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12.23 am

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Tony Banks): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this debate, but he chose a wretchedly inconvenient evening. For me, it completes a day between the Scylla of dodgy boxing results and the Charybdis of chess recognition. I have total sympathy with his case, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins).

Chess is a sport in which there are no barriers of physical ability or between the sexes. Both counts commend it to me. I have received many representations from hon. Members, to some of which the hon. Gentleman referred. I have publicly expressed my support for chess to be recognised as a sport, and I gladly reaffirm that. The question of what is or is not a support is vexed. It is not a matter of semantics, but a crucial decision. Once recognition is given, sports can receive funding from the Sports Councils and the lottery and certain tax advantages, especially in respect of VAT. Regrettably, as he noted, recognition is not in the gift of the Government.

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Personally, I think it should be, because I am very much a hands-on Minister, but responsibility for deciding what is or is not a sport currently resides with the Sports Councils.

We have 112 recognised sports in this country, but the Sports Councils use a definition of what constitutes a sport, the system for which is based on several principles that broadly relate to physical skill, physical effort, accessibility, rules, organisation and so on. My officials have discussed the difficulties that arise in connection with activities such as chess, but predominant among the criteria against which the councils assess suitability for recognition remain requirements for physical skill and physical effort.

I believe that the definition used is too restrictive. It appears to be rooted in a belief that mental activity does not require physical effort. That is an old-fashioned notion, based on the caricature that I experienced when I was a kid at school, that the bright ones read books and the thickos play sport. I read the article by Jon Speelman in The Independent today, in which he describes Nigel Short losing a stone in weight during a week-and-a-half match. It is clear that top chess players, if they want to excel at technical level, need to be physically fit to do that; the two cannot be divided.

The main barrier in terms of definition appears to be the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937. The legal advice received by my Department concludes that chess does not fall within the meaning of the words "physical training and recreation" in section 3(1) of that Act. My Department has invested nearly £150,000 over the past three years to help the British Chess Federation to promote the development of chess, and we recently committed a further £50,000 per annum over the next three years. My Department makes over that money to the BCF under the annual Appropriation Acts because of the restrictions imposed by the 1937 Act.

It cannot be sensible in 1999 to have the issue of recognition tied to a definition struck in 1937. The world of sport and our attitudes toward sport have changed dramatically during the intervening 62 years. As if the 1937 Act were not enough of a problem, there is worse to come: chess does not fall within the meaning of the word "sport" in the context of the Sports Councils' current royal charters; and it appears unlikely that chess would be regarded as a sport under the National Lottery etc. Act 1993.

Let me set out the problems facing us. First, to gain recognition for chess, we would need primary legislation to change the 1937 Act; secondly, we would need to amend the royal charters, which would need to promulgated by the Sports Councils themselves; and, thirdly, we would probably need primary legislation to amend the National Lottery etc. Act 1993. Think about that. Who was it who said that the job of the Minister for Sport was all about free tickets and lager? However, do not despair--I have a cunning plan, which I shall announce in due course.

When I answered readers' questions in The Independent recently, I said, inter alia, that I wanted recognition for chess because we are very good at it. As the hon. Gentleman said--and this was in the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Moorlands--

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we are the second nation in the world after Russia in terms of chess success. In this country, 4 million people play chess, and in England alone 50,000 children in some 3,000 clubs play it. As my hon. Friend said, we have some spectacular young chess players; she mentioned 11-year-old Jessie Gilbert from Croydon, who became the youngest winner of an adult world title by winning the women's gold medal at the world amateur chess championships in January. We are extremely proud of what Jessie Gilbert has achieved for chess and for this country.

We could go on to talk about the great double triumph in Croatia, where the England men's team became European champions ahead of the Russians, and the England women's team took the bronze medal. We are talking about a big sporting success story in a country that wants sporting success, enjoys that success and at times feels deprived of it. That makes our failure to grant recognition all the more absurd. Yet, while we have imprisoned ourselves in our own legislation, other countries have forged ahead: 98 nations worldwide recognise chess as a sport; and 37 European countries do so, of which eight are partner members of the European Union.

As I said, recognition is not an academic issue: it would bring tangible benefits for the development of chess. Therefore, I can inform the House that the Secretary of State has proposed to broaden the scope of the 1937 Act to enable chess and other mind games to be funded by the UK Sports Council. We will do that as part of the new cultural framework Bill for which we are seeking legislative time. Once that is achieved, the Sports Council, in turn, will need to promulgate the appropriate amendments to its royal charters, which I feel certain it will want to do following our amendments to the 1937 Act. That would secure the recognition of chess.

However, we would still be left with the problem of the 1993 lottery Act. It would require primary legislation to amend if chess is to receive funding through the lottery sports fund--unless we can find a way around it. At the moment, all I can say is that I must consider the matter carefully and consult on it. As I understand it, if we can reach an agreed definition of sport, we will not need to change the 1993 Act via primary legislation.

Dr. Harris: May I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister's words warmly, which will be well received by many chess players in the country at large? I am also grateful to the Minister for explaining the problems that we face. I hope that I am not pushing the boat out too far by also putting in a plug for bridge, to which many of the arguments also apply. I hope that the proposed legislation will cover bridge as well.

Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman could seek to secure another Adjournment debate on the subject of bridge--perhaps at a more convenient time of day. The fact is that the amendment to the 1937 Act would include mind games.

We must arrive at a definition of sport that is agreeable and acceptable, and, with good will, we will achieve it. It is currently a nonsense situation and, quite frankly, I do not like presiding over nonsense situations. I intend to consult on the matter to see whether we can achieve an agreed definition of sport. If we can, we might not have

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to jump the third hurdle that I described: amending the 1993 lottery Act. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the new opportunities fund. It is not just a matter for schools: the British Chess Federation is eligible to apply for lottery funding to promote chess in after-school clubs using the new opportunities fund. I hope that it will do so.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members--particularly my good friend the hon. Member for Moorlands--who have campaigned assiduously for chess to be recognised as a sport. I think

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we will see the end of this match and that, with good will on all sides, we can achieve the objectives that we have set ourselves. I hope that, with tonight's Adjournment debate, we have started the process that will bring this country into line with so many other European Union nations and countries around the world that recognise the superb game of chess as a real sport.

Question put and agreed to.



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