Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North, Conservative)
I am going to speak about Portsmouth football club. I warn the House that there is some good news and some bad news. The good news is that fans have come together to set up a supporters trust. I declare an interest as a proud member of that trust: like so many others, I pay a £5 subscription, which goes towards funding community projects and, potentially, safeguarding the future of the club. I pay tribute to all who brought that about, in Portsmouth and at Supporters Direct.
Now for the bad news. It is often said by enthusiasts—although we in this House would disagree—that the mark of a good referee is that he goes unnoticed, letting the game run its course. Sadly for fans of Portsmouth, the financial referee has been too much in evidence in recent years. Yet again, Portsmouth has been let down by one of its owners. At about the time when we were debating the problems with the European arrest warrant, one such warrant was issued for the Russian owner of the club so that he could answer charges of money laundering in Lithuania. His company, Convers Sports Initiatives—or, rather appropriately, CSI—was placed in administration, and the hunt for another new owner is under way.
Fans and the club staff are right to feel disappointed after the extraordinary amount of work that has been put in by so many people over the last 18 months to avoid closure and rebuild the club. The sense of despair is all the more acute given that the “fit and proper person” test was supposed to weed out unsuitable owners. I am keen to hear the Minister’s views on the situation, and to be told what he can do to support the club in its latest challenge. Needless to say, I have a few suggestions.
I think that the Minister should be anxious for the vetting of prospective club owners to be done well, and I should like to hear his assessment of the process that led to CSI’s being allowed to buy Portsmouth. I was very pleased both by the report on football governance by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and by the Government’s response to it. The social value of the game is very much recognised in this place.
Those who invest in football clubs as a means of making money would do well to recognise that they have put their money not just into a vehicle for profit, but into the collective identity of communities—the bonds shared between generations of families. It is that simple enjoyment of the game and love of the club for its own sake that makes supporters clubs appropriate participants in club governance. Their sole interest is the club, and without them there would be no club. In my view, that is the most compelling argument in my view for supporters trusts to have a governance role.
Like the Portsmouth supporters trust, I think that the option of supporter involvement via a financial stake should be considered for Portsmouth, and I am helping with the production of an assessment of the amount that could be raised. The professionalism with which the trust has conducted itself has been hugely impressive. The core working party is composed of knowledgeable and skilled individuals with the financial and legal
expertise to develop this proposition. However, they have been faced with a series of improbable but all too real barriers. They do not yet have access to the financial information any prospective buyer would be entitled to see. There appears to be a bias against them—a suspicion that they are not serious, and an assumption they do not have the funds and that they are not competent. We will demonstrate, because we can, that all these prejudices are unfounded, but it should not be necessary to go to such lengths. I would be grateful if the Minister made it clear to the administrators that in taking such a stance they are not acting in anyone’s interests. Discrimination is not the better part of valour. The administrators should be left in no doubt that this House and the Government believe in supporter involvement and that the Portsmouth supporters trust should be both treated and judged on a level playing field.
I would be grateful if the Minister took an active interest in this latest episode of Portsmouth football club’s life, and for anything the Minister could do to support the trust and the fans in safeguarding their beloved club’s future.
Finally, I wish colleagues a happy Christmas.