Sharon took part in the Second Reading debate of the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Amendment) Bil
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I am very pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who I wish had been able to attend the Second Reading of my private Member's Bill, as I would have had another supporter in the House for what I was trying to achieve.
I welcome the Bill, which makes some very sensible amendments and additions to the 2006 Act. I am pleased that the Government have so far demonstrated that they are as committed to delivering a vibrant and memorable games as the previous Government were, even if they are not quite so keen on parts of the legacy side of things. I am referring specifically to the free swimming and the school sports partnerships, which have been scrapped.
Hugh Robertson: I am going to take this only so far, as this has been a consensual debate thus far and I do not want change that. I am absolutely prepared to take criticism from the hon. Lady about this if she will tell me what she would have cut from the sports budget had that not been done.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I have allowed latitude but I do not want us to get into a political row. This has been a good debate so far and I am sure that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) will think about how her speech is going to continue.
Mrs Hodgson: I did not intend to expand on that point, but if I had responded, without your intervention, Mr Deputy Speaker, it would have been only to say that such decisions were above my pay grade.
I want to place on record my praise for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games and the Olympic Delivery Authority for the excellent way in which the preparations for the games are coming together. It would also be remiss of me not to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) again on the integral role that she has played in securing the games. The fact that we have them here in the UK in the first place is one of her greatest achievements. We talk about legacies, and that is her legacy to the country from her time as the Olympics Minister.
As we have heard, this week saw the close of the application process for the tickets. I had planned to apply for tickets but then decided that I would wait and test out the resale forum that the right hon. Member for Bath was just asking for more details about. I am interested in seeing how that works, and hon. Members might be aware why I am so interested in that issue. I believe that that mechanism could be rolled out to tackle ticket touting across the board for all major sporting, cultural and live entertainment events, as I suggested on Second Reading of my Sale of Tickets (Sporting and Cultural Events) Bill. I am sure that the Minister and other hon. Members will not be surprised that it is on the subject of ticket touting, and therefore clause 3 of the Bill, that I wish to concentrate my comments today.
I agree wholeheartedly with the provision to increase the fine for those prosecuted under section 31 of the 2006 Act. I know from my own meetings with officers from Operation Podium that touts caused serious problems at the Beijing games, and it is absolutely right that the Government and the police should do everything within their power to ensure that the same does not happen here. As I told the House on Second Reading of my Bill in January, those officers from Operation Podium told me, when I met them to discuss my Bill, that a fine of £5,000 would be seen as an occupational hazard by the real hard core of touts, particularly as it is possible to make that much profit or more on a single ticket to one of the premium sessions, such as the opening or closing ceremony.
The right hon. Member for Bath has mentioned Wimbledon, which happens every year but for which debenture tickets have been known to sell at mark-ups of £10,000 each. The Olympics takes place every four years, but it is not in the UK every four years or even every 40 years, so for many of our constituents, even the relatively well-off ones, being able to go to them is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It would therefore be no surprise whatever to see tickets going at astronomical mark-ups. That prompts the question that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) asked-whether even a £20,000 fine would be seen as nothing more than an inconvenience to some of the hardcore, criminal, organised touts. However, I understand that Ministers have to draw the line somewhere, and I am fairly confident that £20,000 is sufficient to deter the touts at the bottom of the pyramid-the kind of chancers who might ordinarily get half a dozen tickets to a gig to sell on. I hope that when big operators are caught, the prosecution will assess the offence as a lifestyle crime and claw back more substantial amounts of money by using the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that issue in his closing remarks.
The next key part of the drive to stamp out touts from the Olympics is to remove their market as far as possible. By that I mean making sure the public know that tickets they buy from anywhere other than the official website-and, from next year, I believe, the official resale or exchange forum-have been sold to them illegally. For many, although not all, this will serve to change their attitude to buying from a tout. Of course, the task of changing attitudes might be difficult, because touting for almost every other form of live entertainment, as we heard in response to the right hon. Member for Bath, is still allowed and condoned by this Government-as it was, it must be said, by the previous Government. Indeed, some Opposition Members came along to the Second Reading of my private Member's Bill to say that they thought ticket touting was a classic case of the free market in action and that touts were nothing more than entrepreneurs. It is good to know that the spirit of Baroness Thatcher is still unashamedly alive on the Tory Back Benches, but it makes one wonder whether the Minister might have a small Back-Bench rebellion on his hands today.
