Skip to main content

Sport Sector: Financial Support

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on 19 November.

“For millions of people up and down the country, sport is so much more than a pastime. Sports clubs, large and small, enrich lives both on and off the pitches, the courts and the grounds, and they play a vital role in their communities. The value that sports clubs bring to their communities has been clearer than ever during this pandemic, and it is right that we support them.

Earlier this year, in May, we announced a £16 million emergency bailout for rugby league to prevent the sport’s collapse, and the Treasury’s multi-billion-pound support packages, including the furlough and loan schemes, have been a lifeline for countless sports clubs and organisations across the country, helping them to stay afloat when their doors remained closed. Sport England has announced separate emergency funding of £220 million for grass-roots clubs, and we recently announced a £100 million scheme for leisure centres. Together, that support has acted as a significant buffer to the pain.

However, we know that the decision taken in late September not to re-open the stadiums from 1 October has had major consequences for sports clubs large and small. It was the right decision, given the rate at which coronavirus was spreading across the country, but clearly, not being able to generate gate receipts deprives many organisations of a major source of income. The vast majority of those sports operate on tight financial margins and have been forced to make serious cost reductions such as locking down grounds, furloughing their staff, cutting wages and halting excess payment. It was clear that if we did not act, a number of clubs would go to the wall, with real consequences for the grass-roots game. That is why, over the past few weeks, we have been working tirelessly with the sports sector to understand the real pressures it is facing.

We promised to stand by the sports sector when we made the decision to postpone the return of fans, and today I am pleased to announce a £300 million sports winter survival package to see major spectator sports through this difficult period. The majority of that funding will be given through low-interest loans, with flexible repayment terms and grants where organisations are unable to repay loans. The package will focus on those sports that have been severely impacted by the restrictions announced in September, and it is the largest package announced by any Government for its domestic sport sector in the world.

I stress that these are provisional allocations of funding. They were made on a needs-based assessment process, and reflect the submissions made by the individual sports. Recipients will still need to apply, and the funding process will be overseen by an independent decision-making board and supported by Sport England. That funding will include a top-up for rugby league of up to £12 million, as well as cash injections of up to £28 million for national league football and women’s football, up to £135 million for rugby union, and up to £40 million for horseracing. There is also up to £6 million for motorsport, up to £4 million each for netball, basketball, and ice hockey, up to £1 million for greyhound racing, up to £5 million for tennis, and up to £1.6 million for badminton.

Today’s provisional allocations are not the end of the story. The door is open for any sport to apply where there is a need. That includes cricket and other sports that are not on the initial list of allocations. Full details of the application process will shortly be announced by Sport England, with the first tranche of support expected to be distributed to clubs and bodies before the end of the year. In the meantime, if any individual club is facing imminent collapse, we will work with it through its national governing body. Based on the information that sports have given us, this package will help them to survive until the spring.

Of course, we would all prefer to see fans back in the stadiums. Spectator sports need spectators, and with the real progress that we are making on vaccines and testing, that goal is now firmly within our sight. Until then, we have stepped in to protect not just individual clubs and organisations, but entire sports and the communities they serve. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating last week’s Statement. Normally, it is undesirable to have such a gap between the debates in both Houses, but, in this case, it allows us to consider recent developments.

Labour welcomes the additional financial support for the sport sector, and I repeat the thanks expressed by my colleague, Alison McGovern, for the hard-working Treasury and DCMS, who have had to deal with complex financial returns at speed. It is regrettable, and I do not like to sound curmudgeonly here, but Ministers chose that process at such a late stage. However, these funds will nevertheless provide a lifeline for the range of sports that receive them, and for that reason they are very welcome.

Last week, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State reiterated his desire for this money to be going out in weeks and certainly for some of it to be disbursed before Christmas. Is the noble Baroness able to provide any updates on the planned timescales, particularly in the light of today’s wider economic announcements? Can she express in percentage terms what amount she expects to arrive at with organisations before year end? I very much hope that the department has learned lessons from its experience with the Culture Recovery Fund, which, as we all know, took some time to start distributing moneys.

In response to a question on equal access for funding by women’s sports, Mr Huddleston said that there would be an appropriate proportion for women’s sport. What, in the Minister’s view, is an appropriate amount? Again, I would appreciate a percentage. I know, from previous comments, that the Minister shares my view that we must not allow the pandemic to reverse the excellent progress and good work in women’s sports over recent years, but that will be possible only with appropriate financial help and support.

The noble Baroness will not be surprised if I ask for an update on the Government’s planned fan-led review of football governance. We have been told that preparations are in progress without any dates being named. Ministers continue to point out that it was a manifesto commitment of theirs. Given this, we would expect there to be some more urgency.

