Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, this has been a most interesting and insightful debate, ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Faulkner, to whom we owe a very considerable debt not just for the opportunity to debate this important issue—here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, about the importance of sport for our communities—but also because we want the football authorities to take seriously certain football issues in which we, as representatives of the community, have a very keen interest.
15 Dec 2004 : Column 1407

It is clear from the debate that we all recognise that football is, indeed, a complex business. I refer here to the obvious dichotomy in the modern game in which some increasingly exploit the enormous commercial benefits that they derive from success at the highest level and make increased profits through sound business models while others struggle to survive in an increasingly competitive and ruthless market. It is recognised that the game has moved away from traditional roots in the community which we want to see fostered and continued. Football attracts media attention. Therefore, debates on football take place in the full glare of publicity. They are important debates.

Football is continually being analysed. Governing bodies and clubs are always under the spotlight. The Government's attitude to football is also under the spotlight. Football matters to the nation and therefore matters to government. Football is important. After all, it helps to deliver the Government's aims to increase participation in sport and to improve social inclusion, community cohesion and the health of the nation as set out in Game Plan, published in December 2002. Football has a high profile and is the nation's favourite game. We all recognise the extent to which millions of people—upwards of 24 million—take an interest in football. That figure is well above those for any other sport. Three-quarters of parents say that their children are interested in football. Within schools teachers identify the popularity of football, particularly among boys but increasingly among girls. Football generates an impressive feel good factor when the national side—or our leading teams representing our national interest—do well in international competition. Therefore, we recognise the importance of football in our national life.

More than any other sport, football has the ability to engage large numbers of our people, to reach out to communities and to reach across social classes. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who I believe first mentioned this point, that a great deal of football is played at amateur grass roots level. We need to nurture that. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Faulkner for identifying that we need football to be well run at the highest national level because it needs to respect and connect to the grass roots level from which the very strength of the sport develops.

The picture is very far from being one of gloom and doom. We recognise the considerable progress that has been made in recent years. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, identified the growing extent to which the major clubs relate to their communities and the very considerable progress they have made in that regard. The Government want to encourage that development. We want to see the development of strategies that provide the right facilities. Football clubs in Britain could follow the models that exist elsewhere in Europe and the wider world of being the focal point of wider sporting facilities than just football to which the community inevitably relates.

If those models were adopted, we could hope to see an increase in sporting participation and sporting facilities. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, was right
15 Dec 2004 : Column 1408
to stress such facilities. However, I chide him a little as it is a little rich for a member of a previous government who had an extraordinary record regarding the closure of school playing fields to berate this Government who now have the toughest policy on the control of school playing fields. We ensure that any playing space which is lost is replaced by an enhanced provision with year round facilities that improves opportunities to participate in sport. It ill behoves the noble Lord to berate this Government in that regard, particularly as he will recognise that over this past week we have announced substantial investment in, and our commitment to, sport.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, that football's strength is that it attracts children from all backgrounds. It enables them to engage in extremely vigorous physical exercise. I refer to the need to provide sufficient facilities in our communities. So much petty, and sometimes more serious, crime occurs on benighted estates where we have failed to provide facilities. It is essential that we address the role which sport can play in enhancing participation and communities. There has been recognition—

Lord Lyell: My Lords—

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the debate is time restricted but I shall give way.

Lord Lyell: My Lords, the noble Lord kindly referred to me. I may have spoken in a rather tongue in cheek fashion but I referred to children of all ages. That includes myself and perhaps the noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Grantchester. I pointed out that spiritually we are all extremely young.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am delighted to hear that. As I was foolish enough to captain the parliamentary football side at the age of 57 I give way to no one as regards having delusions of youth when one's skill has long passed its best.

As regards pride in past performance, no one has mentioned the one thing that we should all recognise; namely, the skill exhibited in our football. The skill exhibited in the football that is played in our Premiership and at an international level is in my view substantially higher than it ever was in the past. We should recognise that. That is part of football's attraction and the reason it provides such extraordinarily gripping television. The great games constitute great experiences. I therefore hope that we recognise the strengths of the present position too. I am grateful to all those noble Lords who spoke about this; the noble Lord, Lord Jones, was emphatic in those terms, so was the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, on the extent to which we need to nurture grass roots.

I emphasise that in the footballing community schemes, in the Positive Futures programme, in the Premier League Reading Stars, we see role models, not just in sport but in a wider form of education as well. Leading footballers show how they have mastered crucial literacy skills and have struggled with those problems in order to emphasise to young people that
15 Dec 2004 : Column 1409
they must master these skills and enhance their literacy and numeracy. What better role model than a professional footballer whom they hold in the highest regard showing that he has been through the same battles as they are facing and has triumphed over them? There is a great deal about football role models which does not relate solely to performance in the field of play, but can also play its part for the good of the wider community if we can only capitalise on the good will that can be, and is often, present.

Football can deliver a great deal more than it has in the past, although I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Pendry who emphasised the particular role that we all recognise, and in which he has played such a conspicuous part, of the Football Foundation. I will also mention the private dimension of the Barclays Spaces for Sport initiative, which also brings substantial private finance—some £30 million community sponsorship—by one of the country's leading banks in partnership with the Football Foundation at ground work. This is the single biggest investment in grass root sports by a company in the UK, and we should pay tribute to that initiative. I am glad that my noble friend raised that point this evening.

