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31 Mar 2003 : Column 764—continued


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Sustainable use of pesticides

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Health care and associated professions

Question agreed to.

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Neighbourhood Pharmacies

9.30 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester): The Government speak much of sustainable communities, but they have embarked on a programme of mass closure of our neighbourhood post offices, with a third of those in the urban network due for closure. Not content with that policy, they have before them proposals that would lead to an attack on and the closure of many of our neighbourhood pharmacies. I have a petition signed by 2,881 residents of Colchester and district.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Learning-disabled Athletes

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

9.32 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): About half way through last month, I received a short letter from a constituent:

It was signed David Vaughan.

Since then, I have met David, who is a young man coming up to his 18th birthday with, as he says, a learning disability and a passion for swimming—in particular, swimming as fast as he can in competition with others. I have to confess that, when I received David's letter, I thought that he must have made a mistake or got the wrong end of the stick. Surely the committee could not have banned every athlete with a learning disability from participating in its competitions, but David was right and I was wrong. When I investigated, I found that that is exactly what the committee had done.

As things stand, no learning-disabled athlete will be permitted to enter the Athens Paralympics in 2004. How has that come about? What led to such a draconian sanction? The story goes back to the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, when 10 Spanish male basketball players were found to have cheated because they did not have the intellectual disability that they claimed to have.

The International Sports Federation for People with Intellectual Disability—INAS-FID for short, which is the body responsible for eligibility verification for that group of athletes—was implicated in the cheating because its then president, Fernando Martin Vicente, as leader of the Spanish federation, had moved eligibility administration to his office in Madrid. It was his office that verified the eligibility of the basketball players, although they were ineligible.

The International Paralympic Committee set up an investigation commission to look into the eligibility cheating issue. It suspended INAS-FID from membership, and banned all athletes with intellectual disability from IPC-sanctioned competitions. Interestingly, it did not suspend the Spanish paralympic committee, which was ultimately responsible for all Spanish athletes entered in the Sydney games. Equally interestingly, although 11 positive doping cases were exposed in the Sydney paralympics, no similar investigation of that problem was instituted; nor did the main sport involved, weightlifting, incur anything comparable to the sanctions imposed on the learning-disabled.

In March 2001, the IPC executive committee requested INAS-FID to perform nine specific actions. The most important were acknowledging responsibility for the violations in Sydney, expelling Fernando Martin Vicente, accepting that verifications had not been carried out properly under his presidency, accepting the findings of the IPC investigation commission, agreeing

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to conduct its own investigation of the Sydney eligibility issue, agreeing to establish new leadership, and agreeing to put forward five experts for a joint IPC-INAS-FID eligibility verification scheme.

INAS-FID agreed to all those requests. When it conducted its own investigation of the Sydney games, it found that apart from the 10 Spanish basketball players, only three athletes did not fully meet the eligibility criteria. In each case the athlete, although not meeting the criteria, did have a disability. There is no evidence of a huge international problem of cheating by this group of athletes, in Sydney or anywhere else. There was, however, an eligibility verification issue, which everyone agreed should be tackled.

In November 2001, IPC and INAS-FID representatives met in Amsterdam, and the IPC secretary-general said he would recommend reconsideration of INAS-FID's suspension. In December, the executive committee added a new condition for the lifting of the suspension: INAS-FID must accept the IPC handbook's requirement for athletes to show what is described as

That caused problems for INAS-FID, which had always argued that the "functional" classification system was inappropriate for the identification of intellectual disability. It appears to have been persuaded to go along with the new requirement, given the clarification that "functional" did not mean "physical", and the acceptance that the IPC handbook was due to be rewritten and INAS-FID could influence that work if it was back in the IPC.

I should point out that the IPC handbook was written before learning-disabled athletes were allowed to compete in the paralympics, although they have been included in the last two games—in other words, fully involved for more than eight years. Even so, the handbook still really deals only with physical and visual disabilities, and that is generally recognised.

In the following months, INAS-FID tried to establish how it could meet the handbook's requirements. In October 2002, agreement was reached with IPC officers. It was outlined in a letter sent by the IPC medical officer to the various IPC sports chairpersons. There were three points, covering INAS-FID's responsibility for primary documentation of intellectual impairment—that is, psychologists' reports for individual athletes—which needed to be accessible at the competition site; INAS-FID's acceptance of the development of a sports-specific consequence analysis form as part of the eligibility/classification process, a sort of sports classification card; and INAS-FID's acceptance that an eligibility/classification protest procedure must be established.

On 9 January this year, INAS-FID gave the IPC information showing its implementation of all three conditions. It was hopeful about the reinstatement of learning-disabled athletes in all paralympic events. At its meeting on 1 February, however, the IPC management committee ruled that INAS-FID had not met its requirements, and that athletes with learning disabilities would not be allowed to participate in Athens. The committee argued that, in the case of the first two conditions, the INAS-FID proposal had not been tested and implemented.

