt and Hugh Robertson, who were Secretary of State and Minister for Sport respectively at the time, spoke positively of the scheme as a model for football clubs to follow in terms of supporter ownership-engagement.

The scheme quickly secured almost 2,000 members and collectively they held 120 shares in Arsenal. That meant that 2,000 more fans had a small share in the club’s ownership and there were 120 places to attend the AGM and hold the club’s directors to account. Holders of fan-shares received the club’s report and accounts, and all the information that chief executive Ivan Gazidis sent to Arsenal’s supporters.

Arsenal has benefited greatly over many decades from maintaining stability in its ownership structure, and from having supporters who own shares and are actively involved in this structure. Plurality of ownership has served Arsenal well, and is the best way to ensure that the necessary checks and balances are in place to protect the club’s long-term future.

Sadly for the fan-share scheme there was a takeover of Arsenal Football Club by Stan Kroenke during the scheme’s early days. This changed everything. Despite many attempts to engage him, Mr Kroenke has refused to meet anyone from the scheme and to support its development. With him buying up all the shares during the takeover, the scheme has struggled to find new shares to buy and was unable to market itself to new members. It is now facing closure. A final plea for Mr Kroenke to issue new shares to the scheme has been refused.

In this regard it is a great pity that the DCMS has taken so long to establish its expert group on football ownership, as recommended to it by the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust. If it had done so, it might have found ways to provide more support to schemes such as fan-share. While Ministers spoke highly of it, they regrettably offered no tangible support when it mattered. As the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust advised the DCMS Select Committee, there are legislative barriers, such as those contained in the Financial Markets and Services Act, that make it more difficult to promote the scheme. I welcome that there is now finally a group to look at these barriers.

We need to go further. We need to discuss how supporters are given a greater say in the way that clubs are run. That is why I welcome the proposals put forward by my honourable friend Clive Efford in the other place and by my party to have fans elected to the boards of football clubs. In my opinion, and that of many other fans I meet, clubs such as Arsenal are too important to be controlled by just one person, and these measures would address that.

It could be achieved by legislation. It could also be achieved by the Premier League and the Football League making changes to their rulebook. The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust has argued that the rules should require supporters at all clubs to be treated in the way they would be if they held equity in the club, even in cases where they do not, and to be offered things such as financial reporting in a format similar to that required under the Companies Act and twice-yearly meetings between representatives of supporters and directors and executives of the club.

In conclusion, I hope that the Government can make progress on these issues with the recently announced expert working group. I also hope that they will correct their omission of not including any representatives from Premier League clubs that face these engagement barriers. But their track record to date is not encouraging. For real change, we have the proposals from Labour and that is why my advice would always be to support the team in red.

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, although it is interesting that he has just revealed to us that he is so rich he can afford a season ticket at Arsenal. I am not in that league, I am afraid. I support the football club I used to watch when I was a kid, in the Third Division North, the Fourth Division and the Third Division; unfortunately, it was unceremoniously dumped out of the Football League in 1970 and is now slowly and erratically making its way up the non-league pyramid. The club is Bradford Football Club, which people will know as Bradford Park Avenue. It is currently in the second non-league tier, the Conference North—or Vanarama, as we have to call it this year.

I make a serious point here that professional football extends below the bottom of the Football League—what is now known as League Two—certainly into the Conference Premier, where I think about half the clubs are full-time professional clubs and the others are part-time. Certainly, 12 of the 24 clubs have been in the Football League, most of them quite recently, so there is a continuous spectrum from the very top down to the very low levels of the non-league pyramid. These are important clubs. To all intents and purposes, the Conference Premier is now a Fifth Division, and is recognised as that.

The rest of the pyramid is largely composed of part-time professionals; towards the bottom, some of the players are not even paid. It is all part of the richness of the British football system. Although most people who watch football watch the Premier League, for obvious reasons, most people who play football do not play in any of those leagues. They play in Sunday leagues or in boys’ or girls’ leagues. One of the most important aspects of any review of the governance and finance of football must be that more of the enormous amount of money being paid at the top has to filter down through the system. It has to filter down through the leagues and the non-league tiers to the grass roots. Any reform of governance that does not achieve that will not be fundamental in its results.

My party, the Liberal Democrats, being one of the few democratic parties left in British politics—I do not know why the Labour Party people are laughing; if I was in the Labour Party, I would be ashamed of the way that party is now run, but that is not the subject of this debate—had a debate on football and we passed a resolution and some amendments to it. Certain key parts of that resolution do not differ a great deal from what the Labour Party is now saying. There is a developing consensus, certainly outside the Conservatives, that a great deal needs to be done to reform football.

