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English Football: Project Big Picture

Volume 806: debated on Wednesday 14 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the “Project Big Picture” proposals for reforming the governance of English football.

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

My Lords, it is clear that this proposal has not been cleared with all those affected. We strongly urge the Premier League and the EFL to continue to work constructively to come up with a deal that provides a comprehensive package of support for the whole football family. The Government promised a fan-led review of football governance in their manifesto. Events of the past few weeks have made this look more essential than ever.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on that reply, with the contents of which I completely agree. The overriding priority is to agree a rescue package for members of the English Football League, especially those in the lower level, which can generally be regarded as community clubs and are in the deepest trouble. I am sure that she agrees that it makes no sense to use the present emergency as cover for a power and money grab by the wealthiest, mostly foreign-owned, clubs in the Premier League. Can she say a bit more about the fan-led review of football governance to which she referred? Will that consider proposals for a national football board, charged with distributing the wealth in the game more fairly and evenly?

The noble Lord is right that this proposal risks conflating some of the governance issues with the immediate financial pressures that many in the football family are facing. The fan-led review that we have committed to will include consideration of the owners and directors tests but, more broadly, we are currently deciding on the scope and structure of the review and will liaise with football authorities while we do this.

I declare my interest as a director of Carlisle United Football Club. Prior to the pandemic, on a typical weekend, more spectators attended Football League matches than Premier League matches. How therefore can the hard-pressed lower-league clubs make up for that loss of income?

The Government absolutely recognise the financial pressure that the decision to delay the reopening of football has placed on lower-league clubs. The English Football League has reassured my right honourable friend the Secretary of State that no club will go bust, and we look forward to seeing the Premier League and the English Football League come up with a solution.

Would the Minister agree that, with the major financial challenges facing many teams as a result of the Covid restrictions and the need to fund grass-roots football, the game clearly needs restructuring from top to bottom? But this should not be driven by foreign owners who march to the drum of private equity and profit. Leadership should come from the Premier League itself, which has the national game at heart. Who is going to be that leader?

The noble Lord asks a very good question. As I am sure he knows, the structure of the Premier League requires a two-thirds majority for any decision. We have been clear about the importance of the fan-led review of the governance and structural issues that football faces, and we have provided reassurance recently to the national league that support from the Government will be forthcoming.

My Lords, it has long been clear that there is a problem with the financing and governance of English football, which Covid has exacerbated and the absence of fans has really highlighted. When will the Government bring forward their much-promised fan-led review, so that we can meaningfully address the structural challenges ahead? What plans do the Government have to ensure that there is a fair distribution of funding throughout the entire football pyramid—otherwise clubs such as Macclesfield will go bust, and the guarantees that the league has given that other clubs will not go bust will count for very little?

I am not sure whether the noble Lord heard my right honourable friend the Secretary of State before the Select Committee this morning, but he was clear about the priority that he places on the fan-led review. We are clear that there is a short-term financial issue facing the football family, which the Premier League and the English Football League need to get together to sort out. Longer term, the fan-led review will be a crucial part of addressing some of the other structural issues to which the noble Lord referred.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that one important factor in the current structure of English football is the possibility of promotion to the top table—or rather the “vague possibility”, in certain cases? Will the Government preserve that at all costs, because the ultimate capitalistic model of the sport is of a closed league, where you have guaranteed fixtures and a guaranteed income from television revenue, and I do not think that we want that?

I would guess that the prospects for promotion depend a little on who you support—but I leave it to each noble Lord individually to decide on that. We are clear that the principles of fair competition must prevail as we move forward with the review.

My Lords, the way in which the owners of the big six clubs are behaving is, frankly, a disgrace. They are exploiting the catastrophic impact of the pandemic on the Football League clubs to make a massive power grab. At no point have they consulted fans during this shocking episode, despite these proposals being three years in the making. The Government’s proposed supporter-led review of football governance is now urgently needed, as others have said. The Minister did not answer my noble friend Lord Bassam’s question as to when the Government will commence the review. Will she consult supporters’ groups now on the terms of reference and scope and structure that she mentioned earlier?

The noble Lord is right about the lack of inclusion of supporters’ groups in the proposal that has been discussed widely in the media. On timing, we do not have a firm date, but we are committed to consulting all stakeholders as we prepare that review and, clearly, fans are an important part of that.

My Lords, the Minister rightly described football clubs as being akin to a large family. The Premier League is awash with cash, and the wages of the top players are eye-watering, while those at the bottom are often living hand to mouth and relying on the turnstile each week to keep the club afloat. Any family worth its salt lends a helping hand to those family members falling on hard times. Does the Minister accept that, if no equitable agreement is reached, the Government have a duty on behalf of the fans to intervene to protect the seed corn of the beautiful game as we go forward?

Well, the noble Lord is right. So many football clubs do a huge amount within their communities beyond the game itself, but the Government’s role is to bring the two sides together. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Sport have met both sides and are clear that this needs to happen—and happen quickly. On the support we are providing, I have already said that the Government have provided reassurance for the national league clubs.

Does the Minister agree that one unfortunate characteristic of football in our country for many years has been the inexorable concentration of wealth and power among a small number of elite clubs? Is it not inevitable that the current plan will make a smaller Premier League harder to get into and, unless you are one of the privileged six, much easier to fall out of? Will not that further damage the game by increasing even more the gulf between the elite and everyone else?

The Government have been very clear about their scepticism and concern about the proposed deal, and have described it, I think, as a distraction at best.

Does the Minister agree with the view of the combined fan groups of the big six that, while reform may be needed, it must be done in consultation with fans, power must not be concentrated in the hands of six billionaire owners, and there should be no departure from the one-club, one-vote and collective ethos of the Premier League?

We are very struck by the fact that those fan groups have come out so strongly, and we welcome their remarks.

Sitting suspended.