Skip to main content


Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Mr. Kemp.]

9.30 am

A 9.30 am kick-off is a pleasant way to start a Tuesday morning. Even the best Sky schedulers could not have arranged such an early start.

I start by declaring an interest in Northampton Town football club. I realise that it is unusual to include Northampton Town football and interest in the same sentence but, on this occasion it is best that I do so. We are in the Chamber to talk about the financing of football. It is widely accepted and appreciated that there is a crisis in the game today, the extent of which has been widely discussed in the football family, the national press and the business world. It has even been suggested that we could lose up to half the league clubs that participate in leagues in the United Kingdom.

I hope that today's debate will focus on some of the problems faced by football clubs, especially in the Nationwide league, but I also want to spend much of the time available to us examining the negotiations on, and the debate surrounding, the sale of the television rights to the UK premiership, and the European Commission's insistence that the deal is anti-competitive.

I address the Chamber today as an elected director of the Northampton Town supporters trust. Northampton Town was the first football club to create a trust some 11 years ago. The trust movement has, more than anything else, acted as a bond, bringing football supporters together as a common football family. When we, as hon. Members, contribute to the debate, we speak not from the point of view of one football club—our own—but for the many. We accept that an injury to one football club is an injury to all, and that football clubs could go out of business and communities lose their access to them. None of us wants that to happen, but it might unless a concerted effort is made that includes intervention by the UK Government.

In 1992, the face of British football changed for ever. The premier league was born, and it has been an incredible boost to those clubs that have been sufficiently fortunate, good and skilful to be in it. However, the rest of the football league has experienced difficulties. Television rights are probably the most significant factor in explaining the impact on football and the reason why there is such a gap between the richest and the poorest in football in this country.

It is estimated that 20 clubs are in danger of going out of business. Every day, more clubs go into administration, and it becomes more and more difficult for them to see a way out because of spiralling debts. The position is so serious that, in a recent report, the accounting firm, Grant Thornton, stated:
"Based on the current scenario what we are likely at best to witness, is even more players being placed on the transfer market with many not being offered renewed terms … a major restructuring of the Football League with many clubs having to act radically in the short term … having to consider merging with a local rival, relocation, and … possible extinction".
Many people share that view, because everything that could be done to save clubs has already been done. Clubs have sold their grounds to property developers to ensure that they can repay accumulative debt. Clubs have long since dreamed of entering the transfer market, but they have had to try to get teams together on the basis of free transfers made in the close season.

I repeat that I am not here to plead poverty on behalf of Northampton Town. We are in an interesting position and one that we have not been in for many years. We are reasonably financially healthy. Credit for that must go to our new chairman, David Cardoso. He is a rare beast in football: a liked, respected and much loved chairman. He is popular with supporters of Northampton Town, and I have no problem in saying that he has the best interests of the game at heart. We are fortunate, because we are in a position of relative strength compared with the teams that we play against week in, week out.

I am a director and have visited grounds in the second and now the third division, so I get to talk to fellow directors about the state of the game. What strikes me is that many clubs exist week to week, deciding which cheque to send to which creditor and wondering whether they can pay the wages this week. That can result in a crazy scenario. Last year, Huddersfield went into administration at the request of its players, because they were not being paid. Wages are a huge issue. The spiralling cost of wages is a factor that needs to be taken into account when we consider how football has got itself into the state that it is in today.

An example of the wages problem is that even a second division club in the Nationwide league will have a wages bill of between £1.5 million and £2 million, yet those clubs play, in some instances, to gates as low as 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000. The turnover of those clubs floats around the figure of £2 million, but the players' wages swallow up an ever-increasing proportion of that turnover. If we take into account the other costs associated with running football, which include policing, stewarding, ground and pitch maintenance and the need for ever more complicated safety regulations for stadiums, we find that most clubs are in deficit and are continuing to lose money.

We see that problem even at the top end of the game. John Hartson was recently sold from Coventry to Celtic for £6.5 million, but that deal involved an additional £3 million in wages, which equated to about £30,000 a week. The total cost to Celtic should have been £9.5 million, but in fact it was £15 million, because Hartson's arrival broke the embargo in respect of players' contracts. In other words, as soon as he arrived, he broke Celtic's wage structure, leading to other players' agents making demands on behalf of their clients. That led to increases of £500 or £1,000 a week just to keep other players happy. That £6.5 million transfer ended up costing Celtic £15 million. Those are incredible figures that result from the salary of one player. It would be wrong of me to mention individual players at Northampton Town, but last year certain players earned more than £2,000 a week. A Member of Parliament's salary looks rather small in comparison.

I have explained the problem with wages, but I shall concentrate on the problem with the negotiations between the European Commission and the premier league. Let me give a few figures to set the scene. The value of television rights for the premiership has increased since 1992 from around £280 million for a five-year deal to £1.1 billion for 2001–04. That is a huge inflationary increase. Mario Monti of the European Commission has called the collective selling of TV rights
"illegal, anti-competitive, consumer-unfriendly and tantamount to price fixing".
I do not agree. I referred to the football family and if there were ever a need for collectivism, it is in the selling of TV rights. If we simply allow clubs to sell rights individually, we know what the results will be. Those at the top of the game will have no problem selling their TV rights, but others will have no chance of agreeing a deal. Only through the collective selling of rights will benefits be fed further down the chain and distributed more widely.

Let us examine in more detail the problem with the European Commission. I hope that, in this debate, we shall consider the consequences of its ruling and ask for Government support and intervention to ensure that the Commission understands the Government's view of the impact of its decision on the game and communities throughout our country. That is best summed up with a quote from Jonathan Michie of Birkbeck college who said:
"The commission doesn't like the fact that the Premier League clubs band together to sell the TV rights to Premiership games. It smacks of the collusion that Adam Smith warned was always close behind any meeting of business people."
The Commission does not
"like the collectivity, or exclusivity—with rights going to a single broadcaster. But we've been here before. In the illustrious history of the office of fair trading, the OFT has only once suffered defeat in the restrictive practices court. That was when it took on the Premier League. Witness after witness testified that the OFT simply did not understand football. You can't organise a successful league without colluding. But the Premiership's victory was bought at a price. It agreed that 5 per cent. of the TV money would go to support non-league football—the 'grassroots' of the game. Could a similar deal be struck with the European Commission?"
Two points from Jonathan's Michie's comments are vital to this debate. First, he said that
"the OFT simply did not understand football."
I maintain that the European Commission simply does not understand football. Secondly, the victory was bought on the basis that 5 per cent. of the TV money would be distributed to grassroots football and £20 million went to the Football Foundation, which is spending the money on improving stadiums and providing community support and facilities for clubs throughout the land. I am extraordinarily grateful, as I am sure are all hon. Members, for the contribution made by the Football Foundation to junior and smaller clubs. It is of huge benefit to the game. That 5 per cent. was won as part of the OFT ruling. At the moment, the European Commission and the premier league are locked in discussions and trying to reach a decision that will not, unless there is a strong voice from fans and the Government, best serve the football family and allow for wider redistribution.

