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23 Jan 2008 : Column 444WH—continued

We heard, too, from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), chairman of the all-party group on football, and probably the wisest and most
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experienced voice of football in the House. I thank him for his contribution. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), spoke about his own team, Manchester City, and we would all endorse his remarks about the Munich air disaster. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who made some sensible comments about over-hyped expectations, which are a key problem affecting English football, and about the success of the premier league. We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—another keen footballer and cufflink-wearer—who made some wise remarks about youth development, and he was absolutely right. Finally, we heard from the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), who laid out his party’s approach to these issues.

Hon. Members want to hear from the Minister, so I shall keep my remarks relatively brief. I do, however, want to lay out the Conservative party’s initial thoughts on the two key issues that have been raised—the premier league, and the dearth of English qualified players who are of sufficient quality to represent this country successfully. Before I do so, however, I want to make two preliminary points. First, during the two years in which I have served as my party’s sports spokesman, I have become ever more convinced of the need to empower national sporting governing bodies to get on and run their own sports without constant interference from the Government or anybody else. I am not naive enough to believe that that is always an easy course for Governments to follow, but I genuinely believe that it is the right way to proceed.

Mr. Leech: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one problem in football is that we have two conflicting authorities—the FA, which should have the power, and the premier league, which does have the power?

Hugh Robertson: No, I am not sure that I agree. The FA is clearly the sport’s national governing body, and it has responsibility for the English team. If issues need to be addressed, it is up to the FA to identify them and recommend the necessary action.

Incidentally, it is worth saying that there have been quite a few critical remarks about the FA this morning, and we should balance those by paying tribute to what it has achieved. Over the past 12 months, it has done three significant things: it has got Wembley open, and up and running successfully; it has implemented the Burns review, which was by no means easy and which quite a lot of people in football thought might be beyond the FA a year ago; and it has just signed a new television deal. It is therefore important to balance our remarks.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): It has also just got a new chairman, and I have great expectations of him.

Hugh Robertson: I am delighted—that is four reasons to celebrate the FA’s success on that side of the fence.

My second preliminary remark—and this point has been made by one or two Members—is that we should keep the issue in proportion. As I said at the outset, there are several reasons why we failed to qualify for Euro 2008, but chief among them is the fact that we
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failed to beat a sufficient number of teams during the qualifying rounds. We have discussed several other reasons—the number of foreign players, academies, structural issues and so on—but it is worth remembering that it is the basic failure to beat a sufficient number of teams on the pitch that caused the problems that we face today. I have every confidence that the appointment of Fabio Capello, who seems to be bringing a more professional approach to the top end of the national game, will have a considerable effect on football.

I want to move on to the two issues that underpin everything that we heard this morning: the premier league and the development of young players. We have, of course, been debating football, but the club-versus-country issue is not confined to football, and has recently been addressed in rugby and cricket. It is easy to be critical of the premier league, but, again, we should balance that criticism by recognising, as hon. Members have, that it is the wealthiest league in the world and is watched on television and listened to on the radio by more people across the world than any other league. It is a UK export with a truly global reach, as we have seen in India this week, to cite a recent example.

I am told, albeit by the premier league, that stadium attendances over the past 15 years have gone up by 60 per cent. and that the average occupancy rate now sits at a staggering 92 per cent.—figures that almost every other sport in this country would die for. I entirely accept what my right hon. Friend said in this regard, but the premier league is also a significant economic driver, with a considerable impact on local economies, and it generates huge revenue for the Treasury. Of course, all of that depends on what happens on the pitch, and much of the league’s success and, indeed, from my point of view, its fun comes down to the fact that it is such an uninhibited, unencumbered free market. My advice to anybody seeking to curtail that is that they tamper with it at their peril.

It is, however, perfectly reasonable to ask whether some form of restriction, whether voluntary or otherwise, would enable more English qualified players to gain the necessary benefits from playing top-level club football so that they stood a better chance of succeeding as internationals. I am not sure that intervening in that way would help, and there is the obvious problem of whether any quota system would be legally enforceable or practically workable. Furthermore, any possible restrictions might fall victim to the law of unintended consequences, and simply encourage big clubs to source their talent from Africa and south America even earlier. I am not sure that any of us would wish to encourage that.

Richard Younger-Ross: Would there perhaps be an unintended consequence for the Scottish and Welsh teams? If players could play either for those teams or for England, they might opt for England because that would give them a greater income than playing for, say, Scotland, where they might be the first choice.

