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DEREGULATION

Motion made, and Question proposed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14A (Consideration of draft deregulation orders),


Question agreed to.

PETITIONS

Wakefield Nurseries Campaign

7.13 pm

Mr. Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): I wish to present a petition on behalf of the Wakefield campaign against nursery vouchers, which opposes the introduction of such vouchers in the Wakefield metropolitan district. The scheme will clearly lead to a deterioration in the quality of nursery education in the area. The petition has been endorsed by 30,000 signatures.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons call an immediate halt to the introduction of the nursery voucher scheme in the Wakefield area.

To lie upon the Table.

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Local Pharmacies

7.14 pm

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I have the pleasure of presenting a petition on behalf of some 13,000 residents of London, a substantial number of whom are residents of Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham. It draws to the House's attention the problems that will face local pharmacies if the Government go ahead with some of the changes that have been suggested by the Office of Fair Trading.

The petition


To lie upon the Table.

British Cycling Federation (Grants)

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

7.15 pm

Mr. Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): I thank those in authority for allowing me to introduce the debate.

As a member of Otley cycling club, which is affiliated to the British Cycling Federation, I probably ought to declare that I am indirectly a member of the federation.

Watching any skilled athlete engage in any sport is an uplifting experience. For me--as a person who is involved in cycling and has raced cycles for many years--to watch a racing cyclist in harmony with his or her machine is to observe the grace and power of an athlete made effective by a superb bicycle design and the scientific skills of aerodynamic engineers and metallurgists. In recent years, the televisual media have developed the skills and technology to be able to present cycle road racing live to millions of people throughout the world.

Many of us may recall that, when colour television became the norm, snooker and billiards suddenly became accessible to huge audiences. Commercial sponsorship rapidly followed, bringing large sums of money into the sport from the private sector. While cycling has always been able to attract some sponsorship, it is only the advent of technology capable of showing it live on television and to mass audiences that has recently enabled large-scale sponsorship to develop the sport further, and internationally.

It is a striking fact that, whereas elsewhere the sport of cycling is extremely well developed, in the United Kingdom--in spite of British cycling excellence over the years--it has languished in recent times. There have been some signs of revival, associated with particular individuals such as Chris Boardman, Yvonne McGregor and Graeme Obree, as well as the development associated with the velodrome in Manchester, which I am sure we all welcome. Nevertheless, the long-term membership of the primary cycling organisations, such as the Cyclists Touring Club and the BCF, remains static, notwithstanding the massive increase in bicycle sales associated in particular with the mountain bike boom.

There has been much debate in cycling circles about that disappointing performance, and especially about the way in which the sport has been managed by the BCF. I also understand that eyebrows have been raised outside this country, at the highest levels in the cycling world--in the Union Cycliste Internationale, for instance--about the way in which the BCF has managed the sport in this country. That must be worrying, as the UCI is the most important body in cycling.

International companies take a pan-European view of marketing. When they choose to develop sponsorship of a particular sport, they want the commercial potentialities of that sport throughout their target market to be fully developed. They therefore take a dim view of the fact that the United Kingdom market in cycle racing, in particular, is and has been so undeveloped.

Mr. Hein Verbruggen, president of the UCI, has made it known that, while he would like to ensure that major world-ranked races and other events will continue to be held in Great Britain, he is frustrated by the management

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of the BCF, which makes it increasingly unlikely that he will have an opportunity to present such events in the United Kingdom. On the Radio 5 programme "On the Line", he said:


    "Great Britain is . . . a completely black spot in the international cycling market".

The programme, which was an excellent example of investigative journalism, conducted by the journalist Mr. Ian Bent, aired many concerns that are the subject of serious audit investigation at the BCF.

It has been suggested to me that at least one major international company, which brought millions of pounds into cycling and which originates within the English-speaking world, has left the sport, disappointed with the poor marketing of cycling, particularly in the UK. Worse still, Britain's multi-stage cycling tour, hitherto known as the Milk race, which again brought much private money into the sport, has ceased even to exist. In my eyes and in those of many of my colleagues whom I have met on bikes on and off the road over the years, the BCF board stands guilty of, at best, a lack of vision and a timorous failure to realise the full potential of this beautiful and undeveloped sport, despite the fact that it receives £500,000 a year of public money, in addition to the annual subscriptions of its private members.

From time to time, graver charges have been made about the manner in which BCF board members have managed the BCF's business affairs. In July, I tabled a question to the Minister responsible for sport revealing publicly, probably for the first time, that serious questions needed to be asked about the relationship between the BCF and private companies with close links with BCF board members. My questions were prompted by the turmoil in the BCF following the election of Mr. Tony Doyle, the former world cycling champion, as BCF president. He was subsequently removed in what can be described only as a coup by board members.

The new president had declared that he wanted to increase the transparency of the BCF board's operations, to make the board more accountable to the membership and to secure the further development of our sport in the UK. For whatever reason, after a short period, Mr. Doyle ceased to be president. A process was begun that may eventually conclude with litigation and substantial legal costs falling on the BCF. I understand that, in November last year and in March this year, Mr. Doyle raised with Mr. Derek Casey his concerns about the way in which the BCF board operated. As you probably know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Mr. Casey is chief executive of the Sports Council, a primary funder of the BCF.

A number of events appeared to take place subsequent to my questions, which appeared on the Order Paper in July. It appears that at least one of the companies that was supplying goods and services to the BCF and that was associated with a particular board member subsequently changed the terms of its contract.

I wrote to the BCF and to Mr. Doyle asking that they authorise representatives to meet to seek a settlement of their differences out of court, thereby avoiding expensive legal fees falling on the membership. Such a settlement has not yet been achieved.