However, I notice that some of my main adversaries during the debate on my private Member's Bill are not present today. Perhaps the Minister has already neutered their free-market tendencies-I hope that they are recovering well. Presumably, they might say that Olympic tickets are indistinct from tickets to a 200-capacity U2 gig, and are an asset to be traded like any other. Either way, I am pleased that the amendment is being made today and that touting's parasitical nature and criminality are being taken seriously by both the police and the Minister.
During the course of the conversations that the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues will have had with police and officers on the inclusion of clause 3 in this Bill, I hope that they will have been sufficiently convinced of the egregious nature of ticket touting to engage with me now and look for ways of ensuring that fans of other sporting and live entertainment events will enjoy similar protection. After all, Ministers must have been very convinced by the evidence presented to them, as we have already heard.
A Home Office press notice on 10 March stated, in a direct quote from the Home Secretary:
"The focus of the government and everyone involved is to deliver a safe and secure Olympic and Paralympic Games that London, the UK and the world can enjoy. It will not be spoiled by ticket touts."
That is great, and I could not agree more. Allowing touting, either by not legislating or by not enforcing that legislation, would be hugely detrimental to ordinary fans who want to get along to the games. We know that because we can see how detrimental it is every night of the week in towns and cities up and down the country to fans who want to go to gigs, matches, festivals and shows.
In the Home Office press release, Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison, the national Olympic security co-ordinator, stated:
"We do not want our Games blighted by touts....Touts are part of organised criminal networks, often involved in other crimes, and we are committed to dismantling them layer by layer."
The Minister intervened on the right hon. Member for Bath to say that that relates in particular to the Olympic games, but I have been presented with evidence showing that those criminal networks are not only set up to take advantage of the Olympic games, but that they already exist and are taking advantage every time a bout of tickets goes on sale.
Hugh Robertson: I made an undertaking on Second Reading of the hon. Lady's Bill to look at that issue again, notwithstanding the advice of the Select Committee and, indeed, the position we inherited from the previous Government. It was made abundantly clear to me that there was no such evidence. She told me on Second Reading that there was evidence, but when I asked the Home Office directly I was told that there is no evidence of a more generalised threat. There is evidence of a specific threat towards certain high-profile events, of which the Olympics are one.
Mrs Hodgson: I do not want to get into an argument with the Minister-heaven forbid-but when I met officers from Operation Podium and from the Met's team on money laundering, I was told that they had evidence and that they were dealing with touts on a large, organised criminal basis and in relation to all touting. They said specifically that they were working towards the Olympics, and there have already been arrests under Operation Podium, but this concerns gangs that were already operating and making large sums of money; the industry runs to £1 billion.
I could not agree more with what Chris Allison said, but it is interesting to note the difference between the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on this issue. The Minister committed on Second Reading of my Bill to looking further into the matter, and I am pleased that he has done so, as obviously his conversations have led to clause 3. I hope that Ministers now see that there is a problem. The Minister is still saying that the problem relates specifically to the Olympic games-
Hugh Robertson: Specific high-profile events.
Mrs Hodgson: "Specific high-profile events": that recognises that the problem could go beyond the Olympic games. If the Minister does not mind, I will take what he just said as a very positive sign that perhaps my campaign could still catch hold, and I could go some way towards convincing him of the need for further legislation.
I am aware that the hon. Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) spoke to the Secretary of State's office on 17 March about setting up a meeting with representatives from the live entertainment and sporting industries, him and myself to discuss this matter. I believe that he is yet to receive a response to that request, but I hope that it will find its way into the Secretary State's red box soon. Many prominent entertainment and industry professionals are very keen for a chance to put their case to the Secretary of State, and could perhaps bring the further evidence that he might require on the criminality, and how widespread the problem is, not only for major sporting events but for festivals and music gigs.
To conclude, I support the Bill and its aims wholeheartedly and look forward to it reaching the statute book in good time, preferably before people get to hear whether their ticket applications have been successful, because they may then be tempted to tout them. Clarification on whether the Bill will be passed before people find out whether their ticket applications have been successful would be very helpful. As I said, I hope that in the course of arriving at clause 3 the Government's position on touting more generally will have shifted sufficiently to mean that they will now engage meaningfully with me and other hon. Members from both sides of the House who want more action to be taken to protect fans of all live entertainment, sporting and cultural events from exploitation by touts.