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European Standing Committee C Debates

Sport

European Standing Committee C

Wednesday 17 January 2001

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Sport

[Relevant documents: European Union Documents Nos. COM (99) 644, the Helsinki Report on Sport, and COM (99) 643, relating to doping in sport, and the Unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum dated 23rd November 2000, submitted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, relating to the Declaration on Sport.]

10.30 am

The Minister for Sport (Kate Hoey): I thank the European Scrutiny Committee for giving me the opportunity to debate all three documents this morning. I apologise for the delay in discussing, in particular, the Helsinki report and the Community support plan to combat doping. The position has been fluid, and it seemed sensible at the time—I appreciate that it might not seem as sensible now—to wait until firmer proposals were available. We asked for the debate to be put back until the autumn, with the expectation that the presidency would press for some form of Community instrument on sport. In the event, after lengthy deliberations, the presidency proposed the Nice declaration. It follows on from the Helsinki report, but in essence merely restates and reinforces the position of sport in the European Community.

The Government believe, and I personally feel strongly, that sport should not be subject to undue interference by the Commission or national Governments. Governments, at whatever level, do not and should not run sport, which is unique in its importance to people in all sectors of our society and in its wider social and health benefits. It has the ability to bring people together and to generate a sense of community.

Of course, sport is also an important business, or at least the professional leagues in some sports are. They are significant employers and generators of wealth, often engaged in an international market. It is inevitable that regulations that apply to commercial activity should apply in some instances to that sector of sport. However, even professional sport has a particular place in our national life and in local communities. It has special characteristics, and European rules and regulations must be applied in a way that is sensitive to the special needs of sport. There is a need to invest in young talent to ensure that the richer institutions and sports clubs support the smaller, less commercially successful ones. There is also a need to ensure that there is strong investment in grass-roots sport, which is the bedrock of all our sporting activity.

The Scrutiny Committee's comments on the Helsinki report ask for greater clarity on the Government's stance on sport in Europe. In particular, the Committee calls for clarity on how European treaty provisions should impact on sport. Our line on that is consistent and clear: there is no need for direct competence for sport under the European treaty. We worked hard to ensure that any form of words in the declaration on sport was consistent with our belief that there is no need for a specific legal base for community action on sport. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister backed that message.

We welcome the acknowledgement of the special nature of sport in the various declarations, but also feel that the independence of sporting associations should be respected. We accept, however, that commercial aspects of sport should be subject to Community law, applied in a way that recognises the special characteristics of the particular activity. It is not necessary or desirable to make a total exception for sport in all its commercial aspects.

The declaration on sport, which was agreed by Heads of Government at Nice just before Christmas, reflects the common feeling that the existing framework makes sufficient provision for the interests of sport to be protected. Of course, we will be certain of that only when we have more experience of the rules being applied. The present consideration of football transfer fees is an important test case whose progress we are monitoring closely.

The European Scrutiny Committee report on the Helsinki report pays particular attention to issues surrounding the Bosman case and freedom of movement following that ruling in 1995. The Commission's concerns about the effects of the present FIFA transfer system on competition in football are legitimate. The Commission is obliged to investigate complaints and is bound to consider whether the present transfer framework is in accordance with the EU treaty. That arose originally after a complaint was made to the Commission.

Although any revised transfer system is first and foremost a matter for football, the Government are supporting the United Kingdom football authorities as negotiations continue. We want an outcome that supports the smaller clubs, encourages youth development and affords stability to the sport. The inclusion in the Nice declaration, at UK insistence, of a paragraph specifically on transfers is further evidence of the importance that the Government attach to obtaining a universally satisfactory outcome on transfers.

The European Scrutiny Committee commented that it was awaiting the Select Committee's report on work permits. Last year the report of the Select Committee on Education and Employment on footballers' work permits called for quotas on footballers from the European economic area and non-EEA countries. As Department for Education and Employment Ministers noted in their reply, existing rules on the free movement of labour throughout the EEA must be respected. The DFEE's work permit criteria for football are based on international appearances and other factors designed to ensure that only top quality players may compete in domestic UK competitions. Other sports are affected by these rules, and the Committee may be interested to know that I have met with representatives of ice hockey and basketball to discuss that. They have agreed to work with DFEE Ministers on some of the issues that affect those sports.

Rules on the inclusion of non-EEA players are primarily a matter for sport, and colleagues in the DFEE have reported back to the Select Committee to that effect. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is kept informed of the progress of regular discussions between the DFEE and UK governing bodies, as well meeting with them ourselves.

I shall deal with the European Scrutiny Committee's comments on the community support plan to combat doping. My proposal at the Council of Europe Sports Ministers' meeting in May last year to appoint Suvi Linden, the Finnish Sports Minister, to the World Anti-Doping Agency board was agreed unanimously by all countries represented at the meeting. That helped the work on WADA to resume after some months of stagnation during discussions about membership of the board. We felt that it was important that the setting up of WADA should not be held up by infighting about who would be represented.

There are two members from the European Union to represent WADA and two members of the Council of Europe on the WADA board. I should reiterate that the EU has no direct competence in sport, and in the fight against doping in sport the EU should deal only with such issues in so far as they relate to areas of competence such as public health, research and education.

The United Kingdom has previously rejected the proposal that one of the EU seats on the WADA board be filled by the Commission on those grounds, and on the grounds that work on WADA had been carried out on an intergovernmental, rather than a Community, basis. However, after a great deal of discussion with other European members and in the interests of co-operation, it has now been agreed that the Commission should be on the WADA board, but only under certain safeguards. Again, we have worked with other member states to ensure that those were in place and that the role of the Commission was within the existing competency of European law.

The Commissioner will have a limited role on the WADA board on behalf of the EU. She will represent member states on issues where there is competence and will speak on other matters only if specifically mandated to do so by agreement between member states. A European liaison committee has been established to co-ordinate the views of member states and mandate any delegation. The declaration of sport and our involvement in discussions over EU representation on WADA is evidence of the UK working effectively with other member states to progress the issues outlined in the Helsinki report within the framework of the existing treaty. We will continue this work with a view to ensuring that the special place of sport in our lives continues to be recognised and that sport retains its integrity and autonomy.

The Chairman: We have until 11.30 for questions. I gently remind hon. Members that it is helpful if only one question is asked at a time. I am prepared to allow a little leeway to the Opposition Front Bench. I shall call members of the Committee first, and then non-members.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): I am grateful to you for your comments, Mr. Gale. I welcome the Minister's introductory statement, which we shall delve into in a little more detail during our short debate. We particularly welcome the Minister's confirmation that the EU and its institutions have no direct competence in sport and that the Government will resist any proposals to alter that arrangement. I agree that when other competences of the Community and its institutions impact on sport, that can lead to problems—as with football transfer fees.

I shall ask the Minister a couple of direct questions and expand on them later. Does she acknowledge that, prior to the Nice summit, briefings from Downing street suggested that the Prime Minister, Chancellor Schroder of Germany and other EU Heads of Government favoured a special derogation for sport with respect to EU employment and competition law, as a means of resolving the transfer fees dispute? Will she confirm that, although the reference to transfer fees in annexe 4 of the treaty document is welcome, it provides no specific derogation on transfer fees? It offers support through the continuation of dialogue and encouragement for the Community's institutions regarding the specific requirements of sport, but compliance with Community law remains an important principle to be observed in any agreed solution.

The current dispute has, sadly, embittered relations between UEFA and FIFA over the past 48 hours, and the Minister will share my anxiety about that. Does she accept that the Government have an important role to play and that political dialogue as well as dialogue between the governing bodies of sport and the Commission is necessary?

 
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