Afc Wimbledon

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:14 pm on 26th January 2012.

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Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport and the Olympics) 6:14 pm, 26th January 2012

That is a difficult one to follow, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on securing this debate and on the great interest, knowledge and enthusiasm with which she has promoted her local club. I genuinely thank her for that; one of the great things about my job is that it is not always a terribly party political post. I take great pleasure in the fact that Members from both sides of the House want to come together and praise the great work done by sports clubs in their local communities.

I associate myself entirely with the remarks that the hon. Lady made about Alan Keen. He was a great friend. I am not a good enough footballer to have played much football with him, but I played a great deal of cricket with him. He was a remarkable cricketer for a man in his 60s and a great sports enthusiast. Many people across the House miss him greatly.

I congratulate AFC Wimbledon on its promotion to the Football League this season. That was well merited and, as the hon. Lady said, a fantastic example of what can be achieved. It was the culmination of a great many things, many of which she mentioned in her speech. However, as she correctly said, it is, just as importantly, an example of what can be achieved through the power and determination of supporters—I am thinking particularly of the three gentlemen whom she mentioned. It is the supporters of AFC Wimbledon who, through their financial acumen and leadership, have driven this success. That is a great model for what fans can achieve and a great example, dare I say it, of the big society in action. I am delighted that their achievements have been recognised by Downing street.

In the coalition agreement, the Government made a commitment to work with the football authorities—the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League—in this country to encourage reform of football governance, including measures that would encourage co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters. Like the hon. Lady, I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. The Government have supported its report and recommendation that football supporters should have much more of an active role in the running and decision making of their clubs. In our response to that report, we have suggested a number of ways in which we believe that may be achieved.

The first is through fans being better informed about a club’s activities—for example, its financial standing, particularly, and the identity of its owners. Secondly, supporters ought to be represented or consulted in the club’s decision making. That will help to prevent such unpopular decisions as a club’s moving miles from its traditional fan base, as was the case with Wimbledon FC. Thirdly, supporter and supporter-run groups ought to have a formal share or ownership in their club.

Following the Select Committee report, we have given the football authorities—the FA, the Premier League and the Football League—the time to determine the best way of achieving those goals. In their response to the Select Committee process, they have the opportunity to work together collaboratively—they have not always done so in the past—for the long-term benefit of the game.

We have asked those football authorities to bring forward their proposals in three key areas by the end of February this year. The first is the reform of the FA board—a long-running sore since the Burns review. Secondly, there is the relationship between the board, the various FA committees, the council and the shareholders. Thirdly, and most relevantly to this debate, there is the introduction of a licensing system for all professional clubs, where much more robust rules around financial sustainability, fit and proper persons and directors are laid out. We see that licensing model as the appropriate vehicle for greater supporter representation at football clubs. As I said, the football authorities are due to make public their proposals by the end of February. I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not pre-empt that tonight.

The hon. Lady was right to praise the work of Supporters Direct, which has been pivotal in the whole process. It provides fans with the focus and voice to ensure that they can secure influence and ownership of sports clubs and has contributed to the setting up of a network of supporters’ trusts in many sports beyond football.

I recognise that any change in the corporate governance landscape of football ownership will be something of a cultural change. Given that we are trying to modernise and professionalise the governance of football, there will have to be a similar step change in the skills of supporters’ representatives. That will ensure that the success of AFC Wimbledon is repeated across the country and across the leagues.

I will finish where I started, by congratulating the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Crucially, I not only congratulate AFC Wimbledon once again on their promotion and their recent award, but thank them for the excellent work that they do in the community, which as the hon. Lady said was recognised here in a reception in 2009. To conclude, I reiterate the coalition Government’s commitment to encouraging greater supporter involvement in football clubs. With the hon. Lady and many Members across the House, we await with interest the response of the football authorities to the Select Committee’s report.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.