§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Ben Chapman.]9.30 am
§ Roger Casale (Wimbledon)
I have called this debate because, like the Football Foundation, I believe that football clubs belong in their local communities. I believe also that the foundation may have a role to play in helping my local team, Wimbledon FC, come home to my local community of Wimbledon.
Since it was launched in July 2000, the Football Foundation has helped clubs and communities across Britain to improve their grass-roots facilities, purchase new equipment and develop a broader base for their activities. The foundation is the United Kingdom's largest sports charity. Its annual budget of £53 million is made available by the Government, Sport England, the Premier League and the Football Association itself. The foundation is responsible also for the football stadia improvement fund, an independent funding body that is continuing the stadium development work of the Football Trust.
In 2001, the foundation gave grants that ranged from £2,000 to help a football in the community scheme achieve charitable status in Walsall, to £221,151 to establish a youth development programme at West Bromwich Albion. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich Albion, East (Mr. Watson) is here today. He will be able to tell us a little more about that excellent scheme.
Grants as large as £2 million and loans of as much as £800,000 may be available through the football stadia improvement fund to build a new stadium for Wimbledon FC. By itself, even £2.8 million would not be enough to build a new stadium there, but it would certainly help. The money would be a massive public subsidy to the owners of the club. It would represent the premium to be paid for bringing the Dons back home, instead of allowing them to sever their links with the local community. I believe that such an investment by the Football Foundation could tip the balance towards building a new stadium in Merton and away from the club moving to Milton Keynes.
Over the past few months, the plight of Wimbledon FC has become something of a cause célèbre. For instance, 105 Members of Parliament have signed early-day motion 570, including the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who speaks for the Opposition. I tabled the motion in protest at the club's refusal to accept a Football League decision not to allow it to move to Milton Keynes. While preparing for the debate, I looked through the last 250 or so early-day motions, and only those relating to the tension between India and Pakistan raised a similar level of interest and concern.
The motion has the full support of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), who is chairman of the all-party football group. I take this 66WH opportunity to thank him publicly for his courtesy in inviting the officers of the Wimbledon independent supporters association to put their case against the relocation of the club to the all-party football group. The parliamentary campaign that we have been building together has complemented and built upon the groundswell of support for Wimbledon's cause among football fans across the country. More than 80 clubs were represented at a Fans United day that Wimbledon independent supporters association organised at Selhurst park in November. The passion, energy and sheer resilience that Wimbledon fans have shown week in, week out are a credit to the game. Under the chairmanship of Kris Stewart, they continue to fight a remarkable campaign to stop the move to Milton Keynes. They produce their own quality alternative programme each match day and have drawn up plans for a new stadium. On 10 February, they will set up a new supporters trust—the Dons Trust—to promote the club's return to Wimbledon. They have been ground down by the club's campaign to move to Milton Keynes, but they will not be worn out, and the fight will go on.
Football lovers everywhere understand that allowing clubs to move to areas beyond their traditional fan-base creates a dangerous precedent.
§ Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
My hon. Friend may be aware that many famous clubs have moved. The logic of his argument is that Arsenal should return to Woolwich and—God forbid!—that Manchester United should return to Manchester.
§ Roger Casale
I am sure that we shall have many variations on that theme during the debate.
Wimbledon is a wonderful club, and everyone understands why people would want it in their community. In today's circumstances, the link between football clubs and their local communities is more important than ever. We have limited influence over clubs' plans and decision-making processes, but we should do everything that we can to influence decisions through the Government and organisations such as the Football Foundation. We should promote the return of football clubs to their traditional fan-bases, their local and historic homes and their local communities.
Allowing clubs to move could lead to football franchising. Teams would be hawked around the country to the highest bidder, with scant regard to supporters' interests or clubs' long-term well-being. In a statement issued yesterday, the Football Supporters Association said that it hoped that the Football League would remain as implacably opposed to franchise football as it has been up until now.
A striking number of parliamentary colleagues lent their signatures to the early-day motion, even though they had no direct interest in football. They did so because they understood that football clubs belong in their respective local communities, whose identity is often inextricably linked to the memory of a club, to its history and traditions and to the role that it played in the area.
Wimbledon's FA cup triumph over Liverpool in 1988—I look cautiously around the Room to see whether any Liverpool supporters are present—is still as fresh as a rose in the minds of local people. It represents 67WH an unrivalled high point in our civic and community life in recent years. It is difficult to talk about the history of my constituency without mentioning the ups and downs in the life of Wimbledon FC, and I am sure that many parliamentary colleagues with football clubs in their constituencies will feel the same.
Wimbledon FC has strong roots in the local community and has one of the most extensive community programmes in the Football League. It recently won a prestigious sports match award for its outstanding work over many years with young people across south-west London. I always enjoy my discussions with the Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), about who has the best "football in the community" scheme.
The argument about clubs and their local communities resonates strongly with the Football Foundation, which was set up to promote that link. That argument should also resonate strongly with the Government. After all, it was the Government who set up the Football Trust and, later, the Football Foundation to strengthen the links between football clubs and their local communities.
The Government's football taskforce, which was chaired by David Mellor, recommended in paragraph 1.9 of its report that there was a need to balance the interests of all those in or touched by football, and for the game to promote to as wide a community as possible its sporting aims and key values. On whether football clubs could be run like any other business, the report said that the essential premise of the taskforce was that football, and indeed sport, was different from other business sectors. As a business, the club belongs to its shareholders and owners, but in a powerful sense the club belongs to the supporters and local communities too.
I am sorry if my argument does not chime with that of my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) and for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White). I hope that the Milton Keynes football club, Milton Keynes City, will hear of the debate and realise that the Football Foundation and the Government are on the side of football in the community, whether the clubs are large or small.
§ Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)
I simply want to point out that Milton Keynes City wholly supports the move of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes. It sees the move as extremely advantageous to all existing football teams in the town, and wants to work with a professional club.
§ Roger Casale
I have received no representations from Milton Keynes City. I have tried to contact it, but I am delighted, and not surprised, that my hon. Friend is in touch with the club. Some members of that club may want, in the great snakes and ladders of competitive football, to advance suddenly from the Conference into the Nationwide first division. They should recall the proud tradition, history, struggle and achievements of a club such as Wimbledon. More than 20 years ago, outside support, investment and encouragement set 68WH Wimbledon FC on the road that took it to Wembley and more than 10 years in the Premiership as a top-flight club. That was not an easy road, but every club can still try to take it, including Milton Keynes City.
