Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 72 - 79)

MS MARGARET HODGE, MP

WEDNESDAY 16 FEBRUARY 2000

Chairman

  72. Minister, you are very welcome. Perhaps you might like to make an introductory statement to play us all in.

  (Ms Hodge) I think there is a muddle in the public mind about the role that we play through the work permit system because we only give work permits to footballers who are non-British and non-EU international players. The reality is that in the Premier and Football League you have now got about seven per cent of players from the EU and less than two per cent are non-EU and non-British nationals. I think when people get worried about there being too many international players playing in British football they do not distinguish and therefore they are not clear as to the real powers that the Government has to intervene. That is the first thing I want to say. The second thing is that in determining policy around what are fair and appropriate criteria for work permits for footballers we have listened very carefully to all the football bodies and others who have got an interest in the issue and we have had to balance quite carefully two conflicting priorities. One is that everybody wants to see a good game of football, so they want the best players there and if the best players are international they want to have them and that is the primary interest coming from clubs particularly in the Premier League. Another good point is that one way to grow home talent is to have good role models of international players who can raise the quality of the game in a particular club. That is on the one side. On the other side you do want to grow home talent and you do want to provide footballing opportunities for our own people. So we have tried to balance that. I think we have done that quite successfully. When I first came into office—you will laugh at this, Derek—I was given my list of responsibilities and among them was work permits and I did think that would be pretty straightforward and pretty bureaucratic and I would not have to spend a lot of time on that. I very quickly found in the early days of being in office that my postbag was rather fuller of letters from MPs and others with enquiries from the press around the issue of work permits for footballers. I looked at the criteria that we had and I think they were not very clear. They tended to be a bit arbitrary and partial and neither I nor you could understand why one player was given a work permit and another one was not. So what we tried to do in reviewing the criteria for work permits for footballers was to come forward with transparent, clear, consistent criteria and I think we have achieved that. The other thing we have achieved is we have really speeded up the system. Again, under the old system that we inherited, it took about 26 days to deal with an application for a work permit for a footballer; now the average is seven and a half days and if there is an appeal it goes up to 13, but that is a fantastically better and speedier system and I think that is in the interests of everybody, i.e. the individual, the club and the general public.

  73. Thank you very much indeed. Certainly some of the evidence from the players has been that they were very concerned that the July change of last year had made the regulations a lot more lax and so a lot more foreign players were going to come in. They gave us something of an alarming statistic, which is that at the beginning of this season 59 per cent of the players starting matches in the Premier Division were foreign. The statistics you gave us were very much more balanced and I am sure that they are absolutely right. It was quite alarming that at the beginning of the season in the Premier Division so many foreign players were beginning matches.
  (Ms Hodge) I do not recognise those statistics from the statistics that we have given you and the ones that I am familiar with. I would be interested to know where you got those figures from. The second thing to say is that I think when they talk about foreign players they are talking about EU players as well as international players.

  74. They are talking about non-UK players?
  (Ms Hodge) Yes, and again I have to make the point that there is freedom of movement within the European Community and therefore certainly since the Bosman judgment, in particular, there is really little control that the British Government can have on clubs playing EU players. The figures I have are for the English Premier League: 20 clubs, 1,213 players, of whom there are 125 EEA players, which is about 10.3 per cent and current work permit players, that is international players, 33 per cent, 2.7 per cent. If you average it out between the Premier and the Football League it drops a bit because there are more in the Premier League. I do not quite recognise your figures. We have talked a lot to all the football bodies. There is no evidence that the change in the criteria has led to a massive influx of international players. There has undoubtedly been a steady growth—and I keep saying this, it is still less than two per cent—in the number of international players coming to play football in the UK. I think that is partly because there is more money around in the system partly from the television rights that people are getting. I think the Bosman judgment has made a difference to the number of EEA players that the clubs are playing. I do not think it is a function of the work permit criteria. I think the plus we have had from the review, which is clarity, consistency, speed and openness, are all to the good. We dropped some criteria. We want to ensure that those international players who come to play in the UK are top of their profession. So we have kept in the criteria that measure of quality, which is that you have to have played in 75 per cent of your international matches over the past two years and it depends where your club comes in the FIFA rankings and we currently have a cut off point of 70. What we dropped were criteria that we did not think were appropriate. One was that on every single application there was consultation with the football bodies and I think that led to inconsistency and incoherence in decision making and I think having these clear criteria is neater. It is just the clarity that we have bought in and the consistency. The other one we dropped was that there was an unspoken but pretty consistent salary level implication in the criteria. I did not think that was a very good criterion because it hiked up salaries here and in hiking up salaries you then price up the price of tickets and that damaged the interests of the fans and I thought there were other ways in which we could measure quality and excellence without necessarily looking at the salary levels.

