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17 Jan 2008 : Column 338WH—continued

3.19 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Let me start by saying what a pleasure it is to have with us a Minister who knows what he is talking about.

I shall set out some of the background and follow on from what the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) said about obesity by giving some statistics.
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Currently, it is estimated that obesity costs the UK £1 billion a year, and the amount is projected to rise to £45 billion by 2050. A 2007 report suggests that on current trends about 60 per cent. of men, 50 per cent. of women and 25 per cent. of children in the UK will be obese by 2050. As hon. Members will know, there has been a steady and alarming rise in the number of children aged as young as two to 10 who are obese, from 9.9 per cent. in 1995 to 13.4 per cent. in 2004. As to the split between girls and boys, one fifth of boys are expected to be obese by 2020 and one third of girls by the same date. Girls are clearly at much greater risk of obesity than boys. There are many other statistics on obesity, which will I think cause all hon. Members present today to be concerned about the importance of tackling the issue. There are other statistics that provide useful background, to which we should respond.

Both the hon. Member for Loughborough and the Minister raised the question of what happens at the point when children stop participating—when they leave school and stop school sport. Do they continue with it thereafter? Unfortunately, seven in 10 children drop out of sport after leaving school.

I agree with what the Minister said about improvements in school sport. I do not intend to go over the same ground, but the progress being made in secondary schools is slower than progress in primary schools. We are, of course, an increasingly sedentary society. The two hours a week of PE in primary schools are welcome, but unfortunately probably all children, almost without exception, spend a lot more than two hours a week sitting in front of the telly, playing computer games or doing things that are completely inactive beyond moving a computer mouse.

For reasons of obesity and mental health, we need to do something to increase participation in sport. There is increasing evidence that mental health issues can to an extent be addressed by participation in sport, giving people a feeling of well-being. However, it is obvious that tackling obesity is not the only reason for extending participation in sport. We should extend it for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Loughborough. We have heard that he and the Minister play rugby. I take part in sport fairly regularly; we all get enjoyment out from sport, which is another very good reason to extend participation in it.

What are the Government doing, and how are they responding to the challenge? So far, there is one event, with which we are all familiar—the Olympics in 2012—securing which was probably the biggest thing the Government could have done to increase participation in sport, certainly in the run-up period. However, as the Minister knows, the legacy after the games presents a challenge, because even in Sydney, where the games had such a high profile and such success, there was no legacy of participation. That is probably the biggest challenge for the Government.

It should be possible to secure such a legacy. Children are now hearing about the Olympics and being told about them by their PE teachers and when they go to sports clubs. Some are not of an age to be participants in the 2012 Olympics—such as my six-year-old son, who does gymnastics, and will clearly not, without dramatic improvement, be taking part in
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the 2012 games; but he is certainly aware of them and may feel that he wants to take part in the 2016 or 2020 Olympics. I hasten to add that I am not one of those pushy parents who stand on the sidelines shouting and pushing their children on. We should be looking beyond the 2012 horizon, because children in particular will already be thinking about the Olympics beyond 2012.

An area in which I am afraid the Government’s performance is not as good is the general encouragement of people to participate in exercise of one kind or another. I am thinking of the 2 million more people target, and public service agreement target 3, which is to increase the number of people who participate in active sports. It will be interesting to see—I do not know whether the Minister is already in a position to give us more information—how the switch in responsibilities with respect to Sport England will work: how its focus on elite athletes will work and, more important for the general health of the nation, how the Department of Health will pick up and run with its responsibilities for increasing physical exercise. It was not clear that a handover process had been embarked on before the change was made. If there was a handover, and clear plans were in place, I hope that the Minister will give us an outline today, and explain how the Department of Health will deal with its responsibilities.

What do we need to do to increase participation in sport, improve the UK’s sports performance, and reduce the incidence of obesity? Schools are one starting place. The Minister has referred to playing fields. In questions a few weeks ago I raised a possible loophole, and afterwards in the Lobby the Minister informally confirmed that there was an issue. The loophole concerns instances when a playing field site is bought, after which the developer sits on it for five years and does nothing with it. After five years, according to Sport England, its right to be a statutory consultee no longer exists, because the playing field has not been used for five years or more. There are apparently several examples of sites in London that have been left with weeds growing on them, because the developer knows that after five years it will be easier to convert them to some other more attractive use. I do not think that the Minister has responded to me on that yet, but perhaps the matter could be pursued, to see whether the loophole, if it indeed exists, can be closed.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): I think I can help the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. Something comparable applies to ordinary developments: if someone puts up an illegal development at the back of their house and it is left for five years, they acquire the right to have it there. By the same token, if a developer buys a playing field and holds it for five years, it loses its status as a playing field and becomes a brownfield site, which can be developed.

