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Kate Hoey: I was privileged to spend a whole day at Badminton last season.

Mr. Gray: We were delighted to see the Minister there. She was lucky not to have been there the previous year when the rain was such that it was more like a swimming baths than an equestrian course.

Badminton, Burleigh and the other three-day events are centres of excellence in a sport that is often not given much thought. I am happy to pay tribute to my constituent Jane Holderness-Roddam, who is a gold medallist and does distinguished work with the disabled and others to encourage her sport.

In this context it is often thought that those who ride horses tend to be the gentry and are worthy of less support from the Government and elsewhere than those who play football, for example. I have some difficulty with that. People who take part in equestrianism are often very ordinary people who struggle significantly to find the

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massive amount of money necessary to attain the great achievements that they manage to accomplish. It is important to remember that people do not appear from nowhere and suddenly become Olympic gold medallists; some of the people who learn to ride in riding schools throughout the country go on to great things. As chairman of the Horse and Pony Taxation Committee and a consultant to the British Horse Industry Confederation, I am most concerned about the sharp decline in riding schools. Some 234--5 to 10 per cent.--of riding schools in England went out of business last year. If that process continues, we shall face a severe decline in the nation's equestrian prowess.

The issue was addressed to some degree in the recent Government announcement about the diversification of farms, when the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food stated that he would consider reducing the rates charged on farms that offered equestrian facilities. That is all very well, but since then two things have happened. He announced subsequently, first, that the measure would affect only extremely small equestrian businesses, and secondly, that it would apply only to new equestrian businesses, thereby putting existing equestrian businesses on farms out of business. Nor did the Minister say anything about reducing rates for existing riding schools. Therefore, farm businesses diversifying into equestrian activities would be competing unfairly with existing riding schools and might well exacerbate the decline in the riding school industry.

We are talking about ordinary, sensible suburban riding schools, with children learning to ride on Saturdays. That facility is progressively disappearing. If I may use the Minister as a conduit to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, will he please consider making it easier for farms to diversify into equestrian businesses, by changing planning regulations and reducing the rateable burden on farms? Will he also bear in mind existing riding schools, and at least find ways of cutting the rateable burden on them by 50 per cent., which is what the industry has been calling for for some time?

When I saw the title of today's debate, I looked up the references that have been made to sport over the years. In the old days, it used to be said that football and rugby were not sports but games and that sport referred to two things: the sport of kings--racing, of course--and the sport of the gentry, which is fox hunting. The Minister is one of the rare people in the Labour party who are outspoken in favour of the ancient sport of fox hunting--but perhaps that is the subject for another debate.

I make one plea on behalf of the sport of kings. The VAT regulations on the breeding of thoroughbred horses in the United Kingdom mean that breeding is progressively being exported, in particular to southern Ireland, where no VAT is charged on blood horse breeding. Southern Ireland has an unfair advantage over the United Kingdom. I hope that the Minister will make representations to her colleagues in the Treasury, so that we can change the VAT regulations and curtail the progressive export of blood horse breeding.

We must not think of sport as being only football and rugby, as this country also offers excellence in badminton, ping pong, equestrianism, swimming and other sports. We must include a broad spectrum. Unlike the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), I believe that

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darts is a splendid sport. His constituents will certainly have noticed that--extraordinarily--he does not consider it a legitimate sport.

We have a proud tradition, over hundreds of years, of being the best at every kind of sport. The national lottery has been a significant influence in turning round the decline in recent years, as was demonstrated in Sydney. I hope that the Government will build on the achievements of Sydney and take into account some of the detailed points that I have made on equestrianism so that, once again, we will be one of the great nations in the sporting world.

1.8 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): It is always good to debate sport--some people talk of little else. This has been a valuable debate. Several hon. Members have referred to the sparse attendance today, but there is no doubt that we have had a high-quality debate. The attendance says more about Friday sittings and the current state of our transport network than about our enthusiasm for the subject. As there is 2 ft of water standing in my constituency office in Old Malton, there is not a great deal that I could have done with my constituency secretary in sorting out constituency post this afternoon had I been there. I look forward to seeing the state of the problem tomorrow.