Hugh Robertson: To be entirely honest, I not sure that anybody in the room or in the premier league knows what the unintended consequences of any intervention would be, which is precisely why that is such a dangerous track to take.

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Any levelling-down, which is what the artificial selection of English qualified players would involve, would not be the correct response. The challenge for English football is to produce more young players of the calibre necessary to break into the top premiership clubs, so that they could hold their place there on merit and then get through to the national team. The key to unlocking this issue is therefore improving the supply line of young English football talent.

Time does not allow me to examine the various strengths and weaknesses of the supply line from schools, through clubs, academies and centres of excellence and on to the proposed new national football centre, although I am sure that we all welcome the news that that centre is going ahead. However, the 2007 Lewis review on youth development in football makes excellent sense, and if its conclusions had been implemented five years ago, I suspect that we would not be in the position in which we find ourselves today.

Incidentally, I suspect that all right hon. and hon. Members would join me in paying tribute to Richard Lewis. Not only has he been an excellent executive chairman of the Rugby Football League, which promotes truly community-based sport, but he has given up a tremendous amount of time—he is a wise and influential figure in the wider world of sport—to help with the FA review and the Sport England review, which the Minister will no doubt mention. We should all put on record our thanks to him for all that he has done. The Lewis review has identified a sensible way forward, and I strongly urge the FA, the premier league and the Football League to work together—that is crucial—to implement the review’s recommendations and see what difference they make, before turning to any other possible interventions, which may produce considerably less certain outcomes.

In conclusion, I again congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. There has been a wide measure of agreement about the problems and possible solutions. The Conservative party’s position is threefold. First, we strongly believe that the issue before us is one for the FA, not the Government or anybody else. As part of the FA’s root-and-branch review, I urge it to look at the issues raised this morning, to work with the premier league and the Football League and to produce a genuine plan of action as soon as possible. If that requires legislative action—I am not sure that there is any reason why it should—I am happy to put on record that we would, of course, offer our full support.

Secondly, I strongly support the recommendations in the 2007 Lewis review of academies and centres of excellence, as well as the FA’s decision to press ahead with a new national football centre. No one should ever pretend that it is easy to get young players to make the jump from club to international level, but the review’s recommendations are a sensible way forward.

Thirdly, unless there is a voluntary quota, which is unlikely, I would not support any artificial barriers to the selection of players in the premier league. The premier league is a fantastic national asset, and we should enjoy and cherish it, warts and all. The answer to this question lies in getting more youngsters into the top flight of the game. As so often in sport, it is a question of getting the structures right to service the national team—the academies, centres of excellence and the national football centre—then breeding a culture
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of success within the team, as the Australians have done so brilliantly in cricket, and as I believe the French did in football in the late ’90s. If that is done, I have no doubt that we shall qualify for the next World cup.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): Welcome to the Chair, this morning, Mr. Caton. I congratulate my right hon. football friend—the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—on securing this important debate. Indeed, I congratulate all the hon. Members who have contributed; I consider them all parliamentary football friends. I am quite happy as Sports Minister, because in the past week about eight hours have been dedicated to sport in the House; that is unusual. We are often criticised for not being topical and not having our fingers on the pulse. The debate shows that we are indeed passionate about our football, on behalf of our football constituents.

I agree with the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) that we are not attacking the Football Association, the premier league or the Football League; we are making a genuine effort to get debate going about what should happen. I sometimes think, particularly in my present role, that the football authorities are a little bit sensitive when people start to raise issues about the game; we do so for its benefit.

I was interested in the speeches that right hon. and hon. Members made, and not least by the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) raised ownership and governance issues, and I agree with him about putting a supporter on every board, with the right support. That is the ambition of Supporters Direct—a movement that we are happy to support.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) for his response on the Munich air disaster. I understand what he said about the minute’s applause. However, the issue is bigger than the two clubs involved and bigger than English football. If we cannot get across what the aftermath of the Munich air disaster meant to everyone, we shall sink low in the estimation of football supporters around the world.

The hon. Gentleman was right to talk about the positive impact of foreign players, particularly at Manchester City. I was interested in his suggestions about the transfer window not working as well as it might and particularly in what he said about the academies quota.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) talked about the new rules on European Union players and freedom of movement and about the Government’s proposals in connection with the points system for immigration. He will be pleased to know that the new system simplifies more than 60 current routes to enter the country into five tiers. Tier 2, for skilled workers with a job offer, covers footballers playing for UK clubs.

