Football Spectator Attendance: Covid-19 — [Graham Stringer in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 9th November 2020.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 4:30 pm, 9th November 2020

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them and respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe and may speak only if they are on the call lists. This applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups. Members in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move on to the horseshoe when seats become available.

I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that Members stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken. This is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that doing so may prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving to seats on the horseshoe. This room has capacity for 20 people. I ask Members to bear that in mind.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 4:32 pm, 9th November 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 552036, relating to spectator attendance at football matches during Covid-19.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. This debate comes at a time when England is just days into a second national lockdown and as the country continues to grapple with a significant public health crisis. Painful and frustrating as these measures are, there is broad understanding from the public that the restrictions are in place to help save lives and protect our national health service from the unprecedented pressures of the coronavirus pandemic.

I want to be clear right from the beginning that the petitioner Ashley Greenwood, the English Football League and all fans and clubs I have spoken with believe that we should not reopen football stadiums any time before 2 December 2020. I thank Ashley Greenwood for starting this petition, which has gathered nearly 200,000 signatories across our nation. When I checked over the weekend, Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, which I am proud to serve, had the fourth-highest number of signatories to Ashley’s petition of any constituency across the United Kingdom. Although I question Ashley’s team of choice—his beloved Sheffield United—I cannot fault his passion and desire to see fans back in stadiums.

When I spoke to Ashley before this debate, what I loved most was how Ashley reminded me was that football is more than just a game of tribal loyalty. It is a game that allows family members to bond, new friendships to be created and local cafes and pubs to thrive on a buzzing match day. Ashley reminded me that the 2012 Olympics was about creating a legacy for participation in sport, which up until now has been booming. However, as time passes, the future of our game is at real risk.

It is no exaggeration to say that the English game teeters on the brink of catastrophe. Away from the glitz and glamour of the premier league, cushioned by billions of pounds of TV revenue, the stark reality is that many EFL clubs find themselves in a financially unsustainable position. Away from the much-publicised world of multimillion-pound player transfers, the most eye-watering of which would fund most of the clubs in league two for the entire year, the outlook is bleak. The survival of many EFL clubs depends on the oxygen of match day revenue. The very least we could do is give them a fighting chance by allowing spectators, albeit a reduced number of them, back inside football stadiums. For Port Vale football club, that would mean 4,000 fans in a stadium that can accommodate 20,000. This is eminently achievable in a safe manner.

As a result of keeping fans away from stadiums, EFL clubs will require £400 million of funding from their owners to keep them afloat this season, because the pandemic and associated restrictions have decimated their revenue streams. Very soon, some clubs in the EFL will be unable to pay their bills. They will be unable to pay the wages of their players and of their staff. When this happens—and it surely will without significant intervention—the integrity of the EFL will be compromised, and with it the future of our national game.

I am delighted that the Chancellor’s furlough scheme has been extended until March next year. However, this is of limited use to football clubs in the championship and leagues one and two, which need to have most of their staff working to ensure that these businesses can function safely and to enable professional football matches to take place. These are clubs that, since March, when professional football was first suspended, have operated on a shoestring. The absence of match day revenue—the lifeblood of clubs in leagues one and two of the EFL—is strangling businesses that have also been deprived of crucial hospitality revenue for nine months. Colleagues across the House with professional football clubs in their constituencies know only too well the value they bring to their communities. It is therefore a horrible injustice that clubs that have risen to challenges presented by the pandemic and rallied to the rescue of their communities are being treated so shabbily.

For example, the city I represent, Stoke-on-Trent, has two professional football clubs. Heritage brands employ more than 600 staff, who play a key role in the life of tens of thousands of local people. Port Vale and Stoke City are as important to families in the Potteries as local delicacies like oatcakes and lobby. Indeed, if anyone wishes to understand the value of football clubs to their communities, they need look no further than league two club Port Vale in my constituency of Stoke-and-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. With no match day revenue since March, unable to bring in any money from hospitality or events, the club’s owner and chair Carol Shanahan OBE oversaw its transformation into a genuine community hub. The concourse was converted into a warehouse. Club staff became volunteers and a massive team effort, in conjunction with local children’s charity the Hubb Foundation, saw Port Vale community hub deliver more than 170,000 meals to families in need across Stoke-on-Trent. That work, I am proud to say, continues to this day as the second lockdown bites.

The work of Port Vale community hub was the single most significant contribution of its kind to the families in my city, and it came from a football club that has been crippled by covid restrictions and has to date lost out on an estimated £1.5 million in revenue. I say to right hon. and hon. Members that that is the power of football in our communities that I know; colleagues from across the House will be able to tell similar stories about how clubs in their constituencies have played a blinder in helping local communities up and down the land.

I believe that the Government’s current position on the return of fans to professional football is muddled, inconsistent and inherently unfair. Despite the fact that football is one of the most heavily regulated areas of crowd management, with rigorous covid safety measures and a successful pilot programme under its belt, the sport is still, unfathomably, being treated differently from other industries.

The EFL, in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, has developed stringent ground safety protocols that reduce the number of supporters allowed inside stadiums, respect the rule of six and social distancing, and are fully compliant with NHS track and trace requirements. On top of that, the Edinburgh University study on the pilot schemes conducted at clubs such as Cambridge United showed that fans are willing to bend over backwards to be welcomed back into stadiums. Well over 80% of respondents said that they would hand sanitise regularly, socially distance and wear a face covering if required. Seriously, what more can fans and clubs do?

This unfairness is killing lower-league EFL clubs. Under the covid alert tier system, businesses and restaurants, theatres, cinemas and retailers are able to welcome customers into indoor venues for hours on end, yet professional football is prohibited from having a reduced number of fans in stadiums, socially distanced and wearing face coverings while sitting outside. That is, frankly, baffling to anyone who follows and understands the game, and is a source of huge anger and frustration to supporters who want to help their struggling clubs and are being prevented from doing so.

To date, the Government’s response to the crisis engulfing EFL clubs has been in marked contrast to their response to other industries that fall under the DCMS remit—the £1.5 billion funding package for the arts, for example. However, I do call on the Premier League to step up and do its bit. Its TV package is worth £3 billion, I believe, and it is the largest spender in this summer’s transfer window, paying out £1.26 billion. I implore it to dig deep in its pockets. I know that this is an unprecedented ask, but these are unprecedented times.

Businesses are being asked to stay closed, at the risk of never reopening. Our NHS and care heroes are going above and beyond to keep people safe and alive. Teachers and students are under pressure to catch up on months of lost face-to-face learning. People have been told to change the whole way they interact with one another, and the Government have spent over £200 billion so far to tackle the global health pandemic. I do not think it unfair to expect the Premier League to work with the EFL and come to a fair deal that will ensure that the heartbeats of our local communities live on.

Life in 2020 has been tough for so many people. We have heard about the awful impact on people’s mental health of sustained lockdowns combined with job and money worries and fewer and fewer options for leisure activities. Football is a release valve for so many people. They live for Saturday afternoons: the camaraderie on the terraces, a pie and a pint or a steaming hot Bovril, and the shared experiences of their religion with their family and friends. We simply have to bring that back, because not only would it make a huge difference to fans’ wellbeing, but it may also dictate whether some clubs make it through this most trying of years.

If the stated position of the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston, is that the whole fan journey—from home to venue—must be considered when discussing the return of fans to football stadiums, such fears can be alleviated because the 13,000 respondents to the Petition Committee’s survey and the University of Edinburgh study demonstrated that the overwhelming majority drive or walk to games, meaning that they can make their way in a covid-secure manner.

