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Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman may have inadvertently emphasised a point that I made earlier about the need for caution before setting the rules for such societies in stone. He and the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) will know about the change from Meadowbank to Livingston and the success that the club has subsequently enjoyed. If the provident model were set in stone, there would be a danger that a provident organisation in football might not be able to make such a decision, and thereby enhance rather than detract from the quality of the contribution that the club makes to the game. We might not always want such transitions to occur, but perhaps the option should be available.
Andy Burnham: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, I believe that the Bill is as relevant to football as it is to some of the other sectors that we have discussed because football clubs belong where they were founded and nurtured by generations of local people. I do not understand why Wimbledon should be given permission to move to Milton Keynes. That goes against the grain. If Wimbledon's articles contained provisions such as we are considering, that possibility would already have been ruled out. If the members of a football club trust wanted to vote for such a move, a three quarters majority would be required, but it is important that football clubs are anchored in their communities. The Bill would help to achieve that.
Andy Burnham: I am pleased that my hon. Friend has brought that to my attention. He clearly has a much more detailed knowledge of the Bill than I do, and I am glad that he was on hand to point that out. It is helpful that that flexibility is in the Bill. There is a strong recognition that the communities that have set up these organisations will want them to be there for future generations, although the Bill does not rule out the possibility of future change.
Mr. Weir: Mention was made of Livingston football club. In the Scottish league, there are, unusually, still some clubs controlled by their local members. As I understand it, there is nothing in the Bill to stop such a club selling its stadium and building a new one, provided that it remains part of the assets of the association. There would, therefore, be nothing to stop clubs selling outdated stadiums and upgrading to new ones for safety and other reasons. The Bill would, however, prevent them from selling off their assets, disbanding, oras often happens in Americamoving across the continent.
Andy Burnham: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has made that point. I am trying to articulateand perhaps not getting it over as explicitly as I shouldthat these mechanisms for supporters trusts and football clubs will step in where the English Football Association has failed to enforce its own rule that clubs should not be asset stripped. The Bill gives supporters the mechanism to deal with such matters for themselves if there is a failure to protect the club at that level. The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that if the members choose a different future for their club, there is nothing in the Bill to stop them doing so.
David Conn's words about greater community ownership anticipated a movement in football and I am pleased to say that, five years on, that movement is well under way. His book prompted the Government's football taskforcefor which I was the administratorbeing set up to consider how the rising commercialism in football could be reconciled with the wider public good. The taskforce recommended that the Government should consider how the community and supporter ownership model could be expanded throughout football.
The model that the taskforce took was Northampton Town. A financial crisis caused by boardroom mismanagement had led to the birth of the Northampton Town supporters trust. Fans had raised money to save their beloved club but were simply no longer prepared to throw it into a black hole without knowing where it was going or having any say in return, so they set up as an industrial and provident society.
The trust's chairman, Brian Lomax, went on to become the first director of an English football club to be democratically elected by the fans. Through his position of influence, he ensured that the reborn Northampton Town was run not for the interests of a few but for all its
It is to the great credit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), that he understood the potency of co-operative principles and ideas in football and, as a result, accepted the taskforce's recommendation and agreed funding to set up a new organisation to encourage the development of other supporters trusts at clubs across the country.
Supporters Direct has now been working for 18 months. It was set up with the help of the Co-operative partyto whose general secretary, Peter Hunt, I pay tribute for his unstinting support for this initiativethe Co-operative bank and Cobbetts solicitors, all of whom deserve great credit for having had the foresight to back this ground-breaking initiative. The Supporters Direct model is right because it does not impose anything from the centre, but is instead a facilitating resource for groups of supporters who have got together and want to build a better future for their clubs. Crucially, it also makes available standard legal advice and articles. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope) made the point that the cost of such services can be prohibitive when groups start out.
In its first year, Supporters Direct has helped fans at 40 football clubsfrom Celtic, Tottenham and Swansea to Leyton Orient, Bournemouth and Manchester Unitedto establish trusts. All are community-focused mutual organisations and most are industrial and provident societies based on model rules developed by Mutuo and Cobbetts solicitors in Manchester. Another eight are in the pipeline and fans of 143 clubs have contacted Supporters Direct.
For many trusts, majority outright ownership of the club is not a realistic short-term goal. Nevertheless, they exercise real influence. At Tottenham Hotspur, the supporters trust has been recognised by the new owners as the genuinely democratic voice of the supporters and it regularly consults the chairman on matters such as ground expansion and ticket pricing. There are no limits to what supporters trusts can achieve. At Lincoln City and Chesterfield, they have taken over and run the clubs as community-owned mutual organisations.
Those stories give hope to others. As we worry about low turnout at elections and young people's lack of engagement in society, what better vehicle to kindle a sense of citizenship and community among those young people than a football supporters trust through which they can have direct ownership, influence a club's direction and become involved in its day-to-day running?
Phil Hope: I am listening with fascination to my hon. Friend's description of the encouraging changes in the football world. He has described several initiatives. I am not a Sunderland fanI support Rushden and Diamonds in my constituency, which is doing well in the third divisionbut Niall Quinn is to donate the money from his testimonial to the local community. Would not it make a difference to football if the initiatives that my hon. Friend is describing moved forward and achieved
Andy Burnham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, and he is absolutely right. Some people may think football trivial and wonder why I am going on about it, but my point is that it is an entry point to those values for young people. They understand support for a football club and they like the sense of belonging. Through that gateway, they may see that they can gain by being part of a wider movement that embodies more than narrow self-interest and is about community involvement. I, too, pay tribute to Niall Quinn for his gesture, which is entirely consistent with what we are discussing.
For all those reasons, Supporters Direct is important and there is no reason whatever for it not to extend to other sports. Indeed, many county cricket clubs are already incorporated as industrial and provident societies. Although cricket clubs are often considered to be stuck in the past, they have led the way in democracy in sport and given members votes on key issues over the years. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) mentioned regional development agencies and they could play a key role in promoting mutualism.
In particular, I want the services of Supporters Direct to be extended to rugby league and I ask the Government to consider giving the modest funding needed to provide them. Interest in rugby league in towns such as Leigh is as strong as ever, yet in some newspapers it appears to be as popular as synchronised swimming and gains only an inch or two in the "sport in brief" column. Rugby league does not get the attention of the London-based media, but that does not mean that the sport and its supporters have not suffered those same abuses at the hands of corrupt directors over the years. Although the future of some clubs is more fragile than that of many football clubs, there is great potential in the heartland of the co-operative movement for helping communities to protect their clubs for future generations.
We are only scratching the surface of mutualism in sport and its potential, but I do not expect a revolution. Instead, there will be an organic process. As more football and rugby league clubs struggle due to the inequitable distribution of resources in their sports, more and more supporters' groups will stop waiting for the mysterious wealthy benefactor to turn up and start to shape the future themselves. I hope that, for many years to come, Supporters Direct is there to help and guide them and that this important Bill gives those trusts the protection and stability they need.