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Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): A wide range of debates takes place in the various forums in this place, but is always good to be able to debate sport. Just before Christmas, when I first got an inkling that we would have this debate, I began to wonder what on earth we would talk about. However, the timing has in fact proved extremely helpful, because it enables us to exchange views on the vexed matter of football transfer fees.

There is no doubt that the situation in respect of transfer fees is extremely serious. I have to make the political point that, rightly or wrongly, many people in football were led to understand that something had been done about the matter at the Nice summit, and that all would be well in the long run. Had the agreement been concluded between FIFA, UEFA and the European Commission—at that juncture, it appeared to be within reach—the question of whether the footballing world had misunderstood, or been misled about, events at Nice would have been academic. However, that question is not academic now.

The scale of concern about this matter was exemplified by an interview on Radio 5 Live on Monday evening with the Leeds United chairman, Peter Ridsdale. If the Minister did not hear it, I am sure that she can obtain a transcript. He said that, although it was his understanding that the Prime Minister and Chancellor Schroder had sorted out the matter at Nice, it was now clear that that was not the case. That is relevant to this debate, as I pointed out in my first question. Although we welcome an annexe to the Nice treaty relating specifically to sport, and although we particularly welcome the Minister's reassurance that the Government and the official Opposition remain as one in resisting any attempt by Community institutions to obtain any competence in sport, the fact remains that the Commission's view of the impact of European economic and employment law on our football transfer fee system is likely, if not resolved to the satisfaction of everyone in football, to cause devastation to professional football in this country.

I know that the Minister shares entirely our concern about this matter. During the latest behind-the-scenes manoeuvring at the Commission, Commissioner Monti, who will take the final decision in this matter, proposed not even to discuss that decision with the full Commission prior to its adoption. That worries me. If the whole Commission were to discuss it, our own two Commissioners would be able to have an input, at least, into the final outcome. Moreover, sell-on clauses to reward training clubs, which were in the original document, now appear to be lost. I cannot produce any written evidence of that, but that is the advice that Members of the European Parliament have given me.

Equally, there is alarm at Commissioner Reding's recent comments about treating the functioning of the existing domestic system in parallel with international arrangements. That is important, because I understand that one of the fail-safes propagated by the Commission is concerned only with international transfers and not with domestic ones. The Minister would be the first to accept that the knock-on effect on domestic transfers would be very real, as we have seen from the outcome of the Bosman case. I do not want to create a rift between us on the matter, because it is abundantly clear that we agree on the need to support the football authorities in this country. She is right to say that the Premier League, the Football League and the FA speak as one. I also agree that we need to bring FIFA on side, and that it is vital to protect the interests of smaller clubs.

Incidentally, a clear conflict of aspiration has been revealed in the Commission. The Minister's entire speech was about the Commission's concern for and interest in the grass roots and the need to ensure that they receive investment. However, if the Commission has its way on football transfers, it will achieve the opposite; the grass-roots clubs will be devastated. That encourages me to believe that, in the end, common sense will prevail. I emphasise, however, that the matter will not be resolved without further political input. I think that the FA agrees with me, and I am sure that the Minister is in contact with it. I appeal to the Minister to encourage the Prime Minister to turn his mind to the matter once again.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Does it concern the hon. Gentleman as much as it concerns me that the final decision on the matter will be taken by Commissioner Monti? He is an academic and tends to take purist decisions, based on academic principles. His record shows that he does not bend too much towards common sense.

Mr. Greenway: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I take as read everything that he said about Commissioner Monti, but it is useful to have that contribution on the record. I drew attention to the suggestion that Commissioner Monti alone would take the final decision, which is one reason why I strongly believe that further political involvement is needed.

Kate Hoey: The Prime Minister and Chancellor Schroder could not sort out the matter at Nice because there was an formal process in the Commission that none of the member states could stop. However, everyone made it clear at that meeting, and at many meetings behind the scenes, that the issue was important and that the solution had to protect the interests of football as a whole.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a treaty change. Even if a change had gone through, it would not have come into effect for two years and would not have stopped the Commission continuing with its proposal. I agree with the hon. Gentleman; common sense will prevail, but more political input may be needed. We are prepared to take that risk if necessary.

