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Football Industry: Regulation

6.6 p.m.

Lord Donoughue rose to call attention to the problems of the football industry and the need for more effective regulation; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I trust that your Lordships will agree that the subject of this debate is of concern to the House, to the Government and to the country at large. Association Football is our premier national team game, attracting the greatest support among the British people, and attendances have been rising in the past decade.

The Government are deeply involved, with considerable public finance concerned. Tax concessions to the Pools since 1990 have injected £121 million into the game via the Football Trust. Government money is going to help stage the 1996 European Championships. Local authorities provide the amateur game with most of its pitches; the Sports Council also assists to some extent the amateur side of the game. So football is not just a great national game; it is now a great industry. But several aspects of its conduct raise concern.

I should point out that not all of those concerns are new. I myself was a member of the Chester inquiry into the state of football which reported in 1968. The House may note that the cost of that 11-man three-year inquiry was £2,805.l3s.1d. I think it was value for money, especially compared with some expenditures on various quangos in recent years. I have re-read that report and it stands up well. I recommend other noble Lords to read it. Much of it is still relevant. It reported a game that was flourishing with rising attendances but found that there was a:

It concluded that:

    "misconduct in football will not greatly improve until there is an improvement in the manners and attitudes of society as a whole".

Little has changed in that respect.

But elsewhere it is a different world. That committee was impressed by the unity of the game and the fair spread of resources from top to bottom. The average wage of players in the top division was £2,600 per annum—less than double that of the lowly Fourth Division players. The average First Division transfer fee was £29,000. Even allowing for inflation, that would not buy many Premier League strikers now.

The motivation behind our debate is the widespread belief that football is in some kind of crisis which its own authorities are not able to resolve. We have the opportunity to examine that issue. I shall raise some general points and my noble friend Lord Peston will deal with some regulatory details as well as other points that may come up.

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I do not propose to deal with the quality of the game on the field, although our national team seems to perform relatively worse than at times in the past. But our game remains excitingly physical and competitive, and club fans are usually satisfied with their weekly matches. However, it is clearly deficient in basic skills, which is often why we fail internationally. In particular, we appear to be inferior in our "first touch" control of the ball. That may be beyond the influence of this House, despite the skills of first touch control which noble Lords periodically display in other areas.

Our main concerns lie with the conduct of the game, not with the play. Two aspects which must concern us today are the increasing allegations of financial irregularities and the violence and social misbehaviour close to football on and off the field. Reports of the bribing of players and "bungs" to managers fill the media, though the evidence is sometimes hard to establish. Massive tax evasion has been alleged. It is claimed that 15 clubs have already paid £16 million in tax penalties.

Much of the alleged irregularity appears to be related to the transfer system, where larger sums are said to have been paid than received by the clubs, sometimes involving hundreds of thousands of pounds, with the difference disappearing into the pockets of various intermediaries. The problem is that the football authorities seem a little dilatory in pursuing those allegations, which may in some cases involve them personally. I ask the Minister whether the Government are satisfied that those scandals are being investigated with proper diligence by the football authorities and whether the relevant public authorities—the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the DTI—have been instructed to investigate.

Central to that is the new role of players' agents. They manipulate the serpentine transfer system that exists. They appear sometimes to be close to the dubious transactions. In my view, agents should be registered and closely regulated, and I believe the league is considering that. That is a matter mainly for the football authorities. Surely we need to ensure that there is a clean-up in our game, not a cover-up, before hosting the European championships next year. I ask whether we may in fact need another Chester-style inquiry into the game. That is not established convincingly, but I find attractive the idea of an independent monitoring unit to monitor breaches of integrity in the game.

On the social side, the most obvious area of concern is the violence and hooliganism manifested on and off the field. Such behaviour conducted abroad is a matter of national shame and we have seen tragedies in various stadia abroad, most recently Bruges, and the disgraceful behaviour at Landsdown Road, Dublin. At home there has been some improvement at club matches in recent years; arrests are down by 30 per cent. But it is still a weekly issue of law and order. Some games operate in an environment like Belfast during a civil war. There are mounted police, surveillance cameras, anti-riot squads and intelligence officers infiltrating gangs of supporters who themselves are "apartheided" into separate tribal camps.

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We must ask why this violence appears to be unique to soccer. Rugby is a more physical sport, with more pain inflicted, yet the behaviour of the crowd is quite different. What is the cause of soccer's affliction of violence? It is certainly not helped by the violence on the field, but that is not a sufficient explanation. Nor is the social class of the supporter. A recent survey showed that on average a Premier League fan earns £20,000 a year and pays £24 a game to watch his team.

One certain problem is a fanatical political minority. What can the clubs do? Their approach has certainly improved, but they can probably do more. It is encouraging that some are introducing hotlines so that decent fans can report troublemakers, including their seat numbers. Clubs should then confiscate their season tickets and ban them. It should always be the case that clubs work closely with the supporters' clubs, which often do an excellent job, sometimes with too little club support.

