Jeff Smith – 2022 Speech on Football Governance

The speech made by Jeff Smith, the Shadow Minister for Culture, in the House of Commons on 25 April 2022.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it. I also thank the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and all those who contributed to her excellent and timely review of our national game.

I welcome the confirmation that the Government are supporting the strategic recommendations of the fan-led review. Labour has been calling for the plans to be fully implemented ever since the review was published and, in particular, for the independent regulator for English football, which is key to reform. But however the Government try to spin it, today’s announcement of a White Paper and further delay will come as a disappointment to fans.

The fan-led review was a rigorous and wide-ranging piece of work, based on engagement with every possible interest group alongside more than 20,000 individual fan responses to a survey, and supported by an expert advisory panel from the world of football. As the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), rightly said when doing the media rounds this morning,

“there has been huge input from fans up and down the country”.

Eleven years after the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report, three years after the collapse of Bury, a year after the disastrous European super league proposal and five months after the publication of the fan-led review, we do not need further consultation or a road map. We need a clear timetable and new legislation to be included in the Queen’s Speech in 15 days’ time.

The need for urgent action is clear. Oldham Athletic were relegated from the English football league on Saturday after years of mismanagement ending in fan protests. Derby County are in ongoing crisis and were relegated from the championship this week—not because the players are not good enough, but because of bad owner management and governance. Those two historic clubs, founding members of the premier and football leagues respectively, have been hit hard because of reckless owners.

In the wake of the Ukraine war and sanctions, Chelsea are in limbo. Many supporters want the review recommendations to be incorporated in the club’s sale. The Government are missing an opportunity to embed fan representation, as recommended in the review, and give supporters a say on changes to the heritage assets of their club.

The Minister’s statement, although welcome, left some questions unanswered. The Minister could not rule out to the Select Committee recently that a regulator might be located within the FA. Can he do so now? We believe that it is vital for the regulator to be truly independent.

The statement confirmed that the Government are accepting all 10 of the strategic recommendations. That is good, but can the Minister confirm that the Government support the 47 detailed recommendations in the report? Perhaps more importantly, are there any that they do not support?

The announcement today will do nothing to break the impasse on the redistribution of funding. The fan-led review gave the Premier League and the EFL until the end of 2021 to work it out between them, but that has not happened: the bodies have not been able to come to an agreement for months. If they fail, the review proposes action from the regulator, but on the current timescale—unless the Minister can tell me otherwise—a regulator will not be in place until at least 2024. At what point will he intervene urgently to get the Premier League and the EFL to an agreement?

The dedicated review of women’s football, which was an important recommendation in the review, is really welcome. Can the Minister give any more detail on who will chair it, what timescale it might follow and how its recommendations will be taken forward in due course?

The Government have said all along, quite rightly, that they accept in principle the proposals in the review, so let us get on with it. We are already too late for Bury, Derby and Oldham. If further clubs go under or suffer because of delays to the implementation of the review, responsibility will rest partly on the Government’s shoulders. The Labour party is happy to work with the Government to find space for legislation sooner rather than later. The right result is already clear; we do not need extra time. For the future of our national game, let us see legislation in the Queen’s Speech and action as quickly as possible.