HC Deb 15 October 1969 vol 788 cc559-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ernest G. Perry.]

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)

I congratulate the Minister for Sport on his elevation to the post of Minister of State. In some way I have a responsibility in this matter, because I spoke for the right hon. Member at his first public meeting as a candidate for Birmingham City Council. I would hesitate to accept either blame or credit for all that has happened since. Nevertheless our congratulations are sincere. While he has been successful in the promotion stakes, his club, Aston Villa, has not been doing so well.

I disclaim any special background knowledge to the Chester Report. My only claim to fame is that Denis Law and I were pupils at the same school in Aberdeen. Football is not only one of Britain's great national sports, but it is also big business. Some people might say, in the midst of the economic and industrial troubles confronting us, that it is strange that we should be raising this matter.

Most of us would agree that the sport has a tremendous impact on the life of the country, upon the promotion of industrial harmony. It affects the lives and happiness of millions. There is also the question of the injection of public money into the sport. Government grants were responsible for saving the World Cup arrangements and enabled the F.A. to run the competition in 1966. This was a Government decision which cloaked a great deal of inefficiency by the Association in making the necessary preparations. I would not go so far as the Observer did in an article of 28th February, 1965, in describing this as: … a shabby story of dithering and neglect over four years. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Chester Report recommends that membership of the F.A. should be widened to cover three other interests, the professional Football Association, the Referees Association and secretaries and managers. The F.A. is also recommended to examine its constitution and committee structure and provide a more effective central policy planning committee. This is the central point giving the report substance.

There is no lack of finance with the F.A. because—aided by Government grant—in 1965 it had reserves and a surplus totalling over £300,000. In the Chester Report it is estimated that by 1970 it will have an accumulated balance of over £1 million.

Since notice of the Adjournment debate was given the question of discipline on the football field has loomed large. The paragraphs in the Report dealing with this deserve close reading and study by all connected with the game.

The fact that football produces most cases of misconduct is a matter of sheer size, as the Report rightly says. It comments on the fact that the game is possibly less dirty than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and that the number of disciplinary cases certainly has risen in recent years. But this has to be viewed against a tremendous increase in the financial rewards and inducements in the game.

I would agree with the Report that the overall picture is not a bad one. Nevertheless, I am certain that all who have the welfare of the game at heart would welcome an improvement, including the overwhelming bulk of footballers themselves. Certainly the harsh and punitive sentences recently imposed on players in the lower leagues is not the way to tackle the problem. We often think in terms of players with big salaries, but some of these players have weekly earnings of between £10 and £20, and the sentences bear more heavily on this category. We read today, for example, of a month's suspension being imposed on a 16-year-old apprentice professional for a first offence.

There is ample evidence to prove that the present disciplinary system is outdated and unfair, and in this matter I agree completely with Bobby Moncur and Frank Clark of Newcastle United and others in the Professional Footballers' Association.

The Secretary of the Football Association has said in reply to criticisms: We are satisfied we can defend our system with the utmost confidence. The F.A. acts strictly in accordance with its own rules and also in accordance with the principles of natural justice. That is the viewpoint of the same person who, only a few days ago, in Rome, walked into the North Shields dressing room prior to a cup final game and proceeded to tell the team how to behave on the field—and a number of other things into the bargain. Teams from Northumberland such as Newcastle United have shown that they need no such strictures from that quarter as to their behaviour, either at home or abroad.

The Professional Footballers' Association, in evidence to the Chester Committee made two main criticisms of the present disciplinary arrangements. It claimed, rightly, that League players are on trial in disciplinary matters before a court of their own employers, and that all parties should be entitled to have legal representation in disciplinary cases, if they so wish. The association would prefer to have a disciplinary tribunal composed entirely of people interested in the game but not directly connected with any club. That is one of the points which I would like my hon. Friend to look at closely.

