HC Deb 20 January 1998 vol 304 cc915-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McFall.]

10.2 pm

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this Adjournment debate. It is timely, given the current review of listed events and the attempt by the England and Wales Cricket Board to get test match cricket and live test match cricket de-listed. My purpose in seeking the debate and the purpose of Members of Parliament of all parties who signed my early-day motion—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. Hon. Members must leave the Chamber quietly.

Mr. Rammell

My purpose and the purpose of colleagues is to preserve for everyone the right to be able to watch live test match cricket on terrestrial television.

I should declare an interest, in that I am an inveterate sports fanatic. Although many things have changed over the course of my life, two of my abiding passions for the past 30 years have been football and cricket—watching, playing and endlessly talking about them. I am sure that other hon. Members will relate to that.

My personal enthusiasm for both sports originally derived in large measure from watching them on television. Although I am happy to pay tribute to my parents for almost every aspect of my upbringing, they would be the first to admit that they were not and are not sports fans. Had it not been for sport on television, I am by no means certain that I would have developed an interest in football and cricket. It is through television that one develops such enthusiasm.

I remember, as a child and as an adolescent, watching matches on television, going out with a burst of enthusiasm to play with friends in the park and attempting—and failing—to replicate the feats that I had seen. That is the sort of commitment and enthusiasm that can be generated by watching sport on television.

Had cricket and football been available only on satellite television, I am not certain that I would have developed that interest. Millions of people are in a similar position. Therein, in essence, lies my fear for the future of cricket if it is hidden away exclusively on satellite television, as the England and Wales Cricket Board wants. If youngsters do not develop interest, passion, and enthusiasm for cricket through television, tomorrow's players, club members and viewers risk being lost to the game.

If anyone needs convincing about the scale of that risk, they should consider how many fewer people will be able to watch test match cricket if it is available only on satellite television. The evidence available for football shows that only 16 per cent. of households have access to Sky Sports because they or their parents have chosen to purchase the channel.

When the Euro 96 semi-final was held between England and Germany, the BBC had an audience of 24 million, yet a game of similar importance—the World cup qualifier between England and Italy last October—had an audience of only 4 million. That was one sixth of the audience available to watch it on the BBC. Proportionately, that difference would apply to cricket as much as to football.

The vast majority of families cannot, or choose not to, purchase sport on satellite television, so they, and particularly their children, are denied access to sport that is exclusively available on satellite television. As Jack Bannister aptly said recently: Many families won't get to see top class cricket on TV. It is the nail in the coffin of grass roots growth. That is absolutely true.

Although I support that view, I am by no means a wholesale critic of sport on satellite television. Sky Sports has brought major gains and benefits to a host of sports. A major cash injection into football has led to the premier league being rightly regarded as the best in the world.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Does my hon. Friend accept that there have been benefits with the introduction of satellite television, which has enabled us to watch South Africa versus Australia, and that we should not simply go back to the days of the cartel, when the BBC and ITV could deny many sports fans access to the sport that they wanted to watch? Test matches should be available on the BBC, but satellite broadcasters provide added value.

Mr. Rammell

My hon. Friend makes an effective point. I was about to say that Sky Sports has brought added value to the coverage of sports, particularly those never previously available for viewing on terrestrial television.

Sky has also vastly improved the quality of sports coverage. It uses virtual reality technology to analyse moves within a game, to look at offsides in football and to determine whether a referee was sighted in a certain situation. That has been revolutionary, and I pay tribute to it. Sky has therefore been good for sport, and I want that contribution to continue in the sports that I have mentioned. However, Sky in particular, and satellite television in general, need constraints to control them. That is what the listing of major national sporting events is all about.

May I deal with some of the arguments put forward by the England and Wales Cricket Board in favour of de-listing live test cricket? First, it claims that cricket should be de-listed to get the market rate for television coverage, and says that, without such a cash injection, it fears for the game's future. None the less, the price which the BBC pays for the right to show test cricket has risen by more than 645 per cent. since 1990. That could hardly be described as a bad deal. When the present contract with the BBC was announced in 1994, the deal was variously described by the cricketing authorities and the media as "a bonanza for cricket" and great news for the game". Those statements hardly square with the current ECB view that, unless the framework that enabled those deals to be struck is done away with, the game will face a financial crisis.

