Clause 6 - The IFR’s objectives

Football Governance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Equalities)

The clause sets out the regulator’s objectives, which are its primary aims and also the limits of its statutory remit. As clause 7 sets out, the regulator may only act if the action taken advances

“so far as reasonably practical…one or more of the IFR’s objectives”.

The fan-led review highlighted a myriad problems facing football in this country, and they are all important issues on which action is need. However, in our response to the independent review, and the White Paper that followed, we were clear that not all those problems are for a regulator to fix. The Government have been clear about the areas on which a potential football regulator would need to act. They are areas related only to sustainability, as it is on the issue of sustainability that we believe the market has failed and remains ill-equipped to act. The three objectives in clause 6 codify that intention into legislation, while limiting the opportunity for scope creep to the various broader issues in football.

The first objective on financial soundness looks to deal with the ability of individual clubs to continue to meet their debts and liabilities, even in the face of changing circumstances, new risks and financial shocks. The lower the risk that a club will be unable to meet its debts and liabilities in the future, the more financially sound it is. More financially sound clubs should help to reduce the risk of clubs being run into the ground and lost to their communities.

The second objective is on the wider financial resilience of the English football system. It involves the regulator taking a more macro view of the market to address structural issues and systemic financial risks. There are issues that individually are a small problem, but when aggregated or multiplied pose a significant threat to groups of clubs or the pyramid as a whole. Examples include the distribution of broadcast revenue throughout the football pyramid, or where several clubs are highly dependent on similar sources of income or similar credit markets.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

I am interested in what the Minister says about the sustainability of the football pyramid. If a particular measure on the distribution of funding affects other clubs and those in the pyramid that receive that money, that could be construed as posing a risk to the pyramid and might fall within the remit of clause 6(b).

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Equalities)

We have had this discussion many times, and I look forward to further debate on this as we go through the Bill. The hon. Gentleman will know that we also have provisions in the Bill for the regulator to look at those sorts of issues through the licensing conditions. I look forward to going into that in a bit more detail with him when we get to that part of the Bill, but I am acutely aware of his interest in that specific issue.

The third objective is on safeguarding the heritage of English football. Since the game was first played more than 160 years ago, football clubs have been an integral part of local communities and the lives of their supporters. The identity of each club is unique and often entwined with the identity of its fans and the history of the local community. Clearly, financial collapse is a risk, but so is the potential for clubs to become unrecognisable to their fans and communities.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Llafur, Liverpool, West Derby

That is a really good outline of why heritage is important. The Minister has talked about communities and football clubs. Maybe two words were missed out: “working class”. We have to ensure that working-class representation in the game stays within the game, as part of the heritage. I ask the Minister to include ticket pricing in that, because if we price working-class fans out of the game, we lose the lifeblood of the game.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Equalities)

I never thought I would get into a discussion about class when talking about this Bill. My view is that football is there for everybody, and I absolutely recognise the roots of it in various parts of the country. Of course, particularly in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world, there is a close association. I know we will come on to ticket prices later, but I hope the clause provides reassurance that the things that are important to fans—the identity of their club with their community, the colours, the names and so on—are an integral part of the work that the regulator will do to protect them.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

I am interested in the Minister’s definition of heritage. So far he has talked about the heritage of English football clubs, not the wider game, and that is quite interesting. Does he accept, for example, that the FA cup is very much part of the heritage of football in this country, and therefore the regulator ought to be able to give some thought to that competition and its future?

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Equalities)

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to get drawn into an area of further expansion. I understand his point. I have never in my entire life been stopped by so many people to talk to me about football as on the weekend that announcement was made. I of course recognise the importance of the FA cup, but for the regulator to get into areas of match timings, replays and so on may be a bit too far. We will probably look more into that later.

The third objective looks to safeguard the elements I mentioned in the interests of the community and future fans, but not to stand in the way of the natural growth and renewal of a club. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Given the purpose of the Bill, as set out in clause 1, it is important that the regulator’s objectives are shaped carefully and clearly, as they will underpin many of the other measures. Although the fan-led review initially recommended a dual focus on sustainability and competitiveness, when it came to the regulator’s objectives the White Paper streamlined things so that the primary duties were regarding sustainability, with competitiveness becoming a secondary focus. I understand the Government’s reasons for that and have welcomed the subsequent primary duties being in three areas: the financial sustainability of individual clubs, the systematic stability of the football pyramid, and protecting cultural heritage.