We have developed a special tier 2 sporting category for elite sportspersons and coaches, for those internationally established at the highest level, whose employment will make a significant contribution to the development of their sport at the highest level in the UK. Other tiers
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relate to sporting competition. I hope that will satisfy the hon. Gentleman that we are taking the right approach. He made great play of the impact of television money on football and its presence in the game at all levels. He makes a fair point about saturation and what will happen in the future. The football authorities need to take those points on board.

The Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) is another of my footballing friends; we have shared many games together. In fact, I should congratulate the parliamentary football team, which I understand won 6-2 yesterday against the Showmen’s Guild. I think that the parliamentary team has had a long successful streak.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of coaching and the debt that we owe to volunteer coaches throughout the country for their commitment to football. I want coaching to grow, and I want coaches to be held in the same esteem in the UK as they are in the United States, where a high-school coach is not only a high earner but a well respected member of the community. We need to apply the same principles to volunteers and to professionalise coaching in any way we can. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on doing the level 1 coaching course.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on going to Rwanda to show the power of sport and of football in particular to the wider world. This week I went to Nottingham to visit an organisation called Balls to Poverty, which is involved in taking footballs to South Africa. It has been very successful in the past three years and is now paying attention to the UK—including areas such as Nottingham, where there are difficulties with youth crime and gun and knife crime—using the same principles. That is the power of football working. The hon. Gentleman also talked about great teams and football’s aspirations and about the Celtic 1967 team of home-grown players.

My intervention on the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was about residence rights and being able to play for national teams. He made some points about cricket and rugby union. My parents were from Yorkshire and Scotland, but I was born in Salford at the time when people could not play cricket for Yorkshire unless they had been born there. I always remember the great pleasure that other people took in telling me when I was a child that I could never play cricket for Yorkshire because I was not born there. The fact that I could not play cricket, and had no intention of doing so, did not come into it. They made the point that I would not be able to do so.

I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong). She is a keen Sunderland supporter and keeps us abreast of all the things that happen to Sunderland, and the battle against relegation. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) for his comments about EU restrictions and about the opposition and problems that we may encounter in Europe.

The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent really summed things up with respect to our unity of purpose and aims. We must ensure that we reach grass-roots level and support young players, and the Government
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have a role to play: by investing in school sport and providing coaches at clubs, we can help the premier league, the Football League and the Football Association.

I am particularly pleased about the appointment of Lord Triesman as the independent chairman of the Football Association. The Burns review has been implemented by the FA, and the future is still being considered. A continual review is taking place in the FA, and I congratulate all those who are involved. It has been a difficult period, with the move from the old FA council set-up to an independent chairman. I know that Lord Triesman will be a tremendous asset to the FA.

The defeat against Croatia upset us all. I was there on that eventful night, when we all had expectations that the team would do really well. Israel had done what it did on the Saturday against Russia, and we all expected a walk-over against Croatia. However, those of us at the game saw Croatian players who could hold the ball and hold the game up, and who showed tremendous skill, whereas, unfortunately, the England players looked as if the ball was a hot potato.

The tragedy was that not only England but the rest of the home nations failed to qualify. I said that night that there should be a root-and-branch examination of what is happening in football. It was a disaster in footballing terms, but also in economic terms. The failure of any home nation to qualify could cost the economy billions of pounds. That evening the causes were considered. The following day the FA announced a root-and-branch investigation of what was happening.

Yes, Mr. Capello is now here, and I am pleased about that. He is a world-class coach and we look forward to success for the England team, but things must go much deeper into what is happening at grass-roots and school level. I watch my grandchildren playing football. There is too much pressure and competition for results. There are too many parents who are pushy for their youngsters, not focusing on skill levels and people enjoying being on the ball and enjoying the game.

The impact of foreign players is important. The premier league is world class, for the reasons that hon. Members have set out. I understand the arguments that have been given. Quotas would be difficult because of European legislation, so I want the FA to lead a review and put together a board of people who will study football at grass-roots level and consider whether we get to players early enough. I hope that the Government will be involved in that through UK sports coaches and Sport England, to help the FA and the football authorities come to terms with the fact that we need to ensure that young players get support at the highest levels. Trevor Brooking said to me on several occasions that he thought that some of the TV money could be diverted into support for skills development and training, and I agree.

It is no coincidence that the Man United coach Carlos Queiroz said at a conference in Portugal recently that he was concerned and appalled about what he saw of the coaching of young players in England. We need to learn the lessons. I think that we have a glowing view of the past, and we all say that the ’70s were a great era for professional football—

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. We must now move on to the next debate.

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