Monday 9 November 2020
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Football Spectator Attendance: Covid-19
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). I am most impressed that he managed to get Bovril into his speech. Recently I visited my local football club, Solihull Moors—I draw colleagues’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—to see its preparations for behind-closed-doors matches, testing and, I hope, the return of spectators at matches soon.
Spectator sports are the beating heart of our communities and football clubs, in the national league, the EFL or any other tier, and a fundamental part of our national fabric. So many teams depend on ticket revenues and now find themselves in dire straits. If football bodies do not come together soon for the good of the game, there is a risk that 10, 12 or even 15 EFL clubs go bust. What is more, 10 EFL clubs are at risk of not making their November payroll. By comparison, just 17% of Chelsea’s revenue comes from ticket sales and, as we know, the Premier League has a £9 billion TV deal at the top of the game.
Nobody wants to see that happen, but I fear that we are not exploring all the options available to us that could not only allow spectators to return to football matches, but see other revenue-generating activities take place. Solihull Moors, for example, benefits significantly from selling hospitality and corporate packages, so it is not just a matter of bums on seats or even the equivalent of the prawn sandwich brigade, but of allowing all types of spectators to return to football stadiums.
The key to seeing fans return to football is not just reducing covid numbers but increasing our testing capacity. We need smart solutions: the expansion of rapid testing, temperature checks, deep cleaning and social distancing. Venues can never be 100% covid-secure, but they are doing all that they can, and there is always risk in life.
I have heard from clubs up and down the country. They have invested significant sums in getting covid ready. Over the summer, my Committee heard from Prenetics, a testing company that works extensively with sports teams to ensure they can return to matches behind closed doors. Now it and other testing providers are looking at how rapid testing can be used to even greater effect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said that football was being treated differently from the arts. I understand that, but I will make certain points in the brief time that I have. First, no arts organisation that I know runs on player wages with 108% of turnover. No arts or cultural organisation that I know has a £9 billion TV deal. Also, such organisations have not just spent £1.2 billion in a transfer window. The National Theatre puts its stuff up for free on YouTube. The Premier League voted 19 to 1 to put pay-per-view TV at £14.95, perhaps encouraging people to go to one another’s houses. The money is there in the game. It would be an absurdity for taxpayer money to bail out those clubs. They have to come together now.
I pay tribute to Bath City Football Club. Bath is a city known for its rugby, but we have a thriving football club in the national league, and, since it has been in community ownership, it has gone from strength to strength, particularly because of its very strong community engagement. May I say, in the company of many men here, the women’s team is doing very well? The Bath club has become a community asset. Unlike the big clubs, it depends entirely on the income that it gets from fans coming to the matches on a regular basis.
As we have heard today, football is about bringing the community together and having fun. Even if it is socially distanced, it is possible. Indeed, the club had prepared very well over the summer to bring spectators back into the stadium. It is quite a big space that is not always full, and it could easily have managed that. It was particularly disappointed when it could not bring spectators back. The club is grateful for the financial support that it has received, but the game is not the same without the spectators. Football clubs are in a different financial position from the cultural sector. I understand that, but there has been a marked difference. I have been to four different cultural events, but not a single sporting event, and that is difficult to explain to people who enjoy sports more than cultural events. We have to recognise that.
I had a discussion with our local director for public health, and he says that the main issue is the uncontrolled spaces. Organisations and classroom teachers can control their spaces, but anything outside the classroom or a venue becomes an uncontrolled space, and that is the crux of the matter. The Government need to put their minds on the issue of travel. Although a survey found that most fans travel by car or on foot, it is important that the Government look at organisations such as STIG, the sports technology and innovation group that has been put together. It could be very helpful in assisting the Government to understand how fans travel to and from sporting events.
Hopefully, after the lockdown, people will be able to enjoy their sporting events again. I speak today particularly on behalf of Bath City Football Club, but I know that I speak on behalf of all sporting events across my city and across the country, so let us make sure that the Government get this right and look particularly at how fans travel to their sporting events.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you, Mr Stringer. Of course I do not mind at all. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend, and constituency neighbour, the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). I can absolutely attest to what he has said about the value in the community of Port Vale and Stoke City, who support local activities and community events in my constituency of Staffordshire Moorlands, too. They are incredibly important and, indeed, vital parts of our community.
I thank the Government for allowing elite sport to continue during this lockdown. To be clear, nothing that I am about to say is regarding what is happening today, in this lockdown; it is to the time after the lockdown that I think we need to look. However, I will just make the point that there was a match yesterday at the Etihad Stadium and my son and I are utterly convinced that, if we had been there, we would have got the Blues over the line and had a victory—I say sorry to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), on the Opposition Benches, for that. But we could not be there, and we accept that. We were pleased that we were able to watch on television even if we were not able to help our team to get that victory.
My hon. Friend the Minister will know that I have referred before to my community club, Leek Town, which is a step four club, so has been able to have spectators. It is clearly unable to play any matches at the moment because of lockdown, and it fully accepts and appreciates that, but could I repeat this question to the Minister? When we do get out of lockdown, can we not have a one-size-fits-all answer to this? There may well be clubs that can fit in more fans. They need to have other revenue streams. They are not asking for a Government bail-out. They want the chance to run and to make the money that they would normally make. This one is a volunteer-run club. It wants to have hospitality again—no prawn cocktails; it is entirely Staffordshire oatcakes. It would like to be able to have that hospitality back and have those income streams.
May I make a point about another elite sport? I am the treasurer of the all-party parliamentary group on Formula 1, and it was brilliant to have two F1s this year at Silverstone, but when we spoke to Silverstone recently, it said that the lack of fans was soul-destroying. It is such a big spectator event—all outdoors—for household groups travelling together. When Lewis Hamilton took the record for the most F1 wins in Portimão, Portugal, there were spectators flying the Union flag which, I am sure, was important for him and the fans.
Finally, on grassroots sports, I co-signed the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who is no longer here. We need grassroots sports, not just because they are important in themselves, but because they are a pipeline for elite sports. We heard recently from the rugby authorities that there is a real worry that we will not have that pipeline of young players coming through, which will have an impact on our national teams and on the mental health and wellbeing of many.
In late September, a number of football league clubs demonstrated that they could welcome fans back safely into stadiums in several trial games. I was fortunate enough to be at Bloomfield Road to see Blackpool beat Swindon in one of those successful and safe pilot games.
Football league clubs have excellent crowd control due to pre-existing regulations. Working with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, they have developed guidance for the safe, socially distanced return of fans. Of course, that brings challenges—fans must follow the spectators code of conduct that is issued to them before games—but from what I witnessed, fans abided meticulously by the planned safety measures.
A survey asking fans whether they had adhered to restrictions following the pilot games suggested that more than 98% thought they had. The measures that had been put in place, including wearing face masks, using hand sanitiser, following one-way systems and staggering entry and exit to the stadium, were conducted in an exemplary manner.
About 1,000 fans were at Bloomfield Road, which has a maximum capacity of more than 17,000. In my opinion, the attendance could easily have been increased to between 25% and 35% of the total capacity with no impact on the safety of those attending. That is important, because although the clubs that took part in the trial games, including Blackpool, were delighted to do so, the cost of opening stadiums for such a small number of fans was excessive and would not be commercially viable on a regular basis. If we are going to see fans back in stadiums, of course that has to be done safely, but it also has to be done at a level at which it is viable to operate in the short term.
Before the new national restrictions were introduced, cinemas, theatres and other indoor venues had allowed audiences back. Football stadiums are obviously better ventilated and, at about 30% capacity, would be operating at a lower proportion than the indoor venues that were allowed to open in October. Most clubs can also provide enough car parking spaces for that level of attendance and did so cost free at the trial games. That resulted in more than 90% of fans travelling by car or on foot and reduced the risk of transmission from journeys before and after games on public transport. It is not just the fans who are suffering; it is the clubs directly. Their finances are at breaking point. I implore the Government to get fans back into stadiums as soon as possible.
I declare an interest as a Norwich City season ticket holder and a supporter of my local club, King’s Lynn Town FC. This is an important debate. When the national restrictions end on 2 December, we should let fans back into grounds.
Having been one of the 1,000 fans in the crowd at Norwich City’s game against Preston North End—one of the pilot matches—I am confident that that can be done safely. Fans were asked to arrive in good time; there were temperature and ID checks; food and drink areas were closed in the grounds, so hawkers brought stuff to people in their seats; fans were socially distanced and in the fresh air; and exits were staggered at the end. There has been no evidence of transmission from pilot matches. Indeed, the Minister told me in a written answer that the Department was confident that any issues could be mitigated.
We need to let fans back in because the current restrictions are having a major impact on clubs’ finances and threatening their futures. King’s Lynn FC depends on match day income to survive, and while I welcome the funding provided to the national league and thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his work and efforts in securing that, it does not make up for the loss of revenue that club is experiencing. Norwich City’s accounts, published last week, showed it had lost £12 million due to covid, yet the Premier League has only made a derisory offer of £20 million for leagues one and two, with a further £30 million of loans, and no support for championship teams. I share the Government’s view, and that of other hon. Members who have spoken today: the Premier League needs to take a long-term view of the importance of the pyramid, and support championship and league one clubs. Leaving it to the Premier League to sort it out is clearly not working, and if there is not movement, then the Government need to step in and tell it what is expected.
It is the impact on the fans—the 12th player—that is my major concern. Football is not just a game: it is much more than that. Clubs, as we have heard, are at the heart of our communities. They give people a sense of belonging; of being part of a family of fans. Going to matches is a huge part of their lives, and not being allowed in hurts their mental health. This weekend, King’s Lynn beat Port Vale in the first round of the FA cup—a great result, but no fans were there, and watching on a streaming service is no substitute. The Sports Grounds Safety Authority has given King’s Lynn approval to have 1,400 fans in its ground. Norwich has been allowed to have 8,000 fans, rather than the 26,000 that can usually be seen at fortress Carrow Road; it will make it work.
To conclude, Norwich’s joint majority shareholder, Delia Smith, has written an open letter to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that asks,
“before the final whistle is blown, can we have our football back?”
I say to the Minister:
“Come on, let’s be having you!”
Let fans in.
The first lockdown stripped us of much that we enjoy. Museum exhibitions were left to gather dust; music venues fell silent; theatres closed their doors; cinemas turned off their screens; and our sports stadiums were left empty, to help protect people’s lives and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.
