Youth Football

– in the Scottish Parliament on 19th November 2020.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a Public Petitions Committee debate on motion S5M-23316, in the name of Johann Lamont, on improving youth football in Scotland. I ask those who wish to speak to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Gail Ross joins us remotely to speak on behalf of the Public Petitions Committee.

Photo of Gail Ross Gail Ross Scottish National Party

It is an honour to open this debate on behalf of the Public Petitions Committee in my role as deputy convener. The debate is rather timely, with Scottish football at the forefront of many of our minds. The success of our national team and the joy and pride that it has brought us all highlight just how important a role football plays in our society.

The debate follows the publication of the committee’s report on the petition, “PE1319: Improving youth football in Scotland”, which draws on more than 10 years’ worth of evidence that the committee has gathered. The scale of the evidence that was received across three sessions of Parliament is a stark reminder that it is the longest-running petition that the Public Petitions Committee is currently considering. I thank everyone who gave evidence and our clerks for a thorough report.

Fundamentally, the issues that the petition raises are about the protection of children and young people in professional youth football. I take no pleasure in reminding Parliament of the petition’s record. Just over three years ago, the convener of the committee, Johann Lamont, led a debate on youth football, highlighting the committee’s serious concerns about the registration period for players in the 15 to 17 age group, the payment of compensation and the appropriate payment of the minimum wage to young players.

Although our report highlights some progress in the system, I am disappointed to say that, three years on, there remain significant and systemic issues that have the overall effect of weighting the system too far in favour of the professional clubs. Without a doubt, that leaves children and young people involved in youth football disadvantaged in terms of the choices that they wish to make.

Those views echo the views of the former Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland. During his time in office, Mr Baillie undertook a substantial amount of work on the regulation of youth football from a rights perspective. I thank him for the significant role that he played in highlighting those important issues.

The committee was concerned when, earlier this year, the current children’s commissioner confirmed that the issues that his predecessor raised had not yet been resolved. That said, I welcome the briefing that we received today from the commissioner, which states that he agrees with all the recommendations in the committee’s report.

Before I go on to discuss our conclusions and recommendations, I place on record, on behalf of the committee, our heartfelt thanks to the petitioners, Scott Robertson and Willie Smith. The time and effort that they have dedicated to make a positive change to the world of youth football is to their credit. Although I will focus on what the committee considers to be the challenges that remain in youth football, it is important to recognise what has been achieved, which, in large part, is due to the sheer tenacity and determination of the petitioners.

The fact that young people who are registered with football academies can now play for their school team and the recent work that the Scottish Football Association has undertaken to prioritise the wellbeing and protection of children are to be welcomed. The time that it has taken to make those changes, however, is not. The committee considers that the pace of change that the football authorities have demonstrated throughout the lifetime of the petition has been unacceptably slow.

Although it is clear that the petition raises a number of issues for the football authorities to address, there is also a key role for the Scottish Government in ensuring that the rights and wellbeing of all children and young people are protected, regardless of the environment that they are in, which, of course, includes youth football.

The committee notes the Scottish Government’s positive engagement with the petition, as well as its willingness to work with the football authorities to deliver the best outcomes for children and young people who are in the academy system. We further note the Scottish Government’s preference to wait for changes in the system to bed in before any consideration is given to further regulatory action.

In recognition of the deep-rooted child protection concerns that the petition raises and the wide range of evidence that the committee has gathered, the Scottish Government must now take action to work with the SFA and the Scottish Professional Football League to evaluate all the measures that have been introduced and to investigate the impact of the changes that the committee has recommended.

I turn to the recommendations and will first address the issue of registration periods. Currently, players in the 15 to 17 age group are signed for a three-year registration period, which differs from that for players in the 10 to 14 age group, who register annually. The rationale for the longer registration period for players aged 15 was explored extensively by the committee. The reasons that were given included

“the physical and social development of players, the benefits to clubs and the structures of youth teams in this age group.”

Taking everything into account, the committee considers that the set-up simply means that the balance of power is stacked heavily in favour of football clubs, rather than being in the best interests of the child. Therefore, we recommend that

“players under the age of 16 should not be required to sign up to a system that ties them in to a multi-year registration.”

It is encouraging to note that the SFA plans to review those rules and recognises the negative consequences that they can carry for young people. Although the committee welcomes that commitment, we do so with an element of caution. Indeed, the committee understands that previous work done by the SFA in 2015 to review the rules resulted in no change. Therefore, we encourage the SFA not to rehearse previous discussions, but to put in place fit-for-purpose rules on player registration.

Closely allied to the issue of registration is the question of compensation payments that may be made when a young player moves from one professional club to another. The committee heard a wide range of evidence on the issue, including that compensation payments are a FIFA requirement and are calculated using a matrix to identify what the acquiring club is required to pay, based on the value of the training that the club would have provided up to the relevant point in a player’s career. The committee takes no issue with that principle. However, after reflecting on further evidence that we gathered, we believe that it would be fairer to make a compensation payment only

“when a player signs their first professional contract.”

As the committee understands it, that approach would still be compliant with FIFA rules.

A further focus of the committee’s work was around whether a payment

“to young footballers who have progressed to professional contracts has always complied with minimum wage legislation.”

Evidence that the committee received highlighted instances of clubs having made payments at levels that were not compliant.

At the beginning of the year, the committee tested the issue with the SFA. We were encouraged that work has been done by the football authorities to address the issue, but we consider that there is scope for more work to be done in that area. That could include annual sampling of contracts to provide an extra level of assurance that clubs are acting in accordance with the minimum wage legislation.

We are firmly of the view that, unless further changes are introduced to the youth football system, Parliament will continue to raise questions about how children and young people are protected in that environment, and whether it is now time for external, independent regulation. That is not a new point—the Health and Sport Committee previously highlighted to the Scottish Government that it is the

“overriding duty of the SFA” to eradicate

“any perception of a power imbalance.”

The Health and Sport Committee recommended that

“if this is not forthcoming from the football authorities legislative change is required.”

I also highlight calls made by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland earlier this year that statutory measures are now required to ensure that children’s rights are protected effectively.

It is encouraging that the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing supports our recommendations, and we look forward to hearing in detail today how he intends to act on them for the benefit of all young people who are involved in the game. I also note that he intends to liaise with the office of the children’s commission to have a meeting with the SFA and the petitioners on the issue as soon as restrictions allow. The children’s commissioner also noted that in his submission.

It would be remiss of me not to recognise that we are living in unprecedented times. The response to the on-going Covid-19 public health emergency has forced us all to adjust our ways of working to get things done. Our report recognises that, and encourages the Scottish Government and the football authorities, alongside the petitioners and any other relevant stakeholders, to identify ways to address the issues that are raised in the report during these challenging times.

Covid-19 will not be with us for ever. The committee hopes that the issues that are raised in the report are actively addressed now, so that when things return to some form of normality, systems and processes are in place to ensure that the rights and wellbeing of young people are at the heart of youth football in Scotland.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations contained in the Public Petitions Committee’s 2nd Report 2020 (Session 5), PE1319:

Improving youth football in Scotland

(SP Paper 763).