Interestingly enough, the England and Wales Cricket Board told me yesterday about another relevant area that is becoming a problem, although it is not something that one would blame the Government for—indeed, quite the reverse. An increasing number of companies that used to have sports fields at the back of their buildings are now closing them down. The board
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thinks that for cricket, which clearly needs investment in pitches, that is as big a problem as the loss of playing fields was 10 years ago.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention, and I hope that it will help the Minister respond. Clearly there is an issue, and I have been told of examples in which perhaps half the playing field has been fenced off and is now out of use, specifically so that at some point in the future, five years hence, it can be developed.

Specialist teachers are also relevant. In primary schools there is a need for input from qualified PE teachers. That may be true at secondary level, but if we want children at primary school to engage effectively with sport, the type of activity I have witnessed my children getting involved in at primary school is not challenging them from a sporting point of view. That may be because of training levels and the abilities of form teachers to do things that would challenge primary school children more. The question needs to be considered, as does the capacity to offer alternatives. We have heard that the Minister had the choice of rugby or rugby at school. If for girls the choice is netball or netball, lots of children will miss sporting opportunities, and will grow up thinking “Sport is not for me,” whereas actually they were not offered an alternative.

I would like to hear whether the Minister has any ideas about how to strengthen links with local clubs to ensure that if a school itself cannot offer sporting opportunities it can do so through local community clubs, which would widen children’s opportunities. Throwing money at the provision of facilities is not always the solution. Interestingly, the UK Paralympics team does exceedingly well, yet it uses the same facilities as our other athletes who do not do nearly as well. Clearly, something about the way in which the Paralympic athletes are organised is different and delivers the goods. Mainstream athletics is obviously organised differently, because those athletes use the same facilities.

The provision of facilities at local level, however, remains an issue. I welcome the Government’s heavy investment in education; the previous Prime Minister said, “Education, education, education”, and we said, “1p on income tax”. We scrapped that idea because the Government made the necessary investment. However, pockets of difficulty remain. For example, Wallington county grammar, in my constituency, does not have a sports hall. Clearly, the local authority, which has many other financial demands on it from other schools to provide other facilities, has not managed to put the sports hall at the top of its list. The school is struggling with facilities that are barely adequate—they were barely adequate when built 30 or 40 years ago. In some schools, issues remain over the provision of facilities.

We need to consider after-school provision, whether for children at school or for those who have left school and want to continue their involvement in sports, as well as voluntary community sports clubs. The hon. Member for Loughborough was right to sing the praises of the volunteers who ensure that those clubs can operate. When volunteers are mentioned, some people—I might be guilty of this—tend to think of people who work at the citizens advice bureau or in the Marie Curie shop. However, they also support the local sports clubs in which we need to invest.

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I am sure that the Minister received the briefing from the Central Council of Physical Recreation on one voice for sport and recreation, which highlighted the need to invest in community sport. I shall mention a couple of clubs in my constituency. The first is the Sutton School of Gymnastics, in which I declare an interest, because my son goes there. It is struggling with facilities based in a school that needs to use its sports hall for normal school activities, which do not involve gymnastics. Before each session, people have to roll out the equipment and then put it away again at the end. Like the hon. Member for Loughborough, I try to do my bit. I put in my diary once a month that I will help to pack the equipment away, because it is quite a laborious process. The equipment is very heavy and the number of mats used means that a lot of effort is involved.

The club is in need of investment, yet it delivers some of the best athletes and gymnasts in the UK. Ross Brewer, who regularly wins gold medals in competitions in the UK and beyond, trains at the club, but is trying to cope with facilities that are barely adequate.

The second club is Roundshaw Colts, a successful football club for youngsters on the Roundshaw estate and the surrounding area—one of the most deprived estates in my constituency. However, the club is struggling to find funds to provide a new pavilion so that the youngsters can change in a proper environment. Funding remains a problem, therefore, particularly for community and voluntary sports clubs.

