HC Deb 18 February 1976 vol 905 cc1449-60

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)

I am pleased that the Adjournment procedure has enabled me to raise a matter which, sadly, has not been allocated parliamentary time in the present Session. I apologise in advance if my voice gives out because of a seasonal malady. It is fortuitous timing that my ballot was successful on the day following the visit of the Central Council for Physical Recreation to Downing Street, and to the House of Commons to visit an all-party delegation.

It is a disappointment to many hon. Members on both sides of the House that the White Paper on sport and recreation has not yet been debated, although it was published in August 1975. There are many proposals in that document that should be debated. That is why I raise this topic tonight. I hope that through the customary channels the Minister will be able to tell the Leader of the House that the Opposition are seeking a debate on the subject as soon as possible. Many of us have signed a motion to that effect.

The White Paper is a far-reaching document, which talks about principles of policy, a programme of action, the Sports Council, the Countryside Commission, the tourist boards, the Forestry Commission, the water authorities, the British Waterways Board, ancient monuments, historic buildings, the Nature Conservancy Council, local authority co-ordination, the resources of recreation, management and the youth sports programme. I approach the debate with the object of looking to the future in the hope that the sporting fraternity will be encouraged to know that we are debating the subject in this Chamber. I am sure that the Minister will respond with his customary magnanimity and welcome the debate with a constructive, forward-looking approach.

The big cry, and the biggest problem facing sport and recreation, is the problem of money and sponsorship. We are all aware of the financial stringency that faces the United Kingdom. I shall return to that aspect. There can be no argument between the Opposition and the Government about the importance of sport and recreation in our society. The stresses and strains of life in the 1970s, and the problems of unemployment among the young people leaving school are key factors which make it essential that the Government and the sports bodies should undertake a thorough and urgent reappraisal of taxation and the way in which our resources are currently being spent on sport and recreation.

I urge the Minister to remind his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the amount of money that sport receives from the Government—about £10 million, compared with £26 million for the arts. I do not want to reduce the amount spent on the arts, but, with more and more people participating in sport and recreation, I am sure that there can be no argument between the Minister and myself about which activity has the greater following. The way in which Arts Council money is spent in future will be under severe scrutiny, in view of the recent purchase of some firebricks. The amount of money spent on that purchase, which is being played very close to the chest of those who spent it, may never be known to the public.

More than £35 million a year is taken out of sport by the Treasury in a variety of taxes, and more than £40 million is injected back in through local authorities. The £35 million is taken in VAT, local rates and corporation tax. I hope that the Minister will point out to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that if tax concessions were to be made in amateur sports we should fall into line with other European nations.

I have no doubt that the Minister, with his long experience of sport, would be the first to recognise that Germany, for example, exempts sport in youth and welfare organisations, and that only 5.5 per cent., which is below the standard rate of value added tax in Germany, is charged on swimming pool admissions. France exempts big participation sports like basketball, hockey, skiing, judo, handball, and canoeing. Denmark charges VAT only when professionals are taking part. Generally, sport is at a lower rate of taxation on the Continent. It is the same in other English-speaking countries—Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Although their taxation principles are different, they none the less charge a lower rate of standard federal or state tax.

If the Treasury were to lower the rate of tax on certain sporting activities, the financial benefit would be enormous, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree, and those sporting centres of excellence which are so near and dear to his heart would perhaps become a reality in this country. The inconsistencies that we have in taxation on sport are well highlighted by the fact that we have a 25 per cent. VAT rating on water sport recreation. It may well be that the Chancellor, in applying the increase he imposed in 1975, was looking at the boating fraternity on the South Coast of England and in the south of France. Nevertheless, he has affected 800,000 canoeists and boating enthusiasts in this country, and it is a depressing and sobering thought that 42 per cent. of the money collected through the Olympics appeal will be taken out by taxation.

If concessions were made by the Chancellor in his forthcoming Budget, we might be able to train our great champions of recent years, like John Curry, David Hemery and Brian Wilcox, who now have to train overseas.

