Sports Minister: Government’s focus is on helping ‘those most in need’ amid ‘extinction’ warnings

Sports Minister Nigel HuddlestonSports Minister Nigel Huddleston
Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston
Top tiers of professional sport will be expected to find ways to support themselves where possible during the Covid-19 pandemic, the sports minister has said.

Nigel Huddleston told MPs the Government’s focus will be helping ‘those most in need’ within the sporting world, as he confirmed discussions with football governing bodies are ongoing about further assistance.

He also said he could not give ‘definitive timescales’ for reopening events, amid warnings certain sectors are facing a ‘potential extinction event’.

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Mr Huddleston’s remarks came after a limited return of fans to football grounds next month was paused due to an increase in recorded Covid-19 infections.

The decision has sparked concern throughout all levels of football, given the importance of matchday revenue to clubs.

Speaking in the Commons, shadow sports minister Alison McGovern said: ‘The Government’s failures on track and trace have consequences for football clubs, as we’ve heard from Conservative MPs this morning, and we all want to know what the plan is to save the game we love.

‘So suppose, as has been indicated in the media, that the Premier League is not prepared to underwrite the rest of football, I’d like to know who then would be to blame when clubs collapse?

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‘Will it be the Premier League or will it be Conservative ministers speaking from this despatch box?’

Mr Huddleston replied: ‘I can assure (Ms McGovern) we’re having detailed conversations with sport, including football, and we appreciate this latest announcement (banning spectators) will have economic consequences for sport and we had been hoping for the return of spectators that bring in so much income.

‘Where it can, we will expect the top tiers of professional sport to look at ways it can support itself, with the Government focusing on those most in need.’

Conservative MP Sara Britcliffe, whose Hyndburn constituency includes League One Accrington Stanley, stressed the importance of matchday revenue and said the club has worked ‘tirelessly’ to welcome fans back safely.

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She said of the pause on the return of fans to grounds: ‘As you can imagine the announcement was a devastating blow to clubs like mine.’

She asked if further financial support was being considered, to which Mr Huddleston said: ‘I can confirm we are in discussions with football governing bodies about further support measures.’

Mr Huddleston said he has asked the governing bodies of spectator sports to provide him with details of any member clubs or associations who are at immediate financial threat.

Conservative MP Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) said: ‘As the minister knows, many football clubs, particularly in the Football League, face financial ruin now that there’s no prospect of the imminent return of fans and matchday revenue.

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‘The Government has offered £1.5 billion to help arts organisations in the community, recognising their cultural value.

‘What guarantee can (Mr Huddleston) give today to clubs in the Football League in particular, that the Government will be prepared to offer public money to stop those clubs facing financial ruin?’

Mr Huddleston responded: ‘We are in discussions with major sport including football bodies.

‘Yesterday, I wrote to the governing bodies of all major spectator sports to formally begin discussions and provide them with a contact point in DCMS.

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‘I also asked the governing bodies to provide me with details of any member clubs or associations under immediate financial threat and we’ll be providing more information in due course.’

Conservative Julian Knight, who chairs the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, asked if the Government would consider specifically targeted funds for adaptations to make reopening events safer.

He said: ‘Obviously the progress of the virus is a body blow to sectors facing, what is in no small terms, a potential extinction event.”

Mr Huddleston, in his reply, said: ‘I wish I could stand here and give definitive timescales for what we’d be able to do.

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‘We live in such uncertain times though, I’m unable to do so.

‘But I can assure him we will try and endeavour to give as much guidance and notice as possible and I look forward to working with him further.’