§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Charlotte Atkins.]9.30 am
§ Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston)
I am looking forward to the debate, and I am pleased that the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting will be responding. For a few hon. Members here, football is pretty high on the agenda, and they may just slip in the odd word about football. However, the subject of the debate is the broadcasting of listed sporting events, and that is what I intend to begin with.
It is fitting that the Minister responsible for broadcasting is here, because the results over the past couple of months show that football is moving ahead of rugby in Wales. I understand from the Welsh Rugby Union that rugby is developing well and building for the future, but it would be a shame this morning not to congratulate Mark Hughes and the Welsh football team, who have done magnificently—and what a great time it is for Ryan Giggs to have the opportunity to apply his skills in a major international tournament.
It crossed my mind this morning to invite the Minister to watch our parliamentary football team, but I remembered his comments on the shortlist for the Turner prize and I thought it best not to let his literary talents free on our football.
The principle of listed events is established, and it is vital that everyone should have the opportunity to watch the main international sporting events. We may occasionally debate what events should be included in that list, but I am confident that the principle will always be adhered to, whatever changes occur in the delivery package or in television broadcasting technology. I leave it to others to go into detail about the attempt, in the Communications Bill, to strengthen the listed events.
I shall not forget the first game that I saw on television. I remember gathering with my family, friends and other teenagers around the only TV set within 3 miles of my home to watch the Stanley Matthews cup final. I am still playing football more than 44 years later, and not only because of that inspirational match, although it illustrates the effect that major events can have on young people.
It is vital that we retain the principle that the main events should be available for all to see. I do not have time this morning to go into the whole argument, but we must never forget the fantastic individual satisfaction and personal enjoyment that sport can bring. Even if we did ignore that, however, we should never forget the resulting benefit to the economy of the reduction in health care and criminal justice costs. Let us all hope that it will be no more than a handful of years before the only conflicts on the globe are those to be seen in its arenas and stadiums.
256WH Those events need to be available to all—for the inspiration of young people, and to give the more mature of us, such as the Minister and possibly one or two other hon. Members, the chance to watch major events from our old people's rest homes should we be unable to afford to travel to the games. I am sure that someone will respond to that comment. In talking about the need to involve older people and veterans in sport, we must remember that that segment of the population tends to have surplus money. I am sure that if we looked into the matter in the near future, we would find that some of that money could be channelled into sport to help those who are much less well off. Nevertheless, the televising of world sporting events has a most valuable and ongoing benefit.
I move on to football, just by coincidence. As chairman of the all-party football group, I have several supporters here today, among whom are a number of experts on listed events. I want to illustrate the effect that football can have on individuals, and I apologise to those who heard me tell this story yesterday at the Football Supporters Federation lobby. Yesterday was April Fool's day. I have a close, but sometimes fiery, relationship with my own Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), and the first thing that she said to me yesterday morning, clearly trying to be pretty vindictive, was that she had just heard on the news that Juninho had had another serious injury. I did not believe her, but I put on the teletext to make sure that it was not true.
My hon. Friend has every reason to be nasty to me occasionally, and to the little fellow too. A few years ago in Dublin, on a new year weekend, she broke a leg. When we got home to Brentford, I was speaking on the phone to her mother, who was extremely worried about her daughter. She asked, "Is it bad?" I said, "It could have been a lot worse." She replied, "Oh, my God, why's that?" I said, "It could have been Juninho's leg." Football is important and has a big effect on many people.
I want to outline some of the points that the FSF made at yesterday's lobby. As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee I have many opportunities to ask questions of, and make points to, the top executives in our television companies. I am full of praise for the way in which Sky, the BBC and other companies present football, but I keep reminding some of those executives that it is not their money that does so; it is our money—supporters' money—which comes through gate receipts, season tickets, the sale of merchandise and replica shirts, and subscriptions to the television companies. We must remember that.
I want to make some of the points that the FSF wants the Government and industry to understand and act on. The supporters understand the difficulties, and they know that these matters are not straightforward. I know that there is a battle between the financiers outside football in the public limited companies and some of the enthusiastic financiers inside football, many of whom would not have become financiers had they run their own companies in the same way as they have run the football clubs that they have taken over. The FSF and I know that serious negotiations are taking place in Europe, and we understand the competition issue, which I hope the Government are addressing extremely seriously. Football as we know it could come to an end in a short time if that matter is not tackled properly.
257WH We also understand the difficulties that the premier league, the football league and the Football Association administrators face; they are not in control. Football is not a top-down organisation controlled by people who can impose rules on the clubs. We know which major clubs would be guilty of being enticed into Europe, as they nearly were a few years ago, to form a European league with no promotion or relegation, but that would be of short-term benefit to only a few clubs. We all know that what keeps football going is the dream factor—the pyramid. We all dream that our club can climb from the lower divisions, or even from outside the league, and reach the top. I shall not go into the Wimbledon issue, as we have already debated that in this Chamber, but I have only to mention the name for hon. Members to know what I mean.
I shall finish by listing what the FSF wants. It wants a better, fairer distribution of the revenue to retain the dream factor. To help to achieve that, it wants one free evening a week for the football league and smaller sides to play their games, without the competition of major games on television. Finally, it wants consideration to be given, during negotiations for televising the premier league, to the needs of travelling supporters. It has been three months at least since some clubs last played at 3 o'clock on a Saturday. As many MPs who have to come down early after the weekend know, travelling on Sundays is absolutely dreadful, and extra cost can be involved for supporters who have to stay overnight to watch their team play.
We must never forget that football supporters' money pays for football—for the wonderful foreign players who play here and the standards that have now been achieved. The premier league is the outstanding league in the world, and supporters' money, and no one else's, pays for that. More importantly, however, the supporters provide the atmosphere at the games. We all know that no sponsor will give people free tickets and entertain them, or put money into the game, if the grounds are empty and there is no atmosphere. We owe that to the football supporters, and we need to take notice of it.
§ Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) on tabling a debate on listed sporting events, a matter that interests me enormously. Although it may be a little premature to mention my hon. Friend the Minister's winding-up speech, I should be interested to know whether Ofcom is complete in the sense of including all the regulations about listed events, and perhaps he can address that when he winds up. I was discussing Ofcom yesterday and discovered that some aspects of internet broadcasting are not included in it.
