Clause 45 - Duty not to operate a team in relation to a prohibited competition

Football Governance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 21 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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 2:45, 21 Mai 2024

I beg to move amendment 21, in clause 45, page 37, line 11, leave out from “fans” to “about” in line 12 and insert

“players and staff of regulated clubs in England and Wales”.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 22, in clause 45, page 37, line 12, after “competition” insert

“and the full impacts of such a decision”.

Amendment 13, in clause 45, page 37, line 15, at end insert—

“(aa) professional football players,”.

This amendment expands the list of those whom the IFR must consult.

Clause stand part.

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

Amendment 21 is quite simple, and I am sure that the Minister can accept it without much consideration. It simply applies where a team is prevented from going into a prohibited competition, which I think is absolutely right. The outrage of the European Super League in some ways triggered recognition of the issue and the need to regulate football more appropriately. There are consequences for people who make their living from football, whether they are players or staff members of clubs.

Ben Wright from the PFA very appropriately spelt out the fact that the Bill quite rightly, in many cases, highlights the need to consult and involve fans, but players are not mentioned anywhere. As Ben Wright said, there are only two groups of people who really matter in football:

“those who play it and those who watch it.”––[Official Report, Football Governance Public Bill Committee, 16 May 2024; c. 88, Q145.]

Without those two groups, football would not exist. I hope the Minister thinks about the amendment and comes to the conclusion that he could accept it without undermining the Bill in any way. I hope he might give careful consideration to that.

I am also happy to support amendment 13, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East. It is very much along the same lines as my amendment, and the Minister might rather choose her wording if he cannot support the wording that I have put forward. I hope the Minister will reflect carefully on the amendments.

On amendment 22, having

“the full impacts of such a decision” taken into account seems a fairly obvious thing. The Minister will no doubt tell us that that is the intention of the Bill and that there is no need to add in the extra words, but I am sure he will agree that the extra words are not in any way in conflict with what the Bill is trying to achieve.

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

I am pleased that we are making good progress in moving on to discuss part 5 of the Bill and the free-standing duties on clubs, which apply to clubs separately to the licence conditions. They are set out by the Bill directly and, in many cases, apply to a club regardless of whether it is licensed.

Clause 45 sets out the duty not to operate within a prohibited competition. I will briefly set out some context before discussing amendments 21, 22 and 13. The clause is clearly designed to prevent a repeat of the European Super League, which rightly prompted immense backlash from fans, clubs and governance structures throughout the English football pyramid when it was first announced over three years ago.

There were many reasons why the project sparked such outrage, and it is important to name a few directly. First, the European Super League was designed, at least to some extent, to be a closed competition. For many of the richest clubs, qualification would have been an automatic right, rather than being meritocratic. It would have taken an axe to one of the most important features of football’s success: the idea that any one team can dream big and become a winner. With qualification based on merit taken out of the equation, the entire structure, purpose and sustainability of football’s existing competitions would have been undermined.

Secondly, the European Super League was launched—

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 3:00, 21 Mai 2024

Order. I remind the shadow Minister that this debate is meant to be about the amendments, not the clause. There is a separate debate coming on the clause; she might wish to reserve those comments.

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

I appreciate your comments, Ms Nokes. I can skip forward to the amendments. I have some separate thoughts on clause 45. I do think that the background is quite important to the amendments, but am happy to move on directly to address them.

Amendments 13 and 21 are on player consultation. It seems like a missed opportunity that the views of players are not to be taken into account by the regulator. That is why I tabled amendment 13, which would expand consultation requirements to include them. Similarly, amendment 21, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East, would require the regulator to seek the views of players and staff, so I will address both amendments together.

Players in both the clubs that tried to break away and the clubs that were left behind had an instrumental role in demonstrating against the ESL. For example, just 48 hours after the announcement, a group of high-profile Liverpool players issued a collective statement against the Super League. That clearly stated:

“We don’t like it and we don’t want it to happen.”

Meanwhile, Leeds players, while warming up for a game, wore shirts featuring slogans such as “Football is for the fans” and “Earn it.” Players in other clubs followed suit. It is clear from that that players feel passionately about the competitiveness and fairness of the competitions that they operate in, and have a view to share on these issues.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Ceidwadwyr, Chatham and Aylesford

The shadow Minister is making a really interesting speech, but is she not actually making a speech against the amendment, because the players did that without there being a statutory requirement for them to do it?

