ADAM BROWN reports on an acrimonious end to the government’s Football Task Force, and analyses its failings.
The Football Task Force was set up in July 1997 by the incoming Labour government and concluded its business in December 1999. Its remit covered seven specific areas: racism; disabled access to grounds; football’s role in the community; supporters’ involvement in running their clubs; ticket policies; merchandise policies; and conflicts caused by clubs floating on the stock exchange. Its members included representatives of most of the key organisations in football plus independent people such as former Tory cabinet minister, David Mellor, who was appointed chair, and Lord Richard Faulkner, who was made vice chair.
I was appointed as an individual member of the task force’s working group and, later, of the full task force. For the record, no-one on the task force has been paid (other than travel expenses) and all members gave their time voluntarily.
The task force set about its business with a combination of evidence-gathering sessions in London (mainly undertaken by the Working Group); and 10 regional visits (each of which combined a full day of meetings with local football organisations and a public ‘question and answer’ session in the evening). It also studied written submissions and commissioned two pieces of research, one on racism and one on the exclusion of fans on economic grounds (both of which were undertaken by Leicester University).
In all, we met 73 football supporters’ groups, 30 professional football clubs, 28 local authorities, 14 football in the community schemes, 10 community organisations and projects, 10 County Football Associations, and three girls’ and women’s football clubs. As such, it represents the most far-reaching consultation with football people and organisations ever undertaken in this country (or any other country that I can think of).
However, there were problems from the start. A key mistake was to allow representatives of football organisations to have decision making roles, for their loyalty to their organisations never allowed the flexibility of thought which was needed to find solutions to some of football’s problems. This was to have its biggest impact during the negotiations over the task force’s final report. Further, a common misconception is that the task force would be able to directly affect change: it cannot. The task force was always a recommendatory body, able only to advise the minister for sport. Ultimately, it is her responsibility, and her discretion, as to which recommendations are acted on, including, if necessary, whether tointroduce new legislation.
Having said that, the task force produced three reports in its first year and a half. These were: Eliminating Racism From Football (March 1998); Improving Facilities for Disabled Supporters (June 1998); and Investing in the Community (January 1999). These contained some key recommendations, such as calling for changes in legislation on racist chanting to make it anindividual offence; measures to encourage clubs to attract more fans from ethnic minorities; changes in legislation to ensure more spaces for disabled fans; recommendations to improve the service for disabled fans; a commitment by the Premier League to redistribute five per cent of future TV revenue to grassroots football; and a recommendation that the government help to establish supporters’ groups and mutual shareholding trusts.
The government has accepted all three of these reports in full, and is currently acting on some key areas, including setting up a supporter-shareholder trust unit, called Supporters Direct.
However, it was always going to be the final report, covering what were termed the ‘commercial issues’, that would be the most contentious. This report needed to tackle the issues at the heart of the financial and organisational revolution that took place in football during the 1990s. But in the end the task force split and two reports were written: one, backed by a majority of task force members,including the chair, the vice chair, three supporters’ groups and all independent members, including myself; and a minority report, produced by the football authorities who were unable to agree with the majority. Both reports were issued at the same time and the government now has to decide between the two.
It took a year for the commercial report to be finalised as task force members debated the extent to which the commercial activities of clubs should be regulated (for example, guidelines on ticketing policies), and how the task force’s recommendations (including those in the first three reports) should be implemented. These discussions led directly to an assessment of how clubs could be made to change their practices – debates which go to the heart of concerns about the new Labour government’s unwillingness to challenge business interests, despite their protestations of support for ordinary fans (and in some cases, attempts to present themselves as fans!).
The football authorities’ stated position, repeated many times at our regional visits, was that football clubs are businesses which must be free to make their own decisions – regardless of the social cost to the game. This led many supporters, and others, to conclude that, because the Football Association could not govern the clubs, then an independent authority was needed. With backing from former sports minister Tony Banks (but not the government), many began to believe that football needed a statutory regulator.
At the basis of these arguments was the belief that the nature of consumption in football is qualitatively different to consumption in other sectors, based as it is on a ‘brand loyalty’ and emotional attachment which (in most cases) far outstrips brand quality. In other words, football clubs have a captive and loyal consumer base and, in the 1990s, have exploited this local monopoly to great effect. Even the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, in the report that blocked the attempted takeover of Manchester United by BSkyB, concluded that clubs such as United have a “large degree of market power”, suggesting that regulation was needed. Nevertheless, the football authorities (the FA, Premier League and the Football League) consistently rejected calls for independent regulation of the football industry.
At one point, in August 1999, it did appear that the authorities (under new leadership following the fall from grace of their former incumbents) were moving far enough to make consensus on a single report possible. They suggested that an Independent Scrutiny Panel (ISP) could be set up, modelled on the lines of the Audit Commission or the British Standards Institute.
Clearly, this was neither a statutory regulator nor a fully thought out proposal – the BSI and AC are vastly different bodies after all – but it did seem to be one way out of the impasse. Given that the government made it plain that it would not be able to enact legislation to create a regulator in the current parliament, and that it wanted a consensus report, many of us seized upon the authorities’ proposals. We recognised that the Audit Commission is a very powerful, independent body and that it would be a huge step forward in terms of public accountability for the game to have such a body. We took them at their word and Craig Brewin (treasurer of the Football Supporters’ Association and a local government finance officer) outlined what an audit commission for football might look like. At this stage, in autumn 1999, it did appear that common ground was being found, at last.
However, the key issues which would determine whether an agreement was possible were: what would the remit of the organisation be?; what powers would it have?; and what level of independence would it be given? Eventually, on all three counts, it proved impossible to get agreement, as the football authorities back tracked from the idea of an audit commission-style body, preferring instead a more temporary panel which would analyse the game, in a broad sweep, but would have no powers.
