Nigel Huddleston – 2022 Statement on Football Governance

The statement made by Nigel Huddleston, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Commons on 25 April 2022.

First, I accept your comments, Mr Speaker—I certainly mean no discourtesy to this House—and I will have discussions about them with colleagues. With permission, I would like to make a statement setting out the Government’s response to the independent fan-led review of football governance. This is further to my written statement issued earlier today. The Government’s response has been provided in hard copy to the Vote Office, and I will place a copy in the Libraries of both Houses.

First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for all her hard work, and indeed I thank the entire panel for their diligence on the review. I also thank colleagues from across the House and all stakeholders who have debated these matters at length—in many cases for a number of years. Most importantly, I want to thank the dozens of clubs and thousands of football fans from across the country who contributed to the review. They sit at the heart of the review and our response to it.

Football is a defining part of our national identity and has been a central part of British life for over a century. English football has had some extraordinary success. Our premier league has grown to become the most watched sports league in the world. However, good governance of our clubs has not kept pace with that expansion and development. The football pyramid has come under threat in recent times, with clubs risking collapse. Many fans have felt alienated from their clubs. It is obvious that reform is needed to keep our national game alive and thriving.

The Government have already taken strong action to support the reform of football. This includes financial support to help clubs through the pandemic, and amendments to competition law to provide financial stability to English football. We also committed to undertaking a review of football governance in our manifesto—a review led by fans, for fans, to protect the future of professional football in this country. In late November, the independent fan-led review of football governance published its report. I am today pleased to announce the publication of the Government’s response to that report. Our response acknowledges the clear case for reform and sets out our approach to moving forward. It marks a significant step in protecting our national game. Today, I am confirming that the Government will introduce an independent regulator for football, in law, as part of a wider plan for reform. An independent regulator is just one of 10 strategic recommendations set out in the report. I am pleased to say that the Government will endorse all of the review’s strategic recommendations. Some are for the Government to implement, and some are for the football authorities to take forward. We expect them to take action, too.

As well as surveying thousands of fans directly, the review benefited from over 100 hours of engagement, involving representatives of over 130 clubs. This all built a clear picture of the challenges in the game. The review, and our response, are for the fans who make our national game what it is, and without whom football would be nothing. To coincide with the response, we are also publishing the findings of a Government-commissioned study by academics and football finance experts Kieran Maguire and Christina Philippou. Their analysis confirms that there is a widespread issue of fragile finances across English football clubs, and that action is needed to secure the sustainability of the game.

The sum total of our plans amounts to significant reform. In our response, we are committing to publishing a White Paper in the summer, which will set out further details of the implementation of this reform. Through a new financial regulation regime, the regulator will usher in a new era of financial competency and sustainability for our clubs. We also recognise that who runs our football clubs goes hand in hand with how they are run, so the regulator will establish a new owners and directors test, replacing the three existing tests, in order to ensure that only good custodians and qualified directors can run these vital community assets. The strengthened test will include a new integrity test. Recent events have shown the importance of our having confidence in the custodians of our football clubs.

Fans have a crucial role to play in the future of football in this country, and for that reason we believe that fans should be properly consulted by their clubs on key decisions. The regulator will therefore set a licence condition that sets out a minimum level of fan engagement to ensure that clubs are meaningfully engaging fans. We also acknowledge the crucial role that football clubs play in the identity of this country, particularly in the communities that are so intrinsically linked with their local team. The stadium, colours and badge are an integral part of that. We therefore believe that they should have additional protections. That includes a mechanism requiring fans to consent before any changes are made to those key items.

Our manifesto commitment was instigated by the financial jeopardy that so many clubs were being pushed into. The long-term health of professional football in this country is dependent on fairer distributions throughout the football pyramid. That is why we agree that the Premier League should strengthen its support across the football pyramid. We expect further action from the football authorities on this important recommendation. If they do not come to an agreement on financial flows through the pyramid, we reserve the right for the regulator to have powers in this area.

Football also needs to ensure that there is a clear and supportive pathway for players. That is why we agree with the recommendation that the welfare of players exiting the game needs to be better protected. I have asked the football authorities to act with urgency on that matter.

Taking forward those recommendations and securing the future of football is a key priority of this Government, but that priority stretches beyond Government. The review contains actions specifically for the Football Association, the Premier League, the English Football League and the Professional Footballers’ Association, on which we expect to see action, without waiting for Government legislation.

The majority of the review looked at issues related to the men’s game. Women’s football has gone from strength to strength over the past few years, with a record number of tickets sold for this year’s European women’s championship to be hosted here in England. The Government have shown that we are right behind women’s sport in every aspect, so we will launch a dedicated review of women’s football in this country.

As well as the women’s football review, I am pleased to confirm that the FIFA women’s World cup and UEFA European women’s championship finals will be added to the listed events regime. As a result, the tournaments will continue to be available to free-to-air television broadcasters, hopefully inspiring the next generation of Lucy Bronzes and Ellen Whites.

The changes that we have set out represent a real turning point for football and will have a considerable impact on clubs. It is crucial that we get this right to give confidence to fans and future investors. That is why we will set out further details on how reforms will be implemented in a White Paper in the summer, and we are committed to legislating to make football reform a reality. We will implement the reforms as soon as possible.

We are paving the way for a more sustainable, accountable and responsible future for football—one that ensures that fans are front and centre of our national game. I commend this statement to the House.