Football

– in the House of Commons at 10:48 am on 20th December 1990.

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Photo of Mr Tom Pendry Mr Tom Pendry , Stalybridge and Hyde

I welcome the opportunity to introduce this debate, for two good reasons. First, it provides me with the opportunity to raise matters that affect our great national game of soccer at a critical time in its history. Secondly, it gives the new Minister for Sport the first opportunity since his appointment to speak from the Dispatch Box on a sporting matter and therefore to break his duck, if that is not mixing my sporting metaphors too much. I genuinely welcome him, as I am sure the sporting fraternity does, to his new post. I look forward to having a dialogue with him on a number of sporting matters between now and the general election.

I pay tribute to the Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) who had the unfortunate task of defending the indefensible—I refer to identity cards for football supporters—for much of his reign. I shall remember him not for that alone, but for much other important work that he did, away from the limelight, for disabled athletes and for his efforts to combat the evils of drug taking in sport. I am pleased to see from this morning's press that the new Minister for Sport is carrying on that good work. All sports lovers will wish him well in his new role.

Although I hold the post of chairman of the all-party football committee, I intend to speak in a personal capacity and to be constructively critical of the Government when dealing with matters that cause both me and the football world concern. I absolve the Minister from that criticism, certainly up to the time of his reply this morning. I do not blame him for any past failures. He is still enjoying his honeymoon period.

A casual observer of the football scene might have gained the impression that everything is progressing steadily towards conversion to all-seater football stadiums. However, the game faces a potential crisis, due to escalating police charges, delays in establishing the Football Licensing Authority and confusion over planning policies. Much more fundamentally, however, there is no cohesive and central strategy for the game. If football is to take the necessary steps outlined in Lord Justice Taylor's report into the Hillsborough disaster and harness the undoubted talents and willingness of many of those who are in the game, a Lord Justice Taylor with political clout will be needed to bring them to fruition.

The great strength of Lord Justice Taylor was that he was able to take a step backwards from any single area of football and exercise a dispassionate overview before he formulated his findings. If football is to derive full benefit from the report, it must draw on those same strengths when it comes to implementing and developing the report's findings. When we debated Lord Justice Taylor's report I told the House that it should be seen as a catalyst for change, not as tablets of stone.

A lot of nonsense is often talked, not least by some Ministers, when the finances of the game are discussed. If we were to heed the wishes of some, football stadiums would be overflowing with milk and honey. They would have money aplenty. The majority of clubs, however, survive on a financial knife edge. They are supported through fund-raising efforts and by the goodwill of fanatics, in the best sense of that word, in the director's box and on the terraces. A recent study by Jordan and Sons shows that only six out of the 20 clubs in the first division made a pre-tax profit in the 1989–90 season.

Another fallacy that must be firmly dispelled is that, somehow, football is a financial drain on the taxpayer. Nothing could be further from the truth. We all welcome the reduction in the football pool betting duty from 42·5 to 40 per cent. in the last Budget. However, that merely reversed the decision that was made by the Government to increase the rate from 40 to 42·5 per cent. Moreover, the £100 million over five years that will be released by that move is but a tiny fraction of the £2·4 billion that the Treasury has taken out of the game in betting duty during the last 10 years.

Furthermore, the £2·4 billion does not include the income that accrues to the Chancellor of the Exchequer from PAYE and VAT and other income derived from the thousands of jobs created by the footbal industry. Put simply, football is a nice little earner for the Government. If sceptics were to take the trouble to find out what positive moves football has made since the Taylor report was published, they would find that, in any comparison made between Government efforts and those of the football authorities, without doubt the latter comes off best.

Football has set up four working parties to get to grips with the Taylor recommendations. Great strides have been taken towards finding alternative sources of funding to bring about stadium improvements. They include a levy on transfer fees, broadcasting fees and even sponsorship for the FA cup. Football is making the running. The Government are lagging behind in their response to the challenges that we face if the game is to be taken in a good state into the next century. Ironically, the Government suffer to some extent from a problem that plagues football. Their interest in the game is spread over many areas and Departments. Certain aspects of football are covered by the Department of the Environment, the Home Office and the Foreign Office. The Minister's responsibilities for sport have now moved to the Department of Education and Science. I shall reserve my judgment on whether that is a good move.

