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House of Commons

Monday 23 June 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): If he will make a statement on his Department’s policy to increase public participation in swimming. [212566]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Andy Burnham): The Secretary of State for Health and I have today written to all Members of the House following the announcement that we made on 6 June of a £142 million fund to help local authorities in England to offer free swimming to people aged over 60 and under 16, in support of a longer-term ambition to offer free swimming for all by 2012.

Mr. Jack: I welcome what the Secretary of State will confirm in writing to us. I was about to buy a new pair of swimming trunks, when I realised that in the borough of Fylde, the problem would not be accessing a swimming pool. The financially hard-pressed borough is committed to closing one of its two municipal pools. The borough is not isolated in the pressures it experiences in maintaining publicly available swimming facilities. In pursuance of the answer that the Secretary of State has just given, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will work with the Local Government Association to investigate the financial pressures that hard-pressed district councils such as mine face in maintaining their swimming facilities?

Andy Burnham: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I should not want to dissuade him from purchasing his swimming trunks—we want to get as many people active as possible in time for 2012. Local authorities must make a judgment about providing enough pools for the local population. His council must take its own decisions on that. The scheme that I announced gives incentives to councils that are prepared to do the most to make swimming more accessible to people, including giving them the opportunity to access capital funding to support their swimming pool stock. I hope that he will talk to Conservative colleagues on his local council so that they can come up with proposals to get more people into pools, rather than let them decline, ensuring that more people are active in time for the Olympic games.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) (Lab): I welcome the announcement by my right hon. Friend. In 2005, Wigan metropolitan borough council—a Labour borough—introduced free swimming for under-16s, and in the following year it did the same for the over-60s. There have already been some 300,000 free swims, and tens of thousands of young and older people are taking up sport and leisure for the first time. In April 2009, the scheme is to be extended to all citizens of the borough. As a consequence, we will improve health opportunities for all in sport, and people like me will start swimming rather than end up having triple heart bypasses to save their lives.

Andy Burnham: I say to my good friend and neighbour that the Wigan scheme was very much the inspiration for the policy that we announced a few weeks ago. As he
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rightly says, it is popular and it gets people active. That is the best use of public money in my view—getting people healthy and happy, and getting them out of their homes to lead an active and independent life. My right hon. Friend puts it so well; I am proud that Wigan is one of the first councils that want to make swimming universally free by next year. I hope that will set a path for others to follow. He is right to say that in the long term the policy can relieve pressure on the national health service, and social services, too.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): When will the funds allowing people to claim for maintenance or capital projects be available, and will a community-owned and run pool be able to apply to access that fund?

Andy Burnham: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are different models of swimming provision throughout the country, and in some cases community organisations own swimming pools. The idea is that the council is in the driving seat. We want councils to make swimming as available as possible and to remove the barriers. Whatever people say, for many families throughout the country, entry charges are still a significant barrier to going to the pool. We will announce more details before the summer recess, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We want to be as flexible as possible in helping councils throughout the country come with us on this journey of removing entry charges for swimming.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Conservative-led Bradford district council proposes the closure of four swimming pools in the district? I have a letter from a constituent of mine at Oxenhope, in which she says:

That includes Bingley, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), but the lady who has written to me is my constituent. She has been taking her daughter for swimming lessons for the past 30 weeks, and if the pool closes, they will cease. Will my right hon. Friend make representations to Bradford and persuade it not to close those pools?

Andy Burnham: I have been concerned about some of the local plans in Bradford and the area, where, it has been brought to my attention, five pools were earmarked for closure. The whole idea of the scheme is to stop councils managing a process of decline in swimming—in pools, stock and use—and get them thinking more positively about the contribution that swimming can make to people’s sense of well-being, happiness and activity. I have made the judgment that swimming is universally popular—something that everyone can imagine themselves doing and that different generations of families can do together. I believe that, if councils take a positive view of the contribution that swimming can make to managing other costs, they will reach different decisions. However, I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend and other colleagues about pursuing those discussions locally.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I have a simple question: will the swimming offer be funded by the lottery?

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Andy Burnham: A range of Departments contributed to the fund. The Departments for Work and Pensions, for Children, Schools and Families and for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health came together and contributed to the fund that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had initiated and to which we, too, have contributed.

Mr. Hunt: And the lottery?

Andy Burnham: Will the hon. Gentleman hear me out? The Departments’ contributions make an important statement about the way in which the Government can collectively pursue a positive policy that will have an impact on people throughout the country.

