Sport: British Formula 1 Grand Prix — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:04 pm on 23 April 2009.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 5:04, 23 April 2009

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I hope that my speech will be an answer to the last question that the noble Lord, Lord Luke, addressed to me about the extent to which the Government give our full support to the Grand Prix at Donington and to the motor sport industry. The noble Lord asked whether the House was aware of the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Astor, to that industry. We are all aware of it.

I am personally grateful that this very same debate nearly 12 years ago gave me the chance to make my maiden speech, in which I sought to develop exactly the issues that my noble friend Lord Rooker developed today: the significance of this industry for high-tech engineering, the significance of the development of skills in this country for engineering and the importance of our being aware that in education we need to address ourselves to science and engineering if we are to be a successful country. I did not speak with quite the eloquence or insight of my noble friend, who is a former engineer and therefore has the advantage of me. I merely produce engineers; both my sons are engineers, one of them in the motor industry. I do not have quite the insight that my noble friend illustrated today, but I subscribe very much to his remarks.

We are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Astor, for introducing this debate. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, who took us down memory lane. The noble Lord will forgive me if the Government do not go too far into the past but look to the future; after all, this debate is about the degree of future government support for the industry.

It is clear, though, and the noble Lord certainly did us a service in these terms, that the Grand Prix has a long and glorious tradition in this country and we produce great world champions, from Mike Hawthorn right through to Lewis Hamilton last year. While the Grand Prix is a regular occurrence in this country, it is no less a part of that exciting concept of the decade of sport that the Government are looking to foster, and to which the noble Lord, Lord Astor, made reference in his opening remarks, along with great events such as Wimbledon, the Six Nations, the FA Cup final and many others. It helps to showcase British talent and expertise alongside the world events that we have attracted and are hoping to attract.

We want to see success for the Grand Prix over the next 10 years and far beyond. I am grateful for the contributions today that emphasised not only the enormous thrills that the sport brings to a high percentage of our people—the noble Lord, Lord Astor, referred to television figures, and we should recognise how striking the interest in the Grand Prix is, represented by the numbers of people in this country watching the BBC broadcasts this year—but the wider issue of the importance of the Grand Prix and the industry to our economic well-being. It is important that Britain is able to stand tall in the world of engineering and to emphasise that it can enhance, develop and cultivate the high-level skills that guarantee that we will be at the forefront of research and technology. That is an important part of the success of the British motor racing industry.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord for referring to my noble friend Lord Drayson, who we all heartily hope will have a wonderful time at Le Mans. I feel a bit as if I am speaking about cricket while I have Kevin Pietersen sitting next to me, or speaking about soccer with Steven Gerrard here; it is quite clear whom the House would prefer to listen to. But my noble friend has significant interests and, as the House will readily appreciate, when speaking from the Dispatch Box the Government have only one interest: the governance and welfare of the nation. That is why I am deputed, in my rather inadequate stance, to have my noble friend sitting alongside me—but I assure the House that I have had the benefit of his advice in preparing my response to this debate.

We have all been excited, particularly this year, because of the success of British-based teams and drivers in the first three races. We all know that it is a long season and that there will be many changes. Climatic conditions are likely, one would expect and hope, to be a little different from those in Shanghai in the majority of races. We want to create an environment in which our teams prosper and, of course, we want to ensure that Britain continues to host Grand Prix.

Today's debate gives me a chance to set out the Government's position. The British Grand Prix is clearly one of the most exciting events in the British sporting calendar and is a key sporting event in the Prime Minister's call for an amazing decade in sport. If the Grand Prix were not staged, it would be to the detriment of that concept. We have some of the most passionate and well informed fans in the world, who do not just watch the race on television but, as my noble friend Lord Rooker indicated—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Astor, and other noble Lords attend Grand Prix—attend such events. We are all too well aware that the British Grand Prix is the biggest sporting event in the UK in terms of attendance. Even the new Wembley Stadium holds only 90,000. One or two footballing interests are represented in the House; the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, will know that football can manage 90,000, whereas the Grand Prix can manage three times that number. We are aware of the very keen interest displayed by the British public in Grand Prix.

