Select Committee on Education and Employment First Special Report

Fifth Report: Work Permits for Overseas Footballers (HC 218)

Fifth Report: Work Permits for Overseas Footballers (HC 218)
Published: 9 May 2000
Government Reply:  Sixth Special Report, Session

 1999-2000 (HC 860)

Published: 27 July 2000


Government Response

Further Government Action

1 We hope that the present negotiations between the EU institutions, the Member States and football's governing bodies lead to measures which will limit the negative consequences of the Bosman ruling. We urge the Government to support proposals which will allow limits to be placed on the number of players a club can have on its books who are not eligible for selection for the national side of the country in which they are playing. If the present negotiations are not successful to this end, we recommend that the Government support any future proposals of the same kind.

The Government, via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, is playing an active role in the discussions with other Member States, European Football governing bodies and the Commission, concerning a proposal to limit the impact which the Bosman ruling has had on professional sport in Europe.

The Government understands that the issue is likely to be taken forward by the French Presidency. The Committee may wish to note that it is the Minister of Sport who will negotiate on behalf of the Government at any subsequent meetings. Should the French presidency table a paper on steps to reverse the Bosman ruling on quotas, then the Department will, of course, liaise with the Minister of Sport and ensure that the Committee's recommendations are reflected upon. Given that free movement of labour throughout the EEA is viewed as one of the cardinal principles of the Treaty of Rome, we think it unlikely, however, that sport would be given an exemption.

The Government understands that the issue of possible quotas governing the numbers of European Economic Area (EEA) footballers playing for clubs in other EEA States is still being considered by the French Presidency. No formal proposal has yet been made. As the Government has indicated previously, the Minister for Sport will liaise with the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) and her counterparts in other EEA States should a proposal be made, and will take full account of the Committee's recommendation. The Government would also expect that the European Commission will wish to consult governing bodies, players' associations and other organizations throughout the EEA on the substance of any proposal.

The Government is alert to the possibility that the European Commission's present review of the FIFA's transfer regulations, and the recent response of the joint UEFA/FIFA Task Force, may have consequences for the numbers of EEA footballers playing in other EEA States. The Government has offered full support for the UK football authorities in their negotiations with the Commission, and believes that any reformed transfer system must retain the beneficial effects of the present arrangements in supporting smaller clubs and encouraging the development of home grown talent.

2 We recommend that, if the governing bodies are once again allowed to place restrictions on the number of foreign players—both EEA and non-EEA—which a club may have on its books, a single limit on the number of overseas players should be applied and that no distinction should be made between EEA nationals and work permit players. The limit should apply to those players who are not available to be selected to play for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, whatever their nationality, although a player from one part of the UK playing in another part of the UK should not be counted as a foreign player.

This recommendation is hypothetical and clearly dependent on the outcome of the current negotiations covered in the previous recommendation.

It would be for the World, European and British football governing bodies, not the Government, to consider introducing rules which would ensure limits on overseas players on the books of individual clubs.

The Government's policy of considering work permit applications against the relevant criteria would continue. If the criteria were met, a permit would be issued to the club. It would be the responsibility of that club to comply with all appropriate Football governing bodies' regulations regarding limitations on the numbers of overseas players they are permitted to have on their books.

The Government's position remains the same as in its original response.

3 If a quota governing EEA as well as non-EEA players proves impossible, we recommend that the governing bodies introduce a quota for work permit players. The quota would have to be set so that it did not permit a substantial increase in the number of work permit players. We recommend a quota of two work permit players per club in the Premiership and one in the First Division. We do not believe that a quota system would need to be accompanied by any further restrictions, although the Minister indicated that even with such a system, she would not accept the complete removal of all quality controls.

Whilst not averse to the principle of quotas, in order to afford home-grown youngsters the opportunity to develop, the Government's policy is clear: any quota system must be underpinned by a measure of quality. This, the Government is convinced, is how we can ensure that only top international footballers, who contribute significantly and add value to the game, are granted permission to play in the UK.

The Government would support and help to facilitate the introduction by the governing bodies of a voluntary quota system for non-EEA players, as long as the quality threshold remained a key criterion. Ultimately it would be the governing bodies, not the Government, who would be responsible for inaugurating and monitoring such arrangements.

The Department would not be able to support a quota system which did not contain a quality component as it would run totally counter to the aim of granting work permits only to players of the highest calibre who can make a significant contribution to the game.

There is also the distinct possibility that if the bodies introduced the quota system proposed by the Committee then clubs in the lower football divisions will argue that they were being discriminated against. Also, such a policy could exacerbate the widely-acknowledged gap between themselves, the Premier League and First Division, potentially prejudicing the development of home grown talent.

The DfEE has held informal discussions and written to the Football Association (FA) inviting them to submit proposals for a voluntary quota system for non-European Economic Area nationals which is which is geared around the central issue of a player's quality.

The department is awaiting a formal response from the FA.

4 We recommend that if the governing bodies introduce a quota system that would not permit the number of work permit players to be increased substantially above its present level, and the Government still feels that some form of quality control is necessary, the issue of a work permit should be based on a single criterion: that the salary which the club is offering would place the player in the upper quartile of the salary range for that club's players.

Should a quota system be implemented, the Government would not be prepared to accept the Committee's recommendation that a player's salary be used as the sole quality criterion. It is not Government policy to intervene, nor set arbitrary terms and conditions in the negotiations between an employee and an employer; this applies to any industry and profession, not just football.

Salaries in football can vary widely, including those offered by clubs to players of similar quality. It is paramount that the work permit arrangements should not been seen as a contributory factor to fuel wage inflation in the game. Previously, as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State stated in her oral evidence, there were certain cases where clubs hiked up a player's salary just to secure the work permit; the rational argument had moved from the player's international experience, ability and skill level to one where as long he was paid more money the club received a work permit.