First of all, we called for an independent review of governance. This might sound like the long grass, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, said. It is really quite disgraceful that the Conservatives have blocked a policy that was in the coalition agreement four years ago. Anybody who thinks that running a struggling football club is difficult should try going into coalition with the Conservatives. Nevertheless, something is now coming out of it and progress is being made.

Secondly, the fundamental proposal that we put forward was that all professional clubs should have a supporters’ trust by law. That trust should have certain basic rights to block or influence essential things about the football club, such as the location of the club—we all saw what happened with Wimbledon, which was ridiculous—and the colours, name and essential nature of the football club in relation to its local community and supporters.

I am running out of time. I could read out the whole of this resolution, but it is three pages long so I will not do so—it is bound to be three pages long if it is a Liberal Democrat resolution. I urge Members on the Labour benches to have a look at it, because there is a huge amount of common ground and we can go forward together to develop a consensus on how to change the very unsatisfactory structure of British football at the moment.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lady Taylor of Bolton for putting this Question down for debate today. Football is a great part of our national life and of our local communities, and we need to have further debates in your Lordships’ House on these issues. At the outset, I should say that I have supported Millwall all my life, I am proud to be a season ticket holder and I declare an interest as such.

I very much agree with the other noble Lords who have spoken about improving the governance of football and giving the fans—the people who turn out loyally to support their teams every week during the season—a greater say in running their football clubs. Without the fans and without their loyalty, there would be no football clubs.

Like Supporters Direct, as my noble friends Lady Taylor of Bolton and Lord Knight of Weymouth said, I very much welcome the announcement by my friend and fellow Millwall supporter Clive Efford MP, detailing Labour’s plans for a shake-up of football governance. These plans will deliver on the objective of ensuring that fans have a real role in the ownership and running of their clubs. They will give supporters’ trusts the power to appoint or remove up to a quarter of the football club’s board of directors and create a formal relationship between the supporters’ trusts and their clubs. The importance of having a seat for fans at the boardroom table where decisions are made cannot be overstated. I am proud that Millwall is one of the clubs that has delivered on this. Mr Peter Garston was elected by all season ticket holders and Millwall Supporters Club members to the board of the club. I also welcome the proposal for a right to buy 10% of the shares on offer during a change of ownership.

As I said earlier, I have been a supporter of Millwall all my life; it is the local team in the part of south London where I grew up and where I live. It is situated inside the London Borough of Lewisham, just yards from the London Borough of Southwark. It is a great community-focused club with a proud history. Our songs from the terraces with lines like “No one likes us, we don’t care” and “Let ’em all come down to the Den” are known by many; some of the other things that the club does may not be.

Local residents will always be grateful for the support the club gave to the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign. The players supported the campaign on the pitch; they wore it on their shirts; they came on the marches; they brought the bus to the rallies and they brought the team mascot along so that the children and a few adults could have their photographs taken with him. They helped raise money that was used in the judicial review that proved so successful. The club understood how important the hospital’s survival was to the local community.

Various charities are supported by the club, including Prostate Cancer UK, Help for Heroes, the Jimmy Mizen Foundation and many others, including the London Taxi Benevolent Association for War Disabled, which raises money to send World War II veterans back to mainland Europe for commemorative events. In addition, local charities can write in to ask permission to hold bucket collections at the ground on match days. Collections are also held for the Peckham food bank on match days.

The club has refused to have anything to do with payday lenders; you will not find a single advert for them anywhere in the ground, in a match programme or on the club website. I congratulate the club for that and hope very much that, one day, no clubs will have anything to do with payday lenders.

In conclusion, I thank my noble friend for putting down this Question for Short Debate today. I wish we had more time to discuss it.

I am sorry not to be following the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney. He did a really good job chairing the Football League and I would have been interested in what he had to say. I declare my interest as a trustee of the AFC Wimbledon Foundation and a proud fan-owner of one of the most successful fan-owned clubs in the UK today: AFC Wimbledon.

Our history is one of two halves. It was born not out of a dream but out of adversity and the terrible governance by our own club and the FA. I know that that is something that my noble friend Lady Taylor seeks to improve. Let me tell our story. Our owner thought he could make more money from property than football so he sold the ground from under us. We blinked, and we were sharing a ground with Crystal Palace. We blinked again, and the FA had agreed a franchise and for our club to move to Milton Keynes. However, unlike the Bruce Springsteen song, our glory days were not behind us. Unsung heroes took two jumpers to Wimbledon Common and, nine years later, we appeared in the professional league again. That was despite being knocked for 18 points—later reduced to three—and kicked out of two FA competitions by the FA when one of our volunteers failed to complete an international transfer form for a player who used to play in Wales. The FA would not have done that to one of our rich clubs—but, as we know, in football money talks.

