The Evening Standard

Kate Hoey loves her football. A founder member of the London Northern Ireland supporters’ club, the 63-year-old Labour MP for Vauxhall has spent a lifetime working in and around the national game.

She was employed as an educational advisor by Arsenal for four years before entering Parliament in 1985 and has also worked at Chelsea, Tottenham, Queens Park Rangers and Brentford.

And yet football has inflicted the most grievous wounds on Hoey during her political career. In 1995, after Arsenal boss George Graham was found to have taken a £425,000 bung from agent Rune Hauge following the acquisition of John Jensen and Pal Lydersen, Hoey incurred the wrath of the game by initiating a debate in the House of Commons.

“I introduced a 10-minute rule bill to set up an independent football compliance authority,” she tells me. “Football laughed it out of court. Now bungs are back in the news and many people are articulating my views.”

In her brief, but remarkable two-year tenure as sports minister, football was always an issue.

The day she was appointed in 1999 the Football Association announced Manchester United would be allowed to withdraw from the FA Cup to play in the FIFA World Club Championship — a strategy designed to help England win the right to stage the 2006 World Cup.

She adds: “I was told by Alistair Campbell [Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy] not to say anything about it. Then I was told by Anji Hunter [director of government relations] that I must say something.

“Two people in Downing Street saying two different things. So I told BBC Radio 5Live it was a pity Manchester United have been allowed to opt out of the oldest cup competition.

“The Mirror newspaper made me a heroine but The Sun said I should be sacked. Downing Street was in awe of football. People like Alistair were obsessed by it. Football could do no wrong. Officials would get access to the Prime Minister easily. My protests that special favours should not be given to football were not liked. I was seen as part of the awkward squad.

“They did not see sport as other than a great opportunity for a photo call, Tony heading the ball in a training session at Newcastle United. No real understanding of the importance of sport, the role that sport can play in saving money in health, cutting crime.”

Now football is causing another headache as Hoey wrestles with her role as sports commissioner charged with delivering London’s grass-roots 2012 legacy for Mayor Boris Johnson.

The head of the Government’s legacy company, Baroness Margaret Ford, is talking to West Ham about taking over the tenancy of the Olympic Stadium and Hoey, who has no control over what happens to the arena, has some advice.

“I will be opposed to the stadium just being handed over to a football club,” she insists. “I’m very happy for West Ham, or even better for Leyton Orient to be there. But I would like to have local community use of the stadium. Football stadiums are busier on non-match days in Europe. During the day nothing happens at Wembley. I’m aware somebody has to keep their eye on football or the public purse will get literally screwed.”

Hoey accepts the concept of legacy was brilliantly articulated by Lord Coe in Singapore, when London beat Paris, but her doubts centre on the failure properly to define the term.

“I think there has been a government failure on legacy,” she says. “They have not said what they mean. Some people within government have taken their eye of the ball because they are concentrating on the Olympic Park and have forgotten the promises made in Singapore.”

Hoey then reveals that Coe now wishes he had never made such a big issue about what followed the Games.

“Two years ago I spoke to Seb about legacy. He said, Kate, I wish I had never used the word legacy’.”

Hoey’s doubts about that issue were confirmed in December when the Office for Government Commerce presented ministers with a secret report. The contents, which have since been revealed by me in the Standard, warned ministers there is “a natural level of concern and perception that little is being done and that the legacy is at risk”.

The only legacy document singled out for praise by the officials was the one prepared by Hoey’s team called A Sporting Future for London. This document, backed by £30million investment is, says Hoey, meant to bring coherence to the fragmented landscape of the capital’s sport.

“London has too many organisations, too many agendas,” she says. “Every one of London’s 33 boroughs does different things. For the first time, we are trying to get joined-up sports organisations. By the end of 2012 we shall see a step change, more accessible facilities, a lot more people involved in coaching and facilitating others to get involved.

“The Olympics may be going on in east London but what about kids living on a Dollis Hill estate or Mrs Bloggs and her family in Kingston? We are trying to make a difference to them all.”

But will the Olympic Park be used 90 per cent of the time for the community after 2012 as Johnson has said? Hoey accepts that is a wish, not a promise.

“I cannot guarantee that London’s Olympic Park will not become like Athens [mothballed and hardly used]. The Park is not my responsibility.”

What she can influence is how much money is spent on the 2012 Olympics in what are financially tough times.

During our hour-long working lunch in her House of Commons office there is only half a ham sandwich on the table to eat. It is an appropriately frugal meal in keeping with the Olympic message from Johnson’s office.

“Boris has made it very clear that we do not want an extravagant Games. Yes, extravagant sporting venues, the best training facilities for the athletes and the best Olympic Village, but the special privileges of a huge number of officials should be limited.”

As sports minister Hoey was part of the “Olympic family” during the 2000 Sydney Games and the memory of the extravagance she herself enjoyed still appals her.

“I am against the way I was treated in Sydney. We went everywhere in chauffeur-driven cars. We are talking of a large number of people who come to the Olympics: sport ministers from all the countries, many heads of state and prime ministers. Then you have members of the national Olympic committees and of the international sports federations.”

If pushed she would allow “chauffer-driven cars” but not Olympic lanes. She adds: “Olympic lanes would disrupt the average Londoner’s movement and will not be welcome. Officials could take taxis to Kings Cross and then public transport to Stratford.”

On this matter Hoey is in direct conflict with Craig Reedie, the British member on the IOC executive board, who believes the lanes are a must.

He said Londoners must be prepared to put up with a bit of disruption for the smooth running of the Games but Hoey says: “The IOC act as if they are a mini government, a Vatican of sport. The IOC now has status at the United Nations. Why? The time has come for a host city like ours to challenge them.

“This should be about athletes and Olympic ideals. We should not behave as if we were a branch office following orders from the IOC’s Lausanne head office. We’ve got the Olympics, everything is running well ahead of schedule, there is no way the IOC can take the Olympics away from London.”

Another area on which Hoey wants London to stand up to the IOC is the opening ceremony.

“No Londoner wants huge money spent. Other countries may use the opening ceremony to tell their nation’s story but everyone knows our history. An opening ceremony that lasts five hours, all that razzmatazz and millions of pounds spent on fireworks, that is really, really silly.”

Hoey was sceptical about London bidding for the Games but is now anxious they make a difference to the city she loves. She says: “The genuine concern I have is: will there be genuine legacy?

“No Olympic city has ever delivered a sustained legacy. We could end up in London with fewer swimming pools for example after the Olympics than before. That will be a disaster. That could happen because local authorities are so badly funded and cannot maintain these facilities.”

While she has hopes the Games can make a long-term difference to London, Hoey has doubts about other parts of Britain.

“The rest of the country was also promised legacy and I have no idea what is happening,” she says. “The Government has not translated what was said in Singapore in a tangible way right around the country. Unless things change I fear a backlash.”


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