Examination of Witness

Football Governance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 16 May 2024.

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Sanjay Bhandari gave evidence.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 11:50, 16 May 2024

Welcome, Mr Bhandari. Could you introduce yourself briefly? Then we will have the first question.

Sanjay Bhandari:

I am Sanjay Bhandari, the chair of Kick It Out, an equality and inclusion charity. It is the leading inclusion charity in football. We have been around for 30 years and our mission is to eradicate discrimination and make football a game where everyone feels they belong.

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

Q Good morning and welcome to the Committee. How many reports of discriminatory behaviour did Kick It Out receive last season? What were some of the dominant factors behind that abuse, and what are the most common forms of abuse? Could you share your experience with the Committee?

Sanjay Bhandari:

Last year, we had just under 1,000 reports. We have had steadily increasing numbers of reports for the last four seasons. Racism is always a steady high, and we have had increases over recent years in sexism and misogyny, in homophobia and transphobia and, over the course of the last year in particular, in Islamophobia and antisemitism. That is what you would expect with what is going on in the outside world, but each year we have increasing numbers of reports, and of reports per incident. That tells us that fans are doing their bit and sending a message that they are not tolerant of discrimination.

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

Q The fan-led review initially recommended that the regulator should mandate equality, diversity and inclusion action plans. Was it the right decision for the Bill not to directly address that?

Sanjay Bhandari:

There is an opportunity to be more front-foot on equality, diversity and inclusion that the Bill could have taken. Wearing my hat as having 30 years in the regulated industries, part of the challenge is: what is the purpose of a regulator? What harm are you guarding against? How do you craft that?

You could argue that football is different. Football is not banking; it is not like any other industry. In football, clubs will routinely project that they represent their local communities, but do they? There are several clubs that actually represent the local communities that lived there 40 and 50 years ago. When those people come from outside to the stadium, the locals go in their homes. So actually, who is holding them to their promises? You could argue that the Bill should go further because clubs are heritage community assets.

There is also another way in which football is not like banking. A banking regulator can take action that will put you out of business. No one has ever put a football club out of business from a regulatory perspective, and no regulator will. Everyone knows that the political ramifications and the impact on communities are so large that it would never happen. Football gets a benefit that no other industry gets. That is because it plays such a significant part in its community, with the link to community and the creation of community cohesion. What price should it pay for that? The price is that it should be held to account on representing those local communities.

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

Q What action has been taken in the last five years by existing governance structures to improve diversity in football? Has it gone far enough?

Sanjay Bhandari:

There are lots of really worthy initiatives and lots of good intentions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Good intentions are not enough. Intentions do not change outcomes. It is outcomes that we want, and it is actions that change outcomes, not intentions and rules. There have been lots of things: the Premier League equality standard is a really good development; the football leadership diversity code had noble ambitions. But those are all members’ organisations with members’ rules. The rules can be changed by the members. They are not regulators: they are administrators. The leagues are just like your local golf club management committee. If the members of the golf club do not like the rules, they will change them if they think the members of the management committee are overstepping or overreaching, and that is the position we are in.

As an example, when we were creating the football leadership diversity code, one of the weaknesses we saw was that you do not have whole-workforce transparency. All you are doing is looking at the new hires. Say you hire five new people, and one is from an ethnic minority and two or three are women, you look like you have met the football leadership diversity code standard. But you have 500 employees. You have no idea how representative your entire workforce is. We feared at the time that that would be the weakness, and those fears have come to pass. Why could we not get the mandatory workforce transparency that we asked for during that process? The clubs would not agree to it. It is the golf club members agreeing the rules of the committee. That is why you need third-party regulation, to impose that from above.

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

Good morning. A lot of the Bill talks about financial regulation, and the diversity and inclusion part of it has not played such a big role so far. Things such as quotas have been spoken about in the past. From your perspective, would you be in favour of quotas for people on boards or being interviewed for managers’ jobs? Do you believe they should be part of regulation? Or should it be left to the gameQ ?

Sanjay Bhandari:

Just before I answer that, I should have said thank you for the opportunity to speak and for inviting me. I thank the Minister and the teams for their support and engagement throughout the last three years.

I think quotas are actually illegal in this country, because positive discrimination is illegal under the Equality Act 2010. You can have positive action, so you can have differential investments in talent, and leadership and talent programmes, but you cannot have quotas. What you can have is representation targets, but in practice, the way people may execute them is to see them as quotas, which can be quite negative. Ultimately, it is down to the regulator. It is down to the current flavour of what is going on in governance.