Let us have the discussion: if people think that the policy is the right way to go and that we should develop it further, I personally believe that that sort of activity would be a good use of lottery funds because it gives something back to everybody. However, the fund that I described is drawn from the Departments that I mentioned and will show that not only people who work in sport but the wider public endorse that way of working.

Mr. Hunt: I am not sure whether the Secretary of State appreciates the significance of what he has said. In January, his predecessor gave a categorical assurance in the House that there would be no more lottery raids to fund Government Olympic budget miscalculations. Yet the Secretary of State claims that the lottery would be a good source of money, and the Under-Secretary said in a parliamentary answer last week that he would discuss with Sport England a lottery contribution this summer. When will Ministers leave the lottery alone and stop using it to fund Government Olympic budget incompetence?

Andy Burnham: It is amazing that the shadow Secretary of State can come to the House and try to proclaim as a bad news story an unprecedented announcement to take promoting physical activity to a different level. Five Departments are lining up behind that initiative, and that sends an incredibly positive signal to those who work in sport and to councils.

Mr. Hunt: Plus the lottery?

Andy Burnham: I said quite clearly that the lottery has not contributed to the fund that I have assembled. I said that I was open minded about whether it could have a role if we wanted to take the initiative further, but it is wrong of the hon. Gentleman to mix up the £9.3 billion Olympic budget with the wider scheme, which will help sport, physical activity and the Olympic games to touch the lives of and have meaning for people throughout the country.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): Ilford has had a swimming pool since 1931, and I swam there as a child. However, the Conservative council in Redbridge proposes to close the pool by December. What advice can the Secretary of State give to the more than 100,000 people in my constituency who will no longer have a pool because of Conservative council incompetence?

Andy Burnham: My hon. Friend is a living embodiment of the good that swimming can do early, often and throughout one’s life. I would give his council similar advice to the advice that I would offer the council of my
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hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer): to come out of a position whereby swimming is an easy target—the item to be cut and the first thing to take away from people when the pressure is on—and take a more enlightened view. If councils invest in sport and physical activity in the long run, they can relieve pressure on other parts of the council budget. Given that we have made the money available and are providing incentives for councils to take up the scheme, I hope that my hon. Friend can persuade his council to follow that route with us.


2. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What estimate he has made of the number of people likely to take up regular swimming as a result of free access to swimming pools. [212567]

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Andy Burnham): Experience from existing schemes, such as in Wales and Wigan, leads us to believe that our free swimming initiative will make an important contribution to the aim of getting 2 million more people active in time for the London Olympics games in 2012.

Mr. Robathan: Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), I have a pair of swimming trunks and I swim regularly. I pay tribute to the Government for wanting people to go swimming. However, from the Secretary of State’s answer, it appears that the Government have no evidence that their proposal will increase the uptake of swimming among the over-60s or the under-16s. People who already swim will get free swimming, which is very nice for them, but that will not encourage swimming. In fact, let us be blunt: the Government are just spending money on an eye-catching gimmick.

Andy Burnham: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, the thought of him and his right hon. Friend in their swimming trunks is nearly putting me off my stride, but I will try to banish it from my mind. What I am beginning to hear, floating up, as it were, from the Opposition Benches, is a negativity and cynicism that is not shared by the public at large, who like the initiative and want the Olympic games to improve the way the country embraces sport and physical activity. The evidence is clear. My local authority has seen a nearly 50 per cent. increase in the number of young people going swimming. Trevor Barton, who was chair of Wigan borough sports council, and Rodney Hill, the chief executive of the Wigan leisure and culture trust, have said and proven that if we go down that path, people will take up swimming and new people will be brought into the pool. The hon. Gentleman might be cynical about that, but I most certainly am not.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Labour-controlled Bolton council, which has already introduced free entrance to all swimming pools for all pensioners and children? This year, the council will introduce free swimming lessons for children. Furthermore, it will build a brand new swimming pool in partnership with the university and, surprisingly, the primary care trust, because the pool will have a health facility built within it. Is that not a good thing?

