Football Governance

– in the House of Commons at 3:43 pm on 25th April 2022.

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Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, House of Commons Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission 3:43 pm, 25th April 2022

Before I call the Minister to make a statement on the Government’s response to the fan-led review of football governance, I must put on record my disappointment that the Government have apparently already trailed their response extensively to the media. It seems to me that we have a courteous Minister, but somehow Downing Street seems to ignore him and decides to put everything that the House should hear first out to the media. It is not satisfactory. It is discourteous, not only to the House but to Tracey Crouch, who has put in so much work in this area. It is very disappointing that anybody could believe that she should be cut out. When she catches my eye, she will be given more time to put her case about all the hard work that she has done.

This might just be a lesson for the Government to stop being discourteous. Think about the people who get elected—those on both sides of the House. I do not blame the Minister, as I know that Downing Street loves getting these messages out on a Sunday night, but why has it not recognised that even the Prime Minister is a Member of this House? It might be good for us all to hear things first. As I say, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford would not normally be given extra time, but I reassure her and the House that more time will be given to her.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 4:38 pm, 25th April 2022

First, I accept your comments, Mr Speaker—I certainly mean no discourtesy to this House—and I will have discussions about them with colleagues. With permission, I would like to make a statement setting out the Government’s response to the independent fan-led review of football governance. This is further to my written statement issued earlier today. The Government’s response has been provided in hard copy to the Vote Office, and I will place a copy in the Libraries of both Houses.

First, I thank my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch for all her hard work, and indeed I thank the entire panel for their diligence on the review. I also thank colleagues from across the House and all stakeholders who have debated these matters at length—in many cases for a number of years. Most importantly, I want to thank the dozens of clubs and thousands of football fans from across the country who contributed to the review. They sit at the heart of the review and our response to it.

Football is a defining part of our national identity and has been a central part of British life for over a century. English football has had some extraordinary success. Our premier league has grown to become the most watched sports league in the world. However, good governance of our clubs has not kept pace with that expansion and development. The football pyramid has come under threat in recent times, with clubs risking collapse. Many fans have felt alienated from their clubs. It is obvious that reform is needed to keep our national game alive and thriving.

The Government have already taken strong action to support the reform of football. This includes financial support to help clubs through the pandemic, and amendments to competition law to provide financial stability to English football. We also committed to undertaking a review of football governance in our manifesto—a review led by fans, for fans, to protect the future of professional football in this country. In late November, the independent fan-led review of football governance published its report. I am today pleased to announce the publication of the Government’s response to that report. Our response acknowledges the clear case for reform and sets out our approach to moving forward. It marks a significant step in protecting our national game. Today, I am confirming that the Government will introduce an independent regulator for football, in law, as part of a wider plan for reform. An independent regulator is just one of 10 strategic recommendations set out in the report. I am pleased to say that the Government will endorse all of the review’s strategic recommendations. Some are for the Government to implement, and some are for the football authorities to take forward. We expect them to take action, too.

As well as surveying thousands of fans directly, the review benefited from over 100 hours of engagement, involving representatives of over 130 clubs. This all built a clear picture of the challenges in the game. The review, and our response, are for the fans who make our national game what it is, and without whom football would be nothing. To coincide with the response, we are also publishing the findings of a Government-commissioned study by academics and football finance experts Kieran Maguire and Christina Philippou. Their analysis confirms that there is a widespread issue of fragile finances across English football clubs, and that action is needed to secure the sustainability of the game.

The sum total of our plans amounts to significant reform. In our response, we are committing to publishing a White Paper in the summer, which will set out further details of the implementation of this reform. Through a new financial regulation regime, the regulator will usher in a new era of financial competency and sustainability for our clubs. We also recognise that who runs our football clubs goes hand in hand with how they are run, so the regulator will establish a new owners and directors test, replacing the three existing tests, in order to ensure that only good custodians and qualified directors can run these vital community assets. The strengthened test will include a new integrity test. Recent events have shown the importance of our having confidence in the custodians of our football clubs.

Fans have a crucial role to play in the future of football in this country, and for that reason we believe that fans should be properly consulted by their clubs on key decisions. The regulator will therefore set a licence condition that sets out a minimum level of fan engagement to ensure that clubs are meaningfully engaging fans. We also acknowledge the crucial role that football clubs play in the identity of this country, particularly in the communities that are so intrinsically linked with their local team. The stadium, colours and badge are an integral part of that. We therefore believe that they should have additional protections. That includes a mechanism requiring fans to consent before any changes are made to those key items.

Our manifesto commitment was instigated by the financial jeopardy that so many clubs were being pushed into. The long-term health of professional football in this country is dependent on fairer distributions throughout the football pyramid. That is why we agree that the Premier League should strengthen its support across the football pyramid. We expect further action from the football authorities on this important recommendation. If they do not come to an agreement on financial flows through the pyramid, we reserve the right for the regulator to have powers in this area.

Football also needs to ensure that there is a clear and supportive pathway for players. That is why we agree with the recommendation that the welfare of players exiting the game needs to be better protected. I have asked the football authorities to act with urgency on that matter.

