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House of Commons

Monday 29 March 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

Madam Speaker: As the motion is opposed, it will have to stand over until the time for raising matters of privilege--after statements.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--


1. Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): What recent representations he has received concerning the status of chess in the UK. [77368]

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Tony Banks): I have in recent months received a number of representations on chess from right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House and from members of the public, and all of them have been in favour of chess being classified as a sport. Hon. Members will be aware of my strong support for chess and of my recent announcement that, at the earliest parliamentary opportunity, we intend to amend existing legislation so that chess can be "recognised" as a sport.

Maria Eagle: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, and welcome very much the support that he has shown for reclassifying chess as a sport. Does he agree that chess is an excellent pursuit in which boys and girls and men and women may learn concentration, strategy and tactics? Does he also agree that it is an excellent pursuit for children in after-school clubs--where it may have an immediate impact by increasing our younger children's concentration in school?

Mr. Banks: Both the Secretary of State and I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's view, which has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House,

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that chess is enormously valuable not only to young people, but to all people--although it does seem to be a sport that is better played the younger one is. We have an 11-year-old champion--Jessie Gilbert, from Croydon--who was the youngest adult winner of the world championships, which was absolutely amazing. We have 50,000 children playing chess in clubs across the country. Furthermore, the new opportunities fund offers another opportunity for chess to be taken into after-school clubs. There are, therefore, plenty of opportunities. Chess is a wonderful British success story in sport. We should recognise it as a sport, as do 11 of our partners in the European Union.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given the hon. Gentleman's reported remark that chess should be reclassified as a sport

will he explain to the House how chess meets the requirement of the Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937, which stipulates that, to be categorised as a sport, an activity should necessitate some physical--as distinct from mental--effort?

Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman--who does a very good impression of a small pawn in the House--makes a point. I said only inter alia that we should recognise chess as a sport because we are good at it. Although that does not seem to be a bad reason for recognising it as a sport, there are many other reasons why we should do so. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman was absolutely right in saying that it does not meet the definition of a sport under the 1937 Act--which is precisely why I said that we shall seek the earliest parliamentary opportunity to amend that Act.


2. Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston): What initiatives have been introduced to improve (a) access, (b) quality of service and (c) value for money in local library services. [77369]

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has required all library authorities to produce annual library plans for the first time. Books are at the heart of a public library service, and annual library plans report on, among other matters, the range and adequacy of the stock of books and accessibility of service. My right hon. Friend has also announced substantial additional funds for libraries, totalling almost £300 million, to enable them to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by information and communications technology.

Ms Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that there is considerable scope for modernisation and innovation in our library services? Will he congratulate my local library service on introducing innovations--such as implementing smart cards to enable self-issuing outside working hours, linking library services to sports centres and linking provisions for schools and communities to provide enhanced facilities for both? There is probably more innovation across the country than we are aware of. What role might my hon. Friend play in disseminating good practice and promoting modernisation throughout our councils?

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments, and should like, very readily, to add my

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congratulations to those that I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expressed on his visits to her library service. We have seen some very remarkable increases in usage of libraries in her authority--particularly where libraries have been linked to leisure centres. That seems to be a good example of innovative good practice, and she is right to draw attention to it. With the instrument of the new annual library plans, we shall be able increasingly to establish standards to be applied consistently across the country, and to have better opportunities to identify good practice and to disseminate that practice. We shall certainly be keen to do so.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): While the Minister is in congratulatory mode, will he join me in congratulating Conservative Kent, Surrey and Bedfordshire county councils on preserving all their library services, despite the cuts in funding from central Government? Will he urge Labour-controlled councils such as Brent, Camden, Lambeth, Haringey, Merton, Wolverhampton, Wirral and Southwark to follow that example, because they are busily engaged in closing libraries? Will he have a special word with the Secretary of State, who has a particular relationship with Islington council, which is closing five of its 10 local libraries? That is hardly likely to encourage access, quality of service or value for money, is it?

Mr. Howarth: I am afraid that I cannot offer the congratulations that the hon. Gentleman invites me to. He is at his most selective and biased, as is all too plain to the House. He cited the example of Surrey, which was a very close-run thing; the council tax payers of Surrey had a narrow squeak. The hon. Gentleman is wrong about Islington, which has withdrawn the proposals to which he referred.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State takes very seriously his statutory responsibility under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to superintend and promote a comprehensive and efficient library service. We have announced the best local authority standard spending assessment settlement for seven years, and there is no justification for cuts to library services. We are invigilating closely what is going on authority by authority. We have made inquiries of several authorities. We are determined that this country's precious library service should be fully maintained and enhanced.

Millennium Commission (Volunteering)

3. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): In what ways the millennium fund has promoted volunteering. [77370]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): The Millennium Commission is making a major and enduring contribution to promoting volunteering in the United Kingdom. Its millennium awards scheme is enabling 40,000 individuals to put their bright ideas for community projects into action, and many of the capital projects that it is supporting will provide significant encouragement and opportunities for volunteering.

Mr. Dismore: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the 4,000 people who have already received awards, particularly the two from my

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constituency--one for an environmental project and the other for a family learning project? How does he envisage the fund contributing towards dealing with social exclusion?

Mr. Smith: I join my hon. Friend in congratulating all the millennium award winners on their work in developing their skills and giving something back to their community in the process. The aim is that 40,000 individuals will be assisted in that over the next five years. There are also many initiatives in the capital projects funded by the commission. The commission has granted £22 million to the changing places scheme, which is an umbrella scheme incorporating 21 community projects in England and Wales that will reclaim wasteland and enhance local environments. It relies heavily on local volunteers and 70,000 are expected to contribute to the project, which will make a major contribution towards tackling social exclusion.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Department for Education and Employment is also producing what appears to be an excellent scheme on millennium volunteers. Will it be possible to produce a directory of the many worthwhile millennium initiatives for use by Members of Parliament, local councillors, citizens advice bureaux and others? It is also important to know the local contact points for such schemes. The millennium volunteers project is a great idea, but it will not be great in practice if people do not know with whom to get in touch.

Mr. Smith: The hon. Gentleman's point about the millennium volunteers programme will be fully addressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. We are working closely with him and the Millennium Commission to ensure that all the initiatives are properly co-ordinated and that detailed information is available. The millennium voyager bus is going around the country--it has recently visited Birmingham--full of information about what is happening in each area, how to contact the organisations involved and what is planned for the millennium year.

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