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24 Apr 2008 : Column 529WH—continued

I made a special point of being here today because I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a scheme that Port Vale football club in my constituency is launching.
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It wants to invite 5,000 people to become season ticket holders. The scheme is innovative and in the vanguard of bringing sport back to its grass roots—I hope that the Minister will refer to that—and follows on from the work at Bradford City football club. Faced with ticket prices that people could not afford, Bradford City aimed for a figure of 7,000 people, and if it is successful, next year it can double the number of spectators. Will the Minister commend and congratulate Port Vale football club on the scheme that it is introducing? It has until the end of May to find those 5,000 people.

Football ticket touting is centred on a small number of premiership glamour clubs. The cost of tickets at such grounds is high, but not many times higher than those for most normal matches at most lower league grounds. If we can make football affordable and accessible to most people at most clubs, we will go further on the way to alleviating the compulsion to attend a few super-clubs. In doing so, we will both nourish struggling local clubs and remove the demand bottlenecks on which the tickets touts depend. Dealing with the problem in that way is the way forward.

Despite what the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, the flow of television money to the top of the game effectively subsidises the admission prices of the top clubs. In turn, that makes admission prices at lower league clubs, which do not benefit from such bountiful windfalls, appear prohibitively expensive. Developments at Port Vale football club, in my constituency, attempt to make league football available to adults for under £8 a game. I hope that at some stage, we might have a Robbie Williams concert there, in which case we will need the issue of ticket touting to have been dealt with. The radical scheme to secure 5,000 season ticket holders is a positive move to prevent live football from becoming a luxury item, and to make it a regular part of the lives of many people.

Port Vale is already very much a family club: mums, dads, grandmas, granddads, children, sons, daughters, granddaughters, grandsons—all go to the club together. Like many other clubs, such as Telford United, it is establishing itself as the hub of the local community. If the launch of the season ticket programme for 5,000 people is successful, following on from the brave steps taken by Bradford City last season, it will mark the beginning of a trend to reduce prices in the interest of encouraging greater attendance. If more football fans felt intimately connected to their local clubs and attended the local ground weekly, the pressure caused by the seemingly inexorable cycle of popular interest and wealth experienced by only a handful of top clubs would be alleviated. The excessive demand currently directed at top clubs and exploited by touts would be spread more evenly throughout football, to the benefit of everyone concerned.

When the Minister replies, I would be grateful if he referred to the wonderful, groundbreaking work of Port Vale football club and shared with other parliamentarians how dealing with ticket touting can help diversity in grass-roots football.

4.32 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley). Earlier in the debate, questions were asked by
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the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) about the cultural life in and around her constituency. I have no recent experience of the cultural life of her constituency, but many years ago, I spent four years at university near Stoke-on-Trent, and it certainly had a vibrant cultural life then. As she said, it also has some excellent pubs and clubs, although my favourite, the Bridge Inn, has recently been knocked down.

The hon. Lady began her remarks by, in a sense, praising the Committee. I shall go a stage further and praise the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). From the debate so far, it is clear that he has done an excellent job in holding the ring between some divergent views, and he has done so by dealing with colleagues who have very differing views with excellent and continuing good humour. I suggest to the Committee Chairman in particular that, as well as differences of opinion between members of the Committee, many Committee members themselves hold somewhat conflicting views. That has been reflected in many of the speeches so far and it will also be reflected in my contribution. I, too, have some difficulty in coming to terms with how to marry the belief in the benefit of a free market and the market finding solutions to the problems with the need for further legislation and regulation. It would be dishonest if we did not admit that there was a very clear tension.

I genuinely believe that there is an important role for a well-organised secondary market that has proper consumer protection built into it. As has been discussed, that would enable the genuine fan with a genuine reason for not being able to go to an event, concert or sporting activity to recoup the cost of their ticket and allow someone else, who is perhaps prepared to pay more than the face value of the ticket, to go to that event. Anyone who says that there is not a legitimate need for such a market is deluding themselves and disadvantaging many members of the public.

What are the problems to which we are seeking to find solutions? All sorts of quotes have been taken from the report, but I would like to read a quote from the report that has not been given. The report states:

We have not yet been entirely clear about the nature of the problems that we are seeking to overcome. After listening to the debate, the problems seem to fall into three categories, which perhaps need to be articulated more clearly than we have done today.

