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Football: European Super League

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 20 April 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to reform the governance of English football to prevent the breakaway of six Premier League clubs into a European Super League.

My Lords, the Government will not stand by and watch football be stripped of the things that make millions across the country love it. We will continue to look at everything within our power to stop this proposal going ahead. The Secretary of State spoke to the FA, the Premier League and UEFA yesterday to give them the Government’s full support in pushing back on these proposals in the first instance. However, we stand ready to do whatever is necessary to represent fans and protect their interests.

My Lords, the six English clubs that have signed up to this grotesque project have, in the words of Stephen Fry on social media yesterday,

“brought together the whole divided nation, indeed all of Europe—everyone united in disgust & revulsion at such greed and stupidity.”

I look forward to hearing more in due course about how the Government plan to stop it. Meanwhile, I welcome the announcement of the setting up of the Government’s fan-led review into the administration of English football, chaired by the excellent Tracey Crouch MP. Can the Minister assure me that the terms of reference for the review will definitely include the possibility of establishing a statutory independent regulator? Reform here is long overdue.

I thank the noble Lord for his warm welcome to the announcement of the fan-led review and its chair. I can confirm that it will cover the merits of having an independent regulator, as well as financial sustainability and governance.

My Lords, do the Government agree that many people regard this proposal as an attack on our cultural heritage? In light of that, will they be even fiercer in trying to prevent these clubs forming in effect a cartel to control the revenues of the biggest spectator sport in the world? Will they make sure that other European nations are actively involved with them in preventing this?

We absolutely agree that this is an attack on our heritage, and nothing is off the table when it comes to protecting it, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said yesterday.

My Lords, the clubs supporting this proposal often claim that their fans are the beating heart of all that they do, yet sometimes it seems as if the loyalty of these very fans counts for little. Yesterday’s ministerial Statement was most welcome, but can the noble Baroness assure the House that, before any further action is taken, each of these clubs will be required to put the proposal to a vote, at least of their season ticket holders?

It will be up to the football authorities in the first instance to determine how to deal with this proposal but, as I have made clear, they have our full backing.

My forecast on the outcome of the Super League proposal will be some resolution through the courts, not the legislatures. The last time the courts were involved in football governance we ended up with the Bosman ruling, which just created more and more millionaire players and their agents, which was hardly in the public interest. Do this Government accept that they may well be powerless to intervene when my learned friends on both sides of the channel start to challenge the cartels that run football on behalf of the Super League?

I hope that my noble friend’s prediction about a resolution in the courts is wrong, because that implies a long and drawn-out process. As I have said, the Government are exploring all options to prevent this proposal, and we will continue to work with the football authorities and our counterparts across Europe to achieve this.

My Lords, I commend the robust stance taken by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and all those who have condemned this proposal for a so-called super league. It is unfortunate that five of the six clubs involved are foreign owned, with clearly no understanding of the depth of feeling of British supporters, who recognise that the football league structure is based on our heritage. Therefore, we must fight to ensure that this Super League is swept away and that football does not fall on the altar of greed and avarice. It was one of the great football managers, the late Bill Shankly at Liverpool, who once slightly exaggerated the interpretation of football’s importance when he said that football is not,

“a matter of life and death: it’s much more important than that.”

If Bill were here today, what would he think of his beloved Liverpool pursuing this act of folly? Will the Minister go along with the football supporters to show this group of individuals the red flag, or should I say the red card?

I do not think that the owners of the clubs to which the noble Lord refers can be in any doubt about the strength of feeling both from the fans and from this Government.

My Lords, will the Minister ask Tracey Crouch to hold public hearings around the regions while she conducts her inquiry?

I am sure that she will consider all her options to make sure that this is a transparent and effective review.

My Lords, I too express my disgust at this development. It is the culmination of many years of the style of ownership that has been so permissible under the way football has evolved. I am extremely sad that my own football obsession, Manchester United, is right in the middle of it. I applaud the Government’s seemingly strong stance. In this regard, I echo the call from the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, for an independent regulator to stop things persistently falling through the cracks of the structure of the FA, the Football League and the Premier League. Will the Government be prepared to go as far as introducing legislation to encourage a partial fan-based ownership model, similar to that currently operating in Germany? It is almost definitely, with no surprise, among the reasons why no German teams have been announced as part of this ridiculously named European Super League.

