Examination of Witness

Football Governance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:10 am on 14 May 2024.

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Kevin Miles gave evidence.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick Labour/Co-operative, Preston 11:00, 14 May 2024

We will now hear oral evidence from Kevin Miles, Chief Executive of the Football Supporters’ Association. Could the witness please introduce themselves for the record.

Kevin Miles:

I am indeed Kevin Miles, Chief Executive of the Football Supporters’ Association. I am very pleased to have been involved in the fam-led review process up to this point.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Good morning, and welcome. The FSA has been lobbying for significant reform to football governance for years; do you think this Bill meets the challenge, and do you think it lives up to the fan-led review? As you have just referenced, you have had significant input into thatQ .

Kevin Miles:

The succinct answer is, generally, yes. We are very supportive of the Bill and the reforms it sets out to achieve. We sadly drew the conclusion a few years ago that football has proved incapable of regulating itself, and it is interesting to hear Rick Parry drawing exactly the same conclusion.

We very much support the establishment of the independent regulator and the three primary objectives of sustainability, resilience, and heritage. There is a lot to like in the proposals—the enhanced owners and directors test; the club licensing system, which we think is proportional and puts advocacy first, which is a positive approach; the oversight of financial distribution; and the backstop powers which, indeed, I think are very important. Clearly, as the national fans’ organisation, we are also particularly pleased to see the provisions requiring clubs to meet the fan engagement threshold. We do have some concerns about the strengths of those requirements, and we think perhaps the Bill is not perfect, but that is part of the process, and is why we are here.

I would like to say that we have been involved in discussions with DCMS officials and ministers in preparation for this, and I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to their work, particularly the officials. Ministers are wonderful as well, but the team at DCMS have been excellent in their rigorous examination of all the points that we put forward. Their response has been—where necessary—challenging and combative, but it has been thorough and very well-applied, so thanks to them.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q I am sure that your thanks will be much appreciated, and is echoed of course by the Committee. On the point about fans, I have some questions on that, about whether you think the measures are adequate enough. Do you think the Bill carves out enough space for the existing supporters trusts, and could you share a little about the value of those trusts with the Committee?

Kevin Miles:

I do think it is important that supporters trusts, their role and their position are recognised in this process. We are not expecting exclusivity for supporters trusts as the vehicle for fan engagement, but we do think that those trusts—based as they are on one-member, one-vote, and themselves regulated through the Financial Conduct Authority—are effectively reflective of fan engagement when it has not always been welcomed by clubs but been deemed necessary by fans. This is self-organisation by fans on a democratic and constructive basis.

Those organisations have earned their spurs; that was not a football team reference, by the way. They have done the preparatory work, and made large contributions to the process of the fan-led review as well, and it is important that the existing supporters trusts do have that recognised, and are taken seriously. It is important that the fan engagement process, as it is developed under the oversight of the regulator, is not used by clubs as a means of sidelining supporters trusts and the work that they have done. They need to be included and involved in that process.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Are there any particular topics that you would expect fans to be consulted on but that the Bill does not require?

Kevin Miles:

We have had a long discussion with officials about exactly what the scope of engagement with fans should be. We think the fan engagement regime needs to be robust, it needs to be appropriate to the circumstances of all the regulated clubs and it needs to be based on democratic principles, with the composition of the fan representatives being determined independently of the clubs themselves. We have had some conversations about what the particular terms of the content of fan engagement should be and we have been talking to officials and Ministers about that. The list includes strategic direction and objectives of the club, the club’s business priorities, operational matchday issues, the club’s heritage and the club’s plans relating to additional fan engagement. That is as it currently stands.

When we have asked officials about specific examples of that, they have come back, for instance, on ticket pricing, saying “We expect those to be included in business priorities and operational and matchday issues.” However, there is currently a set-up in the Premier League of fan advisory boards that are required, under the Premier League’s rules, to engage with clubs. It seems to officials in the DCMS, as a matter of common sense, that ticket pricing would be one of the things that fans would discuss with their clubs. It seems to me a matter of common sense that ticket pricing is one of the things that fans would discuss with their clubs.

