12 November 2020
Shailesh Vara leads Parliamentary debate on Peterborough United FC

Shailesh Vara leads the Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons in support of Peterborough United football club’s desire to be able to have a limited number of supporters attending their home matches.

Mr Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con)

It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to present my case today, on behalf of Peterborough United football club, to be able to have a limited number of supporters attending their home matches. Let me make it absolutely clear at the outset that in putting forward the case to allow spectators, I do so with the intention of that happening after the lifting of the present restrictions. I wish to inform the thinking of the Minister so that when the easing of restrictions does take place, serious consideration can be given to opening up football stadiums in a limited manner, provided that proper social distancing and safety measures are implemented.

Earlier this year, pubs, restaurants, clubs, cafés and other venues were opened up after the period of the lockdown, but football stadiums were not. This time round, I hope it will be different, and I would like to put forward some reasons as to why I believe that should be so, with specific reference to Peterborough United FC, affectionately known as the Posh. I have the privilege of having the club in my constituency of North West Cambridgeshire, which has in it some 40% of the total population covered by Peterborough City Council.

The club was formed in 1934, and after winning the Midland league title for five consecutive seasons, they were elected to the Football League in 1960. Currently, the club are at the top of league 1. The story behind the name “Posh” is an interesting one. Although the present club dates back to 1934, the Posh name first came to the fore over a decade earlier, almost certainly coming from Pat Tirrell, who was player manager of Fletton United, the previous users of the present club’s London Road ground. Pat announced at the end of the 1921 season that he was looking for “Posh players for a Posh team” to compete in Northamptonshire league, which subsequently became the United Counties league. Fletton United had previously been known as the “Brickies”. They reformed as Peterborough and Fletton United in 1923, and both nicknames were in use throughout the 1920s. Following the demise of Peterborough and Fletton United in 1932, the present club was formed two years later. There then followed a Midland league debut against Gainsborough Trinity on 1 September 1934, and this was greeted with shouts of “up the Posh” from the spectators.

The current owners of the club, Darragh MacAnthony, who is also chairman of the club, Jason Neale and Stewart Thompson, are totally committed to the Posh, as are the manager Darren Ferguson, chief executive officer Bob Symns and director of football Barry Fry. The city of Peterborough and surrounding area benefit economically and socially from the club’s continued success, drawing in millions of pounds of revenue every year, helping local tourism and making a huge contribution through the Peterborough United Foundation. It is not surprising, therefore, that the club enjoys the support of Peterborough City Council. Incidentally, the leader of Peterborough City Council, Councillor John Holdich, is retiring next year after over 40 years of public service. I thank Councillor Holdich for his outstanding dedication and commitment to the city and the surrounding area. I wish him and his wife Barbara much happiness following his retirement.

The covid-19 pandemic has been a massive challenge for us all, and has resulted in an unprecedented challenge for all football clubs. Of course, many other sports have also been affected, but I am confining my comments today to football, and specifically to the Posh. As we move forwards, and in anticipation of an easing of restrictions, the Posh’s CEO Bob Symns and his team have put an enormous amount of work into making preparations for a return to socially distanced competition at the Weston Homes stadium, where the club plays. The plans are intensely thorough and detailed, covering all aspects of how the stadium would operate on match days, with a reduced crowd and working on the basis of ensuring maximum safety for all concerned.

The stadium covers some 5 acres and has a maximum capacity of 15,000 spectators, but the club seeks permission to make provision for only 4,000 of its followers, and they are all season ticket holders. In the event that any one of those individuals needs to be contacted—for example, for test and trace purposes—the club has everyone’s contact details, including mobile numbers, email addresses and so on.

As for the preparations, entry to and departure from the stadium would be staggered. Every seat and every space in and around the ground and the stadium has been accounted for on a socially distanced basis. There is provision for single spectators, those arriving in twos, threes and so on. There is plenty of signage and hand sanitiser stations, and there are unique protocols and procedures for the various different areas and facilities. These include the entrance and exit points, home and away dressing rooms, the players’ tunnel, areas for the media and catering, car parking areas, turnstiles, the ticket office—the list goes on. There will be full deep-cleaning of the stadium, including the benches, control room, staff areas, media places and the like. These deep cleans will take place prior to and at the end of each match day. There will also be ongoing cleaning of some areas, such as toilets, entrances, door handles and light switches, between fixtures.

As one would expect in such circumstances, the club has made risk assessments, put in place contingency plans, provided for the proper training of staff, and ensured that there is an effective communication procedure and system. No detail has been overlooked, and that point is clearly made when I say that during matches there will be eight people whose sole responsibility will be to ensure that the balls used during the match are properly sanitised. Of course, if the club is going to do a proper job, it almost goes without saying that the corner flags and goalposts will also be thoroughly sanitised. As well as all these safety measures, a crucial point that I very much hope the Minister will take on board is that, unlike many other types of venues that were previously allowed to open to the public, the Posh’s stadium, and football stadiums generally around the country, are in the open air. They are therefore that much safer for fans and for all others attending.

