Thank you for allowing me to attend and to speak on the petition. Before I do so, I would like to comment briefly on the letter from the Scottish Professional Football League, which I have just seen. It reflects the answer to a letter that I wrote to the Scottish Football Association and the SPFL about one individual’s transfer and payment, although there are several other cases. The letter states, in paragraph 2:
“We are often told of these payments but, to date, we have been provided with no evidence and it therefore is of great concern to us that there is continuing allegation and innuendo without any actual substantiation.”
I wrote to the SPFL highlighting the name of the individual, whom I will not mention here, in a transfer between two of Scotland’s senior clubs for a sum in the region of £40,000, we believe, of which £8,000 went to an agent. The SFA and SPFL said that they were not aware of that but, lo and behold, the front page of the agent’s website declared that they had registered the individual for whom we sought information. We will go back to them and we will highlight not only that case but the others of which we are aware. It is stretching it a bit far for the SPFL to say that it has
“been provided with no evidence”,
when the agent has declared publicly that the individual has been registered. I have to question the registration competence of the bodies concerned.
That said, I am delighted to be able to address the substance of the petition, and I will be brief. There are two real tests to the petition, which I was happy to speak to before, and I am happy to have been involved with those who brought the petition to us. The most important aspect, reflected in the report by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, is the potential exploitation of children, some of whom, I am told, are as young as six years old. The commissioner’s reports are invaluable in opening a window on what he believes is necessary and what he thinks has been happening.
The second important aspect is the outcome for, and the performance of, Scottish football generally. It is not good. Failure at international level, European level and world level is evidence of national performance. The sport is too centralised, takes too much of a short-term view and is skewed toward the larger clubs, and that does not help with the expectations of young people who are brought into that environment. I believe that it needs a major overhaul and reorganisation, with stronger emphasis on Scottish youth. In my opinion, we need only one national organisation to do that, and I have to ask which of the two organisations is truly fit for purpose with regard to the creation of a youth and elite academy that reflects the size of the Scottish population and does not try to emulate a disproportionate level of involvement in an elite academy that is almost equivalent with that of Germany.
The overhaul of young people’s football in terms of the role and qualification of agents must also be considered, particularly with regard to children, and of course there must be emphasis on the role of parents. There should be clear guidelines and penalties for agents, and consideration should also be given to how some parents might be seduced into signing their children up to professional football clubs. There is a wider role for clubs in social and other local sports and community activity.
Lastly, we must ensure that in no way is there a detriment to the education of boys and girls who are involved in trying to fulfil the expectation of being good professional footballers, and in some cases, great professional footballers. That can only be done if football is brought meaningfully to schools, communities and grassroots boys and girls clubs to ensure that we begin again to believe that not only should football be competitive, but also fun for children. Children are not for sale.
On that basis, I support the petition and I applaud the petitioners for lodging it. We ask the committee to consider the appropriate action that the Parliament can take. I have spoken to the Minister for Sport, Health Improvement and Mental Health several times on the matter. Now is the time for action.