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Manchester United: BSkyB Bid


3.12 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they expect to receive the Office of Fair Trading report on BSkyB's bid for the ownership of Manchester United Football Club plc.
The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Simon of Highbury): My Lords, the statutory deadline for the decision by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on whether to refer BSkyB's proposed acquisition of Manchester United to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is 2nd November. We expect to receive the advice of the Director-General of Fair Trading on the merger in time for the Secretary of State to make a decision by that date.


Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. I quote:

    "Football, the people's game, is being too driven by money and not enough by the sporting spirit".

Does not that statement by the Prime Minister, since when football has become even more money-driven, alone justify at least a reference to the MMC? Manchester United was built by supporters whose loyalty is second to none, not least that of its 40,000 season ticket stakeholders and 100,000-plus members. Are their views being adequately consulted? And what is being done to inform ordinary shareholders that they have the right to reject the offer and can do so simply by ignoring it?


Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for highlighting the important point that, when an offer is made, shareholders have the right to accept or refuse it. As to the question of the fairness and spirit of the game and the results, I have to try to remain objective, despite my title. It would be invidious of me to comment on the performance of Manchester United and its fans.


Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I take it that the noble Lord would agree that control or influence over a large portion of the modern communications network is the key to immense power and influence and that Mr. Murdoch's share of this network has been growing steadily over recent years. Are the Government not becoming a bit nervous about that, and do they not feel that the point has been reached when, in the words of a famous, long-ago Motion, it ought to be diminished?


Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, the Government are always fully aware of developments in commercial areas which are highly germane to the economy. As the noble Lord is probably aware, there have been two examinations of Mr. Murdoch's capacity in the wholesale supply of information through the networks. The Director-General of Fair Trading has commented on those, the last time as recently as 1996.


Lord Barnett: My Lords, I declare an interest, not as a shareholder but as a supporter of Manchester United and, therefore, of the PLC. Can my noble friend tell us what kind of considerations the Secretary of State will take into account, on either side of the argument, as to whether the matter should be remitted?


Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, the main elements that the Secretary of State will take into account are those which are generally influential to fair competition and the interests of the consumer. In this case the consumer--the stakeholder, the fan--will be very much in people's minds, even if it is Manchester United that is involved.


Lord Borrie: My Lords, will the Minister think it satisfactory, when the contract between BSkyB and the Premier League comes to an end in 2001, if at that time BSkyB is competing with other television companies to televise football games and is also well represented, through ownership of Manchester United, on the other side of the negotiating table?


Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, the question as to the position in 2001 is extremely hypothetical. First, we want to see what the court says about the agreement between the Premier League and its television contacts, which is currently under investigation. When we have the result of that investigation we may see whether it leads to interest in the second stage, which my noble friend has outlined.


Lord Razzall: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the real interest that the Government would have in this case would be the television interest, in particular if the arrangements under which the Premier League clubs negotiate en bloc with the television companies, in particular BSkyB, are held unlawful by the Restrictive Practices Court? Will he confirm that, notwithstanding the date of the OFT recommendation on this occasion, once we have the Restrictive Practices Court decision, the Government will look at the issue again?


Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I am sure that, as always, the Government will take into account any decision of the court in looking at the structure of the industry as a whole. I repeat my answer to the previous question: let us await the decision of the court on that inquiry.


Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the Minister not aware that, if the Government give the go-ahead to this takeover, takeovers of other major clubs will follow quickly, and football and control over it as we know it will cease to exist, and a monopoly will be created at the top of the game?


Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I am sure that, if similar cases arise, it will be possible for them to be investigated in much the same way. I believe it will always be regarded as a legal question over which we have a certain amount of control.


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