Yesterday, an arbitration panel referred the decision about the future of Wimbledon FC back to the Football League. That decision will add to the agony of Wimbledon supporters who have campaigned against the move, and I hope that the Football League will now move swiftly to solve the problem once and for all. I tend to take a positive view of what happened yesterday because, with that decision, we have won a period of respite. We have an opportunity to regroup the parties interested in bringing Wimbledon FC back home to Wimbledon where it belongs, and to find a solution to the problem.
It is important that all those who want the club to return to its local community use the time properly while the Football League reconsiders the matter. The community, Merton borough council—and its leader, Andrew Judge—Wimbledon fans and, perhaps, new investors should come together to find a way for each to contribute to bringing the Dons back home. If a suitable site can be found in or near Merton, I am sure that the Football Foundation will want to help. Such a site does exist. It is the site in Plough lane, where the Dons had their original stadium.
Wimbledon has an extraordinary history, rising from the Southern League to lift the FA cup at Wembley and to gain promotion to the Premiership. It caught the imagination and the hearts of millions of football lovers, and millions of people across the land who did not follow or know too much about football. Throughout its meteoric rise, Wimbledon football club played at its modest Plough lane stadium, a site that was bought for the club's use as long ago as 1948 by the then Wimbledon borough council before it became Merton borough council.
In order to comply with the recommendations of the Taylor report, it was necessary to upgrade the stadium. There were inconclusive negotiations with Merton council about alternatives. Sam Hamman, the previous owner and the inspiration for the club's successes, moved Wimbledon football club out of Plough lane; the last game was played there on 4 May 1991. That led to years of inconclusive ground sharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst park. It is difficult to assess the prospects for the club to return to the borough because the current owners seem so set against such a move.
However, the context is changing. From my perspective—not yet, sadly, from that of the club—it seems that, in some respects, the prospects for a return have never been so good. First, the Plough lane site is back on the market, following a series of unsuccessful planning applications by the present owners, Safeway, to build a supermarket there. Secondly, Merton council is being very supportive and enthusiastic, although that has found little favour with the club. It is worth remembering that, with the changes that have been proposed to local government financing, it will be open to Merton council in the future to invest directly in such a project and to shoulder a proportion of the risk. Thirdly, there might be scope for the Government, acting through the Football Foundation, to offer the campaign to bring the Dons back home some practical and financial support.
69WH Those of us who wish to see the club return to Wimbledon should be looking to the foundation for five things: short-term financial support to run, as a matter of urgency, an independent feasibility study on the Plough lane site; help with the establishment of Wimbledon FC's planned football academy to develop home-grown talent on the Prince George's playing fields in Raynes Park; assistance in developing further the club's football in the community scheme in local schools; and providing funding—either as a grant or as a loan, or as both—to move the electricity pylon that currently makes the Plough lane site unfeasible, because it overshadows the place where the intended centre circle should be, off the field and out of sight. That would cost around £500,000, but it is not an insurmountable objection in the context of the total amount of money that would be invested in the stadium.
Lastly, and possibly most importantly, we should be finding out how to apply for the £2 million that has been set aside since the Taylor report for Wimbledon FC to upgrade its stadium; that money could be invested in a new stadium site. Of all the clubs for whom such grants were set aside, Wimbledon is the only one that has not spent the money, for the simple reason that, since that time, it has been without a home.
As Members of Parliament, we should examine critically, as we are doing today, the public interest arguments that relate to the award of public money for football clubs, through the foundation and through the football stadiums improvement scheme. It is right that we should ask what the criteria are for allocating such grants, how the grants are followed up and how the decisions are made about where the money is spent. Those criteria are, and must be seen to be, fair and objective. It is not the case, nor is it my purpose in introducing today's debate, that he or she who shouts loudest should be heard. Through their support of the Football Foundation and of the football stadiums improvement scheme, the Government are recognising that football can be a powerful force for good in our society, and looking to harness that power by strengthening and supporting the bond between football clubs and the communities where they belong.
In the case of Wimbledon football club, that will not be achieved by moving the club from south-west London to south-west Milton Keynes. Such a move would not be in the long-term interests of football either. Nor do I believe that it would be in the public interest, and it certainly should not be eligible for Football Foundation support. By contrast, there is a strong case for seeking funding from the foundation to pursue the aim of returning the club to a stadium in or near Merton. The foundation is currently carrying out an audit of football stadiums, pitches and facilities across the country with the aim of compiling a register. No site is too big or too small to be included in the register, which will even include Old Trafford. I want to make sure that the old site of Wimbledon football club, where we could build a stadium in the future, is included on that register.
As I have said, I hope that the register will include Plough lane, and that the strength of feeling among the fans and in the local community for a return to Plough lane will be taken into account. When I pass the site at Plough lane, I am reminded of a photograph of a jet plane that was once shown to me by a psychologist from 70WH the Royal Air Force. He said that the only thing wrong with the plane was that it did not have a pilot. Because of some psychological flaw, the pilot had lost his will and pulled the lever of the ejector seat, with the result that the plane had crashed. So I ask Mr. Koppel and the owners of Wimbledon FC not to pull the lever and not to take Wimbledon FC away from Wimbledon. I ask them to reconsider the situation because there are plenty of avenues worth exploring and plenty of organisations and individuals, including myself, who will support them if they try to bring the club back home.
This is a timely debate, as it occurs on the day after the arbitration panel announced its decision. I hope that it will be possible to use the debate as a springboard to launch new initiatives to save the club. I look forward to meeting the Minister later this week, or early next week, to discuss possible options. I shall also arrange a meeting next week for all interested parties with Lord Pendry, the chairman of the Football Foundation. We in Wimbledon have waited far too long for our local club, which has covered itself in so much pain and glory and which remains so much a part of our community, proudly to come back home. It has been left out in the cold for far too long. It is time for the club to come back to Wimbledon, where it belongs.
§ Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) on his speech, which typifies his efforts to help his local community. As I wrote my speech between 9.27 am and 9.30 am, I shall not take up too much time. As we are talking about football funding generally, I want to compliment the Football Foundation, which, under the chairmanship of Lord Pendry, allocates its funds with understanding of, and care for, the game that it supports.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon and the Wimbledon independent supporters association, whose members I have met on several occasions. I am impressed by the professionalism of that association. My hon. Friend mentioned the programme that it produces, which is one of the best that I have ever seen. It outsells the official programme 2:1. It is not a fanzine but a programme, in which fans of visiting clubs provide details about their teams. The association understands the football business very well. I look forward to it being able to help to run Wimbledon at Plough lane.
One of the first political thoughts that I ever had as a teenager came to me when I visited my beloved Ayresome park, where Middlesbrough used to play. I saw the hoardings that read "Middlesbrough Football and Athletic Company Limited" and I could not get home fast enough to ask my mother what that meant. I thought that it must be wrong, but she explained that I did not own the club. I knew that I had equal ownership of the recreation ground where I spent most of my time playing football and cricket, but I was absolutely shocked to find that the club was owned by shareholders. I thought that those people with whom I went to cheer on my club every Saturday and me owned the club equally. That was probably my first political thought.
It is strange that I should have become a Member of Parliament, only to find out what a mistake it was for clubs to be owned by shareholders and not on a one 71WH member, one vote basis. As a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament, I understand that. It was probably that visit to Ayresome park that day that made me seek sponsorship by the Co-operative Movement.
I have a special memory of Wimbledon; I must be getting on if I can go back many years, although this memory dates from only 25 years ago. I worked for Middlesbrough then, spying on the opposition as a part-time job. I sat on a bench at Plough lane on 8 January 1977, next to Jack Charlton, when we played Wimbledon, then a non-league side, in the third round of the FA Cup. As we did this year, we scraped a draw in the first game and managed to scrape a win in the replay. That happened at Plough lane, where the Wimbledon fans would like the club to return now.
If the owners of Wimbledon want to have a professional football side in Milton Keynes—I would support them in that—they should fund the creation of a non-league side. I understand that they are billionaires in Norway. They should put money into Milton Keynes and help the people of that town to have their own side. They would find that the supporters of the new club would have much more of a tie to it and would support it to the death, as most of us do our own sides. If it were their own side that came from nothing—as Wimbledon did when it won the FA cup—they would get so much satisfaction.
My hon. Friend mentioned Kris Stewart, the chairman of the Wimbledon independent supporters association. Kris and his colleagues are doing a great job and my hon. Friend is giving them every support. I wish them luck in the future.
I have been to Milton Keynes, once. Many people have never been. About 20 years ago, there was a wonderful series of radio programmes on a weekday afternoon—probably after "Woman's Hour"—called "A Geordie in MK". I am not a Geordie, but viewing Middlesbrough from Milton Keynes, people might think that I am. Other hon. Members present probably think that I am a Geordie. I was impressed by that programme and I have had a special affection for Milton Keynes ever since. I would like to offer my support to the town's efforts to get a football league team. However, in doing so, it should not take an existing club away from the people who care most about it; Wimbledon's local supporters.
Progress is being made everywhere. I am sure that hon. Members will hear about York City football club, which is emerging from its recent trauma. There was a Brentford independent supporters meeting in my local pub recently, 20 yd from where I live. Ron Noades, the owner of Brentford club, was also there. The club is only 50 yd from my house. I believe that the chairman of the independent supporters association has been offered a place on the board, effective immediately. Ron Noades is ready to hand the club over to be run in a democratic way by local people. All those involved have my full support. However, we are here to talk about Wimbledon. I wish the fans well and I thank my hon. Friend for all the support that he has given them.
§ Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) on securing yet another 72WH debate on his football club. I did suspect, despite the title that I read in the Order Paper, that the debate would really be about the proposed move of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes.
If Wimbledon could have found a base within its own borough during the past 10 years, nobody would have been happier than those of us in Milton Keynes. We are not trying to poach Wimbledon. Milton Keynes is offering a solution to the problem that has faced Wimbledon for the past 10 years and which is highly unlikely to be solved in the next 10—the fact that the club does not operate from its home borough. Not surprisingly, on behalf of my constituents—and with the support, on the whole, of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White)—I take a different view of Wimbledon FC's move to Milton Keynes from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon. The issue is, as he said, back with the Football League following the ruling by the arbitration panel that the league was wrong to dismiss Wimbledon's proposal to move in the first place and that it should reconsider the proposal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon has made much play of his early-day motion 570. It contains many misleading statements, with little evidence to support them. The move would not establish a precedent. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East has already referred to Arsenal, and a more recent precedent is the move of Meadowbank Thistle to Livingston, since Livingston is, like Milton Keynes, a new town. Neither instance established a wholesale move to franchising, and it is wrong to suggest in the early-day motion that a move to Milton Keynes would do so.
The early-day motion contains much about the historic links between football clubs and their communities, and the jeopardising of opportunities for young people. I remind hon. Members of the needs of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend. We, too, need football in our community and the current structures of the Football League—which dictate the structures of funding by the Football Foundation and by Football in the Community—effectively exclude our constituents from the public money and help that goes into building links between Football in the Community and football clubs.
I hope that all hon. Members who are present will agree about the positive role that professional football can play in communities. It clearly encourages young people, both girls and boys, to participate in football. It provides role models for them. It can provide a focus for community identity and, at its best—not always, unfortunately —it can provide a route for ethnic minority communities to participate in and feel part of a corporate community identity. My constituents in Milton Keynes want to share in those positive roles of professional football.
The role of the Football Foundation is important in providing funding for modern football facilities at all levels and strengthening links between football and the community. However, the problem with Football Foundation funding, as with the rest of the Football League structure, is that it is based on history; on the status quo. The rules are designed for established towns and cities and take no account of movements of population. In particular, they effectively exclude from 73WH help places such as Milton Keynes. As hon. Members will know, Milton Keynes is a completely new community; it is not an extension of an existing town or city, and was created virtually from scratch in the past 30 years. That huge population movement is ignored by the structures of professional football and the accompanying funding structures.