From an economic perspective, we can analyse and measure the tangible cost of lockdown. In 2019, the UK premier league had 14.5 million spectators visit stadiums to watch their teams. According to the accountancy firm Deloitte, the first coronavirus lockdown cost premier league clubs £1 billion in lost revenue. Leagues lower down the scale also suffered financially: league two clubs, which made £91 million in 2018-19, may have lost £1.7 million per game without spectators, and £37 million if fans cannot return all season. As a percentage of their cost base, amateur and even professional clubs in the lower leagues are hurting disproportionately from a lack of revenue at the gates.
That, however, only tells half the story. Football, like all team sports, is a powerful tool for communities to come together in a shared passion. While elite sports are permitted to continue, the impacts on community spirit, togetherness and mental health are also felt more keenly towards the lower base of the footballing pyramid. In those terms, the cost of closure cannot be quantified or estimated. As we enter the second lockdown, I do not believe that some of the more draconian measures we suffered in the first lockdown should return, such as the blanket closure of football stadiums to fans.
A couple of weeks ago in October, I visited Wakefield AFC and watched them defeat Wombwell Main FC. During my visit, I was impressed by how well the social distancing measures issued by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Health and Social Care were enforced and adhered to by the fans; further, Wakefield AFC lives and trains together. Through these measures, team sports were allowed to be played in a safe manner. I strongly believe that with the strict enforcement of social distancing measures, football stadiums should be allowed to not only host games, but allow for a number of spectators to enter the stadium.
In defeating coronavirus, we should not and need not destroy everything that we cherish and enjoy. Where it is possible, everyday life should be able to continue in a sensible manner that does not cause a risk of infection. I believe this is the case with football stadiums, and having a responsible and well-distanced audience would provide great benefits, not just to people’s mental health and social lives but to communities that come together in a shared love of sport.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, Mr Stringer. Hundreds of my constituents signed this petition, and that does not surprise me, because football is the beating heart of Burnley and always has been. Anyone who has ever been to Burnley will know that the Turf sits iconically in our town centre. When fans were there for every home game, the atmosphere was something to behold. The anticipation could be sensed in the air, and it brought everything to life, but it did much more than that. It also stimulated our local economy. Thousands of fans would come into Burnley from across the country. They filled our hotels, ate in our local restaurants and drank in our local pubs.
Burnley is not a city like Manchester or London, where a football club is simply a nice addition. For us it is one of our main economic drivers, so taking fans away does not just change the optics of a match for us; it changes the whole town. It closes hotels, restaurants and pubs. That is to say nothing of the direct economic cost to the club itself. Broadcast income is much needed by us, but ticket sales play a huge part too. They cannot simply be discarded without that having an impact.
I want to commend Burnley football club for the huge support that it has given to the whole borough, not just during the period of covid but before—despite the significant financial hit that it has taken. It has shown, throughout, what being a premier league community club means. I know it is ready and willing to bring fans back, too, so I urge the Government to treat football clubs like any other business: give them the guiding rules, and they will meet them. They are best placed to determine how many they can safely welcome back, based on their own capacity. Let us not forget that the events in question are always outdoors, where transmission risk is lower. Clubs are ready to step forward. The Government do not need to answer every question or find every scenario. Give clubs the ability to innovate, control the flow of people, invest in new infrastructure and space people out—because that is what will get the fans back.
Burnley is not the only club we have, however. We also have Burnley FC Women and Padiham football club, both of which play at the Ruby Civil Arena. Padiham was able to get some fans back under the FA’s limited return of spectators, and it proved a big success. The club operated safely. Spectators were able to enjoy the game and income started to pick up. That showed, as the pilots did, what is possible. So I urge the Government to look now at how on 2 December football fans can make a meaningful return. It is not just about the optics of seeing fans in the stadium. It is about giving people back their passion, bringing back the atmosphere, and bringing back the essential economic activity that our town relies on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
The heartbeat of every football club is its supporters. From 14 March Accrington Stanley supporters have not been able to see their team play at first hand. There are few places in most towns where the whole borough has the opportunity to gather and meet as a community for the same purpose, to watch the town team play football. Those are places where children, parents, grandparents and friends can come together.
I acknowledge the hard work of Accrington Stanley football club, which has paid its players without deferment, and has secured funding in the form of a loan to keep the club afloat. The team are back to playing, but huge costs are being incurred without income coming back to the club through fans, sponsors, hospitality or any other form of secondary income. That is obviously unsustainable. The club needs income, and there is a need for pressure to be put on the Premier League and the FA to get a bail-out sorted. There is enough money in football; it just seems to be poorly distributed.
On 24 September at column 114 I asked the Minister in the House about a road map for the return of fans to professional football and he said that the Government were working with sporting authorities to support the return of fans. That road map is now more necessary than ever. Once the current lockdown ends, our sports clubs will need our support to enable them to prepare an annual budget or business plan to weather the crisis. It is not right to let clubs continue to lose money without giving them a timescale to work towards. They need the assurance of hope.
In September the return of fans to football games was piloted for certain clubs. Up to 1,000 fans were welcomed using the Government’s stage 5 protocols and guidance. English Football League clubs implemented a wide range of measures to ensure that the spectator journey was built around maintaining social distancing. From those matches the University of Edinburgh conducted a study to show that more than 90% of people who attended were confident that the event organisers could deliver spectator safety. Having reviewed the findings from that study, I believe that the pilots were a success and that football clubs will be able to deliver a covid-secure experience for fans. I hope that the Government will reflect on those findings and work with sports clubs to give them a road map to allow fans back into stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so.
Throughout this pandemic, we have had our community centres, pubs, cafés, gyms, theatres and leisure centres threatened by these financially turbulent times. If we forget our football clubs, we risk cutting out the heart of local communities across the country. Once the pandemic is over, we will need community hubs more than ever. To let our football clubs disappear would be too big a blow for towns such as mine.
My constituency boasts the mighty Crewe Alexandra FC as well as several other smaller clubs, who have all been affected by the coronavirus. Technically, the stadium is located just across the border of the area of Nantwich that I represent. Nantwich Town FC is another club that play a big role in the community.
Crewe Alex has made a huge effort to make the iconic Alexandra Stadium, which is often known locally as Gresty Road, covid-secure. Founded in 1877, Crewe Alex has been part of my constituency for 143 years. Like many other people, I live close enough to hear the crowds on matchday. The club takes its name from the pub where the first games were held: the Princess Alexandra. We must ensure that the coronavirus is not the final chapter in this club’s history.
Crewe Alex fans are totally dedicated to their club. They have even become shareholders and have a place on the board. As a group of fans, they also give back through community volunteering. I recently met Mark Beavan from the Railwaymen Supporters Society. He talked passionately about the huge community surrounding the club and about how, particularly for some of the oldest fans, coming to matches and being part of that community is vital for their mental health and wellbeing. We must not underestimate how important football clubs are to many of their fans.
As hon. Members have mentioned, the EFL hosted eight successful pilot fixtures in September, which saw clubs welcome 1,000 supporters back to the stands. I understand the Government might have concerns, most likely not around the fans while they are in the venues, but around their socialising before and after the match and the fact that they travel from all across the country. Unfortunately, however, not enough has been done to explain and justify the decision, which I hope the Minister can do today.
I would like the Government to provide us with a road map for how football fans will be able to return to grounds when it is safe to do so. People need hope—a way forward, at least. Every week, track and trace gets better. On Saturday, we had a testing capacity of almost 520,000, and we are now testing an entire city. The Sports Technology Innovation Working Group has been working with sports bodies to look into high-tech solutions to getting fans back into venues, and I would be grateful if the Minister could update us on that. While fans are not present at matches, the financial uncertainty for clubs is huge. Matchday revenue is vital to local clubs up and down the country—without it, the future of clubs looks uncertain. If clubs are to be prevented from welcoming fans back, they need to know that support will be in place for them in the months ahead.
Football clubs are the pride and joy of so many of our local communities. It is clear that clubs and fans are willing to do what it takes to get spectators back into stadiums. I urge the Government to do whatever they can to ensure that clubs come out of the other side of this pandemic holding the same important role that they have always had in our communities and still playing a big part in the lives of so many of their fans.
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.
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.
Thank you, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this evening’s proceedings. If the broadcasters did not pick it up, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) finished by shouting, “Up the Vale!”, which I am happy to adopt on his behalf.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. He set the picture eloquently. In the debate, we have had passionate contributions from 15 hon. Members, all representing their constituencies and their clubs diligently. Above all, I want to acknowledge the frustration of the 200,000 people who signed this petition, more than 100 of whom were from my constituency.
I feel that I should declare an interest at the outset, as a season ticket holder at Airdrieonians football club—indeed, long suffering now, for 19 years. Long before I was an MP, and long after I have finished being an MP, I am first and foremost a Diamonds supporter. Like others, I find not being in the Jack Dalziel stand on a Saturday with my son and my mates hugely frustrating.
Much as I have appreciated the ingenuity of clubs such as my own, which have tried to get teams live streamed using AI cameras, that has not exactly been without its hitches. Last month, I was amused to read about an incident when Inverness Caledonian Thistle took on Ayr United, behind closed doors in a game that was understandably only available on pay per view live stream. Of course, instead of the staff multi-camera operation, we had a robot camera from Pixellot, the idea being that it would auto-track the action without any staff having to use it. However, it went horribly wrong, as the camera proceeded to follow the bald head of a linesman on the near side, rather than the ball. The play was on completely the opposite side of the park, so nothing much could be seen, because the focus was on the official’s rather shiny head.
That is a mere anecdote, but most of us would be much happier to leave behind the live streams and the pies on our couch, and to get back into the grounds, both from a personal point of view and from an economic point of view. I have made the point to the Minister before about the multiplier effect, and I know he gets it: this is not just about money spent on the game; it is the food in local cafés, the pints in nearby pubs and the passing trade for shops near the stadiums. Many clubs, such as Celtic football club in my constituency, rely heavily on match day income to operate, in particular in Scotland, where significantly more people attend matches per capita than anywhere else in Europe.
That brings me to the nub of the issue: in essence, matches are mass gatherings, which we know for good reason are currently prohibited due to covid-19. Let us not lose sight of the fact that we are in the midst of a deadly second wave so that, on Saturday alone, some 125 people in England tragically lost their life as a result of this virus. My fear is that, by returning to football grounds now, we would inevitably see large queues congregating for pies during the 15-minute half-time window. Almost certainly, all of us would pay by cash in the concourse, not using contactless—as we talked about, people are handling notes and coins already handled by countless people, thereby spreading the virus. At quarter to 5 o’clock on a Saturday, when full-time whistles go right across the British isles, we face the spectre of hundreds of thousands of people pouring out of grounds and on to the public transport network.
