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House of Commons

Monday 13 September 2004

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Swimming Pools

1. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): How many 50-metre swimming pools there are. [187891]

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): Before I answer the question, Mr. Speaker, may I congratulate all our Olympians, who performed incredibly well? We also send our best wishes to our competitors in the Paralympics, which starts next week.

There are currently 20 50-metre swimming pools in the UK.

Chris Bryant: I am sure that all hon. Members congratulate our two Olympic swimming medallists, David Davies and Stephen Parry. It is unfair on our swimmers that only 20 50-metre pools exist in this country, when Germany has 92 and France has 90. Wales contains only one such pool and London has only two, despite the fact that Paris, another capital city, has 19. We should invest more in swimming and build more 50-metre pools, so that people who swim the 1,500 m do not have to do excessive numbers of tumble-turns.

Mr. Caborn: Sport England is committed to eight new 50-metre pools. We currently have 3,648 swimming pools and 1,134 25-metre pools. Since 1995, one sixth of all lottery money, some £279 million, has been invested in swimming. I accept that we must do more for elite swimmers, and we are discussing facilities for our elite athletes with swimming's governing body, but swimming has received major investment in the recent past.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. Building more swimming pools up and down the country is surely to be encouraged, but it is not so much a question of size as a question of usage. The villagers of Membury in my constituency know that size is not everything: they have a community swimming pool, which the school uses, and they have an enormous problem with insurance. Last year, the premiums
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rocketed up, and cover cannot be obtained at all this year, so local people will not be able to use the pool. I contacted the Financial Secretary, who passed the matter on to the Home Office, from which I am yet to hear. Will the Minister indicate how public swimming pools owned by local communities can be insured, so that local people can use them?

Mr. Caborn: I do not know the exact detail of the case raised by the hon. Gentleman, but insurance for sport is a serious issue. In particular, extreme sports find that they cannot get instructors, who allow young people to participate in those sports, because they cannot get insurance. The Home Office, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the industry are examining the problem, and we have also discussed a private Member's Bill on the subject. The issue is being taken seriously, and it concerns not only swimming, but the whole spectrum of sport. If we do not get it right, it will be to the detriment of many young people who want to participate in sport.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that if there are eight Sport England swimming pools, we will settle for one in Bolsover? We lost our baths because of subsidence, and, as he knows, we have being trying to replace them for a few years. We do not need a 50-metre pool—we will settle for less—and we will not worry his pretty head about insurance, because we will deal with that. He knows that a hiatus has occurred because of Sport England's refusal to obtain lottery money for us—all that money has gone to the City of London and elsewhere. Will he meet the people of Bolsover to get the show back on the road?

Mr. Caborn: I have been called many things, but never "pretty". The hon. Gentleman knows that I have met Bolsover council, the strategic health authority and the primary care trust to try to find a funding mechanism for that major community facility. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue those discussions and will hopefully find a funding package for a swimming baths in his constituency, although I do not think that it will be a 50-metre pool.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Will the Minister agree to have a close look at the conditions attached to lottery grants? In my constituency, we are about to open a brand new swimming pool, which we are delighted to have, paid for by lottery funding. Unfortunately, however, there are no 50-metre competition-sized pools in the whole of Greater London. This would have been a wonderful opportunity to have one in my constituency, but the strings attached to the lottery grant meant that the sum had to be dissipated on other ancillary provision; as a result, we must have a six-lane pool with the same water space as the old one. Has not a wonderful opportunity been lost; and would not it have been better to focus the entire funding on providing an eight-lane 50-metre pool?

Mr. Caborn: If we are successful with the Olympics, London could have three 50-metre pools. Construction is already taking place on an aquatic centre where there will be one 50-metre pool; if we are successful with the Olympics, there will be two; and we are discussing with Crystal Palace a major refurbishment that could include a third.
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One has to be careful in relation to 50-metre pools. I have one in my own constituency which is used as a 50-metre pool for only a few hours every year because it is split into three community pools by moving booms and lifting the floors. A few very important elite athletes need access to 50-metre pools. We are discussing with the Swimming Association how we can bring the elite together, as we have done in many other sports. Kelly Holmes is a classic example. She will put her success in gaining silver in Paris and gold in Athens down to the training and physiotherapy that she received at the English Institute of Sport. We have to bring the centres of excellence together. We are doing that through the new funding arrangements and by liaising with the governing bodies and providing facilities. We need to reflect on how 50-metre pools are used by the community and by the elite.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): I am sure that we all share the shadow Minister's enthusiasm for swimming—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I mean the Minister's enthusiasm: it is easy to tell it is my first day. However, will he undertake to review the decision taken by two Government bodies—the Institute of Sport and Recreation Management and the Health and Safety Executive—to ban women from taking more than two children under the age of eight into a swimming pool at any one time? Its introduction on 1 May this year, at the start of summer, could not have been worse timed. It deprives young families of vital bonding time and means that young children cannot take the very type of exercise that the Government are encouraging.

