Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston was asked by MPs whether it would be appropriate for North Korea to buy a Premier League club in the future as he avoided commenting on the Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle.
The Premier League’s decision to sanction the £305million Newcastle deal last month was met with jubilation by many fans of the club but drew strong criticism from human rights groups.
The league said it had received legally-binding assurances that the Saudi state – which has an appalling human rights record and was implicated in the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 – would not have direct control of the club.
That is despite Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman being the chair of the Public Investment Fund which now owns an 80 per cent stake in the club. Amnesty International has called on the league to tighten up its owners’ and directors’ test to specifically cover human rights issues.
Former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch is set to publish the recommendations of the fan-led review of football ordered by the Government next week. She indicated in July that in her view an independent regulator was required and that owners’ and directors’ tests would sit within its remit.
Huddleston was guarded when asked for his view on the Newcastle deal by members of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee on Thursday.
“We have got to be very careful here about the role of Government,” he said.
“Government doesn’t have a say in acquisitions of private sector entities unless there are legal concerns. In the case of Newcastle it was right for the football authorities to follow their appropriate processes, including the owners’ and directors’ test, which they did do.
“In terms of the elements of that test and what it includes, that is a live debate at the moment. I’m sure Tracey (Crouch) will be making recommendations on that as well. I do know this was a heated debate. I’m well aware of the issues on both sides.”
Committee chair Julian Knight asked Huddleston: “Let’s use the example of North Korea. North Korea comes in and tries to take over Crystal Palace, for instance. Because maybe (Kim Jong-un) just likes the colour of the kit. Would that be appropriate?”
Huddleston said: “I would want there to be a process. First of all there are broad legal aspects about who can invest in the UK and what we can invest in overseas.
“So there’s always a legal element to this in terms of international acquisitions and trade anyway, which is important and does already exist and we need to follow that.
“But then on top of that, when it comes to sports, the governing bodies and institutions and within the regulatory framework within have their own tests which I expect to be applied and applied rigorously.”
Other top-flight clubs are reported to have criticised the handling of the Newcastle deal by the Premier League and its chair, Gary Hoffman. He announced on Wednesday that he would stand down at the end of January.
Huddleston said any legislation required as a result of Crouch’s recommendations would be brought forward “as quickly as possible” and added: “I would say the football ecosystem is not fit for purpose at the moment as currently constructed.”
Crouch is also expected to make recommendations on how money flows between the Premier League and the rest of the pyramid.
The EFL has called for the scrapping of parachute payments to relegated clubs, which it claims distort competition in the Championship.
The Premier League announced additional funding for clubs in Leagues One and Two on Thursday, and to the 66 clubs in the three National League divisions.
Clubs in the third and fourth tier will receive an additional, combined £20million, half paid this month and half paid in March 2022 while the National League clubs will share in an extra £5m over the next four seasons.
The Premier League said the funding was part of an additional £100m it had committed to provide as part of the Government granting an exclusion order allowing the league to roll over its existing domestic broadcast deal.
In November last year the Premier League agreed a Covid relief package with the EFL worth £250m. The deal made £50m available to League One and Two clubs in the form of grants and monitored grants, and opened up a £200m interest-free loan facility for Championship clubs.