Football Governance — [Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:29 am on 25th November 2020.

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[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield 2:30 pm, 25th November 2020

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new call list system and ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and dispose of the cleaning materials as they leave the room.

Members should speak only from the horseshoe and can speak only if they are on call lists. This applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the winding-up speeches. I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that they stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken, to help manage the attendance in the room. They may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that doing so may prevent Members in seats in the Public Gallery from speaking—I think we are all right with that today.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 2:31 pm, 25th November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of football governance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. There is nothing new about a debate in this place calling for change in the governance of football; too many of us have been here before. Times have changed, however, and there are many now joining the call for change. Covid has turned a spotlight on the weaknesses in the game’s governance and the inequity of the distribution of the game’s wealth.

Football is our national game: 14.5 million people attended premier league matches in the 2018-19 season, and 18.4 million attended matches in the championship. Premier league clubs generated £3.3 billion in tax revenue to the Government and contributed £7.6 billion to the economy in 2016-17. Throughout the country, football trusts play a role in supporting our communities. They lead in tackling racism, deprivation, sexual discrimination and many other social issues, and I pay tribute to every single community trust for the work they have done to support people in need during the covid epidemic.

The English leagues have a huge international following. Their popularity is the envy of many other countries and of the UEFA. I want to go on record as congratulating the premier league on its success, not just here in the UK, but by becoming a global brand of which we should all be proud. Football is so important to the nation, from local communities to being a major contributor to our national economy, that it is important on so many levels that we do not stand by and watch the pyramid that sustains it crumble.

Despite there being such enormous wealth in the game, that money is not distributed fairly—too much is absorbed at the top in players’ wages. The wage bill for the 14 premier league clubs, aside from the big six, is bigger than that of all the Bundesliga clubs put together. The salary arms war waged is entirely contained within the premier league and those championship clubs that overstretch themselves to try to get to the top division. It is unacceptable that premier league clubs can spend £1.2 billion on transfer fees while English Football League clubs are dangling over the abyss during this crisis. We cannot go on with this casino attitude to football’s success, and the time for regulation has come.

Although the Bury debacle showed that the professional game needs saving from itself, we also need to recognise that the money in football attracts some bad actors. Bury also showed that we must strengthen the rules to empower the authorities to keep corruption out of the game. Corrupt individuals circle around football looking for opportunities to make fast money. These people move in on vulnerable clubs and wait for their moment; when a genuine owner comes along, they tie the club up in knots, become an impediment to progress and then offer the would-be owner a deal to get them out of the way.

The football authorities and the Government must work together to change the rules and to legislate, if necessary, to protect football clubs and other sports clubs from this kind of criminality. The manner in which they operate might be within the law, but let us be clear that this is a fraud to extort money, and it must be stopped before more clubs fall foul of these crooks.

These problems existed before covid, but the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the governance of the game. The solutions extend far beyond what is needed to respond to the immediate crisis. There is no going back to business as usual, and the Football Association must become the regulator that it is meant to be. I commend the Football Supporters Association and Our Beautiful Game for the work that they have done in this area.

We need an independent review of the governance of the game, in which fans and all other stakeholders can participate. The Premier League has initiated a review on the back of the controversy surrounding Project Big Picture. The Government were wrong to dismiss Project Big Picture out of hand; it raised many issues that we will have to take on board and that are worthy of further consideration. Any future review will have to address issues such as future funding for women’s football, football for people with disabilities and football for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

The Premier League has chosen to reject Project Big Picture and conduct a strategic review that will have implications for the whole of football—for the FA, the English Football League, fans and players. Richard Masters, the chief exec of the Premier League, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 10 November that the 20 clubs on the PL board have agreed the terms of reference for the review. I wonder whether the Minister has seen the terms of reference, because I cannot find them anywhere. We are told that the review will involve fans, the English Football League and the FA. Have they seen the terms of reference? Can the Minister confirm that the Premier League’s review will be voted on by the 20 premier league clubs alone?

The current 20 shareholders of the Premier League find themselves in their respective positions of power by an accident of history, and it does not qualify them to make important decisions on behalf of the future of the game. By the time that the Premier League strategic review is voted on, three of them might have been replaced through relegation. Only five of the original 12 clubs that started the Football League are currently in the premier league. Should they have a say? Should the other seven that started the Football League have a say in the future of the game? Some 49 clubs have been in the premier league, which shows the extent to which the English Football League clubs have a stake in the premier league. Should they have a say in the strategic review?

The short-termism and self-interest that club owners have shown over the years excludes them from making decisions on behalf of the wider football family. I understand that premier league clubs will vote on the recommendations of the Premier League exec. I have nothing against the people in the Premier League exec, but I think they genuinely believe that they know best for the rest of us. They are unable to see the bigger picture, however, because they are blinkered by the business that they have to defend. They see the premier league, but we see football and its entire family. They believe that football is best run by the richest and most powerful clubs in the land, which have demands that go far beyond the domestic game—we would be foolish to ignore that fact.

The financial gains to be had from playing matches across Europe against similar clubs, packed with more of the biggest names in the game, are irresistible. The Champions League will grow in 2024, when the pressure on domestic fixtures will increase. We have already seen youth teams used in domestic cup competitions. We need to plan for that, not bury our heads in the sand and pretend business as usual will work.

In the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing on 10 November, we were told by Greg Clarke, who was still the chair of the FA, that for the big six clubs to break away from the premier league, they would need the approval of not only the FA, but FIFA and UEFA. The threat that comes from the big clubs moving away to some super league is not as great as some people would make it out to be, because they cannot dictate the terms of any future review of the game.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Both MPs for Bury are here, who have very strong views in respect of the Bury situation. When we are talking about governance, we have to decide who the footballing authorities are governing on behalf of. The problem with the Bury situation was that the EFL had no interest in protecting the interests of thousands of Bury fans. It had no interest in the social and economic impact that simply abandoning Bury to the wolves was going to have. We have to think very hard about what the fiduciary or first interest of the regulator is if we are going to have a new regulatory system.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I do not entirely agree with the hon. Member’s version of the events around Bury. I think the Football League would have taken action against individuals involved in Bury if it had the power to do so. I had long discussions with the Football League about a similar situation that arose at Charlton Athletic, which could have quite seriously gone down the same route as Bury. What the Taylor review really demonstrates—I have a copy of it—is that the rules need changing, so that the EFL has the powers to deal with those individuals. Some of the problems that arose with Bury arose before the individuals that we might have concerns about became involved, so it was a complex situation. This is the sort of thing that needs a fundamental review, so that we can ensure that the regulators of the game have the right powers to be able to deal with these situations.

We also need to consider whether clubs should have to register their accounts, with a projection showing how they will finance themselves for not just the current season, but the future season, including any contracts they have in place, such as players’ wages, during that period. There is a lot that can be done to improve the amount of information that clubs must provide to the regulator so that it has a racing chance of being able to oversee the game, and see where problems might arise.