Unfortunately, it is currently not possible or safe for fans to return to the majority of grounds in these islands. That said, a regionalised tiered approach in Scotland has seen some clubs welcome back some fans, such as the highland side Ross County, which has been able to welcome a maximum of 300 fans back to its 6,500-seater stadium, because of a low prevalence rate in the highlands.
As a fan, I have mixed feelings about that, not least because it means 300 season ticket holders are drawn in a ballot and some fans will inevitably lose out. That raises wider questions about equality for the match-day experience and consumer rights. I appreciate, however, that this is a difficult balancing act for the Government, and I do not envy the position Ministers find themselves in. However, as hon. Members have said, we know that ongoing financial support is needed to prevent clubs from falling into bankruptcy, a fate that sadly befell my own club in 2002.
The petition takes note of a return for French and German sports fans, but that is no longer the case. The Bundesliga will have to play without fans again, after the tentative return of spectators was cut short due to rising coronavirus infections in Germany. In France, a new lockdown allowing only essential travel outside the home will prevent fans from watching Ligue 1 and 2 matches. The evidence from France and Germany shows that the return of fans will take time. I understand that Ministers are in a difficult position with these issues, but I urge caution. I hope that the regionalised tiered approach, opening up steadily and safely where prevalence rates are low, might bear fruit until we get a vaccine.
The return, therefore, of mass gatherings of any size or scale must be done with extreme care. My colleagues in the Scottish Government are taking that approach, and when England moves back to a regionalised tier system, the Government might consider it. In the meantime, I stand in solidarity with football fans, as I long to hear the turnstile click behind me, walk up the stairs to my seat in the Jack Dalziel stand, and see the holy turf of New Broomfield again.
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—
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”,
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was saddened to hear that my opening remarks were missed. Once again, I thank Ashley Greenwood for starting the petition—it is because of him and the near 200,000 people who signed the petition that we stand here today. As I said, my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke has the fourth highest number of signatories on the petition, so it is important that I speak for them.
I heard what the Minister had to say, and I think he gets it. He has taken many a letter from me and from Carol Shanahan, the co-owner and chair of Port Vale football club, on this issue. Having heard the debate, the Minister is fully aware that we are united—something that is quite rare in this place—in wanting fans back in football stadiums. I want to make it clear for the record that I expect an announcement that as of 2 December, fans are coming back into football stadiums. That is for the mental health and wellbeing of residents in my constituency. It will allow them to communicate with others in socially distanced crowds, and to get their passion back. Sitting in a living-room chair will never replicate the adrenaline rush that is felt in a football stadium, so we have to see fans back in football stadiums.
I absolutely agree that we do not want taxpayers’ money bailing out elite football. As I said in my speech, I implore the Premier League and the EFL to come to a conclusion. I absolutely agree with the Minister on that point, and I hope we will get to a compromise position for both. One way that we could help clubs is by allowing them to start to bring in some revenue. As I said, Port Vale football club has lost £1.5 million in revenue since March, which is an extreme amount of money for a league two club—especially when that club’s mother town is Burslem, which unfortunately has more closed high street shops than almost anywhere in the UK. Our small cafés and restaurants rely heavily on match day attendance and revenue. Rejuvenating Burslem relies on a positive, crowd-friendly atmosphere at Port Vale football club.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), made the perfect point that football crowds are some of the most regulated in the country. They are willing to go above and beyond, as the pilot showed. Hand sanitisation, social distancing, wearing a face mask, Test and Trace—whatever they need to do, they will do it. I know the Minister has some influence, but he needs to kick down the door to No. 10 to make the point heard. At the end of the day, this is the working man’s game.
And the working woman’s game; that is what it has evolved to be, over time. I am very lucky to have in my constituency Port Vale Ladies and Stoke City Ladies, who are incredible ambassadors for the local community and for local girls’ sports. I am even prouder to have recently visited Milton United Ladies, to support what they are doing there. Football is a game for everyone. It is no longer the game of 50 years ago; it allows everyone to come together, celebrate and rejoice.
I urge the Minister to ensure that there is an announcement on 2 December. As I said, Port Vale football club has delivered 170,000 meals across the city of Stoke-on-Trent. With the Hubb Foundation, it co-runs a child holiday hunger support group that offers activities and mental and physical stimulation, as well as a hot meal during the holiday period. That organisation has helped people beyond the city boundaries in Kidsgrove, Talke and Staffordshire Moorlands, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) said. It has poured its heart and soul into the community. It is time we repaid it for everything it has sacrificed.
As the hon. Member for Wirral South said, that means players calling up season ticket holders. It means thanking the staff who were furloughed and who volunteered their time to deliver food parcels. It means helping the community groups that work with the football club to provide holiday activities and engagement activities with young people across the city. We need fans back in the stadium. On 2 December, I expect to hear an announcement; otherwise, I will be a pretty stroppy Back Bencher—I make that very clear.
Before I sit down, I will say it one more time: up the Vale.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 552036, relating to spectator attendance at football matches during Covid-19.
Live Events and Weddings: Covid-19 Support
[James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 329339 and 332789, relating to support for live events and weddings during covid-19.
E-petition 329339 relates to the number of guests permitted at weddings during the coronavirus pandemic, and e-petition 332789 relates to support for nightclubs, festivals and the live events industry. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who are in Westminster Hall for this Petitions Committee debate this afternoon.
I will turn first to the petition on weddings. This is particularly important to me, because I myself have had to postpone my wedding that I was supposed to have in July, but before I go on to lament that, it is important to know exactly what we are debating this afternoon. Just over 110,000 people have signed this petition so far, including 150 of my own constituents in Carshalton and Wallington, and the prayer of the petition states the following:
“Weddings take months and even years of intricate planning. Myself and many others believe the maximum number of guests authorised at wedding ceremonies should be increased. The number of guests permitted at weddings should be calculated according to venue capacity.
For instance, if a venue has a capacity of 600 people social distancing could still be practised with 1/5 of this number. People should not have to alter their plans if social distancing is observed. Surely, if beaches are allowed to remain open, weddings should be permitted to go ahead considering appropriate measures are put in place. It is more than apparent social distancing is not practised at such public places of leisure, thus guidelines for weddings should be reconsidered.”
As the Government outlined in their response, before we entered into a second national lockdown, weddings could take place, but numbers were restricted to 15 or 30 people. Sadly, once again, weddings are now restricted to deathbed weddings. I have heard worrying testimony from Professor Sandberg from Cardiff University, who pointed Some areas insist that deathbed weddings can take place only in a hospital setting, which has denied some couples in really tragic circumstances the ability to tie the knot. I would be glad if the Minister takes that point away.
I understand some of the arguments that have been made—some were directed at me when my wedding got cancelled. There is the argument that two people who are in love should not need a big event to get married; they can have a smaller ceremony now and leave a big party to later. There is also the argument that people will always need to get married, so the wedding events industry will survive. Those arguments fail to acknowledge a few key difficulties, including the planning involved in putting a wedding on, and the wider effect on the industry and some of the traditions associated with weddings.
That last point is demonstrated by the story of the petitioner, Zaynah Ali:
“My brother was due to get married in August and coming from an Asian-Pakistani background we had planned this big wedding and had been doing so for well over a year.
I felt sadness, anger and every other relating emotions, I guess what made it even more emotional was the fact my brother’s wife to be had lost her dad to cancer when she was a baby.
The fact her father couldn’t be there for her big day was heart-breaking enough but the fact my grandparents couldn’t give her away in true Pakistani style made it that much harder.
They almost felt like they had failed her father.
There were also a few personal reasons as to why we did not want to postpone the wedding and I’m sure many people were in the same situation.”
I can indeed confirm that many are in that situation. My wedding had to be postponed due to the number of guests we had hoped to have. Like many others, we had planned for over two years. Postponing had an effect not only on us, but on the caterers, florists, decorators, entertainment, marquee companies and everyone else involved in putting on a wedding. I have spoken to local businesses, such as the Function Junction in Wallington, which supplies decorations for weddings and live events. It told me that while some people, like me, have decided to postpone and use the same supplier later, many, due to the uncertainty of coronavirus, have decided to cancel all together and not set a new date. That leaves the couple devastated and the business out of pocket.
According to research, the industry has already lost most of its planned weddings for the first quarter for 2021, and is facing pressures on those in the second quarter. If it has no commitment before July, the sector tells me that it will lose most of its revenue up to June 2021 or beyond, and even runs the risk of collapsing fully. I ask, therefore, that the Government look carefully at liberalising the restrictions around weddings once we come out of the second national lockdown and set out a road map for reopening the wedding industry in the longer term.
We hope and pray that a vaccine will allow weddings to take place normally some time soon—we have had some good news today—but we must also have a plan B for living longer-term with the virus. I argue, like the petitioners, that this could begin after the lockdown, with amending the guidance on weddings to allow for greater guest capacity based on the venue.
Many countries in Europe have permitted weddings with socially distanced numbers; in some places, the number is capped at, say, 100 in the equivalent of our tier 1 or lower-risk environments. Even in the UK, Northern Ireland operated socially distanced weddings since June, until the more recent restrictions were brought in. Weddings were granted parity with the hospitality sector, and there are no known outbreaks associated with weddings in Northern Ireland. That proves that it can work. In the longer term, weddings seem to me the perfect place to trial rapid testing. Given the planning involved, it is relatively easy to share details prior to the event, conduct testing on arrival, if necessary, and test and trace after the event. I hope that will be considered as a potential place to pilot rapid testing.
I have spoken about the impact of the pandemic on the industry. Further restrictions and uncertainty will only cause further damage. A commitment to socially distanced weddings, rapid testing trials and equitable support for the wedding industry, along with other hospitality businesses, will help to deliver a bounce back for this industry.
To date, over 145,000 people have signed the e-petition on live events, including 236 from my constituency. The petition states:
“The government has failed to provide specific support to UK festivals, dance venues and nightclubs. Covid-19 has hit hard on the nightlife sector having a major impact due to the suspension of mass gatherings. Followed by unclear guidelines and a lack of commitment…this has contributed to growing uncertainty within the arts sector, putting at risk millions of jobs. The government must make clear its commitment to ensuring the dance community survives the pandemic. #LetUSDance”.
