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Football Attendances: VAR — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:26 pm on 17th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

Order. As I just said to Mr Perkins, given the number of people here, you will all have longer than it takes for the video assistant referee to make a decision.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield 2:30 pm, 17th March 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered VAR and its effect on football attendances.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, particularly as it is so difficult to get the opportunity to speak to a Sheffield Wednesday supporter about football at the moment.

I confess that it feels somewhat incongruous, as the country’s attention is focused on the coronavirus crisis and football has come to a stop, for Parliament to debate a non-life threatening matter such as video assistant referees and their impact on football attendances. I have been attempting for several weeks to secure a debate on this subject in the fortnightly ballot; it is somewhat unfortunate that the debate was finally drawn in this of all weeks.

The coronavirus crisis is both a medical and economic crisis, and the financial health of our national game is an issue that should matter to us. Football—particularly the Premier League—is one of the nation’s key economic and cultural exports, and anything that affects the Premier League’s popularity and esteem matters. Although we all accept that there are more pressing matters, there will be a day when coronavirus is in the past and we will turn again to the normality that makes life rich, varied and enjoyable. I hope that those watching at home will accept that debate is being held in that spirit and that taking an hour or less to discuss the impact that VAR has had on football will not in any way diminish the Government’s preparedness to tackle the coronavirus crisis and to take the necessary steps to support businesses and people through it.

There seems to be almost universal agreement that the way that VAR is currently used in the English Premier League is bad for football. Opinion is less uniform on whether it is a good idea done badly or just a bad idea. During my speech, I intend to make the case for the abolition of VAR, while also looking at some of the steps that could be taken to improve it if the EPL, clubs and the wider game insist that it is here to stay and can only be reformed rather than abolished.

To explain why I believe that VAR should be abolished completely, I must start by explaining what I see as football’s enduring appeal. There is a reason why football is the most successful, the richest and the most widely watched and played sport in the history of our planet. Football’s appeal is in both its simplicity and its accessibility. Wherever someone may be in the world, if they have something round and two rocks for goalposts, they have a game. Until very recently, no matter the level, football’s core rules were the same. Whether in the local park, where more people play than watch, or at Celtic Park in front of 60,000 people, football was football.

Alongside that simplicity, football’s unique selling point is the rarity of the goal. A goal can be a thing of beauty—a thrilling movement that builds to a crescendo with a thrilling release—or it can be workmanlike and brutal, with the ball forced over the line. It can be fortunate, freakish or amazingly simple and, sometimes, it can even be comical and farcical. The goal can be controversial, a moment to delight and bring a nation together in a shared explosion of joy; or it can be tragic, as an entire ground and nation clasps their heads in their hands in perfect unison. No other moment in any other sport is so special as the moment in football when a goal is scored. However that goal is scored, it is rare and important, and because of its rarity and importance, it matters and it is celebrated.

That moment, which is the fundamental ethos of what it means to love football, is the moment that VAR interferes with. We are robbed of that moment of simple joy or despair by a faceless man sitting in an industrial estate in south-west London, miles away from those who really care. All the fans can do is wait for his dreadful, often imperfect, verdict. The wild, breathless celebrations are halted by the dreadful, purple appearance on the big screen of the words “checking goal”. Sometimes celebrations that have been under way for 30 seconds or more are placed on pause as two sets of fans stop and stare at a screen that offers them nothing but the fact that uncertainty now reigns.

In a sport that thrives on being played without delay, that uncertainty can last for three minutes or more. The chant about VAR is so commonplace that there is not a single premiership fan who could not instantly sing it. If VAR offered flawless decision making I would still say that it was not worth it, but it does not even do that. When VAR was introduced we were promised that it would overturn clear and obvious errors, but it has become a farce.

