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Finance Bill

Mrs. Barbara Roche accordingly presented a Bill to grant certain duties, to alter other duties, and to amend the law relating to the National Debt and the Public Revenue, and to make further provision in connection with Finance: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time this day, and to be printed [Bill 62].

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

12.8 am

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I am pleased to raise in this Adjournment debate the important issue of the future funding and support for chess in the United Kingdom. I am delighted to welcome the Minister for Sport to the debate. He was recently "outed" in a national newspaper as an intellectual, when he declared his support for chess in The Independent's question and answer section. Those of us who follow such issues recognise that the Minister has long been a supporter and true friend of chess in this country. It is with such sporting challenges in mind that I challenge him tonight--if only it were over a game of chess--to agree with me on the future funding and support for chess in the United Kingdom.

The campaign for Government support for chess has been a long one. I am especially pleased to see the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) in her place. She has been a strong advocate for chess in the House and she tabled early-day motion 1609 in the previous Session, which deserves to be read into the record. It states:

Our debate is about the inadequacy of current funding and the failure of chess to be able to access alternative sources of funding, such as the Foundation for Sport and the Arts and the national lottery sports funds. That is due to the collective decision of the UK Sports Councils not to recognise chess as a sport and, therefore, as a suitable recipient of funds.

Other sources of funds that might be available--such as the lottery's new opportunities fund for schools--are, by their nature, limited, given all the other bids for that funding. The situation is bad for chess as a sport, bad for chess players, bad for children's education and bad for this country's reputation.

My earliest memory of chess--as perhaps is the Minister's--is of the dramatic 1972 world championship when Boris Spassky failed to defend his title against the extrovert, maverick American genius Bobby Fischer.

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I remember that British chess grew in the ensuing years following the publicity around that event. Schools chess grew in particular, and the UK began to have its own grandmasters and international masters--Tony Miles, Raymond Keene, Michael Stean, William Hartston and John Nunn, who were followed in due course by Nigel Short, Julian Hodgson, David Norwood--against whom I used to play as a school player--Michael Adams and Malcolm Pein from Liverpool, where I grew up.

Since then, we have consistently been, for around a decade, one of the top two or three countries in the chess world. That has happened in spite of the facilities for chess, not because of them. I certainly enjoy playing chess, as many people do. I enjoyed it for the pure fun of taking part. Actually, if I am honest, I enjoyed winning and hated losing--perhaps that is why I am Liberal Democrat.

I was lucky. My state school had a teacher--Ken Champion--who was interested and who gave up enormous amounts of his time to drive minibuses around the north-west so that we could play other schools. I feel that chess developed my intellect. It certainly developed my team work and my ability to plan. Chess also imbued one with a sense of responsibility that came from being part of a team. I was lucky enough to be spotted by a well-known chess club--Atticus--which was well known both in the region and nationally. I had the good fortune to play for that club for many years, although in only the third or fourth team.

I once played against a formidable woman opponent from Formby chess club, and she later became the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), although it may have been the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle)--then, more than now, it was difficult to tell them apart. I was fortunate to scrape a draw.

In 1997-98, Government funding was £49,000--a direct grant from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the British Chess Federation. Because of the pressures of public expenditure, there was a real terms cut in 1998-99 as the amount stayed at £49,000. For next year, there will be a further real terms cut as the increase has been only 2 per cent., welcome though that is.

Spending by the BCF from those limited funds will be £14,000 or thereabouts in schools, which puts the federation in a difficult position. As better players emerge, they need funding to go to international tournaments abroad, which squeezes the funds available from the grant for schools. Although, the BCF works hard to develop coaching and training opportunities for young people and to promote links between schools and chess clubs, it is difficult to see how it can be done on such a small budget.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): The news that the entire European Commission has resigned broke a few minutes ago. Does my hon. Friend feel that that will affect the future of chess in Europe?

Dr. Harris: Obviously, my hon. Friend will be pleased to have got that on the record. I will mention comparisons with Europe later. In many ways the Europeans are ahead of us in this matter, although perhaps not on the issue that he mentioned.