Taking forward those recommendations and securing the future of football is a key priority of this Government, but that priority stretches beyond Government. The review contains actions specifically for the Football Association, the Premier League, the English Football League and the Professional Footballers’ Association, on which we expect to see action, without waiting for Government legislation.

The majority of the review looked at issues related to the men’s game. Women’s football has gone from strength to strength over the past few years, with a record number of tickets sold for this year’s European women’s championship to be hosted here in England. The Government have shown that we are right behind women’s sport in every aspect, so we will launch a dedicated review of women’s football in this country.

As well as the women’s football review, I am pleased to confirm that the FIFA women’s World cup and UEFA European women’s championship finals will be added to the listed events regime. As a result, the tournaments will continue to be available to free-to-air television broadcasters, hopefully inspiring the next generation of Lucy Bronzes and Ellen Whites.

The changes that we have set out represent a real turning point for football and will have a considerable impact on clubs. It is crucial that we get this right to give confidence to fans and future investors. That is why we will set out further details on how reforms will be implemented in a White Paper in the summer, and we are committed to legislating to make football reform a reality. We will implement the reforms as soon as possible.

We are paving the way for a more sustainable, accountable and responsible future for football—one that ensures that fans are front and centre of our national game. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:47 pm, 25th April 2022

I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it. I also thank Tracey Crouch and all those who contributed to her excellent and timely review of our national game.

I welcome the confirmation that the Government are supporting the strategic recommendations of the fan-led review. Labour has been calling for the plans to be fully implemented ever since the review was published and, in particular, for the independent regulator for English football, which is key to reform. But however the Government try to spin it, today’s announcement of a White Paper and further delay will come as a disappointment to fans.

The fan-led review was a rigorous and wide-ranging piece of work, based on engagement with every possible interest group alongside more than 20,000 individual fan responses to a survey, and supported by an expert advisory panel from the world of football. As the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Philp, rightly said when doing the media rounds this morning,

“there has been huge input from fans up and down the country”.

Eleven years after the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report, three years after the collapse of Bury, a year after the disastrous European super league proposal and five months after the publication of the fan-led review, we do not need further consultation or a road map. We need a clear timetable and new legislation to be included in the Queen’s Speech in 15 days’ time.

The need for urgent action is clear. Oldham Athletic were relegated from the English football league on Saturday after years of mismanagement ending in fan protests. Derby County are in ongoing crisis and were relegated from the championship this week—not because the players are not good enough, but because of bad owner management and governance. Those two historic clubs, founding members of the premier and football leagues respectively, have been hit hard because of reckless owners.

In the wake of the Ukraine war and sanctions, Chelsea are in limbo. Many supporters want the review recommendations to be incorporated in the club’s sale. The Government are missing an opportunity to embed fan representation, as recommended in the review, and give supporters a say on changes to the heritage assets of their club.

The Minister’s statement, although welcome, left some questions unanswered. The Minister could not rule out to the Select Committee recently that a regulator might be located within the FA. Can he do so now? We believe that it is vital for the regulator to be truly independent.

The statement confirmed that the Government are accepting all 10 of the strategic recommendations. That is good, but can the Minister confirm that the Government support the 47 detailed recommendations in the report? Perhaps more importantly, are there any that they do not support?

The announcement today will do nothing to break the impasse on the redistribution of funding. The fan-led review gave the Premier League and the EFL until the end of 2021 to work it out between them, but that has not happened: the bodies have not been able to come to an agreement for months. If they fail, the review proposes action from the regulator, but on the current timescale—unless the Minister can tell me otherwise—a regulator will not be in place until at least 2024. At what point will he intervene urgently to get the Premier League and the EFL to an agreement?

The dedicated review of women’s football, which was an important recommendation in the review, is really welcome. Can the Minister give any more detail on who will chair it, what timescale it might follow and how its recommendations will be taken forward in due course?

The Government have said all along, quite rightly, that they accept in principle the proposals in the review, so let us get on with it. We are already too late for Bury, Derby and Oldham. If further clubs go under or suffer because of delays to the implementation of the review, responsibility will rest partly on the Government’s shoulders. The Labour party is happy to work with the Government to find space for legislation sooner rather than later. The right result is already clear; we do not need extra time. For the future of our national game, let us see legislation in the Queen’s Speech and action as quickly as possible.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. May I put on record my thanks and gratitude for the genuinely positive and constructive tone that we have had from him, from the Opposition DCMS team and from Members across the House?

There is a clear cross-party intent to move forward. I can say definitely to the hon. Gentleman that there is no intent to delay: we want to move forward as soon as possible. A White Paper is not an unusual step to take in bringing legislation to the House. It will also give others the opportunity to make additional comments as we move to the final stages of what is one of the most fundamental transformations in English football.

It is important that we get this right. It is incredibly complex: we will be bringing in incredible rigour and discipline, particularly financial discipline, for clubs, which has not happened before. If we were expected to bring in regulation tomorrow, it could cause considerable difficulty for clubs that may not currently be in a position to prove the level of discipline and rigour in their finances that we would seek in a new world with more financial regulation. We have to do it at the right time and give adequate notice. That being said, we want to move at speed, and the team at DDCMS are all working on many of the aspects that the hon. Gentleman raises.