If such a criterion were introduced it is possible that clubs would recoup the additional costs by passing it on to the fans. That is why the salary criterion was removed from the 1999/2000 work permit criteria. Furthermore, such a measure could be viewed as favouring the richer clubs and discriminating against the less wealthy ones.

The Government's position remains the same as in its original response.

5 We recommend that, if a quota system is introduced, clubs which already have more players than the quota permits should be allowed to retain their existing overseas players until their contracts expire. We recommend that the same principle should apply to clubs which become subject to a smaller quota requirement by virtue of relegation, but only in respect of those players signed before the club had played half its league matches in the season at the end of which it was relegated.

There are a number of important factors to be considered as part of the transitional arrangements for any quota system and such discussions would form a major part of the discussions with the football bodies. The Government would be keen to ensure that clubs who had existing work permit holders were not penalised in any way.

The Government has not received the proposals referred to above from the FA. However, it will ensure that the sentiments of the Committee's recommendation are taken into account in any future discussions.

6 If the governing bodies do not move to a quota system, it will be necessary for the Government to retain tough but fair controls on the issue of work permits. Our principal concern with the present system is the use of the FIFA rankings and we discuss the problems with the rankings in paragraphs 21-26. We believe that their use should be discontinued. We recommend that, if a quota system is not to be introduced, a work permit should only be issued if:

a. the player concerned has played for his present club's first team in at least 75 per cent of its matches;

b. he has played for his country in at least 75 per cent of its competitive 'A' team matches for which he was available for selection; and

c. the salary which the club is offering would place him in the upper quartile of the salary range for that club's players.

This will ensure that the player is established at both international and club level and that the British club which seeks to employ him is sufficiently confident of his ability to offer him a salary comparable with its current highest-paid players.

Should discussions between the Government and football governing bodies prove inconclusive on the matter of introducing a quota system, the Government, as always, will review the existing criteria in consultation with the bodies for the 2001/2002 season. The Government is pleased that the Committee has recommended that a player's international record should form an integral part of any new criteria. However, the Government is unable to accept the Committee's two other suggested criteria for the following reasons.

The Committee's recommendation relating to checking appearances at club level would, in most cases, be an additional and lower quality assessment than the current international appearances check which the Committee recommend be retained. This criterion would not add any significant value. Difficulties would also exist in assessing the quality of the national league in which the individual's club compete. No world league ranking list exists. Verifying the number of club matches a player has played could prove to be a difficult and onerous task as many national football associations do not have the administrative infrastructure of the domestic football associations.

The Government's response to the inclusion of a salary threshold has been covered earlier.

In summary, the Government believes that the current criteria for applying for permits are objective, straightforward and transparent.

The Department reviews the criteria with the football bodies at the end of each football season.

7 We do not believe that a player who habitually displays poor sportsmanship or who regularly misses matches through suspension can be said to be contributing to the development of the game at its highest level. We recommend that, for the purposes of determining the proportion of matches in which a player has participated, matches missed through suspension should be treated as matches for which he was not selected to play, rather than as matches missed through injury.

Clearly, no Government would wish to encourage or condone bad sportsmanship. However it is the Government's belief that such matters are the responsibility of a sport's governing body.

The Government's two benchmarks for the work permit arrangements for non-EEA footballers have been, and will remain, quality and the contribution a player can make to the British game. If a player has been suspended by an overseas football association then it could be argued that, if this period was taken into account, the Government would be, in essence, punishing the person twice for the same offence. This could lay the Government open to accusations of double jeopardy.

There might also be problems with devising objective criteria for measuring the severity of the offence for which the person was suspended. Sportspeople around the world are suspended from their sport for a host of reasons. Often, suspensions are not alike and it would be an extremely difficult task to draw up criteria which were fair, consistent and transparent.

The Government did not accept this recommendation for the reasons given before. The Government remains convinced that it should not become embroiled in such issues which are primarily matters for a sport's governing body to resolve.

8 We recommend that work permits should be subject to renewal every two years. Permits should be renewed automatically if a player has played in at least 75 per cent of his club's first team games for which he was fit to play.

The Government does not accept this recommendation and does not think it would help to ensure the objectives agreed. The criteria for the coming 2000/2001 season state that a permit will be issued for the length of a person's contract; the Government is convinced that this is the most appropriate way forward as it enables a club to take responsibility for the players they recruit, plan for the future and invest appropriately in quality players.

The Government's position remains the same as in its original response.

9 We do not believe that, under a quota system or under the salary criterion we have proposed, there would be any need for applications to be re-considered if they clearly did not meet this criterion. We recommend that the Review Panel should be retained, but its terms of reference should extend only to determining disputes between clubs and the OLS over matters of fact relating to work permit applications.

The Government does not accept that this recommendation would improve the current arrangements. The Government believes that the current structure and purpose of the panels, as set out in their existing terms of reference, have been a success. As an appeal mechanism they have also proved to be competent, efficient and popular with the clubs. Regardless of whatever work permit arrangements are in place some sort of appeal mechanism must always be afforded employers. The current Review system is transparent, efficient and easy to administer.

The Government is keen for the Review panels to continue in their present format as they provide clubs with the opportunity to present arguments to a panel of independent football experts, should their application not meet the published criteria. Panel members are well-respected figures in the game and they discharge their duties in a professional, objective and qualified manner.

The Government has decided that the panels will remain in place for the coming season and has tightened up the procedures so that clubs will be entitled to only one review per application submitted for a particular player during the season for the same club. This strengthening of the Review process has been welcomed by all of the football bodies.

The Government's position remains the same as in its original response. The review panels are once again working well this season, and are proving to be genuinely independent and competent in discharging their responsibilities.

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Prepared 27 February 2001