Mr. Greenway: I am grateful to the Minister for that confirmation. Following my visit to the Commission in late October, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made it clear that we would support a derogation, but I acknowledge the difficulties—particularly the problem of whether derogation would infringe employment law within member states. Germany, for example, has experienced some difficulties in that regard.

Today's debate is opportune. Any notion that the Nice summit would help to resolve the matter has been shot to pieces by what has happened in the past 48 hours. The clear rift between FIFA and UEFA has revealed sharp differences of approach to the problem. It is no secret that other member countries of FIFA—in south America, the far east and Africa—view the opportunity for their people to play in European leagues as valuable because it can enhance the quality and reputation of their national teams. If a player such as Kanu, who plays for the club supported by the Minister and me, leaves Arsenal on three months' notice, he is likely to move on to play for Real Madrid, Manchester United or another top club, so he will continue to take part in European competitions. FIFA members can have different attitudes and approaches from UEFA members—hence the split.

I am grateful to the Minister for acknowledging the need for political input. Clubs at the lower end must not suffer from a lack of proper resources, which is damaging for the training and encouragement of young players. Players must not be allowed to walk out, willy-nilly, after just one year, as proposed by FIFA. The Minister knows that UEFA prefers three years. The one-year option would be a disaster for association football in this country. The Commission's objectives could be completely undermined and we could end up with precisely the reverse of what is required. Smaller communities and clubs such as Halifax, Carlisle United—

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): York City?

Mr. Greenway: Even York City—let us make no bones about it. Clubs at the bottom end, and the communities that support them, will be the losers if the problems are not resolved to everyone's satisfaction. We should continue to work together and avoid making it a partisan matter, although it is essential to press the Prime Minister to do whatever he can to help.

I shall amplify some of the issues that were raised earlier. On work permits for overseas players, I welcome the Minister's reply and her acknowledgement that there is a problem. She announced a review of work permits in respect of ice hockey, but should not the DFEE review the work permit system across a whole range of sports? The hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) succinctly explained that the present system is not working. We agree, and it is particularly injurious for the future of young players—of rugby and basketball, as well as football. It is difficult to create the best league in the world without the talent. It is a vicious circle. Unless our younger players are given opportunities, we will always have to import talent from overseas.

I have nothing against overseas players coming here. On the contrary, I have on many occasions defended their involvement, particularly in the Premier league. They have enriched our league so that it can now stand shoulder to shoulder with the Bundesliga, Serie A in Italy and the Spanish league. Three English teams are in the second phase of the European Champions league, which would not have been likely five years ago. There are some benefits, but equally there are disadvantages. I encourage the Minister to continue to take a healthy interest in this matter so that we can have a clear and transparent system of work permits that is open to challenge by professional sporting bodies if they believe that a wrong decision has been taken. They do not feel that they can do that at present.

I welcome the Minister's comments about the work of WADA. I have one question. About this time last year, she issued a press release welcoming a UK Sport report in nandrolone and commented that Professor James had produced a valuable report. However, she added that there would be a further Government report in due course. When is that likely to be published and do the Government intend to publish any more information on this matter?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) asked about economic support for sport, particularly sponsorship. The Minister will be aware that the Bill to ban tobacco advertising, which is to receive its Second Reading next Tuesday, has an impact on the sponsorship of sport by tobacco companies. We all watched the Embassy darts championships at the weekend. I am not clear who will sponsor those championships in years to come and neither are the darts authorities. We generally accept that the ban is now a fait accompli. The Government have decided to take this action and I simply encourage the Minister to continue to help the sports that are affected to find alternative sponsors.

There is growing anxiety that the next target for an advertising ban will be alcohol. A similar ban on the sponsorship of sporting events by the drinks industry would be an absolute disaster for many sports in this country.

 
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