In summary, I place on the record my thanks to Rick Parry, chairman of the EFL, Carol Shanahan, co-owner and chair of Port Vale, Angela Smith from the Stoke City Supporters Council, Mark Porter from the Port Vale Supporters Club, and Port Vale’s safety officer John Rutherford, who has 30 years’ experience in game safety and is a former chair of the Football Safety Officers Association, for their time and contributions before today’s debate. The EFL and clubs across the country have done everything they can to prepare for the safe return of fans, and it is time for the Government to press play, not pause, on those plans when the lockdown ends. Up the Vale.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Before I bring in Seema Malhotra, I have been asked whether Members who are not on the call list can intervene, as was the practice before covid-19. The answer is no, you have to be on the call list to speak. I understand there is one Member waiting outside to come into the room. The spare seat at the front is for the Opposition spokesperson—she has indicated that she is coming, but she is in the main Chamber at the present time. I hope that clarifies things.

We have until 5.30 pm. I do not like imposing time limits, and I hope Members will do the divisions among themselves. If anybody goes over, I will impose a time limit, so I hope people will be disciplined. I call Seema Malhotra.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment) 4:42 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate Jonathan Gullis on securing the debate, and I am pleased to be able to say a few words.

Football spectator attendance is an issue that has meant a huge amount across the country, with almost 200,000 people having signed the petition to call for spectators to be able to attend matches. The debate shows how football is much more than just a sport; indeed, it brings people and communities together. My local team, and that of my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury, is Brentford football club, which has been right at the heart of supporting our west London community and young people throughout the pandemic.

I welcome the contribution of the English Football League and the constructive way in which it and others have engaged in the debate about football spectator attendance. It recognises that we all want fans to be able to return to stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so, and that the current situation is a result of the pandemic. In partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, the EFL has developed a stringent set of ground safety protocols that could result, initially, in around 25% to 35% of stadium capacity in use. Importantly, social distancing can be maintained and the protocols are fully compliant with NHS track and trace. Football is also one of the most heavily regulated areas of crowd management, which means that clubs have considerable experience of handling and dealing with crowds in all different circumstances.

There has been concern that the Government’s treatment of football and of other businesses has been inconsistent. Instead, football should be seen as a standard bearer for how businesses could continue to operate responsibly and in accordance with Government guidance. Football needs a clearer road map from the Government on how football fans will be able to return to grounds when and where it is safe to do so. An ability to plan now could result in fans returning more quickly, particularly in lower-tier alert areas, following the end of national restrictions.

I mentioned the contribution of clubs to our communities—a point also made by many of my Labour colleagues, including the shadow sports Minister, my hon. Friend Alison McGovern, who will attend the debate. During lockdown, Brentford FC Community Sports Trust delivered more than 1,000 activity packs to children and families, supported more than 100 young carers who were shielding, ran virtual youth clubs and provided mentoring support. I thank Jon Varney and others for their leadership during this time.

Most of all, what makes football special is the fans. Not only are they the life and soul of football, creating electric atmospheres on match day; they play a vital role in boosting teams and players, and sustaining clubs financially. The absence of fans over the past eight months has been crippling for many clubs and lower league teams. I know how disappointing it was for Brentford fans in my constituency of Feltham and Heston to be unable to see their team’s last ever games at the old stadium last season. I am particularly concerned about the challenging few months that Brentford FC faces, particularly when it has just invested in its new stadium, which now sits empty.

The financial pressure on local clubs is growing, and the Government urgently need to provide clubs and fans with some clarity and listen to their needs. In September, I raised that in the House and described how Brentford had been working closely with its local safety advisory group to develop appropriate safety protocols and social distancing measures to allow around 5,000 fans—about 20% of capacity—to attend.

Clubs have been working in innovative ways to bring fans safely back into football grounds. The English football league, the premier league, the women’s super league and the women’s championship have already staged 11 successful test events, showing that matches can be delivered safely. It is imperative, and the foremost priority, to protect public health, but as we look to the future the Government must also acknowledge that clubs require urgent clarity on plans to reopen stadiums. A big challenge facing them is the uncertainty and difficulty in planning without clear guidance and direction.

Although Brentford has persuaded 94% of season ticket holders to freeze their tickets for now—I thank the fans for doing so and for their support—we know that that is not sustainable and will put the club in a difficult position for next season without further Government guidance. We need a clear road map for fans to return, in line with other sectors, once the second national lockdown comes to an end. I ask the Minister to consider working closely with local safety advisory groups in doing so.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I think it would be sensible and help hon. Members if I impose a formal three-minute time limit from now. I call Julian Knight.

Photo of Julian Knight Julian Knight Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation, Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation 4:48 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis. I am most impressed that he managed to get Bovril into his speech. Recently I visited my local football club, Solihull Moors—I draw colleagues’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—to see its preparations for behind-closed-doors matches, testing and, I hope, the return of spectators at matches soon.

Spectator sports are the beating heart of our communities and football clubs, in the national league, the EFL or any other tier, and a fundamental part of our national fabric. So many teams depend on ticket revenues and now find themselves in dire straits. If football bodies do not come together soon for the good of the game, there is a risk that 10, 12 or even 15 EFL clubs go bust. What is more, 10 EFL clubs are at risk of not making their November payroll. By comparison, just 17% of Chelsea’s revenue comes from ticket sales and, as we know, the Premier League has a £9 billion TV deal at the top of the game.

Nobody wants to see that happen, but I fear that we are not exploring all the options available to us that could not only allow spectators to return to football matches, but see other revenue-generating activities take place. Solihull Moors, for example, benefits significantly from selling hospitality and corporate packages, so it is not just a matter of bums on seats or even the equivalent of the prawn sandwich brigade, but of allowing all types of spectators to return to football stadiums.

The key to seeing fans return to football is not just reducing covid numbers but increasing our testing capacity. We need smart solutions: the expansion of rapid testing, temperature checks, deep cleaning and social distancing. Venues can never be 100% covid-secure, but they are doing all that they can, and there is always risk in life.

I have heard from clubs up and down the country. They have invested significant sums in getting covid ready. Over the summer, my Committee heard from Prenetics, a testing company that works extensively with sports teams to ensure they can return to matches behind closed doors. Now it and other testing providers are looking at how rapid testing can be used to even greater effect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said that football was being treated differently from the arts. I understand that, but I will make certain points in the brief time that I have. First, no arts organisation that I know runs on player wages with 108% of turnover. No arts or cultural organisation that I know has a £9 billion TV deal. Also, such organisations have not just spent £1.2 billion in a transfer window. The National Theatre puts its stuff up for free on YouTube. The Premier League voted 19 to 1 to put pay-per-view TV at £14.95, perhaps encouraging people to go to one another’s houses. The money is there in the game. It would be an absurdity for taxpayer money to bail out those clubs. They have to come together now.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) 4:51 pm, 9th November 2020

I pay tribute to Bath City Football Club. Bath is a city known for its rugby, but we have a thriving football club in the national league, and, since it has been in community ownership, it has gone from strength to strength, particularly because of its very strong community engagement. May I say, in the company of many men here, the women’s team is doing very well? The Bath club has become a community asset. Unlike the big clubs, it depends entirely on the income that it gets from fans coming to the matches on a regular basis.

As we have heard today, football is about bringing the community together and having fun. Even if it is socially distanced, it is possible. Indeed, the club had prepared very well over the summer to bring spectators back into the stadium. It is quite a big space that is not always full, and it could easily have managed that. It was particularly disappointed when it could not bring spectators back. The club is grateful for the financial support that it has received, but the game is not the same without the spectators. Football clubs are in a different financial position from the cultural sector. I understand that, but there has been a marked difference. I have been to four different cultural events, but not a single sporting event, and that is difficult to explain to people who enjoy sports more than cultural events. We have to recognise that.

