Sport

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Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman should talk to the Minister. She was at the darts final at the weekend—so she, as Sports Minister, recognises it as a sport.

Mr. Russell: I have no problems with the Minister. Without wishing to betray any secrets, she and I are involved in discussions on the subject. Nevertheless, I wanted to take this opportunity to put my views on the record.

Incidentally, until now I had assumed that the European Group on Ethics was an organisation formed by someone with a lisp to promote my county.

My final point concerns school sports and education. The Minister will be aware that, at best only 25 per cent. of young people at school participate in physical education within school curriculum time. It is an area in which the Government are failing, as successive Governments have failed. We must all take some responsibility for that, my party included.

I am talking about not only the recognised sports that we want to encourage, but fitness and well-being. The situation cannot be left as it is. A consequence of our unhealthy nation is that young people are less fit than our generation. The first thing that the Army does when it recruits a young man or woman is to check whether they are fit enough to undertake the training. It is at school, within the curriculum, that the whole ethos of physical education is nurtured and encouraged.

I urge the Minister to find out—through European directives or discussions that she has outside the UK—why other countries do better than us in terms of physical education at school. As a start, let us establish a target of ensuring that every young child participates in physical education for a minimum of two hours a week.

11.48 am

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): I support the motion and welcome the debate, although I found all the pages difficult to marshal. A few pages seemed to be missing, but, having read through them, I found that they were all there. Overall, the process took longer than it would have done had the material been better organised.

I broadly congratulate the Government on their approach, which strikes the right balance at both EU and UK level. I especially welcome the announcements over the past year regarding sports co-ordinators, who will play a positive role in local communities. That goes some way towards addressing the worries expressed by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell).

I should like to take up the point made by the hon. Member for Colchester about the wider EU issue of subsidiarity. In many ways, the nature and structure of sport is a good example of the way in which the concept of subsidiarity should be treated. The European organisations have grown over many years and are tailored to specific sports, some of which are more important in some countries than others, and reflect the nature of sport in specific regions of those countries. Such voluntary organisations are largely democratic and play an important role in those communities. If we interfere with them at international or EU level, we do so at our peril. Co-operation at international and EU level might benefit sports, but we must be careful when we move down that path. The Government were right to rein back the initial proposals in the documents and have achieved a balance that is probably beneficial.

The papers demonstrate the importance of sports and the striking statistic is that there are more than 700,000 sports clubs in the EU with 2 million teachers, coaches and volunteers involved daily. European-wide regulations would have to be carefully drafted because they could cause many difficulties, so I welcome the Government's approach.

On football transfers, it has been clearly demonstrated that special consideration is necessary and I urge the Government to do whatever they can to provide that. If football transfers were subject to ordinary competition or employment law, it could upset the whole structure of the sport. More money is coming into sports generally and the transfer system is one way of encouraging that.

I used to play a lot of football but now play more tennis and, through the Lawn Tennis Association, funding is coming down to the grass roots for the extension of facilities. That enables local communities to extend facilities to more people and I am sure that such an approach in as many sports as possible would be beneficial. It would certainly have a beneficial economic effect for business and local traders who sell sports goods and we would all benefit from the development of voluntary activities, clubs and social life. It is an important aspect of life and I support the Government's approach and the motion.

11.53 am

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I should like to begin with an observation on the documents before the Committee. The documentation from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is covered by a letter dated 10 January. It was known before Christmas that this debate would take place and I received a letter dated 13 December from the Chief Whip's Office advising that some documents were already available from the Vote Office for hon. Members to study. However, we had to wait until after 10 January to see the full range of papers. This is not the first time that the Committee has had very little opportunity after receiving papers to probe the matters in them. I make a plea through you, Mr. Gale, that Departments make more timely provision of such documents.

The second matter to which the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) referred was the difficulty of seeing through the documents. Our debate would have been better if we could have received with the documents the sort of steering brief that is available to Ministers and which gives a general overview. What we have here are bits and pieces from the Select Committee on European Scrutiny and various European Union documents. We do not know, for example, how many times the various European committees have sat, what they considered and, more importantly in the context of the motion before the Committee, we do not have a clear idea of their future work programme.

