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Professional and Amateur Sport: Government Support

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 1 October 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 30 September.

“The Government believe that sports clubs are the beating heart of their communities. Were we to lose them, we would lose so much more than sport. That is why, to help community clubs through this crisis, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport funding body Sport England announced a £210 million emergency fund, and why earlier this year the Government stepped in to protect rugby league from the imminent threat of collapse. Both those interventions were on top of the multi-billion pound package of business support from the Treasury that enabled many of our sports clubs to survive.

We have also made sure every step of the way to try to enable as much grass-roots sport as possible. Being active and healthy is essential in our national battle against the virus. Reinstating elite sport and, of course, grass-roots sport in a Covid-secure way was a major achievement, and I pay tribute to all those who made that possible. Behind-closed-doors matches have enabled vital broadcast revenue to flow into elite sport, as well as bringing joy to millions of fans. The Government ensured that Project Restart was shared with everyone by getting Premier League football on the BBC for the first time ever.

However, I know that we all want our fans back in stadiums as soon as possible. Sport without fans is poorer in so many ways. We trialled the return of fans with 12 successful pilot events, but rising infection rates across the country meant that the Government had to act and we could not proceed on 1 October as planned. We have to contain the virus and, given the backdrop of rising infection rates, we had to press the pause button. I assure the House that we are working at speed, alongside the Treasury, with sports governing bodies and clubs across the country to understand what support they need as a result of the decision to postpone the 1 October return.

For football, we are asking the Premier League to support English Football League clubs—the higher end of the football pyramid. Yesterday, we also provided the National League with assurance that financial support from the Government will be forthcoming so that it can start this season this Saturday. We have asked for detailed financial returns from all major spectator sports to see what support they need. We expect those returns by the end of today, and any club in immediate financial distress should alert its sport’s governing body.

Sports clubs have proved themselves to be bedrocks of their communities during this pandemic, hosting test centres, looking after vulnerable people, organising food deliveries and so much more. Sports clubs have had our backs during this pandemic. We will have theirs in return.”

My Lords, when we talk about the future of professional and amateur sport, will the Minister give us some idea of what emphasis is being given to encouraging people to partake in sport, at whatever level, as opposed to simply watching it, and how the two balance each other? These are two very important aspects of the Question. Can we get clear guidance on the Government’s thinking on both matters?

The Government have been very clear on the value of sport, both amateur and professional, and encouraging people to take part. We have welcomed many of the online initiatives over the lockdown period in particular, and have supplied funding through Sport England to the tune of £210 million to ensure that those facilities and clubs survive.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister reassure me that any government funding to be allocated will not overlook women’s sport, which recently has had some great successes in participation and popularity? We need to keep up the momentum and not lose all the good work done to make women’s sport more accessible and mainstream.

My noble friend is absolutely right. Great progress has been made at both elite and grass-roots levels in women’s sport. My honourable friend the Minister for Sport was absolutely clear yesterday, in responding to the Question, that he expects and will require women’s sport to get the priority it deserves in any funding coming from this package.

My Lords, I ask you to note my interest on the register: I am chair of ukactive. Have the Government determined the impact on the NHS of the drop in activity levels and the subsequent impact this might have on sport at all levels in the UK? It is projected that 48% of leisure centres may close by Christmas without government financial support.

It is hard to assess the absolute impact of the fact that some leisure centres have not yet reopened, because obviously there is a substitution with other provision being offered, principally online. But the noble Baroness is absolutely right about the importance of sport for our physical and mental well-being. The Government understand the financial pressures that some sports and leisure centres are under, and are pleased that so many have been able to open, following Covid-secure guidelines.

[Inaudible.] What investment will the Government make into local provision for children and young people to engage in sports and physical activity that is shaped by them, given the research of the Children’s Society highlighting the importance not only of chosen physical activity but also of positive time with peers, and the fact that that has all been horribly impacted by Covid-19?

I share the right reverend Prelate’s appreciation of the fact that sports clubs do so much more for their communities than just provide sport, and I welcome very much the pilot projects that she mentions. Through Sport England, there is a lot of collaboration with young people to ensure that local provision does indeed meet their needs and reflect their own aspirations.