The situation in the championship, where they spend 107% of their turnover on players’ wages, is ridiculous. That clearly needs regulating. It is driven, to some degree, by clubs that come from the premier league and have the solidarity money. However, the fact remains that to get into the premier league, some clubs are running huge risks, and we do not have the power in the regulations at the moment to prevent that from happening.

These changes have been highlighted by the Taylor review into Bury and things that have happened to other clubs, which shows that this is an area of regulation that needs serious looking into and needs change. I know how the EFL struggled to deal with the situation at Charlton Athletic, and it was on the side of the club all throughout that process, in my opinion.

The Football Supporters Association manifesto for change, “Saving the Beautiful Game”, the Premier League’s strategic review, the Taylor review into Bury and Project Big Picture—albeit that some people oppose some of the ideas in it—all highlighted one undeniable truth: that reform is necessary. Given all the competing interests that there are in this subject, the suggestion of an independent panel to take on the task of resetting the governance of the game is very attractive. The FA clearly needs fundamental reform, and the FA Council itself has passed a motion that commends the work of the Football Supporters Association and its manifesto for change.

The opportunity is there to bring about change in the governance of the game in this country. If the Government do not act, I suspect there is a Back Bencher in this room who will bring a Bill before Parliament to bring about that change. The Government can either be dragged along on the coat-tails of a private Member’s Bill, or they can lead the charge for change.

It is no longer acceptable to allow the Premier League to dominate the game in the way that it currently does. The Premier League has consistently and throughout this covid crisis shown that it is incapable of looking at the bigger picture, without looking first to protect its own interests. The time for change has come, and I hope the Government will support that call, get on board and help lead that change.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South 2:46 pm, 25th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend Clive Efford for securing this debate. Although I was born and grew up in the west midlands, my family, my friends and now my social media followers will know that I am a die-hard Liverpool fan. I have my dad to thank for that. That means that I know what it is like to care about the club and to go through the highs and, of course, the lows. While I am a Liverpool fan and I bleed red, I am also very proud to represent thousands of passionate Sky Blues fans, I am here today for them.

Coventry City has a long, loud and proud history. They were FA cup winners in 1987 and an inaugural member of the premier league. Following some difficult years, the club is again on the rise, having been crowned league one champions last season and now competing in the championship once again.

However, the club is also an important example of the need for fans to have a greater say in the running of their clubs. Although the club was initiating the plans to build a new, modern stadium at the turn of the millennium, its financial position meant that it did not own the newly built Ricoh Arena. That led to the club playing home matches at Sixfields Stadium—a 70-mile round trip to Northampton—in the 2013-14 season, before returning to the Ricoh the following season, thanks to a fantastic campaign led by supporters and the local paper, the Coventry Telegraph.

The club was once again forced to play home matches outside of Coventry in 2019, this time at St Andrew’s in Birmingham—a 38-mile round trip from the city. That is where the club plays its home matches now. Fans are forced to travel out of the city to watch their club. For them, it is an absurd, ridiculous and, frankly, disgraceful situation. The solution is simple. Coventry City football club should be playing football in the city of Coventry. Since being elected, I have been determined to do everything I can to help resolve this situation.

That is not the only issue affecting the club. The financial hit of the pandemic and the restrictions has been severe for football clubs across the country, including Coventry. The sport winter survival package announced last week failed to provide any support for the English Football League. As the Sky Blues chief executive, Dave Boddy, said this week, that puts the national sport at severe risk. He has written to the Prime Minister to say that the club, along with all English Football League clubs, has been hung out to dry by the Government. While premier league clubs have the wealth to weather the storm, and while there is hope that the Government will bail out the English Football League, clubs should not be in this position of financial insecurity.

There have to be guarantees and financial support for all of our clubs to survive. None of them should be at risk, and it should not be sink or swim. A football club is more than a business: it is part of the community, and for many people it is part of the social fabric that ties us together. That is why I wrote to the Secretary of State calling for this financial support.

The financial troubles of the English Football League clubs is part of a bigger problem and a bigger story. That story is about how the beautiful game has become divided between very wealthy clubs, brought up by billionaires and often used as public relations to sanitise their public image, and poorer clubs that struggle to survive and that often face collapse, as we have seen with Bury and Bolton.

Our football clubs are too important to be left in the hands of the likes of Mike Ashley and other bad owners, and too important to be at risk of financial collapse. I call on the Government to step in and ensure that Coventry City is given financial support to weather the storm, but I also call for more far-reaching reforms. Clubs should be run in the interests of the people who sustain them, who watch them week in, week out, who stick with them when times are good and also when they are not. They should be run for their fans.

I call on the Government to give fans control and a say in how their clubs are run, to give accredited supporters’ trusts representation on club boards, and to promote fan ownership models, because that is ultimately the only way the beautiful game will work for the people who love it the most. We must put control in the hands of fans, not of the wealthy few who seek only to enjoy its spoils.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe 2:50 pm, 25th November 2020

It is a pleasure to follow Zarah Sultana, and Clive Efford, who I will call my hon. Friend from our time working on the Select Committee together.

It is 10 years since, as a newly elected Member of Parliament and a new member of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I attended a Westminster Hall debate on football governance in the wake of the financial collapse of a number of big clubs. The room was packed, and on the basis of the tenets discussed in the debate and the impassioned speeches given, the then Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, initiated the inquiry into football governance that reported in 2011 and then again in 2013. During my time as Chair of the Select Committee, we looked at football governance in the context of player welfare in the case of Eni Aluko’s complaint against the Football Association. We also looked at the collapse of Bury football club just before the general election last year. The debate in this place has been running for many years, and remains unresolved.

We should be clear why we have this complaint about football governance and what it is that we are seeking to reform when we talk about improving the governance of the game. We want clubs to be financially sustainable because they are community assets. They temporarily belong to a businessman or an owner, but then someone else will acquire them. Most of the clubs have been going for more than 100 years; they have survived two world wars, the great depression and every crisis this country has faced in that time, and they have kept on going throughout, at the centre of their communities.

We want to ensure that fans have a voice in the way that their game is run. We want to ensure that player welfare is central to the administration of the game and that there are good systems of redress and complaints processes. One thing we learned from Eni Aluko’s case against the Football Association was that there were no proper processes for someone making a complaint of unfair treatment against the Football Association. We want to respect the fact that these are community assets. Their importance to the community goes far beyond putting on matches on match days. They are involved in all sorts of community support through player development, community welfare, adult education and training, and they are incredibly valuable to the communities they serve. That is what we are trying to preserve.

Why is the game is so badly run? It is because it is so fractured. We believe that the Football Association is the national governing body of the sport, but unlike in almost any other sport, in football the national governing body is not the financially dominant player in this country. In most sports, it is the national governing body and the revenue it gets from the England national team that provide the bulk of the revenue that that sport enjoys. In football however, it is the Premier League.

