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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:40 pm on 9th November 2020.

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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

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.