This rags-to-riches story of AFC Wimbledon is not a panacea for all clubs. Indeed, being fan-owned is a real struggle and the business model makes it very difficult to compete. However, just because other clubs cannot be fan-owned, it does not mean that we cannot have reform. In recent months, we have talked a lot about what divides our nations, but let us talk now about the thing that unites us: the love of the national game, football. From John O’Groats to Land’s End, from the Humber to Fishguard, we are united in our love of football. But, together, we have terrible governance. It makes no difference whether you look at the SFA, the FA or the Premiership. We deserve better and the governance arrangements at the moment are strangling talent development in our game. We could see that in the World Cup.

I ask the Minister today to adopt the reforms in the Efford report. I also ask the Government to do more. We now need a commission to have a root and branch look at the governance arrangements in our national sport. Suggestions such as this often fall flat because nobody can find the right person to chair the commission, so I put forward the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Loughborough, who was one of the architects in turning around our Olympic fortunes and was behind the medal-winning strategy in Beijing and London. There is a novel and radical thought to leave with your Lordships: a woman getting involved in the national game.

My Lords, I start by congratulating my noble friend Lady Taylor on securing this debate. She outlined so eloquently why football is not just the national sport throughout the UK, but why it means so much to so many people and how it affects them. I particularly liked the noble Baroness’s evocation of a weekend made or destroyed by what happens on a Saturday afternoon. I know that all too well.

I declare an interest on two counts, as I am a member of two football supporters’ trusts. One is the Dons Trust, as my noble friend Lady McDonagh has just outlined. The other is as a founder member of ArabTRUST, the trust of Dundee United. Both of those situations grew out of a position whereby football supporters—who, as other noble Lords have said, are the lifeblood of the game—were being treated with utter contempt by the people who own the clubs. My noble friend Lady McDonagh outlined the situation very well as far as Wimbledon was concerned.

Dundee United was in a situation where the board of directors had not even issued all the shares in the club: it had in fact issued less than half. Of those that had been issued, the directors owned 90%. When a shareholder who was not a director died, that person’s family were not allowed to inherit the shares. The club’s directors had first option to buy the shares. Only if they decided not to do so, usually because the supporter had owned only five or 10 shares, could another member of that family be entitled to inherit them, as the person had stated in their will. That was a situation which not only denied the club money, because there were people who were willing to invest in the club, but also meant that the fans were shut out, as happens in so many other clubs.

That is a reoccurring theme in what we have heard today. Fans are asked to shell out more and more money for match tickets, programmes, food and drink and replica kit and so on. They are encouraged to do that but, when they have the nerve to ask for a say in the running of the club, in all too many cases they are patted on the head and told to go away, because that is too important for them to be involved with.

That is why I welcomed the establishment of the Supporters Direct movement some 10 or 12 years ago. When I was Minister for Sport in Scotland, I was very pleased to be able to give seed-corn funding for the Supporters Direct movement in Scotland. That has grown, as has the movement in England and Wales, which is very much to be welcomed. The situation at Dundee United was that a group of fans came together to try to force the club board to open up, and allow fans to buy shares in the club and have a say in the running of it. I was part of that campaign. We found a wealthy businessman, a committed supporter of the club, who had money available and was willing to put it in. It took a four-year campaign to finally convince the board that Mr Eddie Thompson should be allowed in, and eventually he took over the club. Sadly, he died in 2008, but his family now run the club and it is much more open and inclusive.

The ArabTRUST supporters’ trust, which I mentioned, is now the largest owner, with the Thompson family, of shares in Dundee United. That is testament to the big changes that have taken place. It is very important that what happened there and at AFC Wimbledon—one of only four clubs in the Football League that are owned by the fans, as my noble friend Lady Taylor said—is seen to be possible. We are told that it is not possible at the top level. Swansea City is clearly an example of a club where a significant amount of shares can be owned by fans.

The Clive Efford initiative announced two weeks ago is also very important. This says that if clubs want to open up to their fans that is fine, but there are some which are determined to keep the door closed and it is just not acceptable for them to be run in that way. It seems to me that some clubs are appallingly badly run. I give the examples of Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Cardiff City and even Hull City. There was a proposal to change Hull City’s name to Hull Tigers, which would make it sound like a basketball team or an ice hockey team. I do not understand how a person who owned the club could have such a lack of feel for the game and what it means to the supporters to put forward such a preposterous suggestion. That is the sort of situation that would not happen if there was fan input at board level.