It is true that the Chester Report does not go all the way with these suggestions. But it says in paragraph 339: Nevertheless the present arrangements are open to criticism. When a player's reputation and livelihood are at stake the procedure should be such that he feels he has been given a fair hearing and that there is reasonable consistency in the penalties imposed. It recommends that the commission appointed from members of the F.A. Disciplinary Committee to deal with "personal hearing" cases should have an independent chairman with legal qualifications, appointed after consultation with the Professional Footballers' Association and the Referees' Association at least until such time as these bodies are represented on the F.A. Council, and that all players appearing before "personal hearing" tribunals should have the right to ask for legal representation, which should be allowed at the discretion of the independent chairman.

Time does not allow me to go into detail on all the factors arising from the Report and its recommendations. It will need a much longer debate to deal with these matters. But the implementation of its recommendations on many aspects of the game are necessary. But surely in a year in which the Government have rightly paid a great deal of attention to industrial relations, the fact that the sport or business of football should be so far behind in this respect is primitive. I am told that even the joint body arranged between the Professional Footballers' Association and the football authorities, to meet at quarterly intervals to discuss matters appertaining to the good of the game, has failed to meet for over twelve months—not since the Chester Report was published.

The British Journal of Industrial Relations, in a special article on industrial relations in football, said that the peculiarities of the labour market in professional football warranted more than passing attention. This in itself is backing for the Chester Report.

The subject of crowd behaviour is, I know, the subject of another Report, which is awaited with interest. We hope that it will be dealt with more quickly than the Chester Report has been. Stiffer penalties are not the answer in themselves, desirable though they may be. Joint committees of the local police, the supporters' clubs and the club management should get together at local level, not only to consider the penalties but to find out the reasons for this behaviour before it arises.

As Chester says, there is a great need for better facilities at many grounds. If the spectators had to work in the kind of conditions in which they watch football, there would be much more industrial unrest. Clubs which have drawn money from the game and from their loyal supporters have failed to plough back money into the facilities to which their supporters are entitled.

The 36 recommendations of the Report are too numerous to detail, but an age limit of 70 on the members of the F.A. council is surely a long overdue reform and should not need a great deal of pressure to bring about. The Football Levy Board is a controversial point which needs study, as does the transfer system.

One of the Committee's terms of reference was to inquire into means by which the game could be developed for the public good. This is why we have a Minister for Sport, and this is why we are asking him to do something about the Chester recommendations and bring the various bodies together to this end. This is a responsibility of Government, and we ask the Minister to use all his powers to achieve the aims of the Committee.

In an editorial, on 28th May, The Guardian described the Report as … an admirable document which was bound to meet resistance from some of the all-too-amateur worthies in positions of power within the game. But it said that the Report was overdue. We ask the Minister to have no further delay but to bring these overdue reforms into being as early as possible.

10.50 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Denis Howell)

May I first thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blythe (Mr. Milne) for his great personal kindness in welcoming my promotion and with it, I hope, the promotion of sporting interests within the Government. I recall with nostalgia the day long ago in Birmingham when he appeared on my platform to get me elected to the City Council. I therefore have no inhibitions about welcoming what he said tonight.

I appreciate that this is the first debate on football which we have had in the House for a long time and I regret that we have only half-an-hour to spend on it. In that time I will do my best to cover as many of the points raised as possible. Since I have not previously had a public opportunity to do so, I wish to thank very much the members of the Chester Committee, who gave two years of their lives to looking at the whole aspect of the sport and who produced what I think the House agrees is a first-class piece of thinking on the difficulties facing our national game.

I assure the House that I share their impatience that we have not made more progress, but in fact a great deal has been done. I have proceeded by asking all those concerned—that is, the English F.A., the Scottish F.A., the Welsh F.A., the English League, the Scottish League, the Professional Footballers' Association, the referees and the linesmen—to come to see me, and most of them have done so. One or two have yet to come. This week I have had a meeting with the Scottish F.A. I attempt to go through every one of the recommendations in depth and, having done that, I express my general views and I ask them, where they disagree, to offer their views, and to reconsider with their colleagues what ought to be done. There has been a tremendous amount of activity.

The first people we saw were from the Welsh Football Association whose interests, we thought, had perhaps not been looked into in such great depth as we had wished. We set up a working party with the Welsh F.A., with Sir John Lang as chairman. Good progress has been made. It has reported both to the Sports Council of Great Britain and to the Welsh F.A. and its recommendations on improving efficiency in administration and coaching are being implemented. That is one great gain. There are other gains to be put on record where other recommendations had been implemented.

