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Peers try to block foreign state ownership of football clubs

Newcastle owners
Newcastle owners

Peers will try to limit foreign state ownership of football clubs, in the wake of moves to block similar takeovers of newspapers.

The ownership of the likes of Manchester City and Newcastle United came under scrutiny in the House of Lords on Thursday as plans to table amendments to the new Football Governance Bill to prevent “sportswashing” were announced.

Concerns including the alleged use of the game by Gulf regimes to distract from human rights abuses there were expressed during a debate held just over a week after plans were announced to outlaw foreign state ownership of UK media outlets – which would thwart an Abu Dhabi-bankrolled takeover of the Daily Telegraph – and two days after the launch of Bill enshrining in law a new independent football regulator.

The debate over “countries that use sporting events to ‘sportswash’ their human rights record, and the role of sporting bodies in aiding this practice”, was brought by Lord Scriven, who told peers: “On the independent regulator, I think we will be getting to the point where amendments will be put with regards to foreign state ownership of clubs if it’s not being done for the right reason.”

His Liberal Democrat colleague Lord Addington added: “The elephant which is now in the room and a-trumpeting, my Lords, is the Gulf states, the sovereign wealth funds, and football. And, indeed, my Lords, guess what? We’ve now got a Bill where the relationship is going to be discussed. I know the Government is doing its level best not to have it discussed but it will be because I’m going to move amendments on it and we are going to have to look at how that relationship works. A fit and proper person: what is that relationship? If there are going to be barriers in place, where are they going to come in?”

Labour’s Lord Bassam also spoke of peers having “the opportunity with the football regulation bill to make a stand on sportswashing”.

In his response to the debate, Culture minister Lord Parkinson said: “We don’t believe that the new independent regulator should get involved in issues of foreign policy. That is rightly a matter for the Government accountable to Parliament as it is.

“In fact, the new independent regulator will have a student statutory duty to have regard to the Government’s foreign and trade policy objectives.”

Lord Scriven, who also called for ministers to look at Gulf investment in Formula 1, said it did not “fit together that the Government says it’s not going to get involved in foreign entities owning sporting bodies in the UK when, only a couple of days ago, they agreed to do exactly the same on the press.

“I think there’s an issue there about the role in which these foreign entities are wanting to actually use sporting bodies in the UK. They’re not investing multi-million pounds in these bodies purely for the sake of sport. They understand what it brings to their countries’ reputations.”

Lord Scriven secured Thursday’s debate after writing to F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali questioning the sport’s commitment to human rights amid accusations the Bahrain Grand Prix was at the centre of attempts to silence critics of the country’s regime, including through the use of torture.

The peer, who also cited the investment in the McLaren team by the Gulf nation’s sovereign wealth fund, accused Domenicali of ignoring his correspondence.

Newcastle and City have always denied being state-owned, although the entity which bought the latter in 2008 is the same the Government plans to outlaw from purchasing media outlets.

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