I am not one of those who criticise our lack of amenities, because we have excellent centres, the most recent being Holme Pierrepont, providing one of the finest water centres in the country. We have facilities and centres, but we want the injection of more money. Here I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, who was largely instrumental in getting Holme Pierrepont going.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the volunteer in sport and recreation has also been affected. The volunteer worker has to catch a train, have meals away from home, and spend two or three days away supporting a sport on a voluntary basis. His pocket has been hit badly in recent years. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will convey to the Chancellor the fact that the volunteer is of considerable importance to sport and recreation.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman also that sport has profited considerably from commerce and industry's sponsorship in recent years. We want more sponsorship—of that there is no doubt—but there must be companies whose profits at this moment are shrinking and whose chairmen or finance directors feel, when they look at their balance sheets, that their companies cannot afford to go on with sports sponsorship. Such sponsorship has declined by 15 per cent. this year as compared with the previous year.

Will the Minister point out to the Chancellor that tobacco companies have provided well over £12 million for sport sponsorship in recent years? If that and other money were to be lost there would be a serious decline in the amount of sponsorship. I hope that the Minister will not dismiss the importance of sponsorship. I hope that he will not dismiss the importance of the level of support being maintained, or the necessity for the Government to consider and prepare contingency plans in readiness for any fall-off in sponsorship.

There is also a fall-off in television fees. The BBC and the IBA are having to make necessary cuts, but I think that the BBC is still providing a superb sporting service to the nation. It certainly covers all sporting events remarkably well.

I turn next to the development of the so-called sport and leisure centres. There is no doubt that the recent development programme has considerably assisted the quality of life in the community. But many hon. Members on both sides of the House, through the all-party sports group, are concerned that we are pouring too much money into the wrong slot. I may be wrong in saying that the emphasis in many of these centres is not so much on sport and recreation as on leisure activities. That is fine, by my reckoning, so long as we recognise that more external sports facilities are required. The Gates-head project, admirably sponsored by that local authority and admirably led by Brendan Foster, is the kind of outdoor activity that the nation requires.

I have the feeling that the leisure centres do not necessarily attract the individual, whereas the external atmosphere of the athletic tracks, the cross-country parks, the team game pitches and the kick-about areas—which the Minister highlighted in his White Paper—provide more of a genuine sports atmposphere than do the enclosed confines of the large multi-purpose gymnasium with, perhaps, smaller rooms adjoining for a variety of activities that are generally of a specialist type. I shall be keen to hear whether the Minister is satisfied with the advice being given by the Sports Concil to local authorities on the design, specification and layout of these centres and the all-important question of the emphasis that he wants to see. That is another problem affecting sport and recreation. It needs investigating before we waste any more money on too many of these projects.

An additional problem facing sport and recreation is that of organisation. I shall be eager to hear the Minister's views on my ideas. The longer-term question is whether sport, recreation and the Arts should be combined in one Department. That has been developed successfully in France. I am certain that the right hon. Gentleman would be happy if he could sit at the Cabinet table and speak for those subjects.

I have an unhappy feeling that sport and recreation have been relegated to a rather lowly position in a large and cumbersome Department of State. Many committees and working parties have been set up in the last 12 months with the best of motives, but I am concerned that that may indicate the Minister's general lack of confidence in the external organisations through which the Government operate.

The final problem concerns the youth and sport programme. There is a disturbing element here. The school leaver is not encouraged to integrate into the local sporting fraternity. I should be grateful if the Minister would develop on the letter that he wrote to me on 11th February outlining his hopes and objectives for the youth and sport programme.

I am concerned about the revised responsibility for youth. I understand that the responsibility has now been transferred from the Home Department to the Department of Education and Science, of all things, and that the Minister responsible for the arts is now in charge.

Mr. Denis Howell

That has always been so.

Mr. Macfarlane

Not always. I understand that it was transferred from the Home Department. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that later, with greater clarity instead of from a sedentary position.

The problem of co-ordinating youth policy is critical. I understand that the Minister responsible for the arts is now also responsible for the youth programme, yet the Minister responsible for sport and recreation writes about it in the White Paper. May I have clarification on that matter?

Is the right hon. Gentleman directing the Department of Education and Science into positively encouraging local education authorities to open some of their splendid new comprehensive school sports gymnasiums for evening sports and recreation activities, and their fields, in the spring and summer, for outdoor activities? If there is any concern about paying for their use, I suggest that a nominal charge could be made at the door for everybody entering.