I want to raise the specific matter of athletes with disabilities and, in particular, those with learning disabilities. Medals tables suggest that our disabled athletes and Paralympic athletes perform reasonably well. The facilities might not be everything that they want, but clearly there is support. I am very lucky in having David Weir in my constituency; he is one of the country’s best wheelchair athletes and regularly wins medals for our country. However, as the Minister will know, for the past eight years, since the Sydney Paralympic games, there has been an ongoing issue over athletes with learning disabilities, owing to the regrettable antics of the Spanish basketball team, who posed as athletes with learning disabilities. Since then, all athletes with learning or intellectual disabilities have been barred from participating in international events and from receiving funding from national sources—all because of the controversy that arose as a result of that incident.

I understand that the British Paralympic Association raised the issue in the International Paralympic Committee and, I think, secured a motion that will, we hope, ensure that by 2009 the matter will be resolved. If the resolution comes after 2009, realistically, our athletes with learning and intellectual disabilities will not be able to participate in the 2012 Olympics—or at least they will not be able to participate with their best chance of winning.

I was briefed by an athlete who came with his father to see me. He is a regular gold medal winner, but he can continue participating only because his parents are willing to fund his activities. He has the necessary level of personal commitment to his sport so he continues to be motivated, but he knows that even though he is one of the best in the country he will not be able to participate in the 2012 Olympics because that matter has not been resolved. I hope that the Minister will say something about what the Government can do to
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ensure that it is brought to a conclusion, so that funding can be released for athletes through the usual channels and they can receive training from paid coaches.

Learning disabilities are one of the biggest issues relating to the extension of participation in sport. A substantial number of people are affected. I was told that a significant percentage of the children not participating in sport have learning disabilities. We need to address that.

Young people need to be able to see their idols in action in the flesh. I am talking in particular about premier league football matches. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has been raising the issue of ticket prices for premier league matches for months, if not years. The price of a ticket to a premier league football match is about four or five times the equivalent price for a club of similar standing in another European country. One could speculate as to why that is: perhaps because UK clubs that are also businesses derive a lot of their revenue from other sources and are not quite as dependent on spectators going to see their favourite footballers in action. If we want young people to see players in the flesh, winning and scoring goals, to motivate them to get on to the pitch and perform in a similar fashion, we must do something about that situation.

I accept that the issue is outside the Government’s remit, but they can take action in some respects, to which I shall refer later. Premier league clubs are fortunate; they have lots of cash and they can invest in new stadiums. Some clubs, such as Portsmouth, are not in a position to invest in a new stadium, or they are struggling; other clubs, such as Arsenal, do not face the same challenges. If we want young people to attend those events, we must address the cost of tickets. The clubs will say, “We have schemes in place, and there are discounted tickets for children under the age of 16.” However, even with those tickets, the children will have to go into the family enclosure with an adult, so someone will still need to pay four or five times the price of an equivalent ticket if they were to attend a similar football match in Barcelona or elsewhere in Europe. I am told that if one does the calculation, one can actually fly to Barcelona, watch a match and come back for less than it costs to attend a match at one of our premier league clubs. There is something ludicrous about that, particularly if we want children to grow up seeing their favourite footballers in action and wanting to emulate them on the football pitch.

I hope that the Minister will find a way for the Government, and if not them, the Office of Fair Trading, to examine whether consumers get value for money. A reasonable point was put to me recently. If Members want to go and see Manchester United play, they have only one place to go, and only one club to see—Manchester United. If they are a dedicated follower of Manchester United, they will not want to watch, for instance, Newcastle, Arsenal or Chelsea; they will want to see Manchester United. To a certain extent, therefore, Manchester United has a monopoly over its ticket prices, and I shall be asking the OFT to examine whether a monopoly is operating against the interests of consumers who want to go and watch
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football matches, and whether it or the Football Association, which somewhere hidden away in the detail has responsibility for ensuring that football clubs are football clubs, as opposed to businesses, can take any action to ensure that prices for attending a premier league match are more affordable for the people we want attending them so that they can see players in the flesh, rather than watching the match stuck in front of the telly.