I have been extremely grateful in preparing for the debate to the lead petitioners, Jasper and Anthony, as well as the Night Time Industries Association, for taking the time to share their concerns with me and explain the issues that the sector faces in a bit more detail. The figures are quite stark. The night-time economy is the UK’s fifth largest sector. It contributes £66 billion a year to the economy—6% of the UK total—and provides in the region of 1.3 million jobs, alongside an entire supply line of creative freelancers, sole traders and skilled technicians. Significant parts of the sector, unlike other hospitality businesses, have not been able to open at all since lockdown in March—particularly night clubs. Some venues have indeed invested heavily in becoming covid-secure, or have even repurposed. However, even those venues have been able to trade only at a fraction of their previous capacity. Many have also raised concerns about the implementation of the arbitrary 10 pm curfew. Now we are facing another national lockdown, and the uncertainty is growing. There are calls from the sector for an urgent set of sector-specific support packages.
Prior to the new national lockdown a survey was commissioned by the Night Time Industries Association and its members, and some pretty devastating statistics came out of it: 72% of businesses said they were unable to open or trade; 58% feared that they would not survive longer than two months after a job retention scheme came to an end; and 71% said they were set to make more than half their workforce redundant. Just a third said that they were able to repurpose. The average cost of repurposing was anywhere between £10,000 and £30,000, and 84% of businesses were achieving only 10% to 50% of their normal trade. That was on top of growing concerns about the implementation of a 10 pm curfew. The night-time economy was seen by many as being the target of restrictions despite evidence from Public Health England indicating that infection transmission in hospitality was only about 4%. The danger was that the curfew could drive people to congregate in the streets, in mass gatherings outside, or even to continue their night in unsafe, unregulated and illegal gatherings behind closed doors.
I have spoken to people from hospitality businesses in Carshalton and Wallington, who have expressed similar concerns. Thankfully, loyal customers came back to popular local businesses such as the Ginger Italian and the Duke’s Head, once hospitality was allowed to reopen partially. However, the 10 pm curfew was felt to be stunting their ability to recover. There have been further concerns about the allocation of support grants and packages, as there were fears that the contemporary dance music scene was not taken into account properly in Arts Council England funding allocations.
Night-time businesses and their supply chains have recognised that they need to put public health first, and they have worked incredibly hard to make themselves covid-safe for when the time comes, but they need clarity, in the form of a road map to reopening, so that they can prepare financially. The NTIA has a number of asks about finances, which include the continuation of employment support guaranteeing 80% of wages, an extension of the self-employed income support scheme, a sector-specific grant system proportionate to the operating costs of frontline businesses and the supply chain, a workable commercial rent solution, a reduced rate of VAT for hospitality throughout 2021, a business rates holiday for 2021-22 and, ultimately, the all-important strategy for exit from lockdown.
There are fears in the industry that without those measures we risk losing our nightlife and, indeed, our cultural heritage, for good. So again, while I say that today’s news is good and we hope that a vaccine might be coming fast, to allow some semblance of normality to come back, we have to have a plan for both sectors to live with the virus. Repeated lockdowns, as the Government have said, are not the answer. Further restrictions could well mean that the industry is not there to recover in the end.
In both the cases that I have spoken about, I urge the Government to look carefully at the concerns raised by the industry and at what support could be made available in the short term. Most importantly, for weddings and for live events, I urge them to set out a clear road map for reopening, so that businesses can begin to bounce back.
I am asked to advise the Chamber that if Members want to avail themselves of a clean cup there are cups at the back of the Chamber.
A glance around the Chamber demonstrates that there are a large number of people seeking to speak. Rather than my imposing a formal time limit, which I think substitutes quantity for quality, it might be courteous to others if hon. Members restrict themselves to roughly three minutes per head from now onwards.
I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for clearly setting out the case for urgent support for the weddings and live events sector.
One of my constituents recently stated to me, “Music is part of this country’s rich fabric, its heart and soul.” Those words really resonated with me, not least because of my own constituency’s rich musical and artistic heritage. From Ewan MacColl to Madchester, we have long relied on a blossoming night-time and live events economy, and we have been very proud of it.
However, the last six months have pushed many from across the sector into extreme financial hardship. We have seen everything from the complete closure of many live venues through to the exclusion of many businesses and freelancers from the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s business support schemes. Indeed, ExcludedUK estimates that more than 3 million are excluded from any Government business support at all. The Night Time Industries Association states:
“Recent announcements have given some light, but we have lost so many businesses, employees and self-employed already, we are still in a very vulnerable state.”
The weddings and events industry is equally vulnerable. In some cases, venues were able to reopen in a limited capacity as lockdown eased; others had to remain closed completely. Within my constituency there are places such as Ordsall Hall and Salford Lads Club, which both do weddings and live events, in addition to numerous venues beyond the city that employ my constituents, such as Samlesbury Hall.
These venues employ a number of staff, in addition to all the suppliers along the way, who supply everything from the table placeholders to the wedding dress to the cakes and flowers. Many weddings take years of planning and are now being postponed, because couples understandably want all their family and friends to be part of what should be one of the most magical and happy events of their lives. Even if the venues were somehow able to reopen fully—safely and with no restrictions—tomorrow, these events take years of planning and simply cannot be resumed at short notice. Couples are now contacting venues and suppliers to request the rearranging of their bookings to 2021, but if these businesses cannot survive the pandemic, re-bookings will be heartbreakingly irrelevant.
The live events sector, including trade shows and exhibitions, has been affected in similar measure. I am sad to report that the absence of sector-specific support thus far has meant that redundancies have already occurred in my constituency. Those affected range from joiners to designers, and they have no idea when they will be able to secure work again.
I would therefore be grateful if the Minister could address the following concerns urgently. First, will he commit today to working with these sectors to develop sector-specific support packages? Will he commit to delivering a road map towards the resumption of normal business in a logical, covid-secure way, so that there is clarity about the future for businesses and their employees and customers? Will he review further VAT exemptions that could support affected businesses in these sectors? Will he backdate and provide equitable support to all the wedding businesses and live events venues, at least in line with other hospitality businesses? Will he urgently address the significant number of venues that have still not received any support from the culture recovery fund? Finally, will he urgently commit to implementing a financial support package to protect the 3 million businesses, workers and self-employed people excluded from any Government support so far?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on introducing this important debate—he is proving to be a considerable upgrade.
The National Exhibition Centre, on the edges of my constituency, is one of the most renowned venues in the west midlands and nationally, playing host to conferences and concerts alike. Last month, the NEC announced that it was cutting 450 jobs because of the ongoing uncertainty. That is the reality for so many events businesses in this country right now. Since March, concerts have become a distant memory. Sports clubs that would supplement their business by playing host to weddings found that even when they were briefly able to open in the late summer, their major source of income had been cut off. I know of one golf club that has lost almost half a million pounds in wedding business.
Nightclubs and jazz bars remain shuttered while the musicians, events staff, sound engineers and DJs who work so hard to bring us this top-notch entertainment are furloughed, made redundant or desperately trying to make up in other industries the money that they have lost. Frankly, there are not that many jobs going around if people are looking for alternative employment. Also, there are major blackspots when it comes to the self-employed—something that the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which I chair, has highlighted at length.
There are wider impacts, too. Would we have seen the likes of the much-missed Amy Winehouse had she not been able to perform those early gigs in north London? Emerging talent depends on live events and relies heavily on the income they provide to keep investing in their own talent.
The culture recovery fund is welcome money for the arts, and I recognise that the Government’s furlough scheme has been a lifeline for millions of jobs where businesses have been able to operate, but live events and their reliance on having large numbers of people in one place, often in an enclosed space, in order to make a profit, are inherently incompatible with restrictions for covid-19. The £1.57 billion does not even come close to touching the sides of the losses sustained this year, and it is to be divided between such a large number of diverse types of arts businesses, so live events need ongoing support to recognise their precarious position and clear timelines to allow them to prepare to reopen, such as “no earlier than” dates.
In normal times, those are profitable businesses, with events accounting for half of all inbound UK tourist spend, and for £70 billion in direct funding. My Committee has therefore called for bespoke sector-specific support. The Government have provided that for theatres and arts venues on the brink; they now need to do the same for live events.
As hon. Members know, Newcastle has a globally renowned night-time economy. Our night life is a big attraction for locals, tourists and prospective students. Newcastle’s pubs and clubs are concentrated into clusters that have developed their own character, from the upmarket Quayside, through the down-to-earth Ouseburn and the famous Bigg Market, to the pink triangle. There is something for everyone, and a warm welcome usually awaits.
I am proud that Newcastle also hosts some iconic venues, such as World Headquarters, a pioneering and progressive underground club where I have to admit I spent much of my 20s. It has a long and rich history going back decades in Newcastle. Venues like that are the fabric of Newcastle and the north-east, helping to make us into the thriving, multicultural and cohesive community that we are proud to be.
Those are not dispensable businesses that we can allow to wither and die during the pandemic. We cannot assume that we will resume normal business, that they will be replaced with shiny new venues and that all will be well. If those businesses do not survive the pandemic, we will be losing our city’s character, part of our history, the thing that makes Newcastle what it is. The way to stop that is to give the support now.
The Government’s decision to include clubs in the restrictions support grant is a belated acknowledgement that they have not been able to generate any income for eight months. However, Ministers know that £3,000 a month—for those that get the most—will not be enough to cover the backdated losses that many of the places have faced. I want the Government to look at building flexibility into the local restrictions support grant. The night-time economy is in crisis, and we know that not every business will survive, but local authorities have the local knowledge and intelligence to know where that money can be best spent.
The petition is called “Let Us Dance”. People do not expect to go back to dancing in nightclubs straight away, but they want them still to be standing when they can go to celebrate when the pandemic is over. If we allow our night-time economy to fail, we will lose a part of our character and history that has grown organically over time. It cannot just be replaced. We should not leave a vacuum that will be filled with who knows what sort of business. Without support, we will be poorer financially and in spirit, and the Government should not want that to happen, as much as I do not want to see it.
The Government are allowing deathbed weddings during this period of second lockdown but, please, I make a plea to extend that provision for deathbed weddings to where parents or siblings of the bride or groom are terminally ill and not expected to live beyond 2 December.
My own mother was not able to come to my wedding, when I was married many years ago, because she was in hospital at the time, though she was able to watch it on video afterwards. For people not expected to live another two or three weeks, I please ask the Government to go back. Such weddings could be for the minimum legal number of five—the couple, the minister celebrant and two witnesses—but I think that would be a real kindness to that very small number of people. I please ask the Minister, who I know tries hard on this type of issue, to take it back to see if we can do something.