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I thank the present and previous members of the Public Petitions Committee for their work on the inquiry over a large number of years, and for securing the debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue and to respond on behalf of the Scottish Government.

It is also important to pay tribute, as Gail Ross did, to Willie Smith and Scott Robertson, who lodged the petition in 2010. To echo the words of the committee, their “passion and commitment” in pursuing the issue has been commendable. It is particularly commendable that they are sticking with the matters involved in the petition. I will talk later about the meetings that we intend to have; Scott and Willie are very much part of the on-going discussion.

We know that this has been a long-running issue; as has been said, it is the longest-running petition since the Scottish Parliament was established. The committee first took evidence on 20 April 2010 and held a number of sessions at which it heard from a wide range of individuals and organisations who have an interest in what is a complex topic. It was therefore no surprise that those discussions and deliberations explored a range of issues that are connected to youth football. Many new issues emerged and were considered by the committee.

For countless children, being a footballer is the ultimate dream. Many will have dreamed of scoring a goal in a cup final, pulling on the dark blue of Scotland, saving a penalty in the final minute, or dancing with their Scotland team mates and singing “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie”. For the vast majority of children, a dream is all that it is; the chances of becoming a professional footballer are vanishingly small. However, children are still determined to pursue that dream, whatever the odds, and it is the responsibility of MSPs, the football authorities and others to make sure that they can do that safely.

I think that most members—especially members of the committee—will be familiar with the background to the petition. Under Scottish FA procedures, the registration of a player in age group 15 allows a club to extend the player’s registration to age group 16 for the following season. That can happen again at age group 16. The key issue is that the club, not the child, can terminate the registration at any time. Clubs make significant investments in the development of young players, and registration ensures that clubs receive compensation, should the child move to another club within the club academy Scotland set-up. Those two issues are, I believe, at the heart of what is a long-running debate.

After a little more than 10 years, the committee published its report on 22 June. It recognised that the duration of its consideration

“reflects the seriousness with which the issues raised have been addressed” and

“the complex nature of some of these issues”.

For the Scottish Government, the key issues from the report concern the power imbalance that was mentioned by Gail Ross in her opening speech, which must be eradicated by the football authorities. We should work with the football authorities to consider the professional youth football system in detail, and the impact of any changes that have been made to date.

It is important to recognise that, over the course of 10 years, the situation has not been stagnant. I absolutely hear the concern of the deputy convener and the committee about the pace of change, but it is also important to recognise that there has been change, and that the football authorities have engaged on the agenda that the committee has brought forward. However, another of the committee’s conclusions that Gail Ross outlined was that, unless further changes are introduced, external and independent regulation should be introduced.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Will the minister clarify whether the Scottish Government’s position is that, should there be no further progress, regulation will be necessary?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I am just about to come to our position on that.

As it is for the committee, it is important to the Scottish Government to highlight the work on the changes that have already been made. As the committee’s report does, we recognise that progress has been made to help to protect children and young people in the youth football system—in particular, I mention the opportunity for club academy Scotland players to play recreational football and the establishment of a young player wellbeing panel. It is important that we recognise those things. We welcome the other encouraging steps that are being taken by the football authorities.

However, we acknowledge that concerns remain. We agree with the committee that ensuring children who play football are able to

“participate safely in a safe environment” should be

“an absolute and overriding duty” of the Scottish FA. The Scottish FA’s board recognises and shares that view, and the Scottish Government and sportscotland will continue to ensure that that commitment is met. I have many meetings with members of the Scottish FA, so I can assure members of the committee that, at all levels, from its president and its chief executive, Ian Maxwell, to leaders at youth level, it is clear that there is a desire to meet that commitment, but we need to make sure that it is clearly met all across Scotland.

We agree with the committee that enough time has passed to consider whether the changes that have been made to date have been effective, so we will consider how best to assess the system and the potential impact of recommendations that are proposed by the committee. We have considered the issue—including requests for external regulation—in depth over a period of time, and will continue to consider how to introduce greater external independent oversight of the existing system, should that be necessary. I hope that that addresses the question that the convener asked.

Let me be absolutely clear: the welfare of the child is paramount. That should be the main consideration for all of us, and it is non-negotiable. As I have already said, it is tough to make it as a footballer and most, sadly, will not make it. However, I believe that the system can have the welfare of the child at the heart of its considerations, so that even children who do not go on to become professional footballers or join the Scotland team have a positive experience that they can take into their adult life, to the workplace and beyond. I believe that a balance can be struck that ensures that we can protect the child’s welfare while also encouraging clubs to invest in developing the next generation of elite Scottish footballers.

My officials are continuing to discuss those issues with stakeholders and, as the deputy convener mentioned, we intend to meet the children’s commissioner’s office, the Scottish FA and the petitioners to consider next steps. The commissioner’s office is facilitating and pulling together that round-table discussion, which will happen as soon as it is safe to have it.

Together, drawing on the work that has been undertaken by the committee over the past 10 years, we can ensure that the system has the rights of the child at its heart. I again thank the Public Petitions Committee for a considerable piece of work, and I thank the committee and the petitioners for securing the debate on this important issue.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I am grateful for the opportunity to open the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. As members will know, this is a topic in which I have a deep-seated interest. I declare that I am a senior coach and have coached at several senior football clubs.

As Gail Ross said, the debate is especially pertinent given the recent success of the Scottish men’s football team in qualifying for the European championships, which follows on from the ladies’ success. I congratulate all the team and staff for breaking that fast, but I make a personal plea to the team: please, get there just once with a little less drama.

However, that is a timely reminder of the impact that sport can have on the nation. The whole nation exhaled as one when David Marshall dived to save the last penalty in the penalty shoot-out, and I am pretty sure that it registered on the Richter scale. Kids all over the country will now be dreaming of emulating their heroes by playing for their country, and will be fantasising about saving that penalty or scoring that all-important last-gasp winner. It has ever been the case.

I spent some time alongside Johann Lamont in the Public Petitions Committee. It is fair to say that progress on the petition had been frustratingly slow and that evidence sessions were sometimes quite heated. Specifically, I recall one session with the chief executive of the SFA. Afterwards, I met him off-site; I appreciated that meeting and we managed to put across some of our points in a less heated fashion.

However, it seemed to members that the people who should have had influence in the issue were reluctant to take any responsibility. Some individuals and bodies have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table. For example, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner only recently accepted that there is a problem, having taken a roasting at committee for a non-committal and unacceptable response to questioning during an evidence session.

The written response to the committee report from the minister, on behalf of the Scottish Government, shows a lack of understanding of the issue and a reluctance in the Scottish Government to take positive action. That is from a Government that wants to get it right for every child. How can the minister ensure, as it says in his letter, that

“the Scottish Government and sportscotland will continue to ensure” that children can

“participate safely in a safe environment”,

when the report clearly highlights that that environment is far from safe in the first place? What is the role of the clubs in all that? It has taken 10 years to get to that point; there is real dragging of the feet, and the clubs are at the centre of that.

