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Football Players (Behaviour)

1.28 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I come to this debate not because footballers any more than MPs are the cause of society's ills, or because footballers reflect society's ills, but because they can help us to do something about them. In my constituency and city, we are attacking antisocial behaviour in one of the country's most deprived and educationally under-attaining areas. At every primary school, alongside literacy and numeracy, we are seeking to teach social behaviour to develop youngsters' emotional intelligence and empathy, and their ability to learn, resolve differences without violence and develop mutual respect. Those same youngsters go home, and those lessons are not always reinforced by their sporting heroes.

Just over 12 months ago, I asked the Minister about the insidious effect of footballers' bad behaviour on the behaviour of young people. He told me in a written reply that he had written to all football club chairmen in the hope that they would lobby their players to behave. It has not worked. However, the Minister does not run football. English football is run not by the state, but by three private companies—the Football Association, the Football League and the premiership. But even they cannot change the rules of football. That role lies with the global rule-setting body, FIFA, which has already failed to respond to the FA's calls for retrospective penalties and, at the other extreme, has responded to English football's request to attack racism in global football, but in a crude and disproportionate manner. However, football is now of such social significance that we should all reflect on our responsibilities.

I wish to use the debate to put on the Minister's agenda the issues that people have brought to my attention in the last two weeks of my local consultation. There is a remarkable similarity of views across the spectrum, from the local Crown prosecutor and the chief executive of Nottingham council through to local beat officers, teachers and parents. They see pictures of a referee surrounded by a mob of bawling players, who are showering the referee with foul language and physically intimidating him. That teaches youngsters that if they reject a decision made by someone in authority—be it a teacher, a policeman or a parent—it is acceptable to berate or intimidate him or her to get the decision changed.

My consultation shows that there is a public thirst for those footballers who are in the public eye to devote time to showing youngsters that football is not about immature, spoilt behaviour and making money. We need to demonstrate that football is about teamwork, honesty and fairness, as it is for most of the 37,000 football clubs in England, the vast majority of which are tremendous role models for our young people, and for the young athletes who show dedication in their lifestyle to get to the top. A small number of people are the problem, but none the less they are often the most important people in the game.

I want the Minister to address six key problems. The first is behaviour on the field. Cheating must be punished at the time of the offence when possible, and afterwards with the benefit of TV replay if not. The FA,
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to its great credit, has proposed that but cannot move without FIFA's okay. Penalties should not only be financial but, since many clubs and individuals can afford them, offenders should also be banned. How can we expect youngsters to learn the values of hard work and honesty when they see their idols grinning after their latest con, or disguising petulance and poor sportsmanship as "attitude"?

Young men, especially those with absent fathers, crave role models and—like it or not—footballers often meet that need. At the most extreme, those with a predisposition to violence find it endorsed or justified in football. Lame excuses about a few bad apples are no longer acceptable. Bad behaviour in football is unacceptable and needs to be tackled fearlessly. After appropriate public debate, will the Minister convene a summit of all the relevant organisations and authorities in football to agree and to thrash out a way forward?

My second point is about the treatment of referees. Referees' decisions should be final, not the start of infantile behaviour escalating to arguing, abuse and collective intimidation, and such behaviour should lead to immediate dismissal from the field. The FA must look again at referees' powers. Rugby union shows that such player misconduct can be eliminated, not least by an intelligent running commentary on the game from the referee and the convention—not law—that only the captain may ask to speak to the referee. Dissent is punished with a repeatable 10 yd penalty. I have asked the FA to propose such measures again to FIFA for football. Managers would soon teach players that such behaviour harmed their team and their wage packet. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity unequivocally to back referees and extra powers for referees, as well as the FA as it proposes change to FIFA.

The third issue is the off-the-field conduct of parents and spectators. A trip to the local park at the weekend to watch a youth game is a chastening experience. The worst offenders are the parents. Often, referees are no more than 14 or 15 years old, yet they have to deal with intimidation from people old enough to be their parents. Most premiership academies, I am told, no longer allow parents to watch their children because of that problem. Although a better example must be set by professionals, parents, too, must play their part. The clubs also have a strong responsibility.