I had a discussion with our local director for public health, and he says that the main issue is the uncontrolled spaces. Organisations and classroom teachers can control their spaces, but anything outside the classroom or a venue becomes an uncontrolled space, and that is the crux of the matter. The Government need to put their minds on the issue of travel. Although a survey found that most fans travel by car or on foot, it is important that the Government look at organisations such as STIG, the sports technology and innovation group that has been put together. It could be very helpful in assisting the Government to understand how fans travel to and from sporting events.

Hopefully, after the lockdown, people will be able to enjoy their sporting events again. I speak today particularly on behalf of Bath City Football Club, but I know that I speak on behalf of all sporting events across my city and across the country, so let us make sure that the Government get this right and look particularly at how fans travel to their sporting events.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe 4:54 pm, 9th November 2020

The covid crisis has demonstrated that clubs in leagues one and two are community clubs. Without members of the community attending matches and supporting the club, the club cannot continue. We do not have to be Lord Sugar to recognise that a business with no revenue but that has costs is a business that will fail. That is the predicament that community clubs have been in.

In the summer, the Government wanted football to return. We were told that it was good for the morale of the nation and a sign that we were coming out of covid. As part of their return, Football League clubs made it very clear that they would need financial support and fans back in grounds. Here we are in November with the Football League back and the premier league back, but there are no fans in the grounds and there is no financial support package. The consequence is that community clubs are bleeding to death. They have burned through any reserves that they had and any cash that their owner could put in to try to keep them going.

As my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis said in his excellent speech, club owners have to find £400 million. One of the ways that they are doing that at the moment is by not paying their taxes; so far, there is £80 million in uncollected taxes from Football League clubs. While the Government may not wish to bail out football clubs, effectively they are doing so through the tax system and by not pursuing them for tax debts, so they already have a liability.

Rick Parry, the chairman of the Football League, has said to me and to colleagues who are here today, and to other colleagues elsewhere, that without a financial package of support, clubs will go bust before Christmas. There will be up to 10 clubs that will not make their payroll in November, and we need to think about what kind of support will be there. Those football clubs have survived the first world war, the great depression, the second world war and deindustrialisation. Are we going to let them die because of covid, with the impact that would have on local communities? I remember visiting Gigg Lane and Bury about this time last year and meeting a lady—a pensioner who had supported the club all her life. She said, “There are lots of challenges we have in this town, but we had the football club, and now that has been taken away from us as well”.

I cannot believe that my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport wants to be the Minister for Sport who presides over the death of community football clubs; I cannot believe that that will happen and I cannot believe that the Government will do nothing. However, as a consequence of there being neither a deal nor a support package in place, what is happening now is that any staff who can be let go are being let go. The things that do not bring in any revenue will be the first to go: youth academies, women’s football and the community outreach programmes to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North alluded. These things will be cut back until the club bleeds to death and has no cash left. At that point, it can go cap in hand to the Government or to the football authorities.

We need a deal now. We have not asked Netflix to bail out the arts, so I do not think we should say that it should be entirely down to top-flight football—the commercial big boys—to bail out the whole game. The Government wanted football back, the Government supported football coming back and the Government need to help, if only with a tax holiday, to enable these clubs to get through the next few months.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth 4:57 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

As others have said, football is an important part of our national psyche and it is a regular fixture of the week for many people. My husband and two close friends are season-ticket holders of different football clubs, so I know what football means to fans. However, I was particularly struck by the stories about some of Brentford Football Club’s fans. Woody is a young Brentford fan with Down’s syndrome. When football was taken away from him in March, he struggled, to the extent that his hair started to fall out. Huge credit must go to the Brentford players, in particular Woody’s favourite, Ollie Watkins, who left Brentford for Aston Villa earlier in the year but still took the time to go and visit Woody after he left the club, to see how he was doing.

The directors of Brentford have been playing their part in keeping the family of fans going, by making calls to some of the older fans in particular to check in for a chat and to see if they need any help. Marcus Gayle, a former player who is now a club ambassador, popped in to see a fan, Anthony Talbot, to take him a new shirt and brighten up his day, after he heard that Anthony was missing his football to the extent that his health was suffering. The football community at Brentford have also got together to help raise money for Jamie Powell, who is a lifelong Brentford fan with a rare cancer, so that he can go to Boston for life-saving treatment.

The club narrowly avoided going into administration in 2002 and was then taken over by a supporter-led trust. When I was a Brentford ward councillor on Hounslow Borough Council, I saw at first hand the amazing community response and effort to keep the club base in Brentford, and I persuaded my colleagues on the council to loan the fans the half a million pounds that they needed at that time, which has since been paid back. We realised how much the club meant to the borough and to our community.

The 18-year relationship that I have had with the club at the end of my road has taught me that we cannot and should not forget that clubs such as Brentford thrive because they are at the heart of their community. I am talking about the generations who watch games every Saturday, the new fans who move to the area, the countless hours of work done by the club and the local community, the support for the businesses that survive and thrive and the jobs that they create, because of the fans, home and away, who come for matches. Football is a real power for good in our society, and at times like this it is something that we should support and bring back to our stadiums as soon as we can.

We have important points from the operations team at Brentford. They have been working with the safety advisory group at Brentford to ensure that the new stadium can be safe, and they need to be respected by Government and work hand in hand with Government to ensure that fans can come back to matches as soon as possible.

Photo of Simon Fell Simon Fell Conservative, Barrow and Furness 5:00 pm, 9th November 2020

I thank my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis for introducing the debate. The Bluebirds, Barrow AFC, are more than a football club—they are the backbone of our community. In June, they were promoted to the English Football League after 48 years away—they had a phenomenal season. Now, they are really in the doldrums when they should be celebrating. They are facing a significant loss this year, and it would be worse if their supporters had not stuck by them and bought season tickets for matches that they cannot now attend.

As my hon. Friends have explained this afternoon, football was one of the first industries to close and it may well be one of the last to restart. Our communities need them to restart. They are more than football clubs; they are significant local employers and they are community hubs. The Barrow AFC Community Trust delivers physical activity, leadership and core skills to local schools. As a result of the lockdown, it is now also at risk. It is no exaggeration to say that the Bluebirds, just like all my colleagues’ clubs, carry the spirit of their towns and communities on their shoulders. When we talk to Levi Gill, the CEO of the Bluebirds, he is explicit that they do not want a bail-out; they want to stand on their own two feet. They want to reopen, and they want to do that safely and in a covid-secure way. They want to see the fans brought back in. The trust and the club have put a huge amount of work into this. They were buoyed by the successful trials elsewhere and they were ready to go as soon as the Government gave them the go-ahead.

The fans are able to watch matches online, but that is a pale shadow of getting back into Holker Street and seeing a match at first hand, of reconnecting with the club and the community. For many people, their health, mental and physical, goes hand in hand with being able to follow their beloved club, especially now, in these really trying times, so I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is able to work closely with clubs such as Barrow AFC to come to a result, at the end of the current lockdown, that keeps people safe but allows clubs and communities to stand on their own two feet with pride once again.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I apologise to Karen Bradley: I have gone one out of order on the call list.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee 5:02 pm, 9th November 2020

Thank you, Mr Stringer. Of course I do not mind at all. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend, and constituency neighbour, Jonathan Gullis. I can absolutely attest to what he has said about the value in the community of Port Vale and Stoke City, who support local activities and community events in my constituency of Staffordshire Moorlands, too. They are incredibly important and, indeed, vital parts of our community.

