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House of Commons

Monday 17 January 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Senior Sporting Appointments

1. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): If she will issue guidelines to sports governing bodies on the criteria to be used in assessing the fitness of individuals for senior positions. [208449]

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): Sport England does not issue guidelines to national governing bodies of sport for use in assessing the fitness of individuals for senior positions. This should be part of a governing body's own recruitment policies and procedures. However, Sport England has carried out fit-for-purpose reviews that have established a basis on which to provide a degree of assurance that governing bodies are indeed fit to receive public funds, and that includes human resources.

Tony Lloyd : I thank my right hon. Friend. Obviously, control of major sporting bodies, whether in the professional or amateur game, has enormous importance to the sporting public and the general community. Control of a company such as Manchester United, in which I have a small shareholding, would have an enormous impact. There are rumours of a takeover by Malcolm Glazer, who was described in the United States courts as a snake in sheep's clothing when he tried to take over Harley Davidson and who is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, so is hardly a fit and proper person to take on the governance of a football club. Can my right hon. Friend put a comment on the record that might dissuade Mr. Glazer from his predatory activities?

Mr. Caborn: I cannot comment on the description of Mr. Glazer, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the premier league and the Football League have taken significant strides recently to ensure that there is good governance and that they have fit and proper people on the board. He can be assured in that sense. Company law is now more stringent on the appointment of company directors, particularly concerning the Football Association premier league. I was pleased to read the statement by the chief executive of Manchester
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United, David Gill, when he said that any decision would take into account both present and future shareholders. That is important for a football club like Manchester United, which plays a tremendous role not just in the game, but in its community. That should be considered by any board that takes the decision.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The former chairman of Wrexham football club, Mr. Alex Hamilton, described leading the club towards administration as

That was before the 10-point deduction that the club received from the Football League. He was deemed by the Football League to be a fit and proper person to run the club, but the population of Wrexham beg to differ. Will my right hon. Friend have further discussions with the Football League to impress on it that the current fitness-for-purpose test is not sufficient to protect football clubs, which are important community institutions? Football supporters need more support.

Mr. Caborn: I reiterate what I said earlier. Both the Football League and the premier league have taken steps recently to bring about better governance and regulation of the game. They have not got everything right and I think that they would accept that. However, the fact that Wrexham had 10 points deducted for going into administration is a step in the right direction and is a deterrent to trying to manipulate the situation, which would have been unfair to the other clubs in that division. I hope that we are getting better governance and regulation in all our sports, including football.


2. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What account she will take of standards of public decency in programmes screened by the BBC as part of her decision on whether to renew the BBC charter. [208450]

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris): All aspects of the BBC's organisation, operation, funding and governance are being considered as part of the on-going BBC charter review. The mechanisms for securing appropriate programme standards fall within the scope of the review.

Andrew Selous: While I condemn the publishing of BBC executives' private addresses, does the Minister realise that many people do not consider it appropriate for public service broadcasting to use taxpayers' money to fund programmes such as "Jerry Springer—The Opera", which offend so many people? Does she realise that many licence payers do not believe that the BBC provides value for money in screening programmes that upset so many of our constituents?

Estelle Morris: Of course I accept that people throughout the country may have been offended, but people are offended when we have free speech. I would rather have free speech than try to legislate against people being offended.

What is broadcast or printed is not and never should be a matter for the Government. In our nation, which cherishes free speech—it is so important—there is a
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legislative framework to which people can appeal, as they have done in this case. Both Ofcom and the BBC governors have that responsibility and no doubt will respond to concerns expressed by the public in due course.

Alan Howarth (Newport, East) (Lab): Is not it better that we choose our own infantilisms like real grown-ups, rather than be infantilised by the censor or even by my right hon. Friend herself?

Estelle Morris: My right hon. Friend is right. Heaven forbid that anyone should dictate what we can see, what we should listen to, or anything else. I would sooner run the risk of being offended than of having artistic performances denied to me.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does the Minister agree that although the independence of the BBC is important, and although I have not the slightest problem about the BBC giving offence over some tacky American programme, the screening of any programme that gives gratuitous offence to the Christian community or any of the great faiths prevalent in our land is a rather different matter? Does she, therefore, agree that a degree of self-restraint would be appropriate from the broadcasting authorities in that case?

Estelle Morris: What is broadcast is still a matter for the BBC, and that is absolutely fundamental, but because of the importance of free speech and artistic freedom, a legislative framework covers not only broadcasting but theatre and print as well, and it is against that framework that decisions should be made. As far as I am concerned, the BBC will look at the framework and it will make a decision about whether it should broadcast. That is a fundamental principle that in no circumstances should be crossed.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): This is a good time to remind ourselves that censorship is a dangerous thing for religions generally, especially minority religious views. Whether it be plays, books or operas on television, religionists would be ill advised to go down the road of censorship, not least because although I have not seen the "Jerry Springer" programme, having watched the play about it on the BBC the other week, my inclination would be to demonstrate against the makers of the "Jerry Springer" programme rather than against the BBC, which gave a strong moral message behind that play.

Estelle Morris: My hon. Friend is right. It is interesting that different perspectives can be brought to the issue. Most people of religious belief are well able to stick to their belief and defend it against those who criticise it or disagree. That is an article of faith, and many people who hold religious beliefs are happy to do so in the face of criticism.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Following on from the Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), is she aware that the BBC board of governors continues to argue that it has no role in pre-viewing material before broadcast and thus refused to
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intervene before the transmission of "Jerry Springer—The Opera", despite 50,000 complaints from the public? Given that the job of adjudicating complaints after broadcast has passed to Ofcom, the question arises as to what the point of the BBC governors is. Will the right hon. Lady make that a priority in the review of the BBC's charter?

Estelle Morris: I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman wants to give the BBC governors the power of censorship before something is broadcast. That is exactly what would happen if he had his way. What is clear is that there is not pre-viewing to censor what is broadcast, but that afterwards representations can be made. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has looked at the range of measures that Ofcom can use if it finds that the boundaries have been crossed. To give BBC governors the power to watch what is broadcast, ahead of Ofcom and ahead of the public, and for the governors alone to decide whether the public are able to see it, would be censorship that is almost worse than the censorship we got rid of between 20 and 30 years ago.

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