Ministers and officials across Whitehall have done all that they can to support Silverstone in its attempts to retain the British Grand Prix. We helped through the East Midlands Development Agency because we were anxious about the future of the Grand Prix. There has been significant investment, not just from the motor industry; there was also substantial investment in the road that facilitated access to the Grand Prix at Silverstone. We stand ready to assist in that area.

We are aware that there are some reservations about Donington. The track looks fine, but there are reservations about facilities. There is still the question of raising capital, although our intelligence is that we can be optimistic that the investment in Donington will make it a huge success. However, should anything go wrong on that front, it is important that Silverstone is available to resume its position, because the essential thing is that we must not lose a British Grand Prix.

Donington will and must succeed. We are putting all our support into it. My right honourable friend Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Transport, visited Donington recently. He is also an east Midlands Member of Parliament, which is no disadvantage when one is talking about an event that has such a significant impact on the local economy. It is important that we recognise our support for Donington. Over the past five years, we have invested £11.5 million in the motor sport industry through programmes such as the learning grid in education and training initiatives, the establishment of a motor sport academy and the energy efficient motor sport programme to put energy efficiency at the heart of the modern sport. That gives great relevance to what we are all interested in—the improved energy efficiency of all transport in the United Kingdom.

We all recognise that the commitment of 10 years for the Grand Prix is a vote of confidence that Donington Park will prove to be up to the mark when the final tests are made and that we will be in a position to ensure that the circuit and the facilities are at the highest level.

I have been reminded that one of the most significant of all victories was Ayrton Senna's in 1993, which has always won great plaudits for the skill deployed on that occasion in somewhat difficult weather conditions. Like everyone in this House who knows anything about motor racing, I have the greatest respect for Ayrton Senna, but I hope that the first Grand Prix at Donington will have a British winner. That will certainly enhance the occasion for all of us.

Donington Park has a great history of hosting motor sport events and currently attracts large numbers of people. There is substantial investment required to bring it up to the level now required for a modern Grand Prix. We understand from ING, which is not an innocent of the world in raising money for major sporting venues, that the money will be raised for Donington and the necessary resources are in place. The track is not the issue. The issue is the costly additional facilities required.

We certainly stand by to help—not directly financially. Motor sport is an independent operation in this country, as most sports are. The Government can give degrees of support and help, as with Silverstone in the past. However, no one in this debate or in the industry argues for direct state support. We do not want a state-sponsored motor industry, but the Government can give necessary assistance and support in judicious ways, particularly by emphasising how important the industry is to the development of our society and economy. I continually emphasise that the Government will do all they can to build upon the high levels of technology deployed by the industry. In these days of loss of confidence, which is bound to attend difficult economic circumstances, the British people ought to take pride in an industry which is so dominant in the world. My noble friend Lord Rooker emphasised that seven out of the 10 major teams are based in the UK. That is only possible with a high level of research in the industry. It also means that we must produce engineers from higher education who can play their part.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked specifically whether the Government would give support. The Government will continue to give the support that we have done in the past. We see our role as facilitating and encouraging the Motor Sports Association and the owners of Donington to be proactive about attracting money from various funding arrangements to guarantee the finances they need. The Government also have a part to play with skills, education and infrastructure. My noble friend Lord Rooker identified how significant the industry is, with the number of companies involved in motor sports and the spin-offs from the technological breakthroughs it makes. I emphasise that the industry has an annual turnover of £7 billion, with 50,000 full- and part-time workers, including 30,000 engineers. That is a significant part of our economy. It would be a blow if the Grand Prix were not held in this country, and we will do our best to ensure that it will be. Officials and Ministers have been co-operating with local interests to ensure that Donington is successful.

I am conscious that I have strayed a little beyond my time; I apologise to the House. We want to see the continuation of the proud tradition of the British Grand Prix in this country. We are delighted that Donington has secured the right to host this event for the next 10 years. That is a real vote of confidence and gives Donington—