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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:32 pm on 9th November 2020.

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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.