I say to the minister that the real issue is simple: it is about attitude. The primary responsibility of any coach, team or national governing sports body is to the health and wellbeing of their charges, and that fundamental notion is implicit in parents’ decision to hand their children over to a sport. The majority of coaches, clubs and sports bodies take that responsibility extremely seriously and carry it out it very well.

However, as the petition report suggests, that approach is not universally accepted in football. I have always been concerned about the way in which some professional football clubs pick young footballers up, only to discard them further down the line. It cannot be overstated how devastating it can be for a child of 12 or 13 to be picked up by a professional team, with all their hopes and aspirations in front of them, only to be discarded without any support. I would not define that as looking after a child’s wellbeing.

The practice of picking up players to prevent other teams from getting them was investigated, as was the matter of transfer fees for children, as has been mentioned. Lack of proper wages and contracts for young players seem to be more common than the governing body cares to admit. I recall being told by the chief executive that it was up to the child to report the club if the rules were breached. How many children would wreck their football dreams to report the club for which they play? The phrase “head in the sand” comes to mind.

All those practices are completely unacceptable, however rare—or otherwise—they are. The system should not allow them to happen; I cannot think of another sport that would tolerate such treatment of its young participants.

What we want from the sport is a pathway from the early years all the way to international level, that includes many points along the way for various talents and abilities. As the minister mentioned, fewer than 0.1 per cent of sports participants reach international level, so for the vast majority of players, participation is, although it is a passion, just a hobby. It is a way to interact, to be included and to be physically and mentally fit and healthy.

The sport has a responsibility to every player, no matter the level that they play at. For those who try to hit the highs of professional sport and do not quite make it, there has be a better system than their just being discarded. There must be support for all players to remain in the game in some capacity. Surely, that would be to the benefit of the sport as a whole.

The petition should have been closed long ago, and would have been, had all those who have had parts to play been reasonable in their approach. However, a decade later, here we still are. How can it be so difficult to get a sport’s governing body, which receives significant Government funding, to give participating children the rights to which they are entitled? The power balance in football is all wrong and the system is open to its rules being broken far too easily and with what seems to be complete impunity.

I have to say that the Scottish Government is culpable because of its refusal to roll up its sleeves and get involved. It is certainly not getting it right for every child, in this case. I recognise that progress—however slow—has been made by the SFA and the SPFL over the piece, but it is time that the issues were properly dealt with. Trading on the hopes and dreams of children is entirely unacceptable.

Photo of David Stewart David Stewart Labour

I am delighted to open for Labour in this important debate. Like many members, such as James Kelly and Liam McArthur, I am a lifelong football fan. I have followed Inverness Caley Thistle since its inception and youth football has played a vital role in its success, growth and development. I am honoured to chair its charity arm, the Inverness Caledonian Thistle Trust, and I refer members to my entry in the register of interests.

I congratulate Johann Lamont, Gail Ross and the other members of the Public Petitions Committee for their sterling work on this crucial petition. I have long been a strong advocate of the Parliament’s groundbreaking petitions system, which is so admired by legislatures across the globe. In 2011, I was the new convener of the PPC and the petition that is before us today was one of the first that my committee considered. I place on record my appreciation of the dedication, commitment and steadfastness of the petitioners.

During our tenure, the PPC took evidence from the petitioners, asked the view of the Scottish Government and held face-to-face meetings with the football authorities. Everyone agreed that youth football was a key component in the development of the Scottish game; the crux of the matter was ensuring that young people’s rights and interests are protected, so the evidence of unfair or restricted terms and contracts was key.

We welcomed the impact of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland; at the time, that was Tam Baillie. I thank him for his contribution to the PPC. We also took on board the legal implications, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and section 1(1) of the Age of Legal Capacity (Scotland) Act 1991, which affects the ability of under-16s to effect contracts.

The report, “Improving youth football in Scotland”, has been the result of many years’ hard work by the committee following the petition from William Smith and Scott Robertson on an important issue. We in Scottish Labour welcome and support the conclusions and recommendations in the report.

As parliamentarians, we have a dual interest in the issue. First, we have a responsibility to use the scrutiny and legislative powers that we have to ensure that children who are part of professional youth academies are adequately safeguarded, especially when it comes to registrations and contracts. Secondly, we have an interest in ensuring that Scotland’s best young footballers are able to thrive and grow to reach their maximum potential as athletes.

With those responsibilities in mind, the committee concluded that two key changes should occur in Scotland’s professional youth football system: ensuring that players under 16 should not be bound by multiyear club registrations, and changing the system for the reimbursement of training costs so that compensation is paid only when a player signs their first professional contract.

Those changes would ensure that there was a fair balance between the rights of professional clubs to operate their youth academies independently and develop the players that they choose to develop, and, on the other hand, the rights of children and young people not to be bound to multiyear commitments so that they and their families are able to freely make life and sport choices in their best interest.

Importantly, the changes, which would involve the Scottish Government and football authorities working closely together, would be compliant with FIFA’s regulations. That is because legislative intervention would be sought for the purpose of protecting the rights and wellbeing of children and young people and ensuring that reimbursement for training costs is specifically compliant with FIFA regulations.

We welcome the work that the SFA has done on the issues over the previous decade and the commitments that it has made, but the report makes it clear that more has to be done and I share its conclusions, including that the governance of Scottish football has shown a

“lack of urgency about ... ensuring that systems are in place to put the rights ... of ... young people at the heart of ... decision making.”

I again congratulate William Smith and Scott Robertson on bringing forward the initial petition and making the Parliament aware of the issues, which has led to so much good committee work over the past decade. I note that their submission to the committee in June this year said:

“The publication of the final report on 22 June ... was a major milestone in our journey. We were delighted with the contents and the language which sends a clear and strong message to the Scottish FA and Scottish Professional Football League”.

They are clear, the committee is clear and I am clear that the footballing authorities must act on the report’s conclusions and recommendations. All of us want Scotland’s national team and clubs to thrive and succeed; I have no doubt that we will be in the European football championships next year, where I expect Ryan Christie—a product of Inverness Caley Thistle’s youth academy—to star. However, we also want all boys and girls who aspire to become footballers to have maximum flexibility in deciding when to join and when to leave youth academies, as is their and their family’s right. If the report’s recommendations are implemented in full, the balance will be correctly struck.

Finally, as Kofi Annan said,

“There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected”.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I, too, am delighted to take part in this short debate on youth football in Scotland. As others have done, I pay warm tribute to Scott Robertson and Willie Smith for their tireless efforts, and commend Public Petitions Committee members past and present for their work on the issue over the past 10 years.

Although I have not been directly involved in the committee’s work, the chamber will not be surprised to hear that the subject of that work is very close to my heart. Thanks to my two sons, I have been heavily involved in youth football in Orkney over the past decade or so. My CV includes coaching roles with the Burray Boomerangs, the Hope-Burray Hotspurs and East United, and I have even managed to pick up a few SFA coaching qualifications along the way. It has been a hugely rewarding experience, and I am delighted by the development in the sport at a local level, which has been overseen by the Orkney Youth Development Group and enabled by so many parents and volunteers. As well as giving boys and girls in Orkney the chance to develop their skills, confidence and friendships, it has contributed to improved physical and mental health.

