Questions of sport for the men who would be minister

From Britain's tennis failures to football club ownership and TV's 'crown jewels', Nick Harris asks the three key politicians for their plans should they win the election
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Q1: What would you do to address the widespread concerns about football club ownership?

Hugh Robertson (Con): In an ideal world, sport is run by its national governing bodies, not by government. Therefore, initially we would look to football to come forward with proposals to address the issues surrounding the Fit and Proper Persons Test, financial transparency, debt and, crucially, the governance of the game as there are not enough independent voices in the governance of football. If football fails to come forward with the necessary proposals, government will have no option but to step in.

Don Foster (Lib Dem): Swift action must be taken to toughen up the regulation of football and to strengthen the roles of the Football Association and the Football Regulatory Authority (FRA). The recent resignation of Ian Watmore was further evidence, if any was needed, of the need for reform to the structure of the FA. Bringing more independent directors onto the board of the FA, for example, would help to reduce the influence of the professional leagues and so ensure that the FA could play a more effective role in regulating the game.

In addition, it is vital that the role of the semi-autonomous FRA is strengthened and that it takes over control of a unified Fit and Proper Persons Test operating for clubs at all levels. The current situation, in which the Premier League, Football League and FA all have their own Fit and Proper Persons Test with no independent oversight, is a mess and must be resolved if we are to have a robust system of ensuring that owners act in the best interests of the clubs.

The Government's latest proposals to enable fans to take over a proportion of their club are a nice idea but will be little more than a pipe dream for most fans. A good start would be to ensure better fan representation on the boards of the FA and individual clubs.

Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab) We have pushed for reform for 18 months and there has been some positive change but football needs to go much further; it is good to see the opposition parties now adopting our ideas on governance and reform. We will give football a fixed a period of months to deliver a much stronger financial regulatory structure which will include implementing Burns' recommendations in full with more independence and more democratic accountability to their stakeholders, much greater scrutiny of takeovers - so that new owners show proof of funds and a clear business plan going forward - and a more unified system of governance including single fit and proper persons test. If there is no change then the government will consider intervention.

We also support the principle of Uefa's Financial Fair Play rules. In addition, we will work with the sport's governing bodies to ensure that clubs are run transparently and on sound financial principles with greater involvement of local communities and will develop clear proposals to deliver democratic supporter representation across all clubs and allow Supporters Trusts to buy a stake in their club.

Q2: What's your view, and policy if you have one, on the return of "safe standing" at football?

Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab) After the Hillsborough stadium disaster the government reduced the tax burden on the pools to enable a transformation in our grounds into safe all-seater stadia in the top divisions. We now have some of the safest stadia in the world ensuring football is a safe environment for women and children to attend and crowd disorder is virtually non-existent at most grounds.

There have been dramatic improvements in safety and Germany is a case in point but the practicalities of re-profiling new stadia plus the cost would be a huge issue. It would need a dramatic shift in football authority opinion backed by clear evidence before Government would look at supporting any change to existing policy.

Hugh Robertson (Con): If there is sufficient demand, we will review the current regulations. That review would take into account, amongst others, the views of the fans, football regulators and the police.

Don Foster (Lib Dem): The Liberal Democrats are committed to exploring options for introducing safe standing at football grounds in consultation with fans, clubs and safety experts and passed a motion at our party conference to this effect. The evidence from countries like Germany shows that safe standing can operate effectively and safely to give fans more choice about how they enjoy the game.

Q3: Should more sporting events be added to the list of TV 'Crown Jewels' and broadcast on free TV channels, as suggested by David Davies? And how would you address the concerns of sporting bodies, such as cricket clubs, that such a move would damage grass-roots funding?

Don Foster (Lib Dem): I am broadly supportive of the recommendations of the David Davies Review. Listing still has an important role to play in ensuring that the best-loved sports events are available for the whole nation to enjoy. Some sports bodies are unhappy with the recommendations and argue that any changes to the existing arrangements will damage their ability to fund grassroots sport.