The new Prime Minister has rightly been welcomed by the sporting authorities because of his genuine links with sport. I hope that he will listen, however indirectly, to the debate and consider the strengths of my arguments, including the one that I advanced at a recent conference of the Central Council of Physical Recreation. I said then that if the Prime Minister really cares about sport, he ought to enhance the Minister's position by making him a Minister of State. That would give him more clout to argue the case not just for football but for sport in general. That would ensure that the shortcomings of the Government's policies towards football in previous years are not repeated.

It might also avoid one of the Government's most significant failures, which is their laggardly approach to one of Lord Justice Taylor's most important recommendations—the Football Licensing Authority, which is to be charged with implementing and overseeing ground safety and conditions and the move towards all-seater accommodation by 1994 in all first division and second division grounds and in all league grounds by 1999.

It is now 17 months since the former Minister for Sport claimed that the Government would respond swiftly to anything Lord Justice Taylor had to say on safety and would activate whatever measures were necessary to ensure that grounds are safe.

Three months previously, on 20 April, even the former Prime Minister, whose attitude to the game was, to say the least, antipathetic, admitted that to delay a legislative measure that would enable us to take advantage of Lord Justice Taylor's recommendations for another 12 months would be negligent. As, 20 months later, the FLA is not up and running, negligence would be a charitable description of the Government's record.

It is not as though the Government are unaware of the serious problems caused by the delays. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East admitted to the House in the debate on the Taylor report: If we did not have the legislative vehicle in place, we would not be in a position to give clubs as much time as possible to meet the timetable outlined in the report.—[Official Report, 30 January 1990; Vol. 166, c. 257.] Since that date, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, East and his successor are aware, I have raised this matter many times, only to experience each time more delays and setbacks.

The Government missed their own deadline—1 June—for setting up the FLA and took a month to admit that such a deadline existed, despite the pleas from worried clubs which, in the absence of that body, were unable to determine what constituted a seat, let alone any major structural or design proposals.

The date by which the FLA will be up and running has constantly receded into the distant future, which has grave consequences for clubs. At the start of the current season, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), as secretary of the all-party football committee, and I wrote to all league clubs asking how much progress they had made in converting to all-seater accommodation. Sixty-six per cent. of respondents have been unable to carry out any work and 86 per cent. were not planning to carry out any work this season. Given the delays in establishing the FLA, 45 per cent. were unhappy with the timetable laid down for conversion. More than one third said that their work had been directly affected by the delay. One club summed it up very well: The delay has reduced the impetus and importance of Taylor's recommendations. We would all concur with that. The Government must take responsibility for this regrettable state of affairs, which unfortunately shows no sign of abating.

Only nine days ago, the Minister of State, Home Office, admitted to me that it would be unrealistic to expect the FLA to administer a licensing system effectively before it has acquired the necessary staff and expertise. I understand the problem of the Minister for Sport because it is not his responsibility, but that underlines my point that we should have a Minister with all-embracing powers.

Where do we stand 17 months after the Government's statement that they would respond swiftly to the Taylor report? To put it bluntly, the FLA, which wishes to get on with the job, has only one third of the administrative staff required for its operations and recruitment of inspectors is only just under way. It is estimated that that will not be completed until next spring. Even if all that were in place, the FLA still does not possess the legislative powers required to fulfil its role, because the Government have failed to implement sections 9 and 13 of the Football Spectators Act 1989. We heard in Committee time and again of the importance of those sections, which give the FLA powers to lay down any terms and conditions for inclusion in the local authority safety certificates issued to clubs which it believes are necessary to the maintenance of safety.

Furthermore, the FLA is still waiting for powers to enter to inspect grounds, to examine club safety certificates and to obtain from local authorities information on the issuing of such certificates. It is not good enough for the Government to claim, as they did in October last year, that the FLA should ensure that the safety of individuals is at the top of its list; they are not giving it the tools to do the job. The FLA chairman, Norman Jacobs, is unhappy with such a state of affairs, as are football authorities, local authorities, the police and clubs.

It must be asked: who has benefited from the delay? It certainly is not football. The Government have saved £400,000, because 59 per cent. of the proposed FLA budget for the current financial year has not been spent. They should act swiftly and immediately to enable the implementation of sections 9 and 13 and that £400,000 should be ploughed back into the FLA to give it the assistance that it needs. Anything less would run counter to the spirit of the Taylor recommendations, which the Government wholeheartedly endorsed. The Football League estimates that the cost of implementing the recommendations in full, rather than simply putting shoddy seats into shoddy stands, would be as high as £665 million.

