HL Deb 31 October 1995 vol 566 cc1346-8

2.55 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will take steps to ensure that all major sporting events are made available to terrestrial television viewers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood)

No, my Lords. With the exception of listed sports events which cannot be shown on a pay-per-view basis, sports rights holders should continue to be free to dispose of their rights to broadcast in the way they choose. It is for them to judge the best balance between the level of income from broadcasting rights, the size of the television audience, the amount and type of coverage and the impact on potential spectators and supporters.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, when the existing television contracts for our main sporting events end shortly, Sky television will bid for the first time? There is no doubt that Sky can easily outbid the BBC and ITV. That means that some of our major sporting events such as the FA Cup Final, the Wimbledon tennis championships and the Grand National will be seen only by those people who can afford to pay £180 a year for the Sky sports channel. That is about 20 per cent. of all households. Therefore, will the Government not admit that the present situation is lamentable and that in two years' time the FA Cup Final will only be seen by those people who have Sky television? That is a disgraceful situation. I hope that the Government will do something not only about that event but about all national sporting events so as to make sure that everyone can see them without having to pay the extra fee charged by Sky.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I can only reiterate the point that I made in my first reply. It seems that the noble Lord is jumping an awful lot of hurdles in one bound in assuming that Sky will acquire these rights. There is a variety of possible interests and permutations. I can only refer the noble Lord to a report in the Independent of the 13th of this month, in which a representative of football interests says that: anybody who thinks Sky has it all sewn up just does not know the facts".

Lord Stodart of Leaston

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that a certain royal and ancient game is involved in this particular subject? Will he please consider that, while his answers so far appear to be par for the course, many of us would like to see him strike a few birdies?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for his golfing question. Since I am no golfer myself I am not entirely clear what he meant. In a sense, that illustrates some of the problems in this area. There is a list of events, to which I have referred, and golf is not included on it. No doubt the golfing industry and golf in general has benefited greatly from the recent contract with Sky.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his Answer will depress millions of sports lovers who believe that the main priority should be universal access to live television coverage of the main sporting events? Is it not unacceptable that the great sporting events—the Derby, the Grand National and the Cup Final—should be auctioned off to the highest bidder, even to a minority channel, on subscription satellite? That is unacceptable, and was rejected in 1994 by the National Heritage Select Committee. Will the Minister agree to apply the simple solution—that is, to amend the Broadcasting Act 1990 so that the limitations that currently apply to pay-per-view channels may be applied to subscription satellite viewing? That would enable the poor, the elderly, the unemployed and all those who cannot afford the satellite channel to watch the great sporting events.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am interested to hear about the full nationalisation of all our great sporting events that appears to be inherent in the noble Lord's question. When we consider the number of viewers of all sports on television, the first point that is apparent is that it is not a homogeneous group. Different people are interested in different matters. How does one define it? I said that I was not interested in golf but I rather enjoy football. As soon as one enters definitions to the sweeping generalisations that we have heard, a whole plethora of problems emerges.

To return to my original reply, the sports need the money to develop young talent, to improve facilities and make it easier and better for those who pay to view when they attend the sporting occasion. No, my Lords, we are satisfied with the position we have adopted.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that, while the revenues to the sports are important, those revenues can be protected by unbundling the rights into current showing, later showing, extracts and so forth, thus protecting the revenues and leaving a wide choice on channels for a wide range of viewers?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Lord describes exactly one of the ways in which those who control the rights could best exploit them. It is up to them to decide the detail of how to do it.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the ability of anyone anywhere in the United Kingdom to see major sporting events lies at the heart of our public service broadcasting tradition? Will he, at the least, give an absolute assurance to the House that in the forthcoming legislation he will strengthen the provisions on broadcasting to ensure that the present protected list of events is maintained and extended?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the analysis of the noble Lord, with all his great experience of the traditions of public service broadcasting, is slightly at variance with mine. However, we keep the matter constantly under review and will continue to do so.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, leaving aside for the moment the question of extra-terrestrial viewers (whoever they may be), perhaps I may ask my noble friend whether he will refrain from taking too much comfort from the words of the Independent and ensure that we do not drift into a situation of monopoly and restriction which would not be acceptable?

Lord Inglewood

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware—

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I am as always in the hands of the House, but I observe that we have under six minutes left with one further Question to come. Perhaps your Lordships may feel that the time has come to move on.