§ Mr. Wyatt
It is in the Bill.
The European Commission has embarked on a review of the television without frontiers directive. How are we going to react to that? Does it come within my 258WH hon. Friend the Minister's or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's duties, or is there a role for MPs to play in going to Europe, meeting the Commission and making a presentation to it? How would that role start?
§ Mr. Greenway
The hon. Gentleman has made an extremely good suggestion. I should be very happy to go with him to visit the Commission.
§ Mr. Wyatt
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. It is always good to find cross-party support when we have debates on sport. It is a genuinely cross-party subject.
Looking at the A list of events, I want to discuss the Olympic games, the football World cup, European football and the rugby World cup. I am still at a loss to understand how a United Kingdom Government can list events that they do not own and over which they have no jurisdiction or control. The headquarters that run those events are not in the UK. I am sure that at some stage there will be a challenge. In response to my comments, someone may say that those events are held under the European broadcast rules, but that is a cartel, as we know, and under investigation. Can my hon. Friend the Minister tell us what legal advice he has had that permits him to list events that are not owned or controlled by UK broadcasters or UK sports rights holders?
Rugby league currently has only one offer on the table, which is from the BBC. Is it fair for the future finances of rugby league always to depend on a single broadcaster? Because the event is listed, rugby league is between a rock and a hard place. If the rugby league people decided, in their wisdom, that they wished to go for the highest bidder, what leeway would Ofcom be able to give them? The situation seems terribly unfair.
We shall no doubt hear later that things are difficult for some soccer clubs because of the way in which rights are divvied up, but what happens when people own the sporting rights and do not want an event to be listed? We ought to have a vehicle for the sporting organisations to review the list regularly, so that a via media can be found. Perhaps that should be every two or three years. There should be some way of reviewing the list.
I have investigated how often the list has been reviewed. It has happened only four times in almost 50 years; the first listing was in 1954. We need some way of getting a more regular update into the codicil, because the pace of television and what we see is so fast that legislation cannot keep up with it.
§ The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells)
I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. I sense, however, that he is talking theoretically and not as a consequence of having spoken to the various parties involved. I am not aware that we have received a single request from any sporting organisation for a review of listed events—certainly not since June 2001.
§ Mr. Wyatt
The Minister is probably right. He would know better than me. I sense that we are having a rock-and-a-hard-place discussion on rugby league. I shall move on to category B—the non-universal channels. The original purpose of the listed events legislation—that a listed event should be broadcast on a channel with universal coverage—is being flouted by some public 259WH service broadcasters with multi-channel interests. The loophole allows the broadcaster of a category A service, such as BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV or Channel 4, to acquire rights to listed events ostensibly for its category A service, and broadcast them on a category B service, such as BBCi or ITV2.
Last year, ITV broadcast some World cup matches exclusively live on ITV2, which does not have universal coverage, and the BBC has done the same with its interactive service BBCi. That occurred despite the fact that other category B broadcasters were not given a reasonable opportunity to bid for the rights to those matches, which were subsequently not broadcast either by BBC or ITV on a category A service. It would be helpful if the Government clarified why that continues to be allowed to happen, and how the Communications Bill will protect against that.
In relation to the number of events on the list, the Independent Television Commission gave approval for BSkyB to broadcast the cricket World cup—a B list event—exclusively live, even though no category A universal free-to-air terrestrial broadcaster had acquired any secondary rights. The ITC was satisfied that those services had a reasonable opportunity, but it is a listed event.
I would like to query the number of events on the list. It is one of the longest in the European Union. Why does it protect events of so-called national interest when some of the public service broadcasters are not even interested in showing the highlights or choose to cherry-pick what they want at a later stage, impacting on the planning of sports bodies and, more important, their revenue streams?
I conclude with two points. First, on cricket, I hope that many politicians will come out against the Zimbabwean cricket tour to England this summer. It was clear from all the polls that no one wanted England to play Zimbabwe in the cricket World cup that has just ended. I find it appalling that the England and Wales Cricket Board should invite Zimbabwe so quickly. It would have been much better if it had invited Kenya, and I hope that hon. Members will make their opinions known about the tour.
Lastly, on athletics, in the past year we have seen the Commonwealth games on the BBC, which was spectacularly covered, and the World indoor championships in Birmingham, which was also wonderfully covered by the BBC. I am concerned about the future of UK athletics on the BBC. I wondered whether the Minister has been in touch with UK: Athletics regarding the progress of coverage of UK athletics.
§ Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) on securing this timely debate. I am aware that it is a debate about broadcasting of listed sporting events, and I am equally aware that, of all sports, there is a particular concern about football at the moment. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for emphasising football more than other sports.
Throughout my time in Parliament I have tried hard to follow this whole debate. The debate has taken place in the UK Parliament, in sporting authorities and in 260WH Europe, and trying to unravel and fathom the ways of ensuring that we end up with access to the major national sporting events in our country has been a complex process.
I welcome the fact that the Minister with responsibility for broadcasting is present. I hope that his grasp of the whole agenda will enable him to work in his Department and across other Departments to ensure that, through a co-ordinated policy, we are able to deal with broadcasting rights and sporting events, to recognise the part that sport plays in our national fabric and all the economic, recreational and educational issues that stem from that. This debate is not just about broadcasting; it is about the need to adopt a joined-up approach to the effect that broadcasting rights have on all our lives and on everyday life in our constituencies continuing as normal. I hope that the Minister will be able to emphasise that there is a joined-up approach to sport across all Departments.
At this time, given the situation in Iraq, many of us find it difficult to concentrate on everyday issues. However, once a war ends and some semblance of reality and normality returns, sport is often a means of rebuilding things. I am very much aware of the context in which the debate is taking place.
I am also aware that there is a sense of urgency about the debate. In the European context, our rules work in the best interests of UK viewers and enable us to tune into the World cup or other sporting events on free television. It is vital that the forthcoming review of the TV without frontiers directive takes account of the views that hon. Members express this morning. I would welcome from the Minister a timetable or road map relating to how he will deal with the directive, how, for example, the European Scrutiny Committee will deal with the matter in the House, and how we, as parliamentarians, can influence that debate.
