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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order.

Natascha Engel rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady must sit down. Remarks such as those that the hon. Gentleman just made are generally disapproved of. This is an Adjournment debate—the personal property of the Member who has raised it—and it entitles the hon. Lady to a ministerial response; it is not an occasion for party political matters. Whatever the content of the speech, it is the hon. Lady's, and the presence of other hon. Members in this House is an irrelevancy.

Natascha Engel: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I cannot understand the massive lack of ambition that leads to a local council closing a swimming pool shortly after the announcement that we will be hosting the Olympics and Paralympics. What message does that send to local people in Staveley and Chesterfield? The UK's Sydney Paralympics swimming team came home with 62 medals—out of a total of 131 medals awarded. We in North-East Derbyshire want to build on that record. We want to encourage able-bodied and disabled children to be the swimmers and winners of 2012, but how can we even think of competing if Chesterfield is to close its swimming baths?

It is not as though Chesterfield is flooded with pools. Once Middlecroft is closed there will be only one other pool in the borough, and that is already heavily oversubscribed. We should contrast this approach with that of North East Derbyshire district council, which manages four 25 m pools and plans to upgrade them, rather than to close them.

However, the context of this debate is wider than my constituency and Chesterfield: it is about health, wealth, leisure and community. As Duncan Goodhew says:

He is not joking. More than 22 per cent. of the nation swims at least once a month. It is the single most popular sport in the country. When Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, visited a school last week and asked the children—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady again, but it is not the practice to refer to other right hon. and hon. Members by name. They may be referred to by constituency or, in the case of the Secretary of State, by the office that she holds.

Natascha Engel: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited a school last week and asked the children to which sports facility they would most like to have access, the answer was, of course, swimming pools. Children, including those in Staveley and Middlecroft, love swimming. No matter how poor their parents are, they can afford the £2.30 for a swim.

There is also the very serious issue of water safety. Learning to swim will obviously lead to fewer people, especially younger people, drowning. That is of particular concern in Middlecroft. Once the pool is closed, the nearest water will be in the Poolsbrook
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country park. Come the summer, kids—swimmers and non-swimmers—will jump straight into unsupervised lakes and ponds. Their parents are right to be worried.

If we can keep Middlecroft open and carry on getting kids to swim from an early age, the health benefits will be massive. They will be less likely to suffer from heart disease or strokes, and they will be far less likely to become obese. In a high-deprivation area like Staveley, there is also a high level of drug abuse. It does not take a genius to work out that involvement in sports will make it less likely for a child to get involved in crime and drugs. As we have already established that swimming is the most popular and most accessible sport of all, is it not irresponsible to be closing down a pool in Middlecroft?

Middlecroft is not rich, but it is a tight-knit community and the swimming pool is more than just a leisure centre. It is where people meet and socialise. It is the heart of the community. The pool is getting a bit old and everyone would probably rather have a 50 m competition pool with wave machines and top-of-the-range gym facilities. The pool may not be perfect, but it is all there is.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport was kind enough to come to Middlecroft on Friday to receive a petition with 2,500 signatures demanding that the pool stay open. He was amazed that the council is closing a perfectly good swimming pool. The problem is that swimming pools, their location, and whether they stay open or are closed, are in the gift of local authorities. But swimming pools are too important for local authorities like Chesterfield to make irresponsible decisions on closure.

The London Pools Campaign is a group formed from six different swimming bath campaign groups. In Derbyshire and other more rural parts of the country, forming umbrella pool campaign organisations is far more difficult. In fact,the issues are arguably far more difficult, because a swimmer in Staveley does not have the option of jumping on the tube to another pool. However, the proposals I make tonight owe a lot to the London Pools Campaign and to David Sparkes, the chief executive of the Amateur Swimming Association.