On many of the hon. Gentleman’s points, further details will be coming in the White Paper. In the next few weeks, we will also announce further details on the review of the women’s game; the game has some similar issues but many different issues, so it is right that there is a separate review. We will continue to put pressure on the Premier League and others to move forward in the many areas that the hon. Gentleman identified that do not require regulation. For example, we expect many entities to move forward in the areas of financial distribution, fan engagement and heritage assets. Football entities can continue to move those matters forward, and I am sure that the whole House will continue to bring pressure on them to do so. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his genuinely constructive comments and welcome the overall support that we are hearing from the Opposition.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for his comments at the start of the statement. I appreciate that with Chorley in the play-offs, he has a deep interest in the future of football.

With great community clubs such as Buckhurst Hill and Epping Town in your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that you share the concerns and thoughts of many colleagues. I will not test your patience; I will take just a minute or so, because I recognise that hon. Members have a lot to say and I know that I will be having a meeting with the Minister to go through some of the detail of the report.

Regardless of any result on the pitch over the weekend, today is a good day for football fans. There has long been concern about the regulation and governance of football clubs throughout the English football pyramid, much of which has come on the back of various crises that in some cases have seen the disintegration of clubs as a result of financial mismanagement. That led to the fan-led review of football, which I was privileged to chair.

I am enormously pleased that the Government have accepted, or support, all 10 strategic recommendations set out in the review, including the fundamental proposal to establish an independent regulator free from the vested and conflicted interests that currently govern the game. It is perfectly possible to celebrate the global success of English football while at the same time having deep concerns about the fragility of the wider foundations of the game. The implementation of better regulation, stronger governance and more involvement for fans will not threaten the success of our game, but will make it stronger than ever.

All that said, I am concerned about the timeframe for implementation, and—with your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker—seek clarity on a few points.

Will the Minister confirm that the White Paper will be published this side of the summer recess? “Summer” can mean a lot of things in Government parlance, including, quite often, what we, the public, think of as autumn. Will the Minister rule out the housing of the independent regulator in the FA? Can he clarify whether the owners’ and directors’ test will be split into two, as recommended in the review? Does he share my disappointment that there has been no progress in respect of discussions between the football authorities on redistribution and parachute payments? Will he outline his position on the transfer solidarity levy? Finally, the review was clear about the fact that fans should have a right of consent as part of the golden share on heritage items, but the Government’s response was less clear in that regard. Will the Minister confirm that there will be a veto for fans on heritage matters?

There is much in today’s announcement on which to congratulate the Government, and I pay particular tribute to the officials who have worked so hard on this response. Momentum is on the side of reform, but, like most football fans, I am always fearful of two things: one-nil score lines with time to play, and games that head into extra time. Given that both football and politics can be volatile and vulnerable to sudden change, I urge the Government to nail the win for millions of fans across the pyramid, and deliver the reforms as quickly as possible.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank my hon. Friend for all her work, not just her work on the recent review but the passion for football that she has shown ever since she came into Parliament—and, indeed, before. I also thank her for acknowledging the hard work of the officials who, in many cases, have been working on this for a number of years.

My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the complexities involved. I completely understand the potential frustration over the timing of implementation, but, as I said to Jeff Smith, this is a complex process. However, we will be producing a White Paper, and we will be outlining further details shortly. I note my hon. Friend’s comments about the definition of “summer”, and I will put the pressure on in order to bring back further information as soon as possible.

I think that in her report my hon. Friend left open the possibility of the FA’s being a home for the regulator at some time in the future. We explicitly did not rule in or out any individual entity, but there will clearly be requirements in terms of the scope, responsibilities, duties and purpose of the regulator, and it is therefore highly likely that some entities will be eligible and others will not. I shall be able to comment on that in due course, in particular to the Select Committee. Many members of that Committee, and indeed many Members of the House, have expressly said that they would not like the FA to take on those responsibilities, although it will obviously continue to have other responsibilities.

My hon. Friend referred to financial redistributions. The Secretary of State and I had meetings with Rick Parry of the English Football League and Richard Masters of the Premier League just last week, when we reiterated the need for them to reach some agreement as a matter of urgency. As per my hon. Friend’s recommendation, if they do not do so we will act, and we expect to see action before the White Paper is released in the summer. We are hoping to see movement, but if there is no movement, dealing with that will be another role for the regulator.

There will indeed be licensing conditions in these areas, including conditions relating to fan engagement and to heritage assets. The precise nature of those will be determined, and could vary depending on the league and the level in the club. We do not want to be too prescriptive at this point.