The wedding industry is a £10 billion business in this country, supporting an enormous amount of employment, and yet we have wedding venues—one in my constituency—that did not manage to receive the business support grant, the retail, hospitality and leisure grant or, at all, the discretionary grant. Some wedding venues, therefore, have fallen through the cracks. There has been great difficulty for couples whose insurance has excluded cancellation on the grounds of Government guidance alone, and some couples have been charged an 80% cancellation fee, which is entirely unreasonable. No one should be forced to effectively pay 180% of the cost of their wedding to get married the second time around. There are some big issues on the weddings front.
As far as the events and exhibition industry is concerned, one of my constituents, who runs an exhibition business, said: “I read, listen and watch leaders of industries bemoan the terrible impact that the second lockdown is having on their businesses, which I am very sympathetic to, and I see the Government provide substantial financial support to these industries. However, I look on with some incredulity that these industries have been able to trade in between lockdowns and have received support; yet the exhibition industry has neither been allowed to trade nor received any bespoke support. We have been locked down since March 2020 and will stay locked down until at least April 2021; yet we have received zero targeted support.” The events industry would echo those sentiments, and these are huge parts of our economy.
In relation to business rates, the Government gave discretionary grants to local authorities but there has been great variability in whether local authorities have granted rates relief to exhibitions and events businesses. I know of 40 local authorities that have, but other councils, for which I have sympathy, say that the Government have a proven track record in clawing back money that they believe has been paid out wrongly. There is therefore a postcode lottery on business rates. I ask the Minister to please give greater certainty to councils so that they can pay out business rates.
I thank you, Mr Gray, for chairing today’s debate, and I thank the 209 petitioners in my constituency—couples waiting for their happy day and the many people working in the weddings industry. I have met many people working in the industry, and last Thursday held a meeting with people who worked in all sorts of trades. I learned much, and it was fascinating to hear that 400,000 jobs across the country are dependent on the wedding industry, bringing in an income of £14.7 billion. In addition, we have a large tourist trade in the wedding industry, which attracts many couples to the UK to get married, so this issue is extensive for the economy as a whole and for people’s livelihoods and jobs.
An industry that should bring so much joy is, at the moment, bringing so much hardship. In the first two months of lockdown, people experienced the cancellation or postponement of weddings, so staff could not be furloughed; they had to work flat out to try to support couples during that time. Then, of course, they moved into the harsh reality of being unable to access vital Government support, the self-employed income support scheme and grants. We have heard about the VAT measures, which many organisations have been unable to access, and business rates, because many do not have direct premises.
The hardship has been acute for many. I heard from those working in the sector—predominantly women, I have to emphasise—that they had saved up for their first home and are therefore unable to access such things as universal credit. They are now living off their savings, eight months into the lockdown and pandemic. However, they described the future as well, which is where the Government can really help.
The announcement of the further lockdown and the extension of the furlough scheme to next March has brought a presumption that weddings will not be resuming any time soon. We therefore need the publication of a comprehensive plan on weddings so that people can start making plans. To give an example, one celebrant had 48 weddings booked for this year. Two went ahead as micro-weddings, 36 moved into next year and are now being rearranged because people are not confident, one moved into 2022 and seven were lost. That is the scale of the impact of the cancellation of weddings. Many are deferring for the second or even third time.
We therefore need to ensure that weddings are safe and socially distanced. If they can be certificated, that would be really helpful. Also, there is a lack of evidence to suggest that these are places where infections will be spread, an inference made by Public Health England. If there has been any evidence of infection, it would be good to have that data from Public Health England, but we need to ensure that there is testing and that specific support is introduced. Those working in the wedding industry in my constituency have asked for a scheme akin to the film and TV production restart scheme to help restart the industry.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), who delayed his wedding, I speak as someone who got married in September and experienced the nightmare of having to change plans and guests right up to the last minute. In fact, the only two things that, fortunately, did not change were the date and the groom, so I feel that I have some understanding of how the wedding industry has suffered this year through lockdown. It has been a particularly turbulent year—and one that was unnecessarily turbulent, as the rules brought in were not based on science and were arbitrary.
Let me introduce right hon. and hon. Members to David Irlam, a constituent of mine who understands those arbitrary rules only too well. He owns a restaurant, King Street Kitchen in Knutsford, and he also has wedding venues, Colshaw Hall and Merrydale Manor in Tatton. There are stark differences: his restaurant is much smaller, yet David could legally host up to 60 guests from 30 different households there. He could not do so in his wedding venues, which are much bigger and with outside space: they were capped at 15 guests.
My constituent also said that Government had not taken into account the measures that the wedding industry could put into place to be covid-compliant, or the changes and distress when rules were changed overnight. When the rules were changed overnight, Arley Hall—a massive Jacobean hall with outside space, hundreds of acres and beautiful gardens—was allowed to hold a wedding service, but then all the guests left and went to a pub up the road, where they were allowed to eat. That venue had all the food and all the staff, but could not have that take place.
Tatton, and Cheshire as a whole, is an area with a thriving wedding sector. The number of weddings held the year before was 4,500; that figure is now down to 800, and the ones taking place are much smaller. When I speak to constituents who have wedding businesses, they say that, on average, they use about 25 preferred local suppliers. None of those suppliers has the income from those weddings now, but it does not have to be that way. With some thought, some coherence, and a road map to allow weddings to take place—in a covid-compliant way, obviously—the sector could re-emerge and allow weddings to take place.
At the Oak Tree of Peover, Jacqui Mooney explained to me that she has had to postpone 90 weddings and cancel 30; her income is less than one sixth of what it was. Please note that her business interruption insurance, for which she paid a very high premium, has not been of assistance in any way; furthermore, Competition and Markets Authority guidance and insurance companies have pushed brides back to the wedding venue, saying, “Quote frustrated contracts and insist on full refunds.”
The Oak Tree of Peover has helped brides and grooms in any way it can: it has postponed once for people, it has postponed twice for them, but it has been a logistical nightmare. In Jacqui Mooney’s words, “I dread things now if things do not turn around, because I can’t sleep of a night. I’m not eating because of all the things I have got to do and the money I pay back.” That is true of the business at Styal Lodge Weddings, too.
I end on this note, which is what David Irlam—operator of Colshaw Hall and Merrydale Manor—says: “I would happily be a guinea pig for the Minister. I will do a business venue that is covid compliant. I will do track and trace. I will make sure people are served at the table. I will make sure we do absolutely everything that is covid compliant. Please look at the rules we have put in place.” Please have a Zoom meeting with this person, and the rest of the people in my patch, so we can go back to having weddings and true once-in-a-lifetime—for most people—celebrations.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. The emphasis on business grants for those businesses with premises is probably one of the factors that led to many people in the sectors we are debating today being denied financial support; the fact that a lot of them are also freelancers or self-employed is another factor. However, many of the people who were excluded from support the first time around are being excluded once again. Given the speed at which events happened, the Government could perhaps have been given a little latitude the first time for not covering everyone; eight months on and with the benefit of that experience, however, there is absolutely no excuse for anyone being left behind this time.
We need a commitment from the Government that this issue will be looked into urgently, because by the time the current scheme comes to an end, some people will have been trading for nearly two years and will not have been entitled to a penny. How can that be allowed to happen? I hope the Government will listen and offer a roadmap for the wedding and live events industries, with sector-specific support for the intervening period until we get back to some sense of normality. Frankly, telling those people to find another job is a cop-out.
Like other Members, I will talk about weddings because I have been contacted by many constituents who have had to cancel or rearrange their wedding days. The wedding industry has seen numbers restricted and then restricted some more: the limit of 30 at a wedding lasted for just two weeks before it was reduced to 15. That means either that there was a specific piece of evidence that suggested the limit needed to be reduced for weddings but not for the funerals that took place during that fortnight, or that the limit should never have been 30 in the first place. Neither of those alternatives engenders much confidence that the Government are on top of things.
How can a judgment have been formed to change the limit back to 15 in just a fortnight? Given the restrictions to 30 or 15 guests at weddings, many people consider the wedding industry to be closed in all but name. By including outside suppliers in that number, couples have been placed in the invidious position of having to choose whether their photographer or granny attends. I do not think that is right at all.
The wedding industry did not get any benefit over the summer from the “eat out to help out” scheme, despite many venues being able to hold significantly more guests in a covid-secure way than restaurants can. Instead, we saw the sector largely ignored, despite how much it is worth to the economy and how much it benefits people in other, associated industries such as hair, beauty and photography. An important question that I have received from my constituents who have seen their wedding days restricted or cancelled is why they could go and sit in a restaurant with over 100 people socially distanced at separate tables, yet they could have only 15 people attend a wedding venue that can safely hold ten times the amount. I have to agree with them: on the face of it, it seems illogical. Given the massive financial impact that such decisions have had, I hope there is strong evidence behind that distinction being made.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. He will know how vital it is to keep public support for these measures and to ensure that they are evidence-based, logical and clearly explained.
I will remember that when we meet on Wednesday.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his excellent opening speech and for setting the scene so well. Given that I have only four minutes, I will focus on just one issue: wedding venues. Like many hon. Members, I have been contacted by so many people who have been affected—couples whose big day has not happened or has been seriously scaled down, and the businesses that supply wedding venues.
I want to focus on two unique venues in my constituency: Heaton House Farm and The Ashes. Heaton House Farm is in Rushton Spencer, and The Ashes in is Endon—both are in Staffordshire Moorlands. They are bespoke wedding venues; they do not do anything else. They offer large events and are licensed venues. They have the most incredible scenery. If you have been lucky enough to sit in the hairdresser’s and read Hello! or OK! magazines, Mr Gray, you will have seen the venues, because they host the celebrity weddings that feature in these great, august publications. However, they simply have no business at all at the moment—they have nothing. As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said, they could not benefit from “eat out to help out”, because they do not offer food outside weddings and large events. They cannot benefit from the VAT reduction, because they have no turnover—they are not making any money at the moment.
