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28 Apr 2009 : Column 234WH—continued

12.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Betts. As a member of the parliamentary football team, it is great that you are chairing this excellent debate.

I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing this debate and on his ongoing commitment to free-to-air sports coverage. It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) at this debate.

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I am looking at the cost of Sky to pubs. I gave a commitment to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby to look at that issue, and I have a meeting scheduled with Sky to see whether we can do something to get a deal, particularly for smaller pubs and chains.

Bob Spink: And social clubs.

Mr. Sutcliffe: And clubs and social clubs as well. I will report back to the House once that meeting has taken place and we will see what happens.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby is one of the strongest advocates of the listed events system and of the importance of having major sporting events on free-to-air television. He has actively sought the return of live test match cricket to the A-list of protected events. As we have heard, he sought to ensure that in the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World cup, home nation international football qualifying matches receive the same protection for free-to-air coverage.

He has raised concerns about the 2018 World cup bid. As he knows, the Government are committed to getting the World cup in 2018 as part of our decade of sport. We want to ensure that we continue with what will be a glorious decade of sport starting this year with the Twenty20 cricket world cup, and heading through to the Olympics in 2012, the Commonwealth games in 2014 and hopefully the rugby and soccer world cups. There will be other major sporting events as well. We are doing that, because we want the country to enjoy sport. We have committed ourselves to getting 2 million people involved in physical activity and sport by 2012. We are trying not only to get people away from their TV screens but actively on to football and other sports pitches.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby makes a pertinent point about the passion and thrill that major sports engender, which we have all shared over many years. We all remember the great events that we have seen on TV, and he is right that such things—whether the World cup or other fantastic events—bring the nation together. I think that we call it a water cooler moment when people come together to share the highs and lows of great sporting endeavours. For me, it is also about seeing children re-enacting sporting events for weeks afterwards and talking about events that bind us together as a nation. That is why we have the listed events regime. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport commissioned the independent review of free-to-air events last year, he said:

As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for Selby tempted me down a number of routes, but he will know that we are in the middle of a review, and there are some issues on which I clearly do not want to comment, because we want to hear what the review has to say. However, he is right that the last review took place more than 10 years ago, when the Government recognised that the time was right to ensure that the listed events regime was fit for purpose in a digital age and to look again at whether the right events were protected by the free-to-air broadcast list.

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As we have all seen, the broadcasting landscape has changed significantly since the last review in 1998. As my hon. Friend has said, the advent of digital technology has provided viewers with an increased choice of channels and an ever-growing number of ways to view and access sports events. Viewers’ attitudes to the way in which they consume premium content—particularly sports coverage—has also changed.

We needed to take account of those and other developments. At the end of last year, therefore, the Secretary of State announced his decision to set up an independent review of free-to-air events. David Davies was asked to lead the review, given his wealth of experience in the sport and broadcasting worlds—he was the former executive director of the Football Association. In January, nine further panel members were appointed to support him in his work. The Secretary of State selected those panel members on David Davies’s recommendation to provide a wide range of national, sporting, broadcasting and business perspectives. Clearly, we tried to ensure that there was a wealth of experience.

The advisory panel was tasked with reviewing three areas: the principle of having a list, the criteria against which events may be listed and the content of any list. To assist with its review, the advisory panel launched a public consultation on 8 April, which will run until 3 July. It might be helpful if I outline the process and set out the wide range of ways in which the panel will gauge the views of the general public and key stakeholders.

From the outset, the panel has recognised the importance of ensuring that its recommendations to the Secretary of State are informed by as wide a range of views as possible. In line with that approach, David Davies has written to a significant number of broadcasters, sports rights holders, governing bodies and interested parliamentarians to draw their attention to the consultation.

As part of the consultation process, the panel will also hold events in each of the nations, as well as focus group meetings and oral evidence sessions with key stakeholders throughout the UK. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby has said, David Davies held a webchat at No. 10 only last week to promote the review and seek views on the listed events regime. He took part eloquently in that debate and took the opportunity to raise certain issues, as he has done again today.