I want to concentrate on how the broadcasting of listed sporting events affects football. I make no apology for highlighting that matter. Many of us are concerned about the European Commission's statements of objection to the FA premier league television contracts. I am glad about the presence of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who is the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on this matter and has a great interest in football, like everybody present. I am grateful to see him nodding his head. The 90 days relating to the European Commission's objection are ticking away, and it is vital that the Government, through their defence of broadcasting rights, ensure that we safeguard the arrangements in this country. I want the Minister to be aware that, in the defence of broadcasting rights and his response to the directive, he should set out how we can safeguard football across the board. That is important.
The FA premier league, which holds the joint broadcasting rights on behalf of its member clubs, needs to persuade the Commission of the significant benefits of the current joint arrangements. Those joint arrangements are what is at stake; the Commission has indicated that it may prevent the premier league from selling its broadcasting rights on that basis. If that were to happen, it would cause considerable and irretrievable harm not only to the top level of football in the United Kingdom, but to the wider game, and ultimately to fans and viewers everywhere.
261WH I have a sense of déjá vu. My good friend Joe Ashton is a former Member of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston is his successor as chair of the all-party group on football. Joe Ashton and I were involved the last time the joint issuing of broadcasting rights was in jeopardy. In 1999, we represented the all-party group on football at the restrictive practices court. Many football fans from across the country were also present. Along with many other witnesses, we gave evidence. We joined other representatives of stakeholders in the English game in making the case that the joint arrangements were in the public interest. The court finally decided that joint broadcasting rights should be exempt from the Competition Acts.
The clock is now ticking, and it will be full time before we know where we are. Our problem is that the Commission argues that the UK court and EC competition law applied different legal tests, but that misses the point. In dealing with this whole agenda, my hon. Friend the Minister must consider what the impact on soccer as we know it will be if we are unsuccessful.
The Minister is a great lover of rugby, so perhaps I should remind him, for the benefit of football, how much money the football league receives from the joint broadcasting arrangements. There is £5 million for youth development and £36 million for the parachuting arrangements, which apply when clubs are relegated from one division to another. My good friend Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers Association does wonderful work with many clubs that are in administration. The association receives £38.7 million of premier league funding, which goes towards providing education, medical insurance and welfare payments for players in lower divisions.
Most importantly, however, income from the joint broadcasting arrangements makes a significant contribution to the Football Foundation—formerly the Football Trust—which admirably chaired by Lord Pendry. I am acutely aware of the fact that if we lose this battle, there will be a huge shortfall in the funding available to the foundation to support grassroots football. Foundation funds have been used to provide pitches in all our constituencies and to bring our stadiums up to acceptable standards following the Taylor report. The let's kick racism out of football campaign is also financed by money from collective broadcasting rights.
Where will the money come from if we lose this battle? Will it come from the Government? Will they take a joined-up approach? Supporters Direct is currently facing problems because it is desperately waiting for the money that the Government promised from the New Opportunities Fund. Will the Government make up the shortfall in the Football Foundation's funding? Such questions are part and parcel of the wider issue of listed sports events and arise from the European Commission's insistence on treating football like any other business, rather than as part of the everyday fabric of life in our constituencies.
For those reasons, it is important to speak up today. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston has done us a great service by securing this debate. I 262WH understand that these are issues for the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and that this is about broadcasting, but it is also about sport. Football in this country is facing a crisis. How many clubs are currently in administration? As we speak, the club in my constituency, Port Vale, is on a knife edge in terms of its membership and whether a Supporters Direct consortium, the preferred bidder, can obtain the necessary funding.
I have listened with great interest to my hon. Friend, but I want to ask her a brutal question about the administration of football clubs. It is something that I know little about, but if clubs are in the hands of incompetents who have overstretched themselves, and who have been afraid to take on issues such as wage capping, why should the Government be blackmailed into bailing out a private enterprise that cannot run itself?
§ Ms Walley
A brutal question deserves a brutal reply. I know that my hon. Friend's great interest is in Welsh rubgy, but the problem is the way in which big business has taken over football in this country, as has been spelled out so many times in debates in the House—I am only sorry that my hon. Friend was not present at those debates to hear the reasons why football is in such a state. There is concern that football has been damaged by big business, by the shareholders and by the winner-takes-all approach, which lacks the understanding that the football league, with its 92 clubs— one for all, and all for one—spreads across the country.
At one time, before the broadcasters and big business moved in, revenues would have been shared and the distribution of the receipts from football would have been fair. We accept that football must move into the modern world, but through the work that has been done at grassroots level, there is a different way forward. The work of this Government is putting us on the path towards ensuring that there is a future for football. Look at the number of debts that football clubs such as Huddersfield have. It is critical that we sort out a way forward, and that is part and parcel of unravelling the whole issue of broadcasting rights.
§ Mr. Greenway
Never mind Huddersfield Town, or even my own club, York City, Leeds United, a premier league club, is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and the situation is extremely serious, although the Minister makes a valid argument that some clubs could be better managed.
§ Ms Walley
I agree that many clubs could be better managed. The important point is that many clubs that are fighting for survival and whose supporters want to ensure that they are run properly are using organisations such as Supporters Direct. It is vital that we are able to revive football in a proper fashion, which is why this whole debate about broadcasting rights is so important. If we end up with a situation in which an individual club such as Manchester United—no disrespect to Manchester United, which is obviously a successful club, if not the most successful club in the country—can get whatever price it wants on broadcasting rights, where does that leave the rest of the premier league and the football league?
263WH We must protect our joint collective agreements for broadcasting, and we are relying on the Minister to do that in Europe. Then we can take a joint approach to football, ensure that all our clubs are managed properly and are properly accountable, and that they are not running up the sort of debts that the hon. Member for Ryedale mentioned.
I know that other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I shall conclude by asking the Minister to provide some framework for preserving our 92 clubs not just for the sake of it, but because of the important role that they play in each constituency. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston for allowing us to have this debate this morning.
§ Mrs. Irene Adams (in the Chair)
Hon. Members may wish to know that I intend to allow the winding-up speeches to commence at 10.30 am. I should, therefore, be grateful if hon. Members kept their eye on the clock, so that we can accommodate everyone.