Given that, it is clear that there will be severe financial pressure on clubs as they seek to convert to all-seater accommodation, yet on top of that pressure the game is facing a crisis of potentially devastating proportions as a result of the staggering increases in police charges. Their charges have risen by four times the rate of inflation and there has been a concurrent rise in police wage costs in recent years. At the same time, the arrest rate at football grounds has dramatically decreased.

The Government are threatening to make matters infinitely worse by introducing a system of charging clubs for the full cost of policing, which includes costs of covering overtime and the leave and rest days of officers on duty. Such an approach is not proposed for similar events such as pop concerts and party conferences. If it were, the Conservative party would have to pay £2 million for policing its last conference. I do not think for one moment that the Government will be asking Tory central office to cough up that money.

It has been argued that Lord Justice Taylor supported such a system of charging. That is not true. He said that there should be a consistent and businesslike approach to charging and realistic costs. Nobody in their right mind could argue that the costs are realistic.

Overshadowing all that is the issue of planning policy guidance. The stark reality is that, if clubs try to relocate their stadiums, they are in danger of being thwarted by inflexible planning straitjackets contained in the Government's current draft guidance. The Minister has been keen to portray this document as "positive and flexible", yet in two separate parts of the guidance it is stated that football stadiums should not be regarded as appropriate development on green belt land.

The Minister nods, but the results of the survey published recently by the Royal Town Planning Institutes how that such an approach could render the identification of new sites almost impossible. That must cause the Minister concern. We all accept that the green belt must not be breached, except in the most exceptional circumstances, but encouraging the development of genuine community-based, multi-purpose sports stadiums, with football clubs as the hub of activity and under an obligation to involve and serve the local community, would do much to enhance the breadth and quality of leisure provision. However, the Minister seems to adopt an unyielding approach to development.

Football has shown itself willing to undertake such activities through its highly successful and rapidly expanding football in the community scheme. Such an approach might finally attract families to games. We heard from the previous Prime Minister and others about bringing families back to the game. Families have never been involved in the game in numbers, so what we should be talking about is attracting them for the first time to our great game. That is the challenge facing Government in the years ahead.

Such developments would lead to greater support for sport in schools. I know that by arguing this case I am knocking at an already half-open door because the Minister has, as I have, a young son who is a keen sports buff. I suppose that that is a built-in pressure on the Minister to do something about protecting physical education and sport provision in the national curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds.

I have argued that what is needed is a Lord Justice Taylor free from judicial constraint, a Leviathan figure to bring together the many disparate voices in the game. That begs the question of what form such a body should take. The Minister will not be surprised to know that I believe that the answer is a football levy board. The Minister will be aware, as the Prime Minister is, of my pleas for such a board in the past. I have outlined the case for it to them both. I hope that it has not fallen on deaf ears.

I shall not repeat today the case for such a board, but I want to explain how it could carry out the tasks that would be required of it if it were to take football into the next century and secure a bright future for the game. It could do so by bringing together all the bodies contained within the football body politic, whether administrators, players, representatives of the football authorities or, for the first time, supporters. It could do so under the chairmanship of someone appointed by the Government to do what Lord Justice Taylor could not do—push for and facilitate on a sustained and regular basis the implementation of the Taylor recommendations.

The essence of a levy board was summed up in 1978 by the Rothschild commission on gambling which recommended its creation. Rothschild said: Its funds and its independent standing should provide the leverage to enhance the better management and development of the game … it could be the energising agent for radical change. If that was true in 1978, how much more true is it today after Taylor and Hillsborough?

The levy board would not be based on a government hands-on approach. It would concentrate minds and provide a coherent strategic policy to unite the efforts of the various bodies in the football world. Most important, through its links with the Government, it would be in a position, which no other body is in, to exercise sympathetic influences in development and planning. In doing so, it could help secure the most prosperous future for the game, for, as the Minister knows, the potential is undoubtedly there.