Torben Toft, the Commission's principal administrator, explained its position and set out a number of characteristics. He said that everybody would agree that sport forms an important social function. He added:
"The Commission therefore fully subscribes to the Declaration on the specific characteristic of sport adopted by the European Council in Nice in 2000."
So, the principal administrative executive who is responsible for the whole debate admits that sport's special place means that there is an opt-out clause in relation to the Nice treaty of 2000. As the collective selling of TV rights takes place in a sporting context, it is not illegal because there is an opt-out in respect of the Nice treaty. Torben Toft also recognises that sport is big business. That part of his argument leads him to conclude that the Commission has the right, on an individual case basis, to question whether anti-competitive practice is taking place.

In the paper, Torben Toft also agrees that there is such a thing as solidarity. He states:
"This interdependence may require certain solidarity measures to be applied among the participants in a sport, including financial solidarity measures. The Commission accepts such solidarity measures as part of the special character of sport. The Commission would not as such interfere with the manner in which solidarity measures are financed."
So, the person responsible for the Commission's inquiry accepts that sport is a special case because of the Nice treaty and accepts the principle of solidarity. However, there is still the farce of continued argument, debate and prevarication by the Commission.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interesting analysis. Given the similarities in relation to the Spanish and Italian leagues, which are the only two comparable European leagues, will he tell us whether there are collective or exclusive TV selling rights in those countries and how the European Commission has analysed them?

I shall certainly try to help as best I can. There is a difference of opinion between different nation states. Some have decided that collective selling is anti-competitive and have forced leagues across Europe to enter into single-club agreements. The best way in which I can describe the success of that is to say that there have not been any. In fact, there has been absolute chaos. Leagues have not been able to start on time because clubs have not been able to complete matters in relation to their TV selling rights.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is partly as a result of that situation that the state of football in the lower leagues in European countries is considerably inferior to the thriving competition in this country?

That is an important point. Forgive me if I go off at a little bit of a tangent, but, coming from Northampton, I am quite up on the problems that our shoe manufacturing industry faced in the early 1960s when it could not compete with mass production. The Northampton shoe industry survived, and many hon. Members favour shoes made in Northampton, as opposed to anywhere else, because of their quality.

Across Europe, TV companies have concentrated on what they call quality and there has been a fallout lower down the leagues. No other European country supports 92 league clubs in the way that we do.

We have to make a decision and I hope that we make the right one. We either protect clubs in communities and allow Britain's football stock to continue to provide entertainment throughout the country in most major towns and cities, or we let it go to the market in such a way that our leagues will become similar to those in Europe, where there is a top-heavy elite structure with nothing underneath, and clubs fold.

We have to ask whether there is a special case for sport, or for football. Should we leave it to the market and allow clubs to close, or do we have a responsibility to protect those clubs as community assets? After all, they provide a tremendous quality and quantity of entertainment to people in those towns and cities.

The local council in my constituency, Northampton borough council, was responsible for the construction of Sixfields community stadium, which is the home of our local football club. It is the most visited of the leisure centres in the area. I use the words leisure centre on purpose, because every year thousands of people attend Sixfields community stadium for their entertainment, in the same way as people would go the theatre, but in greater numbers. We accept the need to protect theatre culture and places of entertainment within towns and cities.

Does my hon. Friend agree that increasingly football clubs play a major role in their local communities in providing support and activities that divert young people from potentially antisocial behaviour? They work with local authorities and other bodies in helping to improve educational standards and provide previously disaffected and marginalised young people with a sense of purpose that previously did not exist. The loss of such clubs would be very damaging in relation to the broader agenda for community cohesion.

Yes, I accept my hon. Friend's point. In fact, I would go further. I praise the Football Foundation and the premier league for ensuring that such projects are continuously funded.

One of my favourites schemes was called scribbling and dribbling—I will not embarrass the club that ran it. The scheme involved disaffected youngsters with poor attendance at school. The local football club allowed them to come in in the morning to ensure that they did their scribbling, which was English and mathematics based around football. The mathematics work was based around problems such as, "Club A wins this game, club B wins another game. Who is top of the league at the end of the week?" Their English work was based on match reports and writing articles for programmes that were actually published. As a reward for their hard work, the afternoon was spent dribbling; there was organised football training for both genders, so that they could see the benefits of their hard work.

That scheme, like the playing for success scheme, is the sort of thing that football clubs can provide for communities, but they can do so only if they have support in the wider game, and if the money is coming in. If clubs find that their turnover is low, their gates are low, their wage bills are high and they are losing money week on week, the first things that will go are the community aspects of their work. That would be a great shame. Although I applaud the premier league for its redistribution of the 5 per cent. figure, I hope that the settlement with the European Commission is not based entirely on the assumption that everything will be okay if more games are shown on television. That is the real danger.

Last Thursday the premier league issued its tenders for the new television rights package post-2004. That was based on gold, silver and bronze packages, and the concept of breaking up the television rights deal so that more companies could apply and there would be more football on television. Both the premier league and the European Commission have fallen into the trap of believing that the football supporter simply wants more football on television. That is not the case.

Torben Toft of the European Commission, who is responsible for the inquiry, said:
"Let me illustrate with an example from England. Nearly 400 games are played each season in the English Premier League. Only … 100 games are broadcast live. The remaining games are only shown as highlights—if at all. The example clearly shows that a restriction of output limits the consumer's choice".
The football season is only 30 weeks of the year. A hundred games over 30 weeks is three live games a week, and that is without games in the Champions league or highlights from the Nationwide league. I believe that football supporters have reached their limit in respect of the amount of football that they can watch on television and that some of the broadcasting scheduling difficulties have caused huge problems for English football fans.