The ECB has also said that live test cricket is not the be-all and end-all, and that highlights could be made available on the BBC even if live cricket went to satellite television. For cricket enthusiasts, watching highlights of test match cricket is not the same as watching it live. Test cricket is about tactics and pressure building: it is an unfolding drama. That can be properly appreciated only by watching live coverage.

The ECB has said that cricket needs a huge cash injection to nourish grass-roots development, yet there is no guarantee that, if test match cricket went to Sky, the money would be used for that purpose. Football has had a cash bonanza, but where has the money gone? Has it gone to grass-roots development? I think not.

A major part of the money that has been generated has gone into inflating players' salaries to astronomic levels. An average premier league player today expects and demands a salary of £1 million a year. I have nothing against players receiving the going rate, but I do not understand why the vast majority of people should be denied the opportunity to watch their sport on television simply to push up players' salaries.

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the involvement of young people in the game will not only improve their sporting excellence in the future, but build up their leadership and teamwork skills? It is important to encourage young people to use cricket to develop skills for their future.

Mr. Rammell

Absolutely. Sport is an effective way for young people to develop community and leadership skills, and cricket is a fine example of that.

There are no guarantees that, if cricket were de-listed, the money would go to the grass roots.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

As the hon. Gentleman knows from our exchange of correspondence, I strongly agree with the points that he has made. I argued this case in the previous Parliament. Does he accept that, as the distinguished journalist Mihir Bose showed in a series of good articles in The Daily Telegraph in the months leading up to Christmas, one of the difficulties about the way in which money from satellite television has been used in other parts of the world is that, once the satellite providers have frozen terrestrial providers out of the market, the money has dropped away? The ECB may be naive in believing that the money would always be available if we were to have a monopoly satellite provider.

Mr. Rammell

That point is well made. The hon. Member describes the ECB as naive. There is concern about the way in which the board is handling these issues.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Since 1994, we have had four-day instead of three-day county cricket matches. County cricket has lost a whole day of entertainment and investment. The money that is derived from television goes to test cricket and to the counties. If the Government will not guarantee that money to test and county cricket, why should the authorities not be free to choose how they sell their rights?

Mr. Rammell

We are talking about a national institution, in which not only the cricketing authorities, but the ordinary paying and playing public have a stake. The public also have rights, which is why our regulatory regime should prevail.

The ECB has also said that it is not necessarily campaigning for cricket to be removed from terrestrial television: it just wants the freedom to obtain the best deal for cricket in the circumstances. It wants an open contest. It may be an open contest, but it would not be a fair one. On each and every occasion, Sky would initially be able to outbid the BBC, which is limited to its licence fee income.

The ECB's implicit argument seems to be: "Trust us. De-list test match cricket and we shall do our best to get the best deal, yet keep terrestrial television in the picture." I believe that any organisation should be judged not only on its words, but on its actions. Already, although it is not subject to listing, the 1999 cricket World cup has been handed to Sky exclusively by the ECB, although it was aware that the BBC was preparing a bid. Those actions do not fill me with confidence, or make me inclined to trust the ECB if cricket is de-listed.

The Government have set out criteria for the listing of major national sporting events. I maintain that test match cricket meets those criteria. First, test match results have been widely reported for generations on main news bulletins, which suggests a national resonance. Not just cricket enthusiasts but people with a far looser connection with the game have been following the fortunes of the national team.

Secondly, it is clearly practical to have coverage on terrestrial television, not only because that is already happening but because that is the position that the BBC wishes to maintain. Thirdly, there is a long history of broadcasting test match cricket on free-to-air services. The relationship between cricket and the broadcasting authorities at the BBC goes back some 60 years.

For me, however, a more persuasive criterion is the degree to which top stars in a particular sport are widely recognised, and are part of what I would describe as the media establishment by dint of their sporting success. I do not think that any hon. Member who is present would deny that people such as David Gower, Graham Gooch, Ian Botham and Mike Atherton meet that criterion.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

And Alec Stewart.

