HC Deb 21 November 1960 vol 630 cc932-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

11.19 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

For three hours this evening we have been discussing the affairs of a notably efficient and profitable section of industry which pays, on the whole, exceptionally high wages and salaries. Now for half an hour we turn to professional football, which is the most important section of our national sporting industry but a section that is inefficiently organised, semi-bankrupt and only too often a thoroughly bad employer. There should, I think, be a certain mutual sympathy between Members of Parliament and professional football players. We both suffer from acute insecurity of employment. Both are only too likely to suffer from premature retirement. We both do our work for the most part in public, and our mistakes are subject to the harshest criticism.

The Saturday afternoon before last I went to see Chelsea play Arsenal, and I must admit that on that occasion the two Arsenal inside forwards did not, perhaps, acquit themselves particularly well—[HON. MEMBERS: "What about Chelsea's?"]—but when I turned to the sporting pages of some of the popular Sunday newspapers I was astonished at the bitterness of the criticism. It was comparable in virulence to the sort of criticism which the new Member-elect for Ebbw Vale is apt on occasion to pour upon the leaders of his own party.

There is another similarity to Members of Parliament. We get almost the same pay—with the fringe benefits that a football star will receive from the game. Is it any wonder that the general public is incensed about the inadequate remuneration of its champions—its football champions, unfortunately, rather than its political champions?

Here there is a serious difference. In the House of Commons we can alter our conditions and pay by agreeing among ourselves, but football players are bound to their employers by contractual conditions which would have been rejected with a snort of contempt by any intelligent young apprentice in the Middle Ages. The professional footballer labours under a double handicap. If he wants to play League football—and if he is a good player he will naturally want to play League football—he is bound to his employer until that employer chooses to sell him or to release him. At the same time, he cannot negotiate effectively with his employer, for the maximum salary that a football player can receive is set by the Football League collectively and is binding on all the clubs and, through the clubs, on the players.

The wage differential between medium football talent and great football talent is ludicrously small. In fact, under the present system a lot of inefficient monopoly capitalists are forcing on their unwilling employees a doctrine of pure Socialism. Not only is the present system thoroughly unfair in theory, but it is grossly unfair in practice.

There has been much talk recently about the transfer of Mr. Eastham, a young inside forward for whose talent Arsenal paid £47,500 to Newcastle United. Mr. Eastham is 24 years old and, as an inside forward, his first-class career will certainly be finished within ten years. It may end a very great deal sooner than that, but even assuming that Mr. Eastham's transfer fee can be written off over ten years, the figures prove conclusively that Arsenal puts Mr. Eastham's value at between three and four times the maximum salary that Arsenal can pay Mr. Eastham during his playing career—and I count in all fringe benefits such as cheap housing, benefit money and television money which must, in all fairness, be counted in with the maximum wage.

It is absolutely wrong that such a monopoly should prevent a player from earning more than a pitiful fraction of the publically admitted value of his talents. It is still more disgraceful that he should be prevented from bargaining on his own behalf. It is this combination of the contract with the maximum wage which turns our soccer players into soccer serfs.

This state of affairs could be accepted, perhaps, if it could be proved beyond doubt that some over-riding social good came from the continuation of the present system; but does this in fact happen? In its evidence to a conciliation committee set up by the Ministry of Labour in 1951, the Football League argued that the essential objective of football ought to be the continuance of the Football League unchanged in essentials, and the Football League has stuck firmly to that view, which is hardly surprising when one considers the sort of majority that has to be obtained within the Football League itself if there is to be any important change in the contract system.

In its evidence in 1951 the League was able to testify: That they did not believe there was any general dissatisfaction among players. That is certainly not true today. The meetings of the Professional Footballers' Association in the last week have given ample evidence of that.

Then again, Mr. Albert Henshall, chairman of Stoke City Football Club, and a powerful figure in the League, has recently been quoted as saying: Three-quarters of the Football League clubs are in the red That does not seem to me to be an overwhelming argument in favour of sticking to the status quo through hell or high water.

Are the football managers satisfied with the present system? It seems to me that many of them change their clubs with the rapidity that some Hollywood stars change their husbands or wives, and I cannot believe that the majority of football managers are satisfied with the status quo.

Are the public satisfied? From the evidence of falling gates and the volume of interest that is aroused whenever a new system of League organisation is put forward, I suggest that the public are far from satisfied.

Is the maintenance of the status quo desirable for the state of British football? Many well qualified critics—I am referring to the football correspondents of many leading national newspapers—believe that the present League system should be drastically modified.

I do not believe that a satisfactory case can be made out today for the continuance on the ground of community interest of a system which is manifestly unfair and unjust to those with the greatest talent.