§ 10.4 am
§ Mr. John Grogan (Selby)
It gives me great pleasure to make a short contribution to the debate, and I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) on securing it. There is no more passionate and convincing advocate of the value of sport in ordinary people's lives than him, and he has played a key role as chairman of the all-party group on football.
I should like to stress the importance of the renewal of the television without frontiers directive in 2003, and to sign up for what sounds like an important and convivial trip to Brussels with the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), although my emphasis in that meeting might be slightly different from his. He implied that our list may be too big, but in Australia, for example, about 50 events are listed, such as the FA cup final and all the Australian national football games. I suppose that that shows how important it is to the Australian psyche to inspire new generations to come forward and beat the English. By international comparisons our list does not do too badly.
It is worth reflecting on why the television without frontiers directive is important, which relates to another point that my hon. Friend mentioned. As I understand it, the directive ensures that each member of the EU recognises the lists in the other countries. In the TV Denmark case, which went to the House of Lords, a TV company based in Britain tried to undermine the listed events in Denmark. The House of Lords found in favour of the Independent Television Commission and recognised the legality of the Danish list. It is therefore important that the Government are arguing for the renewal of the directive's provisions for listed events.
It is worth asking what would happen if there was no directive and if we did not have listed events. One has only to look back to the last football World cup, or forward to the next one, to see what happens in European countries that do not have listed events. In Spain during the last World cup, only a very few games were shown on terrestrial television; the rest were available on satellite or via digital. Germany may have 264WH beaten Britain for the rights to stage the 2006 World cup, but at least we shall be able to watch all the games on terrestrial television. In Germany people might not be able to do that, because the deals have not yet been done and the listed events provision is not as strong as it is here. The World cup is the best example of that point. In a sense, everyone was in the stadium during the last World cup, because they could see the games. Even the smallest bar did not have to take out a subscription if it wanted to put up a television and make everyone feel part of the event, which inspired a new generation.
Incidentally, I think that the rugby league challenge cup final is among the listed events largely because the rugby league argued strongly at the last review that it should be. The league saw the inclusion as a matter of prestige, and it felt that the list should not feature rugby union events only. The rugby league is anxious that the cup final, which is the crown jewel of its portfolio of events, continues to be on terrestrial television.
At some point the list will probably be reviewed. The Minister is right to say that there has not been a cacophony of demands that it be reviewed, but eventually it will be. I think that the list was reviewed in 1991 and 1998, and if the next one is seven years on from the last, it will still be in this Parliament. I should like to make two suggestions for changes in the list in the event of a review.
Tonight England play Turkey. The game is available on terrestrial television and it will get a massive audience. An equivalent game in the run-up to the last World cup was England against Germany, when we had a great 5-1 victory, which I think attracted 11 million viewers on terrestrial television. Our national games in qualifying for the European and World cup championships are not listed, as they are in Italy. For example, the Turkey game, which could be the decisive match in the qualifications for the European championships, is not listed and will be available only to those with access to subscription television. There is a case for listing the competitive games involving our national football teams, although I would not list the friendlies, such as England against Australia—that would be far too painful.
There is a case for changing the Ryder cup, which is arguably the third biggest sporting occasion, from category B to category A.
§ Mr. Greenway
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present in the Public Gallery of the Standing Committee on the Communications Bill when we discussed these matters. I asked the Minister at least to consider adding the third day of the Ryder cup to list A. One cannot enjoy the excitement while listening to the radio—one cannot hear whether a golf ball is going to go down a hole. Undoubtedly, the nation missed a great treat last year when the European team won.
§ Mr. Grogan
I am very grateful for that interesting suggestion; I have not heard it before. The highlights of the Ryder cup on the BBC attracted up to 3.5 million viewers—more than double the highest audience for live coverage on Sky Sport—so there is a case for making a move in that direction.
Finally, it is not just the Government who have responsibility for listed events; it is the broadcasters as well. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for 265WH Sittingbourne and Sheppey that it was a great shame that no highlights of the cricket World cup were shown on any terrestrial channel. The England v. Australia game, which was of most interest to many people in this country, was seen by only 600,000 viewers. Cricket missed a trick for inspiring future generations, considering that half the population of India were watching some of the games in the cricket World cup. Very few people watched them in Britain, limiting the impact of the tournament.
I believe that Channel 4 made a half-hearted bid for the rights to show the highlights. However, I do not know why it did not tell the ITC that it would have paid a fair and reasonable price, and ask the ITC to adjudicate. The English Cricket Board could also have done more to lobby for some of the highlights to be shown on terrestrial television. It signed a voluntary agreement in 1996, under the auspices of the Central Council for Physical Recreation, which said that for important sporting events the board would try to use its influence to have at least the highlights shown on terrestrial television.
Many sporting bodies—rights holders—see the advantages of having wide access to their events. Wimbledon, for example, has recently changed its policy. It is one of the listed events in this country, and it is now making an effort to ensure that at least some of the tournament is seen on terrestrial television throughout Europe. The organisers realise that its impact on the world will be so much bigger if large numbers of people can see it. The US Masters golf tournament has a similar philosophy. This matter is not of grave importance compared with the many other debates in Parliament, but it is important for the quality of life of many people.
§ Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West)
I join others in congratulating my honourable Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) on securing this debate and on choosing this subject. When he started by talking about Welsh rugby, I realised that he was relying on the ruthless logic of his arguments rather than trying to charm the Minister. My perspective is that of a lay person, a passionate lover of sport, particularly of football. When I saw the subject of this debate, my first reaction was that the issue was arcane and technical. However, on further consideration, I realised that it was not, because literally millions of people share my perspective on sport.
I feel quite emotional when I want to watch a big sporting event. However, if I have not done the research beforehand so as to find out what channel I should watch and what I should do to access the sporting event, I find, at the last minute, that I cannot see it. If the listed events were to be changed or removed, that experience would happen on a grand scale, and a huge number of people would he affected. It is an important issue.
In examining the relationship between the media and sport, I can see that there is an obvious and genuine argument in favour of sports benefiting from the income generated from their media presentation. However, 266WH there is also an argument about accessibility for the public and about the public's right to watch the events. There must be a balance. The present system of listed events provides such a balance. However, as far as football is concerned, I do not think that that balance is right in the negotiations between the FA premier league and the media companies. That leads, in part, to enormous dissatisfaction and disaffection among everyday football fans.