We talk about games being scheduled at 6.30 on a Sunday.

I have the Torben Toft paper in front of me. One of the points that he makes is that he and the Commission have no objection to collective selling, but they object to one media company, Sky television, having exclusive access. That is the issue; it is not the principle of collective selling.

I accept that to a degree, but the premier league will tender its product and at present Sky has dominance in the market. I believe that the premier league is doing its best to break up the package to encourage bids from other TV companies. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is an inherent danger of there being one lead bidder, but we cannot blame football or the premier league for that. However, football will suffer unless we get the right deal for football clubs.

The all-party parliamentary football group has spoken to fans individually and collectively. They say that they do not want more games on TV and support the collective selling of TV rights as a league product. That is the phrase that I want hon. Members to focus on a league product. When people watch the premier league, they do not watch just one club. Their excitement and enjoyment are based on all the issues—who will win the league, who will be relegated, what impact a certain game will have on the league table and the decision. Therefore, they are watching a league product. I believe that the premier league and the European Commission are wrong to accept collective selling if there is consumer benefit, because consumer benefit does not necessarily mean more scheduled games on TV. Another way is to ensure that more money is redistributed from the TV rights deals to the game in general.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is that the Commission's analysis limits the definition of consumer benefit to television viewers and does not consider those who consume football in all its forms, particularly those who pay to go to matches? Would it not help the debate if the Commission were to look more generally at those who pay to watch football?

I said earlier that I had the feeling that the European Commission did not understand football. Its abject failure so far to understand the needs of football supporters leads me to agree with my hon. Friend that it has not broadened the concept and benefits of consumer choice to the wider fan base.

The Commission accepts an exemption. Again in the report Torben Toft says:

"The Commission considers that an exemption pursuant to Article 81(3) would be possible where there is a proportionate balance between the restrictions created by the joint selling arrangement and its consumer benefits.
A joint selling arrangement has the potential of improving production and distribution to the advantage for football clubs, broadcasters and viewers, since it leads to the creation of a single point of sale for the acquisition of a packaged league media product. A league product is a product, which is focused on the competition as a whole, and not on individual football clubs participating in the competition. Many viewers wish to have the opportunity to follow the development of the competition as such and enabling the creation of a league media products seems to be the best way of achieving this."
In focusing on more games on television, the European Commission is creating ever-increasing difficulties for football fans following their clubs around the country. There are examples of fans having to travel the length and breadth of the country at 6.30 on a Sunday evening, when public transport is very poor and when they have to work the next morning. They must travel because of television scheduling. In the discussions, I hope that the European Commission and the premier league try to focus on the other consumer benefits that could be afforded to Britain's football fans.

There is a danger of talking percentages. Even the Football Foundation realises that the 5 per cent. deal that it secured as part of the OFT ruling means little if the TV rights money decreases to such a low level that 5 per cent. does not give it sufficient cash to support its current projects—it rightly wants £20 million. The premier league has a responsibility to the rest of the football structure. The Nationwide league is a feeder league, which enhances and improves the quality of football in the premier league by bringing on young players and allowing premier league clubs to loan young players to clubs in the Nationwide league to learn their trade. It is time that the Nationwide league was rewarded for that continued work.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. There is a potential double whammy. If a lower bid from the successful TV company or companies arises from these negotiations and if an increased number of matches, particularly evening matches, are televised live, there will be less money for redistribution to the lower leagues. There will also be more live matches impacting on the attendances of lower league sides and, in particular, non-league sides, which means that there will be a further diminution of revenue to those clubs. It is essential that the amount of money obtained by the deal is maintained and that it is redistributed.

My hon. Friend is correct in saying that we must examine the broader picture and how the deal can benefit clubs in the lower leagues. Because of the time—I am sure that other hon. Members want to speak—I shall curtail my remarks.

As football supporters, we have an opportunity to impact on the debate. I say to the European Commission and—I support the premier league's case that the European Commission is wrong to challenge the collective selling arrangements—to a lesser degree the Premier league that here is an opportunity to widen the consumer benefit to ensure that the redistribution of TV money goes far further and to protect the game at all levels across every town and city within the UK. Clubs will fold if they do not do so. I hope that the Government agree to intervene and that they will comment to the Commission. I also hope that they will examine the impact of their actions on some clubs.

My last point concerns the Inland Revenue. It is time for an inquiry into the differential treatment of football clubs by the Inland Revenue. When Northampton Town looked for a way out of its financial difficulties, the Inland Revenue said, "No, 100p in the pound. We want 100 per cent. of the money that you owe us." It has the right to do that, but it said to Leicester City, "We will accept 10p in the pound." It has not got the right to do that when it said to Swindon Town, "We will give you a payment holiday." That holiday will probably conclude when the Exchequer loses its preferential creditor status. It is not right that York City, which was close to going out of business, should be told that it can settle at 64p in the pound, while the ruling for Leicester is 10p. There is an imbalance in the way that the Inland Revenue treats football clubs and I hope that the Government will intervene to ensure that football clubs are treated with more equity and that the Revenue's inflexibility does not drive them out of business.

The debate has highlighted some of the problems that football faces. I do not underestimate the severity of the problem; long-established and well-loved league clubs could go out of business, but we can prevent that if the Government intervene in the way that we, as supporters, demand.

Order. I remind hon. Members that it is the convention in these 90-minute Adjournment debates to commence the first of the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the conclusion, which leaves us 25 minutes for debate. I ask the four hon. Members who wish to catch my eye to take that into account, although I appreciate that the topic is best served by discussion rather than formal debate. I also ask hon. Members to bear in mind that comments must be brief and pertinent when they intervene or respond to the inevitable interventions.

10.6 am

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be brief and do my best not to ask for extra time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) on securing the debate and covering the issue relating to the European Commission so well that I need not cover the ground again. He outlined a crisis in football and put his finger on one of the problems relating to the role of European Competition Commissioner Monti, whose investigation could have a long-term destabilising effect on football in this country if action is not taken.