At the more elite end, I also want to put on record my thanks to Ross County and David Stewart’s beloved Inverness Caley Thistle for the time and commitment that they have put in to supporting football in the islands. Many Orkney youngsters have gone on to represent both teams at youth level, although I certainly recognise the concerns that Brian Whittle raised about how players are subsequently let go.

Before I turn to the other specific concerns that are highlighted by the committee, I want to make a plea that is based on my experience at this level of youth football. Safeguarding the welfare and wellbeing of the young boys and girls who play football or any other sport is paramount, but we must also ensure that safeguards are proportionate and effective, and that they are not simply box-ticking exercises that do little to safeguard, but which tie up clubs and volunteers in bureaucracy, forcing many to give up and thereby reducing the opportunities that are available for young people to participate.

I make a distinction between that issue and the issues that the committee has rightly focused on. Those relate to contractual arrangements around youth football, which have given rise to very real and serious concerns. As the committee acknowledged, the legal status of professional SFA clubs entering into contracts with children under 16 is a matter for the courts to adjudicate on, but there seems little doubt, as the committee concluded, that

“a club holding a player’s registration retains some control over the choices of that player.”

Promises by the SFA to review registration rules have so far come to nothing.

Concerns have also been raised about the social, educational and psychological effects, not to mention the legality, of SFA clubs prohibiting young players from taking part in extracurricular activity. Oversight of that appears to have been inadequate, while progress on compensation payments and adherence to minimum wage requirements has been frustratingly slow.

I have no desire to see the Parliament or the Government meddling unnecessarily in Scottish football, particularly at the very time that we are starting to look forward to the prospect of our senior men’s team taking part in their first major tournament in the lifetime of this Parliament, but we cannot ignore what the committee concludes has been

“a reluctance or lack of urgency about ... ensuring that systems are in place to put the rights and wellbeing of children and young people at the heart of policy and decision making” in the sport.

I again thank the Public Petitions Committee for its diligence, I most warmly thank Scott Robertson and Willie Smith for their tireless efforts, and I hope that the Government can now make the progress that we need to see—working alongside the football authorities—to address the serious shortcomings that are identified in the committee’s report.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

We move to the open debate. I ask for speeches of four minutes. We have a little time in hand for interventions.

Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

As a non-member of the Public Petitions Committee, I place on the record my appreciation for the work of the convener, Johann Lamont, Gail Ross and the rest of the committee for their hard work on the issue.

Most of all, however, I thank the petitioners, Willie Smith and Scott Robertson, who I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the past few years, and who have recently been strongly supported by Leigh McLevy, for their tireless work to keep the protection of young footballers at the forefront of people’s minds. Over the past decade, they have brought their campaign before numerous committees, involved the Scottish Government and local authorities, secured the support of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and forced the SFA and the SPFL into taking much-needed action. They truly deserve our thanks.

Without a doubt, the report is a milestone, but the matter need not have come this far. The footballing authorities could have listened to the findings of Tam Baillie’s report in 2015, to those of the Health and Sport Committee’s report in 2017 or to children, their families and the campaigners.

I have said in the chamber many times that my entire life has been steeped in football—as a fan, as a coach and manager of youth football teams and as the father of two sons who are heavily involved in football. My experiences and passion for the sport, coupled with my determination to stand up for children and young adults, mean that I have fully supported the aims of the petition.

It has been clear that things have needed to change because, over the years, we have heard about children under the age of 16 entering contracts with professional clubs, children being paid as little as £1 a week, children being unable to move teams because their club is blocking a move for more compensation and, even worse, children having agents who had not had background checks carried out beforehand. The system is tilted far too heavily in favour of the professional clubs and it is abundantly clear to me that children have been treated not as children, but as commodities. I find the report utterly damning of the footballing authorities.

I turn to the recommendations in the report and what needs to happen as a result. As we know, footballers at all levels require to be registered with the SFA in order to play regulated football. For players who are aged 10 to 14, the duration of registration is a year. As has been stated, however, the duration for 15-year-olds can total three years. I agree with the committee’s conclusion—I have held this view for years—that the one-year registration period should be extended to cover 15-year-olds.

How does the three-year registration support the aims of child protection? We have heard far too often of historical abuse continuing at clubs because young people have been too scared to say anything in case it meant the end of their career. Imagine if a child has to suffer that abuse not just for one year but for three years, solely because the club wants to be able to hold on to the child’s registration. That is simply not acceptable and it should be stopped immediately.

The SFA continuously claims that the compensation rules are a requirement of FIFA that national bodies cannot diverge from, but I do not believe that to be accurate, as many countries, including Denmark, Sweden and Portugal, have no such rules.

Real change will not happen for as long as clubs can request compensation payments for children and young people and they can be held to three-year registrations. Unfortunately, I remain deeply unconvinced that the SFA and SPFL will do the right thing of their own accord. I therefore urge the Scottish Government to consider introducing greater external, independent oversight of the existing system as soon as possible.

The Scottish Government recognises in its response to the report the “progress” regarding

“the establishment of a young player wellbeing panel” in 2014. However, I have heard from the petitioners that they believe that the panel has been used only twice in several years, and apparently it is a very arduous experience that mimics a judicial process. How does holding such a hearing in such a way promote the best interests of a child who merely wants to leave a football club? I encourage the Scottish Government to consider carefully whether the panels are fit for purpose.

Four years ago, I took part in the committee’s deliberations on the petition; three years ago, I took part in a debate; and, of course, the petition has been on the Parliament’s radar for over 10 years. Let us hope that we do not need to wait any longer for meaningful action by the football authorities.

I finish by again thanking Willie, Scott and Leigh for running the campaign. Without them, we would never have got to this important stage in the first place. Let us not keep them waiting for too long.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I thank the Public Petitions Committee and its convener for bringing this important report forward after so many years, as James Dornan has just highlighted.

For many young people, football is a passion, and an offer to join a club set-up is a dream come true. As we have heard in many speeches today, however, the reality can be far from that. All too often, young players find themselves stuck in contracts that pay them unfairly or, sometimes, not at all.

The Public Petitions Committee considered the petition when I was a member of that committee, and I was very keen to hear the witnesses. I cannot reiterate how important it is that we are discussing the issue and that the SFA should take on board all the comments that it hears today.

Progress on improving rights for young footballers has been too slow. We need to recognise that, unless the power imbalance between clubs and young players is addressed, there will continue to be problems. I am so glad that the committee decided to tackle the issue, which is long overdue.

The Public Petitions Committee found that there are significant issues with the youth football system, which is weighted too far in favour of professional clubs. It is acknowledged that the system leaves children and young people in the position where they find themselves disadvantaged in terms of choice. They might wish to make a choice regarding their footballing ambitions but are unable to do so.