When we talk about the football family, as the Minister and the Secretary of State often do, it is from a belief that these are a community of interrelated clubs; they play competitions against each other but all ultimately sit under the Football Association, so they must be interlinked. In fact, they are not: the Premier League has its own set of rules, the Football League has its own set of rules, and the FA takes responsibility for the National League. They all have their own rules and procedures, and they are run in their own way.

The revenue from broadcasting is negotiated separately by the Premier League and the Football League—it was a bad decision that the Football League made many years ago to do that, but nevertheless, that is the case. Clubs in the Premier League, particularly in the lower part of the league, consider that they are competing against clubs in the Championship, particularly clubs that might get promoted and take their place. That is why it is so difficult to get a financial settlement for football from football during the covid crisis. Football does not behave like a family. Football behaves as different entities competing against each other.

In a typical season, a Premier League club will play under Premier League rules in the Premier League, under FA rules in the FA cup and under Football League rules in the League cup, and will probably also hold a UEFA licence in case it is in or wishes to qualify for UEFA competitions. All have their own different rules and procedures. No one is bringing it together and no one is ultimately responsible.

There are certain rules that are put in place to try to ensure that clubs are run sustainably, but whenever there is a crisis, we see how ineffective those rules are. The case of Bury football club and other clubs demonstrates that. If the clubs were made to trade within the rules of the league they play in, most clubs would not go bust. The fact is that they do not do that, because no one checks. There is no requirement to produce accounts in real time; the Football Association and the Football League do not have the ability to inspect and audit the clubs to ensure they are not overspending on salaries and that they are being run in a financially sustainable way. When there is a problem, there is no regulator to step in and say, “That club is being run in an unsustainable way, in breach of the rules, and we are going to intervene to put it back on track.” The club is allowed to be run in a bad way, often by a bad owner, until such point as it goes bust. The role of the league is to then make sure that if the club does not come out of administration, that club is suitably punished. In cases such as Bury football club, the first cry of the fans is always, “Why didn’t someone intervene earlier?” The fact is that there is no body that has the power and the authority to do that.

Many times people pray in aid an owners and directors test, to keep bad owners out of the game and out of clubs. The fact is that there is really no such test. That was demonstrated by Massimo Cellino, a convicted fraudster in Italy whose conviction was considered to be spent under UK company law. The Football League had no more right to stop him being a director of the club than they had to stop him being a director of any company under UK company law. There is no special test, but even if there were, the Football League does not have the resources to enforce it. In the case of Bury when it was in the Football League, the last owner took over the club without having to demonstrate proof of funds or being subjected to any test at all.

Why are things allowed to be this bad? It is principally because there is no national governing body or regulator overseeing all these rule books and how they are enforced, so the clubs effectively do it themselves. The Premier League is run by the 20 clubs in the Premier League, plus the League itself, which has one share. They make decisions collectively, without the involvement of the Football Association. The Football League is run in the same way, by the 72 chairmen of the clubs. They are less interested in intervening to help each other than they are in competing against each other. They are run in that way, which is unsustainable. No one is ultimately in control, which is why the rules do not get enforced properly.

There is a strong argument that we should have a regulator with statutory powers—one that has the right to insist on access to financial records to make sure clubs are playing within the rules, as Ofcom has when broadcasting licences are issued. It would have a discretionary power to tell an owner who cannot demonstrate proof of funds, or who is not suitable or credible, that they cannot take over a club.

We have called for that before. The fan-led review, which was in our manifesto and which the Government are committed to, should give a view on whether we have an independent regulator with statutory powers at the centre of the game, even if all that regulator does is make sure that the leagues properly enforce their own rules and have access to clubs’ finances to make sure they are doing that.

Some people say, “Well, you can’t have a statutory regulator, because FIFA rules don’t allow it,” but that is not true. In 2015, the FIFA rules allowed the Spanish Government to legislate to say that Barcelona and Real Madrid could not sell their TV rights separately. In France, the country of the current world football champions, the national governing body is a statutory body, effectively given a licence by the French Government to carry out its responsibilities. In Germany there are rules on club ownership that require 50% plus 1% to be owned by the fans and the community. All clubs are licenced by the German football league, which can withdraw the licence if the club is trading in breach of the rules. Other countries do this already, so there is no reason under FIFA rules why we would be sanctioned if we created a regulator with statutory powers. I believe that is what we should be looking at in this review.

The Government have a great deal of leverage at the moment because football needs their help. There is still no deal between the Premier League and the Football League to provide financial support for clubs. As many Members know, the Football League has warned that clubs will go bust. I know the Minister and his colleagues say that the Premier League has guaranteed to bail out clubs that go bust, but at the moment there is not enough money available to do that. Indeed, the tax liabilities of the Football League clubs are now around £100 million owed to the Treasury, so the Government already have skin in the game. They are owed money, as are other people.

The Government are in a position where, if they were to put money on the table alongside money from the Football League, they could do so with strings attached. They could demand reform, such as proper financial accountability overseen by an independent regulatory body. That should be at the heart of the proposal considered in the fan-led review, and it is what football needs now. Rather than having a series of warring competitors, competing and fighting against each, we would have a structure with a proper governing body at its heart that has power to take action against clubs that are being run badly and unsustainably. The covid-19 crisis has challenged many aspects of our life and exposed the systemic weaknesses in the governance of football in this country. We now have the opportunity to put that right.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 2:59 pm, 25th November 2020

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend Clive Efford for bringing this debate. As he said, football is our national game. We invented the modern sport of football, and it is popular around the globe with millions of people watching.

Despite covid-19, the Premier League remains in a strong position. Those running the Premier League have managed to generate previously unthinkable levels of income through commercial deals. Yet much of that money leaks out of the game, to agents or, more pertinently for this debate, to owners. Much of the money washing through the game does not get reinvested in it. Although we have had some £600 million invested in grassroots football over the past couple of decades, thanks to the Football Association and the Premier League, that is less than premier league clubs spend in one transfer window. While my constituency has benefited, with great new facilities at Neston High School and the Vauxhall Sports Club, which, for the record, I occasionally play on when circumstances allow, there is still a long way to go. Beyond that investment, we have too many second-rate pitches, which are rendered unusable by a day or two of heavy rain. Our grassroots facilities still compare unfavourably with those in top footballing nations. Only one in three of our grass pitches are of adequate quality. We only have half the number of 3G pitches that Germany has.

We know the pressures local authorities are under to balance the books. There is little left for discretionary spending on improving sporting facilities, which means that pitches are often left with poor drainage, resulting in some areas of the pitch having more mud than grass, and little or nothing in the way of changing facilities. In many ways, the pitches of today are worse than the ones I played on as a child. More of the money in the game needs to reach the grassroots level.