My Lords, the Minister will know that the 67 clubs in the national football league form the most senior levels of semi-professional football below the English Football League and play an essential part in their local communities. I declare an interest as the league’s vice-president. Match-day revenues are, for almost all the clubs, their only serious source of revenue. Can she say more about the very welcome announcement yesterday in the other place by the Minister for Sport that financial assistance is being offered to the National League so that it is able to start its season without spectators this Saturday? How much is being offered by the Government, and what do they mean when they say that the arrangements will be reviewed after the first three months?

As the noble Lord knows, we have given assurance to the national football league that will allow the clubs to reopen and start playing from today. We are at the planning stage in the package that we are putting together and are looking in detail at the financial needs across all those sports that rely on spectators and match-day incomes. I am afraid that I cannot give more detail of the quantum at this stage.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, said, national football league clubs still have no idea what their settlement is, and they are being asked to start the season in good faith. At the same time, Premiership rugby clubs have been pushed to the brink by the implications of Covid and are now being driven to bankruptcy by a lack of gate receipts; none is profitable. Does the Minister agree that Premiership-level clubs are in the bracket of what the Government call “the greatest need”, and that spectator sport as a whole faces a daily fight for survival, which requires action now to allow a limited number of supporters back safely in order for it to survive and support its fan base and their communities?

The Government are very keen to support all sports, for the reasons that we have already summarised, in terms of both their specific sporting contribution and their wider community contribution. Clearly rugby plays an important part and is very central in particular communities. We are going through this in detail with each of the governing bodies, looking at the needs of their specific sports, and will respond as quickly and as effectively as we can.

My Lords, great uncertainty exists for both professional and amateur equestrian athletes, who travel extensively to competitions with large horse-boxes around the continent. Are they exempt from needing an operator’s licence, which hauliers certainly need, or are these riders considered hauliers, which clearly they are not? What provisions are being made at Dover to cater for this form of transport?

My Lords, I am sure the Minister understands that there are a lot of very important community football clubs below the level of the National League. I know and have worked with the northern league for many years. In places like Redcar, Crook in County Durham and Tow Law, the club is important not just to football enthusiasts but to the whole community. Many of them feel that if they have to go through another period of uncertainty in these areas, which are already among the poorest and most vulnerable—not only in terms of Covid but because they are what the Government call levelling-up areas—that will be a huge hit to the community. Can she assure me that she will make sure that these clubs are also considered, not just those in the National League and above in the pyramid of the FA?

The noble Baroness is right that these clubs have been a crucial element in the fabric of our communities for many years, much longer than some of the elite clubs. Obviously those clubs are now allowed to have spectators in a Covid-secure way, but we are working closely with Sport England and, as I mentioned earlier, have already distributed £210 million to organisations such as those that the noble Baroness mentioned.

I am grateful to the House for its forbearance. We recognise that the DCMS and the Treasury have taken steps to support sports clubs but, as my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe observed on Monday, sector-specific intervention tends to come at the 11th hour rather than when it would have the greatest benefit. We welcome news of support for the national league, but why did we have to lose Macclesfield Town to provoke ministerial action?

The Government’s first preference is for governing bodies and clubs to do what they can within their own resources. Does the Minister accept, however, that the financial returns submitted to the department are likely to show that reserves are running perilously low or have been depleted?

While we hope there will be solidarity initiatives within sport and that this will help to keep clubs afloat, they are not sufficient. Can the Minister provide an assurance that the Government will act more swiftly and decisively, and in a manner that recognises that sports clubs not only operate as businesses in their communities but are a vital community asset?

I think maybe the noble Lord asked more than one question, but I will try to answer as best I can. On his last point about acting swiftly and decisively, I reassure him that the Secretary of State and the Minister for Sport were on the phone to the national governing bodies of the main spectator sports immediately after the Prime Minister’s announcement that made it clear that spectators could not return on 1 October.

With regard to the financial returns, we are looking forward and are working through those, though obviously their scale and scope will vary. We are very clear about our role in helping clubs. In relation to the noble Lord’s first question, the twists and turns of the virus are difficult to predict, and we have reacted extremely promptly to the current situation.

Sitting suspended.