This is my first opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) to her new post as Minister for Industry and the Regions and Deputy Minister for Women and Equality. In a previous incarnation, she visited Port Vale football club in my constituency and opened a facility under the scribbling and dribbling football scheme. Computers were set up by the Department for Education and Skills and my hon. Friend was photographed kicking a football. She is aware of the seriousness, scope and breadth of the debate.

Many members of the all-party group on football feel very frustrated about the difficulties in getting a cross-cutting debate on football on the agenda of Government and Parliament. The last time we debated the subject it was on the topic of listed rights, which was only a pretext for the cross-cutting debate, taking into account competition and sports policy, that we really wanted. I am pleased that the Minister, who I think still has responsibility for sport, is present.

There are Inland Revenue issues to be taken into consideration. Those clubs that are subject to administration, or on the brink of it, would face further problems if they also suffered the difficulties of social exclusion that would result from clubs being put into administration and forced out of the Football league. The role of sport and exercise in our national life and the way in which we deal with the problem of obesity are part of the same debate.

Will the Minister tell us in her response whether convincing action can be taken to take forward the Nice declaration, and to resolve some of the issues that were not properly dealt with when the European Scrutiny Committee debated them? On the basis of what has been negotiated in Europe, does the Minister have the power and the remit to go back to Commissioner Monti and the part of the European Commission that deals with competition and re-argue the case that we cannot let competition policy set by the European Union undermine and destabilise football in the United Kingdom? Can the Minister also tell us what scope there is for the European Parliament to listen to the UK Government?

I welcome the fact that the Government have set up the independent Football Commission. However, there is a danger with respect to the remit and responsibilities of that commission. Unless it works closely with the Government and unless the Government and Parliament can influence the football agenda, there will be concerns about the effect of that policy. If the money no longer goes into the premiership, that will have an effect not only on the premiership clubs and their ability to compete but on the remainder of the clubs in the Football league and in grass-roots football.

The 5 per cent. extra income that was negotiated after the Office of Fair Trading inquiry was a life saver for much of grass-roots football, which also depends on the Prince's Trust football initiative and on various grants given by the Football Foundation. There are also campaigns such as "Let's Kick Racism Out Of Football". We must ensure that all those initiatives are properly funded. We must ensure that we do not consider such matters exclusively, but that we take account of the solidarity of football.

In conclusion, in the spirit of the debate, I want the Minister to tell us what the Government can do. I want to ensure that when issues are debated in this forum we give an imperative to the Government to take the necessary action. If the issues under discussion are not resolved, many more clubs will find themselves in serious trouble, and many of the Government's social exclusion policies will be undermined.

10.13 am

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) on securing the debate and on speaking with such passion and depth of knowledge. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her new appointment. We were contemporaries at university. Her political skills were very evident in those days. Her football dribbling skills were less evident then, but have obviously developed with maturity.

I am delighted to make a brief intervention in the debate, not least because at present I can only speak about football; I can no longer play it. Last week, playing as a five-a-side goalie, I dislocated my little finger, and had to retire hurt after three minutes. The House will, however, be glad to know that I made a save.

I take a slightly contrary view on the issue of EU competition policy and competition policy in general. I believe that its influence on football has been generally benign. In the early days of this Government, some in the all-party football group wanted a regulator for football. I believe that in the absence of such a regulator, competition policy has had some beneficial effects; not least the 5 per cent. settlement for grass-roots football that resulted from the OFT investigation. Football was way behind some of the more progressive sports in instituting such schemes; cricket did so much earlier.

We must bear in mind that if we want action rather than just talk—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) said—more pressure must be put on the football authorities. The only reason why we are discussing the issues today and why the premier league sends us briefings is that it feels under pressure. If we are honest, we must acknowledge that there is as much chance of the European Union insisting that every premier league football club sells its own television rights as there is of it insisting that all bananas be straight. That has not been an issue for at least some months. What has been an issue is changing the selling of the television rights; unbundling them. In the words of the Commission's press release on 20 December 2002, which draws attention to the proposition:

"One effect of joint selling, especially when coupled with exclusivity, is that only big media groups can afford the acquisition and exploitation of the bundle of rights. This leads to higher prices and shuts out competitors from key content. Football fans are also potentially harmed since they are offered less football on TV, or no coverage at all in those cases where they do not subscribe to pay-TV as there are no live matches on free TV."
Let us not forget that many of our constituents will never be able to afford subscription television. Nor will many of them—for reasons such as family or work commitments, age or infirmity—ever be able to watch live football at grounds. Under the current agreement, they are denied any access to seeing our main national sport's premier league on live, free-to-air television.

The package that the premier league offered last week bears some resemblance to the settlement reached with UEFA. We have been down this route before. The world did not cave in when the Commission insisted that UEFA offered its rights to a larger number of broadcasters.

Does my hon. Friend agree that those circumstances were entirely different from the sale of media rights to one national domestic league? In the case of UEFA, the Commission required that all matches in the Champions league be shown, yet not all matches are of interest to viewers in each of the countries. Only games concerning teams from those countries are of interest to the viewers in those countries. The comparison is not relevant.

Ultimately, television markets are national. I understand that UEFA sold games in different national markets. It did not sell them collectively throughout Europe. In the end, the British television market gave clubs more money under the new contracts than under the old ones. It is by no means certain that unbundling the contracts in the way in which the premier league has done will result in a collapse in revenue.

We heard about three packages; gold, silver and bronze. I understand that the Commission is scrutinising the premier league package to see whether the package meets its requirements. I would ask whether the package gives free-to-air broadcasting a fair chance to make a credible bid. There are 38, 38 and 62 games respectively in each package, which is a large number of games for ITV, BBC and Channel Five, who might not want to show quite so many. The Commission will scrutinise the package next week, and I do not believe that the principle behind that is terrible.

It is interesting that the premier league has not yet bowed to the admirable pressure applied by my hon. Friends the Members for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), who have urged it that the matter is in its hands. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, who is not here today, said:
"The ball is very much in the Premier League's court to come back with an offer on redistribution in the game that will allow the current arrangements to stand."
There has been no such offer. It is sticking with 5 per cent., despite pressure from the Football Supporters Association and others to raise the figure. In its briefings, the premier league talks about 13 per cent., but that includes a lot of money that goes largely to the Professional Footballers Association, not the grass roots of the game. Again, the Commission could well be looking to the premier league to increase that figure from 5 per cent.