I wish to probe a little on Monday’s announcement that a limited number of fans will be allowed to return to sports stadia once the national lockdown is lifted and the tier system resumes. Allowing up to 4,000 fans to attend outdoor sporting events and up to 1,000 spectators at indoor events is a welcome step forward after an unprecedented period of professional sport being played behind closed doors. Noble Lords will know that these numbers are the absolute cap, with a percentage system in place for clubs with lower-capacity stadia. Can the Minister provide the evidence base behind the 4,000-person attendance limit?

Manchester United’s Old Trafford can ordinarily host well over 70,000 fans. Even the old wooden stands at Goodison Park will fail to emit their customary creak with just 4,000 fans present. Twickenham Stadium has a capacity of 80,000. While it is not desirable to have these grounds full at this time, on what basis was it determined that they were unable to safely host a higher number? Premier League clubs have spent large sums preparing their grounds to accommodate socially distanced fans. Similar steps have been taken by rugby clubs and others in anticipation of reopening their doors. While they will be excited to welcome even a small number of fans back home, doing so is likely to result in financial losses, which will become unsustainable if the cap is not revisited.

Therefore, when are we likely to see a detailed road map for increasing sporting capacities? Will DCMS commission new test events to inform such a road map? Has any consideration been given to previous test events and the data they have provided? I draw attention to the case of Brighton & Hove Albion. There was approval in principle for crowds of around 8,000; that would move individual fixtures from loss to profit. Even for lower league clubs, which desperately need that additional income, the current offer is unlikely to satisfy demand from season-ticket holders who have paid up front. I am told that AFC Wimbledon, which has just completed its historic return to a new stadium at Plough Lane, had over 3,000 season-ticket holders last year and are expecting that number to climb. If the area remains in tier 2, it means that the club will admit only those who have already paid, rather than making new money.

I stress that we do not want to rush this. We need to be confident that stadia of all ages and sizes can cope with the return of fans and that there are appropriate protocols in place, not only around grounds but on transport networks as well. However, sports clubs at all levels need to see progress, not just one-off announcements. This is true in relation to support from government and clubs’ ability to raise their own funds. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Botham, for example, will be hoping that Lord’s is able to welcome a higher number of spectators when cricket returns next summer—otherwise he, like the rest of us, will be obliged to watch remotely and that cannot be right.

I want to close with one final question regarding the Prime Minister’s recent announcement. We know from the Independent SAGE group that the ability for families to mix at Christmas may require new restrictions in January and beyond. If that comes to fruition, is it the Government’s intention that attendance at sporting events would become an exception to restrictions or do we face the prospect of clubs opening their doors in December, only to see them being slammed shut in the new year?

My Lords, it a good thing that we have this debate, even if it is nearly a week late. The old adage that a week is a long time in politics must be ringing very loudly in the Minister’s ears at the moment, because we have had many announcements that add to this Statement. The biggest, shall we say, elephant in the room— or dog that is not barking—is what is happening with arrangements for the upper tiers of professional football. If the Minister knows anything, now would be a good time to tell us. I would understand if no arrangement has been reached, but if anything can be told about that it would help us.

To return to what is said in the Statement, we need a little more flesh on the bone. For instance, I live in the village of Lambourn in the “Valley of the Racehorse”. There, the National Trainers Federation has been asking how the money going to the racing establishment is going to trickle down to its members. Without people who look after the horses, you do not have any event. It is not that straightforward and there are details to go through.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has already had a good go on the fact that getting some fans into the grounds will help a few clubs. But one of my noble friends has pointed out to me that certain lower league clubs are getting gates of 18,000—I think Portsmouth does, if my noble friend the Chief Whip has told me right. He is nodding at me, so I am fairly safe there. If that is the case, how will this potential lifeline and way out compensate them? The reform of football has been made more pressing by Covid. We should be looking at the fact that the current model is virtually unsustainable. I do not think that we should forget that at any time.

On rugby union, I heard a question today that I want to ask the Minister. What do you do about the money for the Olympic sport of sevens, which was cut due to this? I have heard that an arrangement is coming to help with that, which is good news, but rugby union may well be the last sport to play again. Let us face it, old prop forwards like me know that we form our own special non-socially distanced, germ-spreading little units around the place when we play the game. When do the Government expect there to be sufficient immunisation to allow us to come back? Intelligent things have been done about trying to get a different version of the game played. Rugby union may be the best example, but all sports have these questions. Will the Government have some form of timescale to allow the fans in and the playing of the game in all circumstances, especially at community level?