More pressure must be put on clubs to enforce better behaviour, either contractually or through a code of conduct that incentivises good behaviour. Players must be taught by clubs the social skills to recognise the impact that they have on others and be supported to become better role models on and off the pitch. As one police officer replied to my consultation,

Although the FA is a not-for-profit organisation, and all funds go back into the game, one idea suggested was that the players' fines should go to the FA, and be more obviously put into a "community chest" to educate players about drinking, smoking, social responsibility and so on. Sponsors, too, can play an important part; they have a clear interest in associating their products with high standards of behaviour from the players who wear their logo each week.
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We already enshrine into FA contracts the guidelines for a certain percentage of players' time to be devoted to community activities. I underline again that most professional footballers and most clubs act in a responsible way: 5 per cent. of gross TV royalties go on corporate responsibilities and an additional £12 million goes from the premiership clubs to the Professional Footballers Association for education. Will the Minister consider rewarding more obviously and more publicly those clubs and individuals who serve the community, and introducing incentives and public recognition for those who behave well?

Already three UEFA cup places are awarded to the three national associations in Europe with the best fair play record—a great incentive. Accordingly, those three places are given to the clubs with the best fair play record for that season. Football in the community schemes, the "Kick It Out" campaign, and many other campaigns sponsored by those in and around football have already proved what football can do when it sets its mind to the task. Perhaps we can do something similar with the campaign on homophobia, with equal success.

As a focus for the effort and as a way of making a clean start, I suggest that the Minister considers a public declaration that the FA, PFA, premiership, league and the League Managers Association, as well as the media, will confront and eliminate bad behaviour. I ask him to organise that at the beginning of the next football season and publicly to sign up everyone in a ceremony that should be replicated on the first Saturday of the coming season at every ground from Wembley, where they will be playing the charity shield—perhaps not this season, but one lives in hope—to the local recreation ground. That ceremony should be replicated throughout the land, from the finest grounds to the local pub 11 playing their knock-about game, to signify a new start to a new season. I hope that the Minister will consider entertaining that idea and taking the lead, even given the limited powers that he has over the game.

My next point is about the basic education of the young athletes, which also has to be addressed. Most youngsters do not make it at football clubs and even for those who do their careers are short. Preparation for later life for both groups is essential, not least some financial education for those who make it. In the United States, colleges that take on young athletes—many of whom go on to become professionals—are allowed to take a certain number of young people on athletic scholarships if their grades are perhaps not as strong as they might be but show some academic potential. Those colleges then have a duty to ensure that their players reach a certain academic level. If they fail to do so, the number of scholarships the following year is cut down. In an age when we demand five good GCSEs of all youngsters, can we not insist on stretching personalised learning programmes for all young people in football? That should be the minimum standard for any football club that signs a teenage footballer. That would make every club take the same level of care and responsibility as the best. Education, discipline and standards would also improve young footballers' behaviour on and off the pitch. Again, I ask the Minister to use his good offices to negotiate that basic educational standard with the relevant football authorities.

We must recognise the media's role in helping footballers' behaviour to influence society—for good or ill. The media must report what happens on the field, but
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they can also influence our perception of it. The smirk or cynical wink of a commentator—a Lineker or a Hansen—in front of a viewing audience of millions, many of whom are youngsters, can undo much of the good work that is done at home or at school. The media must sign up not to glamorising violent, cheating players, but to exposing them for what they are. They have an even bigger responsibility when it comes to reporting off-the-field behaviour, and that is particularly true of the press. They have the power of choice, but if they continually choose to report only on the tiny minority of players who cheat on their wives and children or who are binge drinkers, drug users, excessive gamblers and criminals, they should not be surprised when, on the inside pages, they report on youngsters who follow the same example. It is not an easy issue to tackle, but I ask my right hon. Friend, who is well aware of the difficulties involved, to speak to the game's important non-playing players—the media—to see what can be done to achieve a stronger ethic in the coverage of sport, and particularly football, because that coverage has an influence on our young people.

The nation is reaching the conclusion that the current system is unacceptable, and we want to improve it. There are no easy answers, and we must all work together to find a way forward. Changes are necessary, and I have several clear questions for the Minister. First, what plans does he have to improve behaviour? Will he convene a summit to thrash out a way forward, support referees, reduce cheating and improve parental behaviour? Secondly, will he publicly reward clubs whose players set the best examples? Thirdly, will he use the first day of the season to launch a sportsmanship in football or a similar initiative, which will range from the premiership down to the local recreation ground? Fourthly, will he make representations to FIFA, which writes the rules of football, to ensure that the FA's sensible requests can be met? In that context, can he tell us when the independent European football review will report and what impact it might have on the issue? If FIFA and others refuse to play ball—if I can use that phrase—will he look at the domestic independence of English football and at whether we can have rules in the domestic context that we feel are appropriate? Finally, will he challenge the PFA to engage senior players who are clearly not engaged in promoting better behaviour?