In the past few years, attendances at league games have risen, with the virtual elimination of hooliganism coupled with a declining arrest rate. We have seen more goals scored per match and a clampdown on cynical play. To cap it all, we have had the shot in the arm provided by the performances of both supporters and teams during Italia 90. Indeed, the Government's supporters should be falling over themselves to don football shirts. After all, it must be one of the few ways in which they will be welcomed back into the European fold with open arms.

This season our domestic clubs will have the chance to gain international accolades for good behaviour and fair play as the England team did in Italy. Most recently, the newly established captain Gary Lineker became only the second player in history to receive an individual award for combining fair play with outstanding success. Gary not only has been and continues to be an outstanding ambassador for the game and for Britain but, as one who has never been booked or sent off at any point in his career, he provides one of the most shining examples to which any young child can aspire. I know that I carry the Minister and the House with me on that. Gary Lineker is acknowledged by the international authorities as the undisputed world leader of the game and an example to players of all nations.

I have been critical of the Government at times during my speech. I hope that the Minister realises that I would have criticised a Government of whatever party if they were responsible for a scenario similar to that which exists today. Constructive criticism in support of the greatest game in the world is never to be decried. I hope that the Minister and the House will accept my comments in that light.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble 11:23 am, 20th December 1990

As ever, it is a delight to find myself at the Dispatch Box. It is not, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, the first time that I have done so, because I answered an Adjournment debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) about sport in general.

However, this is my first opportunity to talk about football. The opportunity was provided by the foresight and interest in football of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry). He called football our national game but, to be slightly pedantic, I call it our national winter game because we have another game, called cricket, which we play in the summer. It is fair to say that football and cricket are two of the greatest games in the world. However, we are here today to talk about soccer.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for choosing the subject of football. On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan), I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments—which I expected—about the work that my hon. Friend did. It was a difficult time for my hon. Friend, as the House and the hon. Gentleman, with his characteristic generosity, will accept. In the circumstances, he did what the House will accept was his best. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde also rightly referred to the other work that my hon. Friend did behind the scenes, not only for soccer but in sport generally. I know that my hon. Friend will be grateful for the encouragement and thanks of the hon. Gentleman, who speaks with considerable authority on soccer and many other sports issues. He is an acknowledged expert in the House, whose views cannot be dismissed lightly, although I would not do that anyway.

The hon. Gentleman was right to mention the improvements and changes that have taken place in soccer. They took place largely as a result of the activities of the England team in Italy, before I took office. As he said, the way in which the team played, the skill that the players displayed and the manner in which they conducted themselves both on and off the field was a joy to many people in Britain.

It was refreshing to see the inspired leadership of the captain Gary Lineker, who deservedly has won a multiplicity of fair play awards. He won not only the award in Italy but the new Stanley Matthews award for fair play. He has given a great deal of encouragement to many. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, as the parent of a young son, I regard the image that Gary Lineker projects as one which should be endorsed not only in soccer but in a wide variety of sports.

It is also good to see that there are rising attendances at football matches and that the standards of behaviour both on and off the field have improved in many respects. We wish to be positive about the future of football. We hope that what has happened in recent months and years was a chapter which is closed and that we can turn a new leaf and look towards what can be achieved in the future.

In the time allowed, I wish to touch on how such moves should be taken. Since I took the job as Minister for Sport—at the Deparment of the Environment from July onwards and now at the Department of Education and Science—I have taken the view that it is incumbent on me to listen to what sports administrators, governing bodies and those involved at national level, such as the National Sports Council, the Central Council of Physical Recreation and various other bodies, have to say before I pontificate about what should happen. The hon. Gentleman was, as usual, perceptive when he highlighted the difficulties that a Sports Minister faces in dealing with the various other Departments which have responsibilities for sport.

It would not be proper for me to comment on his invitation to the Prime Minister to upgrade the job to Minister of State. However, I shall ensure that the Hansard report of the debate is presented to the Prime Minister, who may choose in due course to react to the hon. Gentleman's interesting proposal.

As I said, I have listened closely to what sports administrators have said. Clearly, I cannot and will not interfere with the management and administration of games or sports. That is a matter for the administrators, but I can cajole and encourage them, raise matters about which I am worried and let them know which aspects I support. It is proper that the Sports Minister, along with hon. Members on both sides of the House who feel strongly about certain matters, should set the agenda and make sure that the sports world understands our anxieties.