We may have gone a little wider than the Statement in this debate but a lot has happened. It would help if we could find out now exactly what the Government are thinking.

I thank both noble Lords for their questions and their welcome to this funding. I echo the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in thanking the civil servants in both DCMS and the Treasury for their incredible work on this package.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, started by asking about timings for the disbursement of these funds. This package is aimed at those clubs really facing an existential threat, particularly as a result of the recent lockdown and the inability to allow fans back and the income that comes with that. We are keen on and committed to getting the first tranche of funding out by year end. More detail will be published about that shortly. There will also be an independent board overseeing the disbursement of the funds.

The noble Lord also asked about funding for the women’s game. I must confess that I heard my honourable friend the Minister for Sport be slightly more vehement about the importance of those clubs receiving funding from the Government treating women and women’s sport exactly the same as men’s. The criteria for this fund are identical for women’s sport and men’s sport.

I fear that I will disappoint the noble Lord regarding a further update on the fan-led review. As he noted, it is a manifesto commitment and we are committed to doing it. Progress is being made but no firm date has yet been settled on.

Both noble Lords talked about the importance of returning fans to stadia. We are all enormously keen to get fans back and delighted by the recent decision that in tiers 1 and 2, in particular, there will be capacity for up to—in tier 1—4,000 fans in the open air. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, noted himself in a later comment, the decisions about the number of fans in a stadium are based not purely on the capacity of the stadium but also on the design, entrances, exits and travelling arrangements. We have done a number of pilots which have helped inform our thinking. We will watch and learn from the opening-up that is shortly to be with us, and then we will build on that. But we really do feel optimistic about the prospects for this as we go into the new year, and particularly beyond Easter.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked specifically about rugby union and rightly pointed out the risks in the scrum—to the long list of which a new risk has now been added for those brave enough to go into the scrum. We are obviously aware that this is a close-contact sport and will have particular challenges. We aim to give more detail on how we hope to address the points that the noble Lord rightly raised around vaccination in particular. We are working and hope to be able to publish a not-later-than date. As I mentioned, the Health Secretary has been very optimistic about seeing a significant change in conditions around Easter. We all look forward to that.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, also asked about trainers. Obviously, with the £40 million going to racecourses and the ability for racing to take place, there will be a trickle-down benefit to trainers from the prize money from those events.

I felt that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, was not at his most generous when he talked about the progress and implied that there would be a stop-start pattern. I think that we have come a really long way. There is light at the end of the tunnel for both grass-roots and professional sport. We have a lot of hope, based on the vaccine results announced recently and on the level of testing that we are now achieving. We are very grateful to the Sports Technology and Innovation Group for its advice on how we can bring fans back as quickly as possible.

My Lords, we now come to the 30 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call the maximum number of speakers.

My Lords, I very much welcome this Statement as an important rescue package, for that is exactly what it is. I note that £250 million of the £300 million is in the form of loans. When can we expect the terms of the loans and details of the repayment holidays to be finalised, rather than the final deals themselves? I hope that the Minister will commit to a comprehensive review of all Covid-related support for sport by the end of March, when this package ends, because long into 2021 the impact of Covid-19 will still be delivering a hammer-blow to the decimated income statements of both winter and summer sports across the United Kingdom.

I thank my noble friend for his question. We will publish the application process and wider conditions for loans in the winter survival package in the next few weeks, but the principle behind the loans is that they should be affordable in terms of both the interest rate and the repayment period. In relation to a review of sport, I am not aware of a formal review of the sort that my noble friend suggests, but I stress that the team in DCMS is working extremely closely with all sports to get as thorough and comprehensive as possible an understanding of the situation and how we can relaunch stronger in the new year.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of interests. What work have Her Majesty’s Government undertaken to explore an equivalent of the hospitality sector’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme for the sport and fitness sector and connecting it to a scheme to drive activity levels that could support the Prime Minister’s obesity strategy?

The noble Baroness raises the interesting idea of “Work Out to Help Out”, or whatever it would be called. Obviously there are different ways of helping different sectors. We have tried to focus on a number of direct funding packages. Obviously there is the £300 million winter survival package; £200 million was announced earlier in the year for grass-roots sport; and there is £100 million for gyms and leisure centres, which I am sure the noble Baroness welcomes.

My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for the metaphor that I am opening the bowling on behalf of cricket. I particularly want to say that as I see that the noble Lord, Lord Botham, is bowling at the other end—hopefully with me rather than at me.

The Statement indicates that cricket has the opportunity to make an application. Can the Minister confirm that there will be sufficient availability within the £300 million for county cricket, which is in need of money, if it gets its application together? I would welcome some elucidation from her as to why county cricket has not so far been included. I understand why the ECB is not because it is rather analogous to the football situation, where you have the Premier League and the lower clubs, and the ECB has had a huge amount of television money from Sky.