Yet, in the Premier League system, our members tell us that at Newcastle United, the fan advisory board was given three days’ notice of the ticket price increases without any consultation. At Fulham, there is no fan advisory board, but the supporters’ clubs there got four hours’ notice with an embargo before the announcement of ticket price increases. Nottingham Forest announced its prices without any discussion with its fan advisory board or the trust. Similar representations have been made to us about similar experiences at Bournemouth, Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool. That is happening already, and that is why we think that perhaps it would be useful to have in the Bill the additional words “including ticket prices”, just to make it explicitly clear.

The general point is that there is a lot in the Bill that depends on the view the regulator takes about what is included and the guidance that is given to the regulator. We would appreciate really strong statements from Ministers in the course of this process. That might help us to avoid the necessity of amending the Bill, but a strong direction from Ministers about what should be in scope and what is required of fan engagement to fill some of those gaps would be really useful.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Equalities)

Q First of all, thank you, Kevin, for what you said about the officials. You are absolutely right; they have been superb throughout this whole process. Thank you, too, for your engagement.

I remember when I was first appointed, the first meeting I had was with you and with other fans. It was clear from that meeting that some clubs do engagement extremely well and, as you have just alluded to, there are others that do it differently. Given that fan engagement is part of the licensing regime, do you think that that is going to be sufficient to bring about a significant impact on the quality of fan engagement that we are currently seeing across the board? That is, are we levelling up, to coin a phrase?

Kevin Miles:

I very much hope so, and I am optimistic in that regard. It is the first time that we will have had a requirement from clubs to engage with the fans and, to use the Prime Minister’s words, to put the fans’ voice “front and centre” of all those discussions. I do think, though, that there are a lot of details still to be worked out about how that actually looks.

There are some clubs, as you say, that are very good, but one of the illustrations of the limitations of self-regulation has been that when the leagues have been trying to put together their own requirements on fan engagement, because it has to be voted on by their members and agreed by their rulebook, the lowest common denominator tends to be put into the rulebook. We know that there are clubs that will resist the idea. There are owners who think they have nothing to benefit from in listening to the fanbase—their customer base, if you like. We know from experience that there are some who will do everything that they can to get around this. We will need to have an underpinning of that in the regulatory system, and some monitoring of it through the club licensing system. We recognise that this is challenging, because it cannot simply be a look at what structures are put in place. The regulator will have to do more than just monitor that there is a fan advisory board notionally in place. There will have to be some evaluation and examination of the content and spirit of the fan engagement. We are not expecting a fan veto on club decisions, but we are expecting that the fan voice is not just heard but listened to and given due consideration.

Evaluating that is a more complex process. Somebody referred earlier—I think in the first witness panel—to the possibility of Ofsted-type investigations. Maybe in some cases it will require the regulator to be able to consult the fan groups to see how they think it has been done, and to make its own evaluation about whether the spirit of what is intended here is actually being carried forward. That will need to be underpinned by requirements in the licensing condition.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

Q Kevin, on the regulatory principles, I have tabled an amendment saying that supporters and supporter organisations should be added to clause 8(b). Does the organisation you represent agree with that?

Kevin Miles:

Absolutely. If you look at that clause, you see that it is about the principles of the regulator. It currently reads that the regulator should,

“so far as reasonably practicable, co-operate, and proactively and constructively engage, with

(i) clubs,

(ii)

(iii) competition organisers”.

We think that it is in the spirit of the rest of the Bill if a further provision is included that says “supporters and supporter organisations”. If the Bill really is about giving fans a voice at the heart of the game, the regulator should have that as part of those regulatory principles.

I cannot help thinking that this is an oversight rather than a conspiracy. Actually, the spirit of all the engagement we have had with the Department and with Ministers has been precisely that the supporters’ input into the regulation of the game would be an important component. But I think there’s a requirement for it to go on the face of the Bill in that clause.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

Q I am happy to get that on the record. I welcome what you said about the ticket prices potentially being included in one of the clauses. I do not think we mentioned kick-off times, which can be changed at the drop of a hat, meaning that hotel bookings have to be cancelled and travel expenses cannot be returned. That is a hugely important element in lots of anger from football supporters. How do we ensure that this is included in the regulatory oversight?