I am concerned that, if we do not highlight in advance the issue of the television without frontiers directive review, profound changes could take place without anybody realising their implications for the public's reaction or the consequences of the chain reaction that would occur throughout all the sports. If listed events were to be removed—I recognise that there have been challenges to the legal position of listing events—the alternative would be a free-for-all in a deregulated market. That would not be confined to national listed events; there would be a domino effect. Major soccer clubs would then have the right to negotiate individual deals with media companies, with all the implications for national coverage and accessibility.
Such a change would have further implications. The rich clubs would get richer, and we would not have the distribution about which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) talked. That is vital to our grassroots football and to sport in general. In fact, the knock-on effects have not been fully considered or debated, perhaps until this moment.
This debate is important because it highlights some of the issues. There are huge accessibility issues regarding listed events, which we have not fully considered. If listed events were removed, they would go largely to pay-per-view, and the people most disadvantaged would be those who are housebound—disabled people or the elderly—or those on lower incomes who could not afford to pay. That has social implications that must be highlighted.
The tension between commercial and social priorities will continue for a long time. I believe that the current corporate structure of football clubs, in particular, and possibly of other clubs, is not appropriate and does not reflect the right balance between community interests and the commercial basis on which the clubs are run. We must consider another corporate structure that would make it easier legally to defend the exemptions from the current deregulatory framework.
§ Mr. Bailey
Absolutely. New models of community benefit companies, with asset locks and so on to deter those who might want to privatise them, are being considered. That is the way forward, but much more work needs to be done on that. As that is not the main subject of the debate, I shall not go on about it. However, if we are to have a totally deregulated market, the consequences for sport and public access to it will be devastating. One way in which we can reinforce the legal case for exemption from deregulation is to give sport clubs a different corporate status from conventional companies. That is an avenue that we should explore.
267WH To conclude, we need to debate such issues and publicise them. We must make sure that those who consider these issues in Europe and in our courts recognise that sport is not just a commercial enterprise; it is about community, health, a way of living and enriching people's lives across the country. Access to sport cannot be determined purely by commercial and deregulatory processes.
§ Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
The very fact that we are talking about listed sporting events is a sign that the Government recognise that sport is different—it is not simply a business and commercial activity like any other. Both the nation, through our national teams, and communities, through their clubs and local teams, have an interest in sport. That marks it out as needing to be handled and treated differently in many regards, although I accept the Minister's point that perhaps greater commercial and business common sense could be applied to how some football clubs are run. No one doubts that. I emphasise again, however, the fact that sport is different and that we should treat it as such in many ways. That is why we have the list of sporting events.
One complaint is that, by listing events and preventing the market from operating completely freely, sport loses out financially. I will confine my remarks mostly to football, which is my prime interest. One could almost argue that if we listed all the premiership and football league games and less money came in from television as a result, but the money was more fairly spread, that might be an awful lot better for the game. That remark is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but television's influence on our national game has led to many regrettable situations. I shall outline one or two of them.
The money that football has received in recent years from the admittedly excellent coverage of companies such as Sky, which have improved television coverage no end, should have greatly enhanced our national game. However, we should, collectively, scratch our heads, and one or two football chairmen should scratch theirs even harder and consider what they have allowed to happen to our game as a result of the money that has come in. Several clubs, some of which, hon. Members have named, were nearly destroyed in that process.
We could argue about which came first, the chicken or the egg—whether the creation of the premiership or the influx of money from Sky created the process that caused so many problems—but the two came about together. The premiership was created because of the potential to get money out of Sky under a separate deal, and the Sky money became available because of the creation of the premiership. In some ways, that dual process has destroyed the concept of the national game as one that takes place at club level. That fissure has created so many problems.
If the money had resulted in enormous benefits across the game, and had gone right down to the bottom, people would have said, "Okay, the money has gone from the top, but there has been a trickle-down effect and we support that." Many of us would argue that much of that money has been wasted on enormous salaries, not for the very best players, whom we can admire, but for a lot of second-rate imported players. 268WH People wonder why they are being paid such salaries. That money simply goes straight out of the game. That, and the Bosman ruling, stops the money going to clubs lower down the leagues, which has stopped the development of home-grown players. They do not come up through the leagues, and those at the top do not pay money to smaller clubs to buy them. There has been that debilitating effect as well.
In arguing the case for football as a whole, we should consider the fact that half the people who go to watch football in this country attend games outside the premiership. They watch their local community clubs, which is why this issue is so important.
Problems have been created, and there are splits and fissures at a number of levels. At one level, only Manchester United and Arsenal can win the premiership, although Liverpool might come back at some stage. Clubs such as Leeds and Chelsea have tried to buy their way up, but they are in the hole between the also-rans and the elite, and struggling because of their debts. At the next level, there is an enormous gap between the teams in the Nationwide league and those in the premiership, and the struggle to get one leg up into the premiership and to stay there has created a black hole into which clubs such as Leicester, Sheffield Wednesday, Coventry, Nottingham Forest, Derby and Bradford have fallen.
In the lower leagues, money is being sucked out of the clubs because of the failure to buy their players and the failure to bring on and develop players within the game as a whole. That has caused problems to clubs such as Port Vale, York and others that have been mentioned. All those problems should have been addressed, as there is so much money in football, but they have got worse and more difficult to solve over the past few years.
What should we do? That is the test for us. We can all complain and express our disappointments and concerns about such things as the nature of the game and where it has gone; the influence of television money and the fact that it goes to a handful of clubs, so it is less spread around; the fact that there is less recognition of the game as a whole as the national game; and the fact that that not everybody wants to watch Manchester United and Arsenal. If we end up with a game in which only those two sides can win the premiership—perhaps along with one or two others that come in from time to time—and that is the only real competition left, football will suffer and so will Manchester United and Arsenal.
I will briefly raise three issues. The first has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley): the further proposals from the European Commission to treat football as a business that is subject to the usual rules of competition, although forcing individual clubs to negotiate their own television rights will take us backwards rather than forwards. We must at least establish the right of clubs to negotiate television deals collectively. That is very important. If we move in the direction that some in the Commission are suggesting, football will almost be finished as a competitive sport: only the very few elite clubs in this country will have real opportunities to win trophies, and clubs at the bottom of the game will die. We must resist those proposals, as they will make things worse rather than better.
