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Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): With all his experience of matters in Iraq, does my hon. Friend agree that it makes no sense to reduce the number of infantry battalions in the Regular Army when even the United States army—the most powerful army in the world—calls for a British infantry battalion to go and help it when it is in trouble?

Mr. Swayne: My hon. Friend is right. The reality is that we need more troops, not fewer. That is the problem, but the Queen's Speech did not address it, which was remiss of it.

8.21 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate on the Queen's Speech. We heard two very fine opening speeches. The first was from the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who amused the House with his easy manner and some funny anecdotes from his time as a Member of Parliament. That speech was followed by an equally fine one from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), who told us about some wonderful experiences that she had had as, among other things, a parliamentary tap dancer. She described how some odd things had happened to her once when she dashed out of the shower for a Division. She also paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr.   Swayne) and his military service in Iraq. I would like to amplify everything that she said and to pay tribute to the time that he spent in the service of his country. I shall seek to follow some of the apposite remarks that he made about our armed forces, and in particular the future of our infantry battalions.

I am concerned about the effect of the Queen's Speech on my constituents and the fact that, in many regards, it does not address a number of the problems that they experience in their day-to-day lives. Many problems that we face in my constituency relate in one way or another to the pressures of over-development. My constituency has four secondary schools, all of which are good, but all of which are now full. As more and more houses are constructed in the constituency, it is difficult to see where the children of secondary school age will be able to go to school.

Also on the subject of over-development, it is very difficult to register with an NHS doctor in Rayleigh, and practically impossible to register with an NHS dentist. Essex now faces the prospect of 131,000 houses being imposed on the county by 2021. There is no realistic way in which we can satisfactorily accommodate house building on that scale. The Government's policy of national housing targets, which the Queen's Speech gave no indication of revoking, is leading to that incessant pressure. That is further amplified by the figures being endorsed by regional bodies—in this case, the East of England regional assembly.

There has been a debate about the legitimacy of regional government. After the recent referendum in the north-east of England, in which—even in that area, which traditionally is supposed to have been in favour of the concept—the proposition was debated and defeated by 78 per cent. to 22 per cent., I contend that regional government is stone dead. It has no moral or political legitimacy whatever in the other areas of
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England. People who sit in regional chambers can make any declarations they wish, but there is no real connection with the electorate, whom they claim to represent, to give any authority to those decisions. I, for one, will now campaign vigorously against any attempts by an unelected quango in the form of the East of England regional assembly to impose 131,000 houses on the county of Essex, including on my constituents.

Flooding is an emotive issue for us in Essex, given how we suffered in the so-called great flood of 1953. Some 300 people died in Britain that night, about 100 of them in Essex, principally when the sea defences burst on Canvey Island. The sea came in and many people lost their lives in tragic circumstances. For historical reasons, we take the issue of flooding particularly seriously in my part of the world.

That being the case, we were very disappointed when the Government decided to abolish the Essex local flood defence committee and to merge it with a regional flood defence committee which, it is proposed, will include both Norfolk and Suffolk. Our view in Essex is that we had a perfectly good flood defence committee, which was not broke, so we did not require anybody to come and fix it. Unfortunately, because of the fixation with regionalism and regional bodies, the Government still appear determined to press on with that decision, which may be popular with them but is very unpopular in Essex, and especially southern Essex.

Recently at Question Time I have pressed Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to reverse that decision, and I hoped that there might be some suggestion in the Queen's Speech that the Government had reflected and decided to change their view—but having heard the Gracious Speech today, I regret to say that there appears to have been no such reflection. We in Essex will continue to campaign and try to persuade the Government to change their mind on this important matter before the changes happen next April.

I now want to touch briefly on the subject of policing, and to pay tribute to Chief Superintendent John Mauger, the divisional commander in Rayleigh. We have heard much about antisocial behaviour in the past few months, and Rayleigh division has recently established an antisocial behaviour squad of hard-nosed officers, led by an ex-Royal Marine. Its specific mission is to take on gangs of youths who have been causing antisocial disruption across the division, to target the ringleaders of gangs and to take them out of circulation, not least as a deterrent to others who might be tempted
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to fall foul of the law in future. I wholeheartedly welcome that initiative, and I praise the division for taking it on. I hope that it will be a success. Initial indications are encouraging, and I hope that the squad will continue to do good service on behalf of my constituents and bring antisocial youths to book.

I said that I would follow on from some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West, and I want to amplify what he said about defence, not least as I understand that such matters are still the subject of some discussion within Government circles.

The Government made a lot of security in the Queen's Speech, but it seems to me that emphasising the importance of security, while seeking to reduce the number of regular infantry battalions in the British Army makes no sense whatever. As I pointed out earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West, there is little logic in seeking increasingly to intervene in trouble spots around the world, while at the same time reducing the number of troops who are best trained and prepared to undertake such interventions.

I very much hope that the Government will reconsider that matter and decide that there is no need to abolish the battalions that are first to be called for by other countries around the world when peacekeeping troops are required. I repeat the point that if the Americans called for a British infantry battalion when they have the most powerful Army in the world, it is a lesson that should not be lost on Defence Ministers.

