HC Deb 14 July 1981 vol 8 cc1150-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. [Mr. Brooke.]

3.36 am
Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

Just after 3.30 am is no time to be discussing tennis, and certainly no time to be playing it. Perhaps poker is the only appropriate sport to indulge in at such an ungodly hour. However, I am most grateful to the Under-Secretary for being here. I am anxious to hear what he has to say on this important topic.

I raise the matter because once again another Wimbledon has gone by. Millions of people have enjoyed it and have been transfixed by it. Yet there has been a tinge of regret, since, as happens all too often, British players have failed to get anywhere near the finals.

The thousands of youngsters who have enjoyed watching the game on television, and who have ventured on to a court as a result of the enthusiasm engendered by watching, will, ironically, have less opportunity than in most other Western countries to play the game to a worthwhile level or be encouraged to do so.

Sad to say, over the years this great sport has been badly served by those who run it. I say this with regret, because I have a love for the game and would like to see it become a much more popular participant sport and less of a middle-class preserve.

These strictures and ambitions are supported by the Smith committee, which was set up by the Minister's predecessor, and which reported in June 1980 on the state of British lawn tennis. The report was laced with criticisms of the way in which one of our major sports was administered at every level. It waxed indignant about the shortage of covered and all-weather courts and on the poor lawn tennis facilities generally. The report was critical of the abysmal standards and shortage of coaching, and, ironically, the under-use of the existing courts, whether school, local authority or private club.

The Lawn Tennis Association, the game's governing body, and the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, the organiser of the Wimbledon championship and, as a result the main financial contributor to the LTA, did not and could not escape a share of the criticism.

The committee's criticisms are all the more relevant because it could hardly be said that it was composed of wild-eyed, anarchic revolutionaries, determined to rock the establishment. The committee's members included Mr. John Smith, chairman of Liverpool Football Club, three ex-chairmen of the Lawn Tennis Association and two tennis players of distinction, who have given great service to the game. I refer to Mr. Paul Hutchins, manager of the British Davis Cup team—I am sure that the Minister will join me in applauding its success in New Zealand—and Mrs. Shirley Brashier.

Questions arise from the report and from a recent article by Adam Raphael in The Observer. Mr. Raphael is a dedicated tennis player with a great knowledge of the game. Since the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club finances the Lawn Tennis Association from the profits of the Wimbledon championship, does it give anything like enough money back to the game? Everyone acknowledges that the Wimbledon championship is excellently run and probably the most prestigious tournament in the world. However, we are entitled to ask whether, despite the sum of about £1.5 million that has been given in the last four years, the All England Club is carrying out its obligations to the game in general. Is the All England Club too socially restricted a body to understand fully and feel strongly enough about the need to bring the game actively to schools and to youngsters from all backgrounds?

The Lawn Tennis Association was criticised in the report. For too long it has been run by a plethora of committees and part-timers, many of whom are elderly and come from traditional tennis-playing families. What steps have been taken to revolutionise the structure of the Lawn Tennis Association? The new chairman, Mr. Cochrane, is highly regarded, but if he is to do his job he must preside over a new streamlined organisation, with a paid full-time dedicated official in charge and a small committee with responsibilities for the day-to-day management. The report recommended that.

The report was highly critical about coaching facilities. How can the Lawn Tennis Association justify paying only about £31,000 per annum—if that is the correct figure, as reported—for coaching and training? In France £500,000 per annum goes on coaching and training. Young people need to be inspired by enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm must come from those who run the game. As the report points out, many of our ex-tournament players leave Britain to coach abroad.

What use has the Lawn Tennis Association made of those players, in an effort to encourage and inspire schoolchildren to play and improve their games? I am sure that players of the prestige and popularity of Roger Taylor or David Lloyd would be happy to spend some of their time running clinics and schools in parks and putting on exhibition matches there. In that way they could show youngsters that it is worth while to take part in the game to develop skills and to excel at the sport. Of course, they have to earn their living as players and coaches, but if they were asked I feel sure that they would be eager volunteers. Yet the LTA seems unwilling to enlist their help.

