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Sport: Governance — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:42 pm on 4th December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench 3:42 pm, 4th December 2014

My Lords, we thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for initiating this debate and applaud the noble Baroness, Lady Brady, for her spirited and uplifting maiden speech. I wonder whether she has once again set a record by introducing post-watershed language into her maiden contribution. I will echo and reinforce much of what the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, said earlier.

In England, as elsewhere, the governance of football must balance many competing objectives: at the grass roots, we need the right coaching and facilities and, in some parts of the country, we need modern playing surfaces to replace much overused pitches, which are ankle deep in mud by Sunday lunchtime. For the football spectator, we have the best showcase for global football talent in the whole world; namely, the Premier League, where, on its day, the bottom team can outplay the top. But the very best players in the world now play elsewhere. My club has just lost Suárez, who has followed Bale and Ronaldo to Spain. Perhaps it is no surprise, therefore, that England’s top clubs now struggle against Europe’s best. On the other hand, global talent in the premiership—again, this is much recognised—squeezes out some of the top tier of English players and adds to the woes of our national team, which has not won a trophy, or even come close, for nearly 50 years. England’s performance in Brazil was an embarrassment. We were in a qualifying group of four which contained two countries—Uruguay and Costa Rica—with populations of 3 million and 5 million respectively. In three games, we lost twice, gaining our single point in a scoreless draw. Even more worrying, we have had no meaningful national inquest since.

Football matters. Our clubs have deep roots in their communities, with family loyalties stretching back many generations. My grandfather lived his childhood 200 yards from Anfield football ground. Two of my three grandsons support Liverpool, and I am still working on the third. So, while the clubs need to run as businesses, they must also recognise that, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, said, they are vital social and cultural pillars of the community, and must give their fans a voice. Unlike the noble Lord, I do not think the answer is to appoint fan representatives to football boards. However, clubs should—as some already do—institute effective arrangements for communicating with, and listening to, democratically appointed representatives of their fans. The FA is itself a representative body. It needs a council—football’s parliament—which gives voice to all the many diverse interests in the game. It does not do that now. But the FA also needs a board which sits above, and is independent of, all interests, a board which can balance the many national, sporting and social objectives we have for England’s most popular game.

The very careful recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, for the reform of the FA in 2005 were effectively ignored in their entirety. Subsequently, the FA has demonstrated its inability to reform itself. Good people, such as the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and Ian Watmore, have been lost in the trenches in the attempt. The current chairman has made sensible proposals for promoting England’s talent, which have effectively been blocked. It is time now, I think, for football to be subject to independent regulatory scrutiny and oversight, like other sectors—for example, communications or financial services. It is time now for long-threatened government action.