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Professional Football

Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 4 September 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the collapse of Bury Football Club, and (2) the case for an enquiry into possible reforms of the ownership and governance of professional football.

My Lords, the expulsion of Bury Football Club from the English Football League is a devastating loss to English football and to the people of Bury. It is right that questions are asked concerning the owners’ and directors’ test, and I am pleased that the EFL has already indicated its intention to undertake a review of the test. The Government support this and remain open to discussions with the football authorities to ensure that action is taken, where possible, to prevent further club failures.

My Lords, I am grateful for that positive response. After the real shock of what happened to Bury and almost happened to the next town along, Bolton, do the Government accept that in such towns—bigger towns and smaller towns, particularly old industrial towns in such places as the north of England—football clubs are essential to the local community? They are integral to the town’s status, its esteem, its cohesion, its sense of place and people’s identity there. Too many football clubs are caught up in what somebody once called the unacceptable face of capitalism—the worst kinds of capitalism—when the new owners are speculative and interested in their own personal promotion and not that of the town. What they do is too often quite immoral and consists of financial jiggery-pokery, even if it is not always illegal. In these circumstances, will the Government promote the wider inquiry into the whole state of professional football in this country that is now required?

I empathise with the noble Lord’s concerns and absolutely acknowledge the crucial role that football clubs play in their communities, both large and small, but the Government are clear that it is the responsibility of the football authorities to undertake any review. The Government are committed to supporting that if that is what they decide to do but are equally committed to making sure that lines of accountability should not be blurred.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness and welcome her to her present responsibilities—living proof, if one needs it, that the profits of capitalism and social awareness and justice can coexist. I look forward to exchanges with her over time. I also take this opportunity to congratulate—at least, I think I want to congratulate—her predecessor on his promotion. Bury Football Club is not just a place where 22 people play the game of football. It is really—the words were used but recognition is more than words—a whole town coming together, a culture and community centre. I would like to hear the noble Baroness commit the Government to supporting the local Member of Parliament, the supporters’ clubs, the local authorities and politicians from various backgrounds in their efforts to persuade the Football League to admit the precedent of readmitting Bury. Precedents are in the news at the moment. The Government seem ready to experiment with them; perhaps in this instance they might do so again.

I thank the noble Lord for his generous words. Like him, I look forward—who knows for how long—to debating these issues with him and other noble Lords across the Dispatch Box. He will be aware that the Sports Minister has been very vocal in his concern about what happened at Bury and nearly happened at Bolton. I share his concerns but, equally, the decision about whether clubs should be readmitted or not is for the English Football League, and is one where the Government can share their experience and act as a sounding board but not where we can get directly involved.

My Lords, for the reasons pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, what has happened at Bury Football Club is a tragedy for that community. It is sadly a fate that happened to the football club I support—Wimbledon FC, now AFC Wimbledon. The truth is that, without further radical action, it will be a fate endured by many more football clubs. Does my noble friend agree that these clubs need greater protection from greedy and incompetent owners? Does she also agree that encouraging greater fan and community ownership of these clubs is the best way to fix football’s broken business model? I impress on her the urgency of this. We cannot wait for the FA to act; it has no track record of doing so. I encourage the Government to do more.

With regard to tightening up the regulation, my noble friend will be aware that the English Football League has announced a “lessons learned” review, which we welcome. It will include a review of the eligibility criteria for directors and owners. It is also discussing with other clubs the potential introduction of a salary cap. On the relationship with fans, my noble friend will remember that there was a review in 2016 which made recommendations about removing barriers for fan ownership. The fans fund was set up with funds to advise fans in an emergency about making bids for their local club.

My Lords, I am sure everyone acknowledges the good news about the survival of Bolton Wanderers, but everybody in Bolton is desperately worried about what has happened in Bury, and the more we hear the worse it gets. There is a police inquiry and an insolvency practitioners’ inquiry, and I do not think that the Government can just say, “Let us leave a review to the football authorities”. Does the Minister accept that the least that should happen is that every football ground in the country should be designated as an asset of community value and that every football club should have representatives of supporters on its board?

My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness is expert on the subject, having listened to her speech in the summer, and I share with the House my pleasure that Bolton has been rescued. Obviously, I cannot comment on the fraud investigation or some of the other allegations around the club. The Government’s view is that the English Football League has a real interest, along with fans, in making sure that clubs are managed prudently. It must balance following its procedures with ensuring the integrity of the competition and maximising the survival of the clubs. I am aware that the point she makes about the ownership of grounds affects the smallest clubs outside the league the most. The department is very alive to that at the moment.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is not a new problem but is just the most recent chapter in it, and that all the professional team sports in this country—rugby union, rugby league and football—have suffered from this for a while? They all have models of good practice, none of which seems to work that well. Is this not a classic recipe for making the Government bring everybody together so that they can find out what works and when?

I absolutely agree that this is not a new problem; noble Lords will know better than I do that this has gone on for a while. I am the proud owner of a few shares in Bath City Football Club, which had a community buyout. I am possibly not the most loyal supporter, but there it goes. I absolutely agree that this is not a new problem. The Government have done some convening and bringing together, but we are very clear that our role in this is to stay independent.