I shall conclude by making a couple of general remarks. As well as crying foul to the Commission, the premier league would do well to put its own house in order. The premier league club nearest to my constituency is Leeds United, which has been disgracefully mismanaged in recent years. Leeds United would do well to get its own house in order rather than bleating to MPs; as could the team that I support, Bradford City, which had a glorious period in the premier league as far as the supporters were concerned but a disastrous period in terms of its financial management.

The premier league could do something to increase its revenue. I am surprised that what has been offered does not contain a package for supporters of individual clubs to buy television coverage of every game, home and away, that is played by their club in the premier league. There would be a market for that and it is one suggestion of how to ensure buoyancy in the pay-TV market and increase revenue for the premier league.

I end by saying that EU competition policy is subtle as regards football and allows for exemption. We have heard a little about the listed events that allow interventions in the market so that the big football games in Europe are available free-to-air for all football fans. I say to the Minister that it is very gratifying that next year the European championships will be available not just to those who can afford them on Sky, but to everyone via BBC and ITV. It is a bit sad that under the new Football Association deal, it appears that we will lose competitive England internationals—the games that everyone wants to watch—from terrestrial television.

The FA under Adam Crozier was very progressive on such matters and wanted the maximum exposure for the England team. It now looks as if it will sell out to the highest bidder. There is a case for listing competitive England football matches, such as that great game against Germany a couple of years ago. Such games should be available to everyone and there is a strong case for listing them.

Order. I must emphasise to the House that I may be acting as referee on this occasion, but I do not have the discretion to allow injury time. We have only nine minutes left.

10.21 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) on securing the debate today and on the knowledgeable and passionate way in which he sets out his case, which was befitting a Northampton Town director. Although he supports the Cobblers, he very rarely talks them.

Last month I joined my hon. Friend and others in Brussels at a meeting to express our concerns to Mario Monti about his challenge to the premier league deal. We did not go to represent any vested interest, other than the public interest and the best interests of football. Our argument was straightforward. People are not crying out for more football on television; the balance is pretty good. What worries football supporters most is the game's parlous finances; the gulf between the big clubs and the rest. That is the biggest issue in the game today, and the EC's intervention has to take that into account.

What grounds do we have to say that? Last year, the Football Association commissioned a huge piece of research into the state of the game. They did not ask people in the street, but 6,500 people involved at all levels of the game, from Sunday morning leagues to premier league chairmen. The survey, as reported by David Bond in The Sunday Times, revealed that there was deep concern among all groups about the financial health of the sport. Some 90 per cent. of club officials thought that premier league clubs kept too much of the money available to the game.

The then chief executive of the FA said that the report would be used as a basis for future policy, but now that he has gone it is probably safe to assume that the report is gathering dust; that is why the intervention from Brussels is so important. It could actually save English football from itself, but it could also make matters far worse. I believe that the latter will be true in this case because the policy framework for competition in sport in Europe is muddled.

In the United States, sport is big business, but is exempt from stringent anti-trust legislation. In the early 1960s, a US court ruled that the collective sale of television rights by sporting leagues violated US anti-trust law. Congress in the US acted quickly to grant an exemption, which still stands today for American football, baseball, hockey and basketball. That exemption was made because Congress realised that sports have to collaborate, share and spread resources; otherwise the product is dominated by a few, and is no longer of interest to the viewing public.

In Europe, we have a muddled policy. While the treaty of Rome cannot be faulted for building a more prosperous Europe with opportunities spread around, it has constantly come into conflict with sporting provisions and sport's internal rules. That is what the case is all about. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South is absolutely right to say that the Commission has failed to take a wide view of football in this case, as the OFT did when it challenged the premier league. The Commission has made the same mistake.

If competition policy officials were prepared to widen their scope slightly, they would find strong competition arguments to back up collective selling, exclusive selling and systematic redistribution. Article 81 of the treaty allows restricted arrangements to stand if they improve the production of the product. In this case the product is professional football, and it is basically accepted that the more competitive it is, the better it is. If there were no restrictions, the big clubs would get bigger and bigger. The more that we have measures to balance out competition, the better the product becomes.

In short, the more distribution we have, the more competitive the sport. We proposed to the Commission that a figure of at least 10 per cent. should be made available to reinvest in the football league. If we enabled more clubs to compete properly, we would get a more vibrant and successful television product. If we carry on as we are, more and more clubs will go out of business. I am chair of a body called Supporters Direct and we come into contact with clubs in trouble on a week-by-week basis. I genuinely fear for the future of 20 to 30 football clubs in this country if something is not done to help them soon. There is plenty of money in professional football to see every club in this country right for the future and to give them a chance to succeed and to compete.

There may be some in premier league boardrooms around this country who want 30 or 40 professional clubs, but I do not want that and neither do supporters. The Daily Mirror deserves congratulation on taking the campaign forward by telling the competition authorities and football that we care about more than the three or four biggest clubs in this country. I call on the premier league to get the pledge on the table and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said, increase redistribution. There should be a 10 per cent. redistribution pledge, and Opposition and Government Members would get behind the premier league in making that case to Europe. A strong premier league television package with greater redistribution is more in the public interest than breaking up the rights, which we seem to be heading towards at the moment.

10.25 am

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke). He has done us a big favour by securing a debate on this issue. Football is a big business, but it also something about which millions of people care passionately. It is important that we debate the subject in the intelligent and thoughtful way in which he introduced the debate. I also congratulate the Minister, with whom I will cross swords many times in Department of Trade and Industry debates.

Unlike all other Members who have spoken, I do not represent a major football club. Hampton and Richmond Borough football club suffered the ignominy of being relegated from the Ryman league last year, and its weekly attendance is 200; it is not in the big time. It is interesting to ask why such a team can survive and continue to be viable whereas the team with which I grew up, York City, is teetering on the brink of extinction. The team to which I graduated from York City, Leeds United, has also been teetering on the brink of insolvency. Something is fundamentally wrong with the economics of big-time football.

The paradox, which the hon. Member for Northampton, South outlined very well, is that the game is in crisis while a vast sum of additional money is flowing into it. On television rights, 10 years ago television income brought football about £60 million a year over the then five-year contract. Now it brings in £600 million a year; a massive increase in the flow of resources into the game, but an increase that co-exists with a state of extreme crisis.

