|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
5 Feb 2008 : Column 227WHcontinued
Scotland is not alone. Wales and Northern Ireland are now in a similar position. Because ITV has done a deal to take over from the BBC next year in showing Englands competitive matches, only in England will people be able to see their national football team play live on free-to-air television.
That is not the case in many other European countries. Lists of national sporting events now exist throughout Europe under the television without frontiers directive. In Germany and France, all competitive games played by the national team must be on free-to-air TV or at least offered at a fair and reasonable price.
In Ireland, when Sky bought the broadcasting rights for the national team one or two years ago, again, there was a national furore and a great debate. The Taoiseach intervened and the law was rewritten retrospectively to ensure that all national games involving the Republic of Ireland were live on free-to-air TV. Sky had to accept that, as did the other broadcasters.
So change can occur. I gently say to Ministers that, in the run-up to the general election, this is a contentious issue not just among cricket fans but among football fans, particularly in Scotland, and the Government need to react. If England gets the World cup in 2018, the England team obviously will not have to qualify, but it is unlikely that the qualifying games of any other home nation team will be available on live free-to-air TV.
I have just a few more general points to make. I would suggest one other thing that could be added to the list of protected events. Things may come off the listthey have in the past. For example, in the 1990s, the Commonwealth games and the boat race came off the list. The last day of the Ryder cup has a national resonance and should be addedperhaps not the whole of the Ryder cup but the last day.
The sports market has changed dramatically, for the better in many ways. Specialist sports fans can now watch the sports that they love on Sky. Setantas coming into the market added much-needed competition. Indeed, Ofcom the regulator is looking at the pay TV market generally to see whether increased competition can be brought into it. Sky and Setanta do a marvellous job, but I still support the principle of listed events, which goes back to the 1950s, when the BBC and ITV drew up a list of events that they would not try to broadcast exclusively. Then the Conservative Government maintained the list and, with the rise of cable TV, established the principle that the great national Crown jewels of sport should not be broadcast on pay TV. In 1996, there was a vote in the Lordsactually, a rebellion against the Governmentthat added the words subscription TV. That was essential to maintaining the list.
Some people say, We are going digital in 2012, so there will be no need for the list. There will certainly be more channels, particularly those on freeview, that will meet the criteria that are necessary for protecting the Crown jewels: Parliaments insistence that 95 per cent. of the people must have access to channels that broadcast the Crown jewels. However, the fact that some people will not be able to afford subscription and pay TV will apply.
In the last debate three years ago, I said, not in a politically partisan way but just as a reflection, that many of us stood on the slogan, For the many, not the few. Things such as the Olympics, the World cup and
the Grand National should be for the many, not the few. I am pleased that there are Members from the two main parties in the Chamber, and I know that the issue excites passion across the House.
In summary, the Government should get on with the review, which was promised for 2008-09. I would be more than delighted to chair it. I make that offer to the Minister, and I am sure that other hon. Members would be delighted to participate. The issue will, rightly, be fiercely fought. At the last review, for example, BSkyB vigorously opposed the listing concept. Some of the sports bodies themselves opposed the concept through the Central Council of Physical Recreation. I hope that they will reflect on that. Many of them get a lot of public money. If they are getting money from the Government, the Sports Council or the lottery, they should ensure that some of their product is available on live TV. The matter will be controversial, but the Government and Parliament must put their mind to it. It has resonance among the electorate.
I was having dinner in Parliament last night, and who should be sitting next to me but the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, having dinner with Ed Richards, the boss of Ofcom. I would like to think that somewhere between the soup and the puddingthey did have puddingthe subject of the review and listed events came up. I very much hope that it did.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing this debate. I can call him my friend: as he says, we are both Bradford City supporters, but there are many other things in which we have a common interest, including the fact that we represent Yorkshire seats. This is an important debate on an issue that is important to a significant proportion of society.
My hon. Friend has proved to be a vociferous advocate for the ideology behind the listed events regime and worked hard to ensure that major sporting events such as the 2006 World cup were shown on free-to-air terrestrial television as a result of that regime. Most recently, he has been an ardent voice in respect of test match cricket, as shown by his prominent position in the keep cricket free campaign. It highlights his commitment to free-to-air sports coverage, and it is something on which he should be congratulated and about which he should be proud.
