My Lords it is a pleasure to follow my friend the noble Lord Holmes, even though he plays in blue.
I declare an interest as a lifelong supporter and current Season Ticket holder at Arsenal Football Club.
I know only too well the unique bond that exists between a supporter and a club. Often it brings frustration and despair but also the greatest moments, such as winning the Cup at Wembley.
It is a commitment for life and the power of football in people’s lives can bring many positive things including the focal point of community pride. But we must remember that without Fans football is nothing. For example at its most cynical, fans are vital wallpaper and ambient sound for lucrative TV coverage.
I was until recently a Director of the Arsenal Fanshare Scheme. This is a pioneering scheme that enabled Arsenal fans to buy a part share in Arsenal. As the price of one share is now £15,000 the scheme allowed fans to come together within the scheme to own an affordable part of a share – called a Fanshare.
The FSA regulated scheme was successful at its launch and hailed by many including the FA, the Premier League, Michel Platini of UEFA and Jeremy Hunt and Hugh Robertson who as Secretary of State and Minister for Sport respectively spoke positively of the scheme as a model for football clubs to follow in terms of supporter ownership engagement.
The scheme quickly secured almost 2,000 members and collectively they held 120 shares in Arsenal. That meant that 2000 more fans had a small share in Arsenal’s ownership and there were 120 places to attend the Annual General Meeting and hold the Club’s Directors to account. Fanshare holders received the Club’s Report and Accounts and all the information that Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis sent to Arsenal’s Supporters.
Arsenal has benefited greatly over many decades from maintaining stability in its ownership structure, and from having supporters who own shares and are actively involved in this structure. Plurality of ownership has served Arsenal well and is the best way to ensure the necessary checks and balances are in place to protect the club’s long-term future.
Sadly for Fanshare there was a takeover of Arsenal Football Club by Stan Kroenke during the early days of the scheme. This changed everything. Despite many attempts to engage Mr Kroenke has refused to meet with anyone from the Scheme and he has refused to support it to develop. With him buying up all the shares during the takeover, the scheme has struggled to find new shares to buy and was unable to market itself to new members. It is now facing closure. A final plea for him to issue new shares to the scheme has been refused.
In this regard it is a great pity that the DCMS has taken so long to establish its Expert Group on Football Ownership as recommended to it by the Arsenal Supporters Trust. If it had done so it might have found ways to provide more support to schemes like Fanshare. While Ministers spoke highly of it they have regrettably offered no tangible support when it mattered.
As the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust advised the Culture, Media and Sport Select Cttee, there are legislative barriers such as those contained in the Financial Markets and Services Act that made it more difficult to promote the scheme and I welcome that there is now finally a group to look at these barriers.
But we need to go further. We need to discuss how Supporters are given a greater say in the way that Clubs are run. That is why I welcome the proposals put forward by Clive Efford MP and my party to have Fans elected onto the Boards of Football Clubs.
In my opinion, and many other fans I meet, clubs like Arsenal are too important to be controlled solely by just one person and these measures would address that.
This could be achieved by legislation. It could also be achieved by the Premier League and the Football League making changes to their rulebooks.
The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust has argued that these rules should reflect supporters at all Clubs being treated in the way they would if they held equity in the Club, even in cases where they do not:
Engagement would specifically cover:
1. Providing a financial and reporting format similar to that required under the Companies Act.
2. Twice yearly meetings between representatives of the supporters’ trusts and directors and/or executives of the club, at which discussion can take place on the performance of the club and the views of the wider membership can be directly reported.
I hope that the Government can make progress with these issues in the recently announced Expert Working Group. And I also hope that they will correct their omission of not including any representatives from Premier League Clubs who face these engagement barriers.
But their track record to date isn’t encouraging. For real change we have the proposals from Labour and that is why my advice would be to always support the team in Red!
Thanks to @timpayton