We believe that a full, independent economic impact assessment should be carried out before any final decisions are made but in principle think that cricket could benefit from broadcasting home Ashes games on free-to-air channels. Such a move could bring in higher revenue from sponsorship deals and anyone bidding for the rights will have to pay a "fair and reasonable" price for them. Above all, viewing figures from recent years show that when the Ashes are shown on free-to-air channels up to four times as many people watch them which is surely a good thing for English cricket.

Hugh Robertson (Con): The Listed Events review was launched by the government for party political reasons in the belief that there were votes in restoring more events free to air. However, anyone who understands either sport or the broadcast market knows that this is not a simple issue and that taking away a sport's ability to market its own broadcasting rights generally leads to a drastic reduction in income passing to the grassroots. In short, an intelligent balance has to be struck and I, therefore, greatly regret that the government have not commissioned an independent economic analysis so that the claims can be tested.

Given that the broadcast market will change dramatically in 2012 with the introduction of free to air digital channels, I suspect a sensible holding solution would be to look at a smaller list of free-to-air events but restore the highlights package and mandate those governing bodies who retain their rights to invest a set proportion in the grassroots.

Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab): We believe whole heartedly in the principle of listed events, to ensure that the crown jewels of British sport are protected by law and offered to the main free-to-air broadcasters on fair and reasonable terms.

We support the principle of events which are of national resonance being freely available to all rather than the Tory policy of forcing people to pay more to enjoy great British sporting events. Just look at the popularity of the Grand National recently.

If the balance is right then most sports could benefit from increasing their exposure to a wider TV audience both in terms of advertising revenue and inspiring more people to take up sport.

Also the government has invested a record amount of funding into the grass roots of many sports. Indeed as part of the considerations for a listing events regime there is a need to balance the sale of rights and support for grass-root investment with the benefits of wider public access of the event in question and the inspiration that can be engendered in people to get involved in sport. Before any decision is reached we will of course take into account the impact listing might have on a sport for the event in question and on those broadcasters affected.

Q4: The Lawn Tennis Association spends around £60m a year on British tennis. Why are British players, with one exception, so poor?

Hugh Robertson (Con): Tennis needs to grow its grassroots and, in particular, develop it exposure in schools and clubs - particularly amongst young people. If the production line is broadened and strengthened, more champions will eventually develop but it will take time.

Don Foster (Lib Dem): The Davis Cup defeat against Lithuania threw into stark relief the current problems in British tennis. We shouldn't get carried away by one defeat however and should also recognise the recent successes enjoyed by our British women and pay tribute to Andy Murray who is currently ranked No5 in the world. In order to improve the fortunes of British tennis in the future it is vital that more is done to inspire the next generation of tennis stars. The LTA has recently been criticised for not doing enough to promote the sport to a wider audience or to nurture the grassroots. Sports bodies must be held to account for any failure to meet their targets and objectives both at elite and amateur level - with money set to be tight over the coming years we must make sure that sports funding works hard and delivers results.

Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab) We have a number of good young tennis players coming through but yes it is very disappointing. There needs to more emphasis on building a viable competitive club structure as well as just concentrating on early talent development. That is why I asked the All Party Group to work with the LTA to help improve the game at all levels and help address some of the current challenges that face the sport. I believe that there is great potential for tennis to grow in this country and for new people to be brought into the sport.

Over £26m of public money is being invested into the sport's grassroots and we want to see a good return from that funding. But I have confidence in Sport England holding the LTA to account on this, as they do with all other sports that receive public funding.The ‘whole sport plans' strategy has been going under a year and in that time participation in tennis has increased and the sport is growing in schools. But there is more that can still be done. Everyone who contributed to the report wants the same for tennis in this country - a strong sport at all levels, from the grassroots to the elite. And by working together in a collaborative and open approach, I believe that can be achieved.

Q5: What would be your main specific targets, and greatest envisaged problems, for the 2012 Olympics?

Don Foster (Lib Dem): The biggest challenge in relation to the Olympics is in meeting the government's legacy targets. When the Liberal Democrats pledged our support for the Olympic bid, we were promised that hosting the Games would provide a lasting sporting and economic legacy. Sadly at the moment the government is falling well-short of its targets in these areas. Whoever becomes the next Minister for Sport must make it an absolute priority to get more people active in the run up to the Olympics and beyond by targeting resources at grassroots, community and school sports.

