Local Labour council asked Saudi-backed Newcastle for £23m to pay for children’s school meals

Newcastle United co-owners Mehrdad Ghodoussi and Amanda Staveley
Newcastle City Council have said their relationship with the football club is beneficial for the city - Getty Images/Stu Forster

A Labour-run council asked Saudi-backed Newcastle for £23 million to pay for free school meals, according to an investigation raising concerns over the relationship.

Amanda Staveley, the club’s director, also received a letter from a Newcastle City Council officer asking her to lobby the Government to fund repairs to the Tyne Bridge. Staveley had asked senior council officer Michelle Percy to prepare a briefing ahead of a meeting she was having with Lord Johnson, a UK investment minister.

The city’s Labour leader, Nick Kemp, is said to have separately urged the club to pay more than £23 million to fund free school meals.

Emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the campaign group NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing and then shared with BBC File on 4 and the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

The council, which has had to cut £369 million from its budget since 2010, said it will “always look at opportunities to drive investment” that “ultimately puts money in the pockets of all our residents”.

The club has declined to comment on the correspondence but the council has defended the messages, saying close co-operation with the football club was beneficial for the city.

Percy is said to have written to Staveley complaining a grant for the restoration of the Tyne Bridge had not been signed off by the Government and asked for help in “reaching out to the PM and ministers at a high level”.

Staveley then wrote to two figures in government, whose names have been redacted, asking for help to “expedite the process of releasing this vital funding”. Three weeks later, the Government confirmed it was awarding the council £35 million to help restore the bridge - although the Department for Transport maintains the business case for the Tyne Bridge was already in the final stages of approval.

Nick McGeehan, director of human rights research group FairSquare, told the BBC: “I think it’s a huge problem when a cash-strapped local council has very strong links to a capital rich, very wealthy foreign state, particularly when that foreign state is deeply autocratic and anti-democratic.

“That poses a risk to the council because it means, in certain situations, the council is not going to stand up for local values or principles, but will keep quiet in order to satisfy the commercial interests of its foreign partner.”

In defending the correspondence, the council said: “We have also made clear in the past that we do not think it is fair to blame those involved in the day-to-day management of Newcastle United, themselves a Football Club of Sanctuary, with alleged human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. We have enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Newcastle United. The club is ingrained into the fabric of our city, and they make a huge contribution both on and off the pitch.”

The Saudi-backed takeover at Newcastle was finally approved after a protracted process in October 2021. Richard Masters, chief executive of England’s top tier, said at the time he had been provided with “legally binding assurances” that there would be no state involvement in the running of the club.