Monday 14th June 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 583310 and 584632, relating to football governance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott, for this hugely important debate, and it is great to see so many Members in attendance and on the call list, even more so after a thumping 1-0 victory for England against Croatia. I am sure that Members from Wales and Scotland may not be feeling as perky, but obviously I look forward to the big game on Friday, when I expect England to give Scotland a sound thumping.

In this place, we often split along party lines in our debates, but I am confident that there will be an unusual level of consensus here today, because I think we all recognise the vital role that football plays in the communities that we have the privilege to represent. Before I get started properly, I must thank all those who took the time to share their views with me before this debate. I heard a wide range of opinions on this issue, but across the board—from club owners and ex-players to the fans who are the lifeblood of the game—it is fair to say that there is now widespread acceptance that change is needed.

I also thank Our Beautiful Game, the campaign group that includes senior figures from the game, such as David Bernstein, a former Football Association chairman, and Gary Neville, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who really got this debate rolling with her private Member’s Bill earlier this year. I thank Our Beautiful Game for lending its time and expertise to help me to prepare for today. I will give a special mention to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who is leading the fan-led review of football for the Minister’s Department. I thank her for that and for the time that she has shared with me.

The recent debacle of the European super league, which for football was the equivalent of the 2008 banking crisis, shocked everyone involved in the game. It showed why there is a real need to shake things up. Let us be clear: had the so-called big six succeeded with their breakaway attempt, football as we know it in our country would have died. Our premier league, the most watched and indeed the best league in the world, would have been split apart, and the pyramid of English football would have crumbled.

It was quite right that the ESL was met with disgust and ridicule across the board, and I am very pleased that for now it has been seen off. However, we know that football is now big business and the ESL is not the only reason why change is needed. Fans already had long-standing concerns.

There have been many examples of the identity of football clubs, which are essential to the identity of so many communities, being changed, with fans unable to resist that change. A couple of glaring examples spring to mind: the relocation of Wimbledon from is traditional home in London to Milton Keynes; and the decision by the owner of Cardiff City to change the club’s colours from the traditional blue to red.

Inappropriate owners may come in and run clubs in an unsustainable way, with devastating impacts on their local communities. Two examples of this came recently, with the sad demise of Bury in August 2019 and Wigan entering administration in July 2020. Unless we change the way football is run and ensure that clubs are treated not only as businesses but as community assets and heritage brands, these events will be repeated.

That brings me on to the first of our petitions, on the 50+1 model, submitted by Angus Yule. Angus launched the petition because he feels that this model of ownership would ensure that the decisions of our clubs fall into the hands of a collective of people who care about the good of the game, instead of just one owner. In Angus’s opinion, elite clubs especially are now run as businesses, with profit appearing to come before anything else and with fans’ loyalty exploited through expensive tickets and merchandise.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I have been a supporter of Leicester City since I was a wee boy of 16 years old—52 years. I say that because it does not have to be a big team for people to support it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that fans care about the nature of the team? They care about more than the price of a ticket. They care about the integrity and history of their club. They care about team pride. That is what it is all about, and that is what fans want. They do not want a super league; they just want to support their club.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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In advance of the debate, I spoke to members of the Foxes Trust, who were very complimentary about the dialogue they have with Leicester City’s owners. I know the hon. Gentleman was buzzing from Leicester City’s recent FA cup victory, and I am sure he will be cheering on Blighty in the upcoming game against Scotland; I will not put him on the spot with that one, but I am sure he will, secretly.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. Football clubs are massively important to the history and identity of their communities. In fact, communities were built around such clubs, as we saw in Bury. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) has banged on relentlessly about that; I do not think there is any doughtier a champion for Bury football club’s return to its proper ways. In Burslem, the mother town of Stoke-on-Trent, is Port Vale, surrounded by the terraced houses of the old potbank workers. It very much is the beating heart of the community, as the Minister saw at first hand when he recently came to visit.

As Angus says about the 50+1 model, having fans in charge of key voting rights around the club would help to stop the clear greed of some owners and would allow clubs to be run in a way that benefits the fans, local communities and the good of the game. Clearly, there are some good owners who run their clubs sustainably and allow fans a good level of access to the behind-the-scenes running of the club. My bias will be obvious, but I will mention the Wembley of the north, Port Vale football club’s Vale Park, and Stoke-on-Trent’s second team, Stoke City; obviously I was being sarcastic there, before I get a deluge of abuse on Facebook. I am very lucky to have Port Vale in my constituency and Stoke City FC within the community. Both are run in a truly sustainable and fan-friendly way. To give just a few examples, Stoke City offer free travel for their fans and have frozen their season ticket prices for 14 successive years. Port Vale recently became the English football league community club of the year, having distributed more than 300,000 meals to local people in need during the pandemic. It also has the Port Vale Foundation; with the Hubb Foundation, it was one of the early pioneers in the holiday activities programme, which started in 2017 with the Ay Up Duck programme.

