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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 31, 2024



The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-11073, in the name of Ben Macpherson, on enhancing Scottish football. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I encourage members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament celebrates what it sees as a current successful period for the Scottish national football teams; believes that, collectively as a nation, Scotland should seek to build on this progress and achievement, and therefore make further improvements to realise even more of Scotland’s footballing potential, including in the Edinburgh Northern and Leith constituency; recognises, with its determination to seek to enhance Scottish football at all levels, the work of the Scottish Football Supporters Association (SFSA) by initiating, coordinating and publishing a fan-led review of the game in Scotland, titled Rebuilding Scottish Football: A Fan Led Review of The Game in Scotland, which was published in June 2023; notes that the SFSA-sponsored review includes recommendations for strengthening and extending the role of football as a sport that is accessible to all in the population who wish to engage and participate, as a major cultural industry for the nation, as a means for encouraging positive social change, and as a source of substantial individual and community benefit especially in relation to physical and mental wellbeing; further notes the issues raised in the fan-led review and the belief that there are shared merits to considering these on a collaborative, cross-party basis with stakeholders, and, in particular, with the Scottish Football Association (SFA) and Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL); notes the key recommendation of the fan-led review that the governance, finance and conduct of Scottish football would benefit from independent scrutiny and, as necessary, appropriate regulation, which it understands is being undertaken in England and discussed within and amongst football communities worldwide, and acknowledges calls for there to be further consultation on the future development of Scottish football, including its oversight and governance, for the benefit of the continued enhancement of Scottish football.


Ben Macpherson (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)

For more than 150 years, as a country, we have observed, participated in and experienced the power of football, in all the ways in which that manifests itself, both good and bad. We have seen football’s power to unite, from bringing us together as a nation and bringing together communities around their local clubs to bringing together MSPs from all parties behind the motion for debate. I thank colleagues for their interest and support.

Many of us in Scotland have felt the power of the Hampden roar; the excitement of the build-up to a big game; fans singing in unison; and the rousing of stadiums buzzing with energy in cities and towns across the country. There is the emotion and the entertainment—win, lose or draw, and whether we are spectating or playing.

As a player back in the day, I, like most people who have put on a pair of boots—and, along with the Deputy Presiding Officer, a pair of goalkeeper gloves—found that football gave me joy, discipline, connection and direction. Football has taken me to places that I never would have gone otherwise, and it has introduced me to people who have positively influenced my life. It has made me a better person.

Yes, sometimes football contributes to negative aspects of our society and the human condition, including hatred, abuse, violence, division, misogyny, racism and sectarianism. We must be honest that those issues are still present in football settings, but we must take heart from the progress that has been made in recent decades to tackle them, and from the fact that footballing organisations have played a proactive, positive and effective role in changing social attitudes.

There are still improvements to make, especially—in my view—when it comes to some over-competitiveness and bad touchline behaviour in youth football. What is more, some stadium chatter and chanting is still totally unacceptable. On those issues and others, there are still improvements to make but, overall, we should feel energised by the power of football to create and encourage positive social change, and to be a source of substantial individual and community benefit, especially in relation to physical and mental wellbeing.

Last year, we recognised all of that with a parliamentary reception and a debate. In my constituency, I see the positive power of football every week, whether it is delivered by the Scottish Football Association’s charity partner Street Soccer Scotland; by Spartans FC and its community foundation in north Edinburgh; by Hibernian FC and its community foundation in Leith; or by Craigroyston, Civil Service Strollers, Leith Athletic and all the other smaller clubs that make such a positive difference week in, week out in our communities.

Let us pay tribute to all those who are involved in local football activities across Scotland as staff and volunteers. It is those coaches, teachers and parents who create enjoyable opportunities for others to play, and who help to start professional players’ careers. Similarly, let us pay tribute to those who are involved in running the SFA, the Scottish Women’s Premier League, the Scottish Professional Football League and the SPFL Trust. It is the commitment of everyone who is involved both in playing and in organising Scottish football that has led us to the strong position that we are currently in.

In the women’s game, that has manifested itself in increasing success, profile and participation, in particular since the brilliant and memorable Scotland performances in the FIFA women’s world cup in 2019. In the men’s game, we are experiencing an incredibly successful period for the national team; as fans, we are all looking forward to the European championships in Germany this summer.

Whether in relation to the national team or to local clubs, the importance of fans in generating and realising the power of football should not be underestimated. While great players make magic happen on the pitch, it is the high level of participation by supporters, and the commitment of supporters groups, that make football stand out as our most important and popular sport. Fans are the lifeblood of football as a major cultural industry in our country.

As well as supporters groups for specific clubs, there are a number of national supporters groups, including Supporters Direct Scotland and the Scotland supporters club, of which I am a proud member. There is also the Scottish Football Supporters Association. As the motion notes, last year the SFSA initiated, co-ordinated and published

“a fan-led review of the game in Scotland”

with a

“determination to seek to enhance Scottish football at all levels”.

I believe that that work should form part—I stress “part”, but it should be a meaningful part—of how we, together, collectively seek to build on the progress and achievement of Scottish football so far and make further improvements to realise even more of Scotland’s footballing potential.