The Government have been consulting with fans and football stakeholders throughout the past year to understand exactly what is needed in the review. The Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State have both said that legislation is not ruled out, but we should not pre-empt the work of the review, which will start shortly.

My Lords, I, too, commend the Government on their robust response. As a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, a club that is involved in this, I, too, join in the condemnation of this idea. It seems to revolve around money rather than football. I ask my noble friend whether the Treasury might consider international tax co-ordination to address this issue via financial means?

My noble friend raises an interesting point. We have been clear that the football authorities are best placed to push back on these proposals in the first instance—they have our backing—but that nothing is off the table if they fail to do so.

My Lords, I thought Gary Neville spoke for millions of us football fans at the weekend when he condemned the Super League proposals. Can the Minister set out the sort of legal measures the Government are prepared to deploy in order to protect the competition laws that govern the current fair access system on which the football pyramid has long been built? When will the Secretary of State set out the terms for the fan-led review announced yesterday, when will it start and how will it seek to draw on the fan anger rightly directed at this football-destroying proposition?

With regard to the fan-led review, we will be releasing the full terms of reference imminently. In relation to the noble Lord’s question about what the Government can practically do to prevent this, we are looking at everything from governance reform, as I mentioned, to competition law and all the mechanisms which allow football to take place. We have been in close contact with colleagues from BEIS and the Competition and Markets Authority, who are examining whether this would contravene competition law.

Does the Minister agree that the outpouring of concern about the proposed European Super League shows that the organisation of professional football is not just a matter for private clubs to determine among themselves and that the relationship between clubs and their fans is not the same as that between a supermarket and its customers? Has not the time come to create a regulatory framework within which the governance and finances of the game can be managed with a degree of competence that has been sadly lacking in recent years?

The noble Lord is absolutely right, and this will be covered in our fan-led review. I think the House will share my confidence in Tracey Crouch as its chair, as the former Minister for Sport is very well placed to lead this.

My Lords, I react with some horror to the proposals for yet another regulator, which will end up simply being gamed by the big clubs, as most regulators tend to be. Instead I second the remarks of my noble friend Lady Altmann, who said that there should be a fiscal solution to this problem by way of imposing a non-dodgeable tax on sports clubs joining closed leagues, which I suggest should be equivalent to 100% of their broadcasting revenues. Would my noble friend be willing to put this to the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

There is great elegance in the apparent simplicity of my noble friend’s suggestions, but I just repeat that in the first instance, it is for the football authorities to deal with this and respond to the outpouring that we have heard from across the country.

My Lords, clubs cannot hoover up £300 million a year and pay the world’s best players wages that nobody else can match so that they can dominate domestic competitions as well. Fans of other clubs, such as Leicester, West Ham and my club, Villa, could never dream of competing for domestic trophies ever again. It is a closed shop cartel, anti-competition, anti fair play, and anti the very ethos of sport. Of course the football authorities should take a tough line, but the Government should be looking at this as well. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, is entirely correct: given that this is just about money, would not the threat of a windfall tax make the clubs think again?

I share many of the noble Lord’s sentiments, other than the implication that we are not taking this seriously: we are taking it extremely seriously. The Prime Minister had a round table this morning with all the relevant authorities and, as I said, nothing is off the table.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this outrageous proposal is a consequence of men who are rich enough to buy a football club but who do not buy into the values of football in this country? We all accept that Tracey Crouch is someone we have confidence in to undertake a review, but surely there is an urgency about this that requires action at the moment along the lines that have been suggested, including early legislation for an independent regulator, an assurance that fans can have a golden share and whatever fiscal measures might be needed to make it not worth the while of these clubs to go down this path?

I know the noble Baroness is hugely knowledgeable and passionate on this subject, and I have enjoyed listening to her in the Chamber in debates on football ownership and governance in the past. It is important that we separate out the immediate urgencies of the issues raised by this proposal. It will not surprise her to know that Ministers and officials were working on this over the weekend as soon as we became aware, as well as addressing some of the wider governance and regulatory issues and funding issues that affect the whole pyramid.