The final item of business is a debate on motion S1M-894, in the name of Duncan McNeil, on Greenock Morton Football Club. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put after 30 minutes.
I remind members to hold their conversations outside the chamber, rather than inside it.
That the Parliament recognises that football plays an important part in our social culture and sporting life; recognises the important contribution made by local football clubs to the communities in which they are based; expresses concern over recent reports of developments at Greenock Morton Football Club; acknowledges that to lose a community asset such as Greenock Morton would be detrimental, not only to its supporters, but also to the community as a whole, and recognises that proposals such as community ownership and increased rights for supporters in the running of their teams offer the best opportunity for securing the long-term future of local clubs and promoting links between them and the communities they serve.
I thank those members who were able to stay for tonight's debate. I also thank the Morton supporters for their serious campaign to meet the challenge that the club faces. Some of those supporters are in the gallery this evening. [Applause.] However, they were beaten to it by members of the Argyll and Bute youth forum who at lunchtime today handed out leaflets from Cowal Morton supporters asking for the club to be saved.
In 1874, the people of a thriving industrial Clyde coast town established their own football club. Now, after a century and a quarter, Greenock Morton Football Club faces its greatest ever challenge. It has no manager, a crumbling stadium, only four players and a majority shareholder who has lost the confidence of the fans. Make no mistake, the club is facing a serious crisis. However, the debate is not just about Morton, or just about football; it is about a community, its assets and our right to have a say in how those are run.
The club is in trouble—that is not at issue. Only yesterday, a morning newspaper told us that the Scottish Football Association was ordering the club to pay the £19,000 that it owes Heart of Midlothian Football Club or face expulsion from the league. The books are to be opened and the majority shareholder has been invited to attend Tuesday's SFA executive committee meeting. I agree with the Morton legend, Allan McGraw,
The bond of trust between the club and the fans has been broken—even to the extent that threats have been issued to close Morton "like the shipyards". That is a far cry from the 10,000-seat stadium and a team aiming for the Premier League, which the fans were promised when the current majority shareholder arrived. The irony is that, by welcoming inward investment and new opportunities, the local area has moved on from those dark days when we lost the shipyards. However, at Morton, it has been a case of broken promises and missed opportunities.
Despite such problems, a great deal of good will remains towards the club. The fans in the public gallery and those who were here at lunchtime, who have made the trip from Inverclyde and beyond, all want to safeguard the future of this 126-year-old community asset. There is genuine feeling that something must be done. The Scottish Parliament is the appropriate forum in which to put that case.
As one Morton fan said to me yesterday, "If politicians truly believe that local football teams are good for our communities, will they stand by while one man brings embarrassment and disgrace to this community?" I hope that the debate will send a strong signal to politicians that they cannot stand by and watch community assets be lost for ever.
We all know how easy it is to bemoan the performance of those who are in charge of our local clubs—doing that is an art form on a Saturday evening—but if we are to move forward, we must propose constructive solutions.
Before we can begin to work towards those solutions, we must recognise that community-based football clubs cannot be run as if they were supermarkets. If Rangers Football Club closed down tomorrow, the great and the good of Govan could not switch to Rangers' main competitor for their football. We cannot treat community assets such as football clubs as ordinary private businesses. Owners of such assets have a brand loyalty that would be the envy of many. That point was underlined in a report that I read yesterday from the Scottish independent supporters coalition, which said:
"Supporters are the essential lifeblood of the game. They are more than just customers or consumers. They support their club almost from the cradle to the grave and will not take their support or 'custom' elsewhere even if the quality
Another point, made by Tony Higgins, the secretary of the Scottish Professional Footballers Association, is that football clubs are companies that receive funds from people other than those who pay at the turnstiles. People do not need to go through the turnstiles to put money into the chairman's wallet—if people have Sky television, buy a lottery ticket, or pay their council tax or income tax, they give money to football clubs. As a press release today confirmed, Morton has received £500,000 and has been offered another £600,000 in a package for further improvements.