The issues that are raised in “Rebuilding Scottish Football: A Fan Led Review of The Game in Scotland” matter to all stakeholders who are involved in the game. Most notably, the stand-out recommendation in the report is that the governance, finance and conduct of Scottish football could benefit from independent scrutiny and, as necessary, appropriate regulation, as is being taken forward in England. The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland has gone further, in a briefing to MSPs, calling for an independent regulator

“with a clear focus on human rights, protection of children, and ensuring decisions are made in the interests of all involved in football.”

The SFSA and others argue that at the heart of their call is an aspiration for greater accountability and transparency from those who run Scottish football, both nationally—the football authorities themselves—and at club level with regard to who owns our sports teams. With power comes responsibility, and football should always primarily be about public benefit, as it receives public money and support. It could be argued, therefore, that all those who are involved in football should embrace public scrutiny and measures to uphold good governance.

Indeed, the SFSA argues that greater accountability would likely enhance trust among supporters, investors and stakeholders across the game, and among the wider public. It proposes that the current absence of thorough fit-and-proper checks on companies or individuals purchasing Scottish professional football clubs is neither an optimal nor a desirable situation.

On the other hand, the footballing bodies have recently stated that an independent football regulator is not relevant in a Scottish context and would, in their view, add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and cost.

There are different perspectives to consider, so how do we move forward? As the legislation progresses in England, it would probably be prudent for us in Scotland to collaboratively, openly and robustly consider the issues and how to improve and progress our national game, including safeguarding and future proofing it.

In that spirit, I conclude by calling on the Scottish Government to seriously consider formally consulting on the various contemporary matters pertaining to Scottish football, including the possibility of establishing an independent regulator in the coming years and whether that would be appropriate and beneficial.

Furthermore, building on the work of the Parliament’s cross-party group on the future of football in Scotland, of which I am a member, I urge the Government to help to facilitate a round-table discussion on how football in our country can further prosper and progress, and to establish a working group of all relevant and appropriate stakeholders to meet similarly on a periodic basis.

There is much to be positive about in relation to Scottish football, but—as most people who are involved in football would say in a post-match interview—there is always room for improvement, so let us work together on that.

I look forward to hearing the thoughts of colleagues in the rest of the debate, and to further dialogue between everyone who cares about the beautiful game and its power in our local communities and our country as a whole.


Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I congratulate Ben Macpherson on bringing the debate to the chamber, and on his very well-informed speech, with which I agreed. I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a football referee with the Scottish FA.

I picked up a couple of points from Ben Macpherson’s speech. I did not realise that some of the clubs with which I have been involved in the past couple of weeks, in officiating when Hibs played Forfar in the Scottish cup and, just last Saturday, at Spartans v Clyde, are in his constituency. He also mentioned the Hampden roar, which is well known to many of us in the chamber; it was certainly known to me when I fell over my own feet and tripped up at the 2018 Scottish cup final.

There are great memories—although not that one—for so many of us who are involved in football at whatever level, which is why I really welcome the work by the Scottish Football Supporters Association, in its extensive effort to get to the root of some of the issues that it and others have identified in Scottish football. The series of 15 recommendations on page 15 of the report show that there is a lot that the Government can—we hope—look at, as can the governing bodies and fans of all teams and none.

Scottish football is currently going through a great era. I was delighted to be at a reception in Westminster a few months ago to congratulate the Scottish FA on its 150th anniversary, and to congratulate Steve Clarke and his team on qualifying for the Euros in Germany later this year. Again, I am sure that we would all associate ourselves with Ben Macpherson’s remarks, not only in wishing the team well at the Euros but in praising the developments that we have seen across the game in women’s football, disability football, our youth teams and the focus on football at all levels, in all parts of the country.

I represent the Highlands and Islands region, as the Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport previously did; she now represents a constituency in the far north. From the far north to the south of Scotland, there are teams and individuals who are committed to ensuring that our national game develops.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

I thank Mr Ross for mentioning that football is not the prerogative of the central belt. Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County make their mark, not least as was the case nearly 24 years ago tonight, when Celtic were famously slaughtered by Inverness Caley Thistle, leading to a headline, from the journalist Paul Hickson of The Sun, that is possibly the greatest headline in Scottish, or any, football history:

“Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious”.

If I had known that that was the intervention, Mr Ewing, I would not have allowed it. [Laughter.]

Douglas Ross

As a match official, if I had known that that was the intervention, I would not have allowed it either. However, the member mentioned Ross County—my next game, this weekend, is Ross County v St Johnstone.

I was trying to get across the point—Fergus Ewing put it very well—that, across the country, there are teams that have started off at a much lower level. For example, Caley and Ross County started as part of the Scottish Highland Football League, and progressed through the leagues, sometimes going back down and then getting back up again. The community feeling for many of those teams is so important, and that is why fans are at the heart of football.

I know that there was disappointment from the Scottish Football Supporters Association with the initial response from the Scottish FA. I associate myself with Ben Macpherson’s remarks about the need to get people round the table and have a discussion. I know that the Scottish FA does not believe that there needs to be an independent regulator. The review from the UK Government, by Tracey Crouch, looking at what has happened in England, was very positive. However, the SFSA is right to say that, although the problems in Scotland are not necessarily the same as those in England, it does not mean that there are not other problems in both English and Scottish football that should still be looked at.

I hope that, as a minimum, people can get round the table, have a discussion, look at the work of the SFSA review and build on its report. Our national game is important to us all, and it is incumbent on Government, on the governing bodies and on each and every one of us to ensure that it develops in the years to come.