Mr. Rammell

Indeed—and many others. Those people are widely known: I would guess that seven out of 10 of the population could identify them, and they associate them with cricket. They are certainly part of the establishment that I have described.

The one aspect of the ECB's arguments that I think has an element of plausibility is its fear that—with test match cricket more effectively protected by listing as a result of the Broadcasting Act 1996, and with no effective competition from either ITV or Channel 4—the BBC will not be pressured or feel obliged to agree a reasonable deal. If that is indeed the ECB's concern, I feel that it should be addressed in a number of ways.

First, the Independent Television Commission has powers to intervene if the BBC will not, or does not choose to, agree a fair price. Secondly, there is no indication that the BBC is not prepared to agree a fair deal. Thirdly, if the ECB is really concerned, I think that it should act now. It should approach the BBC while consultation is taking place, while it has some political leverage. It should sit down and negotiate a deal, and, if necessary, seek the imposition of a formula agreement for uprating. I am sure that that would meet with widespread approval.

I consider that the arguments in favour of retaining listing are overwhelming. I believe that there is a conflict between the desires of the ECB and Sky in the marketplace on the one hand, and, on the other, the community's right to watch one of its premier national sporting events. I am sure that hon. Members will agree with me that the rights of the community should prevail

10.18 pm
Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

Let me make two brief points. First, between 1995 and 1998, 405 different cricket clubs received nearly £50 million, allocated by the Sports Council from the proceeds of the national lottery. Cricket receives a larger share of lottery capital awards than any other sport, including £5.2 million for the redevelopment of Trent Bridge as a residential centre of excellence. I feel that the receipt of vast amounts of public money brings with it public responsibility. If cricket wants to receive cash from the people's lottery on such a scale, its greatest occasions must remain accessible to all the people who watch terrestrial television.

Secondly, and perhaps most important, if we exclude the next generation from watching cricket on the box, the old cricketing enemy, Australia, will be laughing in our faces. In Australia, people treat sport seriously. In the land of Mr. Murdoch's birth, they not only nurture their sporting elite in academies, but ensure that all the top sporting action is available to everyone on television. To the Aussies, inspiring future generations is as important to sports development as training today's champions.

Down under, the anti-siphoning list system was established in 1992 and ensures that free-to-air channels are given first option on no fewer than 41 sporting events, including every rugby and cricket international involving Australia. Recent results tend to show that Australian sport does not appear to have suffered too much from the constraints placed on the governing bodies in relation to selling their rights to the highest bidder.

I implore my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that all my constituents, rich and poor, can watch future England versus Australia Ashes tests—whether they be at Lord's, the Oval, Old Trafford, Headingley, Edgbaston or Trent Bridge—live on television.

10.20 pm
The Minister for Arts (Mr. Mark Fisher)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) on securing a debate on the position of test cricket on the list of events protected under part IV of the Broadcasting Act 1996, and on setting out the case for its retention on that list with such clarity and passion. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on his short but telling speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow describes himself as a sports fanatic, but he is more correctly described as a sports lover. The House is fuller tonight for an Adjournment debate than I or, I suspect, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have ever seen it in all the years that we have been in the House. Usually, only the hon. Member concerned, the Speaker and the Minister are in the House. To have the Benches full of hon. Members who love and take an interest in the issue is a testament to the seriousness with which it is taken.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

We have considered the issue of sport on television, but it is equally important that we examine sport on local radio, particularly BBC radio.

Mr. Fisher

My hon. Friend makes a good point.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I have received many representations about the list, and some are specifically about the listing of test matches. We recognise that the issue generates strong views in this place, as this debate has shown.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow was correct to say that the issues that he raised concern more than just cricket. I agree that cricket and other sporting events have great significance for many people in this country and generate interest among those who do not normally follow the sport concerned. Events such as the Cup final, the Wimbledon tennis championships and the Grand National are national events. They bring us all together around an event of common interest, so they have a significance far beyond the sport.

I do not dispute the right of sports bodies that organise major events to seek to increase the income for their sport, and the sale of broadcasting rights is one of the ways in which they seek that revenue. They have a duty to do so, and they do it with some vigour, but their pursuit of that revenue is not the whole story. The Government's view is that some major events are so much a part of our national life that they are, in a sense, public property.

