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1 Mar 2007 : Column 340WH—continued

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): It is possible that the hon. Gentleman’s regional sports board did not have the facts and figures to hand, but as
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the chair of my county sports partnership, I assume that he went to his county sports partnership to see what it was doing in his area.

Hugh Robertson: Indeed, I did, and of course it knew—that is the short answer. The chief executive of the Central Council of Physical Recreation said only a week or so ago that the problem with the regional structure is that sport in this country tends to be organised nationally or by county and that it is not regional, which is exactly the point that I am making.

Finally, the Government need to change their role to become as much a catalyst as a provider. The Minister paid tribute to the CASC scheme and I entirely endorse that. Why not extend that to sport governing bodies, by removing, for example, the National Sports Foundation—a creation of a couple of years ago that sat on top of Sportsmatch—and simply give those sports governing bodies an exemption from corporation tax, providing that they meet various basic criteria? That would be much simpler, and it would involve much less bureaucracy.

In conclusion, there is a mixed picture for young people across the sporting landscape at the moment. There have been clear improvements at the elite level, stimulated by 2012, and there has undeniably been progress in schools. However, the missing part of the equation at the moment is community sport, which has suffered as priorities have recently switched. I believe that sports policy for young people, and indeed for people of all ages, should be governed by three key principles. First, there is a need for an efficient delivery mechanism in the form of modernised sport governing bodies. Secondly, the Government’s role should be as much catalyst as provider, and, as far as possible, the policies and management should rest with sport itself. Thirdly, sport should be community-based.

The London 2012 Olympics was won because the bid was based on the enabling of young people through sport, which is one reason why the current budget row is so damaging. However, improvements in the opportunities around sport for young people, will not happen by themselves. It is vital to take action now if this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for young people and for sport is not to be missed.

3.23 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) invited me to comment on a Select Committee report with reference to drugs, but, along with the Minister, I may hold fire until another day. If a debate is precipitated on that, we shall, I think, mount a quite venomous attack on some of the conclusions that have been reached. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall leave that and get on with the issue before the House—young people and sport.

Some of us were fortunate, I think, to indulge in sports at an early age. We were good at some and bad at others, but it gave us a lot of experience of life. I remember coming, at the age of 14, to a place called England to play football against the English, and cuffing them 3-1. I did not come back for another four
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years, I might add, but here we are now. Sport can take people out of places, if they are quite good at something. Those who are fortunate enough to be elite sportspeople can get out and see the world. Because of the Minister, young people have many more of those opportunities than I had in my day, and so do young people in other countries.

Things have changed so much. I remember having to walk 2 miles, which was good for us, to play football when I was at school. In those days, we had one sink for about 40 of us to wash in, so we always had dirty knees until bath night, which was once a week. Things have changed a lot—showers are marvellous pieces of technology. I congratulate the Minister on what he has done to get things moving. Things are much better, but there is of course much more to do.

People get interested in sport for all sorts of reasons. I remember, for example, getting interested in cricket, because the English used to come up in their summer holidays, and they taught me how to play. I quite enjoy, now, playing in the odd charity match down here. People pick things up because they are interested in sport, and because a certain level of competence allows them to reach pastures that they would not have got to before. Golf was always a major thing in Scotland, because it was free. People could go out and have great fun in the school holidays, battering balls into the local river. In many ways that helped young people to develop not only to reach the elite groups, but to reach the world of the golf club, where they could enjoy the game. We did not just engage in those sports. We would climb trees and play a game called hotchy-pig, which I shall not describe. However, activity was very much part of the school playground. The 50-a-side game was marvellous, and there was no elitism there—kicking the ball was enough of an achievement, and we would go home elated if we did that.

Young people come up against sport in many different ways. They may see something on the television and fancy their chances of becoming as good as the person they have seen—the footballer, cricketer or golfer. Parents, too, can see that the benefits of certain sports are very important to the young person, and they will encourage them. I know, as will many other hon. Members, parents who drive hundreds of miles in a year to a swimming pool to allow young people to develop the skills that they are passionate about.