The money does not reach the fans either. It does not manifest in cheaper entrance tickets or support for other clubs. One only needs to look at my team, Manchester United, to see where a lot of the money goes. Since they took over in 2005, using money to buy the club that they subsequently attached to it as a debt, the Glazers have taken over £1 billion out of that club in dividend interest and finance costs. If ownership models are to be reformed, I would like to see that model of ownership banished for ever. That £1 billion did not have to leave the game. Perhaps some of the struggling clubs we have discussed would have survived if the money had been more equitably distributed.

We need to think about the wider health of the game. A few clubs at the top are getting richer and richer, or, as in the case of my club, the owners are getting richer and richer, but at the other end we hear of clubs that are struggling just to survive day to day.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Does the hon. Gentleman think there is a strong case for financially powerful and sustainable clubs, such as Manchester United, taking a charitable view with neighbouring clubs that are struggling financially and need direct help? Bury is approximately half an hour from Old Trafford. Does he think we should put in place mechanisms for premier league clubs to help clubs in financial difficulties lower down the pyramid, especially if they are geographically close and have other links?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

There is nothing to prevent that from happening now. Manchester United’s reserve games used to be played at Gigg Lane, providing a financial benefit for the club. I have been persuaded that we need to formalise this help, because I am concerned about some of the strings attached to the recent discussions on support for league clubs. I think the inequality of distribution of money has highlighted clearly why the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said earlier this year that the current business model for football is unsustainable.

As Damian Collins highlighted, the governance of football in this country is unlike any other. The financial muscle of the Premier League, which has an income 12 times that of the FA, distorts everything else. The financial power it has must be used more widely for the greater good. Recent developments suggest that the Premier League understands that and recognises it has a financial responsibility to the rest of the game. However, I hope I will be forgiven for being a little cynical about Project Big Picture and what it really meant.

The extra cash for Project Big Picture would have been welcome in the short to medium term, but the strings attached to it and the further concentration of power that were part of the deal could only, I think, come with a huge health warning. What was being proposed would have baked in an uneven playing field, because the price of that extra cash was preferential votes for longer serving clubs, thereby ensuring that the interests of football as a whole would forever be dictated to by the biggest clubs. The proposals would have meant a reduction in the size of the Premier League, and so naturally less opportunity for promotion to it. The league cup and community shield would also have been cancelled. Premier League clubs would have been playing fewer games overall—except that they probably would not have been.

The reduction in the number of fixtures might have been designed not to ensure that elite athletes in the Premier League got extra rest between games, but to pave the way for a European super-league that, in the long run, would hoover up all the power, all the attention and all the money. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham said that it would not be easy to establish such a super-league, but in the last 25 years we have seen enough in football to know that, in the end, money talks. The Premier League clubs would have got their way.

I fear that the proposed change in voting rights would ultimately have meant that the domestic game would have become subservient to the interests of the 20 or so clubs that would have been part of the European super-league. Entry to that super-league would, of course, be by invitation only. The massive financial imbalance that already ensures that the biggest clubs tend to participate in the champions league each year would also have had an additional lock on it to make sure that the biggest clubs could never fall out of it. I could, of course, be wrong about that. The Premier League could offer the support without any strings attached. Discussions are ongoing so let us see what happens.

There is no doubt that a new strategic review is under way, and that may result in some of the benefits without some of the downsides. The concern highlighted in the debate demonstrates the reason we need an independent body to regulate football and ensure that all decisions made are in the interests of the game as a whole. We have all expressed that concern. As my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana said, every team is a big part of the community. The owners are transient, but fans and supporters are there through thick and thin, in good times and bad, whoever is the owner. Football clubs need to be treated much more as a community asset and less as a business as they have been for far too long.

My final point, Ms Fovargue, relates to agency reform and control. A study of agency fees paid by Premier League clubs between October 2015 and January 2016 revealed that £46.5 million was paid to agency intermediaries. That is money that is leaving the game altogether. Frankly, I would like to outlaw agency fees altogether, but I am sure that will not happen. Those figures demonstrate there are huge sums in the game that do not benefit even the highly paid players; the money certainly does not benefit the clubs or the wider community. Let us do something about that as well when we reform football governance, which I hope we are going to do.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North 3:08 pm, 25th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, I congratulate my friend, if I can call him that, Clive Efford on securing the debate. I have had the opportunity to speak to him about Charlton Athletic before, so I know he is a very learned and experienced man in these matters.

It goes without saying that this is a raw subject for us in Bury. It is genuinely hard to put into words what the loss of Bury football club has meant to the community. It has had a detrimental impact on thousands of people’s lives, and very few things can do that. Very few things link people, regardless of their age, sex or background, and people came together each week in a collective, positive atmosphere to support Bury. That has been taken away from them.

This is a debate about football governance. We have a system in place, but if we as MPs are going to look at what should be there or what we would recommend, we have to ask, “What is the purpose of governance?” Other points have been well made about how we see football clubs: are they just individual businesses like WH Smith or Barclays bank? Are they simply businesses to be regulated on that basis? I am a supporter of Bury football club but not a fan—there is a difference. They are entities that survive because of that loyalty and an emotional connection between them and their supporters. One can hardly argue that we go to WHSmith because of an emotional connection.

I am only using that as an example, but it is an important example. Earlier I asked the hon. Member for Eltham—and it was a genuine question—who any governance would be on behalf of. He said it would be on behalf of the game, but the game is a very wide thing and lots of people have very different interests in it. One person could be involved in supporting Manchester United, which plays in the premier league and all the other things it competes in, whereas Bury’s major ambition is essentially to stay afloat—to simply survive in the league it is in and have a sustainable business model to support its local community. If we as MPs were to recommend statutory regulation, we would say that the first duty of the regulator must be to the fans: the people at each and every club in the country who pay their money every week to go and watch their team. This is about what is in their interest. Bury is the example, right or wrong, of the monumentally detrimental effect of the loss of a football club.

As with everything else, the pandemic has had a huge effect on EFL and non-league clubs—I will leave the premier league to one side for a second. I agree with everything my hon. Friend Damian Collins said. Although I am tempted to read out his comments about Bury football club from when he was Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I will restrain myself from doing that, because I think we all know what they are. However, football clubs in the lower leagues have been run in an incredibly bad manner. There were players at Bury football club earning £10,000 a week when the crowds were 3,000 or 4,000, which simply is not sustainable.

We have a badly run model that has not been regulated. Indeed, I wonder why the EFL exists if it cannot step in and question these business models, which it knows are unsustainable, including before the pandemic. Half the clubs are running at monumental losses. I mention Rochdale football club only because prior to the pandemic, or certainly at the start of it, it had to have a £1 million loan from its local council, while issues with the ownership of Wigan, Ms Fovargue, have clearly come to the fore in recent months. These are ongoing issues.