I must emphasise that most of these matters are for the sporting bodies. The Government cannot instruct them. We have no power to instruct, nor would we want power to instruct, the sporting bodies. Our influence is brought about by persuasion, by co-operation, by conversation and by trying to convince them of the logic of the Chester Committee's Report. In the case of the Football League, for example, action has been taken on the suggestion that a director of referees should be appointed. He is not called a director, but there is a man in charge of all refereeing in the Football League. The suggestion that the best referees should referee the most important matches has been acted on, although I am not certain what my former colleagues think about that, as one man recently found himself refereeing three First Division matches in a week and he got into a little hot water. But they have acted on the recommendation.

The question of insurance and pensions schemes arises from the suggested levy on transfers. I do not think that the suggestion of the Chester Committee's Report is likely to succeed—the suggestion that we ought to keep transfer fees down by putting a levy on them when they rise over a certain amount. We have the case today of Martin Peters, and we have players such as George Best of Manchester United. If players of that calibre come on to the market and are available or want to be transferred, or the clubs want to transfer them, a levy will not keep down the price paid for them. But it may be fair to say that where these big transfer fees are paid, some of that money ought to go back into the game as a whole, for the good of the game. I am glad to say that the Football League are considering whether some of that money might be used for the payment of insurance premiums and proper pensions, particularly for long-serving members of the game and of the clubs. I am encouraging them in that direction. Other recommendations, too, have been acted on.

In case hon. Members think that there is too much inertia, let me assure them that that is not so and that we are in constant communication with these bodies. The Football Association of England are this week—on their own initiative, not mine—inviting Mr. Chester to meet their executive and to discuss with them the whole of his recommendations and to exchange views with them. That rarely happens when a committee reports. These matters are frequently forgotten.

The F.A. and the Football League are to be congratulated for having taken certain steps on tax matters which affect them and us for example, by accepting the suggestion that Mr. Berkley, a tax expert who was a member of the Chester Committee, should meet their secretaries and discuss tax matters. It is an excellent idea that they should take the advice of the man who was behind some of the Committee's recommendations. Contact of this kind with members of the Committee is to be welcomed, and hon. Members will, I am sure, echo this sentiment.

Much has been said recently by my hon. Friends about a disciplinary code for crowd behaviour and so on. I do not have time tonight to go into this matter at length, and I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be answering Questions in the House on the subject tomorrow. Indeed, I am somewhat tired of making statements on this subject because, personally, I do not believe that this indiscipline and crowd hooliganism has very much, if anything, to do with sport in general and football in particular. It goes much deeper than that.

It is important, however, to reiterate that it is a blot on our society. I find it deplorable, as does the Home Secretary, and we are determined, by every means in our power, to stamp it out. I am sure that hon. Members and all those concerned will support us in this endeavour. It is a Home Office matter, one of law and order, rather than a sporting matter. I know that my right hon. Friend will be answering Questions on the subject in the House.

The question of a disciplinary committee and that of players' rights has been mentioned. Hon. Members will be aware of cases that have arisen this week. This is a complicated issue. Whenever I have seen the football bodies concerned I have urged them to accept and implement the recommendations of the Chester Report. I have particularly emphasised the need for players to have the right, in my view, to be legally represented before any tribunal, if they so wish.

The F.A. considered the matter and then approached me. It mentioned some of the difficulties. The Greyhound Racing Association refused to allow one trainer, Mr. Pett, to be represented by counsel, and he took the case to court. In February 1968, Mr. Justice Cusack ruled that the Association could not hold an inquiry unless Mr. Pelt was legally represented. There was a Court of Appeal judgment in April, 1968, on an interlocutory hearing, when Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls, said: A general principle is that every man has the right to appear by an agent. Thus the Court of Appeal seemed to have settled the matter. However, I drew the attention of the F.A. and other bodies to that, pointing out that in my view a man was entitled to be legally represented. Since then, in February of this year, Mr. Justice Lyell discussed an action by Mr. Pett, and he upturned the decision of the Court of Appeal. He said that he preferred the previous decision; that is, of the Privy Council in the case of the University of Ceylon v. Fernando. He said that he did not feel that it dispensed with fairness, in justice, if a man was, in certain circumstances, not legally represented.

