Orders of the Day — Chess

– in the House of Commons at 9:40 pm on 15th March 1999.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon 12:08 am, 15th March 1999

I am pleased to raise in this Adjournment debate the important issue of the future funding and support for chess in the United Kingdom. I am delighted to welcome the Minister for Sport to the debate. He was recently "outed" in a national newspaper as an intellectual, when he declared his support for chess in The Independent's question and answer section. Those of us who follow such issues recognise that the Minister has long been a supporter and true friend of chess in this country. It is with such sporting challenges in mind that I challenge him tonight—if only it were over a game of chess—to agree with me on the future funding and support for chess in the United Kingdom.

The campaign for Government support for chess has been a long one. I am especially pleased to see the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) in her place. She has been a strong advocate for chess in the House and she tabled early-day motion 1609 in the previous Session, which deserves to be read into the record. It states: That this House recognises that chess is a sport at which the United Kingdom really excels; notes that the United Kingdom is the second strongest chess nation in the world after Russia and currently European champions, and that there is a possibility of a British world champion with both Michael Adams and Nigel Short amongst the top dozen players in the world; notes it is played by four million people in this country with no cultural or physical boundaries, being played by children and adults of all ages; further notes that the Government spends £49,000 compared to Greece which spends £337,000 per year; further notes that the World Chess Federation is the second largest sporting association in the world, second only to FIFA, with the vast majority of countries recognising chess as a sport; notes also the extensive and numerous academic research that has shown the high educational and social impact of chess when available at school; further notes that chess teaches children co-ordination, concentration, social and interactive skills, to plan ahead, and most importantly to take responsibility for their decisions; notes the Marguiles Report conducted in the United States of America which showed improved learning in children who were taught chess compared with those who were not; and that in consequence numerous states have put chess on the curriculum; further notes the Minister of Sport's previous statements about his support for the game of chess; and calls upon the Minister to encourage the Sports Council to recognise chess.

Our debate is about the inadequacy of current funding and the failure of chess to be able to access alternative sources of funding, such as the Foundation for Sport and the Arts and the national lottery sports funds. That is due to the collective decision of the UK Sports Councils not to recognise chess as a sport and, therefore, as a suitable recipient of funds.

Other sources of funds that might be available—such as the lottery's new opportunities fund for schools—are, by their nature, limited, given all the other bids for that funding. The situation is bad for chess as a sport, bad for chess players, bad for children's education and bad for this country's reputation.

My earliest memory of chess—as perhaps is the Minister's—is of the dramatic 1972 world championship when Boris Spassky failed to defend his title against the extrovert, maverick American genius Bobby Fischer. I remember that British chess grew in the ensuing years following the publicity around that event. Schools chess grew in particular, and the UK began to have its own grandmasters and international masters—Tony Miles, Raymond Keene, Michael Stean, William Hartston and John Nunn, who were followed in due course by Nigel Short, Julian Hodgson, David Norwood—against whom I used to play as a school player—Michael Adams and Malcolm Pein from Liverpool, where I grew up.

Since then, we have consistently been, for around a decade, one of the top two or three countries in the chess world. That has happened in spite of the facilities for chess, not because of them. I certainly enjoy playing chess, as many people do. I enjoyed it for the pure fun of taking part. Actually, if I am honest, I enjoyed winning and hated losing—perhaps that is why I am Liberal Democrat.

I was lucky. My state school had a teacher—Ken Champion—who was interested and who gave up enormous amounts of his time to drive minibuses around the north-west so that we could play other schools. I feel that chess developed my intellect. It certainly developed my team work and my ability to plan. Chess also imbued one with a sense of responsibility that came from being part of a team. I was lucky enough to be spotted by a well-known chess club—Atticus—which was well known both in the region and nationally. I had the good fortune to play for that club for many years, although in only the third or fourth team.

I once played against a formidable woman opponent from Formby chess club, and she later became the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), although it may have been the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle)—then, more than now, it was difficult to tell them apart. I was fortunate to scrape a draw.