We therefore have to be clear that the EFL, or whoever the regulator is, needs to take a strident and stringent approach and must have access to the financial records of a football club and also the financial background of the owner. Cursory examination of the business history of Steve Dale, the current owner of Bury football club, may well have rung some alarm bells with any regulator. In a normal, functioning system, Mr Dale would clearly not have been allowed to take over Bury football club.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with the Football League system is that it is run by people like Mr Dale? It is run by the chairs of the clubs, regulating each other. They do not want people sticking their noses into the way they are running their clubs because if it is done for one club, it will be done for another.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Absolutely, and that is why I would very much support statutory regulation, if that is a possibility, because I see it as the only way of protecting the interests of fans such as those of Bury.

My last point is that, while the pandemic has also shone a light on that business model, the question is how we can work within the system to create football clubs that are not merely the businesses that predatory owners and others have viewed them as, but become community assets that sit within their communities and have direct links to other important facilities. I have had the opportunity since I became an MP to speak with my hon. Friend the Minister on a regular basis. My view, which might not be a palatable suggestion for many owners, is that we have to look at a partnership model whereby football clubs work hand in hand with, for example, the local college or statutory services of some kind so as to bring as many things as possible into the club, because of its unique position at the centre of the community, and allow as wide a group of people as possible to benefit from being able to see their local football club, with the loyalty and pride in their area that that gives them, while also using it as a force for social change.

I was in a meeting yesterday where we talked about youth hubs, armed forces hubs and mental health hubs, so why do we as politicians not work with local people to get facilities set up and ensure that the models are financially stable? I hope that that is a sensible suggestion that people will consider. For someone from a Conservative background, the idea of going in and imposing rules and restrictions on what are private enterprises is not something that comes easily to me, but I know that it is necessary based on my experience of the impact that Bury’s closure has had on its poor fans.

My final comment is that getting Bury AFC, the phoenix club, to where it is has been a wonderful achievement, and I give due credit to those involved, but the Bury Football Club Company Ltd still exists. The club that has been there for 130 years and won the FA cup still exists. We and the EFL, as the regulator, should do everything to help Bury get back to Gigg Lane at the earliest opportunity. Thank you, Ms Fovargue, for allowing me to speak for this length of time.

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Conservative, Bury South 3:15 pm, 25th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and I thank Clive Efford for suggesting this important topic for debate, particularly as the MP for Bury South. I will echo many of the comments of my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend James Daly about not only the demise and expulsion of Bury, but the heartbreak caused to the community.

I speak today not only as a football fan, but as a former referee, so I already know a bit about the hatred in the game. However, the hatred that I was victim to was mainly the result of a wrong red card or penalty, and it was forgotten shortly after the game. What we have seen with Bury goes deeper, and at its heart is the absence of the game and the absence of a community hub. Our football clubs are not just there for a Saturday afternoon when we long for the hope of promotion or a cup victory, but somewhere we congregate and meet friends. Supporters feel a sense of identity through being part of a club.

I was at a meeting yesterday about saving the beautiful game and the future of football and—I say this as a Manchester United fan, and I think it was highlighted by Justin Madders—certain methods of ownership clearly are not for the benefit of the club or the fans. While I would love to say, “Glazers out,” it is clear that they have taken far more out of the club than they have ever put in or ever intend to put in, and that is happening at the height of the premier league. When we get to the lower leagues—Bury being a prime example—we have owners who should not even be running a local company, let alone a football club, yet they are allowed to do so much to the detriment of our community. The Steve Dale fiasco will not be forgotten—it can never be forgotten —and should never be repeated.

We all talk about the fit and proper person test, but my hon. Friend Damian Collins highlighted that there is no fit and proper person test. Providing they have the money, almost anyone can own and run a football club. However, there was no evidence that Steve Dale even had the money in the first place, so what real reason did he have to own the club other than wanting to make a quick buck at a town’s expense? We need to ensure that not only is there regulation behind the fit and proper person test to begin with, but that it permeates down to the lower leagues.

We must focus on what is arguably the most important thing about football: the fans. Without the fans, there is no football, because no one will go to watch the games. If we are not watching the games, there is no money. The review of football needs to be driven by fans. Every club’s supporters trust needs to have a voice and a meaningful say. As a Manchester United fan, the past few years have not been particularly easy, so I have focused much more on grassroots football and Bury AFC. While those involved in the phoenix club should rightly be proud, it is not the same. It is not Gigg Lane, and it is not getting football back in the heart of the whole community. I go to Radcliffe and the Neuven Stadium whenever I can. Although I am yet to see Bury AFC, when fans are allowed back I am sure that I will go one Saturday with my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Bury North.

We need to recognise that there is no football governance if there is no football. As we come out of lockdown and enter new restrictions, there are huge parts of the country where fans might not be able to go to games. If football is about the fans, is there any point in resuming those games? We have to start thinking about how to get fans back in a meaningful way—not only home fans but away fans, too. For a supporter, there is nothing quite like getting up at the crack of dawn to go on a nice, long journey to the north-east, only to then see their team get beaten. We need to get the fans back ASAP. My hon. Friend the Minister and I have spoken about football many times, including previously when he was my Whip and now that he is a Minister. I emphasise that we need to get the fans back, because if they do not have a club to go back to, what is the point in discussing governance? That is the message I want to get across. In tier 1 and tier 2 there is hope at the end of the tunnel for the future of clubs, but in tier 3 we are still in the tunnel and there is no light. We need to address that.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:21 pm, 25th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue, and to speak in this debate alongside so many expert Members, particularly my hon. Friend Clive Efford, who secured it. When I first entered the House in 2010, my football club, the champions Liverpool, were experiencing turbulence with their ownership, and my hon. Friend gave me expert advice. I was a new and, probably, naïve Member, but I have always listened to everything he says about football, particularly on the subject under discussion, not least because he, as my predecessor as the shadow sports Minister, wrote all of our policies in 2015, and they remain our policies. There is no better person in this House—[Interruption.] It would have been nice if we had won an election, but that is another story.

It would have been good, as Damian Collins said, if action had been taken on some of the policies when the cross-party coalition was formed all those years ago, but that did not happen. As the years have gone by, there has been no improvement in the regulation of football, despite that very clear cross-party coalition, which is represented in this debate. I think that we are now on the same page.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham also mentioned the importance of regulation in the women’s game and in disability and LGBT+ football, and I think that has cross-party support, too. We are on the same page now. All parties are calling for it and every manifesto in the December election mentioned it. Labour and Conservative Members are as one in wanting it to happen.

I will briefly summarise the arguments made by colleagues across the House, but before doing so I want to flag to the Minister the very important question Christian Wakeford asked about the return of supporters to stadiums. This is a crucial moment for football supporters, for clubs and, indeed, for players, most of whom I think are desperate to have fans back in stadiums. We all understand the public health situation. I want to flag to the Minister—he will be thrilled to hear this—that I have sent him a letter with a number of questions. He cannot answer them now because he has not seen the letter, but I am sure we will discuss the issue in the coming days, as it is a very high priority.