§ Roger Casale
My hon. Friend has explained why any community would want a football club, but she seems to be taking a "Blue Peter" approach to football. She wants to offer a community a football club that was made somewhere else. Would not it be better to grow the club from the community, as Wimbledon has shown can happen, and, of course, to look for support for that from the Football Foundation? I believe that hon. Members present today, and probably hon. Members throughout the House, would support that.
§ Dr. Starkey
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for trying to educate me in the ways of football, but he talks about what happened 25 years ago and ignores the fact that the rules and structures of the Football League have altered. When the Football League was formed, for example, teams were brought straight into it in a way that is not possible now. The rules that pertain now are much stricter; the pyramidal structure of promotion from non-football league into football league is much more difficult, and it would be impossible for Wimbledon to do now what it did 25 years ago. It is ridiculous for my hon. Friend to skate over that and suggest that everything is now as it was, because everything is now much more difficult, and militates against new communities and in favour of established communities. That is the whole point.
My hon. Friend's community is on the upside of the structure and is favoured by it, while our community is heavily disfavoured by the structure. It is insulting for him to suggest that the route that was available for his club 25 years ago is available for us now. Indeed, the rules of the Football League are in the process of being reviewed and changed, which will make it even more difficult for non-league clubs to get into the league than it has been heretofore. The route for currently excluded clubs is becoming even more difficult.
I want to talk about the community that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East and I serve. Milton Keynes will soon have the largest urban population in the south-east of England outside London, and the largest urban population in Europe without a professional football team. Some 70 per cent. of the population of Milton Keynes have migrated there from elsewhere, and 70 per cent. of that 70 per cent. are from London, including Wimbledon.
When hon. Members talk about the link between football clubs and their communities, they seem to think that communities are set in aspic and that nobody moves anywhere. When they talk about communities, are they talking about places or people? They are not the same thing. Many people in Milton Keynes have contributed to football clubs in London in the past. Is that community contribution to be ignored, and can we take into account the community contribution of only those who currently live within the area of existing football teams? I do not understand why, if populations move, football clubs cannot also move.
74WH Participation in football in Milton Keynes is strong, despite the severe disadvantages from which we suffer. We are a young city, with 40,000 school-age children, and a new school is built every year. Some 46 per cent. of our 250,000 population are under 30 years old. We have 375 youth football teams, with more than 16,500 people participating, either as players, officials or spectators. We have an active Bangladeshi football association, which organises an annual national Asian seven-a-side tournament that it occasionally wins. However, the route for talented youngsters to progress is extremely difficult; the nearest Premiership club is 50 miles away, and the nearest league football team is 20 miles away. Talented youngsters from Milton Keynes travel to eight different league clubs for professional coaching, and only those whose parents can transport them and support them can participate. A large number of young people in Milton Keynes are excluded by distance from progressing in their football careers.
Football Foundation funding can do little to help people in Milton Keynes. They are also unable to access Football in the Community funding or FA-approved academy funding, because of the lack of a football league team. Since the inception of the Milton Keynes development corporation, it has made provision for a professional football stadium in the development plan, because it foresaw that professional football was one of the facilities that a city would want.
In 1978, the then Football League general secretary made it clear that the Football League recognised Milton Keynes as a special case and had no objection to any club moving there, provided that a suitable stadium was available. It is wrong to represent that idea as a precedent for widespread franchising. I referred to the move, in 1995, of Meadowbank Thistle to Livingston, which is a new town. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East referred to the move made by Arsenal, when it faced economic extinction, from Woolwich to north London in 1913.
The reality is that Wimbledon has not been operating from its borough for the past 10 years. It has made it clear that it needs its own stadium or it will go out of existence financially. It is losing £20,000 a day. Milton Keynes has provided a solution and the club has made it clear that it will continue to provide training in the community within Wimbledon, even after a move. It will also provide such facilities in Milton Keynes. There would be an improvement, not a diminution, in the way in which the club participates in community football development.
The Football Foundation has a valuable role to play in encouraging wider participation in football and facilitating the links between youth football teams and professional football. However, it cannot do that effectively if it and the Football Association refuse to acknowledge the needs of communities such as Milton Keynes and remain frozen in past population patterns.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair)
Order. I have no power to impose a time limit on speeches, but four hon. Members wish to speak, in addition to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the official Opposition spokesman and the Minister. My intention is that the Opposition spokesman's winding-up speech should start at 10.40 am. That leaves each hon. Member who wants to speak about five minutes each.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I welcome the opportunity, here in Westminster Hall, to debate football. I only wish that we were not playing to the referee's whistle and that we had a first half and second half to discuss it. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) on securing the debate. The Order Paper refers to Football Foundation funding for football clubs, and the matters that have been raised in the debate show what many of us knew already.
We have great difficulties in raising issues concerning football outside the Premiership. Given the way in which finance and broadcasting are determining how the game is progressing, many clubs—not only Wimbledon—are facing financial extinction. I am pleased to see the Minister for Sport in the Chamber, and I pay tribute to him for his work, particularly for the fact that he visited Stoke-on-Trent not all that long ago. While I have the opportunity, I should remind him that we are serious about making a bid for a sport action zone, which, if successful, will aid us with grass-roots football.
Many Football League clubs face either financial extinction or crisis. York and Swansea, for example, have had problems. Football clubs throughout the league face difficulties. Port Vale FC in my constituency is seeking a new buyer, and the club has been on the market for a considerable time. Members of Parliament must work alongside the football authorities to ensure that there is a future for all our football clubs. We should extend league club status to those new towns and areas that do not have it at present. Such issues should be examined. My right hon. Friend the Minister should apply criteria that are equivalent to listed building status to football clubs, so that we do not lose them. They are so much a part and parcel of the local community. Perhaps he could extend the work of Supporters Direct and the ideas of mutuality to which my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) referred and ensure the viability of clubs at all levels.
§ Brian White
My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the reasons why Northampton Town was able to survive was that the local council took ownership of the ground and was active in ensuring that the interests of supporters and the town were paramount in the club's decisions.
§ Ms Walley
I absolutely agree. Supporters have a great contribution to make, along with local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, who introduced the debate, mentioned the new powers that local authorities have to help football clubs.
