Football Spectator Attendance: Covid-19

Ruth Cadbury Excerpts
Monday 9th November 2020

(11 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Damian Collins Portrait Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)
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9 Nov 2020, midnight

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 the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (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.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
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9 Nov 2020, 12:02 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

As others have said, football is an important part of our national psyche and it is a regular fixture of the week for many people. My husband and two close friends are season-ticket holders of different football clubs, so I know what football means to fans. However, I was particularly struck by the stories about some of Brentford Football Club’s fans. Woody is a young Brentford fan with Down’s syndrome. When football was taken away from him in March, he struggled, to the extent that his hair started to fall out. Huge credit must go to the Brentford players, in particular Woody’s favourite, Ollie Watkins, who left Brentford for Aston Villa earlier in the year but still took the time to go and visit Woody after he left the club, to see how he was doing.

The directors of Brentford have been playing their part in keeping the family of fans going, by making calls to some of the older fans in particular to check in for a chat and to see if they need any help. Marcus Gayle, a former player who is now a club ambassador, popped in to see a fan, Anthony Talbot, to take him a new shirt and brighten up his day, after he heard that Anthony was missing his football to the extent that his health was suffering. The football community at Brentford have also got together to help raise money for Jamie Powell, who is a lifelong Brentford fan with a rare cancer, so that he can go to Boston for life-saving treatment.

The club narrowly avoided going into administration in 2002 and was then taken over by a supporter-led trust. When I was a Brentford ward councillor on Hounslow Borough Council, I saw at first hand the amazing community response and effort to keep the club base in Brentford, and I persuaded my colleagues on the council to loan the fans the half a million pounds that they needed at that time, which has since been paid back. We realised how much the club meant to the borough and to our community.

The 18-year relationship that I have had with the club at the end of my road has taught me that we cannot and should not forget that clubs such as Brentford thrive because they are at the heart of their community. I am talking about the generations who watch games every Saturday, the new fans who move to the area, the countless hours of work done by the club and the local community, the support for the businesses that survive and thrive and the jobs that they create, because of the fans, home and away, who come for matches. Football is a real power for good in our society, and at times like this it is something that we should support and bring back to our stadiums as soon as we can.

We have important points from the operations team at Brentford. They have been working with the safety advisory group at Brentford to ensure that the new stadium can be safe, and they need to be respected by Government and work hand in hand with Government to ensure that fans can come back to matches as soon as possible.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
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9 Nov 2020, 5 p.m.

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.

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Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab)
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9 Nov 2020, 5:32 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) on introducing the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee.

Members have spoken at length about the various aspects of why football is so important. They have shared their considerable experience across the House in advocating for our national game. I congratulate them all. I was outed earlier by the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) as a supporter of the red side of Merseyside, which drew one-all with Manchester City yesterday. It is fair to say that I have experienced frustration over the past months over the football team that I support.

Notwithstanding that, it has been a great honour to see the amazing work of football clubs across the United Kingdom. I could not be prouder to have seen their activism, whether delivering food parcels or former players ringing older supporters with dementia to give them comfort. I honestly believe that football has done itself proud, as we have heard from hon. Members this afternoon. That must not go unrecorded by the House. I thank colleagues for making those points and for arguing that it is crucial that, as soon as is humanly possible, people can get back to supporting their football team in the ground. It is so blatantly obvious to me that that is important that I do not think I need to add to what colleagues have said.

I want to raise two points briefly. Sport in general and football specifically were quite shocked that they would not be able to continue with pilot schemes and that supporters would not be able to return in October. I worry that they have been left hanging a bit. That is a problem. I know that the Minister will talk about the science group that is trying to tackle this, but some of his colleagues put it really well this afternoon: we need more of a plan than that. If the science group by itself represented enough of a plan, I am not sure we would be here this afternoon. We need to work on this matter together.

Secondly, there is an underlying problem: football, by law, is treated differently from other sports. That situation risks exacerbating the problem, rather than working towards undoing it, as I think we would like to do on a cross-party basis. All the problems have been described: the effort that football clubs have put in to comply with the covid regulations—

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury
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And the money.

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?

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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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9 Nov 2020, 12:02 a.m.

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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9 Nov 2020, midnight

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.