This Standing Committee is part of the Community's parliamentary scrutiny process. The motion asks us to ``take note'' of a series of documents. It states the importance and special nature of sport and refers to the Government's view on doping. Those are not especially controversial comments, but the debate opens a window on the need to improve the way that we scrutinise not only this issue, but other European matters.

In presenting the views of Parliament and our constituents to the Minister before she has further discussions, this Committee acts as a longstop. I would have welcomed the opportunity to examine the forthcoming attractions column, just as I would have liked an overview and resume of what has happened, because it would have put the debate in context. Hon. Members have spoken with considerable authority, and useful cameo contributions to the big picture were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale on football and Opposition Members on television. However, the debate lacks an overview to enable us to improve our scrutiny and to guide Ministers.

As you will have gathered, Mr. Gale, I have a special interest in formula one motor racing, which is the pinnacle of motor sport. It is highly competitive, and sits on top of an enormous amount of activity that percolates down to the humblest man or woman—we must not forget that there are some good lady drivers. I was interested in the commentary on the trickle-down effect of financing to help young people enter what is a highly commercialised and expensive sport. Notwithstanding the Minister's important observations about competition in formula one, which is being investigated, I would have welcomed a commitment from Ministers in the papers to open up to greater transparency who controls motor sport in Europe.

On a number of occasions, I have picked up the Financial Times to find that Mr. Ecclestone, who has plenty of money to be a political benefactor when it suits him, has bought and sold rights willy-nilly in connection with formula one. I do not know who owns or runs formula one. Ministers meeting on a co-operative basis could do sports fans, in this area at least, a great service by shedding some light on that. I say that because an important theme apparent in contributions to the debate and in the papers is the importance to Europeans of the various sports in which they are interested.

In our own way, we all support something. Sport generates enormous passion, huge interest and big business. It is important from the individual level to that of commerce and the state. It is too important to fall in the hands of a limited number of people, who for obvious financial reasons take a closed and total grip. As in the case of formula one, where there have been suggestions that its availability to view will be restricted to a closed shop, digital television system owned solely by that sport, there is a risk of denying the people of Europe the enjoyment of something that they are currently able to access at a reasonable cost. I understand that in certain cases people must pay to watch sport, but I am glad that there are still some opportunities to view on terrestrial television, which is as it should be because there should be a proper balance. I shall not trespass further into formula one, but there is a case for greater scrutiny.

I am glad that the documents demonstrate an element of co-operation on the problem of doping. If I had one wish on that matter, it would be that Europe should encourage greater consistency in world discussions on dope testing. We have seen British athletes protesting their innocence and their national sporting body declaring them innocent, but it is a matter for concern if some international body then disagrees with what should be a scientific decision. Some of those excellent people devote their lives to sporting activities and inconsistency in dope testing may deprive such talented people of their livelihood. By all means, come down hard on those who cheat, because that is wrong and there is no disagreement about it, but consistency is important.

The Minister referred to competency, and I am glad that both Front Benches agree that there are concerns about the Commission's competency in this area. The Commission is a centralising organisation and exists by attracting things unto it to control, almost like a black hole. It is unable to stop doing that, so subsidiarity cannot flourish. The documents reveal attempts by the Commission to justify various activities in the context of health by choosing what it deems to be an appropriate treaty base. This is one area in which there should be co-operation with use of the Council structure, if necessary, but there is no need to extend the Commission's competency to areas other than those such as competition, which is a proper and legitimate area for examination. The same applies to employment, as the discussion on Bosman illustrated, and we must guard against creeping competency by the Commission in what should be matters of democracy.

Access to sport should be available to everyone in the land. Anything we can do to open it up and make it available to everyone is to be applauded. If the co-operative measures in the papers would contribute to that, they would have my support.

12.3 pm

 
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Prepared 17 January 2001