I assure hon. Members that my hon. Friends commitment is shared by the Government. This countrys love of sport is embedded deeply in our national culture and identity. Sporting moments such as Bobby Moore lifting the World cup in 1966 and Bob Champions fairytale victory on Aldaniti in the 1981 Grand National are part of our common sporting memory. I should just say to my hon. Friend that I left the Grand National weights lunch early to attend this debate, so I hope that he appreciates my commitment to it.
We all know that millions of people want to see such events on their television sets. Families huddle together around their TVs, kicking every ball and jumping every fence. That personal involvement has made many sporting triumphs and, sadly, occasional failureswe will talk about England and Wales on Saturday with my hon.
Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed)into iconic moments in our national psyche. That is why it remains Government policy to ensure that the most important sporting events continue to be available to all television viewers.
Mr. Reed: Before the Minister moves on, while I agree that sporting events on television are important to the national psyche, does he agree on their importance in providing role models and in motivating youngsters to participate in sport? Some of these great events are the biggest drivers of people who turn up at local sports clubs, and the national governing bodies use them as the driver to get people to participate in sport, not just sit on the couch.
Mr. Sutcliffe: Of course, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who does a tremendous amount of work in the sporting arena to ensure that we increase participation, whether through the excellent facilities in his constituency or the work that he does across the range of volunteering. He is right: those people are role models and the inspiration for young people. Obviously, with our target to increase participation in sport by 2 million by 2012, such events can act as inspiration.
The Government want the most important sporting events to continue to be made available to all television viewers, including those who cannot afford the cost of subscription television. There is a long tradition in this country of ensuring that everyone can have the opportunity to watch the key national sporting events on television, and we were instrumental in ensuring that that protection was secured at European level.
The same can also be said for ensuring that ordinary fans have the opportunity to watch key sporting events live, which is why I have urged sports and ticket-resale merchants such as eBay to introduce strong voluntary arrangements to prevent ticket touts from pricing ordinary fans out of major events.
We must also recognise, as my hon. Friend has, that broadcasting income can provide the bulk of a sports revenue and be crucial to maintaining both an international standard and grass-roots involvement. We therefore need to balance the benefits of free television access with the benefits to the quality and active engagement in sport of broadcasting revenue. I think that that is the balance that my hon. Friend was talking about. That is why, as part of the last review of listed events in 1998, undertaken by my noble Friend Lord Smith of Finsbury, we set out, for the first time, detailed criteria on which the inclusion of an event on the list could be based.
There are many different sports and sporting events that are very popular, and unfortunately the Government cannot list them all. That is because sport is a partisan topic. One mans cricket is another mans tiddlywinks and, no matter how hard we try, no list of sporting events will ever meet universal approval. The criteria, established after wide consultation, sought to balance the different interests. As a result, a listed event is one that is generally felt to have special national resonance, not just to be popular with fans of that sport. It should contain an element that serves to unite us as a nation and it should be a shared point on the national calendar, a moment when the country comes to a standstill, as my hon. Friend has said, and we watch, with bated breath, the action as it unfolds. In addition, the 1998 review extended the list of protected events, adding some events
to a group A list, protecting live coverage, and introducing a group B list, protecting delayed or highlights coverage. That innovation facilitated a much wider list of protected events, especially for those sports which, because they take a long time, are difficult for mainstream channels to cover.
Mr. Wilson: I have listened carefully to the criteria that the Minister listed. May I press him on the basis of that list and on whether he personally agrees with me and other hon. Members present that the home Ashes series should be on that protected list, because it fulfils all the criteria?
Mr. Sutcliffe: The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I shall resist. I think that it is clearly something that should be considered, but I shall consider the entire discussion about such events. My natural instinct would be to agree with him, but I am sure that he will appreciate that I must deal with the process in the proper way.
The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Selby have a particular interest in cricket, and it is important to respond specifically on the issues that have been raised. As my hon. Friend said, at the time of the last review, cricket was a contentious issue. Before 1998, test matches involving England had full live coverage protected. That meant that full live coverage had to be offered to generally available free-to-air channels. However, as recommended by Lord Gordons advisory group at the time of the last review, test match cricket was taken off the group A list of sporting events. It was placed, instead, on the newly created B list, which protects only secondary coveragedelayed coverage or highlights only.
In making its recommendation, the advisory group stated that, although it believed that test matches possessed sufficient national resonance to merit some measure of protection, a test series played over 30 days could not be said to be a shared point on the national calendar. The advisory group also considered the practical difficulties faced by terrestrial broadcasters in scheduling tests in full without being unfair to viewers who do not take an interest in cricket, and it had to take account of the likely effect of continued listing on the finances of the sport. As my hon. Friend said, the then Secretary of State, now Lord Smith, was none the less able to agree with the then chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board that it would seek to retain a substantial amount of live free-to-air coverage of home test matches. As hon. Members will recall, unfortunately, when the broadcasting contract was last renewed, at a time when Englands fortunes were not at their highest, there was less interest in scheduling live cricket and the ECB felt compelled to sell all the live rights to Sky.