I am also grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for his emphasis on the extent to which football and sport can help to develop the whole individual. It is an important dimension, and we should recognise that football can both improve the health of our young people—we all recognise the problems and challenges of obesity among young people, which needs to be tackled through greater levels of exercise—and that is why I emphasise to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that we are determined that every child shall enjoy the opportunities for two hours of sport per week. He will recognise the significant progress that we are making towards targets. We have hit certain targets in the past two years, and we are putting resources in place to ensure that those targets are raised for the participation of children in sport.

I also agree with my noble friend Lord Faulkner that we need to think seriously about the tough issues that confront football, particularly on the way in which football is run. The Government agreed to set up the Independent Football Commission, an independent body established on self-regulatory lines. I am aware of the fact that there are critics who suggest that the IFC does not enjoy the range of powers that may be necessary for it to be as effective as some would like, but it has been going for only two years, and during those first two years we recognise the progress that has been made, and we look forward to the report on its activities in their third year.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Newby—I think he was reinforced by his own Front Bench—that football does not need a statutory regulator. It certainly needs regulation; it needs a recognition of standards that it must meet. A statutory regulator could come into play only if football was in fact faced by the kind of dire crisis to which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred. Let us hope that wise counsels prevail, and that the Premiership
15 Dec 2004 : Column 1410
figures recognise the dangers of pursuing self-interest to the point where they damage their long-term interests in any case by pursuit of too narrow objectives.

It is not the Government's responsibility to regulate footballers, unless they break the law. It is the Government's concern to have an interest in the fact that the FA should be fit for purpose for the 21st century for the sake of the game and to ensure that the game can deliver grass roots football. We believe that this can best be achieved through a strong FA. It is therefore fair to ask, "Is the FA fit for purpose?". It is important to recognise that my right honourable friend the Minister for Sport offered his support to the FA in the troubles that it has had in recent months. We all welcome the appointment of the new chief executive, and we wish Brian Barwick well. We also recognise that it is important that the Football Association appreciates the keen interest of the Government on behalf of the wider community, that it puts its own house in order, and that it exerts the necessary authority for the good of the game and for all of us who hold the game in high regard.

I have no doubt that on the issues with regard to governance a great deal of progress needs to be made. Football supporters are clearly exerting their pressure, a point made by my noble friend Lord Rosser in terms of the role of the grass roots and the fans. It is important that we recognise the part played by the fans. They have an important interest in the sport. Without them, the sport would be as nothing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, identified, costs for taking families to football these days are prohibitive at the highest levels. We should welcome those grounds where they set out to identify special seats of lower cost to encourage young people to get their chance to see football at the highest level without having to meet the exorbitant costs that can obtain.

I recognise the point made by my noble friend Lord Clark, that throughout the Football League there are an awful lot of directors and others who play their part in supporting clubs without significant material reward or even thought that that may materialise. He is right; the Football League has shown areas in which the Premiership could learn lessons, not least the question of the percentage to be spent on wage bills. It is an important guide; it is in its early days, but we recognise that it may help the finances of clubs outside the Premiership. It may be that the Premiership comes to recognise that the rather exorbitant position of players' salaries—reference has been made to newly negotiated salaries of extraordinary levels—perhaps does have to be reined in for the good of football finances.

On the more technical point that my noble friend raised on the question of the fairness with which different football clubs are treated when they go into administration, I think perhaps I will have to write to him on that. It is a little outside the responsibility of this department. It is rather more the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry on bankruptcy law.

I recognise the point that he makes, and he will appreciate that there is a particular difficulty about football as a business when it comes to the question of its debts building up, and that is that football clubs are
15 Dec 2004 : Column 1411
going businesses only for as long as they play football and fulfil their fixtures. Therefore, there is a real problem for the authorities with what dramatic impact they make upon a club in mid-season because of money that is owed to the Inland Revenue, which might vitiate the long-term future of that club entirely. There are difficulties with this industry, but I recognise the point that he makes, and obviously he has a right to expect fairness in treatment.

I also appreciate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that it is important that there should be criteria for the directors of football clubs. We need to ensure that people who carry out that role on behalf of a significant force in the local community meet standards of proper conduct in terms of business operation. I also hope that we see, through the growth of the supporters' trusts, responsibility to the fans. In the past, clubs have often been scandalously neglectful of the very group of people to whom they owe the greatest obligation, because it is from them that they derive the greatest loyalty.

I also welcome the fact that several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Faulkner, emphasised that there is no place for racism in football—quite the opposite. We should recognise that football is a living example of the range of talents that our multiracial community brings through excellence in the sport. The disgraceful events that occurred when the England team was on international duty in Spain produced from the Government and the Football Association a suitably strong riposte. We hope that we are able to see the end of such episodes.

I welcome the point emphasised particularly strongly by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, about the tremendous success in the growth of women's football. I agree with the noble Lord that the Football Association should look at its great growth potential. The extraordinary thing from the American experience is that it is in exactly that area that the most significant developments have been made. Again, ingrained attitudes may need to be overcome by administration at the top level of football, but we must look forward to progress in those terms as well.

It has been a fascinating debate, and a difficult one to respond to, not least because everyone has made good points and has done so in an emphatic and impassioned way. Everyone therefore deserves a full response from me in every respect, which is difficult within the framework of 20 minutes. I hope that we all recognise the debt that we owe to my noble friend Lord Faulkner for introducing an important debate this evening.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page