  75. They were most concerned that now that you are letting them come in for the whole of the contract the work permit applies to the whole of the contract rather than just for a year. The players were claiming that 30 to 40 per cent of players coming in actually failed the post-entry checks and this seemed to suggest that a far larger body than those who are making a contribution at the highest level were being allowed in.
  (Ms Hodge) You measure their contribution by what they have done before they come into the UK. Our view on the post-entry checks was that it was burdensome, very bureaucratic, took time, cost money to everybody, both to the Government and to the football clubs. If a club chooses after a year or so it does not want to play somebody it is up to them to deal with that, but it was not our job to do the club's job for them and take away the work permit after a year when the club had signed them up to a three-year contract, for example. I think it is partly to do away with unnecessary regulatory burden and also to put the onus on the clubs to decide whether or not they wanted to play somebody that we took that decision.

  76. Certainly all the evidence given to us points to the fact that it really was the Bosman Ruling which preceded quite a substantial rise in the number of non-UK players. Is there that much point in worrying too much about those who come from outside the European economic area?
  (Ms Hodge) You are leading me in that question and I tend to agree with you. When you talk about non-Brits playing in British football you are talking about European players playing in British football. There are a far broader proportion of those who are engaged. Arsenal happens to be the club I support, although never let it be said. I know I dare not say it in this context, but Kanu brings something to the game or, if you think of the Moroccan, Chippo who is in Coventry brings something to the game. I think the quality threshold that we have set in relation to work permits enables people to come in who will add to the game and therefore add to the interests that fans have in watching the game and I think also probably do something about raising the quality of the game and therefore raising the aspirations and quality of the young people who we are trying to bring up.

Mr Brady

  77. Minister, we have had evidence from players, bodies and from the governing bodies of the sport which has suggested there is widespread concern about the impact which the number of overseas players taken together is having on the ability to bring on domestic footballing talent. We have also heard that there is widespread concern in other Member States about this and I understand there has been contact between UEFA and the European Commission on this matter. Is that something the British Government is party to?
  (Ms Hodge) Certainly if there are discussions European-wide on trying to tackle the Bosman judgment we would be involved in that. It is interesting that other countries in Europe, e.g. Germany and Sweden, determine their work permit criteria simply on the say so of the football bodies. There is no government involvement in that at all. Spain has a quota system. Holland and Belgium use salary as a criterion for determining who they allow in or not to play. There are assertions in the UK that we have more international players than elsewhere. There is very little proper data around, as you have probably found during the course of your inquiry, but from what we can find probably Spain, Germany, Italy and Holland have more international players than we do. If there is an attempt European-wide to do something about it and to get engaged in a conversation we will. We are always reviewing. We will listen to what you say and we will have regard to that. I honestly think that the criteria we established last year are better than what happened before. We also have this very independent appeal mechanism where we have the football bodies represented and a number of experts as well and they can very swiftly hear an appeal if a club feels aggrieved about a decision we have taken around a particular work permit. So we have got a really objective consistent system in place now.

  78. If there is widespread support to be found in other Member States to look at ways in which professional sports and particularly football might be taken outside the normal rules of European employment law then that is something the British Government would be prepared to explore, is it?
  (Ms Hodge) We will talk, but I think it is incredibly difficult given the whole freedom of labour within Europe. I honestly think the answer is we need to grow better our home talent and focus our efforts on that rather than trying to constrain the game by setting up barriers to the freedom of labour.

  79. And in that context might it be possible that one way of reducing the impact of the Bosman Ruling might be to allow quotas for young players who have been trained within a particular country?
  (Ms Hodge) The Bosman Ruling ruled out quotas, that was the whole point of it, it became illegal to have a quota.


 
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