I look forward to engaging with my hon. Friend on many occasions in the coming weeks.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I, too, pay tribute to Tracey Crouch. I really do not understand what the Minister expects to find out from a White Paper that the fan-led review did not find out. What is it that he is seeking to eke out from whoever did not respond to or support the fan-led review? He says that finances are fragile. He has been in the room with the Premier League and the EFL together, as he has just said, so he knows that they are miles apart on the issue of parachute payments. They are distorting the football league and that needs to end. The Government need to make a decision about parachute payments and not keep kicking the can down the road and relying on an agreement between the Premier League and the football league.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his passion for all things football, but I would not want to underestimate the complexity of what we are trying to do here. The need for a White Paper is not an unusual part of the parliamentary process. In fact, I suspect that if we had not proposed a White Paper, I would now be accused by the Opposition of not bringing one in. It is an important part of the process. We can announce the regulator and the scope of the regulator, but we then come to the complexities of its scale, where is it located, what its roles and responsibilities are and what the sanctioning regime and appeals process should be. All those things still need to be thought out, and we have to ensure that we do it carefully because we have one chance to get this right.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch for a fantastic piece of work. I know that football fans across the country will be thrilled today. I am thinking about Leek Town, in the eighth tier of the pyramid, which will be very pleased to see the pyramid being strengthened by this work. I want to ask a question about the regulator. In my experience, regulators do not always deliver what Government Ministers want them to deliver. Given that this is an issue of finance, may I urge the Minister to look at successful financial regulation and perhaps base the regulator model on that?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments; I know that she has deep expertise and interest in this area. She is absolutely right, and we will be looking at models as we develop the regulator role. We have seen the Financial Conduct Authority, for example, and its role with the integrity test. There are a lot of things out there that we will genuinely try to learn from, so that we do not have to start from scratch. We will leverage expertise—there is considerable expertise at DCMS and throughout Government on establishing regulators—but we will also learn the lessons of the past.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I speak here perhaps less as a Scottish MP and more as probably the sole Glasgow East member of Fleetwood Town supporters club. I want to draw attention to pages five and six of the statement, in which the Minister talks about financial distribution through the pyramid. The fact that he has not given that power to the regulator is something that would alarm a lot of people, and would he agree that this is not so much a parachute payment as a trampoline payment?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

As I outlined, and as the review recommends, we should let football try to find a solution wherever possible. If it cannot find a solution, there will be a backstop. That is what we are proposing.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

I congratulate the Minister, particularly on his wisdom in recognising that when faced with a series of suggestions from my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch, it is easier and quicker just to say yes straightaway. I am a fan of a team in the championship, Reading, that is delighted—and quite relieved—to be in the championship next season as well. What all fans of teams at every level want is a greater voice for fans, better management, better tests for people who take over clubs, and also to maintain the standards of the premier league as the genuinely world-class competition that it has become since it was created. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that at all levels of the game, including at the top, there will be benefits from the new system of governance?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My right hon. Friend makes some pertinent and wise points, including his first point. He is absolutely right that football is a British success story, and the premier league in particular is something we should all be proud of. It is incredibly successful around the world and brings in a lot of money for the UK economy. Establishing greater stability and sustainability across the whole of the football pyramid is good for football overall, including the premier league. The premier league does distribute money, and we are grateful for that, but we would like to see it do a little bit more.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I have repeatedly raised with the Minister the impact on Newcastle United fans of the Premier League’s arrogance and lack of accountability, so I welcome his recognition of the need for reform. Will he confirm whether this further delay is at the behest of the Premier League? Does he agree that it is unacceptable for the Premier League to stand in the way of football fans, and that it is particularly distasteful given its policy director’s recent fine for partying while football fans, and indeed the rest of the country, were in lockdown?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am afraid the hon. Lady is misinterpreting what I have outlined today. We are pursuing a process, and we have not announced delays; we have announced a route forward. A White Paper is a perfectly reasonable step that we have to take because these are complex issues. We will move forward on all these important areas.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

If football clubs were already trading within the rules of their competitions, as my hon. Friend knows, many of them would not get into difficulty. Will he confirm the key points of principle that the regulator will have the power to access real-time financial information from the clubs to see whether they are trading within the rules and that the owners and directors test will not only apply at the point of purchase? He has spoken of licensing conditions several times. Can he confirm that, from the outset, the regulator will be issuing licences that can be rescinded if the clubs do not comply?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I can confirm each of those points, particularly the last one. A licensing regime is exactly that: a person must abide by the conditions in order to get a licence. My hon. Friend’s other points are similarly accurate, including on the principle of an owners and directors test. One problem is that there is an owners and directors test only when a club is sold. We will be looking at greater frequency, for the reasons he outlined.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

I am sure the Minister will join me in congratulating Warrington Rylands, who won promotion over the weekend as champions of northern premier league west, and in sending best wishes to Warrington Town, who are in the play-offs tomorrow for promotion from the northern premier league.

Both teams aspire to become league clubs, which would be absolutely huge for football in Warrington, but media reports suggest that the Government plan to leave the redistribution of wealth throughout the football pyramid to the football authorities, rather than implementing the review’s recommendation for a solidarity transfer levy. Given that, after months, the Premier League and the EFL have not been able to agree on this recommendation, will the Minister personally intervene to secure a solution rather than waiting for action from a regulator that does not yet exist?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I join the hon. Lady in congratulating the Warrington teams—there is obviously something in the water up there.

I repeat that the Secretary of State and I have already had conversations with the Premier League and the EFL, and we have requested that they work together to try to find a solution on redistribution. If they do not come to a conclusion, we reserve the right for that to be part of the regulator’s responsibilities. I make it clear that there will be changes to financial distribution. It is a matter of when and exactly how, but it will happen.

Photo of Siobhan Baillie Siobhan Baillie Conservative, Stroud

I join the praise for my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch for her incredible work for football. As she says, this is a good day for football fans.