I was in one organisation where we set targets that actually helped to increase its performance. We were 17,500 in the UK and 300,000 globally, and in the business units that executed best on diversity, we could point to a one-point difference in margin. We could go to our partners and say, “Would you like more profit?” Funnily enough, they quite like that.

It depends on the particular issue. There are still some very stubborn areas of under-representation in English football. Black people make up 40% of players and 14% of the coaches qualified with a UEFA A licence, but only 4% of coaches. There is something going wrong in the recruitment system. South Asians are the single largest ethnic minority in the UK, but they make up only 10% to 15% of players at grassroots level, 0.5% of professional players, and 1% of the academies from age six. That is not acceptable. There is something going wrong in those recruitment processes. Those are the kinds of things that call out for targeting.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (AI and Intellectual Property)

Q Thank you for your evidence this morning. Could you give us some examples of good practice by particular clubs?

Sanjay Bhandari:

We see clubs like Brentford, which I worked with when it was recruiting independent non-executive directors. I helped to support that process. Having non-executive directors on the board is something that other people may talk about.

The Premier League is doing some good work trying to develop black coaches. An organisation called BAMREF has been working very effectively with the FA and Professional Game Match Officials Limited on developing the pipeline and pathway for Black and Asian referees and female referees. In many ways, that is one of the best examples of interventions that are connected across football, with a pathway to try to change the way the workforce looks. It is a relatively rare example. Football is a team sport, but not off the pitch. We are really not very good at teaming across, but that was a rare example of good teaming.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

Q No active male professional footballer has felt able to publicly declare that they are gay since Justin Fashanu some 30-odd years ago. Why do you think that is?

Sanjay Bhandari:

I think it is because the culture of football is such that people do not feel comfortable coming out. Every time there is a suggestion that someone might be coming out, there is a black silhouette on the front page of a tabloid newspaper, which then further discourages people from coming out. If we get the culture right, people will feel more comfortable being themselves.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

Q You have talked about culture, and there is a role for transparency in that. Building on some of the things you have said, do you believe it is important for clubs to be transparent about diversity in their own organisations?

Sanjay Bhandari:

After the Government’s response in September 2023 to Dame Tracey Crouch’s excellent review, we said that football needed to do three things. One was that EDI requirements should be incorporated into the club licensing system via the code for governance. It kind of appears that they now will be, although the wording is slightly ambiguous and probably could benefit from being clarified in schedule 5.

Secondly, we said that the processes for recruiting the leadership of the IFR should adopt best practice on inclusion. Again, there is some slightly ambiguous wording in relation to the recruitment of the CEO, which could benefit from being clarified.

The third one was that the requirements in the code for football governance should include, along with other requirements, significant mandatory data transparency reporting on representation, recruitment, progression and cases of discrimination. Transparency is the greatest disinfectant. Clubs are often collecting all this data for the Premier League equality standard or the EFL code, but they are not publishing it, so no one can hold them to account on it. We are asking for consistency and transparency.

I will give an example of where it goes very wrong. There are currently between 200 and 300 mechanisms for reporting discrimination incidents in English football. Those are 200 to 300 orphaned databases of information that do not speak to each other. We probably run the biggest reporting app. I have been banging my head against a brick wall for five years asking for insight from that data to be able to say, “What are the root causes? What are the outcomes of those incidents?” Then we can we create data-driven policy interventions, but we have not been able to get the clubs to agree to share the data.

From the clubs’ perspective, and I suppose often very legitimately, they think that data privacy is a worry. I do not share those concerns in the same way; I think there are exemptions that allow it. Fans have done their bit and said what they want. They are not tolerating discrimination. If we do not listen to them, we are doing them a disservice. Football needs to do its bit, and if it cannot volunteer to do that, an independent regulator can certainly cut through and help to create the exemptions to get that data sharing. Then we can start addressing the root causes of some of these incidents.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I want to touch on the senior managers regime that the Bill effectively tries to create. You will know the importance of that from your professional background, particularly in a financial services setting. There are two points to this question. First, how do we ensure that we are not, with this Bill, effectively turning football into something run by a bunch of chaps not necessarily connected in the way we need them to be, because we prohibit people coming through from grassroots who understand the clubs and know what they are doing?Q

My second point is on D&I, which has obviously been really important, particularly in the financial services space. Do you think there comes a point, which perhaps could be addressed in the Bill, at which there is not just a proactive obligation but maybe even a penalty system? It could be that if your club is not meeting those standards because of incidents like those you have highlighted, you as a senior manager become accountable, just as you would in a professional setting elsewhere.