Mr. Drew: Not very successfully.

Mr. Sutcliffe: We will see what the reception is when we see the outcome of the recommendations. I hope that hon. Members see that there are many opportunities to respond to the consultation, and I encourage anybody with an interest in these important and emotive issues to do so.

The consultation also asks about the inclusion of non-sporting events, and it is important to remember that such events may also be listed. So far, the UK has listed only sporting events, reflecting our strong sporting heritage, but some European countries include non-sporting events in their lists, and the advisory panel will consider whether we should do likewise. I understand that David Davies has written to a number of cultural groups, particularly the Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Wales, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Scottish Arts Council to seek their views.

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The consultation closed in July, and when the panel has finished deliberating, it will prepare a report, with recommendations, for the Secretary of State. It will present that report to the Secretary of State in the second half of 2009. Importantly, the Secretary of State will then reach his own provisional conclusions and before taking a final decision will carry out statutory consultation with the broadcasting authorities and any affected rights holders in line with the requirements of the Broadcasting Act 1996. He will then announce his final decisions following conclusion of the statutory consultation.

I turn to some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby. Through its initial work, the advisory panel is already well aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns, particularly those relating to test cricket and international football, which he addressed again today. I am sure that the panel knows his views. He should be reassured that the panel recognises that those issues will need to be comprehensively addressed as part of the independent review.

I shall give an example, in relation to cricket. David noted in his recent webchat that the panel will try to understand how the present situation relating to cricket coverage and the sale of cricket rights came about, and it will no doubt discuss those matters when it talks to the leadership of the England and Wales Cricket Board. My hon. Friend has said that the money from broadcasting goes into the grass roots of the game. He challenged some of the figures, but the board argues vehemently that the money is well used for the grass roots of the game, particularly the development of women’s cricket. The matter is contentious, but I am sure that the panel will consider in great detail what happened, how it
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happened and what the future should hold. It is important to recognise that the panel has not reached any conclusions about its recommendations. It is genuinely considering the evidence that is coming to it.

We are at an early stage, and it is important not to pre-empt the outcome of the panel’s report or its recommendations to the Secretary of State. I understand the strong concerns of my hon. Friend and Members of both Houses, because the matter has created a great deal of discussion.

In the time available, I want to make a passing reference to the debate about horse racing on TV and the emotions involved. That debate reflects where we are, and the need for investment to enable sports to continue and to develop, but bearing in mind people’s ability to see such sports. As we approach the Olympics and the decade of sport, we are trying to inspire people and to ensure that sports that are not normally given TV time—such as some of the smaller Olympic sports—are provided with it. We must ensure that that comes into the debate.

The crown jewels and listed events are important, but the promotion of sport is even more important to try to persuade more people to participate for the obvious health benefits. One has only to look at what happened following the Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing to see how those exploits inspired people across a wide range of sports.

The Government take sport seriously. The latest announcement of free swimming is a good example of Departments working together to try to promote sport and a more healthy attitude and lifestyle. Listed events are a key part of our discussions. I have no doubt that the panel will take great care in its work, and I hope to report back to the House in due course.

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Thames Valley Probation Service

12.59 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise concerns about the Thames Valley probation service, and I hope that it will be possible for the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), my constituency neighbour, to intervene.

For many of us, a continuing concern for a significant number of our constituents is the reality of fear of antisocial behaviour and crime. The probation service has an important role to play in the criminal justice system. Probation officers manage and supervise antisocial behaviour orders. They invariably manage offenders who have been given non-custodial community sentences and those who have been released from prison on parole. They also have an important role in supervising young offenders and, hopefully, in getting them into a position in which they do not reoffend. Indeed, surely one of the main objectives of the criminal justice system and/or the Ministry of Justice is to reduce reoffending.

Sadly, a large number of criminal offences are committed by people who have previously committed offences. The probation service is crucial in helping to reduce reoffending, both by managing and organising many of the non-custodial sentences and by supporting those who have custodial sentences when they come out of prison.

