Football Spectator Attendance: Covid-19

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Monday 9th November 2020

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them and respect the one-way system around the room. Members should speak only from the horseshoe and may speak only if they are on the call lists. This applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for the wind-ups. Members in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move on to the horseshoe when seats become available.

I remind hon. Members that there is less of an expectation that Members stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken. This is to help manage attendance in the room. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech, but they should be aware that doing so may prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving to seats on the horseshoe. This room has capacity for 20 people. I ask Members to bear that in mind.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
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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 the Member for Mid Worcestershire (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.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Before I bring in Seema Malhotra, I have been asked whether Members who are not on the call list can intervene, as was the practice before covid-19. The answer is no, you have to be on the call list to speak. I understand there is one Member waiting outside to come into the room. The spare seat at the front is for the Opposition spokesperson—she has indicated that she is coming, but she is in the main Chamber at the present time. I hope that clarifies things.

We have until 5.30 pm. I do not like imposing time limits, and I hope Members will do the divisions among themselves. If anybody goes over, I will impose a time limit, so I hope people will be disciplined. I call Seema Malhotra.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (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 the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (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 the Member for Wirral South (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.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I think it would be sensible and help hon. Members if I impose a formal three-minute time limit from now. I call Julian Knight.

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Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for introducing the debate. The Bluebirds, Barrow AFC, are more than a football club—they are the backbone of our community. In June, they were promoted to the English Football League after 48 years away—they had a phenomenal season. Now, they are really in the doldrums when they should be celebrating. They are facing a significant loss this year, and it would be worse if their supporters had not stuck by them and bought season tickets for matches that they cannot now attend.

As my hon. Friends have explained this afternoon, football was one of the first industries to close and it may well be one of the last to restart. Our communities need them to restart. They are more than football clubs; they are significant local employers and they are community hubs. The Barrow AFC Community Trust delivers physical activity, leadership and core skills to local schools. As a result of the lockdown, it is now also at risk. It is no exaggeration to say that the Bluebirds, just like all my colleagues’ clubs, carry the spirit of their towns and communities on their shoulders. When we talk to Levi Gill, the CEO of the Bluebirds, he is explicit that they do not want a bail-out; they want to stand on their own two feet. They want to reopen, and they want to do that safely and in a covid-secure way. They want to see the fans brought back in. The trust and the club have put a huge amount of work into this. They were buoyed by the successful trials elsewhere and they were ready to go as soon as the Government gave them the go-ahead.

The fans are able to watch matches online, but that is a pale shadow of getting back into Holker Street and seeing a match at first hand, of reconnecting with the club and the community. For many people, their health, mental and physical, goes hand in hand with being able to follow their beloved club, especially now, in these really trying times, so I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is able to work closely with clubs such as Barrow AFC to come to a result, at the end of the current lockdown, that keeps people safe but allows clubs and communities to stand on their own two feet with pride once again.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I apologise to the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley): I have gone one out of order on the call list.

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Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) for representing the petitioners and speaking so eloquently on behalf of many of us about the issues faced by many clubs.

I am lucky in North West Durham: because I am a Blackburn fan, I am neither a Magpie nor a Mackem, so I have managed to avoid many of the issues that come with that. Although hon. Members have spoken on behalf of clubs in the EFL—I know Sunderland have faced a lot of issues recently—I would like to speak on behalf of my clubs in tiers 9 and 10 of the English football league pyramid, particularly Consett, Tow Law Town, Crook Town and Willington, some of whose owners have put thousands of pounds of their own money into supporting their clubs in recent months. I have had an email from the chairman of Consett, Frank Bell, saying that their revenues are now 85% down. For them, it is not just ticket sales; it is also all the add-ons, such as the pints behind the bar, which are usually served by his son. His wife runs the little kitchen there. Everything, down to the matchday programmes, is really hit by what is happening at the moment.

I have a plea: when this lockdown ends, I implore the Government to let fans back into grounds. The clubs in my patch are really small, but they are really reliant on income from their loyal fans. It can be done safely. We have not seen any covid transmission at football clubs in my patch. We need to bring fans back, because it is the only way that those clubs, who are at the heart of their communities, can survive. They need some grant support, but that will not make up for the funding that they get from their fans.

Briefly, before I conclude, I will mention the huge community impact of some of the clubs. Consett sees 1,500 children a week playing at its club, about 2,000 adults a week come through the door, and its BTEC education programme has more than 100 students. It was a national charity’s sports club of the year in 2018 and 2019 and the Mirror Group football club of the year for the past three years, beating many teams at higher levels. It has been the site of our local test and trace, in the car park.

This is a real plea on behalf of my local clubs: please, give us a road map as soon as practically possible. That will allow Consett finally to play in the FA Vase final at Wembley, which has been delayed until April next year—for the 2020 season—and allow as many fans as possible to attend.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Before I call the SNP spokesperson, I have a small announcement to make. Members should be aware that the first nine minutes of this debate were not broadcast, due to technical problems, but there will of course be a full record of the debate in Hansard.

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Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern
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As my hon. Friend, who represents Brentford very well—the football club and the constituency—says, clubs have spent money on it. They all hired covid officers. I was lucky to be shown around the New Den by the chief executive of Millwall. I was so impressed by all the work that the club had done to prep for the regulations.

The position that football has been put in compared with other large events is hard to understand, so I did a bit of digging and looked a little deeper into the scientific advice that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport commissioned from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. I found out that, preparing for the potential return of supporters, DCMS commissioned advice from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, which is the behavioural sub-committee of SAGE. That advice, which anybody can read—it is on the SAGE website—goes through different things concerning large sports. It does not specifically focus on football, but the characteristics seem to tie in well with it.

Even in August, the advice from SAGE to DCMS was:

“The easing of some aspects of lockdown, which took place on July 4th… was preceded by a considerable media fanfare… as well as a public discussion about whether the 2 metre rule would be changed.”

To paraphrase the advice, all those trends in the media were contemporaneous with several factors, all of which could have contributed to the decline in compliance with distancing measures. It said that the trends could include

“decline in trust in the government”,

a declining

“sense of national togetherness… and decline in perceived risk”.

In August, SAGE was warning DCMS that this might not go so well. How did the Minister help football at that time to understand the situation that we were really in, what discussions has he had with SAGE directly, and what discussions did he have with stakeholders to help them to understand the problems that we faced and how the Government planned to get us out of a situation where the environment through the summer was counteracting some of the compliance measures that we needed to see, as the report from SAGE says?

Can the Minister explain how DCMS plans to, from this point, encourage and help football clubs to plan for what could happen in the future? At the moment, they feel as if they have been left hanging and some people wonder whether DCMS is really in control or decisions are being taken centrally by the Cabinet and No. 10. If that is the case, can he explain how the decision will be taken to get supporters back into grounds?

People have pointed out the inconsistencies, comparing football with other things. I am not one to set up sport against the arts. Both are great in this country and both should be able to move forward together, but the difference is that we, as football supporters, have been treated differently since the 1980s. I had understood that we were on a journey out of those worst times towards football supporters in this country being able to get proper respect, policing by consent and support from the Government.

As the Minister will have heard from Members across the House, football is universally a positive activity in Members’ constituencies. If he really wants to prove that football will not be permanently treated differently in this country, can he explain, as Members have asked, what the plan is to get supporters back into grounds?

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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The Minister has more time than I expected, but I trust he will still leave time for the Member who introduced the debate to sum up.