I also extend my congratulations to Forest Green Rovers, who were promoted to League One this weekend. There are some very happy local fans, and fan engagement has been crucial to getting to this point and to influencing the review’s recommendations. Will football fans be able to comment further and be heard ahead of the legislation coming before the House?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I congratulate Forest Green Rovers, too. My hon. Friend makes the important point that we are all here because fans were at the heart of the review. I will continue to engage with both fans and clubs, which is one of the advantages of a White Paper. As we get closer to the final details just before legislation, there will be an opportunity for fans to comment, which is good.

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee

I also thank and congratulate Tracey Crouch. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for football supporters, the secretariat of which is provided by the Football Supporters Federation.

The review was published in November, and we welcome the announcement of an independent regulator, but the list of failures, points deductions and relegations grows. The English Football League’s clubs are laden with debt and outspending receipts on players’ wages, and the FA is in hock to the Premier League and is paralysed by self-interest and sectional interests. Why the delay? The fans of many clubs want to know. When we say “act now”, we mean: bring forward a Bill that can be discussed in Parliament in the next Session. The review included significant consultation, so why delay any further? Such a delay has the potential to allow more horses to bolt and again it might be too late to close stable doors. Let me add that Gateshead play away to Chorley next Monday, hoping to clinch the national league north title.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I fear we may be playing club bingo in the Chamber today, Madam Deputy Speaker. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the intention is to move forward as soon and as fast as possible, but I would not want to underplay the complexity of what we are doing or the scale of the changes we are proposing today—that requires that we get this right.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

I join right hon. and hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford on doing a fantastic job and having a real influence in the future direction of the game. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a regular, but very frustrated this season, Manchester United supporter. However, my focus today is very much on the small non-league clubs and even the mini leagues in the areas such as the one I represent, which drive the football pyramid. Their role is crucial in encouraging young people to get involved in playing football and involved in the sport. As the Minister puts together his White Paper, may I ask him to make sure that he has that in mind? We need to protect small clubs and the role they play in their communities and in encouraging a new generation into sport.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My right hon. Friend is making some important points. Of course we do not forget the importance of the grassroots and the non-league games, and the Government are investing in the grassroots, with new facilities right across the country. He makes a point about the viability of the overall pyramid and therefore the trickle down, including through schemes such as the Football Foundation. That is vital, which is why financial sustainability and success at the top is expected to help the entire pyramid.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I am a Scot and a highlander, so those in the Chamber will not be surprised to learn that I support Ross County. Ross County very nearly won a Scottish cup final but we were pipped to the post by Dundee United. It was 15 May 2010 and I remain deeply traumatised by the result; I was there and I was greatly saddened. My point is this: from little acorns mighty oaks can grow. It was not always thus with Ross County, as I can remember them being thrashed by Rangers in the 1960s—

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

That is quite enough from the hon. Gentleman seated behind me. I accept what the Minister is saying about the Government’s good intention on this front, but I seek reassurance that the clubs in the lower divisions are being consulted to the maximum point they can be, because they are vital to this equation being solved.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Yes, I assure the hon. Gentleman about that. More than 20,000 people responded to the review, and 120 clubs were also consulted. I travel up and down the country to consult clubs on an ongoing basis, as indeed pretty much everybody in the Chamber does. That always feeds back; the fans’ views really matter to us here. He is also alluding to the point that success at the top absolutely needs to trickle down. It is vital that that works and we want all levels of football to excel.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

I very much welcome these announcements. Our local clubs in Stoke-on-Trent, both Stoke City and Port Vale, are generally very well run and do huge amounts for our communities across the city. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that it is important that we see this good practice and the investment that goes into our communities rolled out across all clubs, that clubs lead by example and that they take from those fantastic examples we see in Stoke-on-Trent?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My hon. Friend is right that football clubs play a pivotal role in our communities, and not only in terms of the sport—we saw during the pandemic the role that they played. I recently had the privilege of going to some EFL awards, where it was communicated to me that more than 4 million hours of volunteering have been provided by just those 72 football clubs in the past year. What an incredible contribution that is, and long may it continue.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Labour, Lancaster and Fleetwood

Lancashire is home to many great football clubs, but we often have great rivalries. Last week, I received a letter from Andy Higgins, the chairperson of Blackpool Supporters Trust, and the week before that I met Steve Curwood, the chief exec at Fleetwood Town football club. The one thing they agree on is that the financial pyramid is not working. With the Premier League and EFL in an absolute logjam, is the Minister perhaps naively optimistic in thinking that the football authorities will be able to resolve this issue internally?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I am definitely usually a “glass half full” rather than “glass half empty” person, which I think is a good way to go through life. I do not think I can be accused of being naively optimistic, but I do believe that the football authorities have a responsibility and an obligation to put their house in order and take action. If they do not, action will be taken against them.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon

AFC Wimbledon is a living example of a football club that has been rebuilt by fans and the community after its heritage was taken away. I thank my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch for all her work. In her contribution, she mentioned how the Government’s definition of “summer” is sometimes moveable; the Government’s definition of “engagement” is also sometimes moveable. Will the Minister be clear that when the White Paper comes out, there will be a condition to set out clearly what fans should expect from their engagement?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right that engagement could mean different things to different people. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as we set a minimum level, and that will be the condition. We will look at licensing conditions, and fan engagement for, say, a top-end premier league club might be different from that for a club further down the pyramid. Indeed, expectations of engagement might also change. We will set some minimal conditions and, although one model may not fit all, there will definitely be changes.

