The governance and ownership of football clubs is primarily a matter for football. However, I believe that given the changes in the game in recent years a number of legitimate concerns are being expressed by football supporters and now is the time to have a proper and open debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will shortly meet the football authorities—the Football Association, the premier league, the Football League and others—to discuss the financial regulatory framework of football and a range of issues surrounding the game.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that he will want to join me in passing on our best wishes to Mike Newell, who was announced as Grimsby Town's new manager this morning. The club suffered financial difficulties due to the collapse of ITV Digital and I know that the Minister's own club, Bradford City, has had financial problems, too. In those meetings with football authorities, will the Minister discuss ways in which they can help with the governance of the game to ensure that clubs do not amass crippling debt and that there is greater financial transparency?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue, which has been raised with me by a number of colleagues in the House and in the other place, as well as in correspondence from a variety of football supporters. The time is right to look at football. On his initial point, I, too, wish Mike Newell well—as an ex-Evertonian he must have some knowledge of the game—and I wish Grimsby Town well. This is a serious subject that affects many football clubs and a great number of people in the country. We want to work with the football authorities and look forward to doing so.
I appreciate that the Minister is a hard-working and committed football fan, but I think that his sense that football can get on and regulate itself is somewhat far from the mark. There is great concern that football needs to get its house in order, particularly given the amount of public money that has gone into the game over the past decade and a half and the fact that we also wish to host the World cup. Those are real concerns that he touched on earlier. Will he ensure that he works closely with his erstwhile colleague, Lord Triesman, who now has an important role in the Football Association, to ensure that more is done and that the high-profile concerns about the football industry are brought to book?
I understand that it is the hon. Gentleman's birthday, so I wish him a happy birthday. We have to consider the key issues, and it is quite interesting to hear from Conservative Members suggestions that we look at more regulation. We have to take the key issues into consideration, and first of all the international bodies—FIFA and UEFA—will play a role.
We have to appreciate that some work has been done. That done by the conference on early warning systems and financial difficulties has been an important step forward. We want to see transparency, and perhaps we need to look again at the fit and proper persons test. Clearly, the matter has to be the responsibility of football, but we will do what we can to ensure that the concerns of supporters are addressed. The hon. Gentleman will know that the FA has an independent chair as a result of the Burns report, and so movement has clearly taken place.
Given the takeover of Manchester City by a mega-rich plutocrat from a country governed by a hereditary dictatorship and given the dubious source of finances used to buy Chelsea and Heart of Midlothian football clubs, does the Minister agree that now really is the time to regulate the way in which British football clubs are acquired, particularly when they are acquired by people who have become billionaires through corruption, dishonesty or extortion, or all three?
First, I do not think that it matters what the nationality of an individual is. We have examples in the premier league, such as that of Aston Villa, where people are doing well in their ownership of the club and in its development within the community. My hon. Friend touches on the fit and proper persons test, which needs to be revisited. That is one of the issues that we will take up with the football authorities.
I am grateful to the Minister for the answers that he has already given. I join him in believing that we need football club owners who really care about the long-term interests of the game. Indeed, the Secretary of State said that more than 10 years ago. In each reply so far, the Minister has said that the football authorities should resolve the issues, including the fit and proper persons test. Does he accept that the premiership has said only recently that the Government and not the football authorities must lay down the rules of ownership for football clubs? What are the Government going to do?
I do not recall the premiership saying that it wants Government interference, but I will check the record for the hon. Gentleman. Clearly, the country has laws on fit and proper persons, on company directors and on their rights, responsibilities and duties. Yes, there are laws effective on insolvency, and we need to find out whether we can do any more in terms of the laws of the land. But at the end of the day, it is not for the Government to run football. That would be the wrong thing to do, but we are certainly working with the football authorities to ensure that we do everything that is possible. We are ensuring that the concerns of supporters and others are getting across. The Government have supported Supporters Direct, and we have been working with the supporter organisations to ensure that they have a voice.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it is important to keep his beady eye on Abramovich and all the rest of them, it is probably more important in this world of politics, especially at this time, to ensure that bloated plutocrats such as Lord Ashcroft do not own the Tory party?
As the Minister knows, I have written to him to express my concerns about the penalties that the football authorities imposed on Luton Town football club. That is clearly a major issue for Luton Town, but it also affects other small clubs around the country. Can the Minister assure me that the same penalties would have been imposed if Luton Town was in the premier league, or is there no level playing field in football these days?
I can understand the frustration of Luton Town fans, particularly as its new owners have done everything by the book. I can understand their feeling frustrated at the number of points that have been deducted, but that is clearly a matter for football and how it operates. However, such concerns have been put to me, and we will take them up with the football authorities.