Schools are the first point of contact for young people with the sports in which they become interested. PE at school must be the most uninspiring thing in the world. In my mind I equate it with turkey twizzlers. I think of blue-kneed children trying to pretend that they enjoy touching their toes. That still goes on in schools, and it is because of the teacher. Not all teachers are good. I remember a teacher once telling my father to take me out of the school play so I could go to the police academy and learn how to box, because that would make me a good footballer. That was what a child had to be. Stuff of that kind still goes on in many ways among people who see elitism as what sport is all about. However, I think that sport is about engaging young people in an interesting pastime, which makes them into team players. There is nothing like having to play in a team to make people pull their weight. Everyone knows if someone is not pulling their
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weight, and a quiet word here and there can really help. Children who are stuck outside doing cross-country running is one of the saddest sights. The poor little devils have the right gear on, but they do not really enjoy it. Sport is not about forcing them to do what they do not enjoy, and we should find other ways to go about it.

The Minister has mentioned that many young women do not participate in sport—not as we understand it, anyway. We must get away from the traditional nonsense of hockey and netball, which they are forced to do because those sports are in some curriculum. I am interested in the dance and exercise classes that many young people, both women and men—Billy Elliots—can indulge in these days. The world is changing as far as ways of exercising and looking after one’s body are concerned. The Minister is very positive about helping sports partnerships, and the Norwich schools sport partnership gets coaches in—they are not indigenous to the county—to teach young people basketball. That does not seem revolutionary, but it is compared with what went on 20 or 30 years ago or even more recently.

I invite the Minister to form an all-party dance group with me. My researchers have told me about a fascinating dance called Capoeira. It is defined as

what a way to teach history—

The Minister will like the next part, which is why he can chair the group and I can be secretary:

rather like Sheffield United on a good Saturday afternoon.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): You can join the Labour party for that.

Dr. Gibson: Absolutely.

The definition continues:

and it has various styles. I say that, because it is a Brazilian game and the Minister invited taunts against Brazil. However, they brought it to this country, and the number of people who indulge in it is amazing. There are many functions of dance in which young people can become involved.

Mr. Caborn: The television interview to which I have referred took place in Rio. I was also in Sao Paulo, where I participated in that sport, and I have the film and the stills to prove it. The conclusion, however, was that I was not very good at it.

Dr. Gibson: I thank the Minister for that intervention. I do not for a minute think that he and I
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should demonstrate our skills at that art in this place. The head butt and subterfuge we will leave for our professional lives.

Alternative sports are now crowding us. There is skateboarding, rollerblading and mountain biking, and many young people want to play those sports rather than the conventional sports that we play. We do not realise it, because those sports were not part of our scene. As parents in the Chamber will know, young people will not do what they do not want to do. We have to make activities appealing to and fun for young people, and we must also tell them about the benefits of sport.

I shall describe a little of the medical stuff without using the big words. As the Minister has said, sport can be built into school education programmes. When one exercises, things happen in one’s heart and lungs, which can really teach us about how our bodies work. Some television programmes ask people, “Where is your liver? Where is your kidney?” People’s answers are usually about 11/2 ft out. They do not have any idea about their own bodies, which is sad in this educational age. “Education, education, education” is about our bodies, too, and through sport we can try to understand what happens when we undertake certain activities, and how one can strengthen one’s heart and lungs and take pride in them. We can do that in many different sports.

Norwich’s own queen, Delia Smith, feeds the footballers—not the fans—in a very interesting way with a balanced diet. We could teach people how food helps their bodies to undertake sporting activity. I shall not go into the details, but those people whom we used to call dinner ladies—they are called canteen staff these days—should try to understand how young people’s lives revolve around not only school dinners, but other activities. Canteen staff should play a major part—just as big a part as the Latin teacher.

We should not underestimate the mental functions that take place when one undertakes certain sports. Endorphins and neurotransmitters such as serotonin are stimulated to interact much more functionally when people undertake sport. Depression is caused by an imbalance, and sport helps us to come out of the black world into which everybody goes at some time. Sport is related to more balanced food, and it gives people a more balanced attitude to mental health. Although one is—at a certain age—sometimes very tired after exercise, young people are at times hyperactive, and their hyperactivity is diluted by individual activities and their effects on the brain.

I shall discuss independent schools as against public schools—Scottish style public schools. The playing fields at some independent schools are absolutely marvellous. I always remember going to Hawick to play rugby. We had a head teacher who suddenly decided that in our final year, rugby was something to play. We got cuffed about 90-0 by Hawick rugby team. Their facilities were absolutely brilliant compared with ours. I described our single sink; they had three single sinks, which was luxury in those days. We would also go to Fettes and to Loretto—but that is all I shall say about going there and their facilities.