Their proposed ISP would be entirely reliant on evidence supplied by the football authorities themselves, compromising its independence, and it would not be able to investigate the activities of clubs – the main source of complaints from fans. Furthermore, the authorities’ proposed that the body be made up of three to five people, who would meet only four times a year and issue one report in that time. This panel would judge the performance of football clubs against an incredibly weak, ill-defined and vague code of best practice.
Thus, in mid-December, the final task force meeting broke up after agreeing to disagree. Crucially important to the majority of members was that any body created to monitor the performance of clubs on key areas such as ticket pricing and involving fans should be wholly independent; robust, powerful and permanent; able to scrutinise clubs directly and where necessary undertake investigations; and be able to recommend remedies to problems and impose sanctions to enforce them.
Our proposals for a Football Audit Commission reflect these guiding principles. Such a body would oversee the auditing of clubs. It would set performance targets for clubs, including targets for making tickets more accessible to the young and less well off, and for involving supporters in decision making. Thus it would be able to monitor the social, cultural and financial impact of commercial decisions taken by football clubs and authorities. The performance of clubs would be judged on an annual basis against set targets, and local and national reports would be issued indicating where improvements are needed, recommending changes, and if necessary, sanctions.
We also recommended that the FAC should incorporate an ombudsman – or ‘ombudsfan’ – who would be able to investigate individual complaints from fans. So, for instance, if a fan was mistreated by stewards, or if a fan felt that they were being excluded from away matches because of the way tickets were being allocated, the ombudsfan could investigate, providing all other avenues had been exhausted. Where there are a number of similar complaints, the ombudsfan could refer the matter to the FAC to investigate more broadly. It is a system of accountability familiar to anyone who has worked in local government or health. Unfortunately, but predictably, the football authorities refused to support it.
Furthermore, the majority felt that any document issued by the task force should reflect the amount of work put in, not just by ourselves, but by the numerous fans’ groups we met, the thousands who came to public meetings and the specific research which the task force commissioned. Although only a fraction of the evidence is cited in the report itself, it was overwhelming in its indictment of the negative effects that commercial developments in football have had on fans and local communities. Both the regional visits and the commissioned research (undertaken, incidentally, by the research team that’s used by the Premier League for its own surveys) directly influenced the recommendations made in the report.
Thus, our recommendations form a code of conduct for clubs, to be enforced by the FAC. These are considerably more thorough and radical than the football authorities’ suggestions, which essentially were just guidelines.
Some of the key things we recommended were that there should be:
- no increase in the lowest priced tickets above the Retail Price Index without justification to the FAC;
- guidelines on distributing and allocating tickets, including for ‘away’ supporters;
- funding for fans’ organisations;
- further backing for fans’ trusts and for fans to be represented on clubs’ boards;
- elections from season ticket holders and club members to form fan liaison committees to meet with club boards;
- restrictions on clubs floating on the stock exchange (they would have to justify to the FAC that it was in the best interests of the club and the game, ensure that fans were properly involved in the decision, and offer fans shares);
- sell by dates on replica shirts;
- provision made so that all mergers involving football clubs – such as the purchase of minority stakes in clubs by broadcasters – be subject to full investigation by the Office of Fair Trading, or Competition Commission.
Clearly, for some people, these recommendations won’t go far enough. Yet they manage to be radical proposals while still playing politics as ‘the art of the possible’. They are not unrealistic, but nor are they a fudge. We haven’t asked for a legislative regulator because the government has said it couldn’t and wouldn’t deliver one, but we have asked instead for a Football Audit Commission. However, the report does recommend that if adequate structures for regulating football are not operating, and there has not been enough change within two years (by December 2001), then the government must impose a statutory regulator.
Although, in some ways, the split was damaging, especially for a body which had always struggled to maintain (or even gain) its credibility, it at least gave the government (and the football public) two clear alternatives for the way the game should be run in the next century. One of these was based on a philosophy that football is purely a business, which happens to be a sport; and one which says that football is a sport, with social and cultural obligations, and which happens to include a number of businesses as well as different interests which need to be served.
Although the Premier League and the FA tried to disguise the division – primarily because they are in a tiny minority – it is clear that there is, in effect, a majority and minority report. Indeed, 12 task force members – including both the chair and the vice chair, all supporters groups, Sir John Smith (former deputy chief constable of the Metropolitan Police and author of the FA’s ‘bung report’), Sir Herman Ouseley (former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality) and the head of Water UK (which represents privatised water utilities) – have recently written to sports minister Kate Hoey to express support for the majority report.
So now Hoey must decide which report to implement, and it is far from clear which way she will go. It is believed that Number 10 prefers not to ‘pick a fight’ with the football authorities. This is sad, but predictable from a government which steadfastly refuses to intervene against the interests of business and which has spectacularly failed to reform the general (dis)organisation of sport in this country. Indeed, it has been suggested that as part of its deal to recoup Lottery money from the Wembley stadium debacle, the government promised not to implement the majority report.
Pressure is still on the government, however. To date nearly 100 backbench MPs have signed an early day motion calling for the immediate implementation of the majority report, and a debate is also due in the House of Lords. Meanwhile, the majority report is unanimously supported by the All-Party Football Group of MPs. Fans from across the country descended on parliament for a lobby on 2 March. For a government which has unashamedly used football to bolster its own public image, the acid test is now whether it will act in the interests of fans’ or support the football establishment and club chairmen who represent the most ruthlessly free
market end of leisure capitalism. Sadly, the stench of sell-out from Number 10 is getting stronger.
Adam Brown is a co-author of Not for Sale: Manchester United, Murdoch and the sale of BSkyB.