I thank the Government for allowing elite sport to continue during this lockdown. To be clear, nothing that I am about to say is regarding what is happening today, in this lockdown; it is to the time after the lockdown that I think we need to look. However, I will just make the point that there was a match yesterday at the Etihad Stadium and my son and I are utterly convinced that, if we had been there, we would have got the Blues over the line and had a victory—I say sorry to Alison McGovern, on the Opposition Benches, for that. But we could not be there, and we accept that. We were pleased that we were able to watch on television even if we were not able to help our team to get that victory.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that I have referred before to my community club, Leek Town, which is a step four club, so has been able to have spectators. It is clearly unable to play any matches at the moment because of lockdown, and it fully accepts and appreciates that, but could I repeat this question to the Minister? When we do get out of lockdown, can we not have a one-size-fits-all answer to this? There may well be clubs that can fit in more fans. They need to have other revenue streams. They are not asking for a Government bail-out. They want the chance to run and to make the money that they would normally make. This one is a volunteer-run club. It wants to have hospitality again—no prawn cocktails; it is entirely Staffordshire oatcakes. It would like to be able to have that hospitality back and have those income streams.

May I make a point about another elite sport? I am the treasurer of the all-party parliamentary group on Formula 1, and it was brilliant to have two F1s this year at Silverstone, but when we spoke to Silverstone recently, it said that the lack of fans was soul-destroying. It is such a big spectator event—all outdoors—for household groups travelling together. When Lewis Hamilton took the record for the most F1 wins in Portimão, Portugal, there were spectators flying the Union flag which, I am sure, was important for him and the fans.

Finally, on grassroots sports, I co-signed the letter from my hon. Friend Damian Collins, who is no longer here. We need grassroots sports, not just because they are important in themselves, but because they are a pipeline for elite sports. We heard recently from the rugby authorities that there is a real worry that we will not have that pipeline of young players coming through, which will have an impact on our national teams and on the mental health and wellbeing of many.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South 5:05 pm, 9th November 2020

In late September, a number of football league clubs demonstrated that they could welcome fans back safely into stadiums in several trial games. I was fortunate enough to be at Bloomfield Road to see Blackpool beat Swindon in one of those successful and safe pilot games.

Football league clubs have excellent crowd control due to pre-existing regulations. Working with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, they have developed guidance for the safe, socially distanced return of fans. Of course, that brings challenges—fans must follow the spectators code of conduct that is issued to them before games—but from what I witnessed, fans abided meticulously by the planned safety measures.

A survey asking fans whether they had adhered to restrictions following the pilot games suggested that more than 98% thought they had. The measures that had been put in place, including wearing face masks, using hand sanitiser, following one-way systems and staggering entry and exit to the stadium, were conducted in an exemplary manner.

About 1,000 fans were at Bloomfield Road, which has a maximum capacity of more than 17,000. In my opinion, the attendance could easily have been increased to between 25% and 35% of the total capacity with no impact on the safety of those attending. That is important, because although the clubs that took part in the trial games, including Blackpool, were delighted to do so, the cost of opening stadiums for such a small number of fans was excessive and would not be commercially viable on a regular basis. If we are going to see fans back in stadiums, of course that has to be done safely, but it also has to be done at a level at which it is viable to operate in the short term.

Before the new national restrictions were introduced, cinemas, theatres and other indoor venues had allowed audiences back. Football stadiums are obviously better ventilated and, at about 30% capacity, would be operating at a lower proportion than the indoor venues that were allowed to open in October. Most clubs can also provide enough car parking spaces for that level of attendance and did so cost free at the trial games. That resulted in more than 90% of fans travelling by car or on foot and reduced the risk of transmission from journeys before and after games on public transport. It is not just the fans who are suffering; it is the clubs directly. Their finances are at breaking point. I implore the Government to get fans back into stadiums as soon as possible.

Photo of James Wild James Wild Conservative, North West Norfolk 5:08 pm, 9th November 2020

I declare an interest as a Norwich City season ticket holder and a supporter of my local club, King’s Lynn Town FC. This is an important debate. When the national restrictions end on 2 December, we should let fans back into grounds.

Having been one of the 1,000 fans in the crowd at Norwich City’s game against Preston North End—one of the pilot matches—I am confident that that can be done safely. Fans were asked to arrive in good time; there were temperature and ID checks; food and drink areas were closed in the grounds, so hawkers brought stuff to people in their seats; fans were socially distanced and in the fresh air; and exits were staggered at the end. There has been no evidence of transmission from pilot matches. Indeed, the Minister told me in a written answer that the Department was confident that any issues could be mitigated.

We need to let fans back in because the current restrictions are having a major impact on clubs’ finances and threatening their futures. King’s Lynn FC depends on match day income to survive, and while I welcome the funding provided to the national league and thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his work and efforts in securing that, it does not make up for the loss of revenue that club is experiencing. Norwich City’s accounts, published last week, showed it had lost £12 million due to covid, yet the Premier League has only made a derisory offer of £20 million for leagues one and two, with a further £30 million of loans, and no support for championship teams. I share the Government’s view, and that of other hon. Members who have spoken today: the Premier League needs to take a long-term view of the importance of the pyramid, and support championship and league one clubs. Leaving it to the Premier League to sort it out is clearly not working, and if there is not movement, then the Government need to step in and tell it what is expected.

It is the impact on the fans—the 12th player—that is my major concern. Football is not just a game: it is much more than that. Clubs, as we have heard, are at the heart of our communities. They give people a sense of belonging; of being part of a family of fans. Going to matches is a huge part of their lives, and not being allowed in hurts their mental health. This weekend, King’s Lynn beat Port Vale in the first round of the FA cup—a great result, but no fans were there, and watching on a streaming service is no substitute. The Sports Grounds Safety Authority has given King’s Lynn approval to have 1,400 fans in its ground. Norwich has been allowed to have 8,000 fans, rather than the 26,000 that can usually be seen at fortress Carrow Road; it will make it work.

To conclude, Norwich’s joint majority shareholder, Delia Smith, has written an open letter to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that asks,

“before the final whistle is blown, can we have our football back?”

I say to the Minister:

“Come on, let’s be having you!”

Let fans in.

Photo of Imran Ahmad Khan Imran Ahmad Khan Conservative, Wakefield 5:11 pm, 9th November 2020

The first lockdown stripped us of much that we enjoy. Museum exhibitions were left to gather dust; music venues fell silent; theatres closed their doors; cinemas turned off their screens; and our sports stadiums were left empty, to help protect people’s lives and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

From an economic perspective, we can analyse and measure the tangible cost of lockdown. In 2019, the UK premier league had 14.5 million spectators visit stadiums to watch their teams. According to the accountancy firm Deloitte, the first coronavirus lockdown cost premier league clubs £1 billion in lost revenue. Leagues lower down the scale also suffered financially: league two clubs, which made £91 million in 2018-19, may have lost £1.7 million per game without spectators, and £37 million if fans cannot return all season. As a percentage of their cost base, amateur and even professional clubs in the lower leagues are hurting disproportionately from a lack of revenue at the gates.

That, however, only tells half the story. Football, like all team sports, is a powerful tool for communities to come together in a shared passion. While elite sports are permitted to continue, the impacts on community spirit, togetherness and mental health are also felt more keenly towards the lower base of the footballing pyramid. In those terms, the cost of closure cannot be quantified or estimated. As we enter the second lockdown, I do not believe that some of the more draconian measures we suffered in the first lockdown should return, such as the blanket closure of football stadiums to fans.

A couple of weeks ago in October, I visited Wakefield AFC and watched them defeat Wombwell Main FC. During my visit, I was impressed by how well the social distancing measures issued by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Health and Social Care were enforced and adhered to by the fans; further, Wakefield AFC lives and trains together. Through these measures, team sports were allowed to be played in a safe manner. I strongly believe that with the strict enforcement of social distancing measures, football stadiums should be allowed to not only host games, but allow for a number of spectators to enter the stadium.