I am pleased that the proposal from the White Paper is largely reflected in the Bill. However, I am curious about a few small changes, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East alluded in his intervention. For example, the exact wording in the Bill has “financial soundness” rather than “sustainability”, as was in the White Paper. Will the Minister explain why? It seems strange that the word “sustainability” is not included at all in the objectives. Further to that, the White Paper framed the systemic financial resilience objective in terms of the football pyramid, but the Bill goes only so far as to say “English football”. Will the Minister tell us whether the word “pyramid” has been purposedly omitted? Or does he believe that the definition of “English football” adequately covers things? I have no further issues with the intent of the objectives, but the wording is important if the Bill is to achieve its stated aims.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

The Minister’s answer with regard to the FA cup will disappoint many football fans. Football fans look to us to address things that matter to them, and the Minister is right that many fans were outraged at the decision taken with no consultation—not even proper consultation with the EFL and other leagues—to simply abandon FA cup replays.

We could all wax lyrical about the FA cup replay matches we have been to. Those are the ones I remember, and I refer again back to the 1970s, when Sheffield Wednesday, a third-tier club, had four FA cup replays with Arsenal, which was then in the top tier. I remember every one of those games—I went to four of them at least—because they were a unique experience, and that is what many fans feel. They want us to recognise that and to give some assurance that such decisions will not be taken with their interests cast to one side, as though they simply do not matter.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Ceidwadwyr, Aberconwy

The hon. Gentleman will have heard the questions that I asked in the evidence sessions that reflected that concern. However, I am mindful of Ronald Reagan, who said that the scariest words in the English language are, “I’m from the Government and I’m here to help.” Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is reason, merit and even value in the Government’s cautious approach?

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

We should always be cautious when we look at regulation. Without drawing you into the debate, Sir Christopher, I am sure that you would echo that point. Nevertheless, the fact is that there is a bit of conflict in the Government’s argument. Why are we here today with the Bill in terms of regulation? One of the reasons why is that a handful of clubs decided that they wanted to break away into a European super league, so the Bill specifically mentions clubs not being able to simply up roots and go into a different league without permission. The Bill legislates for and gives the regulator powers over new competitions and which clubs may enter into them, but no powers over existing competitions and how they may be changed.

Let me put a scenario to the Minister that involves not just FA cup replays, because I suppose that decision could be reversed; it would not be too difficult to manage if we got to the point where we wanted that to happen. Let us say there is a scenario—it nearly happened a few years ago—in which the Premier League decides to create a Premier League Two, then pulls the drawbridge up and stops relegation from that league. What would happen then? Would the Minister say, “That is terrible. I am getting a lot of letters and emails and people stopping me in the street; I cannot do anything about it and the regulator has no power”? Indeed, would the regulator have a power to intervene at that point, because that would be a major disruption to the whole structure and pyramid of English football? If the regulator will not be there to protect the pyramid, what will it be there for?

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Equalities)

On the hon. Lady’s points, the term “sustainability” is used in the purposes and not again in its objectives. Our advice from the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel said that “soundness” achieves the same thing, but we are talking about the remit over the entire pyramid. We feel that would overstretch the regulator, which is why we are focusing on the top five leagues.

I understand the points made by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East. On a recent podcast, I repeated the phrase, used by many, that replays are often the David and Goliath of English football. However, in terms of financial sustainability, I cannot imagine a single club relying on the off-chance that it may have a replay at some point as a sustainable business model for its individual club. As I say, that is why the regulator will focus tightly on what the business plans would be.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the tension here is that the FA is under pressure from UEFA to free up days in the football calendar? That means it is left in the invidious position where it either does that, or requires teams to play scratch sides to fulfil fixtures when they must otherwise manage their resources for competing fixtures as well. That is why we moved away from never-ending replays in the FA cup in the ’50s and ’60s to a far more limited scope for replays today.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) (Minister for Equalities)

My hon. Friend has got it exactly right and articulated it extremely well. We recognise that that is the challenge football has with the obligations it must match with the likes of UEFA and so on. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and with that I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.