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Premier League could have fans back before Christmas - sources

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Football could have fans back inside English stadiums before Christmas, sources have told ESPN.

The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) held a landmark meeting on Tuesday with key administrators across football including representatives from the Premier League, the Football Association, the English Football League, the Professional Footballers' Association, anti-discrimination campaigners Kick it Out and the Football Supporters' Association.

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Secretary of State Oliver Dowden arranged the meeting in response to stalled talks between the Premier League and the EFL over a rescue package for lower league clubs at risk of bankruptcy due to an absence of matchday going fans resulting from COVID-19.

And Dowden informed attendees on Tuesday that he is driving proposals that could see supporters return next month once the UK exits its nationwide lockdown on Dec. 2.

The exact details are as yet unclear but sources have told ESPN the government are planning to return to a tiered system of restrictions when the lockdown ends and those areas in the lowest tier would be allowed to admit some fans into stadiums -- capped at a percentage of capacity -- under fresh plans outlined by DCMS.

The government are yet to sign off the proposal but the DCMS are hopeful a green light would also help break the impasse on funding which has left many clubs fearing for the future with around 10 EFL sides at risk of failing to make payroll this month.

Sources told ESPN that the main area of consensus at Tuesday's meeting regarding financing was an acknowledgement the parachute payments paid by the Premier League to relegated clubs must be changed. The DCMS is keen for the money to be distributed evenly. Currently, each relegated club receives £40m each for the first year they are relegated and then £20m for two years after that. Therefore each year, the Premier League pays more than £200m to clubs not in the division but only to a handful of clubs and a fairer redistribution of this money throughout the EFL clubs would help close the huge financial gap between the top two tiers of the English game. That money would also go a long way to reaching the £250m figure the EFL asked for to guard against any clubs going bankrupt in the 2020-21 season even if fans were not allowed to attend any matches.

It is as yet unclear whether parachute payments would remain in some form, effectively a weighted payment for relegated clubs but much reduced from their existing level, with the rest of the money spread across the majority of the 72 EFL clubs. Sources told ESPN that the Treasury have also made a commitment to work with the clubs in relation to employment tax and VAT payments to find a way of easing immediate cashflow issues with the DCMS concerned about the potential loss of clubs impacting on the social fabric of local communities.

Diversity and inclusion was also discussed at length with the DCMS committing to set up a new forum inviting tech companies to participate and tackle rising incidents of online abuse. All plans are now with parliamentary under-secretary Nigel Huddleston to examine how they implement action on the agreed points. Former FA chairman David Bernstein spoke in the meeting about the need for an independent regulator -- a move the FSA expressed their support for -- but it remains to be seen if the DCMS deem it necessary in a wider restructuring of the game.

The discussion was described by multiple sources as productive and entered into in the right spirits by all parties. A timescale for a follow-up action was not finalised but the DCMS are keen to press ahead in the coming weeks.