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Football Clubs: Ownership Test

Volume 816: debated on Monday 29 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to legislate to strengthen the “fit and proper person” test for the ownership of football clubs.

My Lords, the Government have published the final report setting out the independent fan-led review of football governance’s recommendations for the reform of English football. These include proposals for a new and more robust test for owners and directors, resulting in a unified system which would be created and overseen by a new independent regulator for English football. The Government welcome the work of the review and will consider its detailed recommendations ahead of providing a full government response in the new year.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer, but the recent takeover of Newcastle has raised many questions about the suitability of the fit and proper persons test. To be honest, concerns have been around for years but neither the footballing authorities nor the Government have come up with satisfactory answers. Last week, the Premier League’s chief executive said that, while there were concerns about the relationship between Newcastle’s owners and the Saudi state, he

“can’t choose who is chairing a football club”


The owners test doesn’t let us take a view”.

Does the Minister believe that that is right, and can he tell us when, or if, the Government will legislate on the test?

My Lords, the takeover of Newcastle United by PCP Capital Partners has always been a matter for the club and the Premier League, which undertook its own due diligence as part of the owners and directors test. My honourable friend Tracey Crouch looked into that with the fan-led review and, as I said, we welcome the report of that review and are looking at all its recommendations, including on the owners and directors test. We will come back with our response to those in full.

My Lords, the Newcastle situation is rather different from others because part of a British city’s identity is effectively being taken over by a foreign power with a questionable reputation for human rights abuses. Are we going to take in special regulation that means that we actually look at that when we are considering football ownership—because we have such a profitable Premiership?

My Lords, a lot of Newcastle United fans would take exception with the way that the noble Lord characterises that. They certainly welcome the investment in the club and the opportunity for dialogue, which is such an important part of sporting endeavour.

My Lords, I declare a slightly ancient interest: I was a vice-chair of the Football Task Force, whose report in 1999 was the last serious attempt to, in the words of the Independent, “deliver a fair deal” for fans. Our proposal for independent regulation was blocked by the Premier League, the Football League and the FA. Can the Minister assure me that Tracey Crouch’s excellent report will not go the same way as the Football Task Force’s final report? Has he seen these words in her fan-led review:

“The fit and proper persons test has failed to stop many owners who are not ‘fit and proper’. It’s a disaster of a system.”

I know that the noble Lord is a committed fan and campaigner. My honourable friend Tracey Crouch will certainly not let the matter rest. She has led a very good review. She was in another place when it was debated last week, and I know that she will not let up on this important issue. It is also thanks to the contributions of many thousands of football fans, which have informed the review very well.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the work that we did at UK Sport on good governance as part of the Mission 2012 and Road to Rio programmes, delivering benefits not just in the boardrooms of sport but in the pool, on the pitch and across the park? Would he agree that good governance is not a “nice to have” or a matter of compliance; it is essential for ethical and safe support and absolutely essential for sustainable and successful sport?

I agree with my noble friend: Mission 2012 helped to identify athlete performance issues and challenges, enabling them to be dealt with quickly and efficiently in the run-up to the London Games in 2012. I am pleased to say that the process has been used in subsequent Olympic and Paralympic cycles. Since 2017, the Code for Sports Governance has set out the standards that all sporting organisations must meet in return for public funding, either from UK Sport or Sport England.

My Lords, I should perhaps declare an interest as a supporter of West Ham United, which looks set to be owned by Czech billionaire Daniel Křetínský. But does the Minister agree that foreign ownership is not the core issue here—rather, it is the need for clearly defined integrity tests for all football club owners, whether British or foreign? Does he also agree that the fit and proper person test should include human rights, mindful of so-called “sportswashing”? On that basis, a club like Newcastle might not now be 80% owned by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund.

Tracey Crouch, in the fan-led review, makes the point about an integrity test. As I said, we welcome the report—we will look at all the recommendations and come forward with our response to them in due course.

I declare my interest as recorded in the register. Would the Minister agree that transparency is an important part of the fit and proper person test? Has the Premier League given an answer to the following question to its football clubs, the Government or the media: what are the governance differences from the previous position, which ruled out the Newcastle United purchase, to the position agreed by the Premier League on 7 October that the takeover is now acceptable, such that the assurances of no interference from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can be relied upon? Can the answer be given to assure all football fans concerned about the propriety of the game?

I do not know if the Premier League has answered that, but I will certainly take the point away and ask on behalf of the noble Lord. But, as I say, the takeover of Newcastle United has been a matter for it and the Premier League, which undertook its own due diligence as part of the owners and directors test.

My Lords, I do not think anybody doubts Tracey Crouch’s commitment to reform, but as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, reminded us, the Mellor-Faulkner report 20 years ago was equally determined to clean up football and was defeated by vested interests within the game. Can the Minister assure us that there will be backbone in No.10 as well as with Tracey Crouch in seeing these reforms through?

Yes, and I would point to the Government’s manifesto, which committed to this fan-led review. Football is nothing without its fans. That is why we have taken action at every step to support them, both through the manifesto commitment but also during the pandemic by getting football back on television and using the events research programme to get fans back safely into stadia.

I declare my interest as the fan-elected chair of the oldest fan group in world football, at Leeds United. Does the Minister agree that the Premier League is the biggest single success that this country has in terms of reputation across the world and is loved by people wanting to watch it well beyond this country? Does he further agree that there is a fundamental difference between the Premier League and those who have owned clubs such as Bury, Darlington and Chester who have managed to wreck and ruin them?

The noble Lord is right about the great pride that fans across the country place in the national sport and its huge impact not just in this country but worldwide. That is why we welcome the fan-led review and committed to it in our manifesto. It is also why we will study it carefully and come back with our response.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord McNally reminded us of the fate of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, two decades ago, and Tracey Crouch’s report must see the light of day. However, I ask again, as others have: what does “in due course” mean and what will happen to any other proposed changes of ownership between now and any future legislation?

My Lords, Tracey Crouch’s report saw the light of day on Thursday. It was published; it is 160 pages long. She makes 47 detailed recommendations. The Government are studying all those. We will do her and the 20,000 fans who took part in the review the respect of looking at it and will come forward with our response.

I add my congratulations to those offered to Tracey Crouch and the team for producing the report with its 47 recommendations. It has the potential to become truly transformational, if and when it is implemented in full. But can I clarify one point? As a Newcastle United fan, under some pressure, I ask the Minister what the Government believe is meant by the term “good character” on page 69 of the report, and does he believe that the new owners of Newcastle United would pass that specific test?

My Lords, what Tracey Crouch meant in her report is a question for her, but, as I have said, we are studying the report and its recommendations and will take them forward. The takeover of Newcastle United has always been a matter for it and the Premier League. Without knowing the specifics, it is hard for me to say what impact such a recommendation would have. As the noble Lord will know as well as I do, Newcastle United fans have welcomed the new investment in the club, but have done so with open eyes and while engaging in the dialogue that is an important part of sport.