My right hon. Friend the Minister has a background in urban regeneration. If we can get football right, we can achieve much in urban regeneration. I urge him to move in that direction.
I do not want to participate in a debate about Wimbledon FC, although there is a connection between my constituency and Wimbledon. The scorer of what is possibly Jamaica's most famous goal, who played for Wimbledon, is now a well-known broadcaster. He was originally a constituent of mine who played for Port Vale and, most importantly for this debate, he came up 76WH through an organisation called Lads and Dads, which was founded by the late Dougie Brown, who sadly died last week. I mention Lads and Dads because a debate about the Football Foundation is about grass-roots football. A debate about how football stadiums are funded should be about the football stadiums improvement scheme that is part of the Football Foundation, but it is also a separate entity; I understand that the Football Foundation cannot give grants to private companies. We should examine how we fund grass-roots football outside the Football League.
In my five minutes of extra time, I shall give the Chamber more information about the need for investment from the Football Foundation. I, too, pay tribute to the outstanding work that that organisation, and, previously, the Football Trust, has done under the chairmanship of Lord Pendry and the leadership of its chief executive, Peter Lee.
By 15 March last year, 2,838 league games in grass-roots football had been played in my constituency. The leagues involved are the Potteries and District league, the County Minor league, the City Traders league, the Springbank Vending league, the Staffordshire County league, the Lycett, Burslem and Newcastle District league, the Cheadle league, the Marston's Sunday league and the Lads and Dads under-16s league. As of 15 March, 5,480 matches had still not been played because of a lack of pitches and bad drainage on the pitches that have been created. Many of these are not sustainable, having been created out of former coalmining tips. That figure does not even include cup matches. How can people play, between 15 March and the end of the season, an outstanding 5,480 matches?
That is why I have set up a partnership in my constituency that has resulted in applications to the Football Foundation in respect of the Bradeley pitches. I am pleased to say that that is well under way. We are involved in further applications relating to pitches, such as that at Packmore and in other parts of my constituency, that cannot be played on. There are many examples of social exclusion where people cannot play on pitches because the pitches are not fit for the purpose. That is why the work of the Football Foundation is so important.
In Stoke-on-Trent, we have a partnership with the Groundwork Trust that involves the Coalfields Regeneration Trust. I want a rolling programme of money that is funded with the Football Foundation's support. I pay tribute to the two chairmen of the groups that provide that money, because money is needed for proper drainage and football facilities. That is the nuts and bolts of the work of the Football Foundation, although it receives little publicity.
In the final minute of play, I ask the Minister to address our worries about league clubs and clubs that belong to their communities. He could also examine the £60 million funding for the Football Foundation, of which £20 million comes from broadcasting, £20 million from the FA and the remaining £20 million from the Government.
I do not want to repeat the situation of a previous Parliament, when I wrote to every football chairman in the country to urge them to put pressure on the then Government to give money through the pools duty to ensure that the gap in Football Trust funding could be 77WH met to allow clubs such as Port Vale to improve their stadiums. I do not want to see a £4 million shortfall from the Government in terms of their funding for the Football Foundation.
I hope that smaller clubs throughout the country that are outside the Premiership and do not have access to funding may find a way to survive. That should be linked to local grass-roots football and adequate support for the Football Foundation.
§ Hugh Bayley (City of York)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) on raising this important issue. Wimbledon FC's nomadic existence, and the draining effect of that on its supporters, is a real warning for York City football club's supporters, because we face the possibility that we will lose our ground and, therefore, face similar problems.
York City FC has a long and honourable history. The club was founded in 1922, and elected to the Football League in 1929, where it has been ever since. Like all clubs, it has had its ups and downs, but it has enjoyed notable high points. In the 1995–96 season, we beat Manchester United in the Worthington cup and we beat Everton the following year.
Now, York City FC faces its greatest challenge; a fight for survival following the directors' decision to put the club and ground on the market. The people of York rallied to support the club. Plans are going well to establish a supporters' trust to work with the club, and that will be launched on Friday at York's Barbican centre. I shall be there to show my commitment.
On Saturday 2 February—the 10th anniversary of the tragic death on the pitch of the York City player, David Longhurst—there will be a Fans United day for the home game against Lincoln City. That club, incidentally, is managed by a supporters' trust, which shows what supporters can do.
I pay tribute to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for the role that has been played by Supporters Direct, which is funded by the Government through the Football Foundation. I pay particular tribute to the work of Dave Boyle from Supporters Direct over recent weeks in helping to create and build York's supporters' trust. I also pay tribute to the City of York council, which provided office premises for that work and has been in contact with the various consortia that have made bids for the club.
Of course, York City FC is a business, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) said. However, it is not a business like any other. York has many important businesses such as GNER, Nestle Rowntree and Portakabin. All those companies are important to the city and its economy. However, they do not get thousands of people turning up to support them week after week. A football club is different; it is a business, but a business that has had its assets built up by supporters over decades. Those assets should not be taken away from a club.
There is a long-established tradition in football that directors are the guardians of their clubs. They play a privileged role, and any profits ought to be ploughed back into the clubs. I hope that that will happen in the York City case.
78WH The Football Association always had a rule that, when a club is wound up, its profits are given to a sports charity. The point of that rule was to deter asset stripping. However, in 1999, York City FC hived off its assets—its ground—to a holding company, which is now up for sale. When the holding company was established, the directors stated that its creation was to safeguard the future of the club. If the ground is sold, the assets must be used for that purpose.
That important issue raises a matter of football policy that I wish the Minister to consider. I hope that he will get in touch with Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the Football Association, to ask him to examine its rules, because they should be strengthened. When supporters have built up assets over decades, those assets should remain with the club; they should not be hived off and sold in a property deal. I hope that that will not happen in York, but the Football Association should have rules to prevent that from happening to any football club.
§ Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) for securing this debate on the Football Foundation. Following a century of under-investment and neglect, grass-roots football is being kicked into the 21st century by the foundation's regeneration work. Where once there were jumpers in the park, now there are goalposts, good-quality training and decent kits, thanks to the foundation's work.
West Bromwich Albion plays an important role in the community that I represent, and I thank the club for that. It has been enjoying not only a good cup run, but a good run of victories in the league. It also deserves credit for its work with schools and kids across my constituency, and beyond.