Is county cricket not included because it has not actually made an application yet, or is it to pressurise the ECB to give more of the TV money to the counties rather than them getting it out of the £300 million? If neither of those is true, can the Minister please explain what the counties need to do to receive the necessary payments from the fund?

I was wondering which bowler I would rather face if I were batting at this hypothetical wicket—but, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, we probably know which one it is. In answer to his question, the reason that funding has not been made available to country cricket is that we were reassured by the ECB that it had the means to support all the counties over the winter. If the restrictions continue beyond 1 April, we will consider whether some form of additional support is needed.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register. On behalf of the entire rugby league family, I thank my noble friend and the Government for the additional funding in the package of £12 million for rugby league, coming on top of the £16 million announced in May, all of which is vital support for clubs that are at the very heart of their communities. May I also underline the absolute necessity of ensuring a return to paying spectators for the start of the 2021 rugby league season—a season which, as my noble friend will know, concludes with the rugby league World Cup? It promises to be the biggest and most ambitious ever, and I am pleased to say that there is already an unprecedented demand for tickets.

Well, I am delighted to hear from my noble friend about the demand for tickets for the rugby World Cup. I stress that we appreciate and understand the importance of rugby league to communities around the country and the very positive benefit it brings to so many people’s lives. One of my most memorable visits, in the days when we were allowed such visits, was to watch the Castleford Tigers women’s team training. It was very cold but it was very inspiring. To address my noble friend’s question more directly, obviously we are working very hard to ensure that spectators can return to stadia as safely as possible, and we are working closely in consultation with the sporting bodies, health and safety experts and officials to do this. We are making real progress. To have a truly successful World Cup event, we need a good, sustainable and solid domestic game, and we are working hard towards that.

My Lords, we all welcome the injection of £300 million into rugby union and horseracing, and the safe return of much-needed supporters to stadiums, which will be a lifeline to so many clubs. Do the Government have any plans to financially support cricket, which has faced massive financial difficulties as a result of Covid? Is the Minister willing to favourably consider direct representations from all the cricket clubs affected by Covid?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. As I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, we have had confirmation that so far the ECB has the means to support all the counties over the winter. We are in conversations with the ECB and it would be eligible to apply to the contingency fund—but obviously the best thing for all sports will be to open up and get spectators back as quickly as possible. But I would be more than happy to follow up with the noble Lord directly on his suggestion in relation to individual clubs.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to my interests in the register and I join at the crease the noble Lords, Lord Botham and Lord Razzall. My appeal is not for money but for common sense. In that spirit, will my noble friend ensure that the Government are not overly prescriptive in the measures required to allow a few hundred spectators to attend a game of county cricket? My genuine fear is that the cost of doing so may outweigh both the mental well-being benefit and the financial benefit to the clubs.

My noble friend is absolutely right about the value of sport in terms of both physical and mental health. Obviously, with cricket being a summer sport, things may look very different next summer, but the current limits of 4,000 outdoor spectators in tier 1 and 2,000 in tier 2 should make a number of these games viable. Obviously, cricket as a sport lends itself to spacing for spectators, and we are truly optimistic that, by the time county cricket restarts, the prospects for normal crowds will be very good.

My Lords, what discussions have the Government had with the officers of the British Olympic Association and UK Sport about the financial implications for both of these bodies if the cancelled Tokyo Olympic Games of 2020 go ahead in 2021?

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register as a trustee of the Saracens Foundation. I welcome this much-needed support for sport. I know that my noble friend, as we have heard, and our honourable friend Nigel Huddleston in the other place share my strong support for girls’ and women’s sport. Until we can get back into stadia and watch from the sidelines, is there anything that my noble friend can do to encourage broadcasters to showcase more women’s sport?

The noble Lord is absolutely right about the role that broadcasters can play, and my colleagues within the department are liaising closely with them on this point.

My Lords, I welcome very much the financial support for this level of sport, but does the Minister share my concerns about the really grass-roots sports clubs—the little clubs, the Saturday morning football clubs that are losing their match fees, and clubs with huge numbers of volunteers whom they are losing at the moment? I join the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, who asked earlier whether the Government might consider, once the Covid situation has been sorted, that we may need a really root-and-branch review of everything that is happening in grass-roots sport and how it has been affected?

I am happy to reassure the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Moynihan that I will take the suggestion of a thorough review back to the department, but I reiterate what I said earlier about our constant communication. In terms of the real grass roots, I absolutely echo the noble Baroness’s recognition of the value of those organisations to their communities, particularly during this Covid period, in which they have been setting up food banks and providing all sorts of extraordinary help in their communities. That is also why we committed £220 million earlier this year to make sure that exactly those organisations survive.

