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My Lords, I am delighted to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, on securing this debate, which is turning out to be a highlight of the parliamentary calendar. I particularly congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brady, on her maiden speech. I shall say more about West Ham in a moment, if she does not mind. I should declare an interest as a vice-president of the Football Conference, and share with the House the knowledge that I shall be spending Sunday in Scunthorpe with Worcester City in its FA Cup tie. It is not a club that often gets mentioned in your Lordships’ Chamber, and this is a good opportunity to do so, because the team is enjoying an exceptional season.
Following the powerful speeches of my noble friend Lord Triesman, in particular, and the noble Lords, Lord Birt and Lord Horam, I wonder if I may put one or two practical questions to the Minister about the governance of football in England and the Government’s attitude towards the FA. Is he satisfied with the progress that the FA has made in implementing the changes that the Minister for Sport demanded in his response to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report in July 2011? The Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, said then that the FA had until
“to overhaul its board and bring in a new licensing system for clubs”.
May I ask the Minister what has happened to the parliamentary Bill which, according to the Guardian in May last year,
“would seek to enable the transformation of the FA into a modern governing body”,
and which, according to the report, parliamentary counsel had been instructed to prepare?
There is not time to go into all of football’s woes. However, I will just mention the level of debt. While money is a problem, the level of debt is an even greater one, which is growing year by year as clubs spend desperately to attempt to avoid relegation or to win promotion. They increasingly spend on players and managers. The spiral of debt is quite clearly out of control, as Deloitte reminds us year after year in its report on football finances. Responsible financial policies were adopted some years ago by the Football Conference, which means that all debts—not just football debts—have to be paid to enable clubs’ continued membership of the competition. The conference office regularly receives reports from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs on how up to date clubs are with their PAYE and VAT payments. Those that are seen to have fallen behind then face a series of sanctions. I suggest that that is a model that the Football Association and the major leagues should follow.
In my last two minutes I will speak about an issue that a number of noble Lords have referred to: the way that disabled supporters are treated at far too many of our football stadiums. Here I declare an unpaid interest as vice-president of Level Playing Field. In April, the then Minister for Disabled People wrote to all professional clubs and said that the provision of disabled access was “woefully inadequate”, with only three clubs in the Premier League—as we have heard, the richest league in the world—complying with the accessible stadia guidelines for the number of spaces for supporters in wheelchairs. Perhaps the worst example is the richest club of all, Manchester United, which offers only 120 wheelchair-user places in a 76,000-seat stadium. There are none in the family stand and disabled fans are denied the opportunity to buy season tickets. The accessible stadia guidelines say that there should be at least 282 spaces. I will just comment on the excellent evidence that the noble Baroness, Lady Brady, gave to the Select Committee on the Olympic legacy. The whole committee was very impressed by her commitment that when West Ham takes over the Olympic stadium it will comply fully with all the accessible stadia guidelines. We look forward to that.
Very briefly, I have three practical solutions for the Minister that would deal with the problem. Two of these can follow quite easily, thanks to the Government’s very welcome decision to reprieve the Sports Grounds Safety Authority. It was facing abolition but it has now been guaranteed a long-term life. This is the body that, in conjunction with Level Playing Field, should, in my view, be encouraged to conduct an audit of disabled access at all professional football grounds. Level Playing Field has been asked by the rugby league trust to do the same sort of job. This will provide the sort of information that will demonstrate the scale of the work that needs to be done.
The second thing that the Sports Grounds Safety Authority should do is to be instructed by Ministers not to grant licences to professional football club stadia that do not meet the accessible stadia guidelines. This has to be enshrined in legislation or regulation. The voluntary approach has not worked and compulsion is necessary. Thirdly, I would invite the Minister to take seriously the suggestion by his noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should address these issues. If we were to have one high-profile prosecution of a rich and famous club for failing to meet its requirements under the Act on equality grounds, that would focus minds very much indeed.