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Football’s Response to Government Regulation Recommendations
Written by Jim Wheeler   
Saturday, March 10 2012

A View from RamsTrust

You may have missed it, but on Friday The FA, The Premier League & The Football League published a joint response to the Government’s recommendations on Football Governance.

To put this into context, as part of their election pledge, the government commissioned the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to hold an inquiry into the state of Football Governance in this country. This involved accepting submissions from people connected to the game and a series of interviews with key figures – including Supporters’ representatives. This concluded with a wide ranging DCMS recommendation, which the government then gave their formal backing – and urged the FA to “agree proposals, including plans for implementation” by the end of February or they would bring in legislation as necessary.

The FA did not produce proposals or plans for implementation by the deadline, but has produced a 16-page response – which mostly indicates an intention to make some of the recommended changes, but also absolves itself from responsibility for many of the others. They have also contrived to suggest their own different proposals – which do not all appear to meet the intention of the original recommendations.

The immediate reaction to the response from many observers and supporters groups has been great disappointment. The response is limited, but the feeling is that they may have said enough to convince the government not to introduce legislation at this point. This could mean that the vast amount of time and effort put in by many people (paid & unpaid) to put together viable, workable proposals to improve the game in this country may have been wasted.

The biggest disappointment in the coordinated response is not what is included in the document; it is what is not included. Some of the most significant recommendations – and some of the biggest issues affecting the game – are effectively ignored. The word DEBT is never mentioned in the response – and this came at the end of a week where the biggest British club ever to enter administration (Glasgow Rangers) is being ripped apart by administrators, whilst Portsmouth & Port Vale and struggling to survive until the end of the season.

The Football Creditors Rule is also never mentioned – despite this being one of the most significant issues for HMRC at present, and an anathema to common sense – proven by the contrast between Portsmouth (major staff redundancies, players paid in full) & Rangers (players take wage cuts, few redundancies) in their current states.

The regulation of club ownership is largely glossed over and there is precious little encouragement for supporters or supporters’ groups.

On the face of it, this doesn’t meet the government’s objectives – so logically they should now act and introduce legislation to enforce their original recommendations. However, it is not quite so clear cut. There are a few positive messages – and it is just possible that these could lead to improvements in the game. The question is whether this is enough for MPs – who have almost all been lobbied in the past few days by supporters in their constituencies eager for them to act.

The first thing to say about the response itself is that it IS a co-ordinated response. The document is sent from David Bernstein (FA Chairman), Roger Burden (FA National Game Board Chairman and FA Board Member), Richard Scudamore (Premier League Chief Executive) & Greg Clarke (Football League Chairman). It is definitely progress that these bodies are all communicating enough to agree a response – and probably explains the omissions (as areas where they could not all agree).

The main DCMS / Government recommendation is reform of the FA Board and decision-making structure. This requirement is accepted and they state an intention to reduce the Board to between 8 and 12 members by Summer 2013. This does not meet the suggestion of more independent members on a 10-person board, but does indicate progress. There is similarly a breakdown of responsibilities for key aspects of the game – again a start at giving some clarity in how football should be run effectively.

Unfortunately, in doing this the FA has attempted to absolve itself from any responsibility for “customer/fan issues” (they don’t seem to like the word “supporter”, preferring “customer”) – saying this is the responsibility of the clubs themselves. Clearly this is a total abdication of responsibility – from the body that all supporters need to trust to run the game in their best interests.

They propose making the FA council (which will have less power in the new structure) into a “parliament of football” – but without any intention of making it more representative by having all key groups involved in electing members.

They propose a new “Regulatory Policy Group” and “the FA Regulatory Authority” reporting to the FA Board to ensure regulatory compliance – including determining applications for owners and directors criteria and determination of applications for ground moves. There is, however, no indication of changes to regulation to better protect clubs and supporters in the first place.

The other clear acceptance of recommendation is that they do propose a new club licensing framework (as proposed by Supporters Direct) – to ensure minimum criteria for acceptance to join each league or FA competition each season. There are initially almost no criteria they need to meet (“meet league rules” & not be “in breach of any legal obligations or club to club obligations”), but – again – it’s a start.

There is a section which mentions supporters (eventually), and even says there are occasions when it might be worth talking to them! It goes so far as to say clubs should consult and engage with supporter groups – and that the groups will be able to escalate to the league if this is not happening. Without specific regulation though, this could be relatively meaningless (paying ‘lip service’ to communicating with supporter groups as happens currently).

They do make an absolute statement regarding Supporter Liaison Officers (SLO)(as promoted by Supporters Direct through UEFA) though – from next season, every Premier League Club must appoint an SLO and every league club must at least have someone performing the role. This, at least, is a positive message.

They do “commit to working with Government to remove legal and bureaucratic hurdles to supporters obtaining and retaining ownership interests in clubs.” They then go on to say they don’t believe there are any current obstacles in place, and at no point do they suggest specific regulation to involve supporters in Club Boards (in any circumstances).

They entirely miss the point on Supporters Direct itself – despite the government recommendation:- “The Government believes that a solution to provide funding for the long-term future of Supporters Direct and other high-profile supporters group representative bodies should not be beyond the skill of football authorities, working closely with the bodies concerned.”

The response is “SD should… primarily rely on funding raised from their membership or their own initiatives” – although it does go on to potentially offer match-funding from the Premier League ‘Fans Fund’ (as is currently in place). This section is disappointing as there appears to be no intention to work with supporters groups in any way – or to offer any specific assistance.

There is reference to the increased financial regulation being brought in (salary caps in lower leagues based on percentage of turnover, UEFA Financial Fair Play for top teams – and similar systems to be brought in for the Championship). Again, the references to financial governance appear woefully inadequate in the current financial climate for so many clubs – highlighted again over the past week.

This response was sent to Jeremy Hunt (Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport) and Hugh Robertson (Minister for Sport and the Olympics) – who have yet to respond.

We now need to lobby our MPs to contact Mr Hunt & Mr Robertson to take this further. In light of the DCMS report & Government response, the Football authorities have NOT acted as requested. They have not produced a clear proposal and plans to implement in all areas recommended.

Whether they can sit down and agree a plan to meet ALL of the recommendations is open to question – but the Ministers need to retain the ‘threat’ of introducing legislation, and to be prepared to see it through. Otherwise they will have failed on a pledge to address the problems in the game – after so much good work has gone before.

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