In defeating coronavirus, we should not and need not destroy everything that we cherish and enjoy. Where it is possible, everyday life should be able to continue in a sensible manner that does not cause a risk of infection. I believe this is the case with football stadiums, and having a responsible and well-distanced audience would provide great benefits, not just to people’s mental health and social lives but to communities that come together in a shared love of sport.

Photo of Antony Higginbotham Antony Higginbotham Conservative, Burnley 5:14 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, Mr Stringer. Hundreds of my constituents signed this petition, and that does not surprise me, because football is the beating heart of Burnley and always has been. Anyone who has ever been to Burnley will know that the Turf sits iconically in our town centre. When fans were there for every home game, the atmosphere was something to behold. The anticipation could be sensed in the air, and it brought everything to life, but it did much more than that. It also stimulated our local economy. Thousands of fans would come into Burnley from across the country. They filled our hotels, ate in our local restaurants and drank in our local pubs.

Burnley is not a city like Manchester or London, where a football club is simply a nice addition. For us it is one of our main economic drivers, so taking fans away does not just change the optics of a match for us; it changes the whole town. It closes hotels, restaurants and pubs. That is to say nothing of the direct economic cost to the club itself. Broadcast income is much needed by us, but ticket sales play a huge part too. They cannot simply be discarded without that having an impact.

I want to commend Burnley football club for the huge support that it has given to the whole borough, not just during the period of covid but before—despite the significant financial hit that it has taken. It has shown, throughout, what being a premier league community club means. I know it is ready and willing to bring fans back, too, so I urge the Government to treat football clubs like any other business: give them the guiding rules, and they will meet them. They are best placed to determine how many they can safely welcome back, based on their own capacity. Let us not forget that the events in question are always outdoors, where transmission risk is lower. Clubs are ready to step forward. The Government do not need to answer every question or find every scenario. Give clubs the ability to innovate, control the flow of people, invest in new infrastructure and space people out—because that is what will get the fans back.

Burnley is not the only club we have, however. We also have Burnley FC Women and Padiham football club, both of which play at the Ruby Civil Arena. Padiham was able to get some fans back under the FA’s limited return of spectators, and it proved a big success. The club operated safely. Spectators were able to enjoy the game and income started to pick up. That showed, as the pilots did, what is possible. So I urge the Government to look now at how on 2 December football fans can make a meaningful return. It is not just about the optics of seeing fans in the stadium. It is about giving people back their passion, bringing back the atmosphere, and bringing back the essential economic activity that our town relies on.

Photo of Sara Britcliffe Sara Britcliffe Conservative, Hyndburn 5:17 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

The heartbeat of every football club is its supporters. From 14 March Accrington Stanley supporters have not been able to see their team play at first hand. There are few places in most towns where the whole borough has the opportunity to gather and meet as a community for the same purpose, to watch the town team play football. Those are places where children, parents, grandparents and friends can come together.

I acknowledge the hard work of Accrington Stanley football club, which has paid its players without deferment, and has secured funding in the form of a loan to keep the club afloat. The team are back to playing, but huge costs are being incurred without income coming back to the club through fans, sponsors, hospitality or any other form of secondary income. That is obviously unsustainable. The club needs income, and there is a need for pressure to be put on the Premier League and the FA to get a bail-out sorted. There is enough money in football; it just seems to be poorly distributed.

On 24 September at column 114 I asked the Minister in the House about a road map for the return of fans to professional football and he said that the Government were working with sporting authorities to support the return of fans. That road map is now more necessary than ever. Once the current lockdown ends, our sports clubs will need our support to enable them to prepare an annual budget or business plan to weather the crisis. It is not right to let clubs continue to lose money without giving them a timescale to work towards. They need the assurance of hope.

In September the return of fans to football games was piloted for certain clubs. Up to 1,000 fans were welcomed using the Government’s stage 5 protocols and guidance. English Football League clubs implemented a wide range of measures to ensure that the spectator journey was built around maintaining social distancing. From those matches the University of Edinburgh conducted a study to show that more than 90% of people who attended were confident that the event organisers could deliver spectator safety. Having reviewed the findings from that study, I believe that the pilots were a success and that football clubs will be able to deliver a covid-secure experience for fans. I hope that the Government will reflect on those findings and work with sports clubs to give them a road map to allow fans back into stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so.

Throughout this pandemic, we have had our community centres, pubs, cafés, gyms, theatres and leisure centres threatened by these financially turbulent times. If we forget our football clubs, we risk cutting out the heart of local communities across the country. Once the pandemic is over, we will need community hubs more than ever. To let our football clubs disappear would be too big a blow for towns such as mine.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich 5:20 pm, 9th November 2020

My constituency boasts the mighty Crewe Alexandra FC as well as several other smaller clubs, who have all been affected by the coronavirus. Technically, the stadium is located just across the border of the area of Nantwich that I represent. Nantwich Town FC is another club that play a big role in the community.

Crewe Alex has made a huge effort to make the iconic Alexandra Stadium, which is often known locally as Gresty Road, covid-secure. Founded in 1877, Crewe Alex has been part of my constituency for 143 years. Like many other people, I live close enough to hear the crowds on matchday. The club takes its name from the pub where the first games were held: the Princess Alexandra. We must ensure that the coronavirus is not the final chapter in this club’s history.

Crewe Alex fans are totally dedicated to their club. They have even become shareholders and have a place on the board. As a group of fans, they also give back through community volunteering. I recently met Mark Beavan from the Railwaymen Supporters Society. He talked passionately about the huge community surrounding the club and about how, particularly for some of the oldest fans, coming to matches and being part of that community is vital for their mental health and wellbeing. We must not underestimate how important football clubs are to many of their fans.

As hon. Members have mentioned, the EFL hosted eight successful pilot fixtures in September, which saw clubs welcome 1,000 supporters back to the stands. I understand the Government might have concerns, most likely not around the fans while they are in the venues, but around their socialising before and after the match and the fact that they travel from all across the country. Unfortunately, however, not enough has been done to explain and justify the decision, which I hope the Minister can do today.

I would like the Government to provide us with a road map for how football fans will be able to return to grounds when it is safe to do so. People need hope—a way forward, at least. Every week, track and trace gets better. On Saturday, we had a testing capacity of almost 520,000, and we are now testing an entire city. The Sports Technology Innovation Working Group has been working with sports bodies to look into high-tech solutions to getting fans back into venues, and I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on that. While fans are not present at matches, the financial uncertainty for clubs is huge. Matchday revenue is vital to local clubs up and down the country—without it, the future of clubs looks uncertain. If clubs are to be prevented from welcoming fans back, they need to know that support will be in place for them in the months ahead.

Football clubs are the pride and joy of so many of our local communities. It is clear that clubs and fans are willing to do what it takes to get spectators back into stadiums. I urge the Government to do whatever they can to ensure that clubs come out of the other side of this pandemic holding the same important role that they have always had in our communities and still playing a big part in the lives of so many of their fans.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham 5:22 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis for representing the petitioners and speaking so eloquently on behalf of many of us about the issues faced by many clubs.

I am lucky in North West Durham: because I am a Blackburn fan, I am neither a Magpie nor a Mackem, so I have managed to avoid many of the issues that come with that. Although hon. Members have spoken on behalf of clubs in the EFL—I know Sunderland have faced a lot of issues recently—I would like to speak on behalf of my clubs in tiers 9 and 10 of the English football league pyramid, particularly Consett, Tow Law Town, Crook Town and Willington, some of whose owners have put thousands of pounds of their own money into supporting their clubs in recent months. I have had an email from the chairman of Consett, Frank Bell, saying that their revenues are now 85% down. For them, it is not just ticket sales; it is also all the add-ons, such as the pints behind the bar, which are usually served by his son. His wife runs the little kitchen there. Everything, down to the matchday programmes, is really hit by what is happening at the moment.

