MSP submits Scottish football independent regulator motion at Holyrood and brands elite clubs 'exploitative'

·6-min read
The Scottish parliament building at Holyrood
The Scottish parliament building at Holyrood

RICHARD Leonard, the Labour MSP for Central Scotland, yesterday branded the treatment of young players by Scotland's leading clubs "exploitative" and submitted a motion at Holyrood calling for a debate on the establishment of an independent regulator for the game in this country.

The move follows the refusal by the elite clubs in the Club Academy Scotland (CAS) system to scrap the use of multi-year registrations for children under the age of 16 which campaigners claim violate United Nations human rights guidelines.

The public petitions committee at the Scottish parliament recommended “very strongly” in the June of 2020 that the registrations should be abolished.

The committee also asked for the compensation system to be altered so development costs only have to be paid to a club when a player signs their first professional contract at 16.

The proposals were the result of a petition that was lodged at Holyrood by Realgrassroots - an organisation set up by Scott Robertson of Musselburgh Windsor and Willie Smith of Hillwood Boys Club - back in 2010.

Ian Maxwell, the SFA chief executive, wrote to Bruce Adamson, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, in February.

He confirmed the governing body’s rules would be changed from the end of the 2022 season and that training compensation would only be due when a player signs a professional contract.

However, Maxwell stated the nine elite clubs in CAS – Aberdeen, Celtic, Dundee United, Hamilton Academical, Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and Rangers – would be retaining 30-month registrations for 15-year-olds.

Adamson has written to Maree Todd, the Minister for Public Health, Women's Health and Sport, urging her to push through legislation that prohibits multi-year registrations.

Adamson argued they breach six articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – which MSPS voted unanimously in favour of incorporating into domestic law in March last year.

Todd has since asked FIFA and UEFA if new and enhanced measures covering the protection of children at professional clubs are set to be introduced as part of their reforms of the transfer system.

Now Leonard, who served as the leader of the Scottish Labour party from 2017 to 2021, has submitted a motion to Holyrood calling for a debate on the establishment of an independent regulator for Scottish football.

“This kind of exploitative treatment is everything that’s wrong with football as big business,” he said. “Children and their families can’t wait another decade for ministers and the Scottish FA to act.”

Adamson welcomed the motion tabled by Leonard and noted that it had already gained cross-party support from Jeremy Balfour and Brian Whittle, the former Olympic athlete, of the Scottish Conservatives.

“It is hugely frustrating that the SFA has chosen not to fully implement the strong recommendations from the Scottish parliament’s petitions committee in 2020 to improve youth football,” he said.

“There has been some progress on compensation, but the outstanding issues, including around multi-year registration for those young players in the elite tier, need to be addressed urgently.

“Rights being infringed within the current model of Scotland’s youth football include the right to play and leisure, to association, to an education which develops them to their fullest potential, and to be protected from commercial exploitation.

“The child’s best interests must be a primary consideration in all actions that concern them. The government must act when those rights are negatively impacted by the actions of private institutions, such as the SFA and its member clubs.

“We have long supported the petitioners’ calls that young footballers’ rights would be best protected by law, rather than self-regulation.

“It has been made clear over the last 12 years that the current model overwhelmingly privileges the vested interests of the clubs’ rights over children’s human rights.

“We are pleased that as well as seeking action from FIFA and UEFA, the Scottish government is actively considering legislative options to ensure children’s rights in youth football are protected, respected, and fulfilled.

“The Scottish parliament continues to play an important role for children as a human rights guarantor and the cross-party support for Richard Leonard MSP’s motion clearly signals to the SFA and its member clubs that time is running out, and they must either act, or have a solution imposed upon them.”

Adamson continued: “A key part of our report into the rights of youth footballers submitted to parliament in 2015, was the views and experiences of those young players affected.  There was then, and there continues to be, a stark power imbalance between young players and the clubs.

“The young players are pursuing their football dreams, while the clubs are deliberately placing them in unequal and disadvantageous legal contracts, treating them as financial commodities and putting the interests of the club before the child’s.

“As one young player summed up his feelings: ‘I would like to have control over my life and do what I want to do’.

“The SFA must stop its member clubs placing any child on a restrictive multi-year registration, and it should do so as a matter of urgency. We need to see an end to the commercial exploitation of children and the informal but highly lucrative ‘transfer market’ in child footballers.”

The SFA were approached for comment.

The Scottish Football Supporters Association confirmed last weekend that a report it is producing on governance in Scottish football - which has been endorsed by the main political parties at Holyrood - will call for the creation of an independent regulator.

The United Kingdom government endorsed the findings of a fan-led review into the men’s game in England in April and committed to establishing an independent regulator of football down south.

A review chaired by sports minister Tracey Crouch following a number of high-profile crises – including the failed European Super League and the collapse of Bury FC – made 10 recommendations on how to improve football governance.

The new regulator will have the power to sanction English clubs who break financial and other rules. A new owners’ test is set to be introduced which will replace the current tests which are carried out by the Premier League, Football League and Football Association. Elsewhere, legislation will be brought in which gives supporters more say in the running of the game.

That follows criticism of Roman Abramovich’s ownership of Chelsea and the Saudi Arabian-backed takeover of Newcastle United by Amnesty International UK.

The Premier League responded to the decision by stating that it "recognises and accepts the case for reform" but added that it believed an independent regulator "is not necessary".

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