The football authorities must recognise that point about funds and modernise their articles of association to take account of it and protect our community clubs. Failure to make the distinction between consumers and other sources of funding has unfortunate consequences, of which Morton fans are all too well aware. Under the current system, Hugh Scott can basically do what he likes. If he is successful in closing down Morton, there are many other businessmen who could, and would, do the same thing to other clubs. Therein lies the nub of the issue: today, our local club is under threat from a hard-nosed businessman, but tomorrow it could be yours.
If we accept that football clubs are different from other limited companies, how do we take the issue forward? It has been suggested that legislation should be put in place to prevent businessmen from chairing football clubs purely for financial gain. Others argue that it must be ensured that, in future, all community-based clubs are just that; local councils and Government must be involved, along with supporters and owners, to ensure that people such as Hugh Scott cannot do what they like.
It is time to move to protect the interests of our community assets. If we are serious about protecting our community clubs, we must consider the safeguarding of supporters' interests. In the short term, however, we must address the situation at Morton. I have refrained, until now, from calling for the resignation of the majority shareholder, Hugh Scott, but he is proving to be a significant obstacle to progress. A leading supporter summed it up when he said, "Hugh Scott has upset and argued with the SFA, the Scottish Football League, the local council, local police, the local press, Hearts, Clyde, St Mirren and Dunfermline—not to mention the support."
I will finish; I appreciate that I have had lots of time.
I do not say this lightly, but I feel that Hugh Scott's continued presence at the club is preventing us from arriving at a solution. Only if he stands aside can we begin to restore this community asset. Greenock Morton has served our community well for the past 126 years. It is time for us to repay that debt and to ensure that we have a further 100 years.
It will come as no surprise that more members wish to speak than we have time available. I ask members to keep their speeches as short as possible, preferably around three minutes. I will try to accommodate everyone who wishes to speak, but I must warn members that that is unlikely to be possible.
I will try to keep my remarks brief.
In members' business debates, it is normal to thank the member in question for securing the debate. Although I thank Duncan McNeil for doing so, it is probably more important to thank the fans of Greenock Morton Football Club, who have stuck by the club through thick and thin to ensure that it has a future and that people still come to watch football. However, whether that will happen remains to be seen.
As for the SFA's meeting on 20 June to decide whether Greenock Morton should be expelled from the league, it is just a shame that the organisation cannot expel Hugh Scott and be done with it, so that we can get on with playing football. [Applause.]
I apologise to the Greenock Morton fans, but we must widen the debate to discuss the lessons that Scottish football can learn from this situation. It is with great trepidation that I suggest that we can learn lessons from what is happening in English football—my apologies. The English football task force made a number of recommendations, one of which was that supporters trusts should be further investigated to ensure that community clubs are just that—community clubs.
The task force also made recommendations about what to do with directors who hold the purse-strings and control the lifeblood of a club, and can thereby prevent the club from moving on and up the leagues. Perhaps our football task forces should consider what to do with directors such as Hugh Scott.
The Scottish Parliament cross-party sports
I also support Duncan McNeil's motion in favour of Greenock Morton supporters. Today, I had the pleasure of welcoming to the Parliament Argyll and Bute youth forum, which included three young Greenock Morton Football Club supporters who are based in Dunoon. Those supporters are desperately worried about the future of the club and asked me to highlight their concerns in the debate.
The issue affects not only Morton, but Clydebank, Airdrie and many other smaller clubs that face extinction. However, it is very ironic that, at the same time, obscene amounts of money are circulating at the highest level in football. For example, the English Premier League was last night offered £1.6 billion over the next three years by television companies; meanwhile, clubs in Scotland are going to the wall for the sake of a few hundred thousand pounds. What a dilemma to find ourselves in.