First, a series of problems surround the issue of what we might call illegal activity. We know that there is a problem with street trading, which is illegal under street trading legislation, but we also know that the ticket touts are getting cleverer. Only yesterday, I heard about a particular case in which, to avoid the relevant legislation, street traders hired a youth club just off the street and operated from within the premises that they had hired. There are lots of issues in relation to rogue traders, many of which have already been referred to. The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford mentioned the 6,500 people who were out of pocket as
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a result of the activities of Ticket Touts Ltd, which was selling tickets that it did not have. There are many other examples of such activities.

Illegal activity is the problem, and we should surely be considering proper enforcement of the law in relation to that. We know that that is what the Government are also saying. Over a year ago, in a debate on ticket touting introduced by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West, the then Under-Secretary, who is now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that the first problem is

That was said more than a year ago, and I am now repeating it. The real question is what are we doing about the issue of enforcement?

Government figures provided as a result of parliamentary questions that I have tabled show that, between 2001-07, there were fewer than 150 convictions for ticket touting offences. Research done by my office alone shows that hundreds of tickets for international football and the football friendly between England and Switzerland were readily available at the click of a button. Being concerned about enforcement, I contacted the relevant authorities to ask what they were doing about it. I then produced a dossier of all of my concerns, which included clear evidence of many examples of people quite clearly behaving illegally.

I sent my dossier to the UK Football Policing Unit. A reply I received from the director of the unit admitted that resources simply are not targeted at touts, even when their illegal activity is clear for all to see. I shall quote from the reply I received:

That is one of the biggest problems of all. We already have quite a lot of legislation to deal with many of the problems that concern our constituents, yet there is no proper enforcement. I have talked to many of the sporting bodies that have reported cases to the relevant organisations, but action is simply not being taken.

I tabled a parliamentary question to discover the size of the organisation that is meant to be dealing with this important issue. The answer was that there are just

One of the biggest issues is the enforcement of existing legislation. For those who want to go down the route of existing legislation, it is critical that we are clear about how that legislation will be pursued in the future.

The second problem is questionable behaviour, of which we have heard many examples, including selling tickets without precise and clear information about what they entail—restricted views, children-only areas or areas for wheelchairs. Clearly, that issue needs to be
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addressed to provide transparency, so that if we are to use largely a market-based solution, people can make informed choices when they decide to purchase a ticket.

Philip Davies: I have a lot of sympathy with that view, but will the hon. Gentleman recognise that if some sporting bodies cancel tickets that are advertised on the internet through eBay or by Seatwave or viagogo, for example, there is no chance at all of the person selling the ticket advertising the seat or row number, because the ticket will be cancelled? Transparency can work only if the event organiser will agree not to cancel the ticket when it is purchased over the internet.

Mr. Foster: Given that time is tight, I do not want to go too far down that road, but if I had more time, I would have said that the reason it is so important to get the code of practice correct and agreed is so that that issue and many others can form part of it. I say to the Minister that it is slightly odd—the Select Committee picks this up in the report—that although there has been wide consultation of the primary market, there has been little consultation of the secondary market, even though the greatest concerns are about the operation of the secondary market. I therefore hope that we will move more rapidly to involve the secondary market in further consultation.

Paul Farrelly: We learned, though evidence given to us, that representatives of the secondary market, apart from eBay, participated in one of the summits, but either their presence was so disruptive that it was not felt constructive to have them along again, or they walked out.

Mr. Foster: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the secondary market is an important part of the market. There were 46 different organisations at the last count. They need to be drawn into the process and effective ways of working with them found. We also have to recognise that, even since the Committee started examining this issue, the whole market—the secondary market in particular—has changed quite dramatically with the advent of many of the new websites developing their own ways of working. We have heard reference to Seatwave, viagogo, Get Me In! and the like.

In addition, the primary market and the secondary market are increasingly coming together, as the purchase by Ticketmaster of Get Me In! illustrates. That is why it is so important to bring these bodies together. I hope that it will be possible to consider ways of getting all those bodies to develop a trade body that has, for the whole lot, agreed terms and conditions. We could then examine the possibility of allowing only organisations that had membership of that body to be involved in the legitimate secondary sales market.