I have a plea: when this lockdown ends, I implore the Government to let fans back into grounds. The clubs in my patch are really small, but they are really reliant on income from their loyal fans. It can be done safely. We have not seen any covid transmission at football clubs in my patch. We need to bring fans back, because it is the only way that those clubs, who are at the heart of their communities, can survive. They need some grant support, but that will not make up for the funding that they get from their fans.

Briefly, before I conclude, I will mention the huge community impact of some of the clubs. Consett sees 1,500 children a week playing at its club, about 2,000 adults a week come through the door, and its BTEC education programme has more than 100 students. It was a national charity’s sports club of the year in 2018 and 2019 and the Mirror Group football club of the year for the past three years, beating many teams at higher levels. It has been the site of our local test and trace, in the car park.

This is a real plea on behalf of my local clubs: please, give us a road map as soon as practically possible. That will allow Consett finally to play in the FA Vase final at Wembley, which has been delayed until April next year—for the 2020 season—and allow as many fans as possible to attend.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Before I call the SNP spokesperson, I have a small announcement to make. Members should be aware that the first nine minutes of this debate were not broadcast, due to technical problems, but there will of course be a full record of the debate in Hansard.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:26 pm, 9th November 2020

Thank you, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this evening’s proceedings. If the broadcasters did not pick it up, Jonathan Gullis finished by shouting, “Up the Vale!”, which I am happy to adopt on his behalf.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. He set the picture eloquently. In the debate, we have had passionate contributions from 15 hon. Members, all representing their constituencies and their clubs diligently. Above all, I want to acknowledge the frustration of the 200,000 people who signed this petition, more than 100 of whom were from my constituency.

I feel that I should declare an interest at the outset, as a season ticket holder at Airdrieonians football club—indeed, long suffering now, for 19 years. Long before I was an MP, and long after I have finished being an MP, I am first and foremost a Diamonds supporter. Like others, I find not being in the Jack Dalziel stand on a Saturday with my son and my mates hugely frustrating.

Much as I have appreciated the ingenuity of clubs such as my own, which have tried to get teams live streamed using AI cameras, that has not exactly been without its hitches. Last month, I was amused to read about an incident when Inverness Caledonian Thistle took on Ayr United, behind closed doors in a game that was understandably only available on pay per view live stream. Of course, instead of the staff multi-camera operation, we had a robot camera from Pixellot, the idea being that it would auto-track the action without any staff having to use it. However, it went horribly wrong, as the camera proceeded to follow the bald head of a linesman on the near side, rather than the ball. The play was on completely the opposite side of the park, so nothing much could be seen, because the focus was on the official’s rather shiny head.

That is a mere anecdote, but most of us would be much happier to leave behind the live streams and the pies on our couch, and to get back into the grounds, both from a personal point of view and from an economic point of view. I have made the point to the Minister before about the multiplier effect, and I know he gets it: this is not just about money spent on the game; it is the food in local cafés, the pints in nearby pubs and the passing trade for shops near the stadiums. Many clubs, such as Celtic football club in my constituency, rely heavily on match day income to operate, in particular in Scotland, where significantly more people attend matches per capita than anywhere else in Europe.

That brings me to the nub of the issue: in essence, matches are mass gatherings, which we know for good reason are currently prohibited due to covid-19. Let us not lose sight of the fact that we are in the midst of a deadly second wave so that, on Saturday alone, some 125 people in England tragically lost their life as a result of this virus. My fear is that, by returning to football grounds now, we would inevitably see large queues congregating for pies during the 15-minute half-time window. Almost certainly, all of us would pay by cash in the concourse, not using contactless—as we talked about, people are handling notes and coins already handled by countless people, thereby spreading the virus. At quarter to 5 o’clock on a Saturday, when full-time whistles go right across the British isles, we face the spectre of hundreds of thousands of people pouring out of grounds and on to the public transport network.

Unfortunately, it is currently not possible or safe for fans to return to the majority of grounds in these islands. That said, a regionalised tiered approach in Scotland has seen some clubs welcome back some fans, such as the highland side Ross County, which has been able to welcome a maximum of 300 fans back to its 6,500-seater stadium, because of a low prevalence rate in the highlands.

As a fan, I have mixed feelings about that, not least because it means 300 season ticket holders are drawn in a ballot and some fans will inevitably lose out. That raises wider questions about equality for the match-day experience and consumer rights. I appreciate, however, that this is a difficult balancing act for the Government, and I do not envy the position Ministers find themselves in. However, as hon. Members have said, we know that ongoing financial support is needed to prevent clubs from falling into bankruptcy, a fate that sadly befell my own club in 2002.

The petition takes note of a return for French and German sports fans, but that is no longer the case. The Bundesliga will have to play without fans again, after the tentative return of spectators was cut short due to rising coronavirus infections in Germany. In France, a new lockdown allowing only essential travel outside the home will prevent fans from watching Ligue 1 and 2 matches. The evidence from France and Germany shows that the return of fans will take time. I understand that Ministers are in a difficult position with these issues, but I urge caution. I hope that the regionalised tiered approach, opening up steadily and safely where prevalence rates are low, might bear fruit until we get a vaccine.

The return, therefore, of mass gatherings of any size or scale must be done with extreme care. My colleagues in the Scottish Government are taking that approach, and when England moves back to a regionalised tier system, the Government might consider it. In the meantime, I stand in solidarity with football fans, as I long to hear the turnstile click behind me, walk up the stairs to my seat in the Jack Dalziel stand, and see the holy turf of New Broomfield again.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 5:32 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to speak in the debate. I congratulate Jonathan Gullis on introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee.

Members have spoken at length about the various aspects of why football is so important. They have shared their considerable experience across the House in advocating for our national game. I congratulate them all. I was outed earlier by Karen Bradley as a supporter of the red side of Merseyside, which drew one-all with Manchester City yesterday. It is fair to say that I have experienced frustration over the past months over the football team that I support.

Notwithstanding that, it has been a great honour to see the amazing work of football clubs across the United Kingdom. I could not be prouder to have seen their activism, whether delivering food parcels or former players ringing older supporters with dementia to give them comfort. I honestly believe that football has done itself proud, as we have heard from hon. Members this afternoon. That must not go unrecorded by the House. I thank colleagues for making those points and for arguing that it is crucial that, as soon as is humanly possible, people can get back to supporting their football team in the ground. It is so blatantly obvious to me that that is important that I do not think I need to add to what colleagues have said.

I want to raise two points briefly. Sport in general and football specifically were quite shocked that they would not be able to continue with pilot schemes and that supporters would not be able to return in October. I worry that they have been left hanging a bit. That is a problem. I know that the Minister will talk about the science group that is trying to tackle this, but some of his colleagues put it really well this afternoon: we need more of a plan than that. If the science group by itself represented enough of a plan, I am not sure we would be here this afternoon. We need to work on this matter together.

Secondly, there is an underlying problem: football, by law, is treated differently from other sports. That situation risks exacerbating the problem, rather than working towards undoing it, as I think we would like to do on a cross-party basis. All the problems have been described: the effort that football clubs have put in to comply with the covid regulations—

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

As my hon. Friend, who represents Brentford very well—the football club and the constituency—says, clubs have spent money on it. They all hired covid officers. I was lucky to be shown around the New Den by the chief executive of Millwall. I was so impressed by all the work that the club had done to prep for the regulations.

The position that football has been put in compared with other large events is hard to understand, so I did a bit of digging and looked a little deeper into the scientific advice that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport commissioned from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. I found out that, preparing for the potential return of supporters, DCMS commissioned advice from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, which is the behavioural sub-committee of SAGE. That advice, which anybody can read—it is on the SAGE website—goes through different things concerning large sports. It does not specifically focus on football, but the characteristics seem to tie in well with it.