Mr. Caborn: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the post of shadow Minister for Sport and congratulate him on his question—because the answer to it is not in my briefing notes.

I do have concerns about that recommendation—it was only a recommendation, not a statute. It has to be dealt with using common sense. On the one hand we must consider the effects on insurance policies and try to protect young people, but on the other we want to ensure that bonding in our swimming facilities is maximised. I think that the recommendation came from the right motives. A lot of pressure has been put on those bodies to consider the whole question of safety, and they are taking into account the best interests of the children. We will revisit their decision, however, because if it is imposed rigorously it could be counterproductive.

BBC Charter

2. Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West) (Lab): What principles will guide the Government in their review of the BBC charter. [187892]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): The principle guiding the review of the BBC charter is that the outcome will be a strong BBC, independent of Government. The review process is thorough and extensive. We have already undertaken large-scale consultations with industry and the public, and the process will continue to be characterised by vigorous and open debate.
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Mr. Best: I am delighted to hear the Minister use the words "independent" and "vigorous", because that is exactly what we need from a public service broadcasting body. Will we get a guarantee that that means that there will be no commercially funded element that may make the BBC dependent on commercial interests?

Tessa Jowell: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He probably knows that the BBC is currently undertaking a review of its commercial services and is bound by strict fair trade rules. The governors are obliged to ensure that they are complied with. My hon. Friend's question will be addressed in the course of charter review. The BBC have already pre-empted that to some extent by taking steps to review the role and extent of commercial services.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to a strong and independent BBC. However, does she acknowledge that one of the functions of independence is political neutrality? What steps will she take to ensure that, in the run-up to the by-election in Hartlepool, during which the Labour party conference will be taking place, there is equal coverage of all the parties—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That has nothing to do with the renewal of the charter.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that in 2017, we shall still have a national health service, primary schools and secondary schools and a BBC? Given that we are considering switching from analogue to digital by 2012, is there any sense in having a charter? If so, is there any sense in having it for 10 more years?

Tessa Jowell: That is an important question, which is, in a sense, most relevant during the current charter review because we expect the switch-off of the analogue signal during the period that the next charter covers. A further 10-year charter is likely, but not certain. The independent panel, under the chairmanship of Lord Burns, which is advising me on charter review is considering the matter specifically.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): What is the Secretary of State's vision of that digital future? Does she agree with the BBC's statement of values for the charter when it states that it wants everyone in the United Kingdom to have equal access to digital services? How will she achieve that? There are worrying stories that she has abandoned SwitchCo and the source of money that is necessary to achieve the digital switch-over. Which parts of the UK will go first and which will go last?

Tessa Jowell: With great respect, that question was nonsense. There is no question of abandoning SwitchCo or walking away from the money. The broadcasters are considering the timetable and costs of converting the transmission network from analogue to digital. The Government are clear that digital switch-over will take place on a basis that guarantees universal access to people who currently receive analogue. We expect the principal technology to be through digital terrestrial
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television, but satellite and cable will also have an important role. We expect the broadcasters to bear the major costs, principally of upgrading the transmission network, of achieving the switch-over.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that an increased commitment to the nations and regions should be an important principle that guides the Government when they review the BBC charter, possibly with the relocation of production facilities and channels—for example, Radio 5 Live or BBC 3—to the north of England?

Tessa Jowell: I agree with my hon. Friend. In the past few weeks, the BBC has made some encouraging statements about its intention for substantial relocation of staff and functions out of London. The BBC must reflect the identities and characteristics of the whole UK. It cannot do that if it is principally an operation that broadcasts from London.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Secretary of State accept that one of the fundamental principles that must be upheld in the charter review is that the BBC must be politically impartial and balanced in its coverage? Is not the decision to call a by-election in the middle of the conference season—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have already ruled on that matter.

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