It is important to recognise that the situation has changed. We have moved away from the people in flasher macs referred to by the Chairman of the Select Committee, although at big games that I go to there are still far too many of them selling tickets, as others have said, right in front of the police. Quite a lot of changes
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are also being made by the organisers of events themselves. I praise the work that many of them have been doing to develop their own terms and conditions and to consider some of the problems. The Rugby Football Union has been considering the fact that some of the tickets that went to clubs were being sold to packaged event organisers and is now finding a legitimate way for clubs to be able to do that and make a bit of money while at the same time ensuring that fans can go. A great deal of work has been done by the organisers, who increasingly are willing to spend their own money in taking prosecutions against people who are in breach of their terms and conditions. We should welcome the work that they do in that area.

Let me describe the third problem that we have failed to grapple with. The Committee does not have a real solution to it and the Government have not got there yet, either. How do we deal with event organisers who legitimately, for whatever reason, want to have their own pricing structure, so that ticket prices can be kept reasonable in order to allow legitimate fans to come? That is about providing a reward to people from the grass roots of the sport, who keep it flourishing—providing some recompense to people who have volunteered their services to protect the sport. The most obvious example that we have heard about relates to major sporting events. Protection of such a pricing policy is where we have to find a way forward.

That is why, although I am uncomfortable with thinking in detail about the operation of such a scheme, we could at least consider the possibility of a crown jewels approach. I would not necessarily agree with what is included in the list and I take the point about England World cup games and so on, but that may have to be the way forward. For me, it is critical that we are not considering the issue from the point of view of a legislative approach. I hope very much that we will adhere to what both the Committee and the Government have said and that legislation will be introduced only as a last resort. We have to get the members of the industry working effectively together to find solutions to the problems.

I end where I began—with legislation. Many of the fears and concerns of people outside the House are about people who are breaking the law. We must have much better and tougher enforcement of existing legislation before we start looking for new legislation.

4.47 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in the debate. I begin, as others have done, by congratulating the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), on what seems to have been the Herculean task of reaching some form of consensus. For some of us here who are observers, this has been an education in how Parliament and democracy work and how consensus can be achieved. I wonder whether the Labour party would like to employ him to debate the 10p tax rate issues with which it is dealing—perhaps he could achieve consensus on that. He certainly needs to be congratulated, as do other members of the Committee, on scrutinising these important issues and bringing them to our attention today. It is also good to see that the Gallery is packed with interested people. I do not
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know how much they paid for their tickets, how they purchased them and whether they had to pay over the odds, but it is good to see that there is huge and genuine interest in this issue.

I hope that this is not the end of the discussion. I do not wish to put more of a burden on the Chairman, but there are some outstanding questions. I know that the Minister will be talking about some ideas, but with the advent of the Office of Fair Trading report, it might be an idea for the Select Committee to consider the guidelines that everyone wants to push towards, and for a wider debate to take place on that, so that we can see whether that is exactly where we want to go.

A good starting point is a definition of touting, because people have chosen various angles, depending on the argument that they are advancing and where they are coming from. We have heard the flasher mac argument about the dodgy person who is trying to sell a ticket as people are going towards a football ground. We have also heard about the perhaps more legitimate systems, such as those on the internet, whether that involves Seatwave, viagogo or eBay. We need to distinguish between the two. The secondary market can certainly work legitimately, and it seems to work well, but in other ways it can be very much like the black market at work. We need legislation or guidance to tackle both aspects.

The secondary market is invaluable to some, and perhaps the only way for people to secure tickets that they are not able to purchase when they first come on to the market. Others, however, see it as parasitic and questionable to profit from the entertainment industry and to deny it much needed revenue. From a parliamentary perspective, our objective is to ensure that tickets reach genuine fans at sensible prices. However, I go further. Once they have reached genuine fans, it is up to them to decide whether they want to go to that event or to sell the ticket—because they cannot go or for any other reason.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, the internet has changed how tickets are distributed. The pace at which tickets are sold is astonishing. We heard today that they can be sold out even before they are due to be launched, so perhaps the Minister will comment on that. My hon. Friend mentioned Getmetickets, the organisation that came and went—it also came in other forms—but that is a particularly negative aspect of the internet. Although guidance is required, Seatwave, viagogo and eBay are certainly heading in the right direction for a secondary market. However, even with the advent of the internet, Parliament’s role has not changed. We must ensure that the consumer is protected and that funding for arts and entertainment is not challenged. We must also be aware of the trends and changes taking place in the £1 billion industry.

The Opposition are generally supportive of the Committee’s report, and believe that an all-out ban on the resale of tickets would not be beneficial to the consumer, nor practical or workable for promoters. However, many people argue that such a ban already exists. There are already outright bans in specific cases, such as for football matches and the Olympics. We should deal with those one at a time.

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