Clause 32 - Determinations under sections 28 and 29: time limits

Football Governance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:00 pm ar 21 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:00, 21 Mai 2024

I beg to move amendment 12, in clause 32, page 24, line 2, at end insert—

“(2A) A determination period as specified in subsection (2) should have an end date which is as soon as is reasonably practicable.”

This amendment would ask the Secretary of State to propose a timely end date to a determination period.

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

I welcome the principle of the clause. I will discuss that first, before moving to the amendment.

That decisions on ownership should be taken within a reasonable timeframe is right. Allowing the Secretary of State to set maximum time limits, alongside allowing for extensions where a case is particularly complex, seems a sensible way to go about ensuring that decisions are made in good time. Indeed, although I hope that I have set out my belief that the owners and directors test should be comprehensive, the purchase of any club is likely to be time sensitive. Circumstances are subject to changing quickly on both ends of a deal, and in many cases the right takeover deal can be the difference between a club surviving and not.

Oldham Athletic was in trouble after a period of severe turbulence that saw assets sold, staff unpaid and its main stand unable to be used for certain games due to a lease dispute. After a successful takeover, its new owner, local man Rothwell, cleared Oldham’s debts. Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic also appear to have reversed their fortunes thanks to new ownership. Birmingham City is now one step closer to a new stadium as St Andrew’s falls into disrepair, a long-term project that owners have promised will not be affected by relegation this season. In Wigan’s case, local businessman Mike Danson has appeared to stabilise the club after a period of losses on and off the pitch. Those examples show just how crucial the timing of ownership change can be for clubs in financial distress.

I welcome what the clause is trying to achieve, but I wonder whether it could go one step further. It is of note that the time limits in the clause are not accompanied by a general duty on the regulator to make determinations as soon as is reasonably practicable. That is why I tabled amendment 12. As the English Football League has argued, it is crucial that owners are able to sell their clubs when needed, particularly in instances of financial distress. Protracted takeovers can impact a club’s finances further, and they are hardly an advert for potential investors in clubs.

Given the fear some have expressed about the unintended consequences of the Bill on investment, it is important that the clause is watertight in ensuring that the time limits are truly seen as a maximum, rather than as a target. That is of particular concern given that the clause says that if the regulator does not make a determination within the time limit, it is automatically to be treated as having determined that the prospective owner or officer has failed the test. Again, I understand why that measure is in place—it is dangerous to allow a takeover where a person cannot be approved by the criteria set by the regulator—but we must ensure that the provision is protected against misuse. A regulator working in good faith would surely not time-out a test just to ensure an owner or officer is prevented from being granted a positive determination.

Protections should be built in to the legislation to ensure that it cannot be exploited. Not only is it built into the principles of the regulator to work efficiently, but it is within its general duties to avoid any adverse effects on financial investment in English football. I hope that the Minister will carefully consider amendment 12, which would ensure that determinations are made as expeditiously as possible, and recognise it as in keeping with the underpinnings of the regulator.

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 Government recognise the intent behind amendment 12, which is to ensure that the determination period is set at the right level so that the regulator makes a timely decision. Clause 32, which I will turn to shortly, provides that the determination period will be set in secondary legislation by the Secretary of State, who will have to consult such persons as she thinks appropriate when setting the period.

The purpose of the determination period is to provide more certainty to the industry about how long the determination of a new owner or officer will take, to incentivise new owners and officers to promptly provide the information the regulator needs to assess whether they are suitable, and to keep the process efficient. It is important to get the length of the determination period right. If it is too long, it could result in a slow and bureaucratic process, as the hon. Member for Barnsley East said, which could have a negative impact on investment. However, if decisions had to be taken too quickly, there would be a risk of them being less rigorous, and investors might worry about being failed because the clock runs out before the regulator can gather all the relevant information to make a decision.

The Government do not believe that amendment 12 is necessary because the Secretary of State will already consider those trade-offs, as well as other matters, including existing deadlines for comparable tests in other industries and the views of appropriate stakeholders. For example, we expect that the regulator will likely be consulted when the determination period is being set in regulations. For the reasons I have set out, I am not able to support the hon. Lady’s amendment, and I hope she will withdraw it.

With regard to clause 32, football is a fast-paced industry, where clubs operate within constraints such as league seasons and transfer windows. Timely decision making about the suitability of new owners and officers is important for clubs’ financial sustainability. Without deadlines, we have seen league determinations drag on, with a decision unable to be reached.

The regulator will need to conduct thorough scrutiny of new owners and directors, but it will also need to make decisions in an appropriate timeframe to ensure that clubs are not unnecessarily impacted in this fast-paced industry. That is why it will be subject to a statutory deadline when it tests the suitability of prospective owners and officers. The determination period will start when a person provides a complete application to be a new owner or officer of a regulated club. By the end of the period, the regulator must find the applicant suitable or unsuitable.

As well as providing certainty to the industry, the deadline will incentivise new owners and officers to provide the information the regulator needs to assess suitability. If the regulator cannot decide before the initial deadline is met, it can extend the determination period. That will provide it with the necessary flexibility to gather more information to make a well-informed, but still timely, decision.

As I set out, the determination period, including the maximum amount of extra time, will be set by the Secretary of State in secondary legislation. That will ensure that the regulator is bound by it but that there is still flexibility for the deadline to be amended in future. If the regulator cannot make a decision about a prospective new owner or officer before the period expires, the person will automatically be determined to be unsuitable. That means that only owners and officers that the regulator is confident are suitable will be allowed to get involved with clubs.

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

The amendment was simply intended to ensure that decisions on owners and directors are made with time sensitivity in mind. I appreciate the Minister’s comments and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.