I conclude with a particular plea for the Scottish regiments, and I do so as an English Member of Parliament. Some of the Scottish regiments have tremendous traditions, which are not just a matter of history but stand as a record of the good service that they have given to date and that they will—we hope—give to the country in the future. It would be a travesty if the Black Watch, after its brave service in Iraq in what I believe remains a good cause, were to be recalled to the UK at the end of its tour of duty only to be told to prepare for a disbandment parade. That would be necessary if they were amalgamated, and their cap badge would be lost. I believe that the Black Watch has given very good service and that the House should take proper notice of it. I would like to hear a definitive announcement that the Black Watch, and indeed the other Scottish regiments, are to be saved. That would benefit all Members, all parties and all the people of this country who owe those regiments such a tremendous debt.

Debate adjourned.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.
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Learning-disabled Athletes

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

8.31 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): This feels to me like an Adjournment debate in more senses than one. It feels as though I have reconvened a meeting that we held in these very premises in March last year, when I secured a debate with a very similar title to tonight's—"Government Support for Learning-disabled Athletes". My right hon. Friend the Minister will remember that, at that time, my stimulus for raising the issue was a letter that I had received from my constituent, David Vaughan, and his mum, Daphne.

David was, and is, a learning-disabled young man with an enthusiasm and a capacity for swimming. He was then 17 and he could not understand why the International Paralympic Committee had banned all learning-disabled athletes from the Athens Paralympics. He wanted to get that position changed before the games went ahead. I shall not repeat the arguments that I made in that debate, except quickly to remind the House how the exclusion of learning-disabled athletes came about and what was done at that time to try to rectify the problem.

The Paralympic Committee's decision came about after it was discovered that 10 male Spanish basketball players in the Sydney Paralympics of 2000 had cheated because they did not have the learning disability that they claimed to have. That led first to the suspension of the International Sports Federation for Persons with   Intellectual Disability, called INAS-FID for short, and to a ban on learning-disabled athletes from all Paralympic competition. The IPC then called on INAS-FID to take a number of other actions, which it agreed to do. Probably the most important was helping to establish an eligibility and verification scheme that everyone could sign up to.

That was, and remains, the key issue of contention. Between 2001 and early 2003, real progress was made in some areas, but in February the IPC management committee ruled that not enough had been done and that learning-disabled athletes would not go to Athens to participate in the Paralympics. That was, of course, a terrible kick in the teeth to the 15 British athletes with learning disability on the world-class performance programme who had been training as hard as they could with Athens as their goal. It was also a blow to learning-disabled athletes such as David Vaughan, back in the Mumbles in the Gower, who was then 17 and not yet at a stage to be able to go to Athens, but who wanted to know that learning-disabled athletes were still respected members of the Paralympic family.

In the Minister's reply to me last year—and, indeed, in his replies to questions that I have put to him in the past few weeks—he explained that the decision on eligibility must remain the sole responsibility of the International Paralympic Committee. However, he made clear his and the Government's hope and expectation that those problems would be overcome and that an acceptable eligibility verification and protest system would be put in place to ensure that athletes with learning disability returned to compete in the international sporting arena.
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If this were an adjourned meeting recalled to discuss progress after more than a year and a half, there would be precious little to report. The Athens Paralympics went ahead, and was a wonderful event. I congratulate all the British athletes with physical disability who did so well, but I still feel that it is a great shame that no learning-disabled athletes were able to take part.

Matters have moved on since last March. Sadly, they seem to have moved in the wrong direction, and there is now a danger that they will accelerate over a cliff. I have received another letter from David and his mum, alerting me to the possibility that, at its meeting in Cairo on Thursday—the day after tomorrow—the IPC will decide to exclude learning-disabled athletes permanently.

As I understand it, the decision stems from a motion passed by the IPC general assembly. Basically, the motion said that the ban would be lifted if INAS-FID could develop a

system for the inclusion of learning-disabled athletes in IPC competition. However, if INAS-FID could not provide that system, a proposal to exclude learning-disabled athletes from all IPC events should be presented.

In preparation for Thursday's meeting, the IPC has circulated a lot of information about what INAS-FID has done and various expert assessments of that work. According to the IPC, the bottom line is that the eligibility verification system proposed by INAS-FID has not been tested rigorously enough. It does not include a satisfactory scientific method of showing how learning disability affects different sports differently, which has prevented the proper testing of a protest procedure. The IPC has therefore found that INAS-FID has failed to demonstrate the development of a

system for athletes with learning disability.

At about the same time as I got the letter from David and Daphne, I was contacted by the charity Mencap, which is campaigning to get the ban lifted on behalf of learning-disabled athletes throughout our country. It is doing a good job, as a full-page article in the Daily Mirror last week showed. I want to put on record my thanks to Mencap for the help that it gave me on this issue, especially in providing me with copies of all the documents circulated by the IPC for Thursday's meeting. Frankly, a lot of it is technical and requires more knowledge than I have about particular sports. However, virtually all the papers that I read on eligibility verification for learning-disabled athletes said that we are not there yet, but we are getting there.