We cannot talk about this subject without discussing the serious, detrimental impact that the covid-19 pandemic has had on football. Nobody looking at the current situation would conclude that we do not have a crisis on our hands. I repeat the point made by Members across the Chamber that football is not a business like any other. There are some in our country who still want to think that it is a business like any other, but they are not to be found here today and I do not think they would be found anywhere in the House of Commons. If we look at what has happened during the pandemic, we know that that is not the case. Football has a public purpose. We have seen that in the commitment that football and its community trusts have shown in their dedication to their local communities.

I think it was James Daly who said that if a football club goes bust, it is not like any other shop. People do not just go and support another one. It is part of an individual’s identity—part of who they are. So many people in the country know that.

I have seen the vital work that football clubs do in my own borough of Wirral. All our grassroots clubs are amazing. They are led by our very own Tranmere Rovers, which is phenomenal. It was up and running with a food delivery service before anyone else had got their boots on, when we were all worried about people who were sheltering. I take great pride in all the work that it does and I know that everybody in the Wirral feels the same, but we are not alone. Everybody in our political world and our community would acknowledge the role that football clubs play in building that sense of identity and community spirit, and we have to make sure that these vital community hubs survive the crisis.

The other thing that covid has done to our national game is to reveal, if we did not know it already, the deep financial problems at the heart of the game’s structure. It has exposed the vacuum of constructive leadership across the game. We need to sort that out in the public interest, for the fans that the game serves. They deserve it. They put a lot of time and effort into supporting football and they deserve action from us.

I am worried that if we do not get on with that task quickly, the process will be kicked into the long grass and that would not be to the benefit of fans. The covid pandemic makes the fan-led review more urgent, not less. There is no point coming up with a temporary fix solution and then for all of us to be back here—no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham will be bringing another debate—next year and the year after that and in five years’ time, and still be saying, “We have a problem at the heart of the finance and the governance of the national game.” Now is the right time to bring this forward and I would like to see the Government prioritise it now.

Hon. Members have mentioned all the clubs that have seen challenges. I know that you, Ms Fovargue, will no doubt be full of anxiety for the future of Wigan Athletic. It is an important and historic footballing institution in our region in the north-west of England. That situation has really made the case.

Other Members have talked about Bury. I visited Bury in December, for reasons that will be obvious. I was struck then at the absolute devastation at the idea of football not returning to Gigg Lane. There is, of course, the other side to the Bury story—AFC Bury—which shows how capable football fans are, given the chance.

We are now in a situation where clubs are losing between £30,000 to £100,000 per game on gate revenue in the lower leagues. As the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe pointed out, they owe some £77 million in unpaid taxes, so the Government absolutely have skin in the game and need to sort this out. It has been reported that nearly 10 clubs are in danger of not being able to pay their staff on an ongoing basis.

We need a radical overhaul. Only a fan-led review can do it with the right people at its heart. I really think that the fans are capable of doing such a review and should be given a leading role.

The other reason why the fans and the public need a leading role is that if we think that this situation will be sorted out from within football, we would be engaging in a collective fantasy. It is not going to happen, partly for the reason that was discussed in response to the hon. Member for Bury North, who is no longer in his place. He said that the EFL or whoever the regulator is needs to sort it out, but as the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe pointed out, most football is run by the owners of the clubs, many of whom are not unrelated to the problem that we are trying to deal with.

This is not a unique situation. Football is not the only industry in our country we have ever had that has had such structural problems. In 2008, many people said that the problems within the banks were very complicated, which they were, that our banking sector is part of a global industry, which it is, and that it would be very challenging for the UK to deal with the re-regulation of the banking industry—but we did it. We took global institutions that had lost track of their local community purpose, and we put new regulations in place to make them much more stable. The question is this: for football, who is the Bank of England, and what is the counter-cyclical buffer that we need to require of clubs to stabilise them? Honestly, I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of the UK Government to do that.

This pandemic has profoundly shocked all aspects of our country—football as much as any other part—and we will all be judged on how we facilitate and encourage recovery. We have said that Members have been at this for a decade. For nearly 10 years we have been unable to resolve it. Finally, we are all on the same page and have the real possibility of absolute cross-party agreement. I believe it is incumbent upon us to just get on with it.

There are plans developed and written, not least by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which has done an excellent job of work. We just need to pick them up and run with them. We need political will for that, and I believe that between us the Minister and I could show that political will. In such debates, it is customary for the shadow Minister to give the Minister a long list of detailed questions. I do not have a long list of questions about this; I have just one. Conservative MPs promised the electorate a fan-led review of football in their 2019 manifesto. Where is it?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 3:32 pm, 25th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. Hopefully, I got the pronunciation broadly correct—perhaps it is easier to say Madam Chairman. I am very grateful to Clive Efford—hopefully I got that correct as well—for introducing the debate, and for the contributions that he and other hon. Members have made on what is broadly a consensual, cross-party matter, as Alison McGovern just articulated. Of course, everybody today, as always in these debates, has spoken with great passion and great knowledge, reflecting how important this issue is right across the country to all of our constituents.

Football is of course our national game. It is a vital part of many of our lives, from playing the game in our local parks to watching our favourite teams on the terraces. However, it is not just on the pitch but off the pitch that football plays such an important role. The incredible work, as the hon. Lady and others mentioned, that football clubs have done during the pandemic has demonstrated that importance once again. From turning their car parks into NHS testing centres through to delivering food packages to the vulnerable, they hold a very special place in our local communities. It is vital that they are protected, as my hon. Friends the Members for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), for Bury North (James Daly) and for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) mentioned. Indeed, everybody mentioned the importance of these clubs in our local communities.

Many football clubs have benefited from the Government’s support packages over the past few months in this incredibly difficult period. The Treasury estimates that around £1.5 billion of public funds has gone into sport since the beginning of the pandemic. As well as the £300 million sports winter survival package that we announced last week, over £200 million from Sport England has gone into grassroots sport, and additional money has gone into various other schemes, such as furlough, grants and reliefs over a period of many months.

However, I do not underestimate how many sports clubs, including football clubs—even some in the highest tiers—are still in incredibly tight financial circumstances. Of course, we have worked closely with football throughout the pandemic, getting it back behind closed doors and getting live premier league matches on the BBC for the first time. The premier league is, as the hon. Member for Eltham and others mentioned, one of our most important soft power assets. It is the most watched and supported football league in the world. English clubs have been some of the most successful in the game, and I hope that continues.

However, that success is built on the strength of the entire football pyramid. Just look at the 49 different clubs that have played in the premier league since its inception in 1992. Everybody will be aware, as has been mentioned several times, that the Premier League and the EFL are currently in discussions about a support package. I am pleased that the Premier League has made it clear that it will not let any EFL club fail due to the pandemic—something that I hope Zarah Sultana particularly notes. I have had assurances, including just this morning, that significant progress is being made on an agreement for a financial support package for EFL clubs. While Premier League and EFL executives are in close and regular contact, ultimately it will be up to the individual clubs to approve any deal. I encourage and appeal to them to play their part, because ensuring that a support deal is in place is vital for English football.