There is obviously no time this evening to go through the twenty-two points of difference that have, I think, been isolated between the players' union and the League. The key points are the contract, combined with the maximum wage. I believe that the continuation of long term contracts is essential to the health of the game, but the contract should be revised to cover such points as protection for injured players. At the moment, injured players are, on occasions, treated in a shameful fashion, such as would not be tolerated in any mine or reputable factory in this country.

It is the maximum wage and the signing on provisions make the contract an instrument of tyranny rather than an instrument of protection, which is what it ought to be. This should be abolished or drastically modified as a step towards total abolition. Tomorrow, representatives of the players and the League meet at the Ministry of Labour. We wish them well and hope for agreement. But if there is no end to the dispute the Government have a right and duty to intervene, as they have in the past. Wages boards have been set up in industries where free collective bargaining is difficult. I believe that a wages board would be bound to modify drastically the present system, and if that proves to be the easiest way I think we should let it happen.

I do not believe, however, that the players' union can merely sit back and hope that action will be taken by others. It has conducted its affairs with patience and moderation. It has listened to advice given by Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) has played a prominent part, as have the hon. Members for Huddersfield, East (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu), my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), whom we should congratulate on completing 25 years' service in this House. He has been a Member of the House almost as long as Stanley Matthews has been playing League football.

The players' union has to remember the convenience of the public, who pay for everything. It has to remember the position of the clubs, because players can receive good money only from clubs that are well off and well established. The union has to remember the position of its own members who play for teams like Grimsby and Southend United, where economic realities are a great deal closer than they are at White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge. My own local football club, Crystal Palace, lost £3,398 last year. Last weekend they played another League team which, we were informed, did not even have the money for the rail fares for its own players.

I would repeat in public the advice I have already given to some of the union leaders. If it comes to a showdown—and we all hope that it will not—why not let the stars carry the heat and the burden of the day? They stand to gain at least as much as any of the other players. If there is to be direct action, let every player who has played in a full international, a "B" international, an under-23 international or in an international League football team, decide to withhold his services on every other Saturday, and let the rank and file of players in their clubs go on playing while they contribute to the support of the golden strikers. I hope, however, that no sort of direct action is necessary.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

If my hon. Friend's suggestion were carried out—and there is obviously a great deal in it—it would be necessary to ensure that there was no victimisation of the star players who had acted in the interests of the others and had exposed themselves to action by the clubs for doing so.

Mr. Goodhart

That is most certainly a point to be borne in mind, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning it. I hope that no direct action of any sort is necessary and that this very brief debate is another step on the road to ending a system in sport which is a disgrace to this country.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) for some of the kind things he has said about me and my hon. Friends. I must resist the temptation to enter into an argument with him about what he called "pure Socialism" and what I would call pure Toryism, the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest. This is not the occasion on which to engage on that subject.

Perhaps I should explain that I have some interest in this subject, although in an honorary capacity. I happen to be a trustee of the Professional Footballers' Association. In that capacity I know of some of the troubles and difficulties and the aims they seek to establish. They have asked me to say on their behalf how much they appreciate the efforts of the Ministry of Labour so far—especially of the Ministry's senior conciliation officer who has been principally concerned in their troubles—and what they have tried to do to bring some conciliation to bear between the Football League and the players' union.

No one who enjoys his Saturday afternoon at a football match—or misery according to which team one supports—would say other than that this is probably our greatest national sport. Millions of people in this country spend Saturday afternoon watching a football match and believe it is a sport. I think it fair to say that in general terms we can accept that the majority of professional players play this game essentially as a sport. But the average sportsman associates sport with fair play. That is the interpretation which the union is placing upon this matter. I remind the House that this is not a dispute which has suddenly arisen. It goes back to 1947, when there was a national industrial tribunal set up which made a number of recommendations which were ratified in 1952, and many of those recommendations have not been put into operation. It is a long-standing grievance which is only now coming to a head.

What the professional footballer asks is that he should be treated in precisely the same way as any other employee in industry or commerce—nothing more nor less than that he should have the same rights accorded to other people in industry or commerce. The professional footballers recognise that they must have a contract of service by the very nature of their profession, but they think there could be some far more generous provisions, that the contract should not have all the disadvantages weighted against the player as distinct from the club which employs him.

We could have had a long debate on this matter, and we were hoping that would be possible, but it may be wise for me to say no more than to express the hope that as further conciliation efforts are to take place tomorrow they may be successful and embody, not just common sense, but a little uncommon sense on this occasion. We express the hope to the Parliamentary Secretary that the efforts of his conciliation officers tomorrow with the Association will bear more fruit than previous efforts.

11.39 p.m.

Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu (Huddersfield, East)

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) deserves our thanks for raising this subject. He may have been right in putting a little political tone into the discussion, because this is a question of injustice, injustice that anyone, when he thinks about it, would not stand for a second. I give the Parliamentary Secretary one example. Who would stand for a contract which ties him after tat contract has expired? That is what happens to a professional footballer. He signs a contract for one year. It finishes at the end of the year, for his club is freed from it, but he is tied to it. No one in any other industry would dare to justify that contract. I hope that what has been said so well by the hon. Member for Beckenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) will influence the Parliamentary Secretary to do all that he can to get that particular instance of injustice removed.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I want very quickly to deal with one very important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), and that is the question of injured players. It frequently happens that a player injured during a season is no longer required because of his injury by the club to whom he has been under contract. He is frequently transferred at a small fee or given a free transfer. The whole of his playing career is ruined and his income ceases very quickly.

In the new contract which I hope will emerge from the negotiations now going on, I believe that some form of insurance can be effected whereby players who are in the unfortunate position of having their careers cut short through injury shall be entitled, by compulsory insurance in their contracts, to some form of insurance benefits at the close of their playing career and their capacity for earning money. This would enable them to have some money in their hands with which to start new lives.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I shall not take one second longer than the Parliamentary Secretary can allow. If he waves his hand at me I shall know when to resume my seat. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) has rendered a great service to the country by raising this question this evening. The tempo of life in Britain now is such that men and women engaged in industry need some relaxation. The police inform me that large sporting assemblies, particularly association football, make a great contribution to keeping people's minds on the need for relaxation and keeping fit. It enables them to keep going in industry. Professional footballers render a great service to the community. Many of us know the important part sport plays in keeping up the volume of exports. I am therefore glad to be associated with the hon. Member for Beckenham in this matter.

11.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Peter Thomas)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) for giving way, as he promised. I see that I have five minutes in which to wind up the debate, which is quite sufficient, because there is not a great deal I want to say.

I want, first, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). It has been a most interesting Adjournment debate. Five hon. Members have spoken already, which is very unusual in an Adjournment debate.

I thank the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins) for the very kind words of appreciation he used about our officers in the Ministry of Labour. He described association football as the greatest national sport in Britain. I do not know whether that is exactly true, but certainly in terms of numbers it is the most popular sport in Britain. There is clearly considerable public interest in all its activities, both on and off the field of play.

To many, it is not just a sport. It is also an industry. Men are professionally engaged in it, and the terms and conditions under which they are employed are naturally matters of extreme interest and concern to a large number of outside people. I can only hope that the majority of these people have not been as bewildered as I have been by the intricacies of the football world and the relationship between the players and the clubs.

This is a matter of great public interest, and we can all congratulate my hon. Friend on having raised it. However, I must in fairness point out—because in the Ministry we try to be as objective as possible—that in this debate we have heard only one side. We in the Ministry appreciate the difficulties that obtain, inasmuch as we have had these difficulties brought before us for many years.

I had intended, had there been time, to go through the history of our acts of conciliation in this sport and industry. There is not much time, but I should like to say one thing—and I think that it is important to stress it—that in the industry of professional football there are no effective arrangements for airing grievances and discussing outstanding problems. Because of that, neither the players nor the clubs had an opportunity of an exhaustive examination, face to face, of the points of difference between them until they met under the auspices of the Ministry. As my hon. Friend has said, we then found and identified 22 points of difference.

As we know, there is to be a meeting at the Ministry tomorrow between, not both sides of the industry, but the three sides—the Football Association, the Football League and what is sometimes called the players' union—the Professional Footballers' Association. In view of that meeting, I feel that hon. Members will not expect me now to deal in any way with the merits of any individual matter that has been raised this evening. I hope that the parties tomorrow will derive some benefit from the views expressed in this debate, and we all hope that it will be possible for these further discussions to continue, free from the disruption that a strike would obviously cause.

I would end by saying that while these disputes exist my right hon. Friend is perfectly prepared and anxious to do all he can to assist, and our officers are at the disposal of the parties. When the present dispute is over—and I trust that it will soon be resolved—I hope that the parties will see the advantages of establishing within the industry appropriate and permanent machinery for negotiation and consultation. If it is thought desirable, there could be an independent chairman. I am sure that such action would be beneficial to professional football, and that hon. Members will agree that it would be in keeping with our traditional arrangements for free negotiation between employers and workers. I believe that this would be infinitely preferable to any form of statutory control of wages and other terms of employment by way of wages boards, as suggested by my hon. Friend.

This can only be done with the consent of the parties concerned; but I think that it is a weakness in the present system that there is no effective negotiating machinery. If it is the wish of the parties, my Department will give all possible assistance in the establishment of such machinery. Meanwhile, negotiations will be resumed tomorrow. I am sure that they will be resumed by all parties in a constructive and amicable spirit, and with a real determination to settle many of these long drawn-out differences.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.