Kevin Miles:

Again, what I do not want to do is put a whole shopping list of items into the Bill, because I think that is problematic. We would support some clear direction in the guidance notes about what should be required from clubs. You have identified another important issue. It is a complicated issue, and it is not likely to be solved on a club-by-club basis. However, the idea that we could face a situation where a club declines to discuss with its fan advisory board as part of its fan engagement process an issue as important and impactful as supporters being able to turn up to the games and support their team—which is so important to so many people—seems to me to be absurd. It is common sense that those issues should be part of the discussion, and it is sad to think that there are clubs that do not approach it with common sense and want to discuss it. I think it should be required.

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

Q Clubs have to produce a corporate governance report annually as part of their licensing agreement. Do you think there is scope there for the clubs to be required by the regulator to set out in that report what their policies for fan engagement are, and then the regulator would have the right to audit them on that?

Kevin Miles:

Yes. One of the ideas that we are quite keen on is that, as part of the corporate governance code, there could be a requirement of clubs to have independent directors. In many other aspects of corporate governance codes, there is a particular responsibility on independent directors. Independent non-executive directors do have consideration for the views of other stakeholders in the work of a company. The idea that an INED in a football club could be required by a governance code to have particular responsibility for making sure that fans’ views are taken into consideration would be a very useful addition.

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

Q I have one other question. One of the biggest concerns for fans is when a club leaves its ground. That can be an extreme case, as in years ago with MK Dons and Wimbledon, which is probably something that could not happen again now. We have seen cases where you have a dispute between the ground owner—a third-party private company—and the club. We saw that problem with Coventry City a few years ago. That was a clear example of where the club says, “We can’t afford to pay the rent that the landlord wants to charge us. We think it’s extortionate”, and they have no option other than to move on. Under the Bill as drafted, if the club made a compelling case to say that sustainability required moving away from the ground, the regulator would sanction it even if the fans were against. Do we need a better mechanism in place to try to resolve these issues and get a fair settlement on rents for clubs to play in grounds, with a view to avoiding their having to move and enabling them to carry on and play where they are?

Kevin Miles:

Yes, I think that that is one of the few gaps in the Bill. On the heritage items around playing name, shirt colours, club badge and that sort of thing, there are clear FA rules, and it was clear that the fan voice on those issues will be very important. The FA’s heritage rules do not cover grounds. They have found that difficult to tackle from the point of view of their rules. But the idea that the fan view on some of these issues should not be taken into consideration is an omission. We appreciate that there are other issues involved in staging a relocation. There are big economic issues et cetera. We are not necessarily saying that fans should have a veto over a business decision, but certainly they should have a level of consultation and input into that process.

As an aside, I think we should clearly define the UK-based supporters. It is entirely possible that with some of the clubs these days, given their international fanbase, you could find a huge majority of the football club’s supporter base in Shanghai quite ambivalent about whether the stadium moves 40 miles down the road. There would be a very different feeling among the people who have an extra 40 miles to travel to their home game. So I think it should be the UK supporter base that is consulted in those cases. That consultation should be enshrined.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick Labour/Co-operative, Preston

We move from the fans’ views to the person who started all this with the fan-led review—Tracey.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

Q Kevin, you have given a very eloquent and passionate explanation about why you would like to see the Bill improved for fans and the general supporter base. You have also made representations about your wider concerns, so I thought you might like the opportunity to explain some of those to the Committee.

Kevin Miles:

Clearly, I have been sat listening with a great deal of interest to what has gone before. The organisation has a view on the issue of parachute payments. We think they need to be in scope for consideration. We are also convinced of the need, in extremis if required, for the regulator to be able to trigger their own backstop powers. That is important. I am sure this will come up in discussion later, but I understand that you, Tracey, have tabled an amendment to adjust the wording about taking cognisance of Government foreign policy, and changing that from something that the regulator “must” do to something that the regulator “may” do. That is important because it would underline the independence of the regulator, which I think will be an important issue.