Those small clubs are the grass roots that will provide the next generation of players. If Scotland ever wants to compete at the highest level again and wants to be recognised on the international stage, we let those clubs go to the wall at our peril. They give opportunities to young people who want to play football, improve their skills and go on and play for the bigger teams. If such people cannot have access to football in their communities, the
When I was young, many of us in Rothesay and Dunoon played for Rothesay Brandane football team, which is in the amateur league, and Dunoon Boys Club. I played for both. Many of those younger players then went on to play for Morton. It was like a stepping stone. If we lose Morton, that step disappears. That is why I support Duncan McNeil's motion.
I support Duncan McNeil's motion and echo everything that he said. The reason why I did not feel able to sign the motion was that it did not go far enough. I supported Brian Monteith's motion, which specifically calls on Hugh Scott either to get his act together and help Morton to be once again a prominent force in Scottish football or to get out of the scene altogether and allow the club to be sold to someone else who will have more confidence in it and can take it forward. That is the difference between the two motions.
As Duncan McNeil knows, I was accustomed to strutting my sporting stuff in the Battery park in Greenock, but I have never strutted my stuff in Cappielow—who knows, the time may come, although the fans may flee.
I have been reading, with great interest, a wonderful book that will be familiar to the fans in the gallery, "Greenock Morton 1874-1999". It is a fascinating history, but it should not become the only remaining trace of that club. Everyone here tonight wants Greenock Morton to go from strength to strength.
The current dilemma of the club has illustrated two distinct issues. One is that the club is a priceless asset for the community. The other is that, without some definite control by the SFA or the Scottish Football League, people such as Hugh Scott have unfettered power over small clubs. The message that members are putting across tonight is that the SFA and the league are not simply official figures but have an important role to play as the custodians of football in Scotland. That means that they have to be prepared to take action when chairmen such as Hugh Scott impede the natural growth and development of the club.
People who buy football clubs should be allowed to do so. That is not the issue. However, their ownership of the asset should be closely regulated and they should have an obligation to work for the betterment of the club and the community. That might extend into planning law. It is entirely logical that, if the football authorities have a great responsibility for the continuance of our football
I and the Conservative party are happy to support Duncan McNeil's motion. We are delighted that the fans are here tonight. We hope that the strongest message reaches the minister about the urgency of the issue. As Fiona McLeod said, not just Greenock Morton is affected, but the issue strikes at the heart of the preservation of football clubs throughout Scotland.
I would like to make it clear to the supporters in the gallery that Labour members are so few and far between because an emergency meeting has been called. I can say, on their behalf, that they support the supporters' position. I am sorry that they are not here in body; they are certainly here in spirit.
I will not take too long. Congratulations are due to Duncan McNeil on securing this debate on the present circumstances and prospects of one of our oldest and proudest football clubs—Greenock Morton. I was born within the sight and sound of one of Scotland's biggest football clubs, but I say to all football supporters of large and not so large clubs that it is in all our interests to care for the smaller and less-well-off clubs and grounds throughout Scotland.
Cappielow is within a kick and a shout of Port Glasgow, in my constituency. Perhaps I should declare an interest, as it is the only club where I have sat in the directors' box to watch a game. That was long before the present administrators—or perhaps I should say maladministrators—fouled up that wonderful club. Duncan McNeil is right to say that Mr Scott and his colleagues should depart Cappielow sooner rather than later. Mr Scott must stand aside, and they should remember the words of Lady Macbeth to her guests:
"Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once."
Greenock Morton, its players and—most important of all—its wonderfully loyal and stoical fans deserve better than Mr Scott. We should demand of the SFA much more than an investigation into the club's finances and management, although that investigation is welcome. The SFA chiefs should show the same keenness to help to rescue Greenock Morton that they showed in welcoming Mike Tyson to Hampden.
An application could be made to the national lottery. Without wanting to sound like an ethnocentric philistine—which I cannot be, as I have just quoted from "Macbeth"—I wonder why, if lottery funds can be used to fund English National Opera, they cannot be used to fund Greenock Morton.