For a toenail offside, 30 seconds before a goal was scored—and after a three-minute delay—Sheffield United’s goal at Tottenham was ruled offside. Arsenal scored a goal at Old Trafford that was uncontested by the Manchester United defenders because the linesman’s flag had gone up several seconds before the goal was scored. West Ham fans celebrated their last-minute equaliser at Bramall Lane for a full 45 seconds before there was even a suggestion that it might be called into question. I must confess that that last-minute disallowed goal brought me momentary pleasure, but even as we celebrated the goal being disallowed a part of me mourned what we had all lost.

I have explained why I do not want VAR in football, but even if it must be tolerated, so much is wrong with how it is being delivered. First, the technology is applied to offside decisions on the basis of where one player’s most prominent limb is in relation to another player at the specific moment when the film is frozen. A millisecond either side of that, however, and the player might have been onside. The technology is imperfect in terms of the exact moment when the ball was kicked. VAR is overruling goals on hairline decisions with a technology that is not good enough to deliver the level of precision that it pretends to offer. A camera that is not in line with the offside line is used to overrule a decision by a linesman who was, accepting that arbitrary lines drawn on a screen provide an accurate description of who was furthest forward by a millimetre.

I guarantee that if VAR, this dreadful stain on the beautiful game, continues long into the future, fans will look back in 20 years and laugh at the technology on which we currently rely to determine whether someone was offside. VAR has exposed the gap between our expectation of players’ performances and those of referees. When a striker skies a shot over the bar or a goalkeeper lets the ball slip from his grasp, fans on his side are willing to view that error in the context of the overall performance, but no such allowance is ever given to the referee. That thirst for perfection in decision making—a product of the pundit era and the enormous investment in technology by Sky Sports and others, designed to improve our enjoyment of the game—has driven us to the soulless VAR experiment.

For years, the coverage of every match, and of every post-match managerial interview, has included a section on the decisions that the referee made or the manager’s view of whether the referee was any good. It turns out that managers whose teams lost usually thought that he was not. We all became used to that as part of the background music to every match. Now the focus has shifted from whether the referee was right to whether VAR was right. Every week, the football headlines are not about the performances of the players but about the decisions made and the technology.

In attempting to justify the success of VAR, the English Premier League’s note to me in advance of the debate informed me that a decision was overturned in only one in every three matches, as though that should show me how little it was intervening. Far from it. If VAR is correcting so few decisions, what problem are we trying to solve? It has ruined a lot more goal celebrations for me than that, and not just those that are overturned. Even the celebrations that ultimately are not in vain are not the same because fans wonder whether what happened was something that would be called into question. The spontaneity that is so crucial and endemic to football is lost as a result of VAR.

VAR is also changing the way that football is played, refereed and watched. It is changing the decision making to the detriment of the fairness of the sporting contest. Linesmen are instructed not to flag for offside unless they are absolutely sure, even if they believe it is offside. A linesman in an EFL Championship game who would flag for offside, because he thinks it is, will in the Premier League allow the game to carry on because it was close, giving an unfair advantage to the attacking side. This can lead to a load of football that is a waste of time, because ultimately a goal is disallowed or to an offside player winning a corner or a free kick that then leads to a goal that should never have happened, because the linesman thinks that he was probably offside anyway but did not give it, because he was correctly following the edict not to flag for a marginal offside. When I think about the difference between the fan experience in the Premier League and the Championship, I almost envy you, Mr Betts—but perhaps I would not go that far.

If VAR is to continue, changes are needed both to the rules of the game and VAR’s operation if it is going to be anything other than a drag on the appeal of a hugely successful product. Most crucially, the offside law needs reviewing. New referees and linesmen were always taught that if a player is level, they are onside, as the rules state. In real time, that made sense, but in the VAR era, there is no such thing as level. It now means that if, at the moment that the screen is frozen, one player’s toe is a millimetre beyond another player’s shoulder, the goal is disallowed. That is not what the offside rule was designed to outlaw and it needs rewriting, because it is spoiling the sport’s simplicity, which is so important. We need to return to the original principle that if the majority of two players’ bodies are basically level, the striker is considered to be onside.

