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The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn):
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) for securing the debate this evening on the important issue of the Government's funding for learning-disabled athletes. He acknowledges that the
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Government are fully committed to providing opportunities for everyone to participate in sport. We believe that everyone should enjoy the benefits of sport. One of my Department's strategic priorities is to focus on communities so that we push forward an agenda that will increase and broaden the impact of sport across society now and for the future.
We have a public service agreement targeted specifically at increasing the take-up of sporting opportunities among priority groups by 2008. We therefore recognise the need to improve opportunities for people from under-represented groups, including those with learning disabilities, to participate and compete at all levels. The Government wholeheartedly support disability sport. Sport Englandthe Government-funded body that distributes lottery fundingpromotes community sport and is responsible for developing and maintaining the infrastructure of sport in England. It provides substantial funding for the English Federation of Disability Sport to lead a unified, co-ordinated and comprehensive approach to sports development in England for disabled people. It gives more than £1 million a year to the EFDS and a further £1 million in lottery funding goes to the federation's inclusive fitness initiative, which is very successful.
The partnership between Sport England and the EFDS is vital in ensuring that the federation can be an effective lead for disability sport, as well as acting as an umbrella group for the seven disability sport organisations recognised by Sport England. In addition, the national strategy for physical education, school sport and club links is aimed at all children, whatever their ability or circumstances, and provision is made for young disabled people in the gifted and talented programme, which is part of the Government's wider strategy to improve gifted and talented education.
Young people with learning difficulties have been taking on leadership and volunteering roles as part of our very successful "step into sport". Of course, participation in sport by disabled people is not confined to community level. If we are to take sport seriously as a means of enriching individuals' lives, and of allowing them to take control of their futures and to exercise their birthright of being equal alongside able-bodied people, it is our moral duty to do everything that we can to foster an environment in which disabled people can flourish and excel in the elite arena of sport.
I am aware that during the 2000 Paralympic games in Sydney, several athletesnone of them British, I am pleased to saywho were subsequently found not to have met the eligibility criteria, competed and won medals in events for athletes with learning disabilities. That is what my hon. Friend spoke about. As a result, the International Paralympic Committee decided to suspend athletes with learning disabilities from the Paralympics. The International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability had its membership of the International Paralympic Committee suspended, and athletes with learning disabilities did not compete in Athens. The IPC has charged the international community of learning disability sporting organisations with coming up with a system of classification that will satisfy the IPC and see athletes with learning disabilities return to compete in the international sporting arena.
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Until the issue is resolved and a classification system agreed, UK Sport has taken the view that it cannot continue to fund elite athletes with learning disabilities. UK Sport's action on this is in line with policy regarding the use of lottery funding to support success at the Olympic and Paralympic games and would apply to any athlete on the world-class performance programme.
I can, however, answer the question that my hon. Friend asked. UK Sport has provided the UKSAPLD with £50,000 for this financial year. This has traditionally been provided because of the organisation's work in registering athletes with learning difficulties for the Paralympics. However, although learning-disabled athletes are at present no longer part of the Paralympics, in recognition of the organisation's wider role for people with learning difficulties, financial support has been continued and UK Sport is reviewing the funding of UKSAPLD, along with its other funding decisions for Paralympic sports and organisations, to determine the level of support that will be provided for 200506.
UKSAPLD has been advised that UK Sport may no longer fund it if it cannot resolve its current financial problems, to which my hon. Friend referred. The association is likely to receive some funding next year but a decision has not yet been taken about how much, and it is being supported solely by UK Sport's £50,000 Exchequer commitment.
I should like to reassure my hon. Friend about the talented athlete scholarship scheme. The eligibility criteria for the scheme were established following full consultation across sport and education, which included the British Paralympic Association and the national governing bodies of sport. In considering the criteria, those organisations have been mindful of the present situation regarding the exclusion of learning-disabled athletes from the Paralympics. Currently, athletes with a learning disability are not eligible for TASS; however, should the IPC decide at its meeting on Thursday or in the future to include learning-disabled athletes in the Paralympics, the eligibility criteria for support through TASS will be revisited.
The Government are aware of the complex issues of classification in disability sport, and recognise the problems associated with the current national and international classification system. The complex issue of classification in disability sport must be resolved between the international community of learning disability sporting organisations and the elected members of the IPC. Although the INAS-FID has been reinstated as a member of the IPC, athletes with learning disabilities remain suspended from the Paralympics until the IPC is satisfied with the system of classification.
My Department is in regular contact with the EFDS about that, and I am very confident that the EFDS will continue to do everything it can to help our elite athletes with learning disabilities and to improve sporting opportunities at the grass roots for people with those disabilities. I sincerely hope that a system of classification, such as my hon. Friend described, will be
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found and that it will secure a future for learning disability sport within the Paralympics. I hope, too, that the outcome of the IPC meeting on 25 November, which will consider the future involvement of athletes with learning disabilities at the Paralympics, will not prevent our elite athletes with those disabilities from having a future in the Olympic movement.
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As Minister for Sport, I will continue to promote an agenda that will allow everyone involved in disability sport, irrespective of their sporting level, the chance to succeed. That is Government policy now, as it will be in the future.