In his motion, Duncan McNeil recognises the important role that football plays in our social and sporting life. The contribution that is made by clubs in attacking the sources of drug misuse and racism in our communities is difficult to measure. However, we know that young boys and girls listen to football stars when they talk about such things, and it is so much better if those football players are in their community where they can see them daily. Communities cannot afford to lose that local input. Proposals such as community ownership and increased rights for supporters in the running of their clubs are important and should be supported, and George Lyon was right to point out that the role of small clubs in training and preparing players to move on to bigger clubs is essential.
Greenock Morton, this old football club next to my constituency, can and should be saved, and should be given another two or three cracks at getting into the Scottish Premier League.
Today's debate is about Greenock Morton, but so many of our clubs have recently found themselves in a parlous state. I understand that the Airdrieonians Football Club is not far from closure, in spite of the significant investment that it has made in its new ground: even that does not seem enough to overcome its difficulties. The SFA and the Scottish Football League have an important role to play. If they are not prepared to regulate their affairs, perhaps the Parliament should intervene in the interest of nurturing our national
There is a great aspiration to increase the size of the Scottish Premier League from 10 clubs to 16 clubs. Next year there will be 12 clubs. However, if we lose Airdrie, if we make it difficult for Falkirk, if Clydebank no longer plays at Clydebank, and if we find Morton in grave difficulties, that will be four of last season's 10 first division clubs out of consideration. Unless the other six are just accepted into the Scottish Premier League, it will be difficult to find the competition that will encourage and nurture growth in our game.
There is a sickness in our game at the moment. Much of that has been caused by television deals, in which Sky sports channels seem to determine what will happen in football in this country. I am concerned by the attitude of the sport's administrators towards that. The deal that was struck for our national team, which signed up with Channel 5—which many people in the country cannot even get—on the basis that we would get a few shekels more, did not do anything for Morton or for Airdrie. Whom did it do anything for? I have lost confidence in the administrators.
Perhaps we ought to look not only at supporters trusts, but at how, in a more wide-ranging way, we can reclaim the sport for the people. It is the people's sport; it is not Mr Scott's sport. It is not about Rangers or Celtic, or even Aberdeen in its current parlous state; it is the people's sport. We should encourage community clubs. We want the people to determine the nature of the sport rather than the businessmen, who are exploiting it for their own ends.
I join others in congratulating Duncan McNeil on securing the debate. I also congratulate the football supporters—who are not only Morton supporters—who are in the gallery to support Duncan's motion. This is an important issue.
Annabel Goldie said that she felt that Brian Monteith's motion was stronger than Duncan McNeil's and that that was why she had supported it. In fact, Brian's motion is weaker in a significant way, because it makes no mention of the supporters' involvement in clubs, their right to own shares in clubs, and their right to have a direct say in clubs. I understand what Annabel and Brian have said about the need to let companies run their own businesses, but—I am sorry—as Duncan has said, football clubs are not just businesses.
This is not a case of customers who do not have anywhere else to go, or of customers who stop buying because they do not like the product. As
We should not forget the jobs involved. Airdrie has been mentioned; 23 of Airdrie's players have been made redundant. The Morton players have already been made redundant; goodness knows how many will have been taken on for the start of the new season. Presumably, there will have to be 15 or so if the club is to be able to play a game, but those will not be full-time jobs. Morton and Airdrie have been full-time clubs, so jobs are disappearing. Clydebank, Hamilton and other clubs that are in trouble have been full-time clubs. Again, jobs are disappearing, and we should not ignore that.
I hope that the minister, when she sums up, will give encouragement to the idea of a movement towards a similar arrangement to that of the supporters trust organisation in England. I know that we are not talking about Government money, but we need some encouragement that the Football Foundation in Scotland, or the Co-operative Bank in Scotland, can come up with a similar arrangement to help supporters who want to buy into their clubs—not necessarily to run them, although that might happen. The supporters should have the opportunity to have a say in the clubs. They invest much more than just a few pounds a week, or a couple of hundred pounds for a season ticket.