Hearing from parents in the Borders who have seen children go through great disappointment and anguish because they have been left unselected for a professional team, with very few alternatives, is demoralising. The situation is made worse by the issue of players being prohibited from participating in school teams in addition to their club team. For example, I was told that, if a player wanted to play in their school team on the Friday, it would mean that they would not be able to play for their professional team on the Saturday. Such players are almost being discriminated against and are prevented from joining in with both types of team and enjoying their company and collegiate efforts. I spoke to one father who told me that his son binned his football boots in anger after putting in hours and hours of training over many years only not to be selected.

I used to be a netball umpire and coach, when I had a little bit of time before entering politics, and I know that young people’s expectations and disappointments have to be managed very carefully. Young people must be given hope. There are easier pathways to lower leagues, so they do not have to be put off for life. The upset and damage that the system can do to a young person’s mental health is far reaching. It takes its toll on parents, too. Parents are often driving all over Scotland to matches, with no financial assistance whatsoever. It is really stressful, and I only have to speak to my constituents to find that out.

There have been incidences of clubs having failed to pay the minimum wage to youth players. In 2015, a

Sunday Post investigation found that at least five clubs in Scotland’s top two divisions were not paying the national minimum wage of £2.73 an hour, which was shocking. Although the committee accepted that work had been done to try to address that issue, there is scope for authorities to do more, such as through annually sampling contracts. When young people and their parents are giving up so much time, often compromising their studies and bank balances, it is unfair that there is not ample financial support.

Another action that should be taken to help young people to balance studies, work and football is the waiving of the requirement for under-16s to sign multiyear contracts.

As many members have done, I thank Willie Smith and Scott Robertson for lodging the petition. We all know how long it has taken to get to this point, and it is commendable that they have continued with their efforts, which will result in a clear set of recommendations for the Scottish Government to implement.

Progress has been made over the years—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No, no. Please conclude.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

—but we must encourage more people to take up football.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I congratulate the committee on securing the debate and William Smith and Scott Robertson for lodging the petition more than a decade ago.

Scotland is a footballing nation, and the results of our men’s and women’s national teams have at last improved in recent months. Football has been an inherent part of our culture for generations, with many professional, amateur and youth clubs providing vital community hubs to countless people across Scotland. As a result, many boys and girls in Scotland dream of following in their footballing heroes’ footsteps and embarking on a professional career, or at least being able to play for their hometown club.

There are many positives to that, including improved confidence and social skills, as well as the benefits of frequent physical exercise and improvements in young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Football academies are a proven asset to local communities. Although Willie Coffey is listening, I will say that UEFA’s social return on investment model, for instance, demonstrated that Ayr United’s football academy contributes almost £10 million annually to the local community.

However, we know that football has become big business, with players, including teenagers, potentially having a market value of millions of pounds. In recent decades, it has become common practice for big professional clubs to woo young players away from their local youth clubs.

Talented children and young people must be protected from the potentially negative consequences of the football industry by putting in place robust systems that have the wellbeing of young players as the overriding aim. Few footballers really make it in the professional world, and broken dreams and crushed ambitions can have very serious consequences for young players who do not secure professional contracts and are released.

I welcome the progress that has been made since petition PE1319 was lodged, in March 2010, thanks to the petitioners’ passion and commitment. It is particularly encouraging that club academy Scotland players can now play recreational football and that a young player wellbeing and protection department has been established. It is overseen by an independent advisory board and is chaired by the chief executive of Children in Scotland.

I also commend some of the more recent work that the Scottish Football Association has undertaken, such as the publication of a child wellbeing and protection strategy. That strategy covers the period from 2019 to 2024, and it is aligned to the Scottish Government’s framework for supporting children and young people and tied in with the Scottish ministers’ commitment to review the registration rules in relation to 15, 16 and 17-year-olds.

However, I am concerned by the committee’s conclusion that,

“somewhere within the governance of football in Scotland, there has been a reluctance or lack of urgency about the core issue of ensuring that systems are in place to put the rights and wellbeing of children and young people at the heart of policy and decision making.”

If that is true, it is also unacceptable that the football authorities may have attempted to sit out many of the problems that are highlighted in the petition until the conclusion of the committee’s work.

The current system too often seems weighted too far in favour of professional clubs, while young players are at a disadvantage when it comes to reconciling their football ambitions with other life choices. In order to see our young people flourish, more changes must be brought about that put players’ welfare at the centre of decision making. Those changes include measures to ensure that players under 16 are not forced into a system that ties them into a multiyear registration and changes to the reimbursement of training costs. Compensation payments should be required only when a player signs their first professional contract.

Making those changes is primarily the responsibility of the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Professional Football League. However, as the Scottish Government has engaged extensively over many years on the issues that the petition highlights, I expect the Scottish ministers to work with the SFA and the SPFL to conduct an evaluation of all the steps that have been introduced to date and to analyse the potential impacts of the measures that the Public Petitions Committee has suggested.

We all want to see our football players and clubs being successful. That must happen within a culture that respects the rights of young people and a system that supports their wellbeing at all times. I am confident that the Scottish Government is listening and that it will ensure that greater external and independent oversight is introduced into the current system, which is not serving our young people as well as it should.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

As somebody who watches football and has watched Kilmarnock Football Club for over 55 years, I am happy to offer a few words on the subject of youth football. First, however, congratulations must surely go to the national team under Steve Clarke, who is a Kilmarnock legend, for taking our country back to a major championship next year. That will be our first since 1998.

Our bonus of reaching league A in the nations league fell short at the last couple of hurdles, but I am sure that we are on the right road under Steve Clarke’s leadership.

A 10-year-old petition must be a rare thing, but we have one. Some of the young players whom the petitioners had in mind when the petition came to the Parliament in 2010 may well have been playing for the national team in the past week. Reading the committee’s report, I can see the frustration about a number of issues—not just the lack of clarity on things such as the registration process but the lack of progress in resolving those things or even clarifying what it all means in practice for youngsters and their families.

I was confused when I read through the evidence sections on the registration issue. It appears that, when a youngster signs a registration form for a football club—I believe that that is a FIFA and therefore an SFA requirement—that confers on the club some rights to retain the young player’s services if it chooses to, even if the player wants to go somewhere else at the end of the particular year that the registration covers. If that is right, surely it cannot be acceptable. It sounds like a contractual condition that has been applied without the knowledge or consent of the youngster and their family.

Mr Robertson, who is one of the petitioners, said:

“If someone signs a registration form when they are 15 and they complete that commitment for one year, the club can hold them for a second year and the player has no say in that—he has no get-out clause. If at the end of the second year the club wants to keep them for a third year, it has the power and authority to do that—the player and the parents have no say in that.”—[

Official Report, Public Petitions Committee

, 20 May 2014; c 2263.]

That sounds to me like a contract, and that was not countered by any of the others who gave evidence.

In football, we hear all the time about clubs retaining players’ registrations, which has often led to severe financial detriment and loss of freedom for the players concerned. I agree with the committee that that needs to be sorted out—but by whom? Should it be the SFA or the Government, or will a legal challenge be needed rather than the involvement of the Government? We all know that Government involvement has never been welcome anywhere in football circles.