There seemed to be a general recognition that the sports information and consequences questionnaire developed as the foundation for the new eligibility verification regime could be the way to assess learning-disabled athletes. In any case, the feeling seemed to be that genuine athletes with learning disabilities should be in the Paralympics, that it must be possible to develop mutually acceptable eligibility criteria, and that everyone should renew their efforts to achieve that goal.

In those circumstances, talk of a permanent or even indefinite ban is premature and counterproductive, to put it mildly. However, that recognition of the place of
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especially talented learning-disabled athletes in the Paralympics—which is, I am sure, the majority opinion in the world of disabled athletics—is still not universally held. Sadly, some argue that a learning disability is not a disability that should make someone eligible to compete in disability sport. They argue that because sport is all about physical performance, only physically disabled people should be eligible. That view may be understandable, but it is wrong.

High-quality athletic performance in any sport requires a combination of physical fitness, natural talent and the mental abilities of concentration and planning, as well as an ability to implement strategy and tactics and to cope with stress. Another ingredient is, of course, fast reaction times. That is why learning-disabled athletes cannot compete successfully in mainstream sports at the highest level, and why they belong in the Paralympics. It is also why the IPC needs to become a bit more hands on in achieving the robust verification procedure which everyone agrees is needed. After all, one of its stated objectives is

Permanently banning one group of people from participation in the highest level of competition specifically for disabled people would be an astonishing measure. At a time when, across the world, people have been pressing for a more inclusive agenda and for improved rights for disabled people, a body set up to promote disability sport is on the brink of excluding this important group of disabled people from the most important events. If that goes ahead, it is not only learning-disabled athletes who will be the losers; it will be the reputation of the International Paralympic Committee and perhaps the Paralympics themselves. Surely, nobody can want that.

My first request to the Minister is that, while recognising the independence of the International Paralympic Committee, he does everything that he and the Government can to help move things in the right direction and get learning-disabled athletes back into the Paralympics as soon as possible, and certainly before the Beijing games in 2008. The British Paralympic Association is keen to see learning-disabled athletes back in the Paralympics.

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend consider the consequences of excluding learning-disabled athletes from the Paralympics on funding for organisations and institutions involved with delivering sport for learning-disabled people and for individual athletes? Historically, about £50,000 was awarded to the UK Sports Association for People with Learning Disability for the furtherance of Government elite sport objectives. Funding of that nature is based on medal results at Paralympic level. If learning disability is banned from the Paralympics, funding will cease at the end of this financial year.

Sport England gives funds to the English Federation of Disability Sport for the enhancement of grass-roots sports for all impairment groups. However, there is no statutory requirement for any of that funding to be distributed to learning-disability sport. No resources
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have been provided to the English Sports Association since 2000, and the chief executive has had to stand down for two months as a result of funding difficulties.

For many individual learning-disabled athletes, the situation has been even worse. Pre-Sydney, a small number of learning-disabled athletes were on the world-class performance programme for athletics and swimming, funded by UK Sport. After Sydney, all learning-disabled athletes were dropped from that programme, and swimmers were moved from the programme aimed at Athens to the world-class potential programme targeted at Beijing. If Thursday's vote goes against learning-disabled athletes, those swimmers will also be dropped from eligibility for that support.

Of course, the elite schemes are being rolled out to athletes below potential gifted and talented standard, sometimes in secondary schools through ideas such as the talented athletes scholarship scheme. It looks at the moment as if learning-disabled athletes will not be recognised by those schemes if they are not part of the Paralympic movement. We need some political leadership at this difficult time to ensure that until we get learning-disabled athletes back into the Paralympics, funding will be available from the lottery or the public purse to keep them and their organisations going.

I am pleased to report that my constituent, David Vaughan, was selected to compete at the global games in Sweden during the summer. Those games were set up for learning-disabled athletes when they were excluded from the Athens Paralympics. He achieved his own personal time and is now in the top 30 world ranking for butterfly. He had a great time, and he and his family are understandably proud.

Will my right hon. Friend consider whether, until we get the Paralympic verification system that lets learning-disabled athletes back where they belong, medal success at the global games might attract appropriate financial support? I am mindful of the precedent set by UK Deaf Sport, which is not connected to the Paralympic movement but has a separate international competition, the deaf Olympics. That is recognised by UK Sport, which means that funding is awarded on the basis of medal success there. In 2004, that amounted to £75,000. If the IPC decision goes against learning disability on Thursday, it should surely be possible for UK Sport to regard the global games as the pinnacle of learning-disability sport and provide funding accordingly.

Even if we get the wrong decision on Thursday, that should not be the end of the campaign. The correct place for the best learning-disabled athletes to compete is at the Paralympics. That is what they want, and that is what is right. It is also what the Paralympic movement is all about. Another of its key objectives is to promote Paralympic sports without discrimination for political, economic, disability, gender or race reasons. I hope that every voting member of the International Paralympic Committee has those words in mind when they come to make their decision the day after tomorrow.

8.44 pm

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