Football Spectator Attendance: Covid-19

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Monday 9th November 2020

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Nigel Huddleston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Nigel Huddleston)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I will indeed make sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (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.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (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.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury
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As the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (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.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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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.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern
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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?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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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.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern
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Will the Minister give way?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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Very briefly—one more time.

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

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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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.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (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 the Member for Solihull (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 the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (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 the Member for Hyndburn (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.

The hon. Member for Bath (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 the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (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 the Member for Burnley (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 the Member for North West Durham (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.