Other areas of the petition, such as accountability for public funds, compensation payments for transfers and the need to focus on the wellbeing aspects for our young players, have been well covered by other members. I know that clubs like Kilmarnock are doing a good job with our youngsters in that regard. I have met some of the young players there over the years, and they are well looked after by the club. The Kilmarnock youth academy is a great success story and has brought several players through to the first team squad and on to international cups for their country. Greg Taylor played for the under 17s and under 20s at Kilmarnock and then went on to play for the first team and for Scotland. Kris Boyd, Steven Naismith and Cammy Bell played for the club before him, too.

I admit that I like the committee’s statement in paragraph 12 that, after 10 years of waiting for progress in some of those areas, “time is up”. One of the great strengths of our national Parliament is that the people of Scotland can raise an issue and see their elected members taking action if they support the ideas in the petition. The committee’s report has made a valuable contribution to some of the issues relating to how we support youth football in Scotland. I sincerely hope that the players mentioned in the report who are still affected have not retired from the game by the time that any of the committee’s recommendations are implemented.

Photo of Tom Mason Tom Mason Conservative

This petition comes to the Parliament for debate after a decade of consideration by the Public Petitions Committee over the past three sessions of Parliament, so I hope that, one way or another, we will be able to make progress.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that young people the length and breadth of Scotland love our national game and relish the opportunity to play whenever they can, whether that is kicking the ball around in the street or the school playground—if they are still allowed to do that—or playing at the highest levels of the game. However, as the petition and the committee’s report argue, there is an imbalance between the young players and the clubs, which can result in some players being caught in exploitative contracts and not being paid fairly for their efforts.

I came very late to the issue and was shocked to realise what was going on and to see that the impasse had taken so long to resolve. I find myself in something of an old-fashioned situation in seeing sport as something that should be done for enjoyment rather than money, but if youngsters are able to do both, all power to them. That said, I welcome the report’s findings and the apparent degree of consensus on the changes that are needed to improve protections for young players at club level. It is clear that those have taken far too long, but I hope that the solutions that have been identified can be implemented at a much faster pace.

That is not to say that the development of young players’ welfare has been static since the petition was lodged. The SFA’s establishment of a wellbeing protection department in addition to a five-year child wellbeing protection strategy, which was launched last year, are both welcome and commendable steps. However, there is a need to go further, and I will focus my remarks on a couple of specific areas.

One of the key issues that the petition presented was the overall system of player registration. The effect of multiyear registrations on players over the age of 15 and the extent of control that a club can have over the player is particularly important, especially for players who have not yet turned 16. Being tied into a multiyear registration means that players could find themselves stuck at a club that is either not helping their development or keeping them on the books with no prospect of a contract in the future. Enabling single-year registration for 15-year-olds who are, by definition, not on a professional contract would enable players and their families to make the best decisions for their career prospects.

In addition, concerns have been raised over the apparent failure of a minority of clubs to pay the minimum wage. I am encouraged by the work that has been done on the monitoring process, but I think that additional auditing to ensure uniform compliance should be done going forward.

Talented young people deserve the chance to play football in a safe environment that protects their wellbeing and prevents exploitation from taking place. To make that more of a reality, the committee’s report identifies multiple areas where improvement is necessary. I hope that the SFA and the Scottish Government will work together to deliver those changes.

As the events of the past week prove, our national game, and particularly our national team, can inspire the entire country. I hope, however, that we will celebrate victory, as opposed to just the entry ticket.

I hope that these changes will be implemented as soon as possible, and that they will make it easier and safer for the next generation of players to try to emulate their heroes and to go as high as their talents can take them.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I welcome the debate and, like others, I commend the petitioners for their determination to make a positive difference for every young person who plays football in Scotland. I thank colleagues, past and present, who have worked on the petition. It clearly was a tough task, but it was important to progress. As we have already heard, there is still much work to do. I also commend the speeches by Liam McArthur and Willie Coffey in the debate, which have been extremely useful and helpful.

When a child wants to participate in any activity, including football, the delivery of it is extremely important. Those who do that work are trusted, and they need to be trusted; as football is the national sport in Scotland and therefore many children participate in it, that aspect is crucial. The entire game of football in Scotland has to ensure that its house is in order. Progress has been made, but there is still much work to do.

We all want to see young people flourish and to have the opportunity to be happy in what they choose to do in their future. Some will go on to represent Scotland at their chosen sport, such as football, but the majority will use the experience to better their life chances. Ultimately, we also want to create a country and a culture that respects the rights of children and supports their wellbeing. I know that the Scottish Government has engaged extensively over many years on the issues that the petition has raised, and it certainly recognises the importance of the rights of the child being observed at all times.

However, the Scottish Government must also recognise, as the Public Petitions Committee does, that progress has to be made to protect children and young people in the youth football system. I note that there is now the opportunity for club academy Scotland players to play recreational football, and that a young player wellbeing panel has been established.

Many years ago, when this issue was first raised, I felt sympathy for any young person who was caught up in the situation that the petition raised. In addition to training and playing in an organised way with a club, it is natural for a young person to have a kickabout with pals or to play for the school team. Those are some of the chances a young person could have to improve their footballing skills.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government agrees with the committee that ensuring that children who play football are able to

“participate safely in a safe environment” should be

“an absolute and overriding duty” for the Scottish FA. Apparently the Scottish FA board recognises and shares that view, and the Scottish Government and sportscotland will, I hope, ensure that that commitment is met. That is crucial. As work needs to continue, that sharp focus on delivering it must apply. I note that the Scottish Government agrees that enough time has passed to consider whether changes that have been made to date have been effective. However, that work still needs to happen and that focus still needs to be there.

In addition, having considered the issue in depth over a period of time, including its consideration of requests for external regulation, the Scottish Government apparently will continue to consider how to introduce greater external, independent oversight into the system. That is also crucial. We need to have that trust in how football is delivered in the country. I genuinely welcome the work of the Public Petitions Committee.

Football brings many high and lows, as any football fan will have had over the past week. Particularly for fans of the national team, they happen all the time. We truly want the sport to be the best it can be, and to be the best opportunity for our young people. I very much welcome the petition that has been delivered through the Parliament, and the work that is still under way on it. I thank the petitioners for their hard work and their efforts.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call James Kelly to close for Labour.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I thank the petitioners, Scott Robertson and Willie Smith, for continuing to pursue the issues in the petition over a period of 10 years. I also thank the committee for the work that it has done on this important issue. We just need to go back to last Thursday to see how important football is in Scotland. Last week’s victory over Serbia gave the country a real lift, which shows the extent to which football reaches out across the country.

Football has a lot of benefits. It brings supporters together, it allows players—amateur and professional, young and old—to participate and it has important benefits for health and wellbeing. It is in that context that we need to stress the importance of looking after the wellbeing of our younger football players.

Against that backdrop, it is a real concern that we are still talking about the issues in the petition 10 years down the line. The reality is that they have been going on for much longer than when the petitioner brought the issue forward. It is shocking to think that young kids are exploited and not even paid the minimum wage by some of the football clubs that are well off, to say the least. The committee heard extensive evidence about that.