Independent schools have amazing facilities that sit fallow for a long time, and I am not taken in by their publicity in which they say that they share it with
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people from deprived areas with poorer facilities. I know what happens in places such as Norwich: people get on to independent school facilities once a year to play the game in which they are interested. For the rest of the time, the facilities are little used and we must do something about that. It is not fair that independent schools can claim charity status just because they let a group of people on to their facilities once a month. It is a real issue.

In Norwich, the school sport partnership with the Football Association and the Rugby Football Union works well to identify the athletes of the future. Norfolk needs more of them, because there have never been that many, and creating facilities will allow that to happen.

The English coaching system leaves a lot to be desired, however. I have mentioned schools, but coaching is so important. Holding a cricket bat is quite an art. Even the English boys who visited on holiday could not teach it to me, because I still held it strangely. However, there is a way, and coaches can teach us how to be better at a game, whatever it happens to be.

I am also proud of StreetGames, a not-for-profit organisation that is doing good work to help young people in poorer areas to play sports by bringing the facilities to where they live. I do not want young people to walk 2 miles, 5 miles or get a bus—if they can—to go to the richer kids’ place in order to play. We must think about how we can meld the sports that young people want into the areas in which they live.

After-school classes are very important, too. I do not know whether it is still difficult to get teachers to stay on after school. There is still a hangover from the strikes, but they are receding in people’s minds, and many younger teachers stay behind voluntarily to help young people to develop their skills. We must allow teachers time off to train, so that they can coach and help. Never again must a child be told that they should give up the school choir to learn how to punch somebody out. That world must disappear, but its remnants still exist.

Walking kids to school is very important. I am sure that everybody present has constituency problems whereby people park on drives and fights develop at school gates over where people park. Most children have only to walk 2 miles. I should be tough and cut that street off to make them walk to school just to see how it works. All the voluntary stuff does not work, and we must take really tough action. Who knows? With a change of leadership, it might happen.

Young disabled people really have problems. We have mentioned the Paralympics, but there is a problem with facilities for young people. I spoke to someone the other day who is partially sighted. Of course, there are people who are blind, too. They are perfectly capable of playing football; one can put a bell in a ball, and they want to play. However, we ignore at our peril the large group of young people who have eye or limb disabilities.

The Paralympics in Athens had huge support. I have a daughter who works out there. She worked at the Paralympics, and she said that it was amazing: on some days, they had more spectators than the major
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Olympics, because there was more interest in and support for young people striving hard against the odds to achieve something, which they do. We must do more to provide them with facilities and transport to those facilities.

Swimming is absolutely amazing, but travelling 100 miles on a Sunday morning to an Olympic-style swimming pool is not enough. We must move not tomorrow, but in the next five to 10 years to ensure that that does not continue. Access and facilities are the major issue.

Sport really does maketh the man and the woman. It is so important in our lives. They say it is “character building”, which is a generalisation, but everyone knows what I mean. It teaches us to do things together at different levels, and at the end of the day, people who become involved in it, achieve something and feel proud of their achievements. What more could we, as politicians, offer than the facilities and the right to do that?

3.40 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and I agree that showers are wonderful things. I enjoyed his reminiscences about games in the school playground. I do not know if he played British bulldog, which was the game that caused my adrenalin to rise regularly in school.

I was grateful that the hon. Gentleman referred to the importance of coaching, which I shall return to in a few minutes, and I was delighted to hear him mention something that not enough has been said about so far: the importance of recognising that people with disabilities are perfectly capable of participating in sport. That is why, whenever we talk about the Olympics, we should always talk about the Paralympics. I do not know whether he had an opportunity to see this on television, but when I was at Twickenham to see England beat—in fact, thrash—Scotland, I saw a demonstration before the match. It was put on by young people to show the way in which the Rugby Football Union is seeking to build up a rugby game in which the blind and partially sighted, those who are wheelchair-bound and the perfectly ably bodied are able to play together in a competitive form of rugby.

Derek Wyatt: I thank the hon. Gentleman for letting me interrupt him as he has just started. The RFU is also doing midnight rugby in Rugby itself, which is astonishingly successful, and tag rugby at lunchtime in business parks that are separated out from communities. If we were having this debate 10 years ago, rugby would not have been there. It is interesting to see how our national bodies have grown up and worked out that they owe us something.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was going to praise the RFU, as the Minister did earlier, for the way in which it has gone out and promoted the benefits of tax reliefs to community amateur sports clubs, for example, and for the many other things it is doing.

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