Secondly, fans must be involved in the process, as other sports manage, with the pictures that are being viewed by the referee also available for fans in the stadium. Thirdly, the referee is the referee and he should view the original pictures. If he is certain that he has made a clear and obvious error, only at that moment should the decision be altered. Finally, a clear and obvious error should mean precisely that. If it takes someone three minutes to work out whether something was an error, it was not clear and obvious. In cricket, there is “umpire’s call”, which means that a degree of latitude is given, meaning that they stay with the original decision to allow for the uncertainty in the technology and the decision that is made. That should be adopted in football so that fewer hairline decisions are overturned and fans can once again celebrate a goal, knowing that unless there is a clear and obvious error, there will be no change to the decision.

I am pleased to have brought this important matter to Parliament. The title of the debate refers to the effect that VAR has on football attendances. That was partly because the Table Office considered football attendances to be a matter that the House was allowed an opinion on, while the rules of football were not, and partly because the evidence is that VAR is reducing football fans’ enjoyment. A YouGov poll showed that 67% of fans who watch football felt that VAR had made watching football a “less enjoyable” experience. Can anyone imagine any other industry introducing, at great expense, an innovation that its paying customers said made its product worse, and then, instead of scrapping it, reacting by doubling down on it and claiming that it was progress that we all had to get to enjoy?

I do not like the principle of VAR. I hate the implementation of it. It professes a precision that it does not deliver. It makes the game our children watch a different sport from the one they play. It changes the way that football’s rules are refereed and it makes obsolete or unworkable rules that made sense with on-field referees in the pre-VAR era. The beautiful game is diminished by VAR, and I say “Scrap it.”

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:44 pm, 17th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I know that you take a close interest in football as well.

I commend Mr Perkins for securing the debate. I had expected that the SNP spokesperson would be summing up many contributions, but understandably many hon. Members are focused elsewhere today. It feels as if we could be said to be fiddling while Rome burns, but as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, the debate was applied for several weeks ago, and it is not too much of an inconvenience to spend an hour or so focused on an issue that is on the minds of many football fans. Later in my remarks I will refer to the situation with covid-19 and its impact on our football clubs, which is a bigger, existential threat.

I declare an interest, as I am a proud season ticket holder of the pride of Lanarkshire, the Airdrieonians football club, which is the best wee football team in the land. Although I spend the majority of my Saturdays at football, I have never seen VAR in action, partly because we do not have it in Scotland, certainly not at league 1 level. However, I have seen it on TV a lot. This is the only time, certainly in public, that I will confess to being a small “c” conservative. It might not surprise too many people, but on the issue of football, I am absolutely a small “c” conservative and a traditionalist. I believe that football should be played at 3 o’clock on Saturday. It is a nonsense that teams are playing just about every night of the week. For example, a situation where Newcastle is playing Portsmouth on a Thursday night is not helpful for fans trying to get to games. VAR is just another step down the road of pandering to the commercialisation of football, and particularly TV.

As a football fan, I tend to take a view that over the course of a season some decisions will go for a team and some will go against it. Sometimes a stonewall penalty will be denied, but a soft one will be allowed. In my view, it tends to level out over the course of a season. The cost of VAR for clubs, especially in Scotland, is an issue. The technology is obviously hugely expensive. There are situations in the English premiership where the likes of clubs such as Manchester United do not have the screens to show VAR. That plays into the idea that fans are being excluded from the VAR process, and that they are having to watch the referee making shapes in the sky. It is a nonsense and not helpful for fans. It makes them feel excluded.

There is a separate issue with the amount of time being taken to consult VAR. It interrupts the flow of the match. In the English premiership there are now regularly situations where there are five or six minutes of stoppage time for the first half of a game, which is absolutely ridiculous. Some countries other than Scotland tend to have more stoppage time, but I will not necessarily name them. After the second half there might be three or four minutes added, to take into account substitutions, but the idea that there would be five or six minutes of stoppage time in a first half is a nonsense.