A crucial step toward sports recovery is the return of fans, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South mentioned. I was therefore delighted that we were able to announce on Monday the return of spectators in tiers 1 and 2 from 2 December, with capacity limits and social distancing.

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Conservative, Bury South

Although I welcome the announcement on tiers 1 and 2, areas such as mine are anticipating going into tier 3, with further easements planned for household bubbles over Christmas. Will the Minister ensure that football can come home for Christmas, and make sure that the good, long-standing tradition of a Boxing Day derby can continue?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Everybody wants to make sure that football can come back in as many places as possible; my hon. Friend and others have made similar appeals. We are all waiting to find out the tiering system over the next few days, and the implications then for each of our regions, but the intent is to open as much as possible. I look forward to receiving another letter from the hon. Member for Wirral South, and I shall be happy to respond to her. We have regular correspondence, formally and informally, and I think it is good for sport that we have this open communication. I have no problem with her asking questions, and I will do my best to answer them as fully as I can.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

I think we are all pleased to hear the Government say that there are conditions under which fans can come back, but does the Minister agree that it could be unfair for clubs that do not have their fans in the background to compete against those that do, particularly when those clubs are in a very distressed financial position? What financial compensation will be available to clubs that may play most of the season without any fans in their grounds at all?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but we do need to start taking these baby steps toward opening as much of the economy, and of course football and sport, as possible. Logic would dictate that if we cannot open everything everywhere, then we should not open at all. Of course, we need to open as much as possible where we can, and support measures were announced last week for the national league. Fans have been able to attend non-elite sport for some time; we have allowed fans in stadiums and that will continue. On the elite side, I think as much as possible is absolutely key.

The deal between the EFL and the Premier League will be an important part of the dynamics of financial support. Nobody knows exactly where will be open when, or to what extent it will help with the financial circumstances, but I hope and have confidence that those elements and considerations will be part of the support package determined by the EFL and the Premier League; it must have some element of dynamism in that.

Another vital step is the resumption of grassroots sport from 2 December across all tiers, including the highest risk areas with some mitigation. Grassroots sport will return, and this will benefit the health and wellbeing of people right across the country. Further guidance on this will be published shortly.

While the pandemic has exacerbated some of the issues within football, it has not created them. Several hon. Members have expressed frustration about the groundhog day element to the discussion we are having today. It is absolutely clear that reform is needed in the national game, and has been needed for some time. That is why the Government are committed to a fan-led review of football governance. I will come to the question asked by the hon. Member for Wirral South in a moment.

The pandemic has highlighted the problems of football governance and finance—I have said repeatedly that the two are intrinsically linked. We cannot divorce governance from the finances, and I can confirm that we will look into this relationship as part of the governance review. The Secretary of State and I started this conversation last week, when we hosted a roundtable of key football stakeholders to discuss the future of the game. That discussion was lively and constructive, and it raised a number of ideas. Informally, therefore, the review of governance has already started, and this debate is contributing to it. We will announce the formal governance review in due course, but we certainly have no intention of kicking it into the long grass.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Is the Minister therefore able to put the review’s terms of reference into the public domain?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

When we determine the terms of reference and the actual scope, we will obviously let the House know; it is vital that we do so. At this moment in time, we are considering all options and ideas. Many entities have come forward with suggestions that have good and bad elements and strengths and weaknesses, but it is important that we keep an open mind. I will certainly ensure that I am open to any constructive ideas as I go into the review. We will be working on the scoping, timing and remit of the review, and we will announce that in due course. I am well aware of the huge interest in it. As the hon. Lady said, all parties are keen to support it.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

In the review that the Minister talks about, where does the strategic review that has been announced by the Premier League sit? It said that it is going to be drafted by its executive and voted on by the 20 member clubs. Has the Minister seen the terms of reference for that review, and does it cut across these discussions?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Of course, the strategic review of the Premier League, which is a separate private entity—it is not an arms-length body—is rightly and justifiably entirely down to it. Its ideas and suggestions, and whatever the outcome of that review is, will be of great interest to me and the Government, but it is separate from the grassroots review of governance that we committed to in our manifesto and that others support. It is down to it to determine the scope of the review. I understand that it will be consulting with the English Football League. I absolutely commit that our review will involve and engage the Premier League, the EFL and many other stakeholders. The precise scope of that review is entirely down to the Premier League, and it is right that it does that.

At the roundtable last week, I was particularly keen to hear the thoughts of the Football Supporters Association, with which I have had constructive conversations. It is crucial that any reforms to the game have the backing of the fans, who, after all, are the lifeblood of the sport. It is interesting that Project Big Picture did not have the support of the Football Supporters Association, although, as I said earlier, I recognise that any proposals coming forward will have strengths and weaknesses.

In 2016, the Government set up an expert working group on football supporter ownership and engagement, which led to some great improvements in club engagement with fans, and the Premier League and EFL now require clubs to meet supporters at least twice a year to discuss strategic issues, giving fans the opportunity to shape the direction of the club. I am well aware that this is a great passion of the hon. Member for Eltham. He has contributed to the debate over many years and campaigned for greater involvement and engagement of fans. Of course, there is still a lot more to do, and that will form an essential part of the governance review.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

I appreciate that my hon. Friend says that the full terms and conditions of the review are yet to be agreed, but if the fan-led review recommends an independent regulator, will the Government give proper consideration to that recommendation?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

It is very important that I do not predetermine the outcome of the review, but all reasonable and sensible ideas are welcome, as I have said. I would not like to say that we will look favourably or unfavourably at any individual component part at the moment, because that would be pre-empting the outcomes of the review, and of course circumstances could change things.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

I will phrase it slightly differently. What I want to know is whether the idea of an independent regulator outside the scope of the fan-led review, or are fans free to submit ideas about that to which the Government will at some point respond?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

My hon. Friend will forgive me for not pre-announcing, before we have it written anything down, the scope of the review or the outcome of it. What I can say is that I am personally very keen to make sure the scope of the review is broad. Any sensible, viable and reasonable ideas will be welcome. I know that is a somewhat obscure caveat, but we all know that some proposals can be unrealistic or bizarre. I suspect that any realistic and sensible proposal, looking at models that are deployed and adopted by other countries, for example, will form part of the review. I am coming into the review with a very open mind, as is the Secretary of State. I can assure my hon. Friend of that, but he will forgive me if I cannot really be pressed any further on the scope of the review before it is announced. I am well aware of the strength of feeling and the enthusiasm across the House to make sure that we get the scope determined as soon as possible.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister for his tolerance. Just to give those who are following this debate closely an idea on the terms of reference, the scope and the important issues that have just been mentioned by Damian Collins, are we thinking of a month, two months, or after Christmas? Can the Minister give us an idea?