My Lords, I declare my interest, as recorded in the register. May I ask the Minister for clarification in relation to this very welcome news about spectators being allowed back into grounds? Will loans or grants that are given to clubs or organisations be affected by the number of spectators who are allowed into the grounds? Will the decision on numbers allowed in be taken by the Government or in association with the HSE, the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, local police and the like?

In response to the first part of my noble friend’s question I can say that, as we work through the individual awards with the different sporting bodies, we will take into account their projected revenues. So this is about financial need; it will have some bearing on that. With regard to the planning work we are doing around letting fans back into stadia, we have been working closely with the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and, as I mentioned earlier, the Sports Technology and Innovation Group.

On what date will the number of spectators be reviewed, so that we can answer the question of why Germany can get far more people into its stadiums every week than we will allow? Will the Minister ensure that professional and grass-roots sport are a crucial part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda? In many towns in the north of England, people do not have much money in their pockets. They will not have much money to spend going to rugby league, which will need continued support if its clubs are to survive. It is not just the money to keep going now, which is very welcome, but what will be needed in the next couple of years as well. Will levelling up include sport?

On the first part of the noble Lord’s question about review dates for increasing the number of spectators, those decisions are clearly not taken in isolation and will be part of wider decision-making on what is allowed within different tiers as we move forward. I fear I cannot add more on that point at the moment.

The Government well understand the importance of levelling up and of sport within it. There was obviously a very important infrastructure announcement in the Chancellor’s speech today of £4 billion directed to levelling up, but more specifically, on sport, there have been two important contributions to rugby league so far. We continue to value its contribution and see it as a critical part of rebuilding a sense of pride in local communities.

As the Minister will have gathered, there is very widespread support for this announcement. But will she make sure that the Government follow where the money is going and ensure that all the recipients pay a proper contribution to diversity and community activity where they are located, because that is why they have such widespread support?

The other thing is the dog that is not yet barking in the night: whether the Premiership will cough up enough money for first and second division football, which have many clubs in communities in real danger. I again put the idea of the Government threatening a windfall tax on transfer fees and television money if the Premiership does not get more realistic about the kind of help it will give.

The noble Lord makes an important point about following where the money is going. Part of the role of the independent board is to do just that. On the Premiership, as I and my honourable friend the Minister for Sport have said several times from our respective Dispatch Boxes, we believe that the Premier League has the financial capacity to support the wider football family. We hope that it has the good sense to act on that quickly.

My Lords, I return to two questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, about the percentage of funding going to women’s sport and what the Minister considers to be the appropriate percentage. I understand that she might not be able to answer now, but perhaps she could write to us later. In responding to the question, she said that the criteria are identical for men’s and women’s sports. Would she agree that equality does not equal equity, particularly when we consider the starting position of women’s sport, with grass-roots participation four percentage points lower than for men? Considering its long history—whether the Football Association actively oppressing women’s football, the Olympic movement refusing to allow women to participate in marathons and longer races for many years, or the attitudes of broadcasters, as the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, just referred to—does she really not think that there should be a bias towards women’s sport to deal with historical disadvantage?

I think the noble Baroness may be conflating two things. This package is very specifically for those sports clubs in real financial difficulty. It is the same whether it is a woman’s sport or a man’s. This is not about trying to level the playing field between men’s and women’s sports. The noble Baroness made entirely valid points about the wider context for women’s sport and I hope she will acknowledge that progress has been made. We are determined to make further progress, but this specific package is about ensuring the survival of clubs. In that regard, women’s sport is on an equal footing to men’s.

My Lords, I begin by extending my condolences to the worldwide fans of Diego Maradona, who died earlier today.

Youth provision by skilled staff has been a vital source of safe space and plays a critical role for young people who may be vulnerable, empowering them through recreation and sports activities, including, in my area, women’s bicycling clubs. Many youth organisations have had their services shut down, which may leave current generations excluded. I know that the Minister will understand all too well the significance of their inclusion at this time. Will she nudge her department towards grass-roots, community sport, from where the next generation of Beckhams and cricket’s Moeen Alis may come?

I reassure the noble Baroness that my department does not need any nudging in relation to the importance of sport for young people. As I mentioned, we committed £220 million to grass-roots sport, much of which will benefit young people. Crucially, we have also worked closely with the youth sector throughout the pandemic, so that youth workers are able to carry on providing the critical support for just the vulnerable young people to whom the noble Baroness rightly alludes.