This month, its long-standing Football in the Community programme received a welcome cash boost of £221,000 from the foundation. The grant will allow the community programme to fund the Sandwell six towns project. That involves thousands of children in 60 schools across the borough; it helps them to develop teamwork, leadership and communication skills.
That grant will make a real difference in West Bromwich, as such money has made a difference to many of the grass-roots and community projects that hon. Members have mentioned. By encouraging kids to take an active part in football, we give them positive opportunities, and take them away from the temptations of crime and drugs. It is essential that we continue to recognise the foundation's role with regard to that.
Another project in my constituency, the Greets Green ABC club, has recently set up a football team called the Scorpions. It is a mixed club, which works with local kids. Next month, it will play its first away game, in London, against a team from Camden. I hope to welcome the players at the House for their victory celebrations. Dot Jones organises the club, which provides a classic example of grass-roots football at its best. It began when she started taking the kids out on to the local green to kick a ball around, and a good-quality project has developed from that.
79WH The Football Foundation is all about such projects. Investment must be secured over the long term if we are to discover the David Beckhams of the future, the players for whom every club searches. The foundation is putting something back into the game.
The foundation is also widening access to the game. The National Association of Disabled Supporters has long needed a stronger voice in football. It has received a grant of £23,000 from the foundation, and it is now auditing all of the facilities in the country, so that, with regard to facilities for the disabled, the good clubs will provide a shining example to the poorer clubs.
Most of the current innovative projects in football are linked to the foundation. Its work with the homeless provides a good example of that. It runs the street football league, in partnership with the Rough Sleepers Unit. Football for the homeless has not only been fun, but has helped hundreds of kids off the streets and has given them self-esteem and confidence. There are also training and referee courses to get them on to that first step on the ladder and back into the real world. In my view, sport goes hand in hand with education as a tool for social inclusion.
Top-flight football is all too often criticised for being more concerned with the balance sheet than the score sheet, as today's debate has so amply highlighted. However, we should give credit to the Premiership. It is often knocked because of the way that football is going, but let us not forget that it puts £20 million a year into the foundation. We should also pay tribute to the chairman and the chief executive of the Premiership, who play an active role on the board of the foundation. It is right that some of the big bucks in the game should be channelled into making sure that grass-roots football is revived and improved.
After little more than a year, the foundation is already accessing more than 350 applications from clubs and community schemes, to the tune of £52 million. It is planning for the future and compiling the first register of football facilities in England. That database will enable us to make the first accurate audit of the estimated 70,000 football pitches in England. I hope that the stakeholders, including the Government, will continue to recognise the invaluable work of the Football Foundation, and will keep on providing adequate funding.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) mentioned that Wimbledon FC was elected to the league in 1977. That would not happen now; the team would have to win promotion. A team can now win automatic promotion from the Conference, as did my side, the mighty Kidderminster Harriers—once, in 1994, when its ground was not up to scratch, and once under the leadership of big Jan Molby two years ago. It is now in the third division, and could well go up into the second division. There is hope for Milton Keynes. I am sure that if the move does not go the right way, we could always move Milton Keynes.
§ Dr. Starkey
Would my hon. Friend explain why, if promotion to the league has not happened in the 30 years of Milton Keynes's existence, it is likely to happen in the next 30?
§ Mr. Watson:
I cannot comment on the quality of Milton Keynes's football teams, but if my hon. Friend wants to come to Kidderminster or West Bromwich, we can give her a few coaching tips, which she can take back to her side.
§ Andy Burnham (Leigh)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) on securing the debate, which is important because, for many people in football, Wimbledon FC embodies the dream factor. For fans everywhere, it is the epitome of the club that can go right to the top and win silverware. As an Evertonian, I have fond memories of 1988 and Lawrie Sanchez's header. Many fellow fans will share my hon. Friend's fondness for Plough lane. I remember being in the open-air away end, and seeing John Fashanu rampaging through our defence.
I support what my hon. Friend is trying to do and I pay tribute to the work that he has done to support and protect his club. I also pay tribute to Lord Falconer, who has helped him. I have nothing against Milton Keynes, and I listened to the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). I, too, would like football to flourish there. We need to help new communities, but I do not think that we should do so by giving them another community's history and heritage. This is a test case. We are discussing whether a temporary owner can uproot a club that was nurtured and nourished by one community and plant it in another.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) made an interesting speech, full of knowledge and conviction. He talked about FA rules being changed. The point is not so much that rules are being changed; rule 34 is in the FA's rulebook, and we want the FA to enforce its rules to prevent clubs from selling their grounds and moving away from their communities. That is what rule 34 is about.
On the York case, it is wrong that the chairman of York City, who sold the club's assets and put them into a holding company, was one of the very people sitting on the tribunal yesterday that ruled that the Football League decision regarding Wimbledon FC should be reconsidered by the Football League. That is wrong, and it needs to be looked at. I support the foundation's action in helping Wimbledon FC rebuild its home in south London. I also support it buying back Portuguese right-backs from Liverpool, but I suspect that that will not be on the cards.
My main point is about the foundation, which is not about the wealth at the top of the game. It is about the grass roots, about which my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) and for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) spoke eloquently and passionately. I am probably one of the few Members of Parliament who still plays Sunday morning football. It can be an extremely depressing trotting out at Haydock rec on a Sunday morning in the drizzle and having to avoid the dog excrement that is invariably left all over the pitch.
It is no surprise that we are struggling for players. Throughout the Warrington Sunday league, many teams are struggling for players and for referees, which is a problem that afflicts the whole of football. There is 81WH a shortage of referees from the bottom of the game to the top. I posit a very simple reason for that. The facilities provided for amateur footballers in this country are absolutely pitiful and depressing. In Britain, in the year 2002, Sunday morning footballers still have to change in shipping containers. Often, there is no hot or cold water, or toilets. Such a lack of facilities is standard. It is what we expect when we play football on Sunday mornings, and it is unacceptable.
The problem has much to do with local authority funding. I do not want to inject a partisan note into the debate, but local authorities were starved of funding in the 1980s and 1990s and, as a result, our civic fabric, our parks, and our sports facilities have declined.