In 1997–98, Government funding was £49,000—a direct grant from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the British Chess Federation. Because of the pressures of public expenditure, there was a real terms cut in 1998–99 as the amount stayed at £49,000. For next year, there will be a further real terms cut as the increase has been only 2 per cent., welcome though that is.

Spending by the BCF from those limited funds will be £14,000 or thereabouts in schools, which puts the federation in a difficult position. As better players emerge, they need funding to go to international tournaments abroad, which squeezes the funds available from the grant for schools. Although, the BCF works hard to develop coaching and training opportunities for young people and to promote links between schools and chess clubs, it is difficult to see how it can be done on such a small budget.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The news that the entire European Commission has resigned broke a few minutes ago. Does my hon. Friend feel that that will affect the future of chess in Europe?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

Obviously, my hon. Friend will be pleased to have got that on the record. I will mention comparisons with Europe later. In many ways the Europeans are ahead of us in this matter, although perhaps not on the issue that he mentioned.

British chess has had to rely on getting by with other funds. Obviously, British chess—in particular schools chess—is grateful to sponsors who had supported a recreation and, I believe, a sport that does not get the television exposure that it deserves. In that context Saitek, which has recently funded junior chess, will be joining many hon. Members in the House at an event in the next few days to publicise the superb quality of schools chess and should be thanked for its support. There has been an explosion in chess in schools, but that is not due to, but despite, the lack of investment. Educationally, chess is recognised to be very good. Indeed, it used to be looked after by the Department for Education and Employment.

The hon. Member for Moorlands obtained a written answer recently from the Minister for School Standards in which she said that the Government very much welcome the opportunities which many schools provide for their pupils to take part in such activities. With reference to chess she said that it was open to schools to offer such activities as extra-curricular options, which the Government see as an important part of a broad and balanced education. However, as budgets are squeezed and as pressure on teacher's time increases, it is hard to see how that sort of activity can prosper.

Women's and girls' chess is strong in this country. Recently, I was pleased to meet the world under-18 champion, Ruth Sheldon, at a tournament in Oxford. She will shortly become my constituent when she comes to Oxford university, which I am afraid to say was soundly beaten by another university in the recent Varsity match.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Labour, Staffordshire Moorlands

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the organisation of women's chess is in an appalling state? The achievements of the 11-year-old Jessie Gilbert, the youngest women's amateur world chess champion and Ruth Sheldon, the world junior under-18 female champion, are even more spectacular given the limited organisation of women's chess. Obviously, we have tremendous talent, but we do not have the organisation to allow those people to realise their full potential.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I agree. I am pleased that in Oxford we have our own chess prodigies in the Hunt siblings, Adam and Harriet, who have been British champions at various ages.

Indeed, the Minister is aware of the problem of women's access to sport and recreational activity. Following the debate on sport for all in July 1997, which he will remember, he wrote to the hon. Member for Garston to point out that he wanted women to be actively involved in all sports and he said that the national lottery sports fund was an important mechanism to level the playing field and to develop women's sport—in particular, sports that had been male dominated. For that reason, as with all other sports, it is important that chess can access the funds that have been made available by the lottery.

As the Minister knows, lottery funding is not available because the English Sports Council does not consider chess to be a sport. He has said that schools may be able to access the new opportunities fund for after-school activities. I would be interested to know whether he has any data on whether schools have been successful in getting such funding for chess because of all the other pressures from schools on the fund and the need to have good facilities for after-school clubs.

There is a feeling that the sports establishment does not want chess to compete for scarce public funds, or that there is a philistine prejudice against the so-called "nerds" and "anoraks" who are deemed to play chess. I stand before the House as proof that it is not only nerds and anoraks who play; my hon. Friends are all nodding in agreement.