The widespread interest that such events generate is only partly a result of the efforts of the promoters. In many cases, it is also the result of the long history of the event, of the fact that it brings together major national and international participants, of the involvement of British national teams or, in the case of cricket, of its deep roots in our national community, going to the grass roots of the game in villages, village greens and cricket matches throughout this country.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the national bodies take only a short-term view in securing funding? The problem is that young people will not have sporting heroes and be encouraged to take up those sports. The national bodies are denying those young people, who need national sporting heroes to become involved in sport, access to sports such as rugby, cricket and football, for short-term cash benefits from Sky television and others. That is only a short-term solution, and will lead to long-term problems for those sports.

Mr. Fisher

As I said, I think that the matter is more complicated than that. It is necessary to fund sports properly, so that they not only nurture the grass roots but reach the widest possible audience. The Government and the advisory group that we have appointed will have difficulty in judging that balance.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) is a member of the advisory group. As a member of Surrey county cricket club, she will bring to the group particular knowledge and sympathy for cricket. Nevertheless, she and the other group members will have a difficult job in balancing the objectives.

Let us be clear about it. The Government are committed to the variety of principles underlying the protected list, but those principles must be weighed against other considerations. The future of the sports cannot be taken for granted. Therefore, difficult choices will have to be made.

The Government have stated that the main criterion for inclusion in the list should be national resonance—which is very important, because it goes beyond a sport's immediate significance. However, we must also consider other matters. In considering whether to list an event, the Secretary of State will have to have regard to such factors as whether it is practical to offer extensive live coverage on a general channel. He will also take into account the impact of listing on the sport's income, which is an important factor, as hon. Members who feel strongly about the matter must realise.

The advisory group announced by the Secretary of State is considering those issues, and it is judging the position of a number of major sporting events against those criteria. We have conducted wide consultation, which has broadly dealt with the issues.

The group has been asked to make its recommendations before Easter, which gives it very little time to consider a complicated matter. I am confident, however, that its recommendations will be clear and objective. We have deliberately chosen people with a wide knowledge of sport, and particularly of the key sports that are being considered.

The group will have to consider whether test cricket meets the criteria for continuing inclusion on the list. Test matches feature prominently on the sporting calendar and command wide interest—as demonstrated by the number of hon. Members in the Chamber for this debate. The Government realise that test matches are events that unite the nation, and I am sure that every hon. Member can think of one or more specific test matches. The first match that I remember was when Laker took 19 wickets. I sat there watching, in black and white, praying that Tony Lock would get a couple of runs. All of us can remember such events.

There are other points of view, some of which we have heard in this debate. Some people argue that the matches appeal primarily to cricket fans, and that average audience ratings for BBC transmissions are a little under 2.5 million. That factor, too, must be taken into account.

The advisory group will also consider prospects for the coverage of sports events on general terrestrial channels. All parties believe that the BBC's coverage of test cricket is of an exceptionally high standard. The corporation's charter, however, states that it must offer programming of general interest to everyone. Scheduling to achieve that objective is a difficult matter.

Whatever the merits of those arguments, the sport of cricket is clearly in need of further funds, as people like my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow realise. In the past four years, the England and Wales Cricket Board has invested £10 million in development of its development arm, the Cricket Foundation. My hon. Friend will be aware that Lord McLaurin's ambitious plans for the reorganisation of cricket involve an investment of £150 million at county grounds, which have a real need for that level of investment. That money will have to come from somewhere. There is therefore a difficult balance to achieve.

Although the test's intrinsic national resonance will be central to the advisory group's deliberations, the group will even-handedly consider its resonance against the case for participation, coverage and funding. As well as the ECB and the BBC, the views of other people will be considered.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me that the needs of sport must be considered in an even-handed way as well as the needs and desires of those of us who love sport and want to see it on our national television channels. I am confident that the group's recommendations will balance the good of cricket with that of the television viewer.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to set out the Government's position on the issue, and I suspect that cricket fans all over the United Kingdom, and perhaps all over the world, will be grateful to him for raising such an important matter and putting the case with such passion and persuasion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.