We touched briefly on sportmanship. The hon. Gentleman is aware of and shares my anxiety about standards of sportsmanship not only in soccer but across the sporting world. I was delighted at the action taken recently by the Football Association on the Arsenal-Manchester United brawl. Such brawls have no place in football. I hope that that message has got through clearly to two great clubs, to which a fine was relatively insignificant but on which the deduction of points had a more salutary effect. That is crucial.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his incarnation as Chancellor of the Exchequer, reduced the betting duty by 2·5 per cent. in last year's Budget and thereby provided about £100 million over the next five years to improve football, following the Taylor report. When he was Chancellor—and I hope that, as First Lord of the Treasury, he will not resile from that commitment, in part at least—he said that further funds would be forthcoming for soccer if there was evidence that the football clubs, especially those in the league, were taking action to improve the grounds.

As the hon. Gentleman said correctly, these matters are divided among various Government Departments. If we are talking frankly, we can say that there is an argument for bringing together aspects of the controls. However, although I may have views on that, it is not the case at present. Although my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister understands and shares these concerns—that is one reason why he moved me to the Department of Education and Science—there is a long way to go. It is not for me to comment in any more than the broadest terms about the operation of the matters that fall to the Home Office and to the Foreign Office, although I can touch on the Department of the Environment as I was there recently and I will deal with the planning aspects.

The hon. Gentleman made suggestions about the Football Licensing Authority. I can only pass on to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary his concerns. I have had the opportunity to meet Norman Jacobs, who I find an extraordinarily impressive chairman. I know that he understands and cares about soccer and that he understands and is aware of the problems as perceived by football clubs from the first to the fourth division and beyond. I know that he will do what he can to ensure that the proposal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East said was important, comes into effect.

It is the intention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to bring sections 9 and 13 of the Football Spectators Act 1989 into force as soon as it is appropriate to do so. Section 9, which creates the offence of admitting spectators to unlicensed premises, cannot come into force until the Football Licensing Authority can implement and administer the football licensing scheme. Section 13, which will empower the Football Licensing Authority to require local authorities to include in any safety certificate such terms and conditions as may be specified in a written notice issued by the FLA, will not come into force until my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the FLA are satisfied that the authority has acquired the necessary staff and expertise to exercise that power. That will depend largely on the recruitment and training of a team of professional inspectors, the majority of whom are expected to be in post by next spring. The hon. Gentleman's point is well taken and I will ensure that I continue to press my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to police charges. Although the headquarters of the Lancashire constabulary are in my constituency and I have a lot to do with the police, I cannot comment on the details of police charges, which are entirely a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. However, I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's points continue to be brought to my right hon. Friend's attention.

The hon. Gentleman was very concerned about planning. In my previous incarnation, I handled not only sport but planning at the Department of the Environment and I had partial responsibility for the issuing of the policy guidance note that addressed the problem of the building of new stadiums. I have considerable sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have, on occasion, visited football grounds such as Preston North End, which was one of the founder members of the league and which has had substantial connections with football over the years at all levels. I understand exactly what is involved in the improvements required to stadiums, as do other hon. Members and people involved across the game. I understand the need to improve, to renovate, to rebuild and, in some cases, to build afresh, but we must come to terms with the fact that local planning authorities have their own views as a result of their closeness to their local communities.

In my constituency—I am sure that this is true of many others—local people have firm views about what they want or do not want to see in the green belt and in rural or semi-rural areas. Although one can make suggestions, it is very much a matter for local authorities to express their concern. Durham county cricket club has recently come into the county championship and there has been concern about the proposed new stadium at Chester-leStreet. It is not right for me to prejudice the planning committee's decision in Durham, but I can say that the Department of the Environment decided not to call in that planning application. The development will be major stadium with a variety of sporting facilities. It is planned to be built in an area in which it may cause local controversy.

I am reminded of some of the problems at Bristol Rovers and at other clubs. There are areas that need to be addressed. When I was at the Department of the Environment, I tried to emphasise the importance of local planning authorities understanding what was involved.

Football clubs and those associated with them must discuss planning proposals with the local authority at an early stage. It is no good for them to produce a plan and to present it as a fait accompli to which the planning authority must agree. That is not the way it works, as the hon. Gentleman will understand. Co-operation and consultation are required across the board before decisions are made. We have tried to impress on local authorities that they must consider the matter sympathetically and favourably, but it is a matter for them in the final analysis, as they represent their local communities and have to take them into account. However, the hon. Gentleman's points on the need to consider further development are well understood.

