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David Bernstein sends damning open letter to the National League over £10m government grant distribution

David Bernstein, the former chief executive of the FA, has been leading an independent panel. Picture: PA Images

Andrew Graham says an open letter by the chairman of an independent review panel validates the concerns of clubs over the National League’s distribution of a £10m government grant.

David Bernstein, the former chairman of the FA, has sent a damning verdict on behalf of his panel to league chief Brian Barwick.

Steps 1 and 2 received the emergency funds in October, via the National Lottery, to allow the first three months of the season to begin behind closed doors.

Some clubs believe their share of the money, which was distributed into four bands ranging from £30,000 to £95,000 per month, is not enough to cover the lost gate revenue and that others are receiving more than necessary.

The panel sent their report back to the National League last week, who have not yet shared it with their 66 member clubs.

Bernstein described how the panel were “profoundly disappointed” the report had not been issued to clubs and stated “we also believe disclosure is in the public interest given that the funding was provided by Camelot”.

The third and final tranche of monthly money has been received by clubs without any changes, which has worried the panel. They said: “We are concerned that the NL are making the December payments on the same basis as the previous two months thereby increasing the imbalance as described in our report.”

Bernstein also highlighted to the National League an “apparent lack of concern around conflicts of interest and compliance with your own Articles of Association”.

A National League statement read: “The National League Board established an Independent Review Panel in November, chaired by David Bernstein, to meet the League’s commitment to keep its payment schedule for vital Club grant-aid under review. 

“The Panel has made its report to the Board last week, which contained some constructive points concerning the methodology of distributing grant funding between Clubs, and which followed the input of member Clubs who were mainly supportive of the distribution method employed to date. 

“The Board is still seeking clarification from the Panel on the content of its report, and once the Board has received such further information, it will take whatever steps are necessary. 

“Once this process is complete the full report and background information will be shared with all interested parties.”

Graham, vice-chairman of Hereford and spokesperson for the aggrieved clubs, told The NLP: “This letter from a very, very well respected independent panel chair validates our concerns and justifies our activity in asking for clarity and transparency.

“It’s not the end of the story. We will not settle until the clubs who have been detrimentally impacted by the allocation model chosen have received the funds they were due.

“This point now tells me Brian Barwick cannot possibly remain in post.”

Bernstein wrote: “Dear Brian,

“I refer to your letter of 18th December. We are responding with an open letter to yourself and interested parties.

“I would summarise the Independent Panel’s majority view as follows:

“1) We are profoundly disappointed that you have not shared our report with your clubs not least because we believe that this should be done in line with open and proper good governance and that the NL was committed to ensuring that the funding was distributed in a transparent manner. We also believe disclosure is in the public interest given that the funding was provided by Camelot.

“2) We are concerned that the NL are making the December payments on the same basis as the previous two months thereby increasing the imbalance as described in our report. This is particularly concerning if, as we suspect, the arrangements for 2021 may be on a different basis. We encourage interested parties to keep a close eye on this.

“3) We note the lack of response regarding governance issues and the apparent lack of concern around conflicts of interest and compliance with your own Articles of Association.

“4) We note the lack of courtesy in acknowledging our efforts and in responding to correspondence and what we can only interpret as attempts to undermine the credibility of the Independent Panel.

“The funding for the period from January to March 2021 will come from a different source and the terms are still to be resolved. The panel is therefore unable to consider this period. Therefore, if as you claim, our mandate was limited only to examining this 3 month period then setting up this panel was pointless. In these unfortunate circumstances, we do not propose to enter into any further dialogue with the National League and will leave it to the various complaining parties to pursue matters as they feel appropriate.

“Yours sincerely,

“David Bernstein”

A group of unhappy clubs – Hereford, AFC Fylde, AFC Telford United, Chester, Dulwich Hamlet, Kidderminster Harriers, Maidstone United, Dorking Wanderers and Chesterfield – called for the resignation of Barwick last month and for an independent panel to investigate how the money was distributed, which was then formed by the league’s board and led by Bernstein.

The committee, consisting of Terry Angus, Anna Semens, Jonathan Hall and Bernstein plus three other members Charlie Clapham and Lord Richard Faulkner, both non-voting vice-presidents of the National League, and Graham Wood, a non-voting co-opted board member, heard from clubs both for and against the distribution as well as Barwick and National League chief executive Michael Tattersall.

Tattersall, in a letter to clubs last Friday, seen by The NLP, said the independent review committee’s report contains some “constructive recommendations”.

He wrote how the National League board is “seeking clarification” from the committee on the recommendations made, and once that has been received, it shall set about an “implementation process”.

Tattersall continued: “We have sought advice from Leading Counsel as to whether or not any changes could be considered for the December payment and his advice is that given clubs are likely to have a legitimate expectation that they will be receiving the same monies in December as they did in the previous two months, and as the monies have to be sent out this week for clubs to receive them in time for December payrolls, then it is reasonable and lawful for the distribution to take place according to the Clubs’ expectations. Therefore, no changes have been made to the payment schedule in December.”

Heading into the new year, the National League is set to receive access to £11m of funding as part of the government’s Winter Survival Package.

The National League is urging for the money to be made available in grants rather than loans and “will make representations concerning the distribution of monies that take into account the recommendations made by the independent review committee”.

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