Although I do not represent a football club, the headquarters of another game, the Rugby Football Union, is located in my constituency. Although rugby is a very different game, it manifests many of the same problems. It has progressed from bumbling amateurism to professionalism and business within a couple of decades. There is the same tendency for the premier league to coalesce into a cartel, which has caused the Rotherham problem. There is the same problem of salaries being driven up and the clubs being unable to match them through their income. Strong clubs—in this case Bristol and Bath—are unable to survive relegation. The same dilemmas exist, but there is one fundamental difference; in rugby, the national team dominates. If Eriksson's team had to play week in and week out in the premier league, it would probably struggle in mid-table. In that sense, the structure is fundamentally different, but there are many common elements.

I agree with the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan)—he gave a balanced account of the European Commission's point of view—that many of the things that the European Commission says about football are either innocuous or sensible. It has a legitimate role—the European Union should not interfere in many other areas of national life—because the Champions league sets the terms of trade for football across Europe and there is a European market in transfers. The European Commission is legitimately involved in football from the point of view of competition.

Although the European Commission may have a legitimate role, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the real target is the broadcasting industry, not football? The Commission is using this case to stimulate a more competitive broadcasting industry, but the result may be a less competitive football industry, and it has failed to make that clear.

:I endorse part of the hon. Gentleman's comments. The European Commission is trying to deal with competition issues in two industries at the same time; football and broadcasting. As I interpret its conclusions, it is primarily concerned with opening up broadcasting rather than closing down football, but there is a legitimate debate as to whether it has the balance right.

I have read the Torben Toft paper, too. I guess that he is the guy who determines policy. Monti is the big man at the top, the spokesman, but Toft does the thinking behind it. It is clear from his paper that he understands the economics of football and is sympathetic towards football. Several points come out clearly. He understands that competition cannot be allowed to take out the weak teams, because that destroys the game and leads to a Harlem Globetrotters situation, with one team going round giving exhibition games.

The paper also makes a strong defence of the principle of solidarity. The game needs weaker teams, for several reasons; partly because of the importance of the community, partly to provide a pool of talent—allowing young players to come up and older ones to go down—but, above all, to provide a balance. That is something that we are losing. I spent some years in Scotland, where there are now effectively two teams; it is not a competitive league. The premier league is heading the same way. I grew up watching York City, and there was a realistic prospect that if York City drew Newcastle in the FA cup on a muddy day, it might win and get through to the semi-final. The chances of that happening now are far more remote; the balance is being lost.

The Torben Toft paper makes it clear that the game needs balance and solidarity. As the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) said, the Commission's primary concern is to deal with the problem of the broadcasting monopoly. It is right to challenge—the Government are probably more reticent about doing so—Sky television's monopoly of television rights. It is legitimate to open up that question.

There are many ways of redistributing income in the game other than by the formula adopted by the English premier league. The hon. Gentleman cited the experience of the United States, where collective selling is accepted as a principle, as it is by the Commission paper. The Commission does not question the collective selling of football rights. The United States seeks the balance in its different sports in various ways, although in many respects it is much more aggressively commercial than we are. As I understand it, in its national football league, 40 per cent. of all gate receipts and 95 per cent. of the income from television rights—which are with a multiplicity of television companies and not just one as in this country—is distributed to the other clubs, whereas in the premier league only 50 per cent. is. The distribution system in the United States game is much more progressive.

In basketball, to prevent the corrosive effect of enormously inflated salaries, the United States has imposed a salary cap. That is something that we do not contemplate in this country; however, it is conceivable on a European level, although probably not on a national level. Another innovation that the United States has introduced into its competitive sports system is progressive taxation. In basketball, the big clubs are taxed on their gate receipts and television income, and the tax is redistributed to the other clubs.

We can envisage different combinations of selling arrangements and income redistribution to produce what we all want; a healthy national game, rather than a concentration of talent and money in a few clubs. It can be done in many different ways. The suggestion by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) that we should have a more open-minded and cross-cutting discussion of the issue is a welcome innovation that I strongly support.

In the short term, we must deal with the Commission paper. Like the hon. Member for Selby, I believe that it is an opportunity rather than a threat. If the proposed changes are limited to opening football up to three television contracts rather than one, and if they bring in their wake a more generous formula—hopefully the 10 per cent. distribution formula—our national game will he in a stronger position, rather than a weaker one.

10.34 am

I welcome the Minister to her new role. I am sure that she had a slightly heavy heart when she realised that she would have to discuss football in Westminster Hall today.

I thank the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) for raising an important issue that vexes many of us who have a passion for the national game. He and I are members of the all-party group on football, which is conducting a full investigation into financing and other aspects of the national game.

I am an unashamed soccer supporter. It infuriates and baffles many of my friends that, religiously, at quarter to five every Saturday afternoon during the season, I have to be glued to a television screen to find out the results. If I am out and about, I have to be as near as possible to a radio to find out how my team gets on. I should point out that I think that the season lasts slightly longer than 30 weeks of the year; that is what Mrs. Field would say.

Those who are not members of the soccer-supporting cult find it difficult to understand the passion. Like the hon. Gentleman, I support a club in the third division. I am sad to say that it was also in the third division last season, unlike Northampton Town. The clubs will be fighting each other next time out. Soccer is a passion close to my heart. My club, which I have supported since I was five, was one of the clubs in administration only last year, and is making a slow and gradual recovery.

The model of ownership in football is bizarre and I have some sympathy with the Minister and, to that extent, with the European Commission which is trying to develop a set of rules that are sensible, within an economic framework, for the footballing industry. In one sense, we are talking about the economics of the madhouse. Who would really want to invest in a football company? As the hon. Gentleman said, a longstanding Northampton Town fan, and no doubt a successful business man in every other business he operates, is effectively bankrolling the local club. That is the case in many of the 92 professional clubs in the English game.

Local communities also find themselves as stakeholders in the game. It has been rightly pointed out by a number of those who have contributed to the debate that football goes beyond simply the large clubs that are able to get all the television coverage. Indeed, it goes beyond the 92 league clubs. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) rightly pointed out, it goes right down to community level, with a couple of hundred people regularly—or irregularly—turning up on cold, wet winter afternoons to watch a local, semi-professional club.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) made a good point when she said that she wanted the Minister to see what the Government could do to ensure that there would be action in Europe. If there is not, there will be long-term destabilising effects on the smaller clubs. There is also a real worry that there might be short-term destabilising effects, with perhaps dozens of clubs going into administration very quickly.

