English football will have an independent regulator with a beefed-up “suitability test” for owners and directors before the next general election under plans set out by Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary.
Dorries’s plan, outlined in a letter to Boris Johnson seen by the FT, will put the government on a collision course with the Football Association, the game’s domestic governing body, and the Premier League over how the country’s most popular sport should be regulated.
The FA prefers the supervisor to sit within its structure, according to a person close to the governing body, while the Premier League has argued against full statutory regulation.
However, the English Football League, which runs the divisions below the top flight, is in favour of a body outside the FA, according to a person close to the EFL.
Dorries wants the regulator to be fully independent, according to her aides, although that could change in future if the FA could prove it had fundamentally reformed itself. But the plan raises the prospect of heated debate over the future of the sport.
The culture secretary argued that the abortive breakaway European Super League — a plan hatched last year with the support of the “big six”’ English premiership clubs — and recent financial troubles at clubs such as Bury and Derby County demonstrate the need for a new framework.
The sanctions placed on Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich have also put a spotlight on the need for tougher checks on the suitability of an individual to own a club, although it is thought unlikely that a new regulator would have stopped a Saudi-led consortium taking over Newcastle United last year.
Dorries accepted she would be criticised by some for delaying the legislation until after the next parliamentary session, which could give opponents hope that they can use the delay to water down the plans.
Tory MP Tracey Crouch, who oversaw a fan-led review of football governance last year, has argued that there is a case for “urgent” legislation in the next parliamentary session.
But Dorries argued that the new plan for the sport needed fuller consultation; a white paper is planned for the summer, with the intention of pushing ahead with legislation next year in the final session before a 2024 general election.
“Some will express their concern that this is the government kicking the issue of football regulation into the long grass,” Dorries said in the letter to Johnson. “I believe that it is the opposite; it is the government committed to unprecedented regulation that protects fans, while preserving the economic value of our national game.”
Dorries said that to prove the “naysayers” wrong, the government should commit to creating the regulator in next month’s Queen’s Speech and to drawing up a road map promising to legislate in time for the regulator to be in place before a 2024 election.
The minister’s allies admit their plans will put the government on a “collision course” with English football’s existing bodies, but Dorries argued that a new regulator would help to create a “consistent and sustainable framework”, with less risk of financial crises in the game.
The Premier League, the FA and the EFL declined to comment, but last month Helen MacNamara, chief policy and corporate affairs officer at the Premier League, told the Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee that the league was against full statutory regulation.
She defended the role of the FA, while recognising the need for “more independent oversight”. “We are supportive of the FA; we think there is a natural reason why the FA would be an effective regulator.”
Mark Bullingham, FA chief executive, said at the same meeting that the body was making governance changes recommended in Crouch’s review to allow it to take on additional responsibilities, including appointing independent non-executive directors.
“Anything that we did would be a whole new body that is independently housed within the FA and would require that independence,” he said.
The Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport said: “Football is nothing without its fans who are the bedrock of clubs across the country and it’s why we made sure they had a pivotal role in the football governance review, overseen by Tracey Crouch, MP.
“We are committed to introducing an independent regulator of English football and strengthening the existing owners’ and directors’ tests.
“Protecting club heritage, improving corporate governance and greater financial sustainability throughout the football pyramid will all be at the heart of our response to the fan-led review.”