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Covid-19: Football League

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to provide financial support to English Football League teams whilst restrictions are in place to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, our football clubs are the bedrock of their local communities and it is vital that they are protected. Many have benefitted from the unprecedented multibillion-pound package of support that we have provided to all businesses across the UK, which the Chancellor has announced has been extended. The Minister for Sport met both the Premier League and the English Football League last week to reiterate the need for them to reach an agreement on a support package in the interest of fans.

I declare an interest as a director of Carlisle United Football Club. The Government have stopped fans from attending football matches, thus they have some responsibility; so will they now commit finance and to working formally with the football authorities to ensure that Football League clubs, and especially those in Leagues One and Two, can survive? Secondly, in view of football’s proven low Covid-19 risk, when this current lockdown ends on 2 December, will the Government commit to making a priority of reopening grounds when feel-good factors and economic activity can be encouraged?

I think the noble Lord knows that we regretted enormously having to press pause on our plans to reopen stadia for fans. I can reassure him that every consideration is being given to making that a priority when the pandemic and the virus are brought under control. However, our view has been clear that professional football has the resources and the means to support itself. There is £50 million on the table for Leagues One and Two, which we feel is a good start.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Football Association and a board member of Wembley National Stadium Ltd. Not all clubs are fabulously wealthy even in the Premiership, and although they can certainly contribute to the survival of the pyramid, the national importance of football in our culture, to which the Minister referred, surely entitles clubs to look for more government help. The Government could, for example, provide more help in the deferment of taxation payments. Will the Government consider whether that could be done and, in agreement with the clubs, consider appointing a commissioner to regulate football, with a binding undertaking from clubs in all sections of the leagues that they will be treated equally rather than to the benefit of only six clubs at the very top of the football pyramid? Will the Minister talk about the progress that could be made now given the current circumstances, which are forcing a new look at the whole problem?

The Government absolutely agree with the noble Lord on the national importance of football and recognise that many community clubs have gone above and beyond during the pandemic to support people living in their communities. We have also, for example, moved and worked closely to broker a £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. Some of the wider issues that the noble Lord raises may form part of our wider fan-led review of football governance.

I disclose an interest as a fond grandfather of seven grandchildren, who like to play sport. Is it not important to single out not one sport but all sports for the help provided by the Government so that all children, like my grandchildren, can enjoy sports to the full?

The noble Lord is not alone in having grandchildren who enjoy sport, and children’s sport is vital. That is one reason we have ensured that it can carry on in school even during the current lockdown.

My Lords, is the Minister now able to explain to the House what the Government have done to ensure that those 20 or so EFL clubs facing financial collapse can continue to trade and play for fans, which is important, in the future? What hope can she gives to fans wanting to return to watching lower-league games, and can she commit to ensuring that clubs in the rest of the football pyramid can function viably across the rest of the season in these rather depressing times? Will she give us a timetable for the fan-led review that the Government say they are fully committed to? If she cannot do so, when will she?

On the support needed across the English Football League, as I have said a couple of times, we have been very clear that those with the broadest shoulders within the football family and at the top of the pyramid need to bear that cost. We have been reassured by the Premier League that it has no intention of letting any club go bust because of the pandemic. Work continues on returning fans to stadia, including with the Sports Technology and Innovation Group, looking at every possible means to return fans as quickly as possible.

My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to reassure the football family that the Government like our structure of promotion and relegation, which is very important to the structure of our football and the nature of its community basis, and that any clubs at the top whose ownership may come from a culture where you have a franchise and a guaranteed fixture list know that this is something that they will not get away with here—at least, not with government blessing?

The noble Lord raises something fundamental to the way our game is organised in this country, and I believe the Government see it as critical going forward.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a founding member of the original Independent Football Commission. In America, the National Football League shares its television revenue with all teams equally, regardless of status or performance. Is this a model that should be at least looked at in English football? Secondly, if the Premier League does not reach agreement with the EFL, will the Government consider a levy on football TV revenue?

With regard to the noble Lord’s second point, I am not aware that any consideration is being given to a levy such as he describes. Obviously, our goal is to get fans back in stadia, and we have worked very hard to try to broker exceptional access to games as they have operated behind closed doors. The nature of agreements between the broadcasters and the various leagues are for commercial arrangements between them and not for government.

My Lords, is it not time that the Government stopped pussyfooting with the Premier League and made sure that it makes a proper contribution? The Minister said that they have not looked at this, but they should look at a levy on the money coming out of television and make sure that money quickly gets to both the English Football League and the National League, which make a far better contribution to our communities than the Premiership.

To be clear, I said I was not aware of whether the Government were looking at this; I did not say that they were not. They have been incredibly active in supporting sports clubs across all the major sports that are really suffering from the lack of income from fans. They are working closely with the Treasury to resolve this as quickly as possible.

My Lords, may I press the Minister on my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton’s question about the timetable for the establishment of the fan-led review into football governance? When she has answered that, can she also say whether it will take account of the excellent report Saving the Beautiful Game: Manifesto for Change, published last month by the distinguished group chaired by the former FA chair David Bernstein? In particular, will it take account of its central recommendation:

“External involvement in the form of a regulator supported by statutory powers is required to reform the way our national game is governed”?

With regard to the timing of the review, this is a manifesto commitment and we are keen to get started with it as soon as time allows, but all noble Lords will understand the pressure that our officials and Ministers are under at the moment. The scope of the fan-led review has not been determined, and anticipating the answers before we have set this might be premature.

Sitting suspended.