Throughout my work with the football taskforce and, subsequently, with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I was closely involved with the setting up of the Football Foundation. Its philosophy was to take some of the new-found wealth at the top of the game and plough it back into the public game at the bottom. Professional football has always redistributed money within the game, from the top to the bottom of the league. The foundation did something important. It went a stage further and took funding from professional football down into the public sphere at the grass roots and to schools and parks.
The Office of Fair Trading challenged the foundation, but the foundation argued that because football acts together and sells its rights collectively, it can make a collective decision to invest its money for the wider public good. That is a crucial element of collective television bargaining that has been under threat both in this country and abroad.
The European Commission is yet again looking at the collective deals of the English Premiership and the Football League. I know that the Minister for Sport understands the issues and is passionate about them, and I urge him to resist moves by the competition authorities to break up the collective bargaining arrangements in football and in sport generally. Such arrangements allow football authorities to put enormous sums into the Football Foundation. Without them, the bigger clubs would simply break away. Smaller clubs would be looking after themselves and the wider game would be left to fend for itself.
People have asked why football is getting all the attention, but the point about the Football Foundation—
Mr Roger Cole (in the Chair)
Order. I must advise the hon. Gentleman and others that if they do not recognise the constraints imposed upon them by the Chair, the Chair is likely to be less lenient in future.
§ Andy Burnham
I was under the impression that I was the last speaker, but I will be brief. The collective television deal is extremely important and it is helping football to be self-sufficient, possibly reducing the amount of lottery funding that it receives from the public purse.
There are two final points that I ask the Minister to consider. Will he look at the role of Supporters Direct and whether the foundation is able to give it more support and work more closely with it to help some of the struggling Football League clubs? I believe that 82WH supporters' trusts are the answer to some of the problems in the game. Finally, will my right hon. Friend also consider diverting more lottery funding to the foundation? That would ensure that there was one funding pot for one strategy—created by the register of facilities—and would enable the foundation to create stability and health in football from the bottom of the pyramid right up to the top.
§ Bob Russell (Colchester)
Clearly, 90 minutes is not enough for such an important debate. I regret that the seven speakers from the Government Benches have not played as a team. I will do my best in the minute that is left to me.
I am no fan of Wimbledon FC because it once knocked Colchester United out of the FA Cup when Wimbledon was a non-league side. However, I stand foursquare with Wimbledon and, hopefully, the Football Foundation and others in supporting community-based clubs. If Milton Keynes wishes to have a Football League side, it need do no more than follow the excellent example in the past decade or so of clubs such as Kidderminster Harriers, Wycombe Wanderers, Rushden and Diamonds, Macclesfield Town and Cheltenham Town, or teams as diverse as Halifax Town, Lincoln City, Darlington and Colchester United—which I have supported for the past 46 years—all of which won their places in the Football League by merit.
It is easier than ever for a professional football club to rise to the highest level and it is nonsense to suggest that a club must move around the country, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) did. Milton Keynes is an important location and I strongly recommend that any football club can aspire to membership of the league from its own resources.
Clubs may legally belong to the shareholders or to an individual owner, but their hearts and souls belong to their fans, whether they are in the nearby community or have travelled with the club. Good luck to York City and Wimbledon FC, and to Milton Keynes in trying to win its place in the Football League the correct way.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Colchester for his patience and generosity.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
In recognition of the generosity of the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), I remind hon. Members of the power of football. Last spring, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—the then Minister for Sport—publicly declared that, for the irregularities of which it was guilty, Chesterfield FC should have had more than nine points deducted. The result was that the Liberal Democrats won Chesterfield from Labour in the general election.
I remind the Committee of my interest. I have been president of York City football club since 1988, and probably watch approximately 20 York City matches every season. I have no executive responsibility and it is difficult to say precisely what is happening about the club's future. I spoke to one of the potential new owners, 83WH Mr. John Batchelor, who was at the match last Saturday, and I have high hopes that he will become the future owner.
I am also lending active support to the embryonic supporters' trust, which I will help to launch at the York Barbican centre on Friday; I am glad that the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) will be there. By virtue of events elsewhere and with the help of Supporters Direct, many supporter trusts have been established, and I am convinced that they have played a vital role in helping clubs in financial difficulty to re-establish their base, although many are not yet out of the woods.
We play Lincoln City on Saturday, which is Fans United day, as the hon. Member for City of York mentioned. I was in the directors' box at York City on the day 10 years ago when David Longhurst collapsed and died of a severe heart condition that nobody knew he had. As president of the club, I chaired the appeal, which, with the help of the Football Foundation's predecessor, the Football Trust, put a roof over the Shipton street end of the ground. We called it the David Longhurst stand.
I remember the night we formally opened the stand. Sadly, the public address system packed up and I had to use a loudhailer, but I said then—enough people heard it—that I regarded it as one of the proudest achievements of my life to have been able to raise the money against the odds. We face much the same situation now.
York does not get the attendances that our performances on the pitch deserve, even though we are 23rd in the third division. We are one place from relegation, although we won last night. There is a contradiction. People say that we must save the club, and we had terrific attendances at our two recent cup games, although the cup run is now at an end for us. At the same time, however, people do not come through the turnstiles regularly enough to provide support for the club. That has to change.
In some respects, my next point about change will go to the heart of what the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) was trying to say. The facilities at many grounds are not up to the job of attracting fans, and are incapable of being used seven days a week, 365 days a year. York race course has 15 race days a year, yet it is busy every night with banquets, and every day with conferences and weddings. We have to make other use of the facilities.
The Conservative party strongly supports the creation of the Football Foundation, which has a big role to play in ensuring that football is adequately funded. It has several tasks to fulfil, but it has huge experience and expertise because, effectively, it was the Football Trust. During the past 10 years, the Football Trust was probably one of the most successful initiatives in British sport. Without it, our Premiership and first division grounds, and even some grounds lower down the league, would not have such fabulous new stadiums to which people are thronging.
That is only part of the role of the Football Foundation. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) on his ingenuity in being 84WH able to discuss the future of Wimbledon FC in a debate on the subject of football club funding and the Football Foundation. He was right to say that there would be a limit of £2 million on any grant from the foundation, but that is because its budget is not the £60 million target that was announced. Only 12.5 per cent. of the money—£7.5 million—is available for the football stadia improvement fund. People say that that cannot be enough, given the state of some grounds in the second and third division, but those clubs cannot afford even to think about redevelopment because they effectively face bankruptcy.