A small club, Milton United football club, raised £1,000 for a local lad, Ashton Hulme, who is getting a top-quality prosthetic leg. Sadly, due to a rare type of bone cancer, he lost his leg, and the academy at Crewe Alexandra have been doing fantastic work to support Ashton and his family at this difficult time, with more than £110,000 raised by local givers. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, there are great clubs in the Premier League, such as Leicester City football club. The Foxes Trust tell me that it is broadly happy with how the club’s owners operate and the access it gets to the inner running of its club.

There are many more examples of owners who do not operate in this way, so I agree that there needs to be some reform, giving fans greater input into their clubs. There must surely be a way to protect key aspects of clubs, which are so much more than just businesses, so that their identities are not changed unrecognisably and they are run sustainably. However, the 50+1 model is not realistic for English football. It is hard to see how this kind of ownership structure could be brought in. I also have concerns about the impact it could have on our game. A range of voices, unsurprisingly including club owners but also fan groups, have said that the 50+1 model could seriously discourage investment.

In Germany, which made the 50+1 model famous, Bayern Munich has now won the Bundesliga nine years in a row. There is no significant investment into other clubs in the German league—unless we look at RB Leipzig, for example, where the fans and supporters are all Red Bull employees. One could say that that brings the beautiful game in Germany into disrepute. I do not think that anyone wants to see such things in our country. The 50+1 model is not the only reason, but it does seem to prevent ambitious owners coming forward. Frankly, owners will not want to invest in a club without being able to control its direction. If the 50+1 model is not the answer, what is?

One way to safeguard clubs for fans was suggested by Gary Neville. We could look at the 50+1 model as a veto or a voting structure rather than an ownership structure. Something along the lines of a golden vote on key decisions could be viable. To make changes to the club on heritage issues such as the name and location of the stadium, owners would need to seek the approval of supporters. Another option, as suggested by the Football Supporters’ Association, would be to let supporters buy equity in their club up to a certain percentage—10% or 15%, say—to give them a real say in how the club is run.

As well as giving fans more say in how their clubs are run, wider issues in football need addressing. That is really the crux of the debate and brings me to the second petition, which calls for the introduction of a new, independent football regulator. The petition, which was started by Alex Rolfe, calls for the Government to use the fan-led review of football’s governance to establish an independent regulator. Alex says:

“Like a referee, an independent regulator would safeguard our beautiful game impartially.”

He says that a regulator

“could protect the game against another attempt at a super league or other efforts to put money ahead of fans.”

Gary Neville and Alex agree that, like water companies, energy providers, financial services and the media:

“Football matters to millions and should also have a regulator of its own.”

It does seem that without an independent regulator, the glaring issues in English football will not be resolved. There is no overall leadership, so vested interests continue to prevail. The financial disparity between rich and poor has become obscene, frankly. The game is devoid of agreed priorities. The high-ups in football all know what the problems are, but to date there has been no collective will or incentive for the decision makers to get on with sorting it out.

As many of the people I have spoken to before today have spelled out, the issues are financial disparity and unsustainability, owner suitability rules, a power structure that is fundamentally out of balance, societal issues such as racism and homophobia in the game, and the exploitation of clubs and fans. Gary Neville put it well when he said that the banking crisis was the moment an independent regulator was needed. The European super league is the equivalent crisis in football, and if we are to ensure that the game remains something that we can enjoy as fans, as well as export around the world, the crunch time has arrived.

I will give a few examples to illustrate the scale of the problems. The team placed 20th in the premier league—thankfully, it is not my team, Fulham, which my grandmother indoctrinated me into supporting at the age of five—gets £100 million, whereas the winner of the championship gets just £6 million. Financial sustainability is in real danger, with clubs in the championship spending £837 million on wages despite receiving only £785 million of income in 2018-19.

James Daly Portrait James Daly (Bury North) (Con)
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My hon. Friend has just made the key point. The fixed costs and wage structure of 99% of teams involved in English football are completely unsustainable. The wages paid out currently are simply unaffordable. My team, Bury, had 3,000 or 4,000 people watching every two weeks, and players were paid thousands upon thousands. How do we address that problem?

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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I know that Gary Neville is actually working on the salary cap committee that the EFL has set up to have a look at that very thing. My hon. Friend is right. Although Gary Neville used the term “redistribution of wealth”—as a Conservative, that made me shudder at the idea of socialism coming down the line—he meant that, at the end of the day, the Premier League holds all the wealth.