The Government have no power over local authority decisions on pools, but they do have a responsibility to ensure a strategic policy on pools, and local authorities should be forced to sign up to it. The strategy should be co-ordinated at city or county level, with a proper inventory of facilities. It should ensure that everyone has fair access to swimming, especially children, disabled people and women. We should aim for free swims for under 16s, over-60s and disabled people. We should ensure that opening times are convenient, prices are affordable, crèche facilities are available and that new pools are built where they are most needed.

Chesterfield borough council should not be allowed to close any pool without having first opened a suitable alternative swimming facility. If that is not possible without releasing funding from the sale of the old pool, the Government should look into providing bridging loans. No one has a problem with closing pools if a new one is opened first. Everyone has a problem if a pool is closed and replaced by a small fitness room, because children cannot learn to swim in a gym.
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10.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) on her success in securing this, her first Adjournment debate. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House the other week, investment in community facilities should be a priority. The Government are committed to increasing sports participation, especially for disabled people, and swimming is one of the three most popular forms of physical activity for that group. The decision that my hon. Friend describes is therefore all the more surprising.

Access to good-quality sporting provision, including swimming pools, is an essential part of enabling people to lead healthier lives and to participate in sport. Concern about that issue has been reflected in the debate tonight. One of my Department's key targets is to increase participation in sport by priority groups, including disabled people, by 3 per cent. by 2008. However, one of the obstacles preventing people from taking part in sport is the lack of good-quality facilities, which applies as much to the disabled as to other sections of the community. Our aim is that

There is a challenge. There is a clear deficit in funding for sporting facilities, alongside the failing condition of existing stock. The average age of local authority facilities is about 25 years. The national stock of sports centres requires about £550 million to bring their condition up to a good acceptable standard, even without upgrading to take account of modern trends in sports participation and current demand.

The Government are taking a number of positive steps to address those issues. All over the country, responsible local authorities are joining us in the crusade, not presenting road blocks. More than 4,400 swimming facilities in England are open to the public; 72 per cent. are owned by the local authority or education sectors and more than half are pay and play facilities. Since 2004, 131 pools have opened across the country. More local authority pools have opened than closed.

Since 1997, the Government and lottery distribution bodies have invested more than £3 billion in physical activity and sport, and £249 million of lottery investment has gone to swimming—the largest amount given to any sport. Local authorities will be investing about £1 billion in developing sports services and facilities over the next three years.

We need a strategic approach, however. The problem is that many pools are old; they were built 25 years ago, are in the wrong location and cost a lot to keep open. We are challenging local authorities to put sport and swimming provision at the heart of what they do. For the first time ever, we will be monitoring local authority performance in sports provision through the comprehensive performance assessments, and we are committed to supporting local authorities in their efforts.

Before I turn to my hon. Friend's concerns, I want to set out the overall position. Swimming is one of the three most popular forms of physical activity for disabled
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people. According to research, disabled people regularly say that they would like to do more swimming. It is essential that we do all we can to provide opportunities for them to participate. Obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 require all service providers to take reasonable measures to remove, alter or provide reasonable means of avoiding physical barriers to accessing and using their premises. The Disability Rights Commission has statutory duties to monitor and keep under review the implementation and enforcement of the DDA and to advise the Government on the operation of the Act.

In August 2005, the Minister for Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) wrote to all local authorities reminding them of their responsibilities under the Act in the context of leisure and tourism facilities. In addition, across central Government, we know that many other organisations are involved in trying to improve the range and quality of swimming opportunities available to disabled people. For example, the English Federation of Disability Sport—the national body responsible for developing disability sport—receives more than £1 million per annum in funding from the Exchequer through Sport England.

A number of local authorities have introduced free or discounted swimming for specific groups, including people with disabilities. It is important that, as local authorities assess where their sporting facilities, particularly swimming facilities, should be located, they have regard to deprivation and the context for poor people. It is also important that they can develop to those facilities at reasonable cost and in a reasonable time. I hope that that assessment is being taken seriously in Chesterfield.

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