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

That is a fair point, but I do not think we should have to rely on players having the bravery to make public statements. We are saying—this is a debate that we rehearsed earlier in Committee—that there should be an obligation on the regulator to consult them, and I will come on to make that argument.

Many players care about the fans and communities that they play for, and it is players who are likely to come under fire if they take part in competitions that fans oppose. At best, they will act as a vehicle for fans hoping to hold their clubs to account. At worst, when competing in closed competitions, players may become the face of the demise of the long tradition of the English football pyramid, without having had any say in the matter. At a time when there has been a particularly concerning rise in abuse of football players—albeit from a shameful minority of fans—that becomes even more concerning.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Ceidwadwyr, Aberconwy

We rehearsed this somewhat when the representative of the PFA came before us to give evidence. I made the point to him then that we had been told that it was an inability to control costs that was damaging football, but—this was the point I made—actually it is the inability to control wages that is damaging football. That is firmly within the control of players, so I am a little less sympathetic to the argument that the hon. Member is making.

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

I am not sure it is the case that the players control their own wages. When we look at this Bill, as other hon. Members have said—

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Ceidwadwyr, Aberconwy

They can simply say no.

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

Yes, that is true, and it is true for all of us and anyone who takes a wage, but I think it is a rather unfair expectation to put upon players. I am not sure that I accept the hon. Member’s argument, but obviously, if he has strong views on this issue, he can make a speech when I have concluded.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East set out, there are two main components in football, and they are the players and the fans. I think it is incredibly curious that this Bill does not mention players at any point. That is why I am making the case for these amendments.

I will draw my remarks to a close in a moment. I would just like to share a few other examples with the Committee. To give a troubling example, we will all remember that, following the penalty shoot-out at the Euro 2020 final, a wave of racist social media abuse was aimed at certain players. Ensuring a duty of care to protect players from abuse deserves its own conversation, but I think it is relevant to raise. It is not right that players are not given any say in relation to prohibited competitions, but could be told that they must compete in one—only to face the wrath of fans afterwards. Football is for the fans, of course, but it cannot exist without the players. I therefore encourage the Minister and members of the Committee to consider the benefit of player input on the regulator’s decision making in that area. Given that fans and the FA will already be consulted for their views, it would only require a simple change to the legislation. I hope that we can all get behind amendment 13 to strengthen the clause as much as possible.

Amendment 22, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East, would strengthen the duty of the regulator to understand the view of fans, so that the full impacts of any particular competition are considered. As the European Super League attempt showed, the consequences of a closed competition, where qualification is not based on merit, are plenty. It is therefore important that the full range of impacts is considered. Is the Minister satisfied that the current wording will ensure that, or is amendment 22 needed to require the regulator to take everything into account when gathering the views of relevant stakeholders?

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)

Amendments 21 and 13 would require the regulator to determine and have regard to the views of club staff and players, placing them on equal footing with the club’s fans for the purposes of clause 45. I do not believe that the inclusion of players and club staff is necessary here. The Bill is designed to protect and promote the sustainability of clubs so that they continue to serve the interests of their fans in local communities, who have been around far longer than any owners and will be around long after those owners have moved on. That is why clause 45 requires the regulator to determine and consider the views of fans.

A decision to prohibit a competition may also impact a wide range of other stakeholders, which is why the clause already requires the regulator to

“consult such other persons as” it

“considers appropriate.”

That allows for consultation with a broad range of potential stakeholders. If the regulator considers players and staff of regulated clubs to be an appropriate group, it must consult them. It is right that the regulator has the discretion to make the judgment.

Amendment 22 seeks to draw out that when the regulator is determining the views of fans about a competition being prohibited, it must include their views on the full impact of the competition being prohibited. Specifying that in the Bill is unnecessary as it is already implicit that fans would consider the potential impacts as part of reaching a view on a competition’s prohibition. For the reasons I have set out, I hope the amendment will be withdrawn.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 13, in clause 45, page 37, line 15, at end insert—

“(aa) professional football players,”.—

This amendment expands the list of those whom the IFR must consult.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Rhif adran 4 Football Governance Bill — Clause 45 - Duty not to operate a team in relation to a prohibited competition

Ie: 6 MPs

Na: 9 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That clause 45 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 proposed European Super League in 2021 posed an existential threat to the English football pyramid. It was an attempt by a small number of clubs to set up a closed-shop league to benefit themselves at the expense of all other clubs and against the wishes of fans. Ultimately, the European Super League was stopped by the sheer will of fans around the country and the Government’s promise to consider legislation. However, the risk of a similar breakaway competition rearing its head in the future remains. The clause will prevent a regulated club or a club that has been regulated in the previous 10 years from entering a team into a competition that the regulator has prohibited.