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

At the outset, I give my apologies in advance, Presiding Officer, as I might need to leave before the debate finishes to catch a train, because there is currently only one line on to Glasgow.

I thank Ben Macpherson for bringing the debate to the chamber, and I declare an interest as the convener of the cross-party group on the future of football in Scotland, which he mentioned. I thank all members of that group for their continued input. I am always keen to discuss ways in which we can enhance Scottish football and to give credit for the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.

As other members have said, we are now in a big year for Scottish football. The senior men’s team will be heading to Euro 2024, supported by the entire nation, including thousands of travelling fans who will head to Munich, Cologne and Stuttgart, and—you never know—maybe even further beyond. I say to all the chief whips from the various parties: beware of requests for June, because I think that they are coming in.

I am sure that my colleagues across all parties are united in supporting investment and growth in Scottish football. We often talk in the chamber about improving wellness, physical and mental health, community engagement and social benefits, and football has the power to do all those things. In trying to put a figure on the social benefits of football, UEFA’s social return on investment study, which has been widely discussed in the chamber at various times, calculated that grass-roots football contributes an annual benefit of more than £1.1 billion to Scotland.

As convener of the cross-party group, I have seen at first hand the hard work that the SFA has done in ensuring that all who want to play football can do so. In particular, the football for all strategy has been excellent in removing barriers for all who wish to participate in football. As well as removing those barriers, the strategy has launched a series of initiatives to reduce discrimination across the game, which Ben Macpherson talked about, and bring in a culture of inclusivity and diversity. That commitment to inclusivity can be seen in the SFA’s pioneering decision to be the first ever national FA to launch an affiliated association with a specific remit for the para game.

Furthermore, recently released statistics, which I have shared on Twitter—or X, as it is now called—reveal that there was a record number of participants in grass-roots football in 2023: a whopping 161,412. I know that colleagues on all sides of the chamber will be familiar with football pitches in their constituency being booked out on weekends and week nights as young people learn the game.

On that note, and as I have said in the chamber before—although it is not for this motion or debate—there is a bigger discussion to be had around ensuring that there are adequate resources to manage that growing demand. I think that the numbers will grow each year.

Grass-roots investments have given us a great opportunity for the game to go from strength to strength in Scotland. As we have already discussed, the senior men’s team is now in a period of sustained, back-to-back qualifications for the Euros for the first time in nearly 30 years. Unfortunately, like the women’s team, they narrowly missed out on the most recent world cup via the play-offs. With sustained investment, however, success will come their way, too.

That extends to the fans—the lifeblood of the game here. Statistics regularly show that, per capita, there are more football fans going to games in Scotland than in any other European country. On that note, I was delighted, last year, to host the launch of the fan-led review of the game by the Scottish Football Supporters Association. I thank all those who were involved in that work, which is behind the main thrust of the motion. The incredibly detailed report was the result of a mammoth effort by a voluntary team over two years. The report is available online, and I encourage members to have a read of it if they have not already done so. It contains a number of recommendations across several aspects of the game. We will all have different views on some of them, while we will agree with others.

Other members will speak about those recommendations, but it is important to have a wider discussion. Football is very much our national sport. It is talked about everywhere, every day, from cafes and pubs to speaker events and dedicated radio phone-ins. Nobody can avoid football, whether we like it or not.

No one body has a monopoly on what is best for our game—and that includes the Parliament. In what will be a landmark year for the game in Scotland, I want to use my contribution in the debate to urge the SFA, the SFSA and any other interested body to continue to work collaboratively in order to further grow the sport in Scotland. I know that all those bodies recognise that fans are the heart of Scottish football. Let us use the report as a base to start a national discussion.

I have spoken at length about the good that is already being done, and I know that, with diligent work and a collaborative approach, we can continue on the right path to enhance Scottish football further. There might be areas of contention, such as the establishment of an independent regulator, as Ben Macpherson said. I need to be honest: I am not sure on that one. I do not want anybody to think that I am saying that I am not for it or that I am for it; I just do not know. It goes back to what everybody, including Ben Macpherson and Douglas Ross, has said about the need to have a wider discussion on that. We need to know the pros and cons. As a nation, we can then come to some sort of best solution.

I will close now, Presiding Officer—I can see you looking at me.

I am concerned that you have a train to catch, Mr MacGregor.

I reiterate my gratitude for all the hard work that the SFA and the SFSA have done to develop our game in Scotland, and I wish the men’s team all the very best in Germany this summer.


Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I thank Ben Macpherson for bringing the debate to the chamber, as well as the Scottish Football Alliance and Simon Barrow, who wrote much of the “Rebuilding Scottish Football” report and brought it together. I also echo the words of members across the chamber in recognising the success of Scotland’s national teams in recent years. I look forward to cheering on the women’s team next month and, of course, the men’s team in the Euros this summer. I also commend the Scottish Women’s Premier League and its achievements, which speak to the success of women’s football.

The Scottish Football Supporters Association’s fan-led review of football in Scotland is a positive step towards bringing about much-needed change in the sport. The introduction of an independent regulator to scrutinise governance, finance and transparency should be considered to give fans a much louder voice and to ensure good governance in the game. We know that, on some occasions, clubs in Scotland are bought by businesspeople who have no real interest in benefiting the communities and supporters to whom the teams belong.

