Freedom Of Information: How Labour considered saving Man Utd from an American takeover

The buy-out of Manchester United by the Glazer family plunged the club into crisis. Now fans are beginning to find out how the deal was done, says Robert Verkaik, Law Editor
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For most of their fans, the continued dominance of Manchester United on and off the pitch since the takeover of the football club by the American businessman Malcolm Glazer has helped them to forgive and forget the past.

But in some parts of Manchester, 12 May 2005 is still remembered as one of the darkest days in the club's history, when the majority shareholders meekly succumbed to what loyal United fans considered to be a crass buy-out by an American baseball enthusiast.

Such was the anger among hardcore supporters that a militant group left the club to establish their own football team. Others, however, decided to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out why the Government hadn't done more to protect their beloved United.

A series of initial requests for information relating to meetings between the club and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) during the takeover bid was rebuffed by ministers.

The Government argued that the material was part of the formulation of government policy and was legal advice and therefore exempt under sections 35 and 42 of the Act.

But last month the Information Commissioner ruled in favour of the fans and ordered the Government to disclose the information being sought. The Commissioner said that the public interest in maintaining the exemption did not outweigh the public interest in disclosure of the information. He also ruled that the documents did not attract legal advice privilege.

Specifically, the fans wanted ministerial reports of the takeover by Red Football Limited (Red), Mr Glazer's company, minutes of internal government meetings about the deal and other related correspondence with the Office of Fair Trading.

In 2006, the DCMS partially relented and during an internal review of the request found some information which should have been disclosed to the fans. But this failed to shed any light on what ministers thought about an American buy-out of one of England's oldest and most famous football clubs.

At the time the law was clear. The Government has no power to intervene in the takeover of football clubs; it is for the shareholders to decide on the merits of takeover proposals and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), as the independent competition authority, to consider what effect the takeover would have on competition. On 5 August 2005, the OFT announced that the acquisition by Red Football Ltd of Manchester United FC would not be referred to the Competition Commission.

But the Information Commissioner's ruling in favour of disclosure reveals evidence that there was much more ministerial concern about the Glazer takeover than the Government admitted at the time.

In fact, both the DCMS and the Department for Trade and Industry were considering imposing a new public interest protection for footabll clubs under the Enterprise Act 2002. If they had gone ahead and changed the law, it would have given ministers the power to refer football club takeovers to the Competition Commission, who could stop the deal from going ahead if officials thought it was not in public interest.

But in the end, ministers decided against such a move.

Information which has been disclosed since the Commissioner's ruling shows that ministers may have relied on assurances given by Malcolm Glazer's sons who promised not to raise ticket prices at Old Trafford when the family took over Manchester United in the summer of 2005.

In a much wider context, the Commissioner's ruling helps to restrict the use of one of the most popular exemptions used by the Government when denying members of the public information about government business.

He concluded that "... there must be some clear, specific and credible evidence that the formulation or development of policy would be materially altered for the worse by disclosure under the Act. In this case, there are very strong public interest factors favouring disclosure, involving public confidence, accountability and public debate and participation."