The Heaton House Farm team have taken over running a community pub in Rushton Spencer, The Royal Oak, just to find somewhere to employ their staff. Without that, they will lose their staff. They are not making a single penny on that; they are doing it so that they can keep their staff and to make sure that when they can get back to having weddings, they can do so in the best way they possibly can. They do not benefit from many of the grants because their rateable values are too high—they simply need to be able to get back to holding weddings. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) said, they can hold a wedding service, but they could not sit the guests until the regulations changed to allow 15, and yet those guests could go to the local pub and up to 60 of them could sit, socially distanced, in tables of six. That cannot be right. We have to find a way through this. I invite the Minister to meet my constituents from Heaton House Farm and The Ashes to discuss the issue to see what support the Government can find to help those incredibly special places.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Live events are obviously very important across North East Fife. Although nightclubs are thin on the ground, unlike in Newcastle upon Tyne North, North East Fife is the home of golf, and we look forward to welcoming the Open back to St Andrews in 2022 for its 150th occasion. However, I want to limit my remarks to weddings because, as many Members have already said, I have also been contacted by venues that are a key contributor to the local economy.
Kinkell Byre is a wedding and events venue that has been operating in its old farmsteading as a venue since 2003. It normally holds about 80 events a year, the majority of which are weddings. It is a small business with two full-time staff and three part-time, but it contributes substantially to the local economy because every wedding means revenue for not only Kinkell Byre, but a huge range of local suppliers, from photography and music to catering. It means 100 guests staying in North East Fife for two or three days, each of them spending in other locations on food and accommodation. Samantha from Kinkell Byre told me:
“The coronavirus pandemic has made it impossible for us to operate in any capacity. Our revenue has been reduced to virtually zero while costs still need to be paid to keep the business afloat for the upkeep of the old buildings, wages, insurance, marketing and professional services. We have tried to launch new ventures such as farmers’ markets and beer gardens but…have been prevented from going ahead by the local Environmental Health”.
She told me that the Government support so far has been “amazing”, and I recognise that support, too. However, she also says:
“under the current guidelines we cannot operate or generate any revenue and the business will not survive much longer…we have the space and the capacity to do events safely but with larger numbers than the current guidelines permit…The limit should be linked to the capacity of the venue.”
The guidelines are different in Scotland, where there is currently a maximum cap of 20 guests, but when England comes out of lockdown there will likely be a similar cap. To get through the pandemic, the UK and Scottish Governments have had to take on a great swathe of extra powers, but we need to ensure that they are exercised in the best way possible.
Not only Kinkell Byre is affected, but the hotels and B&Bs where the guests stay and the suppliers that I mentioned earlier. I want to mention one supplier: Amy, a small business owner whose florist business is largely focused on flowers for weddings. She moved to online only, giving up her shop, but remains hugely impacted by the restrictions. People are moving their weddings to next year or even 2022, and she is losing business as a result. She says we should change the restrictions and make them more sensitive to venue size. That surely is a way forward, alongside comprehensive testing, tracing and isolating. Amy highlighted that, to make matters worse, there is the looming threat of a no-deal Brexit, which would mean an 8% tariff on imported flowers, and there is simply not enough supply of flowers in the UK to meet the demand. If the Government do not agree a trade deal, that really will push her business over the edge.
If the Government will not change the restrictions, or cannot, they need to provide further financial support to enable these businesses to survive through until March. The furlough has been extended, but, for a business like Samantha’s, wages are a pretty minor cost in the scheme of things. Business grants were available over six months ago and are unlikely to have lasted in bank accounts until now. North East Fife would be nothing without those businesses. We often hear that small, locally owned businesses are the backbone of the local economy, but in North East Fife they are the face of the economy, too. They are what we encounter when we travel throughout the Kingdom.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this debate. I urge the Minister to look at the petitions in detail. Although I could speak at length about the issues facing live music in my own constituency at places such as the Anvil, and the many festivals I seem to go to when picking up my children, I will focus on weddings because I have been struck by the way that the restrictions that the Government have absolutely had to bring in have really gone to the core of people’s lives—whether it is the couples who have had to postpone what might have been an event that they had planned for not just months but years, or the wide range of businesses that have been fundamentally undermined.
I will focus on the correspondence that I have had from organisations such as The Barn at Avington, a wedding venue near my constituency; Balloons For U and Events For U, which have been fundamentally affected by the restrictions brought in around weddings and other events; Sofi Designs Bridal, which produces bridal wear as its main focus, and which has lost one of its main business lines without weddings; and DJs such as Aaron Purkiss and Garry Job, whose livelihoods have been fundamentally affected by what has gone on in the last six to nine months. All have written about the paralysis that has affected an important part of their income—the wedding industry—and the devastating impact on their livelihoods.
What those people need now more than ever is some certainty for the future. I know that the Minister cannot give us a cast-iron guarantee today about when things are going to change, but he can give us some certainty about the way in which the Government are going to move to a position where we start to live with the virus, rather than completely shut things down. We have heard about how we could change the rules around the capacity of venues to help weddings to go ahead on a slightly larger scale. There are many other things that he could be doing to prepare a road map for the future so that people can start planning their big day yet again, and businesses can see light at the end of the tunnel.
The right hon. Lady is making a compelling and powerful speech that resonates very much with the representations I have had from constituents. Does she agree that one of the big challenges that people face is the limbo that they have been left in—not able to plan for the wedding they dreamed of, or even one they could compromise on, and not knowing whether the insurance will cover the loss of everything that they have spent? That is why the Government need to give that certainty about what is happening to end the limbo for such couples.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point to which I am sure the Minister will want to respond in detail.
In closing, I commend Natasha Newland, founder of the County Wedding Clubs, for speaking up so eloquently for the sector, which directly and indirectly employs many people—not just in my area, but throughout the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the petitioners, my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), and, of course, the 394 people in my constituency who had signed the petitions as of this morning.
Live events, conferences, exhibition organisers, and events such as graduation balls have all been affected by the virus. Both petitions are important, but I will focus on the one that calls for an increased number of guests to be permitted at weddings according to venue capacity, as that has been the issue that I have had most contact about directly.
One such conversation was with Mr Henry Weldon, the managing director of Maverick events operating at Prestwold Hall—a beautiful and popular grade I-listed stately home in the heart of the Leicestershire wolds. He explained to me that, to date, he has seen more than 120 weddings and events rearranged or cancelled. His catering business and the venue combined have lost a turnover of £1 million in 2020 alone. He says:
“There are serious concerns about not being able to restart by spring 2021, by which time we will effectively have been closed for a year. Government must give support and confidence to our sector and hence to our couples who have also suffered greatly.”
As I said in my speech during the debate on the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 last week, we must use the next few weeks to plan for how we can create recovery for ourselves, our local communities and our businesses. As part of that, I strongly believe that we should take a different approach to events when the new restrictions have eased.
Risk assessment is key. I have had several conversations with Ministers in the past few months about adopting Northern Ireland’s approach to weddings, where venues produce their own risk assessment of how many people they can safely accommodate while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Of course, we should not limit that approach to weddings; we should consider extending it to conferences and music events, which are in industries that have been among the hardest hit.
Over the summer, we saw how it was possible to restart industries in a safe way. We allowed restaurants, hairdressers and leisure centres, to name but a few, to reopen, as long as they followed the covid-19 secure guidance. So why should the events that we are discussing today be any different? We cannot continue to restrict them indefinitely. We need a plan, as has been implemented for other industries, so that such events can restart, and I believe that the more nuanced approach taken by Northern Ireland could form the basis of such a plan.
A number of constituents have written to me expressing their sadness and anxiety about having to delay their wedding or make difficult decisions about which of the people closest to them cannot attend. As one constituent has said:
“I recognise the impact of covid-19 on everyone’s daily lives, but for those couples who are planning a wedding, the toll on our mental health is significant. A wedding takes years to plan. It has an impact on finances and postponing a wedding for a full year means there is a huge risk that immediate family members may not be around to see our big day, which is heartbreaking for us and for them. All I ask is that consideration be given that numbers are increased according to venue capacity. I feel that the hospitality industry has adapted in the wake of covid-19 and shown that there are ways to hold a wedding and be safe.”
I echo my constituent’s plea, and I hope that in the next few weeks the Government will give serious consideration to reforming the approach to these events.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray.
Dorfold Hall, Peckforton Castle, Combermere Abbey, Carden Park and Wrenbury Hall are just some of the stunning, romance-laden, fairytale wedding venues in Eddisbury, which are at the forefront of a thriving £10 billion-plus national industry that employs, as we have heard, over 400,000 people in around 120,000 viable and mainly family-run businesses across the country. I say “thriving”, but of course since March this sizeable chunk of our economy has been, to all intents and purposes, shut down.
It is important to recognise that the Chancellor’s significant financial support package has rescued many businesses from failure and kept other businesses, including in the wedding industry, on life support. However, since I spoke in the House in July and again in September in support of more targeted support for such businesses, I am afraid to say that the situation has only got worse. Indeed, the reduction on 22 September in the number of people allowed to attend a wedding to 15 saw 15,000 to 20,000 weddings cancelled and the loss of a further £450 million to £600 million in revenues.
If I look specifically at the Boutique Hotel Group, which is based in my constituency, I see that in 2020 to date it has had 432 weddings cancelled, and lost £7.8 million in sales and £3.7 million in net income. Dorfold Hall, which is near Nantwich, was only able to hold four weddings this summer, with the business closed for the greater part of the year. While the rest of the hospitality sector benefited from VAT relief and the eat out to help out scheme, wedding venues were in effect excluded.
As we have also heard today, that has also had serious consequences for nearly all the businesses that are in or around the supply chain for wedding venues. The managing director of the Boutique Hotel Group, Chris Naylor, told me that one of its suppliers—a florist—would usually turn over in excess of £200,000 from his venues alone, spread over 40 weddings a year, but it has provided flowers for only one wedding this year. The group’s recommended DJ and lighting company, which would normally turn over £350,000 from the group’s venues, has had no turnover since March. The photography company that the group uses, which would normally bring in around £1 million through 450-plus weddings at £2,000 per wedding, has not seen those sales coming in, and it employs photographers based across the north-west area. Significant hardship has been caused right across the wedding industry.
We have heard a lot about the road map, but it is time that we actually saw it realised, as something that builds from socially distanced numbers towards normal weddings, where situations and technologies allow. The wedding industry and many of the venues themselves are really well set up for that to happen. We can put them at the heart of the test and trace system, and we can also make sure that they have all the support they need financially, so that their cash flow can continue throughout what will continue to be a difficult time, because January and February 2021 are the most important months in which to sell 2022 weddings. That will also help with the cash-flow issues.