A number of initiatives are on the go at the moment. Duncan McNeil mentioned SISCO—the Scottish independent supporters coalition—an organisation that has grown up in the past few months to promote the common interests of football supporters at many clubs. The biggest club involved in that is Celtic, and some of the smallest clubs are involved as well. Nobody is seeking advantage—they just want to have a bit of a say in running their club.
The supporters are the life-blood of the game. The players and the coaches come and go, as do the managers and increasingly the directors; the supporters were there before the others arrived and they will be there after they leave. We must
I would like to endorse the thanks that have been offered to Duncan McNeil and the supporters who are present.
There are football clubs in the area that I represent in central Scotland, such as Hamilton Academical and Airdrie, that are also facing severe problems. I would like to focus on two points that have been mentioned by other members, but which I think are important. The Deputy Minister for Culture and Sport must find some way of helping to set up an organisation like supporters direct—which exists in England—to help supporter trusts in Scotland. There are academics, lawyers and others who will give help and advice, but a little bit of money and organisation is needed to help to set groups up. The money is not to buy shares but to get organisations going. That would not need a lot of money—whether it came from Government, the lottery or a bank—but the money would be well used.
We must get supporters involved. The future of the clubs lies in striking a balance between outside money—which clubs need, or they will collapse—and involving the community and supporters. At the moment, the balance is wrong because the clubs are treated as ordinary companies that are subject to ordinary market forces. Ministers have felt—so far—that they should not interfere, but as others have said, football clubs are pillars of their communities. They are not merely supermarkets selling beans.
Parliament has to get stuck in. We must not do that alone, but in collaboration with the SFA and the league. We must say that we will legislate and that we will sort the situation out, because football is central to the Scottish way of life. We should examine issues such as independent financial scrutiny of majority shareholders—or of those who want to be majority shareholders—and annual audit of the procedures of the companies. The audit must be not only of clubs' finances, but of how they operate.
Parliament is meant to be keen on social inclusion, equal opportunities, getting rid of racism and so on. We should make sure that clubs deliver on those aims. Religion can also cause problems for some well-known clubs.
Clubs should not be allowed to dispose of their grounds without consent. We could examine the Italian system of municipalisation of grounds. Annabel Goldie addressed some of those issues and came to other conclusions and that is fine—we need a serious debate. We must strike a better
Just as religion is too important to be left to the priests, football is too important to be left to the SFA. We might need something like a royal commission—though that might be a dirty phrase—or a committee to examine football in Scotland. There is all-party support for that—especially in supporters' organisations. The message to the minister and to the SFA is that there is great support for doing more, so let us get stuck in.
I also thank Duncan McNeil for getting this debate on the agenda. As someone who is used to supporting a team that plays in blue and white—not the team whose supporters are here today—it is great to see fans taking the time to come to Parliament. As a politician, I regularly walk tightropes, such as the one that I walk for being a Kilmarnock supporter who represents part of Ayr. Splitting my allegiance between Cumnock Juniors, Auchinleck Talbot and Glenafton Athletic is also a delicate balancing act.
Bill Shankly said:
"Some people think football is a matter of life and death...I can assure them it is far more important than that."
We are facing a matter of life or death in Scottish football. If we do not get our collective act together we will see clubs such as Morton disappearing. Although I do not support Morton, I want to retain my right to spend a few more miserable Saturday afternoons at Cappielow watching Kilmarnock being beaten 3-0—which has happened occasionally.
Duncan McNeil said that football is not like a supermarket. I want to take issue with that, because it could be if it was run like the Co-op. That would mean that club members and people who were involved in football would own the shares in it and would have a say in the democratic running of the game.
Trish Godman and Fiona McLeod referred to the supporters direct initiative. That came about as a result of "A New Framework for Football—Labour's Charter for Football", which was published prior to the 1997 election. It mentioned giving local authorities more involvement in the running of community clubs. It also said that clubs should be viewed more as assets to their communities. I have been involved in the co-operative movement, so it is a delight for me that so many people are beginning to accept that common ownership and participatory involvement might not be such bad things.