The Minister has often identified the problem. I hope that he will develop it in his answer to the debate. The UK Sports Councils are public bodies set up by royal charter. As such, they enjoy a certain independence from the Government. They have developed a system of recognition to decide which activities and organisations should be eligible for support to ensure that public funds are distributed as efficiently and effectively as possible, as they see it. In several letters, he has pointed out to hon. Members that they deem that suitability for recognition includes requirements for physical skills and effort. Elsewhere he has talked of physical skills, effort and challenge. In other places, he has mentioned other words. I hope that the Minister agrees that in many ways, chess is a challenge, and a physical and mental effort. It certainly qualifies as a sport by almost every definition.

The Minister knows that other European countries are increasingly recognising chess as a sport. Austria, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain all recognise it as a sport. In many cases, chess is part of the national Olympic body. Soon, it may be that the International Olympic Committee will recognise it as a sport while the English Sports Councils do not. I know that he supports the case, so I do not believe that the sports councils can hold out much longer in their old-fashioned view that chess, a sport in which we excel, should not be considered a sport.

Given that I hope that the Minister will agree that there is a cogent case for recognising chess as a sport to enable it to access the lottery funds that it desperately needs for development, for its support in schools and for the development of women's chess, the only barrier to getting such recognition may be legislative. If it is, I would be grateful if he could clarify that. This is a doing Government. If it is a question of Government action, I know that chess players will not have to wait long. In this campaign, I hope that we are truly in the end game and that he will deliver from the Dispatch Box tonight the check mate.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sport), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of National Heritage/Department for Culture, Media and Sport)) (Sport) 12:23 am, 15th March 1999

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this debate, but he chose a wretchedly inconvenient evening. For me, it completes a day between the Scylla of dodgy boxing results and the Charybdis of chess recognition. I have total sympathy with his case, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins).

Chess is a sport in which there are no barriers of physical ability or between the sexes. Both counts commend it to me. I have received many representations from hon. Members, to some of which the hon. Gentleman referred. I have publicly expressed my support for chess to be recognised as a sport, and I gladly reaffirm that. The question of what is or is not a support is vexed. It is not a matter of semantics, but a crucial decision. Once recognition is given, sports can receive funding from the Sports Councils and the lottery and certain tax advantages, especially in respect of VAT. Regrettably, as he noted, recognition is not in the gift of the Government. Personally, I think it should be, because I am very much a hands-on Minister, but responsibility for deciding what is or is not a sport currently resides with the Sports Councils.

We have 112 recognised sports in this country, but the Sports Councils use a definition of what constitutes a sport, the system for which is based on several principles that broadly relate to physical skill, physical effort, accessibility, rules, organisation and so on. My officials have discussed the difficulties that arise in connection with activities such as chess, but predominant among the criteria against which the councils assess suitability for recognition remain requirements for physical skill and physical effort.

I believe that the definition used is too restrictive. It appears to be rooted in a belief that mental activity does not require physical effort. That is an old-fashioned notion, based on the caricature that I experienced when I was a kid at school, that the bright ones read books and the thickos play sport. I read the article by Jon Speelman in The Independent today, in which he describes Nigel Short losing a stone in weight during a week-and-a-half match. It is clear that top chess players, if they want to excel at technical level, need to be physically fit to do that; the two cannot be divided.

The main barrier in terms of definition appears to be the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937. The legal advice received by my Department concludes that chess does not fall within the meaning of the words "physical training and recreation" in section 3(1) of that Act. My Department has invested nearly £150,000 over the past three years to help the British Chess Federation to promote the development of chess, and we recently committed a further £50,000 per annum over the next three years. My Department makes over that money to the BCF under the annual Appropriation Acts because of the restrictions imposed by the 1937 Act.

It cannot be sensible in 1999 to have the issue of recognition tied to a definition struck in 1937. The world of sport and our attitudes toward sport have changed dramatically during the intervening 62 years. As if the 1937 Act were not enough of a problem, there is worse to come: chess does not fall within the meaning of the word "sport" in the context of the Sports Councils' current royal charters; and it appears unlikely that chess would be regarded as a sport under the National Lottery etc. Act 1993.