I sought this debate not to score easy points or to talk about current issues in the media, such as diving, gambling abuses or wages, but to focus on an important issue for my constituency, where people are working night and day to improve young people's behaviour. At three consecutive Prime Minister's Question Times, I have raised with the Prime Minister the importance of promoting social behaviour as well as tackling antisocial behaviour. I hope that everything that professional footballers, MPs and everybody else does will be done with an eye to underpinning, rather than undermining, the efforts that all of us, particularly in tough constituencies with poor educational records, are piling in to help youngsters make a better life for themselves. We in this place can do more than anybody on that issue, but professional footballers and the game itself can also make a contribution, and I hope that the Minister will be able to move the professional game towards helping us some time in the next year or so.
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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. I can call other hon. Members only if they have the agreement of the initiator of the debate and the Minister. Do other hon. Members have the agreement of the initiator of the debate to speak?

Mr. Allen : No.

1.45 pm

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) for securing this Adjournment debate. The issue is important and probably timely, given that the World cup, which will take place in Germany, is just a couple of months away. It is probably the greatest showcase for football in any four-year period and it will give the young players my hon. Friend mentioned a great opportunity to show their skills and technical ability to a worldwide audience. As he also said, we hope that those players will display the respect and on-the-field behaviour commensurate with such a great competition.

Let me mention in passing two great events that took place this weekend. After 44 years, the great football team of Accrington Stanley have returned to the Football League, where they rightfully belong, and I pay tribute to Eric Whalley, the club chairman, who stuck with it. He has been a teetotaller for 20 years, but I gather that he had the odd drop of champagne this weekend. Nevertheless, he deserves it, and it is great to see Accrington Stanley back. In addition, Sheffield United will be rejoining the premier league next season. With Sheffield United going up, the premiership will truly be able to call itself the world's premier league.

To return to the debate in hand, the World cup is taking place in two months. As my hon. Friend said, football has a huge profile, and huge influence goes with that. It is worth reminding ourselves that every week 800 million to 1 billion people in 195 countries watch the 20 teams in our premier league. As he also said, football affects young people in the UK, but it has massive influence worldwide, too. It is therefore incumbent on the football authorities to ensure that that influence is used as a force for good and it is important that a good example is set on the playing field.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): I rise as the chairman of the all-party Scottish football group and I certainly identify with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). He asked for a summit at the start of the season to discuss these issues. Will the Minister consider inviting representatives of the other home countries, because, as he rightly says, watching football on television has an influence on youngsters?

Mr. Caborn : I will try to answer some of the arguments put by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, and then we might be able to see whether such a summit would be worth while. I agree with him that the football authorities should continue to take a tough stance on the issues that he outlined to ensure that players who misbehave are adequately dealt
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with. There must also be support for match officials, and let me say very clearly that referees and other match officials have my full support and that of the FA.

My hon. Friend raised five or six main points, and he was courteous enough to let me know in advance the issues that he would be covering, so let me go through them. First, as he indicated, I have written to the chairmen of all professional football clubs asking them to speak to managers and, through them, to players. I have done that on two occasions and I will continue to do so to raise the issue of responsibility, because the responsibility and leadership that we need to stamp out bad behaviour start in the boardroom. It is a matter of setting policy, and those in the boardroom are responsible for that.

Any business or organisation has corporate and social responsibilities. Those responsibilities rest with the people who make the decisions, and footballing decisions are made in the boardroom. It has to start with leadership from there. That is why I took it upon myself, as Minister for Sport, to write to all professional clubs and raise the issue once more, and I will do so again when I believe it to be necessary. I did so for a good reason: when I go round the country—and, indeed, Scotland—I hear time and again that, as my hon. Friend said, what happens on the park on Saturday also happens in the playground on Monday. The players have influence on young people, but their behaviour affects not only those referred to by my hon. Friend, but people right across society.

I underline again why there is no need for such indiscipline. In other tough team sports such as rugby union or rugby league—there is no tougher sport than that—or even in cricket, which may not be as tough but is certainly as well fought and competitive, respect for officials among the peer group far exceeds that in football. I see no reason why the conditions and the discipline that prevail in those tough sports should not prevail in football.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate and endorse everything he said. When the Minister writes to the football clubs, does he also write to the rugby league and rugby union clubs? As he said, those sports involve far more physical contact than football. If not, what is his reasoning as to why football misbehaves as it does?