I welcome the fact that the expert group has been taken up. I am sorry that it has taken so long, but we are where we are. I hope that that will now begin, and can perhaps be taken forward after the general election by a Labour Government. I also hope that some of the proposals announced by Clive Efford will be brought into being, and that the very healthy development of more supporter involvement in football clubs will be taken forward.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for initiating this really important debate. As she said, football can unite communities and, regretfully, in some cases can even divide families. I am Arsenal red and my brother and sister are Chelsea blue, but there you go. That is life. English and Welsh football has undergone a transformation in terms of commercial success, the quality of football and even the experience of the spectator, but that sometimes comes at an extraordinarily high cost.

However, there is another side to this positive story, as my noble friend has highlighted. Since the creation of the Premier League, top footballers’ salaries have increased by 1,508%, compared to the 186% increase in average earnings. The percentage of turnover spent on players has increased from 48% in 1997 to 71.2% this year. With these huge rewards for owners, managers and players, who is representing the interests of the club as an inheritance to be passed on, thriving and intact, to the next generation, rather than just an asset to be sweated?

Since 1992, over half of England’s professional football clubs have been formally insolvent. Most only survived because the wider community received less than what it was owed in order to ensure that players continued to get all of what they were promised. There are no effective means for fans to have a say in how their clubs are run or to safeguard their long-term interests. That is why, as my noble friends have said, Labour is committed to having football fans on the boards of clubs.

Fans are now paying up to 1,000% more to watch their team play compared to 1992, all in order to support their club’s huge wage bills. As my noble friend said, the BBC’s Price of Football survey has shown that average prices have risen at almost twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011.

The Government’s recent announcement establishing the expert working group—promised, as we have heard, three years ago—on a way forward for supporter ownership has taken a long time to come. Perhaps the Minister would inform the House on why it has taken three years to establish that working group. The Minister of State in the other place, Helen Grant, responding to a question from my honourable friend Clive Efford, said that the group would look at very important issues such as pricing, club ownership and debt, and seating. I would be grateful if the Minister could inform the House on the mechanism for determining the terms of reference. Who, for example, did the Government consult and what prompted the inclusion of some items and not others?

While we are on the subject of inclusiveness, I will pick up the point made by my noble friend and ask the Minister why supporters’ groups from Premier League clubs have been excluded from the expert working group. After all, as my noble friend said, the suggestion of an expert working group was first made by Arsenal Supporters’ Trust in response to the Select Committee. Surely its voice should be heard.

In contrast, the Labour Party has listened over several months to the views of fans about changing the way that football is run in England and Wales. We want to ensure that those fans are heard by the owners of the clubs, too.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, on initiating this debate. She has considerable knowledge in this area, and interest and passion as a supporter of Bolton Wanderers and in her involvement in the parliamentary football club. It is refreshing to listen to a politician with hinterland; indeed, I had the privilege earlier in the year to attend a play, “This House” by James Graham, at the South Bank which seemed very much dedicated to the noble Baroness.

The thrust of this debate has been about English football or the English league, which of course encompasses Welsh clubs, too. My noble friend Lord Greaves rightly reminded us—I should perhaps refer to Members’ allegiances as I go along: his is Bradford Park Avenue, which must have been good preparation for becoming a Liberal Democrat—that the Football League goes beyond the league, and it is vital that we remember that.

Scotland and the Scottish League, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in the context of Dundee United, have similar concerns. Of course, these are rightly dealt with from Holyrood, although I am sure that there is an exchange of good practice with Scotland and Northern Ireland, too—and, indeed, with the Republic of Ireland, as the League of Ireland faces similar challenges to our own.

A generation ago, football in Britain was in decline. Most games were played before a few thousand diehards in dilapidated, down-at-heel grounds. There was often toxic racism on the terraces and in the grounds, and massive ground trouble, something the noble Baroness referred to. Overseas hosts of our matches feared the arrival of the Brits, and not because of the football. Now, five of the top 10 football clubs in the world by revenue generated, according to Deloitte’s, are in the Premier League: Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal—supported by the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Collins of Highbury. Both noble Lords are clearly very rich if they can afford season tickets there. I will return to the Fanshare scheme later, but this demonstrates the global phenomenon that the Premier League is, and it is important that we do not lose sight of the progress made while acknowledging that there are problems still to be addressed, namely—as highlighted today—fan involvement and engagement and fan ownership: that is absolutely right.

The Government are committed to helping supporters have better engagement with the clubs that they back, and more of a say on how those clubs are run. Some clubs have already made progress on that. English football has a long and colourful history, spanning everything from globally supported Premier League clubs, as I mentioned, to community clubs that are coaching the stars of the future and opening up sport to enthusiastic young fans and participants.