In the previous debate, we heard about a taskforce that has been set up to work towards spectators going to venues again as soon as possible to watch elite sport. We need a similar group for the wedding industry. I urge the Minister to do what he can to work with all those who have a keen and now urgent interest in making that become a reality, because there is hope. There is a lot of latent capacity within the wedding industry, a real chance to bounce back from what has been its worst ever year. There is an incentive for the Government as well, given the tax receipts that will flow as a consequence. I ask the Minister to continue to work closely with the wedding industry to ensure that we do not miss this chance to bring back a great part of our economy.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for opening this debate with such a good speech. The debate deals with two issues that are important both nationally and for my constituency, where 105 of my constituents signed the e-petition calling for additional support for live events and 91 signed the one calling for an increase in the number of guests permitted at weddings, according to venue capacity.
Over the past few months, I have organised regular roundtable Zoom calls with representatives of the Clwyd South wedding industry, such as Phil Godsal of Iscoyd Park, Andrew Marshall of Tower Hill Barns and Tracey Owen of Tyn Dwr Hall, and with others from further afield in Wales. At different times, those meetings have been joined by Ministers, including the Secretary of State for Wales, the Wales Office Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and the Minister for Economy in the Welsh Government.
In a constituency such as mine or that of many other Members present, with many rural communities, those venues are of particular importance for the local economy and jobs. I appreciate that this is a devolved matter in Wales, but the key issues, as the Welsh venues have highlighted, are similar to those in England. They can be summarised in five brief points.
The limit on numbers, whether that be 15 or 30, is arbitrary and should be related to the size of the venue. The limit is out of kilter with European venues, where the figure is often significantly higher—up to 100. The venues I talked to say that in the majority of cases, 50 guests is an economic number, and that it is difficult to break even with lower numbers.
With all due respect to everyone in the health industry, weddings are not super spreaders of the virus. All the guests are known to the bride and groom and therefore easier to control in terms of track and trace by the venue. There is also a strong vested interest among the guests—to them, there are no random guests—to look after each other health-wise.
In practice, it has been much more difficult for wedding venues to access financial support than other hospitality businesses, partly because they have been able to stay open in Wales unless there has been a national lockdown. However, that goes back to the limit on guests, where staying open for 15 or 30 guests is simply not economic for a wedding venue.
People book weddings up to 18 months in advance. Therefore, the industry is particularly badly hit by the lack of visibility going forward. It is not an industry that can stop and start, like some other hospitality businesses. I fully appreciate that the Minister and the Governments in Westminster and in Cardiff, as I have seen in the roundtable discussions that I organised, are listening and take the matter seriously.
Plenty of economic support has come forward but, as many have said this afternoon, it is not targeted in the way that it needs to be. One suggestion of a practical solution, given that a lot of venues are suffering from the withdrawal of clients’ deposits—that is now getting to be a very serious problem—would be the underwriting or financial furloughing of those deposits. That would bring stability and a breathing space so that the wedding venues can plan with greater confidence for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I pass on my congratulations to the petitioners, and double congratulations to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), on securing the debate and on his recent nuptials.
We have heard from Members around the Chamber with some similar issues. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) talked about the plight of the excluded, which is something I want to return to shortly, and about a rich musical and artistic heritage—something we have in common across many constituencies, not least my own. The hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) talked about the incompatibility of tackling covid with the operation of the venues, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) talked correctly about the loss of character that went with the loss of some of the businesses.
We also heard from the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey)—and, again, my congratulations on her recent wedding—and others, such as the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) who talked about the enormous effort made to keep staff on when they did not qualify for support. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) talked about the supply chain impact, and the direct impact on the local economy. That, again, is something my constituency has in common with hers. The hon. Members for Loughborough (Jane Hunt), for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) and for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) talked about the need for more business support and targeted support, and the difficulties for businesses getting access to that support. There were many common themes for us to talk about today.
It is indeed a tough time for the wedding industry and industries in the night-time economy. There are arguments for exceptions, which we have heard, but most people understand that the restriction measures are sensible and necessary. The majority of people understand the need for them. That does not make it any easier for couples who have spent months, or even years, often, planning their perfect day. They have been dealt a really tough blow by covid-19 and by the uncertainty that has meant taking the heart-wrenching decision either to cancel or to go ahead with their marriages without many of their loved ones being present to share the day. A wedding is an important milestone in people’s lives, and it is with that in mind that the Scottish Government are trying to strike the right balance between a policy that empathises, and putting the safety of communities first. In Scotland, the current rules are that in levels 1, 2 or 3 no more than 20 people should attend, and in level 4 it should be no more than 15. If we get to level 0—and I hope that some regions will get to level 0 in future—a more recognisable number of 50 will be allowed in the venue. However, we know that mixing at weddings, as at any large-scale party, creates a risk of further transmission of the disease, and it must be carefully monitored to make sure that that does not happen.
The impact is not just emotional, but financial, as we have heard. In Scotland the average cost of a wedding is £20,000 and therefore the knock-on impact on suppliers serving the industry is dramatic and is heightened by the fact that Scotland is a popular wedding destination, with an average of 29,000 wedding ceremonies a year since 2001 and more than 130,000 couples who live elsewhere having chosen Scotland as the destination for their wedding. We are grateful to them for sharing it with us. Behind those numbers are tens of thousands of wedding supply businesses that are now struggling to make ends meet because of the pandemic. The hospitality and wedding venue sector is worth £963 million for freelance or self-employed photographers, DJs, musicians, wedding planners and suppliers of wedding-themed products. That is a big, big deal. Many of those freelancers are self-employed people and are part of the 3 million who have been excluded from support in spite of countless calls from me, my colleagues in the Scottish National party and colleagues across the Chamber asking for them to be remembered by the Chancellor, and asking him to act. Unfortunately, they continue to be ignored.
The Minister must, today, answer and say what he is going to do about it. All businesses in the sector deserve to be allowed to keep afloat during the crisis, so that completely viable businesses that would in normal times be thriving can move on and be there for us to support the economy once we emerge from the emergency. The coming months are critical, so I once again ask the Minister to urge the Chancellor to give these businesses a fighting chance. Topping up bounce back loans is not the answer; leading companies into crippling toxic debt will not get them out of this. The Government should now convert those loans into grants for those businesses.
As I said, there is widespread recognition that restrictions are required to help fight this pernicious virus, but we need to ensure that these businesses and jobs are still there when we emerge. Wedding venues, nightclubs and music venues have seen their businesses decimated. In Scotland, despite having one hand tied behind our backs, we have gone beyond the Barnett consequentials: the Scottish Government have spent nearly £4 billion on tackling covid-19, including £2.3 billion on business support, with almost £900 million of non-domestic rate relief; a £1.3 billion business grant scheme; a £30 million creative, tourism and hospitality enterprises hardship fund; and a £185 million package of targeted support for small and medium-sized enterprises and the self-employed, which dominate the night-time business sector.
The UK Government must now live up to the £350 billion promise. Loans are not working for firms that are struggling, especially this winter. They should ramp up support for businesses in England, which is the right thing to do, and allow us to use the Barnett consequentials to support businesses in Scotland. Once again, the Chancellor must act to make things right for the excluded, who have been battered, bruised and brushed off. They are even worried that the £20 a week universal credit uplift will be removed shortly, so we need a guarantee on that too.
There should be provision for furlough beyond March in this sector. It is clear that the big talk of “whatever it takes” from the Chancellor is not being delivered; it is not what people are seeing. Financial powers should be devolved. Simple changes to borrowing rules should be made, to allow the Scottish Government to step in where the UK Government are not. We have been begging for this for months and months. The failure of the Tory UK Government to listen to the needs of the Scottish people is not new, but boy is it being recognised in Scotland just now, amplified throughout the Brexit debacle and now this crisis. It is no wonder that polls now show that people in Scotland want a new referendum, with a majority of people in 11 consecutive polls now saying that independence is the way for us to make the right choices for our future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am getting used to following the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and preceding the Minister. I often agree with much of what the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey says, apart from his last point, which I nearly always disagree with.
We are discussing two important petitions, and we can see from the number of Members here that they are attracting quite a lot of attention. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his excellent opening speech and for introducing the petitions, the first of which is the “Let Us Dance” petition, created by Jasper Levine. As somebody who, I must confess, was often found in the Haçienda nightclub in her youth and is a regular attendee at the Glastonbury festival, I am particularly pleased to speak in this debate. It was no surprise to me that there were more signatories of that petition from my constituency than from most other constituencies across the country. At this point, I thank Sacha Lord, the night-time economy spokesperson for Greater Manchester, who has been a great advocate on these issues on behalf of those in this industry, including those from outside Greater Manchester. The second petition is on the number of guests permitted at weddings, which we have heard a lot about. The arguments made on these issues by a number of Members are compelling, and I hope that Ministers will listen.
As we have heard, these sectors were a thriving and deeply interconnected ecosystem that supported millions of jobs across the country. I have held a number of Zoom roundtables with representatives from these shut-down sectors and those sectors closed in all but name. Many of the problems that we are discussing also affect the conferences and exhibitions sector, which we have heard a little bit about, as well as big sporting events. Together, these sectors make up a large proportion of the visitor and hospitality economies of our towns and cities. These sectors are at the centre of a wider ecology of jobs and employment, from make-up artists to florists, hairdressers, music technicians, security guards and many others. They contribute to thriving town centres, which include the hotel industry, hospitality, taxi drivers and many more, not to mention a huge supply chain, which we have heard much about. The majority of those businesses are not just viable, but are world-leading enterprises, generating and contributing billions of pounds to our economy. As we have heard, the wedding industry generated £15 billion in the previous year, the night-time economy over £66 billion, and conferences and events businesses billions more, on top of all the important trade deals made at those business events.
Since the first lockdown, the financial impact on those sectors has been alarming. I heard today in a roundtable I held with those from Greater Manchester that the night-time economy is down 90% since the beginning of the pandemic. Tens of thousands of weddings have been cancelled, although not for the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), who managed to have hers—congratulations to her. The wedding sector is not officially closed, but it is closed in all but name. Its trade has essentially stopped, but it has not been officially closed, which is having an impact. All the changes and inconsistencies have meant successive waves of restarts and refunds having to be paid out. There are also many sole traders, small and medium-sized enterprises in supply chains, and freelancers who have lost work, as we have heard. The chopping and changing has really taken its toll. As we have heard, bookings are made way in advance. The uncertainty in this sector could be the death knell for the weddings industry.