Mr. Caborn : I have not written to rugby league or rugby union clubs, nor to cricket clubs or those of other team sports. In that respect, we might even think of ice hockey, which is another contact sport. Yes, I have raised the subject with the football authorities, but I might also raise with them—indeed, I thank them for it—the fact that, as my hon. Friend said, the vast majority of players not only conduct themselves fairly on the park, but do a tremendous amount of good in the community. Later, I shall put down a few markers about the role of football and the majority of players.

My hon. Friend asked whether representations should be made to FIFA, requesting it to meet representatives of the FA, particularly on the question
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of discipline. It is not easy for FIFA to square up to that, but I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I know that the FA has made strong representations to FIFA, asking it to consider recent issues that have affected football, especially the question of diving.

Although I acknowledge that my hon. Friend does not want to home in on the question, I believe that it is something FIFA could consider. I understand the position of FIFA's president on the question. FIFA has to give governance to the game internationally and its president will argue strongly that although the developed countries of western Europe have the facilities—for example, a premier division football match in England is filmed by eight television cameras—that is not the case in parts of Africa or Asia, nor in other parts of the world. FIFA wants to ensure that the rules are universally applied and that governance of the game is universal.

That argument has some merit. However, other arguments are being made by football authorities in England, and I have discussed them with a colleague and friend, Keith Hackett, who is the senior referee. He heads up the referees' organisation. As an aside, Mr. Caton, I can tell the House that he sent me off once—I got a red card—which shows what an objective man he is. However, that was some years past. The discussion going on inside football is one that FIFA could consider, and we should consider whether to run some trials, as Keith Hackett tells me that one of the most difficult things a referee has to do is decide whether someone is diving.

We could consider what happens in rugby league. In that sport, players can be put on report and incidents can be considered on video after the match. Other options could be considered by the FA, but an experimental period over a season could also help to inform FIFA decisions. I acknowledge that the president of FIFA has a problem: he is the president of an international organisation and I know he wants to ensure that governance is as fair internationally as it can be. There is some merit in his argument, but it is a finely balanced one. Football has changed dramatically over recent years and perhaps, as in other sports—even international ones—we ought to bring in new technology.

My hon. Friend referred to the independent European football review on the governance of football in the European Union. Without going into too much detail, Heads of Government said in 2000 that sport has a particular role to play in the Community. That was specified in the Nice declaration, and EUFA is interpreting the declaration to see how it fits with football. It will be considering the governance of football in relation to the EU. Many know that EU and Commission regulations and directives have had a considerable impact on football, and the review is being undertaken in that context.

I assure my hon. Friend that social inclusion is not specifically about behaviour on the park; it is also to do with supporting grass-roots football and examining ways to support, encourage, educate and train new players. The health of young players is also very much part of that review, which I hope will be completed by the end of May.
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What we have been doing in England, and in the UK, is an exemplar for football—I am thinking of football in the community and the playing for success initiative. The latter has had one of the biggest impacts on education, numeracy, literacy and information, communications and technology, or ICT, skills of almost anything the Government have undertaken in the past seven or eight years. It was driven largely by football professionals putting at our disposal the grounds, players and know-how of the clubs, and it has made a massive contribution to social cohesion.

My hon. Friend also asked whether we would consider the domestic independence of English football if insufficient progress was made through FIFA. We have FIFA, EUFA and the FA. That is the line of command for the sport, and I would not want the FA to break away from that. I know that dialogue continues between FA and FIFA on a number of issues, which is how it should be. There should be no political interference and the two should work for the good of the game. This is about the good governance of the game. I am sure that much of what we are developing in England will influence Europe and the
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world. That is how it should be. As with every other game or sport, developments should be within that broad governance.

My hon. Friend asked whether I would wish the Professional Footballers Association to engage those players who are not engaged in promoting better behaviour. In my view, the PFA does a first-class job in this area, and I know that Gordon Taylor promotes it strongly through the Prince's Trust, helping many young people to get back into society through football. The commitment of two to three hours a week to community work for each player is part of the charter and the contracts that the professionals sign up to.

Mr. Allen : In the few seconds that remain, will my right hon. Friend address the question of a summit and the relaunch of sportsmanship?

Mr. Caborn : I will give that consideration, but I cannot say this afternoon—

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. I am afraid that I have to send the Minister off again.

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