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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:42 pm on 9th November 2020.

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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.