HC Deb 05 May 1999 vol 330 cc954-7

4.8 pm

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a regulator for professional football.

The regulator would have powers to establish a code of conduct for football clubs; to set performance targets for clubs on a variety of issues; to call clubs to account for alleged breach of the code; and to gain access to any evidence from clubs, including financial and ticket sales records. The regulator would report to the appropriate Department, and would be independent of any vested interest.

Football is a part of the nation's identity: its roots in our communities and its developments are an integral part of our cultural heritage. Football is the source and topic of many conversations up and down the land, and it is no exaggeration to say that, occasionally, it affects the United Kingdom's productivity.

Football speaks a universal language, bringing nations and people of all races together —even in disagreement on the merits of a particular player or team, or even of a referee's decision.

Football also plays a major role in the House, as witnessed by the excellent work of the all-party football group—which is expertly chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton)—not to mention the exploits of the parliamentary football team. [Interruption.] Perhaps it is better not to mention those exploits.

As football is so embedded in our society, our paramount priority should be to protect and enhance its future. Recognising that priority, the Government created the football task force.

We cannot allow the ownership of and responsibility for professional football to be left in the hands of those who seek to exploit it financially or for some personal kudos at the expense of supporters. There is a clear need to address important issues such as ticket pricing, club ownership, plc status and merchandising policies. Clubs have every right to make a healthy profit, but not at the expense of fans. There is a difference between profit and profiteering. Our big clubs in particular should be seen to act in a more responsible and accountable way to ensure a greater and more equitable redistribution of wealth throughout the game, and proper financial regulation.

Many of our fine new stadiums, large and small, are the focal point of local communities and have received considerable investment from the public purse. There is an enormous vacuum of power following recent sackings and financial irregularities. Hon. Members on both sides who have the best interests of the game at heart agree that there are huge concerns about the governance of football.

Football is not just an industry. It is more associated with the National Gallery and St. Paul's than with BP and ICI. It is a national treasure, not a device for squeezing money out of customers who face a monopoly. If clubs raise prices too dramatically, the customer does not just go somewhere else. Support is total and usually a legacy handed down from generation to generation. We have to be careful about who can own clubs and the motivation driving those who run the game. This is an issue of business interest versus public interest. Is it right that media interests or leisure interests should have outright control?

Football's present direction towards the demands of shareholders rather than fans has created an uneasy climate in which a small number of rich clubs will get richer while poorer clubs go to the wall. Already this season we have seen many clubs in deep financial crisis, including Doncaster, Brighton and Hove Albion, Oxford, Crystal Palace, Hull City and Portsmouth. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin), whose leadership has helped the community in the revitalisation of Brighton and Hove Albion football club.

Soaring wage bills—fuelled by an incredible 40 per cent. increase in players' wages —and extraordinary transfer fees have added to the immense pressure of the need to succeed at all costs. There are many examples of good practice. A lot could be learned from what has happened at Northampton Town and Bournemouth, where supporters trusts have been set up to enable supporters to be involved in the running and accountability of their clubs. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke), who is a director of Northampton Town—a club which was recently congratulated on having the best access and facilities in the country for people with disabilities, as well as an equal opportunities policy.

The football regulator would be charged with the responsibility of presiding over the financial integrity of clubs. It could also investigate genuine complaints about ticket pricing policy and the cost and frequency of issue of replica kits. The regulator would also be involved in helping the game to clean up its image as regards transfer fees and the role of agents. That element of the game involves millions of pounds, and many fans are concerned that the lack of transparency damages the well-being of football.

Those who argue against regulation and say that football should be left to put its own house in order must prove that they have all the game's interests at heart. Self-regulation has not kept pace with the modern game; hence the creation of the task force. It was left to the Popplewell and Taylor reports to make recommendations on ground safety after the Bradford City fire disaster and the Hillsborough tragedy. The 1990 Taylor report was damning about the governance of the game.

We are developing all-seater stadiums, but the investment to achieve that has had to come through bodies such as the Football Trust, involving public funds. The massive revenues from television and media rights were not prioritised for the benefit of spectators. Without the Taylor recommendations, it is unlikely that ground improvements would ever have taken place.

The all-party football group has received representations from all aspects of football and there is a genuine desire to see the game progress. The group made representations on the Manchester United/BSkyB bid. Those representations showed that the receipts of one Manchester United home game were bigger than two years' income for smaller clubs such as Darlington or Hartlepool. That cannot be good for the game. While I wish Manchester United every success in the FA cup, the European cup final and the championship, their success must not come at the expense of smaller clubs who develop young players and keep football available for ordinary supporters. There should be a more equitable redistribution of the plentiful resources at the top of the game for clubs throughout the football league and beyond.

Football has tremendous power to do good in society and can be used to help reduce crime and promote positive education policies. If the game is to continue to thrive, football must be allowed to develop at grassroots level in schools and junior teams. Figures show a reduction in the number of amateur teams, and school football is running into difficulty. My own schools association in Bradford is in desperate need of financial support. It is through those bodies that future stars will emerge.

The balance of big and small is an integral part of football's attraction, and to damage that balance would affect the whole market. Football is more than just an industry, but like many other industries, there is a need for sensible regulation to prevent anti-competitive practices and the emergence of elitist cartels. I am not alone in calling for action, as there have been many academic reports and press articles to that effect. Many organisations connected with football have recognised that self-regulation has not worked and that a regulator is now called for.

The Football Association, through FIFA, is responsible for the rules of the game, but it has failed miserably to protect and act in the best interests of all who support the game in many forms. It is now time to separate the regulatory function. The FA, rightly, should be responsible for the rules of the game, setting the criteria for membership, running competitions, overseeing player discipline and running the national side. However, it should hand over the scrutiny of clubs' finances and codes of conduct to an independent regulator.

The regulator would seek the assistance of a football industry committee, made up of bodies including the Football Supporters Association, the Football Association, the FA Premier League, the Football League, the Football Trust and the Professional Footballers Association. The separate regulatory function would ensure that the regulation of the financial, legal and commercial activities of clubs was seen as independent from vested interests.

There are many good people in football, and many who spend their lives putting great effort into developing football. Parochially, I congratulate my local club, Bradford City, its directors, management, staff and fans, who have worked together to improve the club's fortunes not only on the playing field, but in the running of the club's community activities. The club's success has raised the morale of the city. It is involved in Football in the Community, and is working with young people and the unemployed. It has established positive role models within the community, developed educational support and helped to kick out racism. Hopefully, the club will gain automatic promotion at the end of the week by beating Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The same tests that apply to other industries can be applied to football—issues such as monopoly control, serving the customer and what is and what is not a national asset—to preserve a healthy game from top to bottom. The Bill would seek to address those issues and many more affecting football at all levels. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe, Mr. Tony Clarke, Mr. Ivor Caplin, Gillian Merron, Mr. Vernon Coaker, Mr. Stephen Hepburn, Mr. Joe Ashton, Mr. Ivan Henderson, Ann Keen, Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick, Mr. Colin Burgon and Ms Joan Walley.