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Formula 1 becomes a political issue

THE last week has been an extraordinary one for Grand Prix racing with the sport becoming a major issue in parliament and claiming front pages in most of the British newspapers. The spotlight on F1 was not, however, in the best interests of the sport as it centered on whether or not the British government's decision to exempt Formula 1 motor racing from a Pan-European ban on tobacco advertising had been influenced by payments made to the Labour Party by F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.

In the course of the week it was revealed that Ecclestone contributed $1.7m to the Labour cause before the General Election in May. This may seem a lot of money but in the course of the week it was also revealed that Bernie paid himself about $85m as his salary from Formula One Promotions and Administration (which has since become Formula One Holdings).

The Labour Party later announced that Ecclestone would get his money back on the advice of Sir Patrick Neill, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who said that this step should be taken in order to avoid the appearance of any influence on policy.

Ecclestone said that he did not want the money back and that he has a perfect right to donate money to whoever he chooses.

The order to repay the money led, not surprisingly, to accusations that the Labour Party had been influenced over the tobacco issue and the Prime Minister Tony Blair faced a rowdy House of Commons at his weekly Question Time.

Amid rowdy barracking from rival Conservatives, Blair defended the party's decision over the tobacco ban, calling it "the right decision for the right reasons". He said that the money from Ecclestone had played no part in the decision-making process and deflected attention from the issue by saying that he would be instigating an inquiry into the way all political parties are funded in Britain.

Conservative Party leader William Hague attacked the government, saying it was in "turmoil and chaos" over the tobacco issue. "I'm not accusing the Labour Party of being paid to break their promises," he said. "They break them for free all the time." Hague went on to demand to know which of the Labour ministers had taken the decision to exempt F1 from the tobacco╩ban.

Amid further Conservative jeering Blair said it had been "a collective decision". He went on to give details of events which had led up to the decision, revealing that Tessa Jowell, the Minister of Public Health, had met with Max Mosley on September╩23. Five days later Mosley and Ecclestone met German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to discuss the situation. On October 16 Blair himself met with Mosley and Ecclestone and four days after that meeting Kohl met with Blair and expressed concern about the effects of a ban. According to Blair the decision was not taken until the start of November.

Blair defended the decision, saying that a number of F1 countries, including the UK, have no legal tobacco sponsorship restrictions. Blair said that the other eight countries all have "special exemptions" or "special arrangements" for F1.

He drew attention to the policy in Australia - which he said had the "toughest anti-sponsorship laws anywhere in the world" - but which exempted F1 from the bans. He pointed out that there is a similar exemption in Portugal and that in Italy there is a ban but it is ignored each year and a nominal fine is levied against all F1 teams with tobacco sponsorship. "You may disagree with the decision we have taken," he said, "but when all these other countries have specific exemptions, I ask you to have a care for the effect on British industry." Blair added that "there was never any favor sought nor given."

Ecclestone said he had never asked for any favors. "I met Mr. Blair in July 1996 and was very impressed with him and his plans for our country," Bernie said. "In January 1997 I was asked by a colleague to make a contribution to New Labour, which I did. I have never sought any favor from New Labour or any member of the Government, nor has any been given."

In the course of the week it was revealed that Bernie had previously been a big donor to the Conservative party and several newspapers ran stories suggesting that Conservative leader William Hague had submitted the names of Bernie Ecclestone and Melbourne GP boss Ron Walker to the government recommending them for knighthoods.

Radical members of the Labour Party were shocked to discover the scale of the donations and warned of the dangers involved. "These new, Johnny-come-lately, high value donors are coming out after 17 years of the Tory culture - cash for influence - and we need to be very, very careful," said MP Diane Abbott.

Another radical MP Ken Livingstone said that the scandal had undermined Labour's credibility with the British people and called for a public inquiry. "We would be fools not to say it's been incredibly damaging because we didn't come out and say the whole thing on day one," Livingstone said. "We are only going to win back respect from the public on this issue once we have had the independent inquiry and it clears the air."

When Tessa Jowell rose to speak in the House of Commons she was greeted with shouts of "sleaze" from the Opposition benches and later in the week the Conservative's spokesman on treasury matters David Heathcoat-Amory was less subtle. "We saw the motor-racing industry successfully buying favors from a Labour Government," he said. " It is now certain that the Labour Party has broken an election pledge under pressure from a powerful industrial lobby which just happened to have given a lot of money to the Labour Party."

At the end of a tumultuous week Blair made a rare television interview on BBC admitting that the government's handling of the crisis has not been as adept as it could have been as he had been focusing on the developing crisis over Iraq.

In the course of the week it was suggested that the Labour Government might modify its decision over tobacco sponsorship slightly in an effort to placate the outraged European Union, but this would only bring F1 under a European ban after 10 years. The EU will be pushing for this to happen when the 15 health ministers meet on December 4, and calls for the ban to be imposed came last week from the United Nations International Children's Educational Fund, which urged the EU governments to adopt a ban.

"Not only would such a ban help save countless lives in the region," said a UNICEF spokesman, "it could lend momentum to the broader campaign for worldwide restrictions on the promotion and sale of tobacco products."

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