Since 2010 the Government have worked closely with football authorities on a wide range of issues, such as governance and financial sustainability. The close partnership has seen toughened-up rules on ownership tests—seen at play in, for example, Hereford recently—as well as improved financial transparency. In parenthesis, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that Premier League clubs are all public companies, so they are obliged to file accounts in accordance with the requirements of the Companies Acts. That is true of the Premier League clubs, though not of the whole League.

There are ongoing issues that need to be addressed in relation to debt and to ownership. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee football governance inquiry—how that trips off the tongue—of 2011 produced a final report in 2013 which made a range of recommendations for football as a whole. These included the setting up of an expert group. That final report came out in January 2013, not quite two years ago. Such an expert group, it said, should look at barriers to supporter ownership. That is important. One recommendation which was taken up, from an interim report, was for supporter liaison officers, who have been notably successful at, for example, Doncaster Rovers. All Football League clubs have brought them in. They have been a great success in some clubs and no doubt in time they will become entrenched and refined elsewhere.

Other countries have, culturally and historically, come at this from a different angle. Some clubs on the continent have much higher fan ownership, such as Bayern Munich and Barcelona, which are culturally and historically different from our own. In the English League we have some good examples of supporter ownership: ASC Wimbledon—backed by the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson—is an example. Portsmouth Football Club is an outstanding example, as too are Wrexham and Swansea. I know a bit about Swansea because I follow and support the Swans—or at least I did until they defeated Leicester City last weekend, as Leicester City is the team I have supported since childhood. They have not yet been forgiven for that.

Other successful schemes have been mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, referred to Millwall’s scheme and its community involvement. That is something else we should not lose sight of: all clubs have great community involvement and do fantastic work in their local communities and for charities. We should acknowledge that and thank the clubs for it.

Many other clubs have worked hard to establish supporters’ trusts, which have pursued ownership or part-ownership of their clubs. This is a welcome development and why the Government have established an expert group to look at this matter following the Select Committee’s recommendation. The Minister for Sport, Helen Grant, launched the expert group on supporter ownership and engagement on Tuesday 21 October at Portsmouth Football Club, a club which, in many ways, has pioneered supporter ownership. The group was developed in partnership with Supporters Direct, an excellent grass roots organisation. Supporters Direct was established in October 2000 in recognition that clubs need to be closer to their fans and communities to promote sustainable spectator sports clubs. Its mission is to increase the influence of supporters through ownership and involvement. I pay tribute to what they do.

My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond, who supports Wolverhampton Wanderers, referred to the importance of safety and inclusion. I could not agree more with that. I pay tribute to his work in that regard with London 2012, which were the most inclusive Games we have ever seen. The expert group is to be chaired by Joanna Manning-Cooper, so I say to the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, we have a woman in a prominent role who will no doubt deliver. I have no doubt that she will give a warm welcome to Karren Brady when she takes up her role here in the weeks to come.

The first meeting of the group will be in November when precise terms of reference will be agreed by the FA, along with Supporters Direct and the chair. Those people are the driving force behind this. I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, that this will not be kicked into the long grass. There is a commitment that this group will report before the general election. There is a feeling around the House, which I think is shared in another place, that it is important to get this right and that fans are rightly involved with their clubs. They are the lifeblood of clubs but sometimes we lose sight of that.

Consumer issues, including the pricing of tickets, will be looked at. We cannot all afford a season ticket for Arsenal. We have to help kids to get in by looking at how prices can be brought down. Some clubs which have not necessarily pursued community ownerships of their clubs have done that. For example, West Ham United has a “kids for a quid” scheme where kids often can go to a game for a pound. There are consumer issues about the pricing of tickets, the pricing of the strip and so on, as well as about the naming of a club. I offer reassurance to the noble Lord in relation to the issue with Hull Tigers. That was blocked by the football authorities; they sometimes get these things right.

Members have referred to the existing legislative framework. In the Companies Act 2006, there is an obligation on directors to take account not just of the providers of capital, the shareholders, but of stakeholders generally, which would include the community and fans—the consumers. Perhaps it is relatively early in the lifetime of the Companies Act, but these issues have not been tested in the courts yet. However, directors should be paying attention to the interests of the community and fans.

These all are important issues. It has been a very good debate. I thank all noble Lords for their participation but, once again, I thank the noble Baroness for bringing this important issue to the House. I encourage people to engage with the expert group. Its terms of reference and priorities will be set out within the next month. Then it is open to people, including the Labour Party, to contribute, so that we can get things moving in the direction that we all want, do not lose the great value that our football league is to the economy and the communities, and ensure that fans are much more widely engaged throughout the football league.