I know that one of the problems about tennis being taught in schools is that it is easier for sports teachers to supervise and involve 22 youngsters in football and cricket than four on a tennis court with the others looking on. It is up to the Lawn Tennis Association to inspire interest in and get the co-operation of teachers and local education authorities. I wonder whether it is doing enough.

It is true that school courts are sometimes infrequently used. It is sad that the dual use of courts by the public and schoolchildren has not meaningfully materialised. The report says that some of the private clubs which have both grass and hard courts—I am talking about the hard courts—are empty for most of the day. Why cannot the LTA discuss their use more persistently? Why cannot the courts be used for school children for an hour a week? Obviously they cannot be used to the detriment of the members so that members cannot play, but with so many courts lying idle with their excellent facilities it is a dereliction of an obligation to the game that schoolchildren of all backgrounds cannot use the facilities more often.

I know that there is a grass roots coaching scheme in the parks, but is the LTA organised enough to undertake proper scouting activities and to encourage the widespread formation of clubs in the parks so that youngsters can feel committed enough to keep playing? Feeling part of a team and club encourages youngsters to carry on playing and trying to excel and compete. Is enough being done to encourage the game of short tennis, which is an excellent way of teaching youngsters the fundamentals of the game?

The report is a devastating indictment of the Lawn Tennis Association. The LTA has acknowledged its shortcomings. It appears to be far too dependent on the All England Club for its funds. It is an absurdity that the affiliation fee to the LTA from clubs until recently was only 30p. The report suggests that that should be increased to a realistic sum—£5 per annum for adults and £2 for juniors. I hope that the Lawn Tennis Association will grasp the nettle.

The other issue raised is that of sponsorship. I have sympathy with the All England Club in not wishing to change the peculiar and particular nature of the club by introducing sponsorship, but sponsorship has been discussed year in, year out. It could provide about £500,000 a year to lawn tennis. That is something that the All England Club should seriously consider.

I cannot go through all the criticisms in the report in the time available to me. But if lawn tennis standards are to improve in the same way as athletics standards have improved, it has to have a modem image. In the past it has been fuddy-duddy and nannyish. I hope that the report will do something to bring the administration of lawn tennis up to date, so that we can in the future have a Wimbledon champion. The great advantage of a champion is that he encourages other home players to try to emulate him.

3.50 am
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Hector Monro)

I welcome this opportunity to comment on British lawn tennis and to put into perspective the encouragement this sport is now receiving, both financially and practically, from the public and private sectors. I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson) for raising the subject. He was a fine athlete, was awarded his blue at Cambridge, and is now a very active tennis player and a member of the Queen's Club. As such I can well understand his concern, which is shared by many tennis followers, at the apparent lack of British success over the years. Perhaps I could take just a few minutes to reflect on this.

Not since the Fred Perry era of the middle 1930s have we had a men's singles winner at Wimbledon. Since the War, Mike Sangster and Roger Taylor have been semifinalists, although our ladies have been more successful, with Wimbledon championship wins by Angela Mortimer, Ann Jones and Virginia Wade, and with Christine Trueman a close runner-up.

We have not done much better in the doubles or mixed doubles, and in overseas tournaments our occasional winners have come from the same band of women. In team events our record is not outstanding—a win in the 1969 European zone final of the Davis Cup, six times winners of the Wightman Cup against America in 20 years, and twice runners up in the Federation Cup.

This is not, I agree, a tremendous record, but we should not lose sight of the fact that our home-produced players over the last 20 years have had the opportunity to compete at the highest level against the finest tennis players in the world. Perhaps we have all been a little too complacent, working on the assumpton that a British player must eventually come through and become a champion—something that has happened only very occasionally.

[The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment]

Now, hopefully, this complacency is to be cast aside. The magnificent Davis Cup