The registration system that Liam McArthur spoke about and the way in which clubs tied young players into registrations is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that young people at such a vulnerable age should be treated that way.

David Stewart also identified the issue of compensation payments. As one of the people who gave evidence to the committee said, compensation payments created something that was almost like a transfer market, which is an unacceptable way for clubs and players to be dealt with.

All those issues show that, as Gail Ross said in her opening contribution, the balance of power is all wrong. The balance of power rests with football clubs and, for too long, young players have not been treated properly.

The issue that the committee brings to the Parliament is this: after 10 years, what do we do now? There are two sides to it set: the football authorities and the Government. As Brian Whittle and Kenny Gibson said, there has clearly been an unwillingness on the part of the football authorities—the SFA and the SPFL—to take any responsibility. When it all goes well and we qualify for a major tournament, it is all very well for the football authorities to take all the plaudits, but when we have these fundamental issues at the grass roots of the game, they fail to address them. They have just ignored such issues over a long period of time, and that is simply not good enough, as was highlighted by the children’s commissioner.

The children’s commissioner also turns to the other issue of what the Government should do about this. Willie Coffey applauded the petitions system and said that it was great that people were able to bring such issues to the Parliament, but the fundamental question that we have to ask is what the Government and the ministers are going to do about it. I am sorry to say that I found the minister’s opening remarks inadequate. When Johann Lamont intervened, the response was that the Government will consider the issues and think about it. We have had 10 years for all that, and we need to know what the Government is going to do.

There are two things that the minister should do. First, he should use his leverage. When I listen to the sports news, I constantly hear reports about how the football authorities have another important meeting with Joe FitzPatrick. The minister has got their ear and he should get them to act on these issues, for goodness’ sake. Secondly, the minister should set out what regulations and legislation the Government is going to introduce. It is a scandal that the issues have been going on for so long and that our young people have been so badly treated. As a Government and a Parliament, we will be letting them down if we do not take the issues identified in the report to do something about them.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

The Scottish Conservatives welcome the report that was published by the Public Petitions Committee and we support its recommendations.

As a member of the Public Petitions Committee, I am pleased to speak in the debate. The petition has certainly stood out in terms of the wide-ranging issues that it has raised and which the petitioners have sought to address since 2010—some 10 years ago. I hope that the publication of the committee’s report will go some way to encourage further action, including the implementation of the recommendations, for the sake of young players who deserve the opportunity to succeed. For many young people, particularly in Scotland, football is a passion.

The petition has shone a spotlight on the importance of protecting young people in their pursuit of football in Scotland. It has presented the Public Petitions Committee with important and extensive issues in the SFA that have been explored carefully and sensitively by past members of the committee and by the clerks. I would like to join my colleagues in thanking the clerks for all their hard work in organising and collating submissions, reports and letters for the committee. Moreover, I thank all those who took the time to submit written evidence or give oral evidence. That evidence has served to explain and detail the processes and policies underpinning youth football clubs in Scotland, which has revealed many things and has been most appreciated.

I join my colleagues in welcoming the committee’s report and its recommendations. I welcome the support for the report from children and young people, too.

Steps have been taken in more recent years to update and improve the youth football system, for the purposes of greater clarity and enhanced security for young people. The SFA’s creation last year of the wellbeing and protection department and its accompanying strategy is a welcome move—not before time. I hope that that will, in practice, promote the highest safeguarding standards, transparently and across every level.

Moreover, I recognise that the youth football working group will help to ensure that young players are no longer prevented from joining school football teams as well as their club—although the committee feels that compliance needs to be checked regularly to ensure that that is applied across the board.

Further checking has also been recommended in relation to minimum wage rules. There have been reports of failings on the part of some clubs to pay their players the minimum wage—as has been recognised in the debate. I know that the SFA has worked to target the issue systematically, but it needs to do an awful lot more work. More frequent inspections of player contracts could enforce that more strongly. The SFA needs to address that.

The lack of clarity surrounding player registrations has been of particular concern to the committee. It is understandable that youth players and their families might be under the impression that the registration process is, in effect, the same as signing a contract. Even if it is not, in reality, an employment contract, the power of a club in holding a youth player’s registration leaves the player without some control and agency in following through their own decisions. We have talked about the power balance again this afternoon—it must be changed.

That is also the case with the questionable three-year registration period for over-15s. With rolling annual registration, young players face uncertainty at the hands of their club, which has the authority to keep a young player’s registration, therefore restricting them to an amateur level and not allowing them to progress. That has risked preventing young players from pursuing their dreams with professional clubs. The real worry is that that can hinder their development and limit their potential.

I welcome the SFA’s announcement earlier this year of a working group to review such rules for that age group. However, I am well aware that the last review, undertaken five years ago, has resulted in no meaningful change to date. As a member of the Public Petitions Committee, I hope that the next review will consider adapting the registration process to bring greater clarity and much-needed balance. The SFA and the SPFL should take cognisance of that.

In conclusion, I share my colleagues’ frustration at the slow—and perhaps reluctant—pace of change in youth football procedures in the SFA. Young people surely deserve greater protection and agency than they have had in the past. For that to happen, the Scottish Government must make decisions on how independent oversight can take place, and I look forward to hearing greater detail on that. External oversight may be the best way to ensure that safeguarding standards continue to be met consistently, and that any concerns that may call into question a young person’s wellbeing are fully resolved.

Finally, I say a big thank you to Willie Smith and Scott Robertson for bringing the petition to the Scottish Parliament 10 years ago, and I commend them for doing so.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

The debate has emphasised how important football at all levels is to Scotland. As members’ contributions have highlighted, most of us are football fans and we all want our national game to flourish. I thank Willie Coffey in particular for his helpful contribution, which was grounded in a deep understanding of the game at all levels.

It is evident from all the comments that we all want our national team, and clubs at all levels, to succeed. It is interesting that people sometimes talk about Scotland’s football clubs as being professional clubs and sometimes talk about them being community clubs. In general, the community club is your club; the professional clubs are the other clubs. All our clubs are important to our communities, whatever size they are: from the Rangers and the Celtics right down to the amateur game and the women’s game. All those clubs play a huge role in communities across Scotland, and we all want them to succeed.

I think that those ambitions are compatible with safeguarding the fundamental rights of the child and protecting their welfare and human rights.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

The minister might recall the battle that we on the Health and Sport Committee—I am not sure whether he was involved with the committee at the time—had with the SFA regarding child protection measures. The SFA was very reluctant to take responsibility and act on that issue, and it tried to pass the buck to other people. What confidence can we have in the SFA taking the issue seriously and bringing about real change now?

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Findlay for his question, because it is an important point. I was not in the health team at the time that he mentioned, so I do not have the direct experience of the matter that he has had.

The SFA personnel have changed since those days, so I can talk only about the people with whom I have recently had close relations—in particular, the president, Rod Petrie, and the chief executive, Ian Maxwell. I have confidence that they, and their colleagues at all levels in football, really care about the game and its importance to young players.