In its preparations, the club has also worked very closely with other stakeholders. These include the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, the safety advisory group, the local fire and police services and the medical providers, including the ambulance service. Having read and considered the proposals, and after several conversations with Mr Symns, I can truly say that I believe that Peterborough United FC has provided a template that can be safely used by any club throughout the country. Let me add that when speaking with Mr Darragh MacAnthony, he assured me of his total determination to do whatever it takes to ensure that safety guidelines are adhered to, and said that the safety of everyone is of paramount importance on match days and more generally.

Moreover, Darren Ferguson, the club manager, also made it clear to me that he and all the players are totally committed to making this work. During training sessions rigorous measures are taken to ensure compliance with safety rules, and all the players are fully aware of their own responsibility in making sure that the message of health and safety and social distancing is effectively conveyed and adhered to by all the fans attending. My hon. Friend the Minister will also appreciate that currently there is no income for the Posh and many other clubs, and it is therefore absolutely vital that they are allowed to generate some much-needed revenue after such a long period without money coming in.

One aspect of the club’s work that does not receive as much attention as it ought to is the work carried out by Peterborough United Foundation, which makes a real and positive difference to the wider community. The values of the foundation are to ensure opportunities for everyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or ability, and its activities are centred around four themes: sports participation, social inclusion and community cohesion, health, and education.

The foundation’s activities include a school sports programme with after-school clubs and PE lessons, currently working with some 13 primary schools and delivering each week to around 1,000 children. Another programme involves going into schools and helping the development of teachers delivering PE, as well as helping children to gain important life skills, using four particular themes: to be ambitious, to be inspiring, to be fair, and to be connected.

There is, of course, a Peterborough United ladies’ team, as well as opportunities for girls who have experience of playing football to gain even more training at the Peterborough United girls elite and development centre, and there is also a programme for girls aged 11-plus, the majority of whom have not played football or taken part in much physical activity before. These girls and women come from a variety of backgrounds and abilities, and the foundation seeks to provide them with as many opportunities as possible to participate in football. The disability coaching programme covers both school and out-of-school sessions, and the foundation supports an adult deaf team that competes in the English deaf league south division, as well as providing coaching sessions for children who are deaf and hearing-impaired.

There is more. There is support for an adult amputee team, which competes in the English amputee football league. There are “healthy kicking days”, too; children take part in activities that teach them how to keep healthy and active and what foods to eat to maintain a healthy diet. Enterprise days are hugely popular, providing children with an opportunity to meet and work with many other children from different schools whom they would not normally see. A local organisation, Locate Accommodation, helps refugees who come to Peterborough, and the foundation offers football sessions to them over the summer holidays. Let it not be said that there is not provision for all age groups, because there is. There is walking football. The sessions are for participants of any age and are ideal for those who wish to continue playing football, but in a more relaxed, non-competitive and non-contact manner.

Opening up the club to spectators, even in a limited way, would serve another important purpose. It would allow the club to celebrate the life of Tommy Robson and his contribution to the Posh and the city. Last month, very sadly, Tommy passed away. He was a much-loved and admired Posh legend, and the first player to be inducted into the club’s hall of fame.

Tommy played for Northampton Town, Chelsea and Newcastle United before signing for the Posh in 1968 for a transfer fee of £20,000. He made 482 league appearances for the club and was twice named player of the season. Tommy later dedicated much of his working life to Peterborough and earlier this year was awarded the freedom of the city. Councillor Peter Hiller tabled a motion on Tommy’s award and said:

“Tommy is without doubt one of if not the most loved players ever to grace the pitch at London Road.”

The club has started a campaign to raise funds to erect a bronze statue of Tommy outside the club grounds. This would join a statue of Chris Turner, which stands outside the stadium. Chris was formerly a player, the manager and chairman of the club. Tommy’s son, Ian, has said that his father

“had an awful lot of love for the city and clearly the people loved him.”

Tommy’s daughter, Anita, added:

“I always knew he was a special man but to realise he was special to everyone up and down the country has been absolutely amazing.”

The chairman of the Posh supporters’ trust, Marco Graziano, has spoken of the chance for fans to pay their respects to Tommy inside the stadium.

When the present restrictions are released and restaurants, pubs, cafes, theatres, shops and a whole variety of places are opened up again, I very much hope that the Minister—who is not only a colleague, but a very good friend of mine, and for whom I have a huge amount of respect—will give serious thought to the points that I have made, especially the fact that, unlike many other venues, football stadiums and the grounds where Posh play are in open areas without any closed roofs or ceilings. I hope, too, that he will appreciate that that helps towards enhancing safety measures.