I understand that Mr. Pett has lodged notice of appeal. This is an extremely confused situation. As a layman, I certainly find it such. I understand that the F.A. has said that it will certainly take note of what I and the Chester Committee have said, but that it has been legally advised that it cannot make much progress until this confusion has been cleared up as a result of this last appeal by Mr. Pett, and this should be said in fairness.

Mr. James Davidson (Accrington)

Would not my hon. Friend agree that when a player's livelihood is likely to be taken from him for as much as two months, as happened in two recent cases, he should automatically have a right of appeal?

Mr. Howell

I have explained my view and pointed out the Chester recommendations on this subject. I have recommended all the various bodies to consider the matter.

There has been criticism of recent cases of players' misconduct. I do not know the circumstances, but as an old referee I know that unless one sees the referee's report and knows what happened and what was said it is difficult to make a judgment. But when the House and everyone else has said that we should knock at indiscipline we should not squeal too loudly when something is done about it. However, I am assured that in the last three weeks there has been a marked improvement in conduct on the field and fewer misconduct reports coming in. Players are doing their very best to co-operate, and make an improvement on the field, and this we hope will spread to the terraces.

The recommendation of a levy board involves tax law, and I know that the House would not expect me to pronounce on that subject tonight. At the moment, the football authorities get their money from their fixture lists, which are copyright. They had some doubt on the subject of copyright, but I am advised that since no one has challenged two judgments those copyright decisions are now hallowed by time. They have become case law, and therefore are the law of the land until someone tries to upset them. It therefore appears that the Football League can charge as much as they like for their fixture lists. They can charge much more if they wish, but I gather that they have long-term arrangements.

In 1967–68, the copyright fixture lists brought into football a sum of £757,000. I might add that a quarter of whatever is obtained each year goes to Scotland. In 1968–69 the figure dropped considerably to £566,000, and in this present year, 1969–70, the drop will be 11.4 per cent. The figures for September show a drop of only 6.9 per cent. In other words, people are beginning to invest in the pools again, which means that more money will be going into football. The House has its own views on the subject, but that seems to bear out the claims of the pools promoters that the bigger the dividends the more likely it is that people will be drawn to betting on the pools. It looks as though the drop in the amount coming from the pools is being redressed.

The Football League tells me that it has just completed a survey of ground accommodation, and has found that in the last two years £2 million has been spent on ground improvements. This is not an insignificant matter. It is of great importance that people should be given a warm welcome and made to feel that it is all part of the social occasion. I regret that none of the money coming into football from the pools is going into more permanent improvements, but is being used for administration and ordinary revenue purposes. Endeavours should be made to get some of that money into ground improvements.

Mr. Dan Jones (Burnley)

I know that my hon. Friend must finish his speech in a minute or two, but could I ask him to comment on the fact that for this short but important debate not one member of the Opposition is in his place?

Mr. Howell

I cannot comment on that, except to say that it may express their interest and sense of priority in this matter. I am glad to see the benches on the Government side are well occupied by hon. Friends who are interested in this subject. I would add that the shadow Minister of Sport told me that he was going to the Continent.

In the time left to me I cannot say much more, but I can assure the House that this is a matter of continuing importance to me. I welcome the co-operative attitude of the Players Union and of the football authorities and other bodies. I shall continue to keep probing and pressing but, as I have said, I have no mandatory powers in regard to most of the Chester recommendations. I am glad that these matters are being investigated, but after 80 years of football we cannot expect a committee which has sat for two years to get all its report implemented in such a short time.

We are making progress, albeit slowly. I intend to see that we continue to make progress by continuing to meet all the interested parties and bringing them together, if necessary, because all of us are concerned with the health of this great game which has given so much satisfaction, not only to us but to almost the whole nation over the years.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.