Hugh Robertson (Con): The single greatest issue facing London 2012 is the lack of a viable mass participation sports legacy. It was a promise made as part of the bid but, five years on, the government has not come forward with a viable plan. We have been looking at this with Dame Kelly Holmes and will produce a plan based on the development of facilities, coaches and volunteers.

Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab): We will deliver an Olympics on time and on budget and be the first Olympic nation to create a world-class sports system. We have raised our ambition and will engage a new generation of young people in PE and sport, going from delivering two hours school sport [per week] to the opportunity of five hours; we will grow and sustain a significant increase in participation over and above the 600,000 [people] that has already been delivered; and achieve more medal success at the Olympics and Paralympics with a talent development system which is envy of the world, inspiring a new generation of British athletes spanning all disciplines and events.

Disability sport will also get a £m boost from Sport England in the coming months, to widen its remit and make sure we have clear plans to increase participation as part of our sporting legacy.

We have in the last year delivered more funding to help drive our legacy ambitions including: free swimming for the 16-and-unders and over-60s; funding to deliver a network of after-school sports clubs delivering one of seven Olympic sports; piloted a national schools website; taster sessions for thousands of young people to try new sports; and worked with the Premier League to create a network of 80 Hub Clubs (community clubs) and 320 Satellite Clubs (on school sites).

Q6: Uefa's president Michel Platini has said match-fixing is the biggest threat facing football. How would you tackle the problem?

Don Foster (Lib Dem): I believe that the best way forward on this issue is through partnership and education. The recent announcement of a partnership deal between the Professional Players Federation and Betfair, Ladbrokes, bet365 and the Remote Gambling Association is a welcome step towards tackling this issue and we hope to see more developments in this area.

Hugh Robertson (Con): The integrity of the competition is crucial to sport so I agree with Uefa's president over the importance of this issue. Put simply, you have to have a zero tolerance approach and strict penalties for anyone found guilty.

Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab) The Government has taken the issue of betting integrity very seriously. There is no place in sport for cheating of any kind and we must make sure we're doing all we can to protect its' integrity.

But this issue cannot be tackled by Government alone. The Government commissioned a review on this area headed up by Rick Parry, former CEO of Liverpool, and his report puts a range of recommendations to sports governing bodies, bookmakers, the police and importantly the Gambling Commission. We will ensure that all the bodies take this report seriously and consider in detail what practical steps they are now going to take and work together towards one common goal - an effective, watertight intelligence-led system that means cheats have nowhere to hide

The Commission, the bookmakers and sport (under the auspices of the CCPR) have all started work on taking the recommendations forward.

The Gambling Commission will set up a Sports Betting Integrity Unit and the terms of reference are already in the process of being drafted. The terms of reference will give a clear direction of what the Commission can do to support both the betting and sporting industries to keep corruption out of sports betting and encourage a better flow of intelligence in both directions.

In addition, the CCPR is taking steps to establish the Sports Betting Group to work through the recommendations for sport. The bookmakers are working closely with the Commission to take forward the recommendations specifically for the betting industry, and in addition have announced a three-year funding package to assist player education in partnership with the Professional Players Federation.

Q7: Which sports most need more funding?

Hugh Robertson (Con): Given that I want to see the opportunities available through sport extended to the maximum number of people, the answer to this logically has to be those sports played by the greatest number of participants - in order to get the greatest number of people playing!

Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab): Since 1997 there has been an eight-fold increase in investment in sport. We have begun a transformation of competitive sport in our schools, and invested as never before in our country's sporting infrastructure.

The £5.5bn investment through public funds and the Lottery has rejuvenated sport and helped to create a world-class sporting infrastructure. Forty-six sports governing bodies received increase in funding from Sport England to spend on projects to increase and sustain participation at grassroots [level] in core traditional sports, to ensure amateurs of all ages and abilities can join one of the tens of thousands of sports clubs run by the National Governing Bodies.