British chess has had to rely on getting by with other funds. Obviously, British chess--in particular schools chess--is grateful to sponsors who had supported a

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recreation and, I believe, a sport that does not get the television exposure that it deserves. In that context Saitek, which has recently funded junior chess, will be joining many hon. Members in the House at an event in the next few days to publicise the superb quality of schools chess and should be thanked for its support. There has been an explosion in chess in schools, but that is not due to, but despite, the lack of investment. Educationally, chess is recognised to be very good. Indeed, it used to be looked after by the Department for Education and Employment.

The hon. Member for Moorlands obtained a written answer recently from the Minister for School Standards in which she said that the Government very much welcome the opportunities which many schools provide for their pupils to take part in such activities. With reference to chess she said that it was open to schools to offer such activities as extra-curricular options, which the Government see as an important part of a broad and balanced education. However, as budgets are squeezed and as pressure on teacher's time increases, it is hard to see how that sort of activity can prosper.

Women's and girls' chess is strong in this country. Recently, I was pleased to meet the world under-18 champion, Ruth Sheldon, at a tournament in Oxford. She will shortly become my constituent when she comes to Oxford university, which I am afraid to say was soundly beaten by another university in the recent Varsity match.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the organisation of women's chess is in an appalling state? The achievements of the 11-year-old Jessie Gilbert, the youngest women's amateur world chess champion and Ruth Sheldon, the world junior under-18 female champion, are even more spectacular given the limited organisation of women's chess. Obviously, we have tremendous talent, but we do not have the organisation to allow those people to realise their full potential.

Dr. Harris: I agree. I am pleased that in Oxford we have our own chess prodigies in the Hunt siblings, Adam and Harriet, who have been British champions at various ages.

Indeed, the Minister is aware of the problem of women's access to sport and recreational activity. Following the debate on sport for all in July 1997, which he will remember, he wrote to the hon. Member for Garston to point out that he wanted women to be actively involved in all sports and he said that the national lottery sports fund was an important mechanism to level the playing field and to develop women's sport--in particular, sports that had been male dominated. For that reason, as with all other sports, it is important that chess can access the funds that have been made available by the lottery.

As the Minister knows, lottery funding is not available because the English Sports Council does not consider chess to be a sport. He has said that schools may be able to access the new opportunities fund for after-school activities. I would be interested to know whether he has any data on whether schools have been successful in getting such funding for chess because of all the other pressures from schools on the fund and the need to have good facilities for after-school clubs.

There is a feeling that the sports establishment does not want chess to compete for scarce public funds, or that there is a philistine prejudice against the so-called "nerds"

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and "anoraks" who are deemed to play chess. I stand before the House as proof that it is not only nerds and anoraks who play; my hon. Friends are all nodding in agreement.

The Minister has often identified the problem. I hope that he will develop it in his answer to the debate. The UK Sports Councils are public bodies set up by royal charter. As such, they enjoy a certain independence from the Government. They have developed a system of recognition to decide which activities and organisations should be eligible for support to ensure that public funds are distributed as efficiently and effectively as possible, as they see it. In several letters, he has pointed out to hon. Members that they deem that suitability for recognition includes requirements for physical skills and effort. Elsewhere he has talked of physical skills, effort and challenge. In other places, he has mentioned other words. I hope that the Minister agrees that in many ways, chess is a challenge, and a physical and mental effort. It certainly qualifies as a sport by almost every definition.

The Minister knows that other European countries are increasingly recognising chess as a sport. Austria, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain all recognise it as a sport. In many cases, chess is part of the national Olympic body. Soon, it may be that the International Olympic Committee will recognise it as a sport while the English Sports Councils do not. I know that he supports the case, so I do not believe that the sports councils can hold out much longer in their old-fashioned view that chess, a sport in which we excel, should not be considered a sport.

Given that I hope that the Minister will agree that there is a cogent case for recognising chess as a sport to enable it to access the lottery funds that it desperately needs for development, for its support in schools and for the development of women's chess, the only barrier to getting such recognition may be legislative. If it is, I would be grateful if he could clarify that. This is a doing Government. If it is a question of Government action, I know that chess players will not have to wait long. In this campaign, I hope that we are truly in the end game and that he will deliver from the Dispatch Box tonight the check mate.

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