In the opening part of the season, Liverpool beat Norwich 4-1, but there were nine VAR checks in that game. That is huge amount of time for fans to sit and try to work out what on earth is going on. It has been suggested that it could be around 10 years before fans finally get their heads around VAR. Perhaps it is for that reason that so many football fans are chanting, “It’s not football anymore,” in the stands.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield made a point about the post-match discussions. More often than not, we have a discussion in the pub or going home in the car about the whether the referee got it right or wrong. With VAR, we need to remember that there is still a human element involved; the decision still has to be made by a human, but now not necessarily the referee in the park but someone in a centre elsewhere, in London, I think.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution)

I was not planning to intervene, but my hon. Friend is doing an impersonation of a footballing Luddite. Does he agree that these decisions can cost millions of pounds and a club’s future can be mapped out on such decisions? It is not that VAR is wrong in and of itself, but its implementation should be improved, rather than chucking the whole deal or experiment out, as he is suggesting.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I believe he is a global Celt in my constituency.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

He and I are very good friends but, unusually, on this point I disagree with him. I tend to take the position of the hon. Member for Chesterfield of being quite keen to see the back of VAR altogether, but I appreciate that my hon. Friend takes a slightly different view.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. I have always been a big fan of video refereeing coming into football, but VAR is doing its level best to dissuade me of that support. I played rugby and am a big follower of American football. Lots of sports have used video evidence and it has worked. In the likes of cricket, the process is followed in live time. The issue is the transparency of the process, and the fact that fans are not involved. Does he agree that if changes were made to VAR, and if it followed other sports, it could be a success?

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who reminds us of his time playing rugby. He is far too modest to tell the House that he was actually a very good rugby player but had to retire due to injury. He does not talk about that very often. I once again find myself in a situation in which I must say that, on this issue, I speak personally—there is probably no SNP policy on VAR, but I need to be slightly careful not to over-egg the pudding.

I want to come on to the interpretation of the handball rule.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

As the SNP spokesperson for sport at Westminster, I believe I have just set the policy, and that my hon. Friend is in fact going against party policy.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am glad that my hon. Friend put that on the record. That point is well made.

Coming back to the interpretation of the handball rule, the rules around handball have been reviewed and changed in recent years, which in many respects accounts for some of the stranglehold on the game. A few weeks ago, alongside my hon. Friends here and my hon. Friend Drew Hendry, I watched the Hearts-Hibs game. There was a whole bit of commentary towards the end of the game that focused on whether Hearts had handled the ball. What actually happened was that a player was going down for a slide tackle to try to get the ball and put his hand down behind him to try to break his fall, and the ball came off his arm. Clearly, that was not a deliberate handball, but depending on their interpretation of the rules, some might say it was, so we need to review the handball rules. I appreciate that that decision is not necessarily within the gift of the Minister, although one day he might be that powerful; he can certainly aspire to that.

I also want to see a review of the offside rule. I agree with the hon. Member for Chesterfield that this microscopic analysis is absolutely killing the game. We now see situations where a referee might decide that something was a goal, but the VAR decides, after two minutes of consultation and with 10, 11 or 12 different camera angles, that somebody’s toenail—that was the hon. Gentleman’s example—might have been offside, which is clearly nonsense. I guess it comes back to his point that we call football the beautiful game for a reason. We do not call it the forensic game or the legalistic game, which it is increasingly becoming.

Before I conclude, I will address what is actually the biggest threat facing our game, which is obviously coronavirus. Most professional clubs—certainly my own—do not have a lucrative sponsorship deal or big TV deal. Indeed, many are not sitting on big reserves. In the case of Airdrieonians, something like 45% to 50% of its revenue comes from gate receipts. It is probably a bit of a nonsense to expect the football season to resume in April—I think most of us probably appreciate that no football will be played this side of the summer, although a decision will be taken about that later in the week—so the Government should definitely give more clarity about what will actually happen, in terms of sport being played and the safety around that.

