[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:15 pm on 9th February 2012.

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Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport and the Olympics) 5:15 pm, 9th February 2012

I hope that the football authorities will step up to the plate and produce the right response at the end of the month, but if they do not do so, I suspect that the next stage will be for us to hand the formal consultation back to the Select Committee and to get it to look over it and then to seek a recommendation, if necessary, to go to legislation from there. I am keen to do that not only to recognise the Committee’s contribution to the matter, but because it is important that a clear message goes out to the football authorities that there is cross-party support for that, and that it is not a party political issue.

I will quickly run through some of the contributions from individual Members before concluding. The Chairman of the Select Committee spoke, as always, wisely, and is absolutely right that the core issue of the debate is reasserting the FA’s role as football’s governing body. There is a thought that it is some sort of representative organisation with power flowing up from the bottom. That is not my wish; it is not how other sports work; and I do not think that that is the way in which effective governing bodies work. The FA needs to have control of the national game.

I absolutely share the Committee Chairman’s desire to see a board of 10. We normally say that for good governance principles throughout sport we like boards to be between eight and 12, so 10 is perfect. It should have a much better mix of independent expertise, and represent the constituent interests in the game. In that way, the expertise of people who have had a lifetime of involvement in the game can be brought together with people outside who have independent expertise.

The reform of the council is absolutely important, as the Committee’s Chairman has said. It is there to be a parliament; it is not an executive body. He is absolutely right that the principle of financial fair play should underpin the licence. The full implications of the European ruling are as yet unclear. Lawyers are working on that issue and my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon is right to say that it will have an impact. What he and other hon. Members have said about supporters’ ownership is what we want to achieve. It is a spectrum with a dedicated fan or supporter liaison officer at one end, and supporters who sit on the board at the other. Different solutions will work in different ways for different clubs, but the current situation is clearly some way from where it ought to be.

Steve Rotheram—perhaps I should say the hon. Member for Everton and Liverpool football clubs—spoke passionately as always. He is right to concentrate on the make-up of football boards. Until we get right the corporate governance at the top of the game, little else will be achieved.

Mr Foster was right to speak powerfully about the importance of financial fair play, governance and licensing, and he will have an important role in moving forward the debate on supporters. The work that the Deputy Prime Minister is doing on shareholder involvement will be key to unlocking that issue. As well as encouraging football clubs to do something, we must encourage owners to make available more of their shares for supporters’ groups to buy. How we do that will be a key part of unlocking the debate.

Tom Greatrex, quite properly, paid tribute to the work of Supporters Direct, and I pay tribute to the work that he did during his time at Fulham. He is right to emphasise the crucial link between a club and its ground. Selling grounds is not always bad, but often it is, and the hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to that issue. My hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt, who was speaking in the main Chamber a moment ago, was right to congratulate her newly formed supporters trust. I wish her well in her discussions with HMRC. I agree that a community buy-out would be an exciting new chapter for her club.

I am not sure whether I should intervene in the private dispute between Wimbledon and Milton Keynes, except to pay tribute to the excellent community work done by both clubs involved. Siobhain McDonagh and I discussed the matter at some length in a recent Adjournment debate. I do not know enough about Blackpool football club or its owners, or indeed about chicken burgers, to comment at any length, but the situation described by Graham Jones is cause for concern. My hon. Friend Damian Collins made a powerful case for reform. No one would doubt the veracity of his remark that if we are to have a fit and proper person’s test, we need to know the person involved, and we should pick up on that in the new licensing proposals.

My hon. Friend Mark Field was right to draw attention to the importance of wages. I had not heard the figure of 60% of turnover, but it seems a prudent level. When one considers that that figure is 88% in the Football League—I think that was the figure given—one understands why, when asked what he thought was its biggest problem, its chairman simply replied: “Debt.” My hon. Friend also asked about an independent regulator for football. I think that the Committee considered that, although it is not something on which we are consulting at this stage—I hope that the Chairman of the Committee will correct me if I am wrong.

I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend Dr Coffey as a parliamentary fellow for the FA. She is right to draw attention to the excellent work done by David Sheepshanks at St George’s Park. There are always as many reasons to be cheerful about English football as there are to be miserable, and one of the great developments of the next few years will be the introduction of St George’s Park, and the way that it will turbo-charge the production of coaches and officials in the game at grass-roots level. It is an extraordinarily exciting development.

My hon. Friend Andrew Bingham spoke powerfully in favour of supporters’ representation. He must be the only person from my 10 years in the House who has described a Select Committee report as a thumping good read—a great tribute to the Committee’s Chairman. I thank Clive Efford for his contribution. As I said earlier, cross-party support is vital, and like him, I send my best wishes to those hoping to save Darlington football club.

We await a response from the football authorities by 29 February. So far, their approach has been encouraging and they have worked together constructively. I hope that they will produce something that will allow us to move on by the end of the month. It is fair to warn people that this is a complicated subject involving many different views and passions that are running high. If we are to achieve a solution by consensus—and I hope we do—we will need a bit of compromise and give and take from all sides.

I feel that good progress has been made on a licensing system. The principle is that an overall licensing system will be held by the FA, with a degree of subsidiarity to individual leagues. Progress has been made on tidying up the work of the council and shareholders, but reform of the board is proving more difficult.