Photo of Dan Carden Dan Carden Labour, Liverpool, Walton

May I say well done to Tracey Crouch? My hon. Friend Ian Byrne would have liked to be here—he has done a lot with fans and supporters—but he is at a Select Committee hearing.

For all of us who want to see fan engagement embedded in the game, there will be real concern about the Government’s delay. Will the Minister reassure fans that in the time we are waiting for legislation, vested interests will not have Ministers’ ears, and that we will see the implementation of all the recommendations in the fan-led review?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The very fact that we are making the announcements we are making today, which are fundamental to and transformative for English football, shows that vested interests have not had a huge say. The review was led by fans and what was in their best interests, and that will continue.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

I am a very happy Huddersfield Town season ticket holder as we get ready for the championship play-offs. I am also delighted as a Golcar United non-league season ticket holder, because the village was promoted from the north-west counties league division one this season. However, I am aware of the misery suffered by the fans of other clubs, such as Derby, Bury and, as we saw at the weekend, Oldham Athletic. I welcome the clear commitment to fairer funding among the leagues and to the introduction of an independent regulator, but will the Minister say how the review and the proposals will ensure that the fans of local clubs do not have to suffer again the poor governance that has put their clubs under threat and even seen them go out of existence?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My hon. Friend makes valid points. That is at the heart of what we are doing. The role of the regulator is to be there not in and of itself but for a purpose, which is to make sure that football is sustainable in the long run. Many elements, including financial regulation, governance, engagement with fans and the treatment of heritage assets, will be fundamental to the licensing condition, and there will, of course, be a new owners and directors test. All that together should ensure there is much less chance of clubs getting into difficulty, whether financial or related to their treatment of the fanbase. Our package should achieve the very things my hon. Friend is looking for.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I too pay tribute to my friend Tracey Crouch for all the work that she has done. Unfortunately, as we have already heard, Oldham Athletic is the first founding member of the Premier League to drop out of the football league. It has hit many of the town’s fans hard.

I share the concerns about the delay, but I also have a question to ask on behalf of my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner and my hon. Friend Jim McMahon. Can the Minister be more specific about how long it will take to reverse the position of wealth sitting at the top of football and failing to be redistributed down to the lower leagues, and of allowing rogue owners to use clubs as their personal playthings?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I have a great deal of sympathy for Oldham fans. The hon. Lady makes some important points. Many of the proposals we have outlined should help to ensure that that kind of situation does not happen in future. As I have said repeatedly today, what I am announcing is progress and how we are moving forward. I have to push back against the narrative of delay; this is about how we are moving forward.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon

I too pay tribute to my fellow Panini football sticker collector, my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch, for the fantastic work that she has done and for the fact that there is general consensus on the majority of the recommendations. We must not lose sight of the fact that the premier league is the most successful football league in the world, while the championship is the fourth-biggest league. If MPs are the answer, that fills me with trepidation. There is a reason why we are not all football managers and pundits. Does the Minister agree that the Premier League, the EFL and the FA need to read the room and crack on pretty quickly?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I agree with my hon. Friend, and we have sent that message. I am not sure I agree that there are no football pundits in this House, however; I think there are quite a few sitting just a few feet from me.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Labour, Batley and Spen

I am very happy Huddersfield Town fan today, following our latest victory, but I hope the Minister will join me in also congratulating Liversedge football club in my constituency, who were crowned league champions at the weekend. It is a fine example of a community club doing lots of good things in the constituency.

Having recently joined Tracey Crouch on the pitch against the Afghan women’s football team, may I say what a great team player she is, and praise her for her excellent report? I support the report’s call for a new code for football club governance. Will the Minister ensure that such a code will apply to all clubs and include additional minimum requirements relating to directors, equality and diversity, fan engagement, welfare, and stewardship?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Lady raises many points. I also had the pleasure of meeting the Afghan team the other day, and I am glad to hear her highlight the importance of clubs in our communities. Further details on the White Paper are coming. I am glad that she mentioned equality, diversity and inclusion, because they were part of the report, and we will look at ensuring that EDI plans are in place. More information is coming; look out for it in the White Paper.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

It would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that Grimsby Town, the club I have supported for 60 years, play in Cleethorpes. We have talked a lot about different tiers, and the one thing I fear is that we might have too many tiers of regulation. Clearly, the FA and other bodies will play a part in regulating the sport, and the report talks about somebody ensuring that the regulator uses its powers proportionately, so who will regulate the regulator?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The points raised by my hon. Friend are exactly why we are doing the right thing by providing further details in the White Paper, so that we can see exactly what the regulator’s remit and responsibilities will be. He also raises the important point that there other entities and bodies in football and we need to be clear where the roles and responsibilities lie. We have a pretty good picture of that now, and over the next few weeks and months I am sure it will become even clearer, hence the White Paper.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

Bristol City are key to both the culture and the economy of south Bristol. I recently met the chief executive, who is keen on the work done by Tracey Crouch and wants to see it progress. Rivalry in the city is intense, but will the Minister join me in supporting the work of Caz May and Lucy Ford, who are fans of Bristol Rovers and the founders of Her Game Too? May I press the Minister for details of the review of women’s football? I hope that the work of Her Game Too, and all the women and girls involved in grassroots football, are included in that review.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank the hon. Lady. She is right that ensuring a proper review of women’s football is of pivotal importance, and I know that has the support of the whole House. We will announce more information within the next few weeks. The scope will be different from the review of the men’s game, because the issues are slightly different. Football finance is always there, but there are other things, particularly sponsorship visibility and so on, that are pivotally important. I ask her to be patient a little bit longer and we will provide more information in due course.