I remind the House of my interest as the president of York City football club. I do not think that we will have a waterlogged pitch tomorrow. We are due for what is colloquially known as a nine-point match--at the bottom of the third division, there are no six-pointers, there are nine-pointers--against Torquay United tomorrow. May the best team win.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) emphasised the importance that the Conservative party attaches to sport. That was reflected in the initiatives of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), to which several hon. Friends have referred. The first fruits of those initiatives have been spectacularly realised in recent weeks in Sydney. We warmly congratulate all our athletes and sports men and women who took part, especially the medal winners.

I know that some names of those who were successful have been mentioned. I would single out as my favourite Denise Lewis, whose performance gave me the most joy when watching the events in Sydney on television. She is a tremendous ambassador for the sport of athletics, for women in sport and for this country. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) said that anyone from any background, in any walk of life, should be inspired to achieve the very best on the world stage, and my goodness, Denise Lewis has done that.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) said that even very young children got hooked on watching the Olympics. I hope that that will be reflected in a greater interest in sport among children, in schools and in clubs.

There is no doubt that the world-class elite programme has made a huge difference, and Conservative Members warmly welcome the athletes' acknowledgment of that. I am not making a party political point, but it is not often that politicians are thanked, and I was greatly gratified that so many successful sports men and women acknowledged the importance of the lottery. We welcome today the Government's commitment to maintain the

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funding. We look forward to the review that the Secretary of State announced. We also look forward to an explanation in due course of where the funding to maintain the world-class elite programme will come from.

There is a case for a review. In particular, I hope that we can maintain support for swimming. We have won a lot of medals on the water--in sailing and rowing--but none in the water. Considering the present floods across the country and the danger that they present to young children, we really must encourage more children to take an interest in swimming. Great Britain should win a lot more medals in swimming than it has in the past.

A good example of the importance of the world-class elite programme was explained at the Sport England annual meeting which I attended in London on Monday evening. We were presented with a brief explanation by Stephen Baddeley, the chief executive of the Badminton Association of England. It is important to concentrate on the link between the world-class elite programme and the grass-roots of sport.

Some 8 million people play badminton on a casual basis--a terrific number--and 2 million play regularly. In 1996-97, the elite play expenditure started off at £140,000. In 1997-98, the figure increased to £1 million. In the current year, the figure is £2.4 million. In 1997, badminton was awarded £3.6 million capital funding from the lottery for the new badminton centre opened in Milton Keynes in March 1999. We also have high performance centres in Loughborough and Bath. That means that competitive players at the grass-roots level can feel encouraged, knowing that world-class facilities are available to them in this country if they wish to proceed to international sports. The cherry on the cake was that Britain won its first Olympic medal in badminton at Sydney. We congratulate Simon Archer and Joanne Goode on their bronze; we hope to see silver and gold medals at future Olympics.

Lottery funding, through the sports lottery fund, has become indispensable. Arguably, it is the most significant development for generations. My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey referred to some of our concerns about the Government's treatment of the lottery. I shall not dwell on that, except to say that I hope the Minister recognises that it is not just Opposition Members who are concerned about the riddle of the relationship between Sport England and the new opportunities fund and the money that the Government want to go to capital projects.

The funding of sport was a top priority for lottery proceeds under the previous Conservative Government and, under a future Conservative Government, sport will continue to enjoy a substantial stream of lottery income, year on year. We would hope to streamline the process, which many applicants find difficult.

We want the Government's proposal to provide more facilities for schools to succeed. It is important to stress that those new facilities must be for school and community use and that the investment is not just for the benefit of schools. How much, if any, partnership funding will be required from the £750 million over the next three years for the projects? The Secretary of State referred to partnership funding but I was not sure whether there would be a requirement for as much as 20 per cent. funding or, in some rural or inner-city areas, whether it might be possible for 100 per cent. funding of projects.

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Local authorities and the Government must work with Sport England to identify where the need is greatest. In the Conservative party's consultation document--referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins)--we suggested an audit of facilities and fields, and that has become very much in vogue. We should see not only what we have, but where we have gaps. The funding announced by the Government can fill those gaps, and I know of some in my own constituency.

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