As my colleagues on the Public Petitions Committee have said, this is one of the longest-running petitions in the Scottish Parliament’s public petitions system. It dates back to 2010. That fact alone, in my opinion, speaks volumes about the complexity of the issue; it also gives an indication of the intransigent nature of the hierarchy in Scottish football. The committee has tabled the petition 27 times. Its consideration has included discussions, the commissioning of reports and, on a number of occasions, the gathering of evidence from key people in Scottish football, ministers, the petitioners themselves and many other relevant stakeholders.
There are a number of issues involved in the petition, but the main issues of concern, which I will expand on, include the contractual arrangements between children under 16 years of age, professional clubs and the SFA, and, in particular, the social, educational and psychological effects and legality of clubs banning children from participating in extracurricular activities such as playing for their school team. It was only last year—six years after the petition was lodged—that the SFA lifted that ban, but there has been no monitoring of the situation, and even now many young people are still under the impression that they cannot play for their school team. Being banned from enjoying a more relaxed game of football with their friends has the effect of isolating the young players from their peers and restricting their participation in the game that they love. For many, the effect is also complete disillusionment with the sport, and they end up cutting all ties with football.
In addition, we must ask how appropriate it is for there to be compensation payments between SFA member clubs for the transfer of young players under 16. There are also questions around accountability in relation to the audit process, as well as accountability for the public funds that are held by the SFA and distributed to member clubs.
For me, child welfare is at the core of the petition. It is about children being used as commodities by male-dominated, top-down organisations that are intent on getting value for money and discovering the next Kenny Dalglish. The reality is that the organisations’ actions shatter the dreams of many young people, and in my opinion they are trading on that. They are the dream shatterers, not the dream catchers.
The many excellent, hard-working youth coaches with a desire to help young people throughout Scotland reach their potential and progress in the sport are in no way to blame. Two people with close family connections to me work in youth football coaching. I know that they do it because football is their passion, they genuinely care about the welfare of the youngsters in their charge and they do their utmost to help them realise their dreams. However, they are a world away from the men in suits in the SFA and the SPFL who run football in Scotland.
As we have heard from members across the chamber, the petition raises a number of other serious issues. A child who signs a registration form at age 15 can be held by the professional football club for three consecutive seasons, up to their 18th birthday. The operation of the compensation scheme has not changed and continues to cause concern, as payments between clubs have been made beyond the parameters of that scheme. In addition, contracts between professional clubs and 16 and 17-year-olds contravene minimum wage legislation, with some players being paid £1 per week. Last but not least, there is a lack of appropriate child protection checks being carried out on football agents who engage with children, as highlighted so powerfully by my colleague Clare Haughey.
In May of this year, the former children’s commissioner Tam Baillie—a staunch supporter of the petition, and someone who maintains a strong connection with the subject—sent a letter to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs informing it of the petition and the implications arising from it in respect of payments by professional football clubs in Scotland that contravene minimum wage legislation. He reiterated the concerns that the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Premier Football League have been intransigent with regard to change, and he told of the documentary evidence that has been produced that confirms that 16 and 17-year-olds have signed with professional football clubs for wages ranging between £1 and £10 per week.
In evidence to the Public Petitions Committee, Neil Doncaster, the chief executive of SPFL, stated:
“We do not have sight of the contracts between clubs and players. Effectively, eligibility to play in SPFL competitions arises from a Scottish FA registration. So, no, I did not have knowledge of any clubs paying £1 a week.”—[Official Report, Public Petitions Committee, 22 December 2016; c 36.]
Even when it was brought to their attention, they failed to act. In response to a letter on the minimum wage from the petitioners, the SFA and SPFL stated:
“This area of legislation is complex, and it is not always apparent from a contract how many a player may be working in a relevant pay period.”
“The focus of both bodies is to ensure that players are paid the minimum wage rather than punishing clubs for non-compliance.”
I believe that that response proves that the football authorities are not prepared to find out where the minimum wage is not being paid and are not interested in finding out what is happening to young players in their stewardship.
It is true that during the petition’s lengthy passage, there have been some positive developments, such as the appointment by the SFA of a child protection officer and a children’s rights officer, and the introduction of some limited changes to children’s rights while they are signed to a professional football club. As the minister said, the Scottish Government has indicated a desire to work with clubs to address outstanding issues. However, due to the inactivity and intransigence of those who hold positions of power in the SPFL and the SFA, Tam Baillie is calling for legislation to address the matter, as we have heard.
The fact is that children under the age of 16 are being asked to sign contracts despite not having the legal power to do so. Many parents do not understand the small print of those contracts and, in any case, are so overwhelmed that their child is being given a chance to progress to professional football that they do not want to rock the boat and ruin their dreams.
The purpose of the petition is to expose the abuse of power and the control of children by professional football clubs in Scotland. To date, children’s rights have been contravened and football mandarins have adopted the approach that they are untouchable. That is simply not good enough. How many more years do we have to wait until that imbalance is kicked into touch? Let us hope that change is imminent.