I invite the Minister to come to the Posh stadium himself, and to bring along his advisers and civil servants, so he can see personally what measures have been put in place. He can challenge and ask Mr Symns and others if he has any concerns. Above all, he can come to see the enormous work that has been put in place to ensure that Posh players can play safely, and spectators can come to enjoy watching the matches.

 5.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Nigel Huddleston)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) for introducing the debate and for the contributions he has made towards this important topic today.

Football clubs such as Peterborough United are vital parts of their communities. They have unique social value and enjoy rich histories. My hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for his club. I know this well. We have spoken about football, and in particular Peterborough United, on many occasions. May I say immediately that I would be very keen indeed to take up his invitation to visit him in his constituency and the club? He outlined in incredibly forensic detail the many measures that his club and others across the country have taken to prepare for the safe opening of stadiums as soon as they are able to do so. I appreciate his attention to detail in outlining the case.

The Posh, as they are affectionately known, have been a mainstay of English football for more than 85 years. They have a very proud history, as my hon. Friend has articulated, and of course have very strong grounds to be optimistic about their future. Peterborough were, of course, unlucky to miss out on the play-offs last year, but given that they currently occupy the top position in league one, this season looks pretty positive for them. I hope that their good form continues and I wish them the very best of luck for the rest of the campaign.

As well as the team’s success on the pitch, the Peterborough United Foundation, as my hon. Friend has said, has undertaken incredible work off the pitch for many years. I think it was first founded in 2009. My hon. Friend mentioned many of the foundation’s activities. I was particularly impressed with all the work on access, including for the disabled and the elderly and, of course—this is a passion of mine—for women and girls, through its girls elite and development centre, and its support for the Premier League Primary Stars programme to create a healthier and more positive future for the country’s children.

The club and the foundation have also stepped up to the plate during coronavirus, helping the city during these incredibly difficult times by sending care packages to vulnerable fans across Peterborough and the surrounding areas. This is yet another great example of football clubs demonstrating their importance to local communities. In this place over the past few weeks, we have talked a lot about the role of rugby in communities. Perhaps we should not overlook the important role that football and football clubs play as well.

The Government have provided unprecedented support to businesses throughout this difficult period, including a comprehensive and sizeable package of direct fiscal support. Many football clubs have benefited from these measures, such as the business rates relief and the furlough scheme. Sport England has also provided £210 million of national lottery and Government funding to support the sector through covid-19. That includes a £35 million community emergency fund, which is helping community clubs and exercise centres during the pandemic. The Football Foundation, a charity set up by the Government, the Football Association and the Premier League, has also introduced a number of funds to help clubs. The latest is a matchday support fund, helping clubs prepare for the resumption of football.

I completely understand the importance of getting fans back into sports stadiums. My hon. Friend talked passionately about this, as have many other Members over the last few weeks. However, rising infection rates across the country meant that, unfortunately, it was not the right time to proceed with a wider reopening on 1 October, as we had planned. The Government understand the financial consequences of this decision and are focusing our support on those in the sector who are most in need as a result. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is working closely with the Treasury to confirm a support package, and we will set out further details in due course.

In addition, the Government recently brokered a unique deal with the National Lottery, which has provided £10 million in funding for the 66 clubs in the national league so that they can continue to play behind closed doors, and, of course, the English Football League is currently in discussions with the Premier League about a support package. I am hopeful and optimistic that those discussions will come to a positive conclusion very shortly.

We are absolutely committed to getting spectators back into stadia as soon as it is safe to do so. We will continue to work closely with a whole range of sports to understand the latest thinking that might allow spectators to return. The Government have invited the Sports Technology and Innovation Group—STIG for short—to analyse new technologies that might support the return of spectators. I spoke to the chair of the group this week, as did the Secretary of State, and we heard about the vital work that it is undertaking which will help to get spectators back in stadia as soon as possible.

We have made significant progress since the start of the pandemic. We worked closely with the sector to bring elite athletes back into training before returning competitive sport behind closed doors. We welcomed international athletes, with health protocols that helped to isolate the competitors, and set out detailed and stringent guidance for the safe return of spectators. The return of spectators was also successfully tested through the staging of pilot events over the summer, but these plans regrettably had to be paused as the virus was spreading. Rest assured, I understand the importance of pressing play on our plans and how unfortunate that was, but we will return to these plans as soon as we can. We pressed the pause button; we intend to return as soon as possible.

Before I conclude—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is strangely not in his place this evening—I would like to take the opportunity to wish Northern Ireland and Scotland good luck in their Euro 2020 play-off matches tonight—Northern Ireland versus Slovakia and Scotland versus Serbia, kick off at 7.45 pm. I am sure that many will be watching. I am grateful for today’s wide-ranging discussion about a subject that is close to my heart, many hearts here and the hearts of many of our constituents. I conclude by confirming that the Government are absolutely committed to continuing to support the sport sector and getting spectators back into stadia as soon as it is safe to do so.