There is also a question of what should happen to the football season. Will it be declared null and void? Are we in a situation where we just say that whoever is top of a particular league should be designated as champions?

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I see that my hon. Friend approves. However, my club is five points off the top of the league with eight games to go. I certainly take the view that we should restart when it is safe to do so in the summer, and perhaps have a truncated season, although I appreciate the difficulties owing to players who might be out of contract in May. However, I fear that I might be diverging slightly from the topic of debate.

The overarching point that I want to leave with the Minister and all of Government is the idea that these are challenging times for football clubs. Most of us in this Chamber appreciate that football clubs are not just a business. For so many of us football is a part of our culture, our community and our history, and it must be supported during these immensely difficult times.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 2:55 pm, 17th March 2020

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Perkins for securing this debate, which comes at a time of crisis for our country. Coronavirus has closed clubs up and down the country and loads of pressing matters are on Members’ minds today. Earlier we learnt that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, is self-isolating with his family, so we send him our regards and hope that he gets well soon and is okay. Also, we send our thoughts to all the fans and players around the country who love the game. For them it is absolutely unbelievable that they have to go for weeks on end without watching their players or playing the game themselves, so we also think about them.

There is something incredibly British—

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

And something incredibly Scottish about our discussing VAR and football at a time of crisis. We have heard lyrical, passionate and poetic descriptions of the game. I agree with what David Linden said about the smaller clubs. As we go forward with the closures, we really have to think about the small community clubs such as we saw in Bury a few months ago. We must try to put in place opportunities to protect them from closure because they are the very heart of our communities. They provide jobs and for the businesses that support those clubs it is really important that we make sure they survive this terrible crisis.

We are undoubtedly a nation of football lovers. Both recent World cups captured the public’s imagination, and the national teams of our home nations enjoyed fantastic support. There is a collective belief in the game. We want it to absolutely thrive. During the men’s World cup in 2018, most of the British football-supporting public experienced the video assistant referee for the first time. During the World cup, what became known as VAR was generally received as an exciting addition that made the game fairer, but managed to avoid becoming a hindrance. However, the same cannot be said when it was introduced into the premier league a year later at the beginning of the season.

It is easy to forget that, ahead of VAR’s introduction into our beautiful game, many were welcoming, some with a little trepidation, because it might have been the chance to make football fair. Far too often the back pages were dominated by a goal that might just have been or a goal that was or should not have been, or an unjust sending off or a dive outrageously missed by the poor mortal referees. VAR was an opportunity to allow football to thrive and to make the story about the sport and the drama, and not the controversy. Regrettably, such optimism quickly diminished.

This season, as we have heard from hon. Members, VAR has quickly established itself as the scourge of fans, commentators and pundits. Football is a game that happens in the moment. It is not comparable to tennis, cricket, snooker, or, to a lesser extent, rugby, where there are natural pauses or breaks in the game: an appropriate moment where there can be a quick look or a double check. Iconic moments in football when the ball ripples the back of the net and terraces erupt have too often been lost this season and replaced with anxious faces, as we have heard, watching the screen to see if the goal has gone to be checked. It causes undue agony for fans. The question is whether losing such moments of joy and jubilation are worth it in the pursuit of absolute decision-making accuracy. As things stand, VAR is losing that argument.

Too often fans in the stadium or at home, or even the players on the pitch, do not understand what is being checked. “Squint and you’ll see it” offsides are one thing, but the goals that get ruled out for a foul that happened much earlier in the play are another. However, easy as it would be, we must not get carried away with criticisms. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield and others have called for VAR to be scrapped, it is quite possible that it is here to stay. This is the maiden season of a radical, bold change. It was overly optimistic to expect such a seismic shift in a game that ignites so much passion to be received as easily as a duck takes to water.