The hon. Member for Northampton, South analysed the European aspect. He is quite right to say that, generally, clubs in Europe are left to make their own deals. One reason why there are far fewer professional clubs—even in countries such as Germany, which has got two professional leagues in the Bundesliga and regional leagues beyond that—is the nature of the sale of rights. It would be regrettable if we were to go down that route.

I hope that the Government will do all that they can to ensure that the Commission is made aware of the way in which community values are at the core of the footballing industry in this country.

The hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), in his quick-fire, 100 mph contribution, made, as ever, sensible and informed comments. As has been pointed out, he had an important role to play prior to being elected to the House.

The financing of soccer is bizarre, to put it mildly. The quaint days of the maximum wage ended about the time of my birth, which coincided with the time when Northampton Town was going onwards and upwards. I was born in 1964 when Northampton was on the way up to the first division. It later came down almost as quickly, but I shall draw a veil over that. At that time, in 1964, when "Match of the Day" was introduced, television rights were worth tens of thousands of pounds per season. The hon. Member for Northampton, South was right to identify that a major turning point was 1992. Money had increased during the 1970s and 1980s and in 1992 the premier league was created, led by the big five clubs at the time—Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur—which wanted a much larger slice of the cake. In part and in the short term, they were able to increase the size of that cake, but we are now at a crossroads.

The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) was right, if a little complacent, when he said that there is no crisis. Surely, one of the problems now is that some of the largest, cash-hungry, professional clubs may be tempted to unbundle, especially as the overall pot of TV money likely to diminish substantially when contract rights are renegotiated, whether with BSkyB or other operators, in the next year or two.

Spiralling amounts of cash have gone into the game during the past decade and the worry is that so much of it has ended up in the hands or pockets of the talent—the players—but also in those of agents and peripheral figures. Now that the cash juggernaut looks as though it will slow down sharply, there is a question about the future viability of TV rights arrangements.

It has been pointed out that the premier league now has TV rights deals worth £1.1 billion over the three years 2001–04. That was negotiated in 2000 and it is worth repeating the comments of Mario Monti, the EU commissioner for competition, who said that the deal was illegal, anti-competitive, consumer unfriendly and tantamount to price fixing. That displays some of the grave concerns in the minds of many people involved in football. I suspect that it would be difficult for the Commission to row back entirely from those comments when it comes to doing what it believes is right for football in the United Kingdom.

The collectivity and exclusivity of the deal that is now on the table offends many, but it is in the nature of organising a league that there will be some collective TV and other rights; that will lead to some collusion. A number of speakers have rightly pointed out that, in the past, the OFT and, more recently, the Commission have failed to understand the grass roots of the game and the way in which the economics of football operate. On this point, I agree with the hon. Member for Leigh and the Liberal Democrat spokesman that the Commission's attack is focused on broadcasters rather than the game, but I am afraid that there will be collateral damage for many of our football clubs if an arrangement is made that penalises broadcasters and results in much less money coming into the national game. We must keep an eye on how that pans out.

Looking to the future, I hope that the Minister will give at least some details of her thoughts, not just on the football industry—which is close to many hon. Members' hearts—but on one or two of the direct competition points. Clearly, the Government's competition policy has been open to question. I sat on the Standing Committee that considered the Enterprise Act 2002 and it became clear that there was a division between competition policy in many European countries and that adopted for many decades in the United States. There was an implication that the Government were beginning to look towards the US model. I would not necessarily find that objectionable, but there is grave concern that if there is no certainty about where the Government's competition policy is going, it might be difficult for them to represent the interests of football in the way we would hope.

Part of the premiership deal has been to give 5 per cent. of the TV money to the grass roots of the game. There is concern that the European Commission could find itself similarly bought out with, in effect, some sort of tariff, with BSkyB and all the other operators paying to avoid a further investigation. However, football's role as a social, sporting and cultural part of our way of life is still firmly in place, and one hopes that TV money will continue to support that in whatever framework is put in place with a new deal.

I can understand why Governments of all colours have steered clear of getting too actively involved in the professional game. Immediately after the May 1997 election, the instinct of the Labour Administration was to be more actively involved, but they quickly realised the potential pitfalls. I understand from reading Tom Bower's excellent book on the game that that was not least because one or two special advisers, such as the hon. Member for Leigh in his erstwhile life, quickly realised the pitfalls that would face any Government who interfered.

The hon. Gentleman talks about interference. Does he accept that the Government's intervention led to three important developments that improved the regulation of professional football? I am referring to the Football Foundation—a result of direct intervention—Supporters Direct, which has led to 93 not-for-profit supporters trusts owning all or part of their clubs, and the Independent Football Commission, which puts pressure on the regulators to try to improve regulation and governance of the national game.

I accept that, but it was certainly felt in the afterglow of May 1997 that the Government might try to interfere not only in the administrative side but in a more fundamental way. It is fair to say that after the Bradford fire in 1985 and the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, enormous amounts of public money went into the football industry; it would be wrong to assume that all that money could somehow be spent without a quid pro quo. It is understandable that the Government will feel that if the national game has had hundreds of millions of pounds of public money spent on it, it needs to get its house in order as far as possible. The Nice declaration recognised the uniqueness of sport as a whole and, although the European Union has little direct competency in this regard, it reflects, at the highest professional level, a not insignificant part of economic activity.

I know that the Minister will want to sum up all the contributions that have been made, but I should like to ask her two questions. First, in pure competition terms, how do the Government intend to defend the UK football industry, if at all, against the threat to its autonomy posed by the competition commissioners today and, potentially, at some future point?

Secondly, in view of the divergence from the European model of substantial dominance being the test and towards a more US-type competitiveness test, as espoused in the Enterprise Act 2002, what is the Government's general strategy on interference in football and, indeed, other industries? Is it enough to leave it to the free market or, given the deep-rooted community concerns in football, will the Government seek an accommodation with the premier league and smaller professional clubs beforehand?

