Task Force expands towards new horizons

Newly established Independent Football Commission has to win confidence of fans and show it can hold authorities to account
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The Independent Football

To an occasional visitor, the Houses of Parliament can still appear impressive: the endlessly ornate spires and turrets, Big Ben huge in the flesh, a wind-blown fringe of tourists queueing outside for entry.

To an occasional visitor, the Houses of Parliament can still appear impressive: the endlessly ornate spires and turrets, Big Ben huge in the flesh, a wind-blown fringe of tourists queueing outside for entry.

Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has booked a room to discuss the Independent Football Commission, a body whose announcement last week concludes the Government's reform programme begun when it established the Football Task Force over three years ago.

Smith looks weary: it is Monday, the Commons' first day back, and they are deep into the arcane election of the Speaker. The small room is shabby; there's a formica table, plastic chairs, a flip chart in the corner. When the bell rings, Smith warns he will have to break off, to half-run along the corridors to cast his vote. Inside the majestic Mother of all Parliaments, it feels rather less potent, like grown-up school.

The main criticism of the Task Force process - besides appointing David Mellor as chairman, an instant image handicap - is that the Government has been too timid. Supporters' representatives argue that, if the Government believed football was being mismanaged - clubs run for their chairmen's commercial ends, supporters exploited, the authorities failing to govern - then the Government should have used its legislative power to bring about change.

Instead, it corralled supporter representatives and the authorities together, said it would not legislate, and asked them to reach a near-impossible consensus. Smith makes a familiar case for this approach: "Football clubs are individual sovereign bodies. We're talking about their behaviour, financial affairs and practices. Government should hesitate before wading in and telling football how to organise itself."

This is fundamental New Labour, determined not to be seen as too interfering, too unfriendly to business. Smith says 10 Downing Street has not dictated to him, but many close to the process say that, from Mellor's appointment through to last month's near-débâcle over the IFC's membership, the Prime Minister's office has been pulling strings. Centrally dictating, as it were, a policy of not intervening too far.

Smith argues that the approach has been right. With work still to be done on implementation, he can point to measures agreed to by the football authorities: on anti-racism; disabled access; funding for grass roots facilities; the IFC, which Smith describes as "robust, independent self-regulation"; and Supporters Direct, the initiative which encourages supporters to buy shares in clubs and hold them mutually in trusts.

"None of these would have happened without the Task Force," he says. "It has been extremely fruitful. Now there is a real willingness in football to make it work, to run itself better. And I believe football is better off for it."

This, though, puts a sunny spin on a tortuous process which featured the unedifying spectacle of handsomely salaried executives facing down unpaid supporter representatives and frequently came close to breaking down.

Arguably, the Task Force's most substantial achievement, the securing of five per cent of Premier League television revenue for grass-roots facilities, only came about due to the skilled opportunism of the Task Force's administrator, Andy Burnham. He was determined to stretch the Task Force's remit to include rejuvenating the country's dilapidated playing fields.

In January last year, the Premier League was facing a court challenge from the Office of Fair Trading to its collective TV arrangements. Burnham persuaded them they would be viewed more favourably if they were seen to be using money in the public interest. The judge cited the five per cent pledge, and the Task Force's support, as factors when ruling in favour of the Premier League. Burnham is now Smith's policy advisor at the DCMS, and seeking a Labour candidacy for the next election in the seat of Leigh.

The Task Force's final report, into "commercial issues" - tickets, merchandise, supporter involvement, plcs - produced the bitterest, ultimately unbridgeable differences. Finally on 22 December last year, two reports were produced, one by the football authorities, the other - despite denials by the Premier League's then spin doctor Mike Lee - supported by a clear majority of members.

The majority recommended a "Football Audit Commission", with teeth, to ensure football would comply with a series of supporter-friendly measures, and an "Ombudsfan" for fans' complaints. The authorities produced a report full of Third Way business jargon, pledging "to adopt the contemporary principles of customer care and a more inclusionary approach to key stakeholders." They offered an "Independent Scrutiny Panel" and Customer Charters - which are now in place.

The IFC is the compromise, which has taken 10 months to produce. A furious row raged over the summer, with the news that Jack Cunningham, who lists "Tickets and hospitality from Newcastle United" on his register of member's interests, was to be appointed chairman of the new body.

Smith would not confirm that Cunningham was imposed on him by Downing Street, or any other details, but, in fact, a panel of five people were selected to work under Cunningham, and a meeting was held last month to flesh out terms. According to insiders - not in Smith's department - all five refused to work under Cunningham. Now people are being invited to apply formally, and Smith will select the chairman following recommendations by a panel including DCMS officials, and a representative from the football authorities. The chairman will appoint the members.

The IFC will be funded by the football authorities - Smith argues it will not be compromised because the budget will be set in advance. Its role will be to "review the rules and regulations of football's governing bodies relating to financial and business matters, in particular ticketing, accessibility to matches, merchandise, the involvement of supporters in clubs."

It will also be a final port of call for supporters' complaints. It will have no sanctions, but produce an annual report, a "naming and shaming exercise", according to Smith, for clubs which fall short.

"This is robust, independent self-regulation," he says. "It is there to hold the football authorities to account." The Government will be watching its effectiveness, for two years: "If the clubs, leagues and FA are not taking good notice of it, and supporters across the country do not have confidence in it, then we will have to look at it again." This, he says, includes the possibility of legislating. He argues that the Government has successfully encouraged a change of culture, in which fans will be treated more fairly, and the game gradually become more part of its communities. There is an implication that this should only be the start.

"Football is very important to communities," he says, "and it is good for football to run itself in the right way, not exploit its loyal supporters, or exclude people because they can't afford to go to matches." Whatever its limitations, such language, and the Task Force process, represents the most substantial engagement with football ever by a British Government. This is a world away from the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher who, according to her own minister, Kenneth Clarke, regarded football fans as "the enemy within".

davidconn@freeuk.com

HISTORY OF THE FOOTBALL TASK FORCE

July 1997: Government sets up Football Task Force. Chaired by David Mellor, it has 17 members.

Reports:

30 March 1998: Eliminating Racism from Football.

Racist chanting subsequently made a criminal offence, but more still to be done by clubs to implement recommendations.

29 July 1998: Improving Facilities for Disabled.

Disabled supporters facilities now compulsory in all grant-aided ground developments.

11 January 1999: Investing in the Community.

Produces Supporters Direct - initiative, with £750,000 three-year budget - to encourage supporters to buy football club shares and hold them mutually.

Produces the Football Foundation, which will administer the spending of five per cent of the Premier League's TV revenue - £80m over three years - matched by the Lottery - to grass-roots football facilities.

22 December 1999: Two Reports on Commercial Issues. Produces Independent Football Commission, with brief to oversee running of football in commercial areas, including ticket prices, and responsibility to "Name and Shame" bad practices.

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