Take Dumbarton Football Club, in my constituency. The Sons Supporters Trust has been instrumental in supporting the club over the years, voicing community concerns about its ownership. In May 2021, Dumbarton was purchased by Cognitive Capital, a Norwegian investment group, which said that it planned to turn the team into “a stable Championship club” and claimed that the multimillion pound plans for a new stadium at Young’s farm in Renton would be revived. That would have meant moving the club from its existing ground to release it for—guess what?—upmarket housing development. There were real concerns about the club’s future and whether this was a case of asset stripping.

Dumbarton is, without doubt, an iconic club. Stevie Farrell is a great manager, and the team has huge potential. It is also one of the oldest clubs in Scotland and celebrated its 150th anniversary last year. Many believe that that strong reputation has piqued the interest of people who do not represent the interests and the future of the club or, indeed, the interests of the local community. Even more believe that the value of the land for residential development at the foot of Dumbarton castle might be the underlying motivation.

The Sons Supporters Trust has told me that, for nearly two decades, Dumbarton has been in the hands of owners whose primary interest appears to be land and property deals, and who have frequently failed to deliver the resources that were promised to the club. Reportedly, they have stalled possible community development because of a get-rich pipe dream. Instead of treating clubs such as Dumbarton with the respect that they deserve, they have been treated like development opportunities to get rich quick.

That issue does not affect only clubs in Scotland. Across the UK, clubs in England and Wales have been snapped up by multimillionaires. Sometimes, that has not worked well and we have seen managed decline and fans’ wishes being steamrolled, taking the heart out of the sport that we all love.

Proposals for greater scrutiny are, as we have heard, being brought forward for the rest of the UK, which is positive, but we must likewise ensure the regulation of Scottish football so that we are not left behind. We must come together for our communities and clubs to guarantee that public interest is at the forefront of football ownership, that Scottish football is run for the benefit of the people and that accountability can flourish.

Club management structures should not be left to mark their own homework any longer. We need to take this opportunity to bring Scottish football back to the fans and the communities that the teams belong to, and to protect the future of Scottish football and clubs such as Dumbarton.

Thank you, Ms Baillie. I am slightly disappointed that you failed to mention Dumbarton hosting the Scottish Parliament football team, which is no doubt a highlight in its recent history.


On a point of order, Presiding Officer. My colleague Fergus Ewing made an outrageous intervention in which—

That is not a point of order, but I entirely agree with you, Mr Dornan.

James Dornan

Yes, there is no place for that sort of language in the chamber.

On a more serious note, I thank Ben Macpherson for lodging the motion for debate. I say a huge thank you to Paul Goodwin, Simon Barrow and all the others at the SFSA for the magnificent report that they have produced. I must also mention Scott Robertson and the indefatigable Willie Smith of Realgrassroots for their courage, determination and patience in bringing the protection of Scotland’s young players to the forefront of public awareness by using the Parliament’s then Public Petitions Committee.

I have been involved in football in one way or another for about 65 years. I started playing for fun as a kid and then as a young man. I then spent 20 years as a coach, manager, strip washer and general dogsbody. Anyone who has ever run a football club will testify that those are the roles. During those 65 years, I have seen and embraced the joy that football can bring to all participants, and that is why I am so happy to be taking part in this debate.

When I became an MSP, one of the things that I was hoping to achieve was the cleaning-up of the murkier aspects of the beautiful game in Scotland, from sectarianism and racism to the horrific and far-too-widespread historical abuse of young lads playing football. I strongly supported the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill and attempted to bring in a member’s bill to enact strict liability, making the club responsible for the behaviour of its supporters.

At every step of that journey, I met obstruction and an unwillingness to let anything upset the status quo. That came, as expected, from the two biggest clubs in Scotland, which had the most to lose, of course, but it was even more the case when I spoke with the SFA and the Scottish Professional Football League. Their cry was: “There’s nothing to see here.” When I asked for statistics to back up their statements of, “It’s nothing to do with us, guv”, unsurprisingly, none were available. I was going to say that the SFA must have been taking lessons from the mafia on the importance of omertà, but I suspect that it was the other way round.

I mainly want to talk about the disregard that the SFA has shown for the vast majority of participants in Scottish football, the complete lack of transparency around its funding and how taxpayers’ money is being spent, and why an independent regulator for Scottish football is not just desirable but required.

The hierarchy in Scottish football fears an independent regulator that could demand that certain standards be upheld—for example, a fit and proper ownership requirement, a clear paper trail for all spending of public money, particularly in relation to how it reaches or benefits our youth football, and serious attempts to bring an end to sectarian and racist behaviour, which is simply ignored on a weekly basis in Scotland.

The reason why those people oppose an independent regulator is based on their complete unwillingness to give up control and/or upset the big two. If we were to ask the SFA, it would tell us that it is a members-run organisation, but it would not tell us that the system is created in such a way that the members who run it number two—and we all know who they are.

The SFA’s contempt for the Parliament, most of the clubs that they represent and the grass roots that ensure that football continues to flourish in Scotland is not new. When I was researching for this debate, I came across questions that were asked in 2019 of the then justice minister, Humza Yousaf, by me and a Mr Liam McArthur. The questions were about the reporting of sectarian behaviour by official observers. The SFA refused point blank to hand over that information, extremely important though it was, before relenting by agreeing to hand it over, but with the proviso that it never be put in the public domain.