Mr. Hancock, I have made a suitable reference both to Portsmouth, which I hope you will find to your satisfaction, and to the importance of the club’s securing a new stadium. The debate has been important—much more important than its attendance suggests. We must do all we can to support sport in the UK at all levels, including schools and community clubs, at all ages, whether for young or older people, and for many reasons, whether health, well-being, mental health, or simply to win. We must maintain the broad consensus that operates on sport—although sometimes, particularly on the Olympics, there are some strains—because sport makes us feel good, it is inclusive, it breaks down barriers and it is worth every penny that is spent on it, and more.

3.44 pm

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): I entirely endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). Although the debate has not exactly been full to bursting, it has been interesting. It is a crucial subject, but the sadness is that such debates always seem to take place on a Thursday afternoon, and people’s attention is often elsewhere.

This has been a thought-provoking and intelligent debate, and I very much welcome the Minister’s opening remarks. The hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) and I attend a fair number of these debates each year, and I am often taken by the fact that with sport, the battle is not between different ideas, from left to right on the political spectrum, about how it should be run, but between those who believe in sport as a means to achieve a range of Government objectives, and many difficult people who still do not. The battle for those of us who believe in sport as a way to enrich young people’s lives, and to achieve a better balance, and a healthier and better integrated nation, is to get all the people who either do not believe it, or are unwilling to use sport to achieve it, to see the benefits that it brings.

I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s contributions, and I really must go and watch one of his rugby matches. He is absolutely right to talk about the 2012 challenge and the challenges of increasing participation. We heard an excellent contribution, too, from the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. He is right to highlight the facilities issue, which is a planning problem rather than anything else, and probably difficult to get around. He also made some powerful points about people with learning difficulties.

It is often said that being in opposition has little going for it apart from the chance to get out, visit people and listen to what is going on, but in the two years or so that I have been doing this job, I have been lucky enough to visit not only a great deal of schools in this country, but 18 months ago Australia, as a guest of
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the Australian Government on one of their exchange programmes to see the schemes that they run. Hon. Members are right that the Australians have not solved the problem, but they recognise that. It is rather bizarre to think of obese Australians, but obesity is a huge problem, and they tackle it by introducing innovative programmes in their primary schools.

We went to have a look at an organisation called the Bluearth Institute. I do not know whether the Minister has come across it, but it is a Melbourne-based charity that seeks to teach children physical literacy without necessarily using sport. Its staff play a lot of games in the playground, teaching children to hop, move, run backwards and forwards, jump and skip, so that the basics of physical literacy are built at that stage. The Australian objective is to try to do so between the ages of seven and 11, teach them sport from about 10 or 11 until 13 to 15, and build the elite level beyond that.

I also had a look at an interesting school called the Punchbowl boys high school, which was a failing school. The roll had gone down from 1,200 to 700, but a new head teacher had come in and decided to use sport to turn the school around. I went out for a run with them in the morning, and in the year since he had been doing such work, his exam results had improved by 30 per cent. and his truancy rate had fallen off. When he started, the kids were exhausted and slept through the first two periods of the day, but once they got used to it, they went home at the end of the school day having burned off their energy, and they were much more pleasant to their parents, who, as a result, became much more supportive of the school. It was a classic win-win—purely by introducing sport at the centre of the school curriculum.

There are two difficult challenges. I have a lot of sympathy with the Minister, who is right to say that a quiet revolution is going on and that much has been achieved. However, school sport is not an easy subject. I suspect that those of us who have watched a lot of it have seen fantastic examples of good practice, where one incredibly enthusiastic person drives it forward. They sometimes do so in desperate facilities, but sometimes we build fantastic new facilities, the person is not right and there is no human input to get people going, so it does not work in the same way.

Tom Brake: I thought I should give the hon. Gentleman a concrete example of that. When I was a child, I took part in a few tennis lessons in fantastic facilities, but I was just a beginner and the coach’s response to my failure to put the ball in the right part of the court was to whack me on the head with a tennis racquet, which discouraged me from taking up the sport for about 20 years.

Hugh Robertson: I am afraid that there are many other examples. I took part in a chat show over Christmas on talkSPORT Radio, and somebody phoned in to say that they were at school in Wales, the head teacher loathes sport and so they are virtually forbidden to play it. They just did not have the opportunities that are available.

The challenge is two-fold. I shall first address what went wrong with school sport before the quiet revolution, then I shall turn to the structure of it and the strategy for what needs to be done.

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