Sanjay Bhandari:

There is an answer in principle and an answer in practice. The answer in principle is that there should always be a sliding scale of sanctions, depending on the degree of the harm being caused. Whenever we are in any kind of regulatory or law enforcement regime and create sanctions frameworks, we reflect not just the offence itself, but the offender, the nature of the offence that has been committed, and whether it is persistent or egregious. You need to have that sliding scale. In reality, it will be relatively rare where you get to that point of actually sanctioning an individual. There might be rare occasions, but I think they will be highly unusual cases.

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

You mentioned the requirements for the club licensing conditions in schedule 5. Looking at that schedule, it seems to me that the corporate governance statement that clubs will need to produce could be where they make some sort of statement about meeting their wider obligations to the organisation and the people who work within it. Is that what you were referring to?Q

Sanjay Bhandari:

Yes. Schedule 5(7)(2) says:

“‘Corporate governance’, in relation to a club, includes”— so it is non-exhaustive, and you could argue that it includes equality, diversity and inclusion. Some of the things included are

“the nature, constitution or functions of the organs of the club…the manner in which the organs…conduct themselves…the requirements imposed on organs of the club, and…the relationship between different organs of the club.”

That is probably the area where you might amend it.

If you go back to the September 2023 Government White Paper response, there is a list. Paragraph 65 on page 30 talks about the principles of governance and a wide range of responses, and then it lists the kinds of issues that were regarded as principles of governance, which include:

“independent non-executive directors; integrity; equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI); sustainability; fan representation and stakeholder engagement; training on appointment; following best practice with regard to board constitution and decision-making processes; communication and transparency; and promoting clear guidelines and processes.”

The benefit of adding clarity to schedule 5(7)(2) is that we also have to remember what environment we are in. I have worked in lots of environments, and football is the lowest of low-trust environments. If something is not explicitly in there, there is a fear that it means it is not going to be covered. Our submissions were in response to noises we were hearing that there was going to be an attempt to artificially fetter the power of the regulator. Our view is that if there is going to be a regulator, it should be a standard regulator with the standard inherent powers that any regulator would have to perform its functions and deliver on its objective, in the same way that any other regulator would, so to artificially fetter it to reduce the power to deal with equality of inclusion would be wrong in principle.

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

Q The language you quoted from the schedule is largely lifted from the Companies Act 2006. What you set out is what you would expect from any other corporation looking at a corporate governance statement, so it should apply to a football club as well.

Sanjay Bhandari:

It should. We are doing a project with the University of York, and we are up to 40 pages of a review looking at lots of different regulators in comparison to other industries, and saying, “What should be in that code for football governance, which we will deal with along with the regulator once constituted?” If the provision stayed as it was, though, we would argue that it includes equality, diversity and inclusion, because it is a non-exhaustive list and it falls within some of the subcategories.

It would be difficult, if it was in the corporate governance code under the Companies Act, to say that it is not included. The fear, as has been expressed by other people giving evidence, is that football is a low-trust environment and that is why you are getting this response asking, “Is this a way of wriggling out?”

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

There is time for one more question.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

To follow up on that, are you trying to achieve not a very detailed description in the Bill of what the regulator can and cannot do, but an acceptance that the regulator has an oversight of what football is doing to address the equality, diversity and discrimination issues, and the ability to comment—and step in if necessary—if football fails to address the problem?Q

Sanjay Bhandari:

Our view is that the regulator should have the ability to have oversight in the way that any other regulator does, as a matter of governance, and that what should go in the governance code is what reflects contemporary best practice. In our experience, to drive change it is probably a couple of different things. There is the base standard and mandatory stuff, and we think the key to that is transparency reporting. Again, transparency is disinfectant. What there might then be is good and/or best practice guidelines, reflecting what is going on in other industries and in this industry. It would say, “Here are some examples of good or best practice that the good or the best institutions are doing,” and try to encourage change through that.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Thank you for coming and for giving your evidence.