I also have confidence in the process that we have said that we will take forward, which I mentioned in answer to Johann Lamont’s intervention. The children’s commissioner is in the process of convening a meeting between ourselves, the SFA and the petitioners, and my hope is that, by taking the matter forward in that way, we will ensure that there is no buck passing. With everyone around the table, we can move forward with the clear intent of listening carefully to the contributions that have been made in the chamber today and looking at the findings from the Public Petitions Committee’s 10 years of work. That is all really important, and it is important that we move the process forward in partnership and in a collegiate way.

The message that the rights of the child are important has come across loud and clear from members on all sides of the chamber. Let me be clear: as I said earlier, the welfare of the child is paramount, and there is complete consensus across the chamber on that fundamental point.

The football authorities and clubs are ambitious for on-field success. They want to develop the very best players, and children will do whatever they can to pursue their dreams, as many folk have discussed, even if the odds of making it are tiny.

Rachael Hamilton spoke about the disappointment of a player not being selected, and that can be heartbreaking. People are often involved in sport because they want to succeed, but it is imperative for all competitive sports to ensure that people’s experience is positive, even if they are not able to join that tiny percentage who go on to the elite level of the sport, as Brian Whittle said.

As I said earlier, we need to strike a balance—one that safeguards the child and encourages clubs to invest in and develop the next generation of Scottish stars. That is not an insurmountable problem. We have strongly emphasised to the Scottish FA and the SPFL throughout this period that the concerns about the issue that have been expressed over the past 10 years and which are reflected in the committee’s report must be taken seriously.

Liam McArthur and Rachael Hamilton both mentioned the minimum wage. That is a matter for the UK Government, and it is the responsibility of HMRC to implement UK law relating to clubs and their wage structures, but that does not take away responsibility from the Scottish Government or from the SFA and SPFL. The SFA and SPFL both strongly encourage best practice across Scottish clubs, and I understand that the issues that have been raised in the past have been resolved. I encourage any players who still have concerns to contact their club, the SPFL and the Scottish FA. It is important for us to recognise that professional football players have a union, PFA Scotland, which is also able to assist.

I apologise—I am running out of time. David Stewart spoke about legislation, and it was a really important point—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am afraid that you do not have an awful lot of time for Mr Stewart. It would have been nice to have heard it, but you have run out of time.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party

Apologies. I think that the most important—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No—I gave you time for the intervention that you took, minister. Thank you. It is cruel, but it is just.

I call the convener, Johann Lamont, to wind up for the Public Petitions Committee.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I hope to benefit from your justice, not cruelty—but we shall see.

I am very proud to have the opportunity to sum up what has been a really important and substantial debate. I thank the committee’s deputy convener for so ably laying out the case that the committee has made, and I thank the committee clerks, who brought together such a wide range of issues into a coherent whole, which I think represents an important piece of work that we want to be taken forward.

I am conscious that, as convener, I am slightly more constrained in what I can say—which is unusual—but I might drop a note to the minister later about what he said about going “down” to the women’s game, although that is perhaps for another time.

I am struck by the extent to which members across Parliament agree that the issues are important not just for the footballing authorities, but for the Scottish Government. There have been some challenging speeches—for the footballing authorities and the Scottish Government—and both I and the committee, I am sure, trust that everyone will rise to that challenge.

We understand the role of football in our lives, and I profoundly believe that football at local and youth levels, along with sport more generally, will have a critical role to play, as we come out of the Covid crisis. I do not think that it is possible to overstate how important that is and how important it therefore is that we support football at local level to do that job.

The petition is driven by the desire to ensure that young people can enjoy playing football at whatever level, without becoming a by-product of commercial interests—so that, in searching for the elite, we do not abandon those who simply want to play the game. That is our challenge. Whether we are talking about a star who has come through the youth system or someone who simply wants to take part on a non-professional basis, protecting the rights and welfare of children and young people must be the number 1 priority. As Liam McArthur said, that must not be just a box-ticking exercise.

The petition predates my time as convener and is, indeed, the longest-running petition, as has already been said. I want to say clearly that that is not because of some kind of committee lethargy; it is because successive committees have recognised the significance of the issues. If there has been lethargy anywhere, it has been among those who refuse to take responsibility, as Brian Whittle mentioned, and among those who, as David Stewart said, have refused to show any degree of urgency when these matters have been raised with them.

The petition has also survived because of the energy of the petitioners, who have taken the word “persistence” to a new level. I am proud that Parliament has been able to respond to that.

The minister said that the issues are complex, but they are actually simple. There is a fear that we were, and are, witnessing a willingness by football clubs and the authorities to trade on the dreams and ambitions of young people and of those who care for them, and to encourage people to be complicit in their exploitation. That is unforgivable.

The committee has observed a huge power imbalance between football clubs and the young people who aspire to play for them. The committee is surprised that this must be said: young people under 16 should not be expected to sign exploitative multi-year contracts, and they should expect to be paid at least the minimum wage for their work. Everyone should be responsible for compliance with the law. The system for reimbursement of training costs should also be changed so that compensation is required to be paid only when a player signs their first professional contract.

All that seems so obvious, yet it has taken years to reach the point where it is recognised. I had expected that the Scottish Government would by now have the clear view that it supports the recommendations. I have heard what the minister said, but it is essential that the offered meeting must be on the understanding that the Government will look at how the recommendations can be taken forward.

There has been progress, but people should be aware that there have been claims of progress in the past. That has also been mentioned.

We have been concerned that the football authorities might try to sit out many of the issues that were raised in the petition until our work was concluded. If that was their strategy, it has not worked. I know that our work will continue.

James Dornan made an important point about wellbeing committees. The committee does not know whether those groups are effective. If progress is being made, it is essential that that matter be interrogated to see whether it is making a difference. I am confident, based on what the minister said, that the Scottish Government does not intend to sit this one out.

Willie Coffey said that football is reluctant to see the Government intervening. That should not be necessary. The petition has shone a light on unacceptable practices in football. There is recognition, as Mr Coffey said, that the time is up.

We should also note the role of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland. The commissioner has now engaged with the work and has provided the committee with an important briefing. The committee was critical of the view of the children’s commissioner, so we should recognise that progress.

We should also see the work in the broader context of safeguarding. As Neil Findlay highlighted, the Health and Sport Committee took that forward. The Public Petitions Committee wishes to highlight a number of points. There are questions about responsibility, accountability and the imbalance of power, and about seeing the matter in the broader context of safeguarding young people. It is not sufficient to say, “But we all love football,” as our answer to those questions. We have a responsibility to ensure that our football teams progress, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that, at their heart, football clubs and the football authorities understand their responsibilities.

The committee will look forward to having early sight of the work that the Scottish Government and those groups will do as they come together. I urge the minister not to wait until the crisis is over, but to use technology to have a meeting now, to ensure that the important work that has been identified by the Public Petitions Committee, and which has also been recognised in Parliament and beyond, can progress. Our young people, more than ever, are relying on that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate on improving youth football. There will be a short pause before we move to the next item of business.