269WH Secondly, we must strongly argue for a better spread of television money within the game—the football supporters are doing that. There must be recognition of the fact that the game at the top relies on the game at the bottom, and it is important to remember that the game cannot have a head if its roots are not surviving and flourishing. I give my support to that better spread, and I am sure that other hon. Members do as well. We should argue that case positively for the health of the game as a whole: television money should be more equally spread among league clubs and not concentrated so much on the premiership.
Finally, why is no body in the national game putting forward those views? That should be the job of the Football Association, and we have to wonder whether it has any real sense of direction. It has had its problems recently, which have been articulated well. The premiership grew out of the FA, but now it is funding the FA. In that situation, I begin to wonder whether the FA can take the premiership on and face up to the consequences of proposals such as that on spreading the television money more fairly.
I say this to Ministers: let us at least again raise the possibility of looking at a statutory regulator for football. It is our national game; many people love and enjoy it, and the Government have a responsibility to it. They resisted having a statutory regulator when they last looked at the matter and created the Independent Football Commission. Given the lack of direction and control from the FA, the time has come to put a statutory regulator back on the agenda for further debate.
§ Nick Harvey (North Devon)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) on securing the debate, which gives us the opportunity to discuss issues that are of great importance to many of our constituents. I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) that there are many more crucial subjects on Parliament's agenda, but we should not lose sight of things that are of such profound importance to the daily lives of our constituents.
Although we are notionally discussing the list of sporting events, the debate has tended to move on to the state of football. One has to say at the outset that we must recognise the limited scope for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and for Parliament to influence many of the negotiations that we have been discussing and bemoaning. It is perfectly right that Parliament and Members of Parliament who have an interest in these matters should give an opinion, and when we meet people from the sports world we should try to convey that opinion to them, but the state is not party to many such negotiations, as they take place between the sporting world and the broadcasters. The sporting world has not always done itself many favours in them.
Take, for example, the television deal between the Nationwide league and ITV Digital. The football clubs felt a great deal of righteous indignation over the fact that a contract that they had signed would not be 270WH honoured. Frankly, they were utterly stupid in their response to the warning signals that ITV Digital sent out. ITV Digital told them that it would go bust if they did not agree to a reduced fee. They did not believe that. ITV Digital went into receivership, and the receivers made the football clubs another proposal, saying that it was their last chance. They were too stupid to take it, and they ended up signing a deal with Sky worth less than the one offered to them by the ITV Digital receivers.
I have a great deal of sympathy over the state that football is in, but in many ways football clubs have been the architects of their own misfortune. There is, I am afraid, an element of greed in the game that has done it little good. The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) reminded us of the predicament of Leeds United. I am afraid that my heart does not bleed for Leeds United—let us be perfectly honest, nobody's heart bleeds for Leeds United. It got itself into this mess by going on a completely insane buying spree under the previous manager but one. That extraordinary buying spree is about equivalent to its debt. In pursuit of glory, which is what, I suppose, motivates everyone in the game, the club did things that got it into a mess.
§ Nick Harvey
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The role of plcs behind football clubs is interesting. It takes them into the realms of normal company regulation, which may offer us scope for exerting control and bringing sanity to bear.
The list of events has undoubtedly done a great deal of good, as have the 1998 additions to it. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) reminded us that arrangements in this country have worked rather better than those in other countries. The rights to the last World cup and to the next one were bought by a German company, but that has not done German television viewers much good. Several hon. Members referred to the threat that each premiership club will be allowed to negotiate its own television rights, although similar attempts in Spain and Italy did not succeed, and that would be enormously damaging if it happened here.
One understands where the European Commission is coming from: if people are obsessive lovers of free market competition—it became rather voguish in the 1980s and 1990s—they get themselves into all sorts of trouble, but this matter concerns sport. Going down the road that the EU would have us go down would damage competitive sport. Competition of a quite different sort will be destroyed for the reasons that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) mentioned. We could reach a situation in which two clubs at most have a regular, realistic chance of winning the FA premiership. That will do nothing for competition in the sporting sense and the situation will be 10 times worse if clubs market their own television rights.
The hon. Gentleman also made good points on the aspirations of football supporters. A better divvy-up of television moneys is undoubtedly needed. I should dearly like to see the premiership's contribution to the 271WH Nationwide league rise from 5 per cent. of revenues to 10 per cent. For all the reasons that I have given, I am not confident that that will happen. It would be much easier either if the FA was not in such a close relationship with the premiership or, better still, if the premiership was still as one with the Nationwide league. We can only hope that sanity will prevail. If parliamentarians, among others, speak up, that might be achieved.
We have also heard about football fans' travel problems. They are particularly acute for those who have season tickets and make travel arrangements weeks in advance to get the cheapest fares. If a match that is notionally scheduled for a Saturday is moved to a Sunday or another day, that is unfair on such people, who dig deep into their pockets to support their clubs. It is important to give greater consideration to the plight of ordinary supporters. A good suggestion has been made about keeping one night free for the Nationwide league to be on television, or for people to watch it live and not be tempted to stay by the fireside. That, too, would require the enlightened common sense that we have seen little of in the game.
The top of the game depends on the grass roots—that is certainly the game's tradition, although it does little for the plight of the smaller clubs that the larger ones bring in indifferent players from abroad and pay them excessive wages, rather than buying players from the lower leagues as they used to.
David Beckham, too, has come out against changes in the timing of televised matches, if only because he does not like having to eat pasta at 9 am on match day to prepare for a noon kick-off. While his diet should not be our top concern, it is interesting that people at that level of the game are making such points.
The threat from Europe is serious. The Bosman ruling has already done a great deal to disrupt the natural balance of the game, and what is threatened will make it a great deal worse. We should do anything that we can to put the European Union on to a healthier course, and if that involves a trip to Europe to plead the case, timed around a good match, I am sure that either I or my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) will be only too pleased to support the endeavour.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) on securing the debate. The first live televised match that I, like him, saw was the Blackpool v. Bolton cup final. I remember that Arsenal won the league that season, and 50 years later I am still a gooner. I should also remind hon. Members that for the past 15 years I have been the president of York City football club. The last time we discussed this matter in Westminster Hall, the club had just about gone into administration—it is now out, and a supporters' trust is in charge in the boardroom. Although listed events are not as controversial as they were, the televising of sport remains a live issue, and the debate has provided us with the opportunity to reflect on it. Hon. Members have referred to the situation in the premier league; clearly, the after-effects of the collapsed ITV Digital deal with the football league are still being felt by many league clubs.