I could talk all day—I know you will not allow me to do so. The Bill is not perfect. There are areas that we would love to see strengthened, but if this Bill goes through entirely unamended, it is a huge step forward from the point of view of football. This is an important process for us. On a lot of what we have been seeking to get football to do itself, which it has failed to do, this Bill provides a solution. It fills a space and provides a regulatory function that has been lacking. Clearly, there are elements that we will continue to engage with Ministers and officials on, particularly the fan engagement stuff.

A lot of what we are talking about here is clarifying and nailing down. I am going to speak bluntly to people who understand this. At the moment, in a parliamentary process, we are aware that we have a little bit of leverage here. I would like to pin down as much of this as we can in the process of drawing this together, rather than just hoping for the best later. I think a lot of Members will share our concerns about the fan engagement. We want to make it meaningful; it must have a lasting impact. We do not want to be coming back to this and looking at the limitations—let’s get it right now. It is in that spirit that we are raising all these issues around fan engagement.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

Q It has been wonderful to hear the fans’ voice in what you have said and contributed previously to this whole process in bringing us to where we are. In the previous sessions, it has been quite interesting to hear how the English Football League and the National League, for example, were clearly feeling that it was, in what I think were Rick Parry’s words, an “unequal negotiation”. This Bill strikes me as trying to level the playing field, if you will pardon the pun, between different interest groups. Do you think the Bill gives you, as fans, the leverage to exert more control? I ask that because the Bill focuses heavily on finance. It includes other things such as heritage, but there is more to being a football fan than just the heritage. Do you think it gives you that leverage on those non-financial aspects as well?

Kevin Miles:

It takes us a long way in the right direction. I think that if fans have a meaningful voice in every club, and the clubs are the ones who cast the votes in the leagues and their decision-making processes, the fan view should start to filter its way through. Clearly, we are never going to be completely satisfied.

I would also like to say that I am sitting here as the fans’ voice. I speak not just as an individual, but on the basis of the input that we have had from fans’ groups up and down the country. I need to thank my team from the FSA for the work they have done in getting this far. They work in a vary variegated landscape. There are some clubs that are really good at engaging with their fanbase and the local communities, and they deserve the credit for that. There are others where, sadly, it will need some sort of intervention to make sure that they are dragged up to at least the minimum standard. I hope we are in a process now where we can achieve that.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

Q What would you say is the biggest concern of those who do not necessarily want to see greater fan engagement? Do you think those are reasonable concerns or are they overstated?

Kevin Miles:

To be honest, I think anyone running a club who does not want to engage with their fanbase is making a misjudgment. Even from a business point of view, I cannot imagine any other sector of the economy where a business has a customer base who are this incredibly brand-loyal. They are not going to wander off somewhere else. They want to see the business thrive and succeed, and will volunteer expertise and experience of opinion in how that business could be improved and taken forward. It is a customer base that is aware of the importance of clubs to communities and local areas. In any other sector of the economy, people would bite your hand off for the opportunity to have that sort of ingrained and free-of-charge input from a customer base. I find it partly incredible the idea that football clubs would have any different approach to it.

It is absolutely true that football fans can be fickle, extremely vocal, and very passionate about some of these issues. We must find the mechanisms for constructive engagement to harness that, but I would honestly say to anybody who thinks this will be a problem that they are misjudging their own fanbase. One of the things that came across in the fan-led review was the quality of the input and understanding from supporters’ organisations. They do not have a particular financial vested interest, but they are hugely invested not only in their own clubs, but in the pyramid of the game as a whole. That is a huge asset to the game.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

I think it is the same with politicians.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick Labour/Co-operative, Preston

That brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions in this morning’s sitting. On behalf of the Committee, I would like to thank all our witnesses for their evidence. The Committee will meet again at 2 pm this afternoon in the Boothroyd Room to continue taking oral evidence. I ask Members to turn up five to 10 minutes early, just to sort out the lines of questioning.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mike Wood.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.