Let me set out the problems facing us. First, to gain recognition for chess, we would need primary legislation to change the 1937 Act; secondly, we would need to amend the royal charters, which would need to promulgated by the Sports Councils themselves; and, thirdly, we would probably need primary legislation to amend the National Lottery etc. Act 1993. Think about that. Who was it who said that the job of the Minister for Sport was all about free tickets and lager? However, do not despair—I have a cunning plan, which I shall announce in due course.

When I answered readers' questions in The Independent recently, I said, inter alia, that I wanted recognition for chess because we are very good at it. As the hon. Gentleman said—and this was in the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Moorlands— we are the second nation in the world after Russia in terms of chess success. In this country, 4 million people play chess, and in England alone 50,000 children in some 3,000 clubs play it. As my hon. Friend said, we have some spectacular young chess players; she mentioned 11-year-old Jessie Gilbert from Croydon, who became the youngest winner of an adult world title by winning the women's gold medal at the world amateur chess championships in January. We are extremely proud of what Jessie Gilbert has achieved for chess and for this country.

We could go on to talk about the great double triumph in Croatia, where the England men's team became European champions ahead of the Russians, and the England women's team took the bronze medal. We are talking about a big sporting success story in a country that wants sporting success, enjoys that success and at times feels deprived of it. That makes our failure to grant recognition all the more absurd. Yet, while we have imprisoned ourselves in our own legislation, other countries have forged ahead: 98 nations worldwide recognise chess as a sport; and 37 European countries do so, of which eight are partner members of the European Union.

As I said, recognition is not an academic issue: it would bring tangible benefits for the development of chess. Therefore, I can inform the House that the Secretary of State has proposed to broaden the scope of the 1937 Act to enable chess and other mind games to be funded by the UK Sports Council. We will do that as part of the new cultural framework Bill for which we are seeking legislative time. Once that is achieved, the Sports Council, in turn, will need to promulgate the appropriate amendments to its royal charters, which I feel certain it will want to do following our amendments to the 1937 Act. That would secure the recognition of chess.

However, we would still be left with the problem of the 1993 lottery Act. It would require primary legislation to amend if chess is to receive funding through the lottery sports fund—unless we can find a way around it. At the moment, all I can say is that I must consider the matter carefully and consult on it. As I understand it, if we can reach an agreed definition of sport, we will not need to change the 1993 Act via primary legislation.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

May I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister's words warmly, which will be well received by many chess players in the country at large? I am also grateful to the Minister for explaining the problems that we face. I hope that I am not pushing the boat out too far by also putting in a plug for bridge, to which many of the arguments also apply. I hope that the proposed legislation will cover bridge as well.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Sport), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of National Heritage/Department for Culture, Media and Sport)) (Sport)

The hon. Gentleman could seek to secure another Adjournment debate on the subject of bridge—perhaps at a more convenient time of day. The fact is that the amendment to the 1937 Act would include mind games.

We must arrive at a definition of sport that is agreeable and acceptable, and, with good will, we will achieve it. It is currently a nonsense situation and, quite frankly, I do not like presiding over nonsense situations. I intend to consult on the matter to see whether we can achieve an agreed definition of sport. If we can, we might not have to jump the third hurdle that I described: amending the 1993 lottery Act. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the new opportunities fund. It is not just a matter for schools: the British Chess Federation is eligible to apply for lottery funding to promote chess in after-school clubs using the new opportunities fund. I hope that it will do so.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members—particularly my good friend the hon. Member for Moorlands—who have campaigned assiduously for chess to be recognised as a sport. I think we will see the end of this match and that, with good will on all sides, we can achieve the objectives that we have set ourselves. I hope that, with tonight's Adjournment debate, we have started the process that will bring this country into line with so many other European Union nations and countries around the world that recognise the superb game of chess as a real sport.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to One o'clock.