The most important element of the funding of the foundation comes from the Premiership. We do not know whether the television money amounts to 5 per cent., although we can argue about that another day, but that money is welcome. Cricket and lawn tennis give 11 per cent. of television money to grass-roots sport, and I hope that the Premiership will in time provide a greater resource.
What politicians can do about the future of football is limited at present. The Government do not own football and can only help to set a framework. I have watched football for 50 years, and many colleagues present have a similar love of the sport. Although I am president of York, I am a fanatical Arsenal fan, and I see what is happening at both extremes. The balance is not right. It is an old saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but that is precisely what is happening. It is happening to York City and to many other clubs, such as Port Vale, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) mentioned. I go to boardrooms on a Saturday at away matches, and precisely know the financial restrictions faced.
What is happening to those clubs is a prelude to a serious collapse of the second and third divisions in the foreseeable future. We cannot, in the time available, find a solution today, but I hope that what has been said will have tweaked the minds of those in football who have responsibility for the future.
One of the most heartening things to see during Saturday's game against Fulham was the banner held by Fulham fans that said "Save York City Football Club". I believe that we can save the club, but we must remember that the work of the Football Foundation is to support the grass roots of the game. Another debate on the subject would be useful, because my notes contain a lot about how we should invigorate the grass roots. The foundation has made a good start, but it needs to do more.
Unless we encourage youngsters and give them proper coaching, we can kiss goodbye to our dreams of winning World cups or European championships in years to come. We have seen what coaching on the continent has achieved. The Football Foundation is a vehicle for funding and has the experience to coach our youngsters and give them proper facilities, but it has to be given the resources.
This has not been a partisan debate, except when we have been talking about where Wimbledon FC should go. I, as the shadow Minister, and my party will do all that we can to help. What we are seeing now is the development of many things that were started by the Conservative Government. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wimbledon on securing the debate. 85WH If nothing else, it has provided us with an opportunity to say a little about what is going on in football, and I hope that those in high places will hear what has been said.
§ The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) on securing the debate. It was an innovatory way of getting Wimbledon FC on to the agenda. I went to see last night's derby match where Sheffield United, my team, and Sheffield Wednesday had a no-score draw. After getting up at 5 o'clock this morning to return here, I have to say that listed buildings and club relocation take on a new meaning.
The Football Foundation's achievements since July 2000 have been substantial. I shall deal specifically with the question of relocation of Wimbledon to Milton Keynes. Powerful arguments have been made by both sides but, as I have said on a number of occasions— especially in connection with the early-day motion— the Government do not have a major role to play. I have said to the fans, to the club and to my hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon and for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) that it is a matter for the Football League. Indeed, yesterday's development clearly puts the matter back in the league's hands. I was able to speak about that to David Burns at last night's match, and the league will take seriously the referral from the Football Association.
The question facing the Football League is whether a club should be permitted to relocate away from a historic location. That is something for the FA to decide, but it is important that it is taken in the context of today's debate. The guidance that is given to the Football League says that it should consider the community interest when deciding the location of a club.
In four or five weeks' time, many of the questions raised today can be taken up with the new independent football commission. Unfortunately, it has taken a little while to get under way. Professor Fraser will be heading that commission, and I hope that some of the questions about ownership and the role of football— and the questions asked directly by supporters— will be taken in a wider context by the commission; that is why it was set up. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), the chairman of the all-party group on football, may facilitate that debate because that subject was not properly aired in this morning's 90-minute debate.
There is clearly a lot of concern about ownership, and my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) mentioned York City football club. The club is close to my town of Sheffield and to Chesterfield, where Supporters Direct played an active role in setting up a trust. The independent football commission could usefully take up the fundamental issues of the ownership of football clubs' assets and the role that clubs play in the community. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Burnham) will become the chairman of Supporters Direct in the near future, and I wish him well. I hope that Supporters Direct can meet the new independent football commission to work through some of the major problems— they are opportunities, too— that football faces.
86WH I welcome the work of the Football Foundation. Only last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a major conference that was called by local authorities and those interested in football in the north-east, including representatives of the Sunday leagues. Many of the problems that have been raised today were raised there. A new corporate governance is emerging at grass-roots level, aided and abetted by professional football. Clubs are setting up academies and working with the foundation, which suggests that they realise that the fans and the indigenous development of the game are important for its long-term health. That is what the Government and the Opposition believe, and the foundation plays a significant role in that regard. It is putting resources into the grass roots to ensure that we build social inclusion and tackle many of the issues that we encounter in the more difficult areas and estates. Football is a great conduit for bringing people back into society, and I know that those in the game take that role seriously.
It has taken the Football Foundation 12 months to bed down, but it is now moving in the right direction, and hon. Members have given many statistics to illustrate the role that it plays. As an aside, I might mention that I went to the opening of the new ground of the Sheffield club, the first football club in the world. The foundation helped to secure that new location and to renovate the old ground, which is now an excellent park in which to play football. Beyond that, the foundation's activities will help football in general.
As regards Wimbledon, we shall watch this space with interest to see what comes out of the Football League's deliberations. The wider issue of ownership should be taken up with the independent commission, and I hope that Fans Direct can get the debate going and that we can then bring the matter back into this arena. From time to time, the independent football commission will report to the Government on the debate, so it is a serious matter. All the major actors— the FA and others— are on the stage, so I am hopeful that we shall have a thorough debate, without taking a partisan position. We can probably come up with a formula that will lead to football being seen and owned by the communities in which clubs operate so that the game can move from strength to strength.
I congratulate the foundation, with which I work closely, and I hope that we can ensure that progress is made.
§ Mr. Caborn
I am looking closely at the issue with the Treasury. One must look at sport in the round. There are 130-odd sports in the UK, and I am bound to say that football, although very important, gets more than its fair share of the contributions. That is not to say that there is not a dialogue going on with the foundation; there is, and I shall take it up in the next two weeks with the noble Lord Pendry. Let us keep a sense of proportion about all sports in this country.