It would be interesting to know whether the Minister is satisfied with the way in which the Football League is responding to his requirement for the outlining of safety precautions at football grounds.

We want to debate many matters. I hope that the Minister will relay to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the urgent need for a debate on the White Paper and on other matters that I wanted to raise this evening.

11.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Denis Howell)

I have rarely heard such a collection of grouses and bromides in a 15-minute Adjournment speech as I have tonight. This Adjournment debate, which is extraordinary—there are 12 matters that I must raise—is an apology for the nonsense being talked by the Opposition both in their handout, when they met the CCPR yesterday, and also in Early-Day Motion No. 18 in which they demand time for a debate.

No one would like time for a debate on these matters more than I, because they need time to be deployed. However, who has the time in this House? The Opposition have the time. They have the Supply Days. The Government bring forward legislation.

Mr. Macfarlane

The Government have the time, too.

Mr. Howell

If you object to my interjecting from a sedentary position, you must not do it yourself.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)


Mr. Howell

I was not referring to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane) criticised the Government for the low priority that they give to sport and recreation. It is astonishing that the hon. Member and the Opposition spokesman on these matters—the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro)—have 15 minutes in which to raise this matter and cannot find half a Supply Day. That puts the matter into perspective.

I have no doubt that this debate is all part of a political ploy by Conservative Central Office. It would be useful to sport if the Tory Central Office got its fact right. In the handout it claimed that Maximum opposition was given last year to the 15 per cent. VAT rate. In fact, the rate is 25 per cent., not 15 per cent. If the Government are to be castigated, let us be castigated for all our sins, not for half of them.

A further illustration of the growing irresponsibility of the Conservative Party in these matters is the statement that We are pledged to abolish rates. If it believes that anyone in sport will be taken in by that sort of nonsense, it has a duty to tell us how it expects sports clubs to pay for the services that local authorities provide. All those services have to be paid for and if they are not paid for through the rates, they are paid for in another way. I am in favour of these contributions from the Conserva- tive Party, but I hope that Conservative Members will do more homework.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam wants a debate on the White Paper. The White Paper denies the assertion in the Early-Day Motion that the Government give sport and recreation a low priority. This is the first time that any Government have published a White Paper on the future philosophy and policy of sport and recreation. The importance of it was underlined by the catalogue of subject headings which the hon. Gentleman kindly read out, for which I was grateful. It shows the breadth and depth of Government thinking and policy. It underlines the point that we should debate these matters in greater detail. In the last month we have also published a circular replying to the Sandford Committee setting out our considerations on the future of national parks policy. As I recently announced, having established a policy for sport, recreation and national parks, we shall issue a series of consultative documents—we hope later this year—on the whole of countryside policy and the way in which it develops.

I think that I can claim, therefore, that in the two years since we returned to office and I have been back doing this job there has been more activity, more new thinking, policies and initiatives, than for many a long day. We can take some satisfaction in that, but I am not complacent. I do not believe that the simple issuing of statements of policy and White Papers leads to implementation. We must follow them up.

It is impossible to make direct comparisons between sport and the arts. The Government's contribution, through local authorities, to sport and recreation far outweighs their contribution to the arts, but I recognise that the Sports Council, the Central Council for Physical Recreation and other bodies probably draw more parallels than our Treasury friends would.

It is difficult, in the middle of an economic crisis, to suggest that much more money will be available from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That would be totally dishonest. However, part of the terms of reference of the Royal Commission on Gambling was that it should give priority consideration to the contribution that gambling could make to the financial health of sport as a whole. The Royal Commission is charged with producing an interim report on that specific subject.

That means, in shorthand, that the Government accept that sport needs more money. At a time when it is unrealistic to expect it from the Treasury, we are not being complacent. We are looking for other avenues for assisting sport.

I am sorry about the 25 per cent. VAT rate—indeed, about VAT in general, but it was the hon. Gentleman's Government who imposed it on sport. I voted against it at the time. The then Opposition spokesman on sport actually went into the Lobby to impose it. I do not make a political point, but since the hon. Gentleman raised the matter it is right to point out where the original sin lay.