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I sincerely appreciate and understand the hon. Lady’s persistence in this matter, but I have to say that we will be announcing the scope of the review in due course. She knows as well as anybody else the enthusiasm in this House for getting that review going as soon as possible.

On the issue of women’s football, which has been brought to the front during the coronavirus situation, there are many other long-term issues facing the game as well as governance. The roundtable that we had last week had a real focus on women’s football and tackling discrimination. The pandemic has shone a light on inequalities in football and, indeed, many other sports. The women’s game had built up significant momentum over the past few years, with both participation and interest growing rapidly, and the England Lionesses are inspiring a generation of girls, and indeed boys, including with their superb run-up to the World cup semi-finals last year. It is crucial that that momentum is not lost.

The women’s game must be central to any discussion on the future of the sport, and I was therefore glad that representatives of women’s football were able to attend the football roundtable we held last week, including Baroness Sue Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football. I have also had a follow-up conversation with her and look forward to many further conversations. This week I am also meeting with Jane Purdon, the chief executive of Women in Football, to examine the issues facing the women’s game further.

Another issue that sadly remains to the detriment of the game is discrimination. There is still much progress to be made to improve diversity within football. I welcomed the announcement of the FA’s new football leadership diversity code last month, which is a step in the right direction to improve diversity and inclusion in both the men’s and women’s games. From the pitch to the boardroom, football must be welcoming and inclusive for all people from all backgrounds.

Sadly, players are still receiving abhorrent abuse online. I am absolutely clear that players should not be suffering from such abuse, and this Government are committed to taking action to tackle it. As set out in the online harms White Paper, we intend to establish a new law with a duty of care on social media companies towards their users, which will be overseen by an independent regulator. However, there is still a lot more to be done to rid football and society of this scourge. I welcome the football authorities’ commitment to tackling these issues at the roundtable and in other conversations, and will continue to work with them to deliver further action.

Very briefly, I will answer a couple of other points and then make sure the hon. Member for Eltham has plenty of time to make further comments. On the point raised about Project Big Picture, the Government’s response was that the timing was not right. We have said all along that any proposals coming up from football at the moment, if they are to be adopted by football, quite clearly and transparently need the support of the entire family—an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe raised and that I will come to in a moment. The Football Supporters Association did not support that proposal, which I think was a great failing. However, all proposals have strengths and weaknesses, and we are open to many ideas. My hon. Friend raised an important point about the great challenges of the dynamics of football—whether we call it the football pyramid or the football family—and I think we all recognise that, while it is a family, or has elements of being a family, it is certainly a very dysfunctional one, as he articulated very clearly, hence the need for a significant review of governance.

Justin Madders mentioned facilities. Of course, it is also a medium and long-term goal of the Government to significantly improve facilities, and not only for football but for many other sports across the country. I will take this opportunity to highlight the fact that Sport England has funds available to help enhance facilities; in fact, there is a live fund available at the moment, the Return to Play fund, to help with sports facilities, and I encourage grassroots clubs across the country to apply to it. It is relatively small amount, but, boy, will it make a difference.

My hon. Friends the Members for Bury North and for Bury South raised the particular circumstances in Bury, of which I am aware—we have had many regular conversations. They have asked for Government support. As well as rich tea and sympathy and enthusiastic support for Bury FC to sort its difficulties out, there are areas for potential Government support, but it would have to be in the remit of a broader offering. That could be a sport offering, in which we could get Sport England involved, or part of potential funds towards broader community development, recognising the important role that the club plays in the community, as my hon. Friends mentioned. I am well aware of the challenges faced by Bury FC at the moment, and I hope and have confidence that project phoenix will arise from the ashes. Bury deserves a very positive future.

My opposite number, the hon. Member for Wirral South, raised many points. She did not give me a full list, but I look forward to her letter and to further dialogue. I am very grateful for today’s wide-ranging debate. The Government have started the conversation on the important issues facing the future of football. Many Members have contributed to that discussion, and I am very appreciative of that. We remain absolutely committed to driving progress and will continue to work closely with all stakeholders in football to ensure a stable and strong future for our national game.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 3:51 pm, 25th November 2020

I deliberately focused on the need for change in governance rather than rehashing and dwelling on all the arguments about the financial state of clubs. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Alison McGovern, said, at the moment there is a drive towards change. I am delighted to hear that the Government are now holding their own roundtables in preparation for a review into the governance of the game—that has to be welcomed. The momentum is there now, and that is why I tried to focus my comments on governance.

My hon. Friend Justin Madders mentioned facilities. We have the richest football league in the world, but we lag behind other countries such as Spain, Germany and France. It is no coincidence that those countries have enjoyed so much success in football when they have invested at the grassroots level as they have done. Look at the statistics comparing the number of coaches and the number of all-weather pitches with floodlights per head of population. Let us not forget that if a facility does not have floodlights, it is not useable for large parts of the winter. Those are important factors.

We are all told by the Premier League—I am sure that the Minister gets this as well—how much our constituencies get, how much it has spent and how much it supports the local football trust. If we step back and look at the bigger picture, though, it is a sorry situation for such a rich football league to have such poor facilities. I remember that when I was on the shadow sports beat, I learned that in Liverpool there was no all-weather football pitch in the city, apart from at Liverpool FC and Everton FC. For a city that is so imbued and associated with football, that was quite a shocking fact.

I welcome that the fact the Government are reviewing the governance of the sport. Now that the Minister has stated his commitment, I think there is no going back. We will have to move forward, because we cannot leave it to the structures in the game. As Damian Collins and others have pointed out, the owners of clubs are so blinkered in their views that they look at the matter only through the prism of their own clubs. They see their clubs as their own businesses and they do not want outside interference. We will not get the fundamental change that we need if we allow the focus of the decision making to come from those in the game.

We can make the game sustainable. The amount of money in Project Big Picture was minuscule compared with the overall income generated by the Premier League, and it could have put the English football league on a sustainable footing. I did not support all the proposals in Project Big Picture—I had issues with many of them—but I supported the debate because it put the dead cat on the table and made everybody talk about what we would do about football. Nobody else was putting anything on the table, and at least the project started to address the issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston raised concerns about the super league. I suspect that the talk about the super league is overblown, but the increase in the number of games in 2024 in the European champions league is a big issue. There will be more games, and they will have an impact on the domestic game. Project Big Picture tried to address that issue, and it will come up when the Minister sits around the table with other stakeholders to discuss the future of the game.

We have to embrace this moment and make sure that we get change. I favour an independent panel, and I hope that the Minister’s roundtable will frame the panel’s terms of reference and make-up. I would certainly volunteer to be on that panel, and I am sure the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe would, too. The fact is that change is coming. If it does not come from the Government, it will come from elsewhere in Parliament, because the mood is that we have to deal with this now.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the future of football governance.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield

I will now suspend the sitting until 4 pm.

Sitting suspended.