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31 Mar 2003 : Column 770—continued

9.46 pm

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) for securing an Adjournment debate to discuss this very important issue for athletes with a learning disability and for disability sport as a whole.

As my hon. Friend forcefully explained, the recent decision by the International Paralympic Committee not to allow athletes with a learning disability to participate in the 2004 Paralympic games in Athens was understandably a great disappointment to the athletes involved and to their families and supporters, and I will comment specifically on that in due course. However, I should like to say at the outset that the Government are determined to promote sport for people with disabilities to enable them to compete on equal terms in mainstream sport. That was clearly underlined last summer at the Manchester Commonwealth games, where, for the first time in a major multidisciplinary international event of that nature, able-bodied and disabled people competed for the same medals, which enabled them to compete on equal terms in mainstream sport. The Government take the funding and development of disability sport very seriously, and as Minister for Sport I will continue in my efforts to raise awareness and to extend opportunities for all those involved in disability sport.

As a demonstration of that commitment, we have put in place extensive funding for disability sport at the elite and the grassroots levels. The British Paralympic Association has over the years received funding from UK Sport, which was further strengthened in 2002 with an award of £1.7 million in support of the British team, leading up to the Paralympic games in Athens in 2004. That award represented one of the largest ever investments in elite disability sport in the UK. The award comes in addition to the annual investment of more than £3 million in individual disability sports through the world-class performance programme. In addition, in England the world-class potential programme assists in the development of talented athletes with the potential to win medals in future international competitions over the next eight years. For example, disability swimming has been allocated more than £3 million up to 2005. For grassroots sport, we invest more than £1 million a year in disability sport directly, through Sport England. Since 1998, the majority of funding for disability sport has been channelled through Sport England to the English Federation for Disability Sport, which was set up with the purpose of leading a unified, co-ordinated and comprehensive approach to sport for disabled people.

As I think you can see, Mr. Speaker, the Government are committing significant investment to develop disability sport at all levels in Britain. The benefits were apparent at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000 and at other international events since. However, it is generally agreed that the full benefits of investment in such programmes will not be realised until the Paralympic

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games in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. However, funding is not the only issue. For example, I will have the pleasure of attending the Special Olympics in Dublin in June this year. The event will provide the opportunity for individuals with learning disabilities, at all ability levels and from all around the world, to participate at what will be an international sporting extravaganza.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gower referred to athletes with learning disabilities. I am aware of the background to this issue. At the Paralympics in Sydney, 10 members of the Spanish male basketball team falsely claimed to have learning disabilities. As a result, the International Paralympic Committee felt that the eligibility verification system of the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability—INAS-FID, as my hon. Friend referred to it, which is the international governing body—was not adequate to ensure fair competition. That position was accepted by the governing body. Following that admission, the IPC suspended INAS-FID, and its athletes were not allowed to participate in any future IPC events—in particular, the 2004 Paralympic games in Athens. As a result, the IPC set out a series of conditions that INAS-FID had to meet to be considered for readmittance. I understand that, to help INAS-FID with the development and improvement of its procedures, the IPC has provided support and advice, as well as financial assistance.

In order to finalise the programme of events for the 2004 Paralympic games in Athens, the IPC had to decide whether events for athletes with a learning disability would be included. Indeed, the IPC extended the deadline for that decision to allow INAS-FID more time to meet the conditions. Unfortunately, at a meeting on 31 January 2003, the IPC concluded that INAS-FID's procedures still did not comply with its guidelines. It was therefore decided that events for athletes with a learning disability could not be included in the Athens 2004 Paralympic games, as the IPC could not guarantee to the athletes taking part that they would be competing on a level playing field. From the details that I have seen, I believe that the IPC has given very careful consideration to this matter and has supported INAS-FID in its efforts to develop a system that meets the required conditions.

I have a copy of a letter that was sent to the president of INAS-FID Europe, Mr. Bernard Atha. The letter lays out and explains what my hon. Friend mentioned earlier about the three conditions that were laid down at that meeting of 31 January. I will ask Mr. Atha if my hon. Friend may have a copy of this letter, as he may wish to see it. On the three conditions, the letter says:

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That is pretty detailed and it may be challenged, but it nevertheless shows the depth to which the IPC has gone in putting its case.

The IPC has agreed to prepare a further series of comments and suggestions to enable INAS-FID to identify what action needs to be taken to meet the conditions. In addition, the financial support from the IPC development fund, as well as technical advice and guidance, will continue to assist INAS-FID in the work that needs to be done.

The IPC has also stated that, one month from a decision by its executive committee that INAS-FID has met the conditions, its athletes will be fully reinstated in IPC events. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, a further result of that decision is that 15 UK athletes with learning disabilities have been informed that, as from 30 April 2003, they will lose the funding received from the world-class performance programme, as they will not be competing at the Athens 2004 Paralympic games.

UK Sport's action is in line with policy regarding the use of lottery funding in supporting success at the Olympic and Paralympic games and would apply to any athlete on the programme. However, I understand that the various organisations involved have made every effort to overcome that situation. Those efforts include UK Sport agreeing to continue to fund the swimmers with learning disabilities, so that they can attend the INAS-FID swimming world championships in Hong Kong in May.

In addition, the athletes will still be eligible for support from the athlete career and education programme—the ACE programme—until April 2004, and they have been told what support is available to them. Furthermore, although world class performance programme funding is no longer available to those athletes, the national governing body in the UK for athletes with learning disabilities can apply for funding for future events through UK Sport.

Those athletes may not be eligible for funding under the world-class potential programme. Under that scheme, they would not receive financial support until INAS-FID was reinstated in IPC events. However, in the meantime, they could train alongside other athletes

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and have access to support services such as training camps, coaching and educational support. Indeed, the Amateur Swimming Association and UK Athletics have already submitted proposals to Sport England for athletes with learning disabilities to gain access services on that basis.

At the end of the day, the decision is one for the IPC, and it has not been taken lightly. However, the IPC thought it necessary to ensure that the credibility of its events—in particular, the Paralympic games—is protected. The IPC is an independent body and Governments do not have a right to appeal against its decisions. Although the decision has severely affected UK athletes, the impact also affects athletes with learning disabilities in other countries.

There are, however, steps that I can take as the Minister for Sport to ensure that the problem is resolved. My officials have been in contact with the British Paralympic Association about the matter and, as the UK member of the IPC, it has assured me that it will continue to press the IPC and INAS-FID to overcome the current problems and to work swiftly to establish an

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acceptable eligibility verification and protest system. I believe that it is in everyone's interests to find a resolution to the problem as quickly as possible.

I do not doubt that the UK athletes must be bitterly disappointed by the decision made by the IPC. They, as with all elite athletes, will have worked extremely hard towards their goal of the Paralympic games in Athens in 2004. My sympathy is with them because of the efforts that they have already put in. However, I can assure them that I will closely monitor events to ensure that all the national and international sports associations involved work together for a quick resolution to this issue. We will continue to support the BPA in its action to provide any necessary support and advice to the governing bodies. Although I accept that the withdrawal of funding will have caused difficulties for the athletes, I can confirm that UK Sport's decision to remove funding from the world-class performance programme is in line with the policy for this programme. None the less, I fully support the efforts by the funding organisations and the governing bodies of sport to provide support, wherever possible, to the athletes.

Question put and agreed to.

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