Last autumn, reports began to appear that the probation service, nationwide, was facing a cut of about 20 per cent. to its budget. In November last year, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice to tell him that

Shortly after I wrote to the Secretary of State, a number of probation workers from the Banbury probation office came to see me at my constituency surgery with a representative of the National Association of Probation Officers. I was concerned to learn from them that the closure of the Banbury office had been proposed and that the service was going to move all the Banbury officers to Oxford. That struck me as a crazy idea. The whole point of probation officers working in towns such as Banbury is that they get to know the people with whom they work, their families and their circumstances. In that way, they are far better able to inform the courts when it comes to pre-sentencing reports, deal with any breaches of court orders and help those who are on probation or who are serving other non-custodial sentences, so that they do not reoffend. Such local understanding and contact will be lost if the Banbury probation office is closed and probation officers are transferred to Oxford.

Again, I wrote immediately to the Secretary of State, saying that I believed that the proposal was a crazy idea, and that if the Ministry of Justice is genuinely serious about efforts to reduce reoffending, it makes no sense to reduce the number of probation officers in that way, or to close the Banbury probation office and transfer all the officers to Oxford. I repeat the question that I asked
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back in December: what sort of criminal justice system do we have if it increases prison places and reduces the number of probation officers?

The proposal to close the Banbury probation office struck another raw nerve. My constituents in north Oxfordshire are getting rather tired of public services that we reasonably expect to be delivered in Banbury being closed and transferred to and consolidated in Oxford. Imagine my surprise when I was told that, notwithstanding what my constituents—the probation officers—told me at my surgery, the Thames Valley probation service had no proposals to close the Banbury office or to reduce the number of officers. It repeated those assertions to the editor of the Banbury Guardian when it, the local newspaper of record, tried to find out what was happening.

Therefore, in addition to my concerns about the substance of the policy, I have parallel concerns about the process. One consequence of the Government’s gross indebtedness and the Chancellor’s and the Prime Minister’s management of our economy in the past 10 years is that we now have the worst public finances since the war. Over the next two years, the Government will have to borrow some £350 billion—more than all Governments up to 1997—and the national debt will double to £1.4 trillion, which will inevitably result in cuts in public spending. Indeed, a number of sizeable cuts in capital spending after the next general election were announced in the Chancellor’s Budget last week. However, we need an honest, open and transparent debate on where such cuts might occur and what impact and effect they will have.

The response of the Thames Valley probation service last December that it had no proposals to close the Banbury probation office became all the more incredible when I learned shortly afterwards that both the chief executive of the local council—Cherwell district council—and the local area commander of the Thames Valley police had separately offered the probation service alternative accommodation in Banbury to try to keep a probation office presence in the town, so concerned were they, as leading members of the local crime and disorder reduction partnership, about the impact on local offender management if the Banbury probation office closed.

I was so concerned about the process being pursued by the Thames Valley probation service, which struck me as having absolutely no engagement with the broader community, not being transparent and, indeed, being wholly misleading, that I wrote again to the Secretary of State in early January, saying that I was somewhat surprised that the probation service’s “line to take” was that there were no plans to close its offices in Banbury. I said that

I highlighted to the Secretary of State the fact that the probation service in north Oxfordshire was doing extremely good work on initiatives such as tackling prolific offenders, all of which will be undermined if probation officers are no longer based locally in the town.

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All that fell on deaf ears. No one from the Thames Valley probation service and no Ministers in the Ministry of Justice were prepared to acknowledge what was being planned. Probation officers themselves have been put in an invidious position because, as I understand it, they were told that while they were in discussions with management about their future, they were unable to speak publicly.

In February, I was able to ask the Secretary of State an oral question in Justice questions. I shall repeat the exchange for the record. My original question on the Order Paper was:

The Secretary of State responded:

My oral supplementary question to the Secretary of State was:

Given the letters that I had written almost monthly in the previous months to the Secretary of State, that supplementary question could hardly have come as a surprise to him or his officials, who would have prepared his briefing for oral questions. The Secretary of State’s answer to me on that day was:

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