Football: Task Force report reveals split

A DEEP split between football supporters on the one hand and clubs and administrators on the other was revealed yesterday when the football Task Force presented its final report on the future of the game.

Differences were such that each side of the government-appointed body produced separate versions of the report, covering some of the most contentious issues in football including commercialisation, ticket prices and club merchandising. The key disagreement was over how the booming industry should be regulated.

The majority report, backed by supporters' groups, called for a permanent football audit commission to be established to oversee the game, with an "ombudsfan" to handle complaints from individual fans.

Clubs and regulators proposed setting up an independent scrutiny panel (ISP) of three to five members, which would produce an annual report after working for a maximum of four weeks a year.

David Mellor, the former minister who chaired the Task Force, set up in 1997, insisted at the launch that, despite these differences, much progress had been made.

"The important point about these two different reports is that everyone accepts that some element of independent regulation needs to be introduced," he said. "No one is saying the status quo is acceptable."

He refused to identify which of the Task Force's 18 members, including representatives from the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League as well as fans' groups and other interested parties, had backed which report. But afterwards he said that he personally favoured the more radical approach. "The FA, while changing itself, is always going to have problems as a non-professional body regulating what is a highly professional industry," he said.

Both reports will now be considered by Kate Hoey, the Minister for Sport. "One of the tasks of government is to help the sport strike a balance between the necessary business interests of clubs and those of supporters, without whom clubs would not exist," she said.

David Davies, the FA's executive director, said the ISP would be introduced next year anyway, and should be given a chance before any more stringent regulation is introduced.

Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League, said: "There is a very strong case for the Government taking on what is being willingly volunteered.

"We know how committed we are to change, to delivering what we've said in our report and to making the game transparent, accountable and responsible.

"We believe that a Football Audit Commission is unnecessary and would be cumbersome. It would be another layer of regulation, it would be an interference and it's not been clearly thought through."

But Dr Adam Brown, a research fellow from Manchester Metropolitan University who helped write the opposing report, dismissed the authorities' proposals as "marshmallow promises that don't offer fans a square meal."

He added: "If the Government set up the Task Force to look at issues which are of concern to fans then they need to adopt the proposals which are going to deal with those issues and not those which would sweep them under the carpet.

"Ours is the report with teeth and theirs isn't. They are talking about a body which would sit for something like four weeks a year with three or four people on it and will look at evidence that the FA supply to them.

"That is neither independent nor effectively able to scrutinise anything."

Among the fans' proposals were lower-priced tickets, subsidised by higher prices for top tickets, that replica shirts should have a minimum two- year life-span, greater fan representation within clubs and the overseeing of club take-overs.

The most likely outcome seems to be that the Government will opt in favour of working with the football authorities to set up an independent scrutiny panel - and threaten the introduction of an outside regulator if the right changes are not made quickly enough.

David Conn, page 19

WHO WANTS WHAT: THE KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

THE SUPPORTERS' REPORT

1 Establishment of a "Football Audit Commission" to establish "Football Code", performance criteria for clubs, inspect compliance with them, and recommend sanctions for failing clubs.

2 Establishment of an "Ombudsfan" to receive and pursue fans' grievances.

3 Range of ticket prices to be stretched: highest prices to subsidise lower prices.

4 Concessionary tickets to be extended, including 10 per cent of grounds at half price for under-16s and students.

5 Lower priced tickets to increase annually by no more than the Retail Price Index.

6 Clubs to encourage a supporter representative to sit on the board.

7 Regulation of football plcs.

8 DTI to publish recommendations on media ownership.

9 Consumer protection of merchandise, including "sell-by dates" to protect against clubs changing their strip.

THE AUTHORITIES' REPORT

1 Establishment of "Independent Scrutiny Panel" to produce report on compliance with code of practice.

2 Clubs should "promote inclusionary ticketing policies and greater accessibility", including some concessions.

3 Clubs should publish "Customer Charter", stating policies over ticketing, merchandising and community activities.

4 Clubs should work to promote "supporter and community liaison".

5 Clubs to publish "kit cycle policy" and proposed changes to kits.

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