10.48 am

The Minister for Industry and the Regions and Deputy Minister for Women and Equality
(Jacqui Smith)

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke) on his success in obtaining the debate. It has been characterised by a great degree of knowledge and intelligent contributions, not least because football is one of those subjects on which everyone has an opinion. It always generates much interest, debate and concern.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) was wrong; I am pleased to debate football. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) is right to say that despite the fact that I am a patron of Redditch United girls football club my dribbling skills leave something to be desired. However, I am pretty confident about my ability to explain the offside rule and am willing to do so, although not perhaps in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Several hon. Members referred to the financial difficulties of football clubs, particularly lower league clubs. Although that is not strictly within the ambit of the debate, I will say that hon. Members have demonstrated in their contributions to the debate, and in much of their constituency work, their commitment to ensuring the continuation of the contribution that those clubs make to the community. We have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, South and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley). They themselves often raise the tricky issue of salaries. Although I am here as a DTI Minister, I assure hon. Members that there is considerable interest and concern from my colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) outlined, there is already considerable support for the development of football through the Football Foundation and other Government initiatives.

Essentially, today's debate is about European competition policy and its implications for football. The issues highlighted by the case are summarised by the European Commission's statement of objections, namely that the exclusive nature of the present broadcasting arrangements erects barriers to broadcasters other than BskyB that may wish to transmit live coverage of premier league matches; and the arrangements prevent clubs from exploiting the rights to those premier league matches which are not shown as part of the core contract.

Notwithstanding our passion for sport, commercial sport is an important economic operation and, as such, it cannot and should not be exempt from the terms of competition law. The Government support the Commission and the premier league working together to make the sale of football rights as competitive as possible, as that benefits the broadcasting market and fans who watch football on television.

We need to set this issue in the context of competition law, and in particular in the competition framework of the UK. The Government believe that a strong competition policy benefits consumers. In particular, we have modernised the UK's competition law to give the competition authorities independence to investigate sectoral markets under clear competition principles. We have moved away from public interest tests by taking politics out of competition decisions, which will instead be taken by expert independent competition authorities using competition-based tests. Similarly, the Government support a rigorous enforcement of the competition rules by the Commission, acting independently on the basis of competition criteria. The Commission enforces the EU's competition rules and considers individual cases under those rules. Agreements between undertakings that restrict competition between member states are prohibited.

Several hon. Members referred to article 81 of the EC treaty and have asked about exemption. Exemption from EC competition rules is possible. There are four conditions listed under article 81(3) that must be satisfied if an agreement is to be exempted from a general prohibition. I do not intend to read these out, but in summary the test is that the restrictive aspects of the arrangements in question have to be indispensable to improving the product, benefiting consumers—perhaps fans or viewers—and encouraging solidarity, which is, as we have discussed, a fair distribution of broadcasting revenues between clubs. However, in this case, the Commission does not consider that an exemption under EU competition rules is justified, because it does not believe that exclusivity of coverage is essential to those features of the present arrangements that serve to improve the premier league product. Solidarity is important for sport and I know that the Commission recognises that.

I refer my hon. Friend to the report by the Select Committee on European Scrutiny, which considered the Helsinki report and had concerns about where to draw the line in respect of competition law on professional sport. There was a view that the Minister at the time had not scrutinised the issue. Has my hon. Friend found the time to go back to it? There is an important distinction between professional sport and the economic competition aspect.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, but I want to come to the characteristics of sport and the extent to which they have been considered in the debate. In relation to solidarity, the point of a league is that there is competition, which involves more than one club, and redistribution is necessary. I welcome calls from hon. Members to improve redistribution, notwithstanding the fact that the premier league has a good record in that respect compared with similar leagues. The question is whether exclusive selling is necessary for solidarity; there is a relationship between them, and a balance must be found.

Several hon. Members raised the special characteristics of sport in relation to whether the competition rules that I outlined—not least in respect of the Nice declaration of 2001—should be predominant in these cases. Arguments in support of exemption must be made in terms of the economic facts of the case. However, the Commission has indicated that it will have regard to sport's special characteristics.

The Government believe that exemptions under EC competition rules, tempered by the Nice declaration approach, form an adequate basis for assessing competition issues in sport. The Commission indicated in the statement of objections, which opened the present case, that it had already considered the special characteristics of the arrangement in framing its overall approach. That is reasonable; it is entirely likely that any joint arrangement that had comparable restrictive elements in a different, non-sporting, industry would already have been struck down. Although I understand my hon. Friends' frustrations, it is not necessarily the case that the specific characteristics of sport have not been, and cannot be, considered in this case.

That is the nature of competition policy, but it is not the whole story. Hon. Members rightly expressed anxiety about the health of the game and the interests of the fans. The Government are aware of the wider contribution of football, and have made a substantial investment in football as a means of taking forward key policy objectives in health, social cohesion and sports ground safety.

Premier league and other football clubs are centres of local communities, and we support the widest possible distribution of television and other income to all of them. We know, too, that the success of the premier league is closely bound up with the wider health of football in England; the premier league's support for the game from the football league to the grass roots could suffer if its broadcasting revenues were substantially reduced, which could affect football at all levels.

No, I am short of time.

We should be aware of the market situation. For example, independent analysts suggest that the value of football rights for potential broadcasters may have weakened, notwithstanding the competitive circumstances in which the tenders might be made. It is for the premier league to make its case and respond to the Commission's concerns, especially on issues such as solidarity where the premier league needs to show that the link between solidarity and joint selling cannot be broken without harm to the game. It is for both parties to consider an acceptable form of the final repackaging of broadcasting rights. The devil lies in the detail of any such conclusion and the premier league and the Commission are best placed to consider the position of other interested parties, including the fans and the broadcasters.

Hon. Members pushed me on what the Government may or may not do. I have made clear our position of independence with respect to competition legislation, but we are actively encouraging the premier league and the Commission to work together to reach a mutually agreeable solution, with the game, the fans and the viewers in mind. We shall continue to repeat that message.

Although we are rightly not intervening in the case itself, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has spoken with Commissioner Monti to make it clear that we want an early, equitable and effective solution and that we have concerns for the game and for the interests of the fans. In particular, and in response to specific concerns, my right hon. Friend emphasised that competitive joint selling aids the game as it allows the redistribution of profits from the premier league to the grass roots. We need to take advantage of good sense to ensure that the premier league and the Commission can conclude their negotiations as soon as practicable to bring certainty back into the game and to deliver many of the objectives shared by all of us involved in the debate today.