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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:54 pm on 9th November 2020.

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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.