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That seems to me to impose a sort of catch-22. The way in which to test the primary evidence eligibility system would be to use it in the registration process for an athletics or other sports meeting—indeed, that was how the previous registration scheme was tested at the Lille IPC world athletics championships—but while the ban continues, that will not be possible.

On the second condition, relating to the impact on the sport, the IPC position seems even less reasonable. INAS-FID's only opportunity to test its system was at the IPC swimming championships in Argentina in December. The IPC swimming chairman refused to use the INAS-FID system. On the third condition, the IPC argued that INAS-FID had not provided a protest procedure. That is just plain wrong. INAS-FID did present a specific protest procedure in July. However, it then agreed on the advice of the IPC medical officer to adopt the standard IPC procedure, with some modifications, again agreed with the IPC medical officer. In any case, although the system may not have been tested for actual competitions, it has been rigorously tested. Perhaps I could outline the current position as the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability sees it. A new registration form for athletes aspiring to compete in IPC events has been available from the beginning of the year. All documents will have to be sent to the INAS secretariat in Sweden for checking that they are completed fully and correctly. All nations entering athletes for INAS and IPC events are now required to have set up a verification committee in that country to check the accuracy and detail of documentation before they are sent to Sweden.

From 1 July, only athletes who have registered using the new form will be allowed to participate in IPC events, when and if learning-disabled athletes are restored to the IPC. The new registration procedure requires primary evidence of intellectual disability. It also requires evidence of the effect of that disability on sporting performance. The procedure was devised by two world-recognised experts, Professor McTavish and Professor Parmenter, aided by other experts in the specialism. The procedure was then tested by coaches on their own athletes and the results were analysed by other experts. They were subjected to three different tests to determine whether they were testing effectively the impact of intellectual disability on sports performance. The results were conclusive. INAS has offered to provide those procedures to any other expert in the field of intellectual disability for their analysis. In my opinion, there is no excuse for maintaining the ban on learning-disabled athletes from competing in Athens. I fear that we are seeing out-and-out discrimination.

There is one last chance, outside the law courts, for athletes with intellectual disability to be allowed to compete in the 2004 Paralympics. That is the appeal that INAS-FID will make to the IPC executive committee on 4 April. I hope that the Minister might be able to use his influence, perhaps through the British Paralympic Association and UK Sport, to encourage the IPC to reconsider and go the extra mile to get this important group of disabled athletes back where they belong on the international stage, particularly at the 2004 games in Athens.

There are currently 15 British athletes with a learning disability on the world class performance programme, all of whom are now hoping against hope to represent

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our country in Athens in 2004. UK Sport has made it clear that if the IPC maintains its ban on learning disabled athletes attending Athens, funding for those athletes will cease, probably as early as next month. Some of those athletes have been working towards competing in Athens for years, so the ban is devastating for them. I mean people such as Gemma Bennett, the 16-year-old learning-disabled swimmer from Barking, who is the double world record holder for 100 m and 200 m breaststroke. She said:

That feeling of devastation experienced by Gemma is not felt by British learning-disabled athletes alone, but by such athletes around the world.

Representative organisations from some 20 countries are considering taking the IPC to court on the ground that that group of athletes' human rights have been breached. However, the impact of the ban does not hit only the elite athletes around the world who have reached the standard high enough for them to compete in Athens in 2004. I go back to my constituent, David Vaughan, who has done very well in freestyle and backstroke, but is only now moving from juniors to seniors. He loves competition swimming and is very good at it. He loves to attend events, as he did three or four weeks ago, such as the British national championships in Sheffield, where he can swim with, watch and admire other swimmers with a range of disabilities who have overcome them in different ways to contribute to the sport.

David knows that he belongs in those all-embracing competitions and events. Indeed, David produced personal bests in Sheffield in both his main strokes. He does not yet know whether he will eventually reach the standard whereby he might be part of our paralympic team, perhaps in Beijing, but he has already identified that as a target, which, as he says, helps to provide him with the incentive to keep on training hard and to improve his times. David's case has been reflected around the country and around the world. We need the IPC to restore that target to David Vaughan and to all those like him.

The Government's White Paper on learning disability identified sporting activities as an area where people with learning disabilities are most excluded and likely to experience discrimination. It also said that enabling people to use a wider range of leisure opportunities can make a significant contribution to improving quality of life, help to tackle social exclusion and encourage healthier lifestyles. That White Paper was called "Valuing People". However, as I speak—ironically, about a third of the way through the European year of the disabled—an awful lot of learning-disabled people who are interested in sport do not feel that they are properly valued as people because of the IPC's decision.

Earlier today, I received a message from Mencap asking me to make a three-part appeal: first, to call on the Government to urge the IPC and INAS-FID to work together to resolve these issues immediately; secondly, to call on the IPC to extend its deadline to ensure that athletes with a learning disability are not excluded from the 2004 Olympics; and, thirdly, to urge

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the Government to work with UK Sport to seek an interim solution to ensure that athletes with a learning disability are able to continue their training programmes. I do not think that that is too much to ask.

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