The Minister spent what probably felt like a long 10 months locked in a room with the head of the Premier League and the head of the EFL to come to some sort of consensus on bailing out clubs such as my beloved Port Vale in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. It should not have taken 10 months to come to that conclusion. Ultimately, football is for the fans, and in that moment, the fans were almost forgotten. I am very grateful to the Minister, who spoke regularly with me and other Members from across the House to keep us informed about what was going on in the negotiations. I am very grateful that he was able to bang heads together and get that important deal over the line.

Stoke City football club is owned by those who run Bet365, and although it would openly submit that it is not in need of financial support, it is very aware of clubs around it and below it that are, including Port Vale, which gets similar crowds to Bury. We need to see a fair share of the money in football trickling down, particularly to the grassroots, where the future generations will be coming through.

Those in the premier league have so much power that they can set their own punishment. The big six premier league clubs have been able to decide their own punishment for trying to break away and join the ESL, paying just £3.6 million each as a gesture of good will. Let us put that into context. These clubs spent more than £150 million over the last year on agents’ fees alone, and they seem to think that offering £3.6 million each is a suitable punishment for trying to destroy our beautiful game. Football has proven itself incapable of sorting itself out, and there is now a widespread consensus that an independent regulator is needed.

What would that independent regulator look like? We all agree that for a regulator to have real bite, it must be independent of current structures such as the premier league clubs and the FA. It must sit above the existing bodies and be able to enforce targets and judgments without the game structures. As voices such as the former Governor of the Bank of England Lord King have emphasised, the regulator will need an emphasis on financial as well as legal knowledge, to enable it to decide on new ways of distributing funds to the wider game, based on a funding formula to spread funding more fairly throughout the English football pyramid. This will also be important in introducing a new, proper, robust process to check owners before they take on a club. Indeed, it is not just the fans I spoke to who agreed on the need for a proper test of an owner’s suitability; that opinion was also shared by the owners I spoke to.

Supporters’ groups and those with experience of the game at the highest level agree that the regulator must not have any role in how the game is played. For example, it must not have a role in deciding on the place of VAR—the video assistant referee—in football, but must be limited to governance issues. There is also the question of how long a regulator would need to operate for. There seems to be a consensus among a cross-section of people involved in football that the FA should really be the regulator. However, it is a commercial organisation, as well as having some regulatory functions, so it does not really work. It is also reliant on the Premier League for its income, so is not independent in any meaningful way. An independent regulator could be set up, lead change in the game for a few years and then hand over to the FA once it has been made fit for purpose.

On the societal problems in football such as racism and homophobia, as well as representation of different groups, there are already targets in place. However, a regulator could enforce those targets and punish those who continue to pay only lip service to them. As David Davies—former executive director of the FA and member of the Our Beautiful Game campaign group—has said, football has the power to be a fantastic force for good. How to enable it to be a power for good is the question.

--- Later in debate ---
Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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Today has shown the very best of this place: the graft that goes on here every single day—even if it might not be sexy enough to merit a 30-second tweet—as we work in consensus to find a way forward.

I want to mention the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), who gave two extremely powerful speeches from personal experience. If anyone is any doubt about why the beautiful game is so important to fans, I urge them to watch or read those two speeches in order to understand. I love the fact that the hon. Lady is wearing her shirt with pride, and I hope that image goes out across the world.

Ultimately, a statement has been made today by this House: change is coming. I say with all good nature that when the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I agree that governance change is needed, that is the moment that the penny should drop for the FA and others. The right hon. Gentleman and I might not necessarily agree fully on how it should change, but when two such Members in this place agree, it makes a powerful statement.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) pointed out, Wales plays an important part in the English game. Hearing the story of the people of Barry and their fight was very important. There were so many speeches but, sadly, time does not allow me to rattle through how brilliant they all were. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) talked about Tranmere Rovers and its £60,000 investment in helping the community with fitness and in tackling county lines—also a scourge of the city of Stoke-on-Trent and the towns of Kidsgrove and Talke. There will be similar issues in many of our areas.

A message has been sent that change is needed. Personally, I certainly favour the idea of change in football governance. As the Minister said, how that is done, the remit of powers and the implementation need to be very carefully thought through. It is easy to rush into such things in order to look popular, but, ultimately, we must ensure that it is something that will last. One day, I hope, that will be transferred to the FA, which should have those responsibilities. Once we have public trust in the Football Association of England, perhaps it can take on those responsibilities.

All of us—except perhaps those who are not English Members of Parliament—can agree on one thing, which is that football is coming home this summer. As I always like to say when I finish such speeches as this: “Up the Vale!”

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 583310 and 584632, relating to football governance.