Let me assure people that those at the top of the tree in Scottish football do not have the interests of the ordinary supporter in mind. Just recently, the SFA’s chief executive suggested that fans need to be educated—how very patronising and typically arrogant, Mr Maxwell. Their primary interest is to ensure that they stay on top of the well-paid pyramid of Scottish football and that no person or body, even one as august as the Scottish Parliament, gets in their way. An independent regulator—someone with no vested interest, except in the good of Scottish football—is their worst nightmare.

I therefore urge the minister to, please, support an independent regulator for Scottish football in order to support our young players and the standard of ownership in our clubs and to help Scotland finally get rid of the scourge of sectarianism from our terraces. The vast majority of Scottish football people will thank us for it.


Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I, too, congratulate Ben Macpherson on bringing the debate to the chamber, and thank him for doing so. It is long overdue, and the very fact that we are having this debate has sparked a debate. Unfortunately, I am already seeing entrenched positions between what I would describe as the fan-led group who produced the excellent “Rebuilding Scottish Football” paper and the Scottish football establishment.

What is football? It has to be more than just a business. It is more than just paying to go to a game, cheering on your team and going home. It has to be more than that. Football is for all of us, and it is about our heritage. That heritage can be passed down through families, from father or mother to son or daughter. Generations of families support the same team, wherever they live, and that is a good thing. Football matters to people in this country. It is not just a business; it is really important. I hope that this can be the start of a discussion that can lead to some change.

There has been talk of what is happening in England. Plans for an independent regulator were outlined in the King’s speech last November. That followed a fan-led review, chaired by Tracey Crouch, which said that a regulator was necessary. Of course, we have had a similar review, the results of which are set out in the “Rebuilding Scottish Football” paper. I can sense the frustration throughout it. It says—and is right to say—that football is full of vested interests, and it agrees that there should be an independent regulator.

I want to go through some of what is happening in England. Although I do not agree with all of it, it is worth knowing the position there. The independent regulator will have three specific primary duties: club sustainability, which is the financial sustainability of individual clubs; systemic stability, which is the overall stability of the football pyramid; and cultural heritage, which is protecting the heritage of football clubs that matter most to fans.

The regulator in England will operate a licensing system in which clubs will need a licence to operate as a professional football club. It will establish a compulsory football club corporate governance code that will be applied proportionately with regard to a club’s size, the league that it is in and the complexity of the club’s business model. The regulator will establish new tests for prospective owners and directors of football clubs that aim to avoid any more unsuitable custodians causing or contributing to problems at clubs and risking harm to fans. It will implement a minimum standard of fan engagement and ensure that clubs have in place a framework to regularly meet a representative group of fans to discuss key matters at the club and other issues of interest to supporters. I must be honest: I am a little wary of that, because it depends on who is classed as a representative group. I have seen groups of fans who claim to speak for every supporter of a club when they demonstrably do not. The regulator will also add to and reinforce existing protections around club heritage. There is more that the regulator will do.

I thank the Scottish Football Association, the Scottish Professional Football League, the Scottish Women’s Football League and the Scottish Professional Football League Trust for their joint letter in which they—rightly—pointed out all the positives in the game in Scotland. However, they rejected the need for a regulator. They are being defensive, but they do not need to be.

As I said at the start, this debate has at least sparked a debate, which is a good thing. The football establishment, which Douglas Ross is a member of—I am glad that he did not fall into line behind that letter—needs to come to the table as well. I would like the minister, in her closing speech, to at least agree that such a discussion is necessary. It should be led by the Government, and we can do things in this Parliament, because the beautiful game belongs to us all.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am conscious of the number of members who still want to participate in the debate, so I am minded to accept, under rule 8.14.3 of standing orders, a motion without notice to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Mr Macpherson to move such a motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Ben Macpherson]

Motion agreed to.

Thank you very much. We will move into extra time.


Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

I, too, thank Ben Macpherson for bringing this debate to the chamber, and I thank the SFSA for co-ordinating and publishing a fan-led review of the game in Scotland.

Before I get into the detail of the “Rebuilding Scottish Football” report and the much-needed steps that I believe we could and should take to enhance Scottish football, it is vital, as others have said, to highlight the fantastic work that football clubs and their supporters across Scotland are already carrying out, and to celebrate the positive impact that football has had on this country in recent years.

As others have highlighted, we should welcome the brilliant work of our senior teams. Steve Clarke and his team have managed to lift the mood of the nation and bring us a sense of hope in the game that was missing for many years. I wish the national team all the best in Germany this summer, and I am sure that we will all be cheering it on with every kick of the ball.

Our women’s game continues to go from strength to strength. In the Scottish Women’s Premier League last season, the title race went down to the very last game of the season, with three teams within touching distance of the trophy. Glasgow City Football Club came out on top, much to the disappointment of Celtic and Rangers. We witnessed record crowds at various grounds, and we saw the first women’s ties played at Celtic Park and Ibrox. Long may that continue.

However, we need to tackle the on-going issues that women’s football faces. In recent months, we have seen a sustained amount of abuse towards women commentators and pundits. That has to stop, and there is a duty on all of us to call that out where and when we see it. Alex Scott is one of those who has had such behaviour targeted at her. I hope that what she said in the wake of the abuse will resonate with many in respect of how far we still have to go in changing culture and how important representation is. She said:

“To all the women in football, in front of the camera or behind it, to the players on the pitch, to everyone that attends games—keep being the role models that you continue to be to all those young girls that are told ‘no, you can’t’.