In addition to supporting traditional sports we have to look at ways of incentivising those children switched off by traditional sport which is why we have funded free swimming for 16-and-unders and the over-60s, delivering some 13m free swims. We have also provided opportunities via Sport Unlimited delivering taster sessions for school children in new sports and introducing them to local community clubs along with delivering 3,000 Olympic after-school clubs where teenagers can try one of seven Olympic sports on offer.

Of this funding, the Big Lottery Fund has delivered £750m for the 'New Opportunities in PE & Sport' programme through Local Authorities, to deliver wider community benefit. To date 2,980 facilities have been funded which range from outdoor activity centres to new or refurbished sports facilities at schools. The programme sought a partnership approach to funding through local authorities and schools with wider community access to facilities; a fact that is unfortunately overlooked when talking about changes to Lottery distribution.

Don Foster (Lib Dem): The Liberal Democrats want to release more money for grassroots and community sports organisations which are struggling due to the recession and to the government's raids on National Lottery funding to pay for the Olympics. We believe that we can find additional funding for community sport by changing the way the National Lottery is taxed and using money in dormant betting accounts to set up a capital fund to improve local facilities and sports provision.

Q8: Which sport do you follow most closely, and which teams do you support?

Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab) As the goalkeeper to the All Party Parliamentary football team I would have to say football, but I enjoy all sport. Manchester United was the club I supported as a child growing up in Salford but I also support my local club Bradford City and have probably seen more games at Valley Parade than I have at Old Trafford.

Hugh Robertson (Con): Cricket - but I am also a big fan of football, rugby and hockey. I genuinely enjoy watching any sport - as my, often infuriated, wife will testify! My teams are Chelsea, Kent County Cricket Club and the Sutton Valence veterans hockey side!

Don Foster (Lib Dem): Rugby - I attend nearly all of Bath Rugby's home games (thank goodness the second half of the season has been far better than the first) and go to Twickenham to support England whenever possible. Football - I attend as many of Bath City's home games as possible. It's particularly exciting at present as we battle for a place in the play-offs.

Q9: Do you play any sports - how often?

Don Foster (Lib Dem): I no longer play any sports although I did play rugby and was a rower. I go to the gym twice a week. I am also a crew member for the Commons v Lords annual boat race (which we've won each time!).

Hugh Robertson (Con): I still play both cricket and hockey regularly, both for Parliament and club sides, and used to play a lot of rugby when I was in the army.

Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab) I still turn out for the Parliamentary team and take part in charity runs when I can.

Q10: If you could achieve one thing as sports minister, what would it be?

Don Foster (Lib Dem): A lasting legacy of sports participation built around the 2012 Games.

Hugh Robertson (Con): My single biggest aim as Sports Minister would be to extend the opportunities available through sport to the maximum number of people.

Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab): To make sure everyone regardless of age or ability has the opportunity to fulfil their potential and enjoy sport. It has taken a generation to rebuild the decaying sporting infrastructure in this country, in 1997 just 1 in 4 school children were doing 2 hours of school sport now 93 per cent are and my job is make sure we raise the ambition across sport we now we want to give every child the opportunity of doing 5 hours of competitive school sport, more opportunities for amateurs of all ages and abilities to join 1,000s of clubs and more medals at the Olympics. In short build on the momentum and deliver a world class sporting system for all.

This Election Q&A was undertaken in association with the sports news and features website, www.sportingintelligence.com, which is also running related stories about the election and sport

ABOUT THE CONTENDERS

Gerry Sutcliffe

Has been the Labour MP for Bradford South since 1994, and Minister for Sport since 2007. The 56-year-old grew up supporting Manchester United and also supports Bradford City in his constituency. He plays in goal for the all-party Parliamentary football team.

Hugh Robertson

The 47-year-old has been the Tory MP for Faversham & mid Kent since 2001, and is shadow sports and Olympics spokesman. Robertson supports Chelsea, and Kent CCC. He plays cricket and hockey, for Parliament and club sides, and played rugby in the army.

Don Foster

Has been the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath since 1992 and the Liberal shadow for Culture, Media and Sport since 2005. The 63-year-old is a fan of Bath rugby and Bath City FC. A former recreational rugby player and rower, he still crews in the annual Lords v Commons boat race.

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