Mr. Macfarlane

The House will note that the Minister is not making political points, but those who read Hansard closely will make their own deductions. Does he not agree that when VAT was introduced, the Labour Party in opposition promised that it would not be imposed on sport?

Mr. Howell

Not at all. We voted against its imposition, but made no pledge about its abolition. We voted against the imposition of VAT on sport and the arts, but we are now saddled with a whole VAT and taxation system. It is no good referring to the amount of money that the Chancellor takes from sport. That is not the basis on which we conduct our taxation policy. From a variety of sources, taxation goes into a common pool. The hon. Gentleman's argument, which is technically known as the hypothecation of taxation argument, went out with Lloyd George's Road Fund, which was specifically designed for the building of roads. Since Lloyd George and his Road Fund disappeared down the sinks of history, it has not been possible to advance that argument.

The hon. Gentleman has made the same mistake over the Olympic appeal. He said that 42 per cent. of the money has to go in taxation. It is paid in corporation tax, because the money comes from a trading operation. If someone persuades petrol companies to contribute ½p for every gallon sold, that is a trading operation.

If petrol company A were persuaded to do that and it were not charged corporation tax, it would be grossly unfair on petrol companies B and C. What the British Olympic Association and other sporting associations should do is to persuade people who generously donate to the Olympic fund also to pay the corporation tax. If the donation were paid after tax had been paid on it the problem would not arise. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman is on a false point.

I am glad to be able to reassure the hon. Gentleman about tobacco sponsorship. The Government have made it clear that there will be no interference in tobacco sponsorship of sport. I shall soon be seeing the tobacco companies with a view to arriving at a code of advertising conduct which the companies, I am confident, will be happy to enter into with me—I know that such a code will have the hon. Gentleman's blessing—so that the importance of sponsorship can be seen by everybody.

I certainly support the sponsorship of sport. During a temporary absence from the House I was Chairman of the Central Council for Physical Recreation. In that period I was able to create the Sponsors of Sport organisation.

I am in favour of leisure centres. I cannot understand the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we might be wasting money by having too many of them.

Mr. Macfarlane

I meant on design.

Mr. Howell

I do not think that we are wasting money on design. The Sports Council has a technical unit dealing with design. I hope that every local authority that provides recreational leisure centres will consult the Sports Council, because there is much expertise there.

Two things need to be stressed to local authorities in this respect. First, if they are thinking of not proceeding with leisure centres they would do well to realise that there is a direct relationship between the failure to provide such centres for young people, where they can enjoy sport and relax, and the delinquency and vandalism that occur in some neighbourhoods. Secondly, I hope that in this period of economic stringency local authorities will resist the temptation to price ordinary working youngsters out of their leisure centres. I know that it is a difficult situation for local authorities, but if they price youngsters out of leisure centres the social effects will be very damaging.

As for the Centres of Excellence and the Sports Aid Foundation, I am glad to report that two of the proposals in my White Paper for dealing with the training of top-class international sportsmen and sportswomen are going well. Over 20 universities and colleges have intimated their willingness to take part in the scheme. This week the Sports Aid Foundation announced the first list of bursaries for people who, we hope, will be competing with distinction at this years Olympic Games in Montreal. The long-term benefits of the Sports Aid Foundation will be seen over the next four years, leading up to the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

Youth sports programmes are vitally important. From 1964–69, when I was Under-Secretary of State for Education, I was the Minister in charge of the youth service. Therefore, I know that the youth service has always been in the Education Department—and it still is. My programme is not a youth programme; it is a youth sports programme. The biggest setback that the youth service suffered was when the present Leader of the Opposition became Secretary of State for Education and Science and cancelled at a stroke the policy for youth and community work in the 1970s, which I had worked and fought for.

The last point concerned safety at football grounds. I am glad to report that things are going well. The Home Secretary will make the first Orders early next year. I have every confidence that Football League clubs will be able to keep their clubs in order. Under the new scheme that I announced to the House, of a 10 per cent. levy voluntarily paid from the "spot the ball" competition——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twelve midnight.