Football is a better place with us all in it.”

In my Central Scotland region, clubs such as Motherwell, Falkirk and Stenhousemuir are leading the way in their local communities, delivering classes that bring health, wellbeing and social benefits. I am constantly impressed by the phenomenal work that those clubs do through their community foundations and trusts.

The Scottish Greens believe that our national team is for all of us, but—particularly during this cost of living crisis—far too many people are being priced out of our beautiful game. If we want children to look up to our athletes or to be inspired by them, they must be able to see both the men’s and women’s teams in action. I have been calling on the Scottish Football Association to work with broadcasters to ensure that Scotland’s international fixtures appear on free-to-view television channels. The team has done the nation proud, but the games were shown only on subscription services, so not everyone was able to experience them live. That must change.

Scottish football needs fundamental change. We must look at a fairer distribution of resources and marketing our game better to attract further ethical investment that does not come from health-harming products or from gambling. The game must also be more accessible, especially to those who can least afford it, with a particular emphasis on tackling the inequalities that can be barriers to participation.

We have a passionate supporter base in Scotland and it is vital to recognise that fans are the lifeblood of our game and a key source of revenue. We must ensure that fans can have an ownership stake and a strong voice in how their clubs are run, as happens at Motherwell and Falkirk, which are in my region, and that those same fans have a strong input in how the game is structured and governed.

I echo the views of supporters’ organisations, which have said that the transparency, good governance and oversight that this culturally important industry needs depend on having an independent regulator:

“Drawing on lessons from the new Independent Regulator for English Football, new owners’ and directors’ tests for clubs should be established by replacing the existing procedures and ensuring that only good ‘potential custodians’ and qualified directors can run these vital assets.”

We must also look at the process for appointing of the president of the SFA, which I believe should be replaced with a fair voting structure whereby both clubs and season ticket holders can vote for nominated candidates from both inside and outside football.

Fans contribute more than 50 per cent of the game’s revenue. That should be recognised in order to support a positive culture change across the game and to bring an additional focus on football as Scotland’s national sport, showcasing it to the world as being progressive, democratic, attractive and not afraid to do things differently.


Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Ben Macpherson for securing the debate and welcome the publication of the fan-led review by the Scottish Football Supporters Association.

As I have said previously, football is not just a sport in Scotland; it is woven into the very fabric of our society. As much as we celebrate the force that football can be, we should also debate what more we can do to support it and, if necessary, to reform it. The fact that football has been central to the life of our communities for the past century and half does not mean that it will always be so.

I am sure that we could all talk at length—as we have done—about the positive impact of football clubs on our communities. The street stuff initiative, which is supported by St Mirren in my region, is an excellent example.

That said, the report highlights many fans’ concerns about governance issues, including those about vested interests, decisions being made behind closed doors and a lack of stakeholder engagement. Jock Stein said:

“Football without fans is nothing.”

However, there is widespread concern that football authorities do not do enough to consult fans or to seek their views on important decisions. Football, of course, would also be nothing without the players, so we need players and their union—the Professional Footballers Association Scotland—to have a greater say, too.

On financial governance, the SPFL and SFA have pointed out that there have been no financial insolvencies involving a Scottish club in more than a decade. However, we know that there were significant cases prior to that involving Rangers and other clubs, so the fact that that has not happened in the past 10 years does not mean that it cannot happen again. We must ensure that adequate safeguards and tests are in place so that those who own football clubs are fit and proper people and capable of doing so. Jackie Baillie has rightly articulated concerns regarding Dumbarton FC.

It is also vital to take the views of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland extremely seriously. The commissioner has explained that children continue to be viewed as “economic assets” by the Scottish football clubs and authorities, and that specific legislation is still needed to close gaps in domestic law that permits the “commercial exploitation of children”.

We must ensure that stronger protections are in place for our children and young people. If that is not addressed, it would make calls for an independent regulator unanswerable, surely.

Where should we go from here? I believe that there must be genuine and meaningful partnership working among fans, players, clubs, the authorities and Government. The Government is seeking to reset its relationships with business, and it should now seek to reset its relationships with football fans and clubs, too. A reset between clubs and an end to the situation in which opposition fans continue to receive limited or zero ticket allocations at away games should also happen.

I thank the SPFL, SWPL and SFA for their briefing and for the engagement that I have had with them. I understand that they do not support an independent regulator but, to justify that position, I would like to see more from them about what they intend to do to address the issues that we are discussing today. I support the suggestion that there should be a round-table discussion on that.

We need far more from the Scottish Government. A serious piece of work was published last June and, seven months later, we still have no detailed response from it on the review and its 23 recommendations.

As has been mentioned, the United Kingdom Government commissioned its own fan-led review in 2021. I believe that the Scottish Government minister should take the lead. If she is not minded to introduce an independent regulator on the basis of the fan-led review of the game in Scotland, the Scottish Government should consider initiating its own fan-led review, and possibly a player-led review, to look at the future of the men’s and women’s games in order to address the concerns that exist, to help to make the changes that are needed and to ensure that our national game can have a positive future and be a force for good for many years to come.


Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

I, too, thank Ben Macpherson for securing this important debate. I totally concur with him that football plays an important role in our communities and in Scottish society.