The subject of listed sporting events was discussed briefly in the Standing Committee of the Communications Bill as recently—or perhaps I should 272WH say to the Minister, as long ago—as 23 January. How the weeks fly by! It was interesting that no one sought to amend the Bill; the Committee had a stand part debate. The existing arrangements for lists A and B seemed to be generally accepted as the settled position. It is fair to say that the group A list will always remain central to the life of the nation. Suggestions are made from time to time about how we might extend it. Some have argued that the British grand prix for Formula 1 motor racing should be on the list. I believe that day 3 of the Ryder cup should be on the A list, for the reason that I outlined in my intervention on the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), and I think the Minister was impressed by that. I understand that the Bill allows Ofcom to review the lists and make recommendations to Ministers. I hope that what we have said today will help them to realise that we believe that some amendments may be appropriate in the years ahead.
In maintaining a list at all—this was the point made by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt)—we are likely to deprive the listed sports of the full revenue that they might have received had there been an open market for the sale of rights. When we are establishing the lists and deciding on the sporting bodies, we must strike a balance, but I recall that far more controversy surrounded this issue in the Standing Committees considering the 1990 and 1996 Broadcasting Bills than it does now. I believe that the lists are relatively settled.
The new lists A and B were introduced in June 1998 following the inclusion of listed events provisions in the 1997 TV without frontiers directive. The key point about events on list B is that they can be broadcast exclusively live only if adequate provision is made for secondary coverage. The European Commission has embarked on a review of the directive's provisions with a view to proposing any changes to the current directive at the end of this year. Listed events rules will be one of the issues discussed, although I understand that the Commission has expressed firm support for their retention. In the light of the challenge by Kirch Media of the rules relating to the TV rights for the football World cup, the Commission must consider how it can strengthen current provisions to ensure that they cannot be circumvented by rights holders in future. This debate is an opportunity for us to do that.
I have real concerns about whether the EC understands some of the issues surrounding the sale of sporting TV rights and the regulation of sport generally. Its intervention in the football transfer market has been disastrous, although when I went to see the Commissioner and two of the chefs de cabinet, we were able to ameliorate some of the worst features of the proposals. Nevertheless, its intervention in the transfer market has contributed significantly to the financial plight of many clubs in the lower leagues. No longer can we sell a player for £1 million, because at the end of the season he can walk away for nothing.
The Commission is now challenging the legality of the collective sale of rights by, for example, the premier league. I agree with all those who have said today that, if we lose this argument, it will be a disaster for English football. Yes, there are issues about the percentage of money from TV deals that should go to grassroots and lower league clubs, but we must be circumspect. Not that long ago we were arguing that the premier league 273WH should follow Central Council of Physical Recreation guidance and pay the 5 per cent. When one adds up all the other money that the premier league sends down, it becomes clear that it is distributing more than 5 per cent. Cricket and tennis distribute 11 per cent. each. We have made real progress over the past 10 years, and I believe that more can be made. However, I cannot for the life of me see that the premier league will agree to distribute more in the immediate future when premier league clubs such as Leeds United and Chelsea are facing such severe financial difficulty.
A further problem—I have much sympathy with what has been said here—is the timing of matches and the effect of live broadcast on attendance at other matches. When we have fewer Champions league fixtures next season, hopefully there will be fewer occasions on which divisions one, two and three have mid-week fixtures on nights when clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester United or Newcastle United are being shown live on television playing a top European side. That has a huge impact on the revenue from games.
However, we must accept that the current collective agreement benefits smaller clubs. Those benefits would be lost if the collective agreement was replaced by individual clubs selling their own rights. To see that, we need only look at the shambolic mess in Italy, where the serie A clubs sell their own rights. At the start of last season, some clubs could not organise their fixtures because the weaker teams had not sorted out their deals. It would be a complete disaster to have such a system, and I am astonished that the Commission has not paid greater attention to what has happened in Italy.
Such a system would, I believe, cause the break-up of the league and bankruptcies even in the premier league. It would probably lead to more games being on television, but the timing of games would probably be worse for fans. Paradoxically, the current premier league deal replicates the arrangements in list 13 and the directive—with live games on Sky and recorded highlights on free-to-air ITV. People might, as a result of that, begin to wonder whether the Commission really knew what it was doing, but in my view, something far more damning challenges and undermines the EC argument on the sale of collective rights. The Commission's case does not adequately take into account the consumer interest or the special characteristics of sport. Those were enshrined by EU heads of state and Governments in the Nice declaration on the specificity of sport agreed in the year 2000. The declaration explicitly recognises the principles of solidarity and the redistribution of broadcast revenues.
In other words, sport is a special case. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) rightly drew attention to the fact that the Commission argues that the legal test applied differs between the UK courts and EC competition law. However, that misses the key point that although the legal tests differ, the findings of fact are entirely relevant, especially as the Commission claims to have taken into account the specific characteristics of English football. If it had done that, it would have reached an entirely different conclusion.
At one and the same time, we see a different part of the EC reviewing the television without frontiers directive while the Commission pushes for a treaty of Rome 274WH amendment to strengthen the position of sport as a special case. The Government are against that, but I suggest to the Minister that they should reconsider. Also at the same time, the Commission is trying to say that the collective television rights that underpin the competition are anti-competitive. All three positions cannot be right. Sport needs greater legal certainty than at present, but we cannot, in the same breath, say that we should strengthen the exception given to sport in terms of competition law and throw the baby out with the bathwater in terms of the agreements that we already have.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that there was limited scope for Parliament and Government here. I suggest to the Minister that the Government could challenge the EC view on collective rights by praying in aid the Nice declaration and supporting the concept of a treaty amendment. I appreciate—I am a Conservative, after all—the anxiety that a treaty amendment may have other consequences, and it is not something for which we would naturally want to argue. Why should we have to rely on an EC initiative to protect our national game? However, the threat to football from another EC initiative, the challenge to collective rights sales, is real and potentially disastrous. We would not choose to pursue the matter ourselves at national level, but this is something that the EC is trying to do to us. Clearly, we have to fight back. What has come out of the debate today is the willingness of three or four of us to go and see the Commission and convey our argument. We need to know that we have the Government's support for that.
