Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 25 November.
“First, may I take this opportunity to thank my honourable 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 honourable 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.”
My Lords, we strongly welcome the independent Crouch review, whose recommendations, I have to say, look suspiciously like the sports section of the Labour Party manifesto, going back several general elections. We have long called for fans to be placed at the centre of the game that they do so much to sustain and for stronger protections when they are mistreated or their beloved clubs mismanaged. The Government say they will respond to the review in spring 2022 but, let us be clear, there is much that can be done in the interim. Will they, for example, establish a shadow regulator ahead of the 2022-23 season? Can the Minister confirm that any enabling legislation for Tracey Crouch’s reform package will not only feature in the next Queen’s Speech but be made a genuine political priority?
My Lords, this is a matter that transcends party politics. Football clubs are at the heart of our communities and fans are at the heart of those clubs, and everybody with an interest wants to make sure that they are. I am very proud that our manifesto commitment to set up this review has led to it in swift time; Tracey Crouch has done very thorough work at good speed. We will give her report and the views of all the fans who contributed to it the respect that they deserve; the report deserves a substantive response from the Government and it will get one. But the noble Lord is right that there are things that can be done now, not least by football clubs themselves, with regard to heritage, financial flows and governance. They need not wait for us to go through the report and come forward with our response to start taking the action that people want to see.
My Lords, I declare an interest as one of 8,800 owners of Heart of Midlothian Football Club, the largest fan-owned club in the whole of the United Kingdom. I also have the privilege of having prepared a report on football governance for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which will be considered at a committee on Thursday and then at the plenary session in January. That report endorses what Tracey Crouch has said but goes even further. Can I have the Minister’s assurance that, when the Committee of Ministers approves my report, as I expect it will, it will then be considered in detail by Her Majesty’s Government?
Yes, I am sure my honourable friend the Sports Minister will be delighted to receive a copy of the report when it is published and will of course look at it with the attention and respect it deserves.
My Lords, will my noble friend, in asking for better commitment towards fans, also recognise that, if fans were much more involved in the management of their clubs, we might be able to reduce the scale of racism that has come into football?
My noble friend makes a very good point. Fans have been aghast at some of the appalling things that we have seen in recent years directed at football players at every level. That is why we want to ensure that true fans of football have their voices heard at every level, not least in calling out the abhorrent racism that we sometimes see.
My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that, if we follow the lines of the report, the Government will take seriously the fact that the Premier League has got to pump more money into the lower professional leagues to keep them viable? Without this, we will see more and more of the fiascos that have happened with smaller football clubs such as Northampton, where something that is part of that town’s heritage is taken away, or threatened to be taken away, from it.
My Lords, yes, the Government were very clear that cash should flow through the football pyramid more fairly and called on clubs to do that during the pandemic. I am very glad to say that, in many cases, it was so, but that is one of the recommendations followed up by Tracey Crouch and her review and one that we will look at carefully.
My Lords, as a member of the north-east fanatical football supporters’ league—but not a Newcastle United fan—I was disappointed when the Minister said earlier on that, essentially, the way the Premier League assesses “fit and proper person” is none of the Government’s business. It should be. Some of us have been saying for 20 years—for a lot longer than that, actually—that too much of our football governance is not fit for purpose and that the drive of the Premier League for more and more money has undermined much of what football is meant to be about. It is tragic that we do not have more fans properly engaged in governance in this country. The Premier League—I challenge it on this—does not want that because it believes that it will put off money and monied people coming into the Premier League. Therefore, will the Government, in their review of the Tracey Crouch report and their thoughts about future governance, really think about the model that is spread throughout the UK that would involve fans much more centrally in direct governance of football?
My Lords, as I say, while we are considering the review’s recommendations, it is clear from Tracey Crouch’s report that there is a significant opportunity to tighten up and strengthen the current owners’ and directors’ test. We will look at that very seriously and come forward with our response to the report in due course.
My Lords, will my noble friend commend the report by our honourable friend Tracey Crouch for being so bold? I support the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington; 62 insolvencies of lower-league clubs have occurred. Will my noble friend’s department use every good office to ensure that—while not harming the Premier League in the long term—more money will filter down to the lower levels?
My Lords, I join my noble friend in reiterating my thanks to our honourable friend Tracey Crouch for the work that she has done. Football has had many opportunities to get its house in order but has not taken them, and that is why this report is such an important and timely one. In the past, football’s failure to reform itself has had an injurious impact on many clubs, as we saw with the proposals to set up the closed shop of a European super league. That is why we have taken the action of commissioning this fan-led review and why we will respond to it thoroughly.
My Lords, there are not many things that England leads the world at, but the Premier League is one of them. One of the reasons for that is because it has attracted investment from right around the world. While I am no fan of the Saudi Arabian takeover of Newcastle, I think we have to be really cautious about anything which might undermine the Premier League’s success in future.
I want to ask the Minister a couple of specific questions. Can he explain how he thinks an independent regulator would, for example, have prevented the collapse of Bury? What happened there was that a guy came in, bought the club and eventually did not have the funds to sustain it, and the club went bust. Would an independent regulator have blocked his purchase of Bury? If it had done so, the club would have gone bust sooner and the independent regulator—and by extension the Government—would have got the blame. I think there is no possibility that an independent regulator would have done that. People talk about more money cascading down the pyramid. Is the Minister not aware that the Premier League gave £250 million to the Championship and millions more to the leagues below that? One of the reasons it was able to do that is because the league has been so successful, so let us be cautious about undermining that.
My Lords, Tracey Crouch’s review demonstrates that there are fundamental issues with our national sport and that there is a case for significant reform. We do not want to see any more of our historic clubs vanishing from the football leagues and football not doing enough to help itself. The scenarios the noble Lord outlines are the ones we will have in mind as we look at the recommendations she made and as we formulate our responses to them.
My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, though football is the national game, it cannot in any sense be separate from the national culture and values? To this end, it has a way to go to be truly inclusive for all. Would he agree that the Crouch review makes many excellent recommendations to this effect and is well worth the Government considering extremely seriously?
Yes, we are indeed considering it very seriously. My noble friend is right that the pride we invest in our national sport and demonstrate when it is watched and enjoyed by people all over the world is a demonstration of our values as a nation. That is why the international reach of football and the great interest it attracts—whether that is from fans or investors overseas—should be a source of pride as well, and our response to the fan-led review will aim to strengthen all of that.