I will focus on the benefits that I have seen at first hand that football brings to my constituency. They affirm the sentiment that Scottish football is a force for good in our culture and in wider society. Since being elected, one of the things that I have enjoyed immensely is getting out and about and meeting all the fantastic community groups that operate across my Perthshire South and Kinross-shire constituency.

As a football fan, I was delighted to be invited along to present the friendship cup at Donaldson park in Kinross. The friendship cup is a yearly trophy that is presented to the eventual winner of a seven-a-side tournament between under-16s and 17s from Kinross Colts and a team made up of unaccompanied child refugees from Perth and Edinburgh, consisting of boys from across the world who have settled in Scotland. It is a fantastic initiative that was started by club chairman Brian Kenny and treasurer John Murray. Both were inspired by the work that is done by the football welcomes refugees programme and sought to highlight the difficulties that unaccompanied child refugees face through the power of sport.

Such community working together has been replicated across my constituency, and I am certain that it has been replicated throughout other members’ constituencies. It is not only grass-roots clubs such as Kinross Colts, Jeanfield Swifts or Letham Football Club—which, incidentally, has its home at Seven Acres, where I spent hours as a boy growing up in Letham; the club even occasionally lets me on as a sub, despite my limited ability—that are giving back to their communities. In contrast to Jackie Baillie’s point, I will mention the immense credit that is due to the Brown family, who have owned and run St Johnstone Football Club since 1986 and have done so in an impeccable manner. After taking it over in 1986 as a lowly Scottish league team that was in deep financial trouble, the family have turned it into a competitive Scottish premiership club that won a league cup and Scottish cup double in season 2021-22. I urge Douglas Ross not to hold it against the Perth Saints this week when he is officiating just because they are in my constituency.

The Perth Sainties established the St Johnstone Community Trust, which is better known as Saints in the Community. It does some brilliant work and proves that football has numerous social benefits, such as improving self-esteem, inspiring children and young people, promoting wellbeing and healthy lifestyles and contributing to social inclusion.

Saints in the Community runs several community football projects that seek to provide football and other sporting activities for kids and young people, with a view to increasing the numbers playing and to creating a pathway from grass roots to excellence, creating the footballing greats for the next generation. Alongside that important work, it also runs a number of community projects, with the themes of wellbeing and social inclusion at their heart. Saints in the Community works with Show Racism the Red Card, delivering a two-hour session at schools across Perth and Kinross to promote the message that racism has no place in football. It also delivers the football memories project, which is aimed at helping people of all ages who would benefit from social interaction—for example, those living in isolation or with a condition such as dementia, or recovering from a stroke.

Lastly, Presiding Officer, you cannot attend a game at McDiarmid park without seeing the volunteers from Saints fans supporting food banks, whose motto is #HungerDoesntWearClubColours, which should resonate with members across the chamber. No matter the weather, they are out at every game, taking donations for the local food bank.

Football makes many valuable contributions to our society, and I agree with Ben Macpherson that we must further strengthen and develop that, for the benefit of all our constituents.


Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests: I am the convener of the PFA Scotland parliamentary interest group. Can I begin by thanking Ben Macpherson for leading this important debate on the state and on the future of Scottish football?

I have to say that anyone who witnessed the chief executive of the Scottish Football Association giving evidence to the Parliament just last month would have seen an organisation that was, seemingly, in denial. Ian Maxwell claimed that the Scottish game does not have the same financial failings as the game in England. Well, I am bound to ask, what about Gretna in 2008? What about Glasgow Rangers in 2012? What about Dunfermline in 2013? And this is not just historical—what about in the last few days, when Edinburgh City had six points deducted by the SPFL for failing to pay its players and its debtors?

The SFA’s view that there is no need for reform, no need for transparency and no need for regulation, and that, in Ian Maxwell’s own words to this Parliament,

“the governance in the game is robust”—[Official Report, Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, 19 December 2023; c 27.]

is to ignore not only the findings of the report that we are discussing tonight but the objective facts. Whether through the introduction of a regulator or the reform of the present governance framework, football in Scotland badly needs an age of enlightenment. We need the involvement of players and their union, and fans and their representative organisations, not just through a consultation but through active participation. Whether they are considered to be long-term or short-term reforms, the SFA has to accept that they are needed, and a beginning has to be made now.

There is something else that the SFA appears to be in denial about, and that is the treatment of children and young people in our professional football game. I accept that some modest changes have been made, not least because of the pressure that was applied by the determined petitioners who drove those demands, going back years, through the Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee, but the restriction of free movement—the denial of basic human rights to children and young people who are contracted or even, in the SFA’s terms, party to enforceable documents—is still a widespread practice.

The result is that, if you are aged between 11 and 14, you can be held, unable to move to another club for a year. If you are 15 years or older at one of the nine so-called “elite” football clubs, you can be prevented from moving to another club for two years. There is, to use the words of the office of the Commissioner for Children and Young People, “a systematic power imbalance”. Young footballers—child footballers—are treated at best as commodities and at worst as slave labour. They are denied the freedom to move clubs and to simply play football. That not only throttles the development of those young people; it throttles the development of the game as well.

So I am bound to ask the minister, when are you going to act, and where is the urgency? These young people are 11 only once, 13 once, and 15 once, so it is no good coming back in two years saying, “We’ve had another review,” because, by then, it will be too late for this generation.