Consequent on my questions, the Sports Council appears to have begun an internal audit of the BCF's affairs. I have a copy of that audit. The Sports Council should have acted earlier in relation to the matter, given

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the fact that it has custody of £500,000 of public funds, which it has continued to pay on a quarterly basis to the BCF, even though the Sports Council was aware of the seriousness of the allegations and the turmoil in the organisation.

The internal audit reveals a grave state of affairs in relation to the manner in which the BCF has been and is being managed. The audit reveals, first, concerns about the financial position of the BCF, British Cycling Promotions Ltd. and the velodrome, which is the jewel in the crown of British cycling. A substantial deficit in the current year is projected. Secondly, the audit reveals inadequately structured management accounts, with what is described as a major weakness in the accounts in relation to forecasting income and expenditure. Thirdly, the audit finds inadequate financial accountability and control.

Fourthly, the audit refers, worryingly, to actual, potential or perceived conflicts of interest involving some board members--some companies are supplying goods and services to the BCF; the principals of those companies have been BCF board members for years. Fifthly, the audit reveals internal conflict in the board. Sixthly, it asserts that board members have become involved in handling operational matters to a detailed extent. Overall, the audit report concludes that the board


In my many years in public life, this is probably the most damning audit report that I have ever read. Moreover, the published balance sheet shows an artificially low rate of depreciation on fixed assets. I am informed that the provision for stock on the balance sheet allegedly contains many obsolete items that no longer have any inherent value. A falsely optimistic picture of the BCF's health has been described in the balance sheet.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you might think that, given the scale of public funding that I have described, the damning nature of the audit report, the allegations in the radio programme, questions in the House and the prolonged organisational turmoil in the BCF, the Sports Council might have acted sooner. If you were to come to that conclusion, I would share your view.

I am not happy either with the way in which the Sports Council delivered the results of the audit to BCF members. At the annual general meeting a few weeks ago, where it was known to the Sports Council that many of these matters would be debated and that the board was to be re-elected, the Sports Council's representatives provided copies of the damaging audit report in advance of the annual general meeting to board members, who were clearly culpable.

I understand that the acting BCF chairman of the meeting was aware of the contents of the report, yet chose not to reveal any of its details until the end of the day, after the board elections and after the debates on related matters. The chairman did not act with full transparency in ordering the agenda in that way. Given the extraordinary nature of the allegations and the fact that the people who had been accused by the audit report had read it in advance, the Sports Council's representatives had a duty, which they shirked, to bring the report to the attention of delegates before the election of the board and before the debates. The Sports Council failed lamentably in the matter.

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Subsequent to the annual general meeting, there has been a further session of the BCF's new managing committee. I am surprised, to put it mildly, that the Sports Council did not ensure that it had a representative at the meeting to monitor the BCF's deliberations, with an eye to ensuring that the BCF, at last, complies with the Sports Council's recommendations. I have expressed my view privately to the chief executive of the Sports Council, Mr. Casey, but I remain dissatisfied with his reason for that failure.

I should have expected that the annual general meeting, which was conducted after a year of organisational turmoil, would be a model of propriety, but no. Three matters concern me. First, the chairman allowed board members who had not been re-elected to continue to exercise their votes after they had been removed from office, votes which they held ex officio by virtue only of the fact that they had been directors. Secondly, the governing board of the BCF was not elected according to its constitution; rather, an interim committee was established, which stands outside the BCF's constitution. Thirdly, there is currently no elected president or chairman of the BCF.

Those three matters put the current BCF outside its constitution. Clearly, that must throw considerable doubt on the authority of people who are now nominally in charge of the BCF to receive and spend public money. That matter must be addressed immediately, because the Sports Council is due to pay a further quarterly instalment of about £125,000 to the federation on 15 December. Lawyers share my doubts about the constitutional position of the BCF.

I have been reluctant to air many of these matters in public because of the danger of bringing a sport that I love, and in which I have participated for a long time, into further disrepute. I have felt it necessary to do so because those matters cannot be swept under the carpet any more. My confidence in the Sports Council as a giver of grants and a monitoring institution has been severely dented. Questions must now be asked about the accountability of the Sports Council to the public and Parliament, especially when its so-called annual report has not been published since 1993. It is a bizarre, almost Monty Pythonesque situation when an annual report does not appear yearly, notwithstanding the fact that the Sports Council is happy to spend £47.5 million of taxpayers' money every year. It does so without, apparently, giving an account of itself other than that provided in its published accounts every year.

I understand that a meeting will be held shortly between the Sports Council and the BCF. The Government, through the Minister responsible for sport, should intervene to ensure that the Sports Council secures the following objectives. First, the true, up-to-date financial position of the BCF should be established. Secondly, the BCF should be brought back into line with its constitution, which should also be updated so that the federation ceases to be an unincorporated association, which therefore has no legal existence. Thirdly, a professional chief executive with appropriate experience should be appointed to take on day-to-day management functions, to carry the sport forward. Finally, independent solicitors, approved by the Sports Council, should be brought in to make

21 Nov 1996 : Column 1168

recommendations on how to resolve the current long-standing damaging dispute, with the objective of minimising further legal costs.

I am particularly troubled because, if the Sports Council has been dilatory in its dealings on cycling, especially when it is spending £500,000 every year on the sport, I fear that there may be other areas in which that same dilatoriness is apparent. Given that the Sports Council has failed to produce its annual report for the past three years, it is time that the Minister responsible for sport agreed to the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) for a report of some kind, if not an annual report, to be published by the Sports Council forthwith. I seek a guarantee from the Minister that that report can be debated and questions asked so that the Sports Council is made answerable to the House.

I thank the House for the opportunity to raise these matters.


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