The problem is that the worst hooligans, especially abroad in relation to England, are not members of the supporters' club. They are often political extremists, British Nazis; groups with the money and motivation to disrupt any match they choose. Of course, matches on the Continent are easier because those grounds do not have the kind of fortress defences which have sadly become common in England. They do not have them because they do not have our appalling hooligans.

The inquiry into the Dublin riot conducted by Mr. Thomas Finlay, former Chief Justice of Ireland, was most revealing. It concluded that some 50 to 80 English louts started it and more than 200 took part. It described the riot as "well-managed and organised" including the use of mobile telephones and hand signals to orchestrate violence. Large amounts of Nazi racist pamphlets were found at the scene and some groups wore Nazi insignia of the notorious Combat 18 group, the British National Party. The report concluded that the violence at Landsdown Road was "targeted, planned and intended"; it was not due to overcrowding or provocation on or off the pitch.

The actions of those fanatical louts bring shame to Britain and fear to thousands of peaceful football fans. I ask the Minister what further plans the Government have to curb them. There is already provision to require known troublemakers to report to police stations during games. That is said not to be rigorously applied. Can we have more rigorous application by the authorities? I am sure the Minister will not repeat criticism of the Irish or other police forces. The problem is ours. We must ensure that these louts do not go abroad and are locked up where they belong. If that requires more football regulation and legislation, we will give our support.

Returning to the game of football itself, I am worried by the progressive division of our game into the very rich and the very poor. Nearly three-quarters of all football revenues now go to the Premier League, and the league is dominated by a few elite teams. Self-perpetuating, they attract the top talent because only they can afford the transfer costs and the top wages, so they remain at the top and receive the bulk of the television coverage.

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Television is accelerating that elitism. The latest reported Sky satellite deal for soccer offers £600 million for five years; that is £6 million per season to each top club but nothing to the rest of the game. We note that attendance for the Endsleigh Insurance League is down 7 per cent. since saturation television coverage of the Premier League began. This minority club coverage is for the minority who can afford satellite television. The BBC and ITV cannot hope to compete to provide national coverage at that cost. Here I should stress how crucial it is that major sporting events—not only soccer—remain available to all on national terrestrial television.

What a change there has been since the Chester Report, when every club received an average £11,000 per season from the whole of television and the pools. Now relegation from the Premier League can deprive a club of up to £6 million. Television is now shaping and determining the conduct of the game, the days on which matches are played and times of kick-off. The same problem arises in the Football League, which was debated today in another place. Television is a ruthless paymaster and is creating a game of financially dominated showbiz top-end clubs, with poverty below. I should point out that the lottery may accelerate that. For local clubs, their local lotteries and scratch cards are often their main financial line of support and the National Lottery is cutting some of that off. There is a squeeze on the football pools which through the Football Trust have provided so much for ground improvements. Those funds are under threat too.

In the Chester Report we proudly surveyed a unified game, a fabric stretching from village and schools teams up to the First Division. Our prime aim was to sustain that healthy national game with deep and thriving local roots. The fear is that these days that unity, with its fair spread of resources, has been disrupted. It is perhaps inevitable that money values have come to dominate the game; but must we really hand over our great national games to foreigners such as Rupert Murdoch? I really question whether that is good for the games.

Some of the problems I have raised could of course be approached by government, and I shall look forward to what the Minister has to say on that. Many are endemic in our modern society. Most lie at the door of the football authorities themselves, and surely we should look for improvements there. The Football Association, the senior authority in the game, was criticised by Chester 30 years ago as outdated. I must say that it still looks anachronistic and increasingly bewildered by the problems which face it. The FA Council seems archaic and its decision-making is cumbersome. It is constantly outmanoeuvred by the commercialism of the Football League. It often appears inert amid the growing sleaze around it.

We should never forget that professional football is only 1 per cent. of the whole of football. All the other participation is amateur. The Football Association is responsible for that.

Having made these criticisms, however, I must emphasise that I totally support the existence of the Football Association as the single senior body responsible for the whole game, amateur as well as professional. We

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cannot leave the conduct of football to a small group of league chairmen who are mainly motivated by money. I do want the FA to be more efficient and more effective. Equally, we want the management of league clubs to become more professional. The turnover for this season so far has meant that 47 managers have been sacked by 39 clubs. It seems to me that lack of continuity is really very destructive. It is important that football, as an industry, as we now describe it, should become managed with the full modern professionalism of industry.

In conclusion, I must emphasise that not all is gloom in British football. The commitment of our players, the excitement of the game and the welcoming of the family are all to be applauded. However, there are issues of major concern involved and I have raised some of them. I have deliberately not mentioned the delicate issue of inconsistent refereeing, since my noble friend Lord Howell, a former practitioner, is sitting, whistle in hand, behind me. My noble friend Lord Peston will have more to say in detail on the whole matter. I look forward to the contributions of other noble Lords, and especially to any answers and encouragement which the Minister may offer. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Aberdare: My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, for giving us the opportunity to debate football and some of its problems, and also for starting us off with a very interesting speech. I should also like to welcome back the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who I know has been seriously ill. We are delighted to see him back in our midst.

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