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Andy Burnham: It is a very good thing. I was at the Bolton arena not long ago to see the efforts being made to engage young people in sport in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and a mighty fine thing that is, too. What you are hearing today, Mr. Speaker, is that this policy—a Labour policy—is about the Government making sport available to as many people as possible. The Opposition carped about free entry to museums and galleries, which has seen the number of people using museums and galleries double, and they are doing the same today. I congratulate Bolton. I will have the courage of my convictions and say that what we are doing is the right thing to do. As a result, we can make lots more people healthy and active.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the Secretary of State congratulate the London borough of Redbridge on its investment in leisure facilities, with improvements in my swimming pool in Ilford, North and the commitment that it has given to swimming in Ilford, South? Under health and safety regulations, the council may indeed have to close the pool later this year, but is consulting the entire borough on how to raise the £50 million needed to replace the swimming pool in Ilford, South. Will the Secretary of State congratulate the Conservative-led Redbridge administration?

Andy Burnham: I will congratulate any council, of any political colour, that takes a bold vision on sport and physical activity. Let there be no doubt about that. Let me say also that we are talking about a fund to benefit everybody in the country. Any council is absolutely welcome to make its case to benefit from it. In the past four years, more local authority pools have opened than have closed in this country, contrary to popular belief. In the local area agreement process, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has been conducting, more than half of all councils have selected participation in sport as a priority indicator. That tells me that, at the local level, councils are prioritising sport. I congratulate them, but I ask them to work with us and to persuade those who have a different view to change tack.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend wonder, like me, how we can encourage swimming under councils such as the Liberal Democrat council in Liverpool? It closed New Hall swimming pool in my constituency, which had been specially adapted for special needs? The next pool along, in Queen’s drive, was merged into Alsop school, thereby taking it out of public use for half the day. How is that encouraging people in a deprived part of the city to take up swimming?

Andy Burnham: On my frequent visits to Goodison Park, I see the new facility at Alsop school. It looks like a very good facility, and I hope that my hon. Friend will work hard to ensure that it is made as widely available to the community as possible. As much as possible, we need to work with councils to identify the barriers that prevent facilities from being used, and to help them to overcome them. If all else fails in making progress down this path in my hon. Friend’s constituency, I am sure that he will agree that swimming will always be free in the River Mersey.

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Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Secretary of State has just told the House that £142 million has been designated for this budget from a variety of Government Departments. Will he tell us how long he expects this budget to last, and at what point and in what financial year he will start raiding lottery funds?

Andy Burnham: The fund that we have put together is within the spending limits from the current comprehensive spending review. It predominantly covers the financial years 2009-10 and 2010-11—the back two years of the current spending review. We will want to see how the initiative develops, but, as I have already said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), councils such as ours are already saying that they are minded to make swimming universally free from April next year. We shall look at the evidence that emerges from Wigan, and from Blackburn, where the primary care trust has already agreed to make swimming universally free from April next year. Let us work with the areas that are going down this path, examine the evidence and consider whether to extend the scheme further as we approach the next spending review.

BMX Tracks

3. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): How many international standard BMX tracks there are in the UK; and how many of these are indoors. [212568]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): The UK has three tracks capable of hosting European standard series events, none of which is indoors. As part of the development of cycling facilities for the London 2012 Olympic games and Paralympic games, a velopark will be created in the Olympic park consisting of an Olympic standard BMX track with 6,000 spectator seats. After the games, the facility will remain as a permanent open-air BMX track.

John Mann: Here we have a sport at which Britain excels, and Bassetlaw, which was the centre of the cycling revolution in Britain from the time of Tommy Simpson in the 1960s onwards, has one of the three BMX tracks. Will the Minister consider how much opportunities for our cyclist athletes would be improved, not least in terms of medal contention, if the BMX track at Harworth could be encased so that it is available in bad weather as well as in good weather? If that were to happen, we could be the very top team in the world, rather than just being among the top teams.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I congratulate my hon. Friend on championing some great sports. He will be aware that we have a BMX world champion in Shazane Reade, who is one of the leaders in the sport. My hon. Friend needs to speak to British Cycling, the national governing body for cycling, on the basis that it has transformed cycling. Anyone who saw the world cycling championships recently will know that Great Britain got 10 of the 17 gold medals available. Cycling is a progressive sport, and the organisation will perhaps consider my hon. Friend’s bid in the light of the new sports plans.

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Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): As the international standard cross-country mountain biking tracks are in Wales, Scotland, the north and the west, why is public money being used to create a new track in Essex, which lacks one of the key essential requirements for mountain biking—mountains? Could we not hold the event in south Wales, where there is an excellent track at Margam?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I understand that there are a few hills in Essex. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, in that we need to ensure that the recent Sport England review actually works. We need to talk to sports governing bodies to ensure that their whole sport plans will benefit everyone through different types of sport. The cycling governing bodies are leaders in reacting to proposals, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to take up this issue with the relevant organisation.

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