Even before the second national lockdown, which we are now in, it was clear that those industries needed more support. Although the reintroduction of the furlough scheme is welcome, that will have come far too late for too many. Those I have spoken to, on the many Zoom calls I have held, took decisions on redundancies weeks ago. Let us remember that, without the businesses to administer the furlough scheme, the jobs will not be saved either. What we are seeing is businesses starting to go bust, unable to pay the overheads that they incur—the rents, the venue hire, the utilities, the equipment hire and so on.
The first wave of cash grants has not reached most in the events and weddings industry—they did not qualify—let alone those in the supply chain. The second wave will not help most either. Even though the Government now seem to accept the principle of supporting businesses through the continued restrictions, in practice they are falling well short. For example, nightclubs and live events can qualify for a grant only from 1 November, despite being closed since March. Big conference events will not get anything at all, and the weddings industry will have to rely on the discretionary pots, which are seriously insufficient and will lead to a postcode lottery.
We should also remember that many businesses and self-employed workers in those sectors have been unable to receive any support at all, as we have heard, because they are from the 3 million excluded. Sole traders and the self-employed are excluded, while many company directors receive all their income through dividend payments. We need some proper sectoral support, as we have heard, and we have also heard some good ideas about that today—discretionary grants, action on rents, action on the 3 million excluded and ideas for rates relief for the next year and beyond.
However, as we have heard today, what most businesses want—this is what they tell me, and I am sure they say it to the Minister, too—is a route map out of closure. This is now the critical business issue, because most businesses want to trade. That is their job; that is what they do. We urgently need a real plan—a route map out for the sector. Mass testing, test, track and trace and isolate, and a vaccine would all make a difference. In the interim, these sectors need sensible guidance on how they can operate safely—we have heard some really good ideas from the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) and others on bringing all that together—because they want a level playing field, as we have heard in the debate. Why can a restaurant operate with 60 people from different households, but a wedding venue cannot? That just does not make sense. Why can people be in close quarters on an aeroplane, but cannot come together for a family celebration?
There are a number of other fixes, and I urge the Minister to bring the industry together, because these are creative, expert people, and let us not forget that they are used to managing events. That is what they do, so they know the people in the room, and they can manage it well.
These are viable businesses. They are not going through some structural change, like some other parts of our economy. They were massively growing before the pandemic. Let us be honest: the minute we are allowed to celebrate and party with our families again, we will be doing so. There will be huge demand for events and weddings. I hope the Minister has heard the calls today and that we can get this sector rolling again, and we can all have a party.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for leading this important debate on the two petitions. I am so looking forward to attending his wedding to his partner Jed when it is possible to do so. It has been postponed once, but I was really hoping that it did not have to be postponed a second time.
Before I address the specific concerns highlighted in this debate, I want to talk about the two issues at hand. First, on wedding receptions, I want to put it on record that both myself and officials in BEIS have received a number of representations from the wedding industry over the summer. It is pleasing to see the dedication of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) who, as a number of people have done, has brought the industry together, listened to the sector, reflected on its views and been working tirelessly for those sectors that are so hard pressed and unable to open fully, or in some cases at all. When I saw the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) and for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) on the call list for this afternoon’s sitting, I knew that they would be here because they have been tireless in catching me every time they can in the Lobby to reflect the concerns of their constituents. That is absolutely right and shows their dedication to this important sector.
I have had representations from many people from the wedding industry and spoken to many of them in various roundtables, because it is so important to listen and reflect on the road map of the considerations that have been outlined today. It is important to consider the context of this issue. We are keenly aware of the importance of weddings for many people and how their plans have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Indeed, we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) about her ceremony: numbers might have been curtailed, but I am sure the fun, the enjoyment and the love they have for each other was not curtailed in any way in their celebrations.
The situation also affects family, friends and guests, and, as we have also heard, the small businesses that that service and work with the venues and the planners to celebrate people’s weddings. That is pivotal to so many people’s lives, so we did publish guidance on how wedding celebrations could take place in England in a manner that was covid-19 secure and in line with social distance guidelines. The significance of those events was underscored by the fact that we enabled celebrations to take place initially with 30 people present, but regrettably that had to be lowered to 15. That included the couple, the witnesses and guests, but it did not include suppliers or venue staff working at the wedding venue. I know that is nowhere near enough for the viability of the sector.
I have had discussions about viability with the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), and, come the day when we are learning to live with the virus and we have rapid testing—when we have the results of the good news today of one particular vaccine avenue—I cross my fingers that those businesses will be able to switch on almost overnight, because the dates are there and those businesses are viable when we get out of this situation.
A huge number of couples have actually not booked their weddings and they are not waiting, ready to go, because they have lost their date. They had a date in July, but they have now been offered a date in January, probably at the same price and with no discount. This is really heart-breaking for many of these couples. I totally recognise the optimism of the Minister, but he should recognise the sheer heartache that many couples are living with today.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I see on my Twitter and Instagram feeds and elsewhere the pain and heartbreak of couples who were looking forward to that special day. We have also heard about the financial costs that people have faced, such as deposits and other difficulties. The initial moves and the conversations that we have had illustrate the importance that we attach to these life-affirming events.
Some hon. Members have talked about the contrast between the numbers of people allowed in restaurants and in wedding venues, but there is a fundamental difference: the very nature of weddings, which bring family and friends together from across the country, and potentially from around the world, means that they are particularly vulnerable to the spread of covid-19. Despite some media coverage to the contrary, the hospitality sector has worked so hard to become covid-19-secure that pubs and restaurants are some of the safest places in the country. I have spoken to venue owners and organisers in the wedding sector, and unlike visits to a public house or restaurant, where groups are more isolated, it becomes harder to resist breaking social distancing at weddings, where we spend extended periods among family.
We want to continue working with those professionals, together with Public Health England and other health professionals, to ensure that we can manage social distancing throughout the wedding process. Just today, I had a conversation with Richard Eagleton of McQueens Flowers and Sarah Haywood of Sarah Haywood Weddings & Celebrations. They are both seeking to build a taskforce of the kind that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury spoke about. I am happy to work closely, through a two-way dialogue, with them and their colleagues in the sector—the professionals who supply and service the sector, and the planners and venue owners—because that direct conversation will, I hope, lead to the kind of planning that hon. Members have suggested.
I will happily look into any pilot scheme that has been happening. That may be something that we can feed into the taskforce with health officials, so as to look at how we might bring weddings on stream as and when the health advice allows. I am not an epidemiologist, but this is also about behavioural science, as well as the economics, which are very much part of my brief at the Department.
I will cover that in a moment. On live events, in tandem with our discussions with the wedding industry, we are committed to continuing our work with the musical and cultural sectors to understand the difficulties that they face and help them to access support through these challenging times.
Ministers in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have been in discussion with stakeholders across the creative and cultural sector, including on the development of draft planning guidance for how music festivals might be able to take place in future. Significant funds have been allocated via the cultural recovery fund to protect cultural organisations across England—almost a fifth of the fund has gone to the music sector.
More generally, the Chancellor recently announced the continuation of the coronavirus job retention scheme—it is known as the furlough scheme—meaning that workers in any part of the UK can retain their job and be paid at least 80% of their salary up to £2,5000 a month, even if their employer cannot afford to pay them. The flexibility of that scheme will be retained to allow employees to continue to work where they can.
On the point about the night-time economy and flexibility, will the Minister consider allowing drinking-up time after 10 pm, once we are through this lockdown? Venues could then provide two sittings for meals and ensure that everybody did not leave the venue at the same time.
My right hon. Friend speaks of something that I have been working on for some time. I have seen it myself, and I have worked with, and had weekly conversations with, representatives of the hospitality sector. I have spoken to representatives of the nightclub sector on a few occasions as well, which I will come to in a second.
Some people have mentioned Northern Ireland, which has a separate system and a different system for weddings. The frustrating thing for me, when trying to work with health professionals and the hospitality sector, is that the incidence of transmission is so high in Northern Ireland at the moment. I am not suggesting that that is connected to the hospitality sector in any way, shape or form, but it becomes very difficult to disaggregate the data and to work through the evidence with health professionals. However, I will continue to do so.
Going back to the events sector, we have been working so that businesses will be protected from the threat of eviction until the end of the year. We have extended the moratorium for commercial tenants, which is incredibly important. Music venues create, present and support many different genres of music, and they have been eligible to apply for funds from the £1.57 billion support package for key cultural organisations to help them through the pandemic. As part of the cultural recovery fund, some festivals, dance venues and nightclubs received grants, including the Ministry of Sound and the MADE festival.
Some £3.36 million has been shared among 136 venues across England that applied for the emergency grassroots music venues fund, which has supported grassroots venues to survive the imminent risk of collapse, but I know that this is an ongoing situation. I have spoken to a number of nightclub operators, including Deltic, Fabric and Stonegate pubs, which owns nightclub venues as well. I have spoken to Mike Kill from the Night Time Industries Association, who has been mentioned a couple of times, and indeed to Sacha Lord, whom the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) talked about. He has been particularly proactive and constructive, and I welcome further discussions with him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington talked about deathbed weddings. Civil partnerships and weddings where one of the people getting married is seriously ill and not expected to recover are limited to six people in the national guidance. It should not be that local authorities enforce that in any different way, apart from that specific thing. I will take his point on extended families to the relevant Department and reflect on it with the Minister with direct responsibility for that area.
I served on the Petitions Committee with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for many years. I am getting used to being on this side of the desk rather than on the other. She talked about venues in Newcastle and the cultural void that will emerge if they disappear. I am also Minister for London, so I know about that only too well. I have talked about the Gotham City scenario. If the ultra-rich are insulated from everything and poorer people on low incomes are forced into the city centre to service those areas, but we hollow out the culture and the mass of people coming in and spending, that will create a very different city.
We will be so much poorer if we get rid of our culture as a result of this pandemic, so we must work as hard as we can to avoid the sobering statistics that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury talked about regarding nightclubs, weddings and other events. The impact on the economy is quite severe, so we will continue to work as hard as we can. The new national restrictions have obviously replaced the tiered local restrictions. I want to ensure that we can learn to live with the virus, and that we work towards getting a vaccine and rapid testing in the spring, so that we can come to the new reality beyond the new normal.
Sadly, time restrictions prevent me from mentioning everyone, but I thank all Members for their contributions. This has been an incredible debate and I think we have really raised the petitioners’ concerns. On that note, I thank the petitioners for taking the time to bring this matter to the attention of the House and giving us the opportunity to discuss it. I emphasise to the Minister that we want to ensure that, post the pandemic, there is actually an industry to recover.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).