Photo of Pauline Latham Pauline Latham Conservative, Mid Derbyshire

The proud and historic Derby County football club has had a torrid time over the past seven months. It has a named buyer now, but it is not out of the woods. I ask the Minister: is this the black and the white, and can he therefore guarantee that these proposals will ensure that no club will close in the future?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I have had many conversations with my hon. Friend about the situation at Derby County and I know how passionate she and several other colleagues are about the situation there. We are very confident that, with the new regime and the independent regulator looking particularly at financial regulation, the chances of clubs going into administration again and getting into that difficulty would be considerably reduced because there would be much closer scrutiny of the finances. As my hon. Friend Damian Collins mentioned earlier, ongoing, real-time scrutiny of the finances will be pivotal. However, circumstances can change and emergencies can happen both domestically and internationally. Can we guarantee that these measures will ensure that no club will ever go under? No, we cannot, but they will be massively impactful in significantly reducing the chances of that happening.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

Since the Glazer family became the owners of Manchester United, they have taken more than £1 billion out of the club, much of it to service debts they incurred buying the club in the first place, which they subsequently loaded on to the club. I do not think that kind of toxic business model has any place in football or any other business, so I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that that kind of arrangement will be banned altogether under the new regulator.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

As I have said, financial regulation, looking in detail at the finances and sustainability of clubs and at how they are spending their money, will be at the heart of the independent regulator’s role.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

The Minister recently visited Blackpool FC, a club that he will know has suffered more than most at the hands of an irresponsible owner. I am pleased to see the Government endorsing the key recommendations of the fan-led review, including the owners and directors test. However, he will know that financial circumstances, views and attitudes can change over time, including for the owners of clubs. Does he agree that the test should be applied periodically, rather than merely when a club is bought and sold?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I very much enjoyed visiting both my hon. Friend’s constituency and the club. He is absolutely right. As was highlighted in the report, we need to ensure that the owners and directors test is not just static, happening when a club is sold, but is regularly reviewed, because as he outlined, circumstances change. We will look at that. I think the report suggested every three years, and that sounds sensible to me, but we will provide more information in the White Paper.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The only thing better than working on this fan-led review of football with Tracey Crouch is being on the football pitch with her. She has been brilliant, as I am sure we all agree.

I know you will be concerned, Madam Deputy Speaker, given historical injustices in the world of football, that women should not be made to wait a moment longer than necessary. Further to the answer given to my hon. Friend Karin Smyth, will the Minister please explain why the chair and terms of reference for the women’s football review have not been announced? Can he correct that situation now at the Dispatch Box and tell us who the chair will be and when we will have in our hands the terms of reference? Women who care about football in this country do not want to wait any longer.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I can assure the hon. Lady that women in sport is one of my top priorities. When I became Sports Minister, one of the first things I did was to set up a women in sport working group, which is making considerable progress, and I am very proud and very appreciative of all the people involved in it. She will have to be a little bit patient, as I cannot announce now, at the Dispatch Box, the chair and the scope, although she will understand that that information will be released very soon. However, that does not mean that this is not a priority; it absolutely is.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

I refer to my entry in the register.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to secure an Adjournment debate, when my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch was in the Minister’s position answering, and we talked about the success of the premier league—the 100,000 jobs that are directly held through it, the £7.6 billion it delivers to the UK economy, and the £3.6 billion it delivers to the Exchequer. There is nothing of that nature in the Government’s response. Can the Minister confirm that nothing in this response will harm and undermine the great export that is the premier league?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank my hon. Friend for that. In fact, I think I was PPS-ing that very debate, so I remember it well. He is absolutely right. As I have said many times at the Dispatch Box today, the premier league is an incredible British success story that we need to celebrate and applaud, and make sure that it continues to be successful. Nothing that we are proposing today should jeopardise that. We are asking for some changes. We have been asking for reform in football for a very long time. Unfortunately the reason we have had to intervene, and are doing so, is that the Premier League has signally failed to act at the speed that we needed. The Premier League has an obligation and a responsibility to continue to make changes, including with financial flows. However, I do not believe that anything we are announcing today would jeopardise what is an incredible success story, and the premier league will continue to thrive—I am very confident of that.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