It is the duty of Government—even a nationalist Government—to deal not just with a territory, not just with a domain, but to build and sustain a society. It is time for a period of enlightenment, for an era of democratic reform to sweep through the governance and control of Scottish football. I cannot think of a better place to start than with the rights and freedoms of our children and young people, and I cannot think of a better time to start than now.


The Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport (Maree Todd)

Football is a subject that many of us in the chamber and right across the country feel very passionate about, and we have heard many contributions this afternoon that demonstrate just how much football means to people. Our national game continues to grow in popularity and reach wider audiences, and I know that the Scottish FA is committed to continuing to grow and develop the game. We continue to work closely with it on that, and its briefing note to members helpfully sets out what it is doing in a wide range of areas.

Supporters, however, are the lifeblood of the game, and it is vital that their role is recognised. The Scottish Government recognises that, and we enjoy positive relationships with the national fans organisations, Supporters Direct Scotland and the Scottish Football Supporters Association. We believe that fans should have real influence on the game as a whole and on the future of the clubs that they love and support. That is why, last May, we launched the fan bank, which is intended to support organised fan groups to become more involved in the ownership of their club, to ensure that their interests are represented on clubs’ boards and to protect clubs for generations to come.

The fan bank will make a positive change to football and help to put real power in the hands of supporters in the local community. Falkirk Supporters’ Society was the first recipient of a loan from the fan bank. The £350,000 enabled it to increase its shareholding so that it and other small shareholders now have the protection of owning a third of the club. That investment has, in turn, supported the club to renew its pitch for the season and invest in the club’s development.

We have also had discussions with a number of other supporters groups about potential bids to the fan bank. I am glad that the initiative is proving to be so popular with football fans.

Today’s debate has been inspired by the review of Scottish football that was launched in June last year by the Scottish Football Alliance and the Scottish Football Supporters Association. The review covers a wide range of issues, many of which relate to the formation of the leagues and the division of prize money, for example. Although those issues are of interest, they are not for the Scottish Government to comment on. We fully endorse some elements of the review, such as the game being accessible and welcoming to everyone, with a particular emphasis on tackling inequalities as a barrier to participation.

On Monday, I spoke about social outcomes contracting at a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and Union of European Football Associations event at Hampden. I reflected on my visit last year to the European Amputee Football Federation nations league in Fife, which saw Scotland qualify for the finals in France this June. Oh my goodness! It was truly inspiring to see our amputee athletes competing at an international level. Scottish Para-Football is doing outstanding work in promoting a wide range of parallel ways to engage in the game.

The review’s headline proposal is the introduction of an independent regulator. It is certainly an interesting issue. The fan-led review in England emerged from a particular set of circumstances, and the recommendation that a regulator be set up was intended to address particular challenges to the sustainability of the English game. The football landscape in Scotland is very different, but that is not in itself an argument against the introduction of a regulator. However, the specific role of any such body would need to be tailored to the Scottish context, as would the funding of it. I understand that the regulator in England is estimated to cost about £30 million, which will be funded through a levy on clubs. Although I would expect a Scottish regulator to cost substantially less than that, the cost would still be significant in the Scottish context, and, at this stage, I am not clear about where the funding could come from.

Before taking such a big step, it would be really useful to undertake some learning from England, which, as far as I am aware, is the only country that is currently legislating to introduce an independent regulator. I want to understand better how the regulator is planned to operate in England and, once it is up and running, how effective it is at achieving its aims. I will ask Scottish Government officials to engage with the UK Government on the matter.

Finally, I would also wish to consider whether any such regulator—

Will the minister take an intervention?


Graham Simpson

I am listening very carefully to what the minister is saying. She appears to be saying that she wants to wait for the regulator to be set up in England and then wait to see how it operates before she does anything. How long does she expect that to take? To me, it looks as though that could take several years. Is she not at least prepared to start discussions now?

Minister, before you respond, could you move your phone away from your microphone? I think that it is picking things up.

Maree Todd


I am more than happy to talk about what I plan to do in the fullness of time. I would want to consider whether any such regulator would operate across sports governing bodies instead of being specifically about football. One finds it hard to argue with the calls for accountability, transparency and responsibility in football, but I think that any and all of our sports governing bodies should demonstrate those traits. I know that sportscotland works with sports governing bodies on ensuring effective financial management, organisational stability, leadership and planning, and policy implementation, and it should certainly be part of this discussion.

In summary, I cannot commit today to establishing an independent regulator. A lot of work needs to be done to understand how it would operate, how it would be appointed and funded, what its specific role would be and whether there are other ways of achieving the agreed outcomes, short of establishing a new body.

Will the minister give way?

Maree Todd

I am just closing.

Equally, the door is not by any means closed on the proposal, if a strong case can be made as to why such a regulator is necessary and why other measures short of regulation could not be implemented to address some of the issues that have been raised. I am more than happy to host a round-table discussion on the matter, as has been suggested, and I will ask my officials to take that forward with Ben Macpherson.

We have heard today what football means to people and what it means to fans to support their club and their country. Scotland has had a long love affair with the game that we founded, and it still holds a very special place in our hearts. As minister for sport, I see my role as helping sport to flourish, and I am, of course, very happy to work with partners to achieve that.

That concludes the debate.

Meeting closed at 18:23.