The initiative that was set up south of the border has helped clubs such as Crystal Palace to set up new structures, which will ensure that their assets are retained in perpetuity for the benefit of the community. The clubs that are involved have been able to set up schemes in which significant capital is injected into the clubs and the fans have a say in that process. We need to introduce such an approach in Scotland.
The minister has heard me say this before, and I will say it again, but it will be difficult to proceed until we get an answer. I know that the Executive is, in principle, sympathetic to giving fans advice and support, but we need a small amount of financial backing to set up a supporters direct organisation in Scotland that will provide practical advice. There are people who will get involved and who will provide that advice.
I hope that the story of the Morton fans who are here today becomes a success story, but we must look to the future with regard to other clubs' situations. We need the support of legislation and we need to see policies put in place.
I recognise the commitment and loyalty of the fans in the public gallery, who fear that their club faces bankruptcy and possible suspension, or indeed expulsion from the SFA. We acknowledge the difficulties that they face. I also recognise the role that has been played by Duncan McNeil—the local MSP—in trying to find a solution to the problems at Greenock Morton.
The Executive recognises the contribution that football clubs have made and continue to make to sport, culture and local communities. However, ministers cannot become directly involved in the plight of individual clubs such as Morton. The SFA is the governing body of football, not the Scottish Executive.
Nevertheless, we are in touch with the SFA, and we are aware that it has been considering the situation at Greenock Morton as a matter of urgency. It has required the club to arrange for inspections of its financial records by auditors appointed by the SFA and to pay its outstanding debt to Heart of Midlothian. It has also invited the club's chairman to meet the SFA executive committee on 20 June.
It is for the SFA to decide what sanctions to impose on any club that does not abide by the association's rules and regulations.
I can only repeat that the SFA is the governing body for the sport. As Duncan McNeil has said, Greenock Morton, like many clubs in Scotland, has benefited from public money for stadium improvements, including essential safety works. It received more than £500,000 from the Football Trust and it has been offered a package of £600,000 from that trust and sportscotland for further improvements. There has been public investment in the club, but it must be up to the sport's governing body—the SFA—to try to solve the problems.
Ministers are generally sympathetic to the idea of supporters' involvement in football clubs. Fans are the life-blood of the game, and it is important that their views are known and taken into account.
We have discussed supporter involvement and supporter trusts with the football authorities and we will put that on the agenda for the next meeting of the Scottish Football Partnership. We will ensure that written guidance and advice is made available to those in Scotland who are interested in forming supporter trusts. At this stage, our difficulty is that we are not persuaded that scarce public funds should be diverted towards paying for the legal and other costs that are involved. Our priority is to develop a network of youth academies.
Fiona McLeod was not quite accurate when she said that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has given £1 million to fund the establishment of football trusts. DCMS is still considering the business plan and at the moment a unit is operating in only shadow form, but we keep closely in touch with DCMS on those developments.
I was interested in what Brian Adam said about community football clubs. We recognise the important role that football clubs play in local communities and it may be that—as football develops in the 21st century—the concept of community football clubs will become increasingly important. We might need to examine partnerships with local authorities and the roles of local authorities and football clubs.
I turn now to public funding for football. The Football Trust has, since 1990, provided over £168 million of grant aid throughout Great Britain for works related to the Taylor report. Some £40 million of that has been allocated to Scotland—clubs in Scotland have received 23 per cent of the total of the reduction in pools betting duty moneys. When other Football Trust grant aid programmes are added, professional clubs in Scotland have received some £60 million from the trust during the past decade.
Until 1999, more than £2 million was awarded from the lottery sports fund. The lottery distribution
We acknowledge the importance of a club such as Greenock Morton to its local community—and the importance of other football clubs to their local communities. As Donald Gorrie said, those clubs play an important role in promoting social inclusion. I hope that the issue is resolved, but I can only reiterate that it is a matter for the SFA and not for ministers.
Meeting closed at 17:53.