§ The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Dr. Kim Howells)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) on securing the debate. I am well aware of his enthusiastic interest in sport and his sporting background. This debate is a reminder of the strength of feeling among hon. Members and their constituents about sport on television and the broadcasting of listed events. That is why I welcome the opportunity to debate those issues.
As hon. Members have said, sport plays an important role in our society. It provides a focus for civic and community values, which can contribute to social cohesion and regeneration. It also provides employment opportunities for people from all kinds of educational backgrounds.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) made clear, the health of sport in this country depends greatly on the broadcasting sector. Top-level sport is now big business. I did not quite understand my hon. Friend's reply to my rather bellicose intervention about the way in which soccer is run but she pointed out that it has something to do with the way in which big business has elbowed its way in and tended to capture the sport. Perhaps there are ways of doing business now that did not exist 30 years ago.
The governing bodies are faced with greater financial demands than ever before. To achieve success on the world stage in any sport requires substantial investment in training and development, and people attending sporting events expect better facilities as well as greater comfort and safety than in years gone by. Television 275WH income plays a vital role in securing those things. May I just give hon. Members a little warning? Welsh rugby now has the best stadium it has ever had. It has more coaches and more money has been spent on development and grassroots matters than ever before, but I cannot remember a rugby team as inept as the current Welsh rugby team.
The desire to attain success at an international level can sometimes be confused, as an aim, with remembering what sport is about at a grassroots level. The issue is not easy and many people have wrestled with the matter in relation to Welsh rugby. English rugby has been much more successful in dealing with the matter. We have learned very painfully that moderate or even large amounts of money from broadcasters do not necessarily guarantee international success. Many other things have to be done to achieve that success, and sometimes those things are painful.
A number of major UK sports invest substantial proportions of broadcasting revenue at grassroots level under the Central Council of Physical Recreation's voluntary code on broadcasting. The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) reminded us that some of the sums are large, and very welcome they are too. Signatories, including the FA, the Rugby Football Union, the Rugby Football League and the England and Wales Cricket Board, commit to invest at least 5 per cent. of broadcast income in the development of their sports, which is important.
The Government do not intervene unnecessarily in the sports broadcasting market. Our main concern is to ensure that everyone has access to the key events that have a clear national resonance. Such events are known as listed events and are protected under part IV of the Broadcasting Act 1996. Those events have a significance that cannot be measured solely in terms of their economic value relating to ticket sales and broadcasting rights. That point has been emphasised this morning. The events generate interest among those who normally may not even follow sport, and they make an important contribution to the way in which we perceive our national identities. Events such as the World cup final, the Wimbledon tennis championships and the grand national are national treasures. I understand that 10.5 million people watched the grand national when it was last run.
§ Dr. Howells
It is. That is a huge audience by any standards. I understand that the England rugby game on Sunday had a 51 per cent. share of people watching television. That is huge, and it compares well with the very small number of viewers that watched England games when those were shown exclusively on Sky. Sky got good audiences but nothing like the audiences for terrestrial television.
Although the broadcasting rights to such occasions are owned by governing bodies, many people regard them as public property. The widespread interest that they generate is only partly a result of the efforts of the promoters; it is also, in many cases, the result of the long history of the events, and the fact that they bring together major national and international participants and involve British national teams. There is often a long 276WH history of broadcasting such events on free-to-air television, and people have come to expect to be able to see them live without having to pay extra for the privilege.
A list of events was drawn up in 1956, and it has been reviewed on several occasions since then, as my hon. Friends the Members for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) have reminded us. The most recent revision of the list took place in 1998, when the then Secretary of State appointed an advisory group chaired by Lord Gordon of Strathblane to review the content of the list and to advise him which events should be included. I emphasise that we intend to review the list regularly, but we have no plans to do so in the immediate future, because I believe it is too soon after the last review. The list has only ever included sporting events, although I am sure that hon. Members are aware that it is possible to include other key events in national life. However, we are not considering that today.
Listing seeks to ensure that free-to-air broadcasters reaching at least 95 per cent. of the population are given a fair and reasonable opportunity to acquire the rights to broadcast live coverage of "crown jewel" events. Presently, the channels that meet those requirements are BBC 1, BBC 2, ITV 1 and Channel 4. Listing does not guarantee that any event will be broadcast live. Rights holders are not required to sell live rights and broadcasters are not obliged to purchase them or to show the events. However, the legislation ensures that where live rights are made available, they must be made available on free-to-air channels on fair and reasonable terms. The Independent Television Commission is currently responsible for ensuring compliance with the 1996 Act, and it maintains a code on the operation of the legislation, although once the Communications Bill is enacted that task will fall to Ofcom.
I was not entirely sure about the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey about internet coverage and access, but if he writes to me, I will try to answer him.
I do not want to go into the details of the Communications Bill—the hon. Member for Ryedale and I spent many weeks on it. Suffice to say that it amends the 1996 Act to give statutory effect to the two existing categories of listed events—group A and group B—and to ensure their smooth operation by the new regulator. EU member states, the European Parliament and the European Commission have also recognised the need to protect events of major importance for society and, through the TV without frontiers directive, to give mutual recognition to each other's lists. The UK's list was verified by the Commission in July 2000.
I have only a few moments left, but I want to say something about ensuring that the competition authorities in the EU recognise the gravity of the issue, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North and the hon. Member for Ryedale were worried. I was a Minister with responsibility for competition for three and a half years. Every so often, competition authorities tend to get a rush of blood to the head and start looking at soccer and other issues as if they were looking at sales of washing powder.
277WH We must be very careful about that. This might be a commodity, in the looser sense of the word, in that it is a product to be sold involving contracts, but as the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) reminded us even more brutally than I did, some very stupid people are involved in the sales of certain contracts and properties. I hope that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members realise that we are aware of the need to communicate that.