Anyone who has spoken to directors and owners of either Chesterfield football club or Staveley Miners Welfare football club will be very much aware that while there may be monstrous profits in the premier league, at every level below that there is huge indebtedness, and football as a sport requires benefactors to be constantly writing another cheque. That model is broken. I fear that what we have heard today is that this is being kicked into the next Parliament. I suspect that the premier league clubs listening to this will be reassured that they still have quite a bit of time before they are going to have their feet held to the fire. Can the Minister assure us that before this Parliament is over, in 2024 or whenever that may be, we will actually see reform on the statute book, and this will not just rely on the manifestos of parties at the next election, because it should be dealt with during this Parliament?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Both the Secretary of State and I have said previously that the intention is to bring this in before the end of this Parliament. As I say, we are working at speed on it. The hon. Gentleman’s point about indebtedness is an important one. Many clubs are currently in a pretty precarious financial state. The financial regulation that we will bring in will require much more stability and sustainability, and proof of that sustainability. That is precisely why saying, “Let’s bring this in tomorrow”, could end up having the absolute opposite impact of what we intend.

Photo of Sara Britcliffe Sara Britcliffe Conservative, Hyndburn

I welcome the Government’s response to the fan-led review undertaken by my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch. I thank her for recently visiting Accrington Stanley and its supporters, and, in particular, its fantastic chairman, Andy Holt, who people know is quite a vocal supporter of the fan-led review. There are concerns about the timing of this, as the Minister has set out, but while we are waiting for the White Paper, will he make sure that we can continue to have discussions on the redistribution of finances?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

It would not be a debate in Parliament about football without mentioning Accrington Stanley, so I am glad that that bingo item has been ticked off. My hon. Friend is right. As I said, we are continuing to put pressure on the Premier League to continue this dialogue and these conversations because we would like to see movement before the White Paper is released.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am proud that Luton Town in my constituency has been at the forefront of calls for fan-led reform, particularly through campaigns such as Fair Game. As a Lutonian, and like many other fans, I have everything crossed that we will not just be in the play-offs but in the premier league this season. The Minister mentioned exiting the game. Many have the experience of devoting their lives to football—often at the expense of a proper education or other opportunities—only for that footballing career to end abruptly or to never really get started. That can lead often to severe mental health issues and shocking life outcomes. Can the Minister give further clarity over the expected White Paper’s plans to better protect the welfare of players exiting the game, in particular those leaving football academies at a young age?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Lady will be aware that I fought Luton South in the 2010 election, and Luton South fought back, as they say. I still have a great passion for Luton, which has gone up and down the leagues over many years. She is making an important point that my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch highlighted in her report and that I referenced in my statement. This is one of the areas that is primarily the responsibility of football to sort out, but we are keeping a very close eye on it. The welfare of players is paramount, and we have seen too many failures in the past.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

In the heart of the mother town sits Port Vale FC, which is situated within Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. This review is so important, because we had a former owner, Norman Smurthwaite, who was a complete disaster and almost brought down this fantastic asset. It is thanks to Kevin and Carol Shanahan, who came in and bought the club, that we are now sitting in fourth place, one point off the automatic promotion spots in league two. As Carol says, we are simply a championship club that happens to be in league two at this moment. What is important, and what Carol wanted me to reiterate, is that we surely should be looking at the TV rights. Rather than having the EFL and the Premier League competing against each other, we should get them to join up and have a 70:30 split.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

It was a pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and the club. He is making an important point, and as I have said repeatedly, financial distribution is something we are looking at. We want and require the Premier League to work with others on this, and if it does not act, we will look at alternative measures.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I would also like to thank our friend, Tracey Crouch, for such excellent work on the review. Players give their lives for football. My constituent, the former captain of Leeds United, Brian Deane, was woefully let down by the footballing authorities. Will player welfare be central to the new regulator? We have areas, such as the PFA, where there have been recent failings. Will the regulator take on board such issues as whether agents are fit and proper and whether the people who financially advise players are proper to do their work? Those issues are of importance to players playing the game.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Member is raising a variety of points. Some of those are likely to be the responsibility of the regulator, but many, such as player welfare, will continue to be the responsibility of other institutions within football.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Conservative, Loughborough

Football is integral to Loughborough, whether that is throughout the town clubs, among students and in our exemplary Leicester City, which has its training ground in my constituency. Jim Shannon will be very happy about that, I am sure. Today is indeed a good day for football fans. Will football fans at all levels be able to comment further on the proposals before the legislation is introduced, and if so, how?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The view of fans is pivotal. It has been so far, and it will continue to be as we develop the proposals. We will find ways to make sure that fans continue to be engaged in the conversations and discussions, and we will be announcing more information with the White Paper.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead

I have spoken before about the importance of ensuring a genuinely fair and equitable distribution of wealth throughout English football. The fan-led review rightly suggests that the Premier League should be doing more to support lower league and grassroots football, so that clubs, such as Tranmere Rovers in my constituency, can continue to nurture the next generation of home-grown talent. While the report’s recommendation of a solidarity transfer levy is welcome, more needs to be done. Can the Minister inform the House what additional steps the Government will be taking to guarantee that clubs like Tranmere, which are so often the beating heart of their communities, see more of the wealth flowing down from the top of the football pyramid?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

This is a common appeal we have heard today. Financial distribution in football is not as it should be at the moment. We are appealing to the Premier League to do more. If it does not—if it cannot come to some agreement— we will look at what the responsibilities of the regulator may be to take further action.