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Covid-19: Sports

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they are making available for sports affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw attention to my interests in the register.

My Lords, the Government recognise the impact that Covid-19 is having on the sports sector. We continue to engage with sporting organisations to understand how it is affecting them and to provide support. The Chancellor has already announced a host of measures to help businesses, with £330 billion of government-backed guaranteed loans as well as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. In addition, our national sports council, Sport England, has announced £210 million of funding to help sport and physical activity organisations to deal with the short and long-term effects of the pandemic.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. As she will be aware, few, if any, sports are embedded within communities quite like rugby league, particularly here in the north of England. On behalf of the entire rugby league family, I therefore thank the Government for recognising the special place that our great sport has in society through the vital support package that was announced on 1 May. I commend also the work of the Rugby Football League. What discussions are now taking place on a road map to allow the season to resume—it has in fact only just begun—behind closed doors at first, beginning with allowing players to start training?

I take this opportunity to thank my noble friend for the work that he has done in this area. I recognise the role that rugby league plays in communities, having visited the Castleford Tigers ladies team training—I think he is a Leeds Rhinos fan, but we can agree on the impact. In addition to the guidance published on Monday on how to ease lockdown and resume training for different sports, officials are convening with medical officers to share best practice and planning, looking at a safe return to training. That is obviously a first step to returning to fixtures. We know that rugby league will work within this and the public health guidance that goes with it.

My Lords, it is obvious that many sports are affected at a higher level because of this crisis. However, I want to emphasise the problems facing many lower football league clubs, many of which are in danger of extinction. On a positive note, it is pleasing to know that at the Football Foundation, of which I am president, has come together with its partners, the FA, the Government and Sport England, to launch a new pitch preparation fund consisting of £10 million of financial support for struggling clubs at the lower level. Can the Minister assure the House that, although that is a healthy beginning, it will continue to be a focus for further assistance, recognising that these clubs are very often the hub of social activities within the communities in which they reside?

We absolutely recognise that clubs are an integral part of the country and of communities around them. Officials and Ministers are regularly engaging to understand and collaborate with clubs to make sure that we can support them through this extraordinarily difficult time.

My Lords, under Project Restart, the Premier League is considering returning by 12 June. However, can the Minister say what the Government are planning to help less wealthy clubs outside the Premier League which want to emerge from this fight as victors, not victims?

I have already explained some of the funding which has been provided across a range of sport. We very much welcomed the move by the Premier League to advance £125 million to the English Football League and the National League. All plans that are being developed need to be in line with public health guidance, but we hear the urgency in the noble Lord’s question.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s decision regarding support for sporting activities. They are vital for the mind as well as the body. Tracing and tracking will be as important as ever. Can the Minister consider encouraging people to keep a daily diary on everyone they meet and everywhere they go so that, should they fall ill with Covid-19, that would be a simple, cheap, easy way to trace it?

I completely agree with my noble friend on the importance of sport and exercise for one’s mental as well as physical health. I welcome her suggestion and will share it with ministerial colleagues.

My Lords, do the Government agree that to benefit from sport, people have to be encouraged back in at grass-roots level? Will the Government give us an assurance that they will make sure that everybody knows when it is safe for children and those in the junior ranks to start attending practice sessions and training, and that this information will be made available through all normal media channels?

The noble Lord makes an extremely good point about communication and making sure that children hear about the opportunities available for them, so I will take that point back. I also draw his attention to the recent announcement that the Community Emergency Fund has been increased from £20 million to £35 million; that supports just the sorts of organisations to which he refers.

I welcome Sport England’s excellent set of initiatives. However, does the Minister agree that waiting until the forthcoming spending review—potentially this autumn—to learn about UK Sport funding for teams for Tokyo’s Olympics next year is too long a period of uncertainty for our Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and that it casts further doubt and shadows over selection processes?

I understand my noble friend’s interest in getting clarity as quickly as possible. I can only reiterate that officials and Ministers are working very closely with all those involved to make sure that we have the strongest possible case to put on their behalf at the spending review.

My Lords, in terms of the physical demands and the reliance on specialist training conditions, professional dancers are effectively elite athletes engaged in a team sport and, like athletes, they will need a significant period of training before they are fully match fit and ready to perform. Can the Minister tell the House what discussions are taking place about support for this sector, and about the safe return to training of professional dancers who, like athletes, contribute so much to our global reputation and sense of national pride?

I will need to write to the noble Baroness about the specifics of what engagement there has been with elite dance. Our clear aim is to set out a series of principles that will allow a return to safe training for all those engaged in elite and grass-roots sports.

I should record my interest in the Lords’ register in relation to Scottish Athletics and the Commonwealth Games (Scotland) Endowment Fund. I would like to ask the Minister about those Scottish, Welsh, English and Northern Irish athletes either training or based in the different nations who are on UK performance funding. Will full discussions be held with the devolved Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that all UK high-performance athletes have the same access to a return to coaching, medical facilities and training, although obviously in conditions of safe social distancing, over the coming weeks?

My honourable friend the Minister for Sport is co-ordinating those conversations but, again, I will raise the importance of this issue with him.

My Lords, sadly, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We come now to the fourth Oral Question. Please keep contributions reasonably short.