Even in August, the advice from SAGE to DCMS was:

“The easing of some aspects of lockdown, which took place on July 4th…
was preceded by a considerable media fanfare…
as well as a public discussion about whether the 2 metre rule would be changed.”

To paraphrase the advice, all those trends in the media were contemporaneous with several factors, all of which could have contributed to the decline in compliance with distancing measures. It said that the trends could include

“decline in trust in the government”,

a declining

“sense of national togetherness…
and decline in perceived risk”.

In August, SAGE was warning DCMS that this might not go so well. How did the Minister help football at that time to understand the situation that we were really in, what discussions has he had with SAGE directly, and what discussions did he have with stakeholders to help them to understand the problems that we faced and how the Government planned to get us out of a situation where the environment through the summer was counteracting some of the compliance measures that we needed to see, as the report from SAGE says?

Can the Minister explain how DCMS plans to, from this point, encourage and help football clubs to plan for what could happen in the future? At the moment, they feel as if they have been left hanging and some people wonder whether DCMS is really in control or decisions are being taken centrally by the Cabinet and No. 10. If that is the case, can he explain how the decision will be taken to get supporters back into grounds?

People have pointed out the inconsistencies, comparing football with other things. I am not one to set up sport against the arts. Both are great in this country and both should be able to move forward together, but the difference is that we, as football supporters, have been treated differently since the 1980s. I had understood that we were on a journey out of those worst times towards football supporters in this country being able to get proper respect, policing by consent and support from the Government.

As the Minister will have heard from Members across the House, football is universally a positive activity in Members’ constituencies. If he really wants to prove that football will not be permanently treated differently in this country, can he explain, as Members have asked, what the plan is to get supporters back into grounds?

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

The Minister has more time than I expected, but I trust he will still leave time for the Member who introduced the debate to sum up.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 5:40 pm, 9th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I will indeed make sure that my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis has plenty of time to sum up, given that his nine minutes of fame were disrupted earlier. I am grateful to him for leading the debate and for the contributions that he and many other hon. Members have made. The number of people who signed the petition speaks volumes about the importance of football and sport in general, and about making sure that we get fans back into stadiums.

We are in vehement agreement that we want to make sure that fans get back into stadiums as soon as possible. There is a slight disagreement on how and when we do that, but on both sides of the Chamber, and in all our constituencies, we are of one voice and mind. We want to get fans back as soon as it is safe. That is absolutely the Government’s goal.

Football clubs, as we have heard again and again today, and in all previous debates on the matter, are at the heart of our communities. They have unique social value, and many have rich and honourable histories. As Minister for Sport, I can attest to the importance of football clubs at all levels in their local areas, and to the incredible support that they have offered throughout the pandemic. From turning their car parks into NHS testing centres to delivering food packages to those isolating, that has been demonstrated again and again in the last few months.

The Government have provided an unprecedented support package to businesses throughout the period, including a comprehensive and sizeable package of direct fiscal support through tax reliefs, cash grants and employee wage support. Many football clubs have benefited from those measures and others, such as business rates relief and the furlough scheme. Sport England has provided £210 million of national lottery and Government funding to support the sport and the physical activity sector overall through covid-19. That includes the £35 million community emergency fund, which is helping community sports clubs and exercise centres during the pandemic.

The Football Foundation, a charity set up by the Government, the FA and the Premier League, has also introduced a number of funds to help clubs during these difficult times. The latest is the match day support fund, which helps clubs to prepare for the resumption of football. That follows the foundation’s pitch and club preparation funds, which also distributed grants to many local clubs.

The Government have worked tirelessly to get sports back up and running in the last few months. We were able to get elite sports, including the Premier League, back behind closed doors in June to allow seasons to be finished and vital revenue to flow into the game again. We ensured that Project Restart was shared with everyone by getting live Premier League football on the BBC for the first time. Elite sport will also be allowed to continue during the period of national restrictions that came in from last week.

I am fully aware of the importance of getting spectators back into stadiums for many sports, not just football, but rising infection rates across the country meant that, unfortunately, it was not the right time to proceed with a wider reopening on 1 October, as was widely recognised. A key issue is that this is not just about fans sitting in stands within the stadiums—admittedly outdoors, as many hon. Members have said—where infection rates are generally lower than indoors. We must consider the whole fan journey from home to venue, how fans travel to and from stadiums, the risk of gathering inside and outside such venues, and the high number of contact points that that risks.

David Linden recognised that those are challenges, and not only here. We keep a close eye on what is happening in other nations and, indeed, other countries.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

As Karen Bradley said clearly, there are different situations and different physical layouts in different stadiums. Brentford football club has a brand-new stadium. Fans can come from all sorts of different directions, stations, bus stops and so on, and of course, only those permitted to enter the stadium should be anywhere near the ground at the time. Surely there is an opportunity for flexibility in the way that those rules are implemented.

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

I thank the hon. Lady for that point, and I certainly understand what she is saying. One of the problems or challenges we have is that while every individual is saying, “Can I get back to my stadium?”, we would have to multiply that by several levels, several leagues and several sports, and all of a sudden we would have to work on a scale that was far beyond what we believe is acceptable at this moment. However, we are considering the point made by several Members today that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate. We are paying careful attention not only to what is happening in other nations, but to what is happening in other countries in terms of opening up.

The Government understand the financial consequences of the decision not to allow spectators into stadiums from 1 October.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Before the Minister moves on to finances, may I ask him about pilots? We were on a journey of getting pilots under way and we know that that process needs to be completed, so when does he anticipate that happening?

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

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. We have had this conversation and others on many occasions; we agree on a lot, including the route, although we may disagree on timing to some degree. Pilots were pivotal; pilots have been very successful. They have been excellent learning points and learning opportunities, and that work has not been wasted, because it is helping to inform the decision making. We want to get pilots back and we want to get fans back in stadiums as soon as possible.

The hon. Lady keeps saying, “What’s the plan?” We have had a plan from very early on in lockdown; in the first lockdown, we had a plan, and it has been explicitly stated and is out there. Unfortunately, what we have had to do on a couple of occasions is press the pause button, but we want to get back to the plan as soon as we can.

The consequences of the decision not to allow spectators into stadiums from 1 October had financial implications. Therefore, we need to focus our support on those in the sector who are most in need as a result of that decision. We have worked with the sector over the past four weeks to build a bottom-up view of the impact that that decision had on football and on many other sports, and on their requirements. We are now in the final stages of discussions with colleagues in the Treasury and I hope that very shortly we will be in a position to confirm the support that will be available.

In addition to the support package, the Government have brokered a unique £10 million deal with the national lottery, so that the 66 clubs in the top two levels of the national league can continue to play behind closed doors. The allocation of funding to clubs has been decided by the national league. We understand that the league has used an approach that is broadly based on past attendance and will keep allocations under review.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Can the Minister say what the impact on the women’s game has been of that financial arrangement?

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

As the hon. Lady knows, we have had conversations about this issue, and I have said again and again and again that I expect anybody in receipt of public money to make sure that women’s sport is prioritised appropriately.

The support that we have given recognises the important role that national league clubs play in their local areas: being a source of pride to their town, giving children opportunities to get active and being at the heart of their communities. The national lottery is working with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish football associations to explore similar initiatives for their respective leagues.

We are committed to getting spectators back into stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so and we will continue to work closely with a range of sports, including football, to understand their latest thinking about what might allow spectators to return. As part of that process, the Government have talked to the Sports Technology and Innovation Group, or STIG, as several Members have referred to it today. It is a group of sporting bodies and health experts that the Government have invited to analyse new technologies that might support the return of spectators. Both the draft Government guidance and the Sports Grounds Safety Authority’s supplementary guidance have been welcomed internationally.