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

Why does the Bill give powers to the regulator to stop clubs entering into new competitions but no powers to stop fundamental changes to existing competitions, which fans might find just as unsuitable?

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 understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. We have had this conversation several times on the replays, and I understand that point. As I have said before, not drawing on the merits of the decisions that have been made, I understand some of the challenges that those organisations have in terms of a very crowded field and in terms of competitions.

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

It is always a very crowded field in the FA cup replays. I am sure that the Minister has seen the news, today I think, about Tottenham players getting on the plane to go to Australia for their end-of-season friendly. Is that not a smack right in the face of player welfare and ensuring that players are okay? That is why the FA cup replays were allegedly taken off the table.

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)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the purpose of the Bill has been tightly focused to feature those particular issues. We have a fine balance to ensure that we do not upset or get into challenges with UEFA and FIFA, and it is for football to make some of the decisions that it has made, but I would expect that, as the provisions in the mandatory conditions say, clubs will consult their fans on decisions on match days.

The extension to clubs regulated in the past 10 years will stop them circumventing the rules by withdrawing from existing competitions in order to join a new breakaway competition. The regulator is expected to prohibit competitions on the basis of the predetermined, proportionate and transparent framework based on the prescribed factors set out in legislation. That will provide up-front clarity to the industry and means that new competitions will not just be prohibited outright. That is important to ensure that the regulator does not unduly stand in the way of innovation in the market—for example, like when the old First Division became the Premier League in 1992.

The clause requires the regulator, when deciding whether to prohibit a competition, to consider several factors, including whether the competition is merit based, operates on the basis of fair and open competition, jeopardises the sustainability of English football’s existing competitions or the clubs in those competitions or harms the heritage of English football. Of course, football belongs to its fans, so the regulator will also determine and consider the views of fans in England and Wales before prohibiting a competition. As the national governing body for football, the FA will be consulted before the regulator prohibits any competition, and the regulator will also consult anyone else it considers appropriate. I commend the clause to the Committee.

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

Apart from my amendments, which I had hoped would strengthen clause 45, I am pleased to offer my support more generally for the clause. I will not repeat my remarks from previous debate, but given the fallout from the so-called Super League attempt, the Bill is absolutely right to make provisions around prohibited competitions.

However, I have three remaining questions on wording that I hope the Minister can clarify. The clause provides that a club will not be able to join a prohibited competition so long as it has been regulated in the last 10 years. However, that does not apply retrospectively, so if a club has never been regulated—as is the case now, before the Bill passes—the rules cannot be enforced. That has sparked concern that clubs might form a breakaway league before the Bill passes and the regulator will be left unable to enforce its own rules. Will the Minister confirm whether the regulator will have any power to act in such a situation?

Secondly, I understand that Court of Justice of the European Union ruling on the Super League mandates that FIFA and UEFA must amend their rules on third-party competitions, which means that existing official competition cannot be treated in a preferential manner. Will the Minister confirm whether the current wording in the Bill is compliant with that ruling and the relevant FIFA and UEFA rules?

The FSA understands that the wording of the clause does not prevent existing competitions from being prohibited if they are changed significantly in a way that affects the regulator’s objectives. I recognise that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby just discussed that issue in an intervention, but will the Minister confirm that that is the case? Can the regulator guard against an existing competition changing so significantly that it interferes with the heritage of English football or the other stated criteria?

Overall, I am pleased to see the inclusion of this clause. I hope it puts an end to destructive, money-oriented breakaway projects that take fans and the magic of football for granted.

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) 3:15, 21 Mai 2024

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. On the ruling that she mentioned, my understanding is that it will be considered, but I want to make sure I have that right, so if she does not mind I will write to her.

The regulator will not be able to take action until it is fully operational. It would be inappropriate to give it backdated powers in relation to competitions, as clubs cannot comply with preapproval requirements after an action has been taken, so I hope the hon. Lady understands the position we are in.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 45 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.