Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Wood of Anfield Lord Wood of Anfield Labour 6:00 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, Amendment 224 is designed to protect the so-called listed events regime, the rules designed to ensure that major sporting events in the UK remain universally and freely available. The listed events rules have enjoyed cross-party support for well over 30 years, and have succeeded in preserving live coverage of certain major sporting events on free-to-air TV—such as the Olympics, the World Cup, the Grand National, the Rugby World Cup Final—while also ensuring that a second category of sporting events is guaranteed to have highlights available on free-to-air TV, such as the Six Nations rugby and the Commonwealth Games. Those rules have successfully managed to combine two competing sets of considerations: the desire of the public to be able to access, without extra payments, the major sporting occasions that define our culture and bring us all together; and the need for sporting bodies to maximise their commercial revenues to invest in both their professional sportsmen and sportswomen and to develop their grass-roots activities.

The audiences for these major sporting events testify to the success of the listed events rules. In 2015, over 40 million people watched the Rugby World Cup on ITV. Some 45 million people watched the Rio Olympics and Euro 2016. England’s disastrous performance against Iceland in the Euros last summer was the most watched sporting event of the year, with 15 million—which I am sure will cheer us all. The men’s final at Wimbledon and the final of Euro 2016 attracted more than 13 million viewers. Some 80% of the public say that listed events are important to our country and 25% say that the BBC’s Olympic coverage during the London Olympics inspired them to take part in sport themselves.

In recent years the listed events regime has come under some moderate threat, largely from competitors to PSB broadcasters, which want to undermine the privileged position of free-to-air channels. So far, all political parties—and all parties—have resisted the lobbying to reform those rules, and I trust that the Government have no intention to revisit the principle behind the listed events regime. However, this amendment is not about protecting the rules against calls for repeal of the regime; it is specifically to protect the regime from falling into obsolescence in the face of technological change and changing viewing habits.

The aim of the rules is to guarantee that major sporting events are available universally, irrespective of the ability to pay. I hope that we all share that ambition. The current rules express that in statute by restricting what counts as a qualifying service to channels which, first, are free and, secondly, are received on TV sets by 95% or more of the UK population. The problem is that despite the ambition of those rules, the criteria they adopt are becoming outdated as the number of households in which programmes are watched on devices other than TV sets rises. As a result, for the first time, the major free and free-to-air broadcasters share the fear and expectation that before this Parliament is over, no TV channel will qualify for the 95% criterion—not one. That leaves the regulator unable to guarantee the continued availability of listed events to audiences across the UK, and in the long term risks collapsing the credibility of the listed events rules altogether.

The rules for listed events need therefore to be updated. The amendment we propose, backed by all five free-to-air PSB providers, would replace the 95% reception criterion with a requirement that any qualifying service must have had programmes that have reached or been viewed by at least 90% of the public in the last calendar year—where the definition of a “viewing” is at least 15 minutes consecutive viewing a year. That measure would serve as a good proxy for “free to air” continuous availability. It maintains the spirit of the existing regime, is simple to implement, not tied to any particular distribution platform and, crucially, it is open to any service that is free and committed to maximising access.

Of course, there is a genuine debate to be had about the nature of the rule that is introduced to replace the existing rules that are at risk of becoming obsolescent. However, it cannot be right for anyone committed to maintaining the listed events regime to deny that there is a big problem brewing or the need for reform to keep major sporting events universally available. I hope that when the Minister replies he can agree at least with the principle that the rules need to be updated, and suggest a process for taking this revision forward. I beg to move.