We have made significant progress since the start of the pandemic: we have worked closely with the sector to bring elite athletes back into training, providing careful guidance on that; we have seen the return of competitive sport behind closed doors; we have welcomed international athletes with health protocols that isolate competitors within an event bubble; and we have set out detailed and stringent guidance for the safe return of spectators, which was successfully tested through the staging of pilot spectator events over the summer. Regrettably, those plans have had to be paused, as the virus is spreading and incidence rates are rising across the country, but rest assured that I understand the importance of continuing with our plans, and we will return to them as soon as we can.

I will take a few minutes to comment on other points made by hon. Members today. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North talked in his opening speech about the overall financial sustainability and viability of football. He was absolutely right. We have some issues with football, which is precisely why the manifesto on which we both stood said that we would have a grassroots review of football governance. That is still very much the plan and it will inevitably involve the consideration of financial flows as well as governance. I also congratulate him on managing to get oatcakes, pies and Bovril into his initial speech; people will have to read Hansard to see it in full.

Seema Malhotra mentioned the importance of season ticket holders and the incredible loyalty that they have shown. Despite not being able to go and see live sport, many of them have either contributed or deferred their contributions. I also thank them for that loyalty. My hon. Friend Julian Knight said that it would be absurd for taxpayers’ money to be used to bail out or support elite football. I largely agree with him, although I know that my hon. Friend Damian Collins expressed a slightly different opinion. It is vital, as I have said from the very beginning, that football at the elite level should look after itself where it can. My hon. Friend Sara Britcliffe said that there is enough money in football, but it is poorly distributed, and I am afraid that we have been seeing that.

Wera Hobhouse mentioned the importance of women’s sport. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Wirral South, and as I have said repeatedly and will say again, I expect anyone in receipt of Government money to spend a fair and reasonable proportion on the women’s game. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe mentioned several matters, including taxes, and I can confirm that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has agreed to enter discussions and make arrangements with individual clubs on time to pay. He also mentioned the discussions between the English Football League and the Premier League. I will not breach any confidences, but I have had conversations with those two entities. We have had robust, frank but cordial discussions, and I have encouraged them both to continue their very important conversations, because, as I have repeatedly said, we expect football at the elite level to look after itself.

There is plenty of money in football, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn said, but it is not all distributed in the right way. On the conditions for Government support, in most other sectors, including the arts, the creative industries and heritage, any Government money is predicated on criteria such as there being no other viable, credible options, and on the entities facing an existential threat.

Money is on the table for the EFL, although I suspect it will not be enough for what has been proposed. I therefore encourage the EFL and the Premier League to continue their conversations professionally, and to recognise that they will both have to compromise. For the good of sport and football, they must come to a reasonable arrangement, because it would not be acceptable for the British public to bail out elite football. There is lots of money in elite football in this country. Average players in the championship league, for example, get a considerable amount. I have heard of figures from £500,000 to £800,000 or over £1 million for the average player in the championship league. The idea that we should use public money—our constituents’ money—to bail them out is simply not acceptable. I recognise that the EFL and the Premier League both have stakeholders who are difficult to deal with, and who have varying opinions, but I appeal to them to come to a reasonable conclusion and a compromise as soon as possible.

My right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, who knows a considerable amount about this topic as a former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, mentioned other revenue streams. Immediately following this debate, we have a debate on conferences and events in the wedding industry, which many clubs rely on for their revenue base. I am very aware that clubs are losing revenue from not only gate receipts, but other areas. The many routes that we are looking at through STIG and other initiatives that could open up sport also apply to conference events, theatres and other sectors, and it is therefore really important that we continue to focus on those initiatives.

I have mentioned pilots, which many hon. Members mentioned. My hon. Friend Antony Higginbotham mentioned the financial stimulation that football provides to the local economy. It ensures that pubs, bars, restaurants, clubs and many other entities are able to survive, which is absolutely vital.

My hon. Friend Mr Holden mentioned the role of owners. I am very aware that we rely on owners to subsidise and support our clubs up and down the country. Many of them are facing difficult times in their other business interests, so I do not take for granted the support, the financial constraints and the amount of money that they have given their clubs. It is very much appreciated, and it shows the passion that they have for the sport.

I am grateful for today’s important discussion about a subject that means so much to so many people, both in this room and across the country. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting sport and to getting spectators back into stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so, and I will continue to work on this very important issue.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 5:55 pm, 9th November 2020

I was saddened to hear that my opening remarks were missed. Once again, I thank Ashley Greenwood for starting the petition—it is because of him and the near 200,000 people who signed the petition that we stand here today. As I said, my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke has the fourth highest number of signatories on the petition, so it is important that I speak for them.

I heard what the Minister had to say, and I think he gets it. He has taken many a letter from me and from Carol Shanahan, the co-owner and chair of Port Vale football club, on this issue. Having heard the debate, the Minister is fully aware that we are united—something that is quite rare in this place—in wanting fans back in football stadiums. I want to make it clear for the record that I expect an announcement that as of 2 December, fans are coming back into football stadiums. That is for the mental health and wellbeing of residents in my constituency. It will allow them to communicate with others in socially distanced crowds, and to get their passion back. Sitting in a living-room chair will never replicate the adrenaline rush that is felt in a football stadium, so we have to see fans back in football stadiums.

I absolutely agree that we do not want taxpayers’ money bailing out elite football. As I said in my speech, I implore the Premier League and the EFL to come to a conclusion. I absolutely agree with the Minister on that point, and I hope we will get to a compromise position for both. One way that we could help clubs is by allowing them to start to bring in some revenue. As I said, Port Vale football club has lost £1.5 million in revenue since March, which is an extreme amount of money for a league two club—especially when that club’s mother town is Burslem, which unfortunately has more closed high street shops than almost anywhere in the UK. Our small cafés and restaurants rely heavily on match day attendance and revenue. Rejuvenating Burslem relies on a positive, crowd-friendly atmosphere at Port Vale football club.

The shadow Minister, Alison McGovern, made the perfect point that football crowds are some of the most regulated in the country. They are willing to go above and beyond, as the pilot showed. Hand sanitisation, social distancing, wearing a face mask, Test and Trace—whatever they need to do, they will do it. I know the Minister has some influence, but he needs to kick down the door to No. 10 to make the point heard. At the end of the day, this is the working man’s game.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

And the working woman’s game; that is what it has evolved to be, over time. I am very lucky to have in my constituency Port Vale Ladies and Stoke City Ladies, who are incredible ambassadors for the local community and for local girls’ sports. I am even prouder to have recently visited Milton United Ladies, to support what they are doing there. Football is a game for everyone. It is no longer the game of 50 years ago; it allows everyone to come together, celebrate and rejoice.

I urge the Minister to ensure that there is an announcement on 2 December. As I said, Port Vale football club has delivered 170,000 meals across the city of Stoke-on-Trent. With the Hubb Foundation, it co-runs a child holiday hunger support group that offers activities and mental and physical stimulation, as well as a hot meal during the holiday period. That organisation has helped people beyond the city boundaries in Kidsgrove, Talke and Staffordshire Moorlands, as my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley said. It has poured its heart and soul into the community. It is time we repaid it for everything it has sacrificed.

As the hon. Member for Wirral South said, that means players calling up season ticket holders. It means thanking the staff who were furloughed and who volunteered their time to deliver food parcels. It means helping the community groups that work with the football club to provide holiday activities and engagement activities with young people across the city. We need fans back in the stadium. On 2 December, I expect to hear an announcement; otherwise, I will be a pretty stroppy Back Bencher—I make that very clear.

Before I sit down, I will say it one more time: up the Vale.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered e-petition 552036, relating to spectator attendance at football matches during Covid-19.

Sitting suspended.