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Football Governance

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government (1) how, and (2) when, they plan to respond to the recommendations of the Fan-Led Review of Football Governance, published on 24 November 2021.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and refer to my football interests as declared on the register.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have endorsed the principle that football requires a strong, independent regulator to secure the future of our national game. We are working swiftly to consider the recommendations of the fan-led review and to determine the most effective way to deliver an independent regulator. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State committed in another place on 3 March to bring forward the government response as soon as possible. This will be issued in the coming weeks.

My Lords, that is an encouraging Answer, but can I press the Minister on when we might expect to see the Government’s response to Tracey Crouch’s excellent report, and whether he can give an undertaking that the legislation which will be necessary to establish the regulator will be included in the next Queen’s Speech? Football fans have waited a very long time for some action, and as Mr Huddleston, the Sports Minister, said to the DCMS Committee last week:

“We recognise there are failures in the structure and governance of English football and the fan-led review is pivotally important because it will contain an independent regulator.”

First, I wish the noble Lord a happy birthday. I am afraid I cannot give him a birthday present of anticipating what might be in the gracious Speech, as I am sure he will understand, but I certainly agree wholeheartedly with my honourable friend the Sports Minister. The primary recommendation of the review is clear and one that the Government have endorsed: that football requires a strong independent regulator to secure the future of our national game. As I say, we are working quickly to determine the most effective way to deliver that and to see the powers that it may need. Football has had too many opportunities to get its house in order but has not done so. Without intervention, we risk the long-term future of a game which is enjoyed by people across the land.

My Lords, I reiterate the support that the noble Lord gave to Tracey Crouch and her excellent report the other day. Can I ask the Minister about Chelsea Football Club? While it is imperative that Roman Abramovich is punished and sanctioned, it is also important that ordinary Chelsea fans are not too heavily penalised.

I agree with my noble friend on both points—first, in commending the work of Tracey Crouch MP in leading the fan-led review, which of course was a manifesto commitment from the Government. My noble friend is right: we must punish individuals with links to the Putin regime. The sanctions we have announced in this and other areas will target the assets and lifestyles of those implicated, but it is right that we have a safety net in place to protect the sport, the club and the fans from irreparable damage that would prevent the club from competing.

My Lords, would the Minister like to take this opportunity to assure the House that the Government are going to make sure that the big professional football clubs and other clubs, which are community assets and part of the social structure, are actually protected? At the moment, they are literally used as a football by financial institutions; they are seen as merely a business. Can we make sure that when we have some reform and change in this area, the fact that they are more than that to most people is recognised at a fundamental level?

The noble Lord makes the very pertinent point that football clubs are rooted in their communities and are community assets. That is why we are very glad that the review by Tracey Crouch was fan-led. We are very grateful to all those who took part in it; we will set out our response in full having given it the thorough consideration it deserves.

My Lords, I am a Liverpool, not a Chelsea, fan. We all support sanctions designed to bring an end to Russia’s acts of sheer evil in Ukraine, but it is surely not right that Chelsea’s fans, players and operational managers should be directly affected by sanction measures while they await new owners. Will the Minister urgently review and remove these purely sporting constraints?

My Lords, given the significant impact that sanctions would have on Chelsea Football Club and their potential knock-on effects, Her Majesty’s Treasury issued a licence which authorises a number of football-related activities to continue at Chelsea, including permissions for the club to continue playing matches and other football-related activity, which will in turn protect the Premier League, the wider football pyramid, the loyal fans and other clubs. The licence allows only certain explicitly named actions, to ensure that the designated individual cannot circumvent UK sanctions. However, we are meeting daily with the club and football authorities to discuss further amendments to the licence should they be necessary.

My Lords, I declare an interest as director of Carlisle United. As the Minister has recognised, English football is in a mess. A new study by Fair Game has come out showing that over half the top clubs are technically insolvent, yet clubs in League One and League Two are surviving on a 1.2% handout from the Premier League. Will the Minister commit that the widely recognised Tracey Crouch proposals will be endorsed by the Government before the end of this season in six weeks’ time?

My Lords, Tracey Crouch’s review recommended that football should seek to resolve distribution issues itself. The Government have written to football authorities to ask how they intend to do this; we have received responses and will address this issue in our response to the review.

I welcome much of the report, but does the Minister recall that the Prime Minister, when he was Mayor of London, was very concerned about domestic abuse that arose after football matches where drinking had taken place? Recommendations 42 and 43 of the report are that there should be experiments in reintroducing alcohol into these leagues, which had been banned since 1988. Can he tell me why the Government have changed their view?

I advise the noble Lord to await the Government’s response to the fan-led review, in which we will deal with all its recommendations.

My Lords, will the noble Lord come back to ground ownership and the problems that have occurred when grounds have been sold off? The review recommended a golden share to be held by a community benefit society—in other words, supporters of the club—to have a veto, essentially, over such ground share sales in the future. Are the Government sympathetic to that?

I am afraid I cannot anticipate all the areas of the review to which we must respond, but I repeat that football has clearly proven unable in the past to reform itself and deliver the changes needed. It is clear that current oversight of the game is not up to solving the structural challenges and that action must be taken. That is why we welcome the review and will respond to it in detail.

My Lords, some of us said at the time that it was a complete disgrace that Putin could use the World Cup for propaganda purposes. It is completely unacceptable that Qatar was able to bribe its way to hosting the World Cup this year, with its appalling record on human rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights and the way it has exploited labour to build the stadia. While I recognise the Government’s case for reform of the domestic game, do they agree with me that the international institutions running football need urgent reform as well?

The suitability of football club ownership was an important part of the fan-led review, and we welcome recognition from the Premier League that current tests are not sufficient. The fan-led review is about future-proofing the system, both domestically and, as the noble Lord says, in the international leagues, and we will set out our response to all these issues in full.

My Lords, the takeover of Newcastle by a consortium with links to the Saudi regime prompted questions about the appropriateness of the current fit and proper person test for owners and directors, and Mr Abramovich’s recent hasty attempts to sell Chelsea also raised concerns about due process. Can the Minister give us some confidence that these issues will be dealt with when the Government issue their response to the excellent Crouch review?

To pick up a comment made by the noble Lord who preceded me, the Premier League confirmed recently that it is looking to add human rights components to its assessment of prospective owners and directors. Do the Government support such a change? If so, what discussions have they had with other football stakeholders, including the FA and the EFL?

As I say, the suitability of club ownership was an important part of the review. The review is about future-proofing the system, and that is why we are considering how to enhance the owners and directors tests to ensure that football has only suitable custodians. It is difficult to look back retrospectively at individual cases, but we are determined to get this right, and we are discussing the matter with people across the football pyramid to make sure that we do so properly.