I do not dispute the fact that the viewing figures for test match cricket are down to about one sixth of the average during the last Channel 4 contract, and I do not dismiss the argument that televised cricket can have an impact on the participation of youngsters. Clearly a youngster watching the swashbuckling antics of a Freddie Flintoff or a Kevin Pietersen will be inspiredI mean, of course, their on-field antics. Youngsters will watch their heroes on television and will then want to grab a bat and a ball and go outside to emulate them. However, the deal that the England and Wales Cricket Board reached with Five to offer highlights for all major
matches ensured that the programmes would be shown at peak time, between 7.15pm and 8pm. That is the time when most children, families and working parents can view cricketsomething that was not always the case. Ofcom figures show that 90 per cent. of households with children are able to receive multi-channel television. Of those, 25 per cent. have digital terrestrial television and 65 per cent. have cable or satellite television.
As for the impact on participation, the England and Wales Cricket Board has recently announced a 27 per cent. increase in participation in club and school cricket during 2006-07, with womens and girls cricket recording the sharpest rise, of 45 per cent. The ECB survey, which sampled 424 focus clubs nationally, also showed a 22 per cent. rise in black and ethnic minority groups playing cricket, a 16 per cent. increase in volunteers and a 37 per cent. increase in school participation in years 5, 6 and 7. The ECB sees those figures as directly resulting from the investment in grass-roots cricket by the ECB since 2005. My hon. Friend will know that, perhaps coincidentally, on Monday the ECB also announced, as part of its new five-year strategy, a doubling of chance to shine funding for the enhancement of cricket in schools, amounting to a total of £5 million.
I have listened to the arguments of my hon. Friend, but I remain of the view that the decision taken in 1998 about the structure of the list and crickets position had its merits. That view is shared by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in its report on broadcasting rights for cricket, published on 1 February 2006, which stated:
We have received no compelling evidence in support of cricket returning to Group A of the listed events. The potential damage that re-listing in Group A would do to cricket would be too big a risk to take; the vast sums of money poured into the sport and the achievements of the England teams in recent years would all be put in jeopardy.
That is something that we should not dismiss lightly, although I understand what my hon. Friend has said, and perhaps further discussion is needed. By chance, I shall be meeting the ECB immediately after the debate, so I shall be able to raise the matter. I am concerned that any re-listing would potentially mean cuts in investment programmes at all levels of the game, including grass-roots cricket. It could affect the national cricket centre and the England team.
The crux of the debate is the timing of the next review of free-to-air sporting events. I of course understand the concerns expressed by those who are here today about the perceived delay in announcing the timetable for the review. In 2005, the then Secretary of State indicated that it was the Governments intention to review the list around 2008-09 because, at that time, 10 years after the last review, we would be in a stronger position to take account of changes in the broadcasting of sport and broadcasting in general, in the run-up to digital switchover. However, since that announcement, as my hon. Friend has said, the broadcasting environment has continued to evolve rapidly. With regard to sports broadcasting, there is now a greater proliferation of outlets for sports material and a change in audience attitudes towards paying for broadcast sports coverage. Of course, as we move towards a fully digital age, there will be increasing competition for sports rights.
Within that context, we cannot ignore the fact that the listed events regime represents a significant intervention in the market for sports rights. For example, at European
level, some international sports bodies are already challenging the extent of member states lists because listing is perceived to depress the value of the rights. The Government have, therefore, decided to bring forward considerations of wider issues relating to public service broadcasting. Any decision on a review of the listed events arrangements will be made following the outcome of Ofcoms current review of public service broadcasting and when the convergence think tanks considerations are known. That will allow us to ensure that any decisions about the future of listed events will be made as part of a comprehensive overhaul of issues affecting the broadcasting sector.
It is vital that any reflection on the importance to society of access to televised sport and of well funded sport on the field should take place in the right context. As todays debate has shown, the importance of sporting events to society is such that it is vital that we do not make a hasty decision, but get it right to meet the requirements that my hon. Friend has set out. The debate is an important one, and my hon. Friend made his points well. I look forward to continuing the discussion.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two oclock.