The hon. Gentleman talked about football in the community and I agree with him strongly about what has been achieved. My local club, Preston North End, like so many others, had a ground that was rarely used during the average football week. It is now used 20 hours a day, seven days a week by the local community, not only in Preston, but in the surrounding area, including my own constituency. Schools can hire the ground and youngsters can play in the great stadium where Tom Finney was at his best. Other sporting functions have been held there, such as a great international between the world hockey champions and the Olympic hockey champions. It was a marvellous match which was played with great style and watched with great interest.

Many other groups use the facilities at Preston which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has an artificial pitch. That has posed particular problems with the Football Association and with the Football League, and the club will have to pull up the pitch and restore the grass because of FIFA's views and because of the views of professional footballers about playing on grass. That poses a problem for football in the community and for the involvement of clubs. The digging up of the pitch will have a detrimental effect on community involvement at Preston North End. Oldham and Luton face similar problems.

Photo of Mr Robert Atkins Mr Robert Atkins , South Ribble

I know that Hyde United is an important club in the hon. Gentleman's pantheon of great clubs.

The hon. Gentleman talked about a football levy board and, over the years, he has been well known for expressing strong views on that. I know that he wrote to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and he has raised the matter with me both privately and publicly. He shares his strong view with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester).

There is a difference of opinion. I have listened to football clubs, to specialists, to journalists who understand the game and to others. There is quite a division of opinion on the matter. I am coming to the view that perhaps the football levy board is an unnessary bureaucracy. The Football Trust is carrying out remarkable work at the moment and I have spoken to many of the people involved with it and have witnessed their work on the spot-the-ball competition and other activities as a result of the dispensation on the funds made available by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Since I have been involved in soccer, I have become aware of the imperative need for soccer to be able to speak with one voice. At the moment, the Football Association, which is the custodian of the rules and the ultimate authority in the game, and the Football League, through the 92 clubs, represent two different voices. They represent most of soccer's attractions to the public, although not exclusively, because the Vauxhall Conference league and many other smaller clubs have regular and committed attractioins as do small boys' teams. I am president of Bamber Bridge junior football club which runs teams of boys from the age of 11 to 16. All those teams play football to a remarkable standard and they are just as important in many respects as teams like Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and others of that ilk.

We must address soccer's problems with finance and the need to place bids for the World Cup, the world championships and the European championships. We must also deal with the problem about sponsorship and the fact that the American football logo is better known and better marketed in this country than soccer's logo—if there is one. There is an enormous amount of potential finance available for soccer and I believe that the football authorities understand that.

I have pressed on the president of the Football League and the chairman of the Football Association and their respective officers the need to talk regularly and continually about improvements in relation to a single body to represent football. There should be some reform of the voting structures of both the FA and the Football League. There should be reforms to the FA's very large council and, in the Football League, to the voting structure of the various divisions.

If those improvements can be carried out and people have an opportunity to discuss the future of football at that level, there can be a conjunction of effort. I understand that the FA believes that there cannot be a merger because it is the ultimate authority. However, there should at least be a conjunction between the FA and the Football League so that they can speak with authority about the game, both professionally and in amateur terms.

I am convinced that that is the way forward. The FA and the Football League must recognise that there is pressure for that conjunction from the lowest level of football in playing and spectator terms throughout the game at both amateur and professional level to the management of top league clubs. I believe that they appreciate that, but there is still a long way to go.

I hope that the FA and the Football League will hear the message of the hon. Member for Stalybridge arid Hyde, who speaks with such authority on these matters, and note my views and the views of those who take an interest in the game. Soccer is a great game and it has achieved great things. We invented the game, as we invented so many others, and we gave it to the world. If we are to continue to exercise leadership, having overcome problems of spectator violence and restoring, renovating and renewing stadiums and providing the finance to allow the game to move into the 21st century, the support of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, of the Government and of the lovers of the game at every level is essential.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this subject for debate. He will join me in wishing football at every level every success in the 1990–91 season. I hope that we can move from strength to strength and ensure the continuation of the improvements that have already been made both on the field and off it. If they continue, soccer's future is as bright as it has ever been.