I declare a personal interest in the Bill in that I am a director of a non-league football club, Kettering Town, the Southern League champions, which has spent £250,000 on ground improvements and facilities over the past two years and which hopes very much to be admitted to the Football League this year.
The debate is centred largely on football finance. Kettering Town is in a much stronger financial position than most third and fourth division clubs. That is due to our commercial activities off the field. Its strong financial position is the exception rather than the rule in the game at present. The Minister of State was proud of the fact that the Government had introduced flexibility into the Bill. He could have been prouder, and the Bill would have been more acceptable, if he had also announced that they would put finance into the Bill. It is well known that many Football League clubs face a financial crisis as desperate to them as the country's balance of payments is to the nation.
No one can have any objection to the principle of the Bill, which is to secure a greater degree of safety for members of the public admitted to sports stadia. The disasters at Bolton and Ibrox Park have been recalled several times during the debate to remind us of what can happen. Perhaps considering that over 28 million people on average have attended league matches in each of the past 10 years, we can agree that it is remarkable that there have not been more casualties.
It is the Government's decision that the money for ground improvements should come from the clubs themselves which is causing all the apprehension in football circles. It is wrong to imagine that there is a lot of money in football. Very few clubs make a profit—probably no more than 10 first-class clubs throughout the country. All kinds of schemes have to be devised to raise money out- side the turnstiles, and directors, in addition to giving guarantees for overdrafts, frequently have to dip into their own pockets to keep their clubs alive.
Football has acquired its inflationary look as a result of all the publicity surrounding big transfer deals, which can nowadays reach £500,000. That creates a completely erroneous impression. In a football club there is no such thing as stock-in-trade. When a club sells a player it creates an immediate profit on which it could pay tax if it did not buy another player for about the same amount. In that way the money remains in the game, which is sensible. A footballer is much to be preferred to an Inland Revenue demand note. That is the basic cause of high fees being paid. It is important to realise the true financial state of clubs and to realise that the high transfer fees are not brought about by affluence. No clubs are rich today, not even the best first division sides.
On top of all the problems that have beset our national game in recent years—not to mention the current energy crisis, with its effect of bringing about early kick-offs—value added tax has been an outrageous imposition. There has already been a quarrel during this debate about how much money the Government raise through the tax. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) believes it to be £4 million. The Minister who is responsible for sport disputed that. Perhaps he will enlighten us a little later as to what he thinks is the correct figure. Whatever the figure, it is bound to be substantial.
My constituency club, Leicester City, which I am pleased to say is having a successful season, has to pay about £25,000 a year in VAT, and for many clubs this comes at a time when incomes are at their lowest level.
In putting forward the Bill the Government should consider the plight of some of the poorer clubs in the fourth division, struggling to survive on gates of fewer than 3,000 people a week—or a fortnight, if we take into the calculation away games. Any club whose average attendance over the past two years was less than the 10,000 figure stipulated in the Bill—that would include some second division clubs—should have a longer period in which to carry out the regulations.