However, to understand and appreciate that is not to say that changes do not need to be made. If VAR is to remain, the in-stadium experience must change. Fans who are used to living in the moment enjoying a game blow by blow can no longer be expected to watch and wait for minutes on end—long minutes—for those purple screens to make a game-changing decision. The scope of VAR referrals must be made completely clear. Checks should be completed in a certain timeframe, and fan communication must improve. Certainly what I enjoy about rugby is that it is possible to hear what is going on, which keeps people connected to the game and engaged in the decisions. Out of all Britain’s leagues, VAR is currently used only in the premier league—not in the championship or other leagues below. Next season there will be 17 clubs that have experienced playing under VAR and three that do not have that experience. That could be a disadvantage, considering that we already know how difficult a maiden season in the premier league can be. We in West Yorkshire hope to see Leeds United back in the premier season soon. Hopefully Huddersfield Town will join the elite soon, too.

I shall be watching with concern to see whether acclimatising to VAR will hamper the newly promoted clubs. It is only fair to say that I have had representations on this from the premier league, as I am sure others have, ahead of the debate. It helpfully points out that VAR is only 29 games into its first ever season. Stadium attendance since its introduction is tracking at a record high of 97.5%, although it is questionable whether that is about VAR or just the brilliance of the football. The league is working with the clubs on guidance with respect to stadium information for fans. I take all that on board; but the premier league is the crème de la crème of football. Children from places that we in this Chamber have never heard of go to bed dreaming of one day playing in it. Such is its success that it is beamed all over the world, and its superstars are truly global. Therefore, while I am willing to take on board the premier league’s opinions, fans are right to expect a better, more successful introduction.

In conclusion, VAR must learn to work better. It is vital for fans, future fans and the future of the game. The Labour party and, I am sure, every Member present, and Members across the House, look forward very much to premier league football, and the rest of football, getting back to their brilliant best as soon as it is safe for them to do so.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 3:03 pm, 17th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am grateful to Mr Perkins for securing today’s debate and for the contribution he has made today, and for those of other Members, including the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden), for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and of course the shadow Secretary of State, Tracy Brabin.

I very much appreciated, as I am sure everyone did, the professional tone in which the hon. Member for Chesterfield introduced the debate, given the circumstances. We obviously take the coronavirus situation extremely seriously, but football fans around the world also need to look to the future, as he said. We need something to look forward to, as well, and the hon. Gentleman explained that he has been trying for the debate for a considerable time. I recognise that these are slightly unfortunate circumstances, but he explained very well.

Football clubs are the heart of local communities. They have unique social value and many enjoy a rich history. Our football competitions are the best in the world and some of our greatest assets. The top tier of domestic competition, the premier league, is one of our most important soft power assets. It is the most watched and supported football league in the world, with matches broadcast to more than 1.3 billion homes in 192 countries. Part of what makes it the most attractive league in the world is the stellar quality of its competition, and we want that to continue. However, I must be clear: it is down to the premier league and its clubs to decide the rules of their competition—not the Government and, I am afraid, not even the Sports Minister. I may have a view, but I am afraid I have no such control. This year, the premier league decided to introduce the video assistant referee, commonly known as VAR.

Since the first introduction of VAR to English football, in the FA cup third-round tie between Brighton and Crystal Palace back in 2018, it has been much debated in pubs, football clubs and homes across the country. I am sure that that debate will continue. The premier league continues to deliver a fantastic experience, and the introduction of VAR does not seem to have hampered attendance, which is tracking at a record 97.5%, as the Leader of the Opposition—[Interruption.] Maybe one day! As the shadow Secretary of State, Tracy Brabin, said. That is great capacity for this season, and builds on seven consecutive previous seasons in which utilisation has been above 95%. VAR does not appear to be reducing fans’ appetite to turn up to support their team. That healthy picture is reflected in all professional leagues: attendance at the English football league has reached its highest levels in 60 years.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield

We should be a little careful about those statistics. The vast majority of fans at premier league games are watching via season tickets. It is a hard habit to break, and no one is suggesting that they will leave in their droves, but if 67% of those watching are saying, “This is making my experience worse,” simply saying, “Well, they’re still turning up,” is not good enough.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the level of enjoyment in the games, but the key thing is attendance and people watching. That is a metric we need to pay careful attention to. The passionate way in which he articulated the emotional impact of scoring a goal and the potential disappointment with the delays on the VAR, I understand, but we can all remember times when we passionately disagreed with a terrible decision. We should not forget such circumstances.

More than 18 million people made their way to league fixtures during the 2018-19 season, the highest figure since 1959. Cumulative attendances across the championship, league one and league two broke the 18 million barrier for a third consecutive year, with the average gate across all three divisions eclipsing 11,000.

The EFL Away Fan Experience Project, which was launched for the 2016-17 season, is a prime example of the work of the football authorities to improve fans’ experience at matches. The EFL is not only focused on those fans attending the game, though. Its new iFollow service offers fans the chance to watch selected live games and to enjoy audio commentary from matches across the EFL, meaning that games remain accessible to those who may have moved away from the area or cannot make it to matches with their physical presence.

It is great to see that the game is going from strength to strength in this country. The football authorities are engaging with fans to improve their matchday experience and the record-breaking attendance implies that that is working. They continue to do a great job running their respective competitions, and it is right that any decisions over their rules, including the future use of VAR, should rest with them as custodians of the game. Again, I am not convinced that fans want the Sports Minister to decide on such things, or on the offside or the handball rule.

Attendance at top-tier football games is important, but it is also vital for games at a local level. Frequently, grassroots games are being called off owing to a lack of available or adequate facilities. The Government have therefore committed to investing £550 million in grassroots football facilities in support of our bid for the men’s 2030 World cup. That will help to improve facilities all across the country, meaning that by 2030 every adult and child, in every community across England, will be no more than 15 minutes away from a quality pitch.

That investment will build on the great work already done by the Football Foundation, a charity jointly funded by the Government, the Football Association and the premier league. Since its inception in 2000, the Football Foundation has delivered £495 million towards developing and creating new facilities.

The premier league is doing great work with children across the country through its Kicks programme. Kicks offers young people, often those most at risk of getting involved in antisocial behaviour, regular and constructive activities delivered by respected club staff.

Football forms a significant part of many of our lives, and the game is giving back to communities right across the country. I am grateful for today’s wide-ranging discussion about the beautiful game. Football is an important part of this country’s history, and the Government are committed to investing in the grassroots game to ensure it can continue to be enjoyed by all.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

I call Toby Perkins to wind up. I will just say that as Chair I have to remain neutral, and I think I have been more than restrained in not rising to the bait of his comments about football rivalries in Sheffield. We will leave it there, and I will see him afterwards.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Labour, Chesterfield 3:10 pm, 17th March 2020

I am somewhat nervous now, Mr Betts!

I thank those Members who have contributed. I appreciate that, as everyone has said, there are other matters that concern us, but the case that I have made over the course of my speech remains my view. I also welcome the comments that other people have made about the ways in which VAR can be improved; I accept the likelihood that there will be reform to VAR and, hopefully, improved engagement with fans and spectators rather than abolition, which is what I would prefer.

On the subject of attendance, the demands of the public are not to be ignored. As someone who has attended football matches for 40 years or more, the popularity of football is not what it has always been. There have been times when it was a very different experience, and we should not take for granted the successes we have had. It is incumbent on those who are in charge of the game to understand what they have and why their product is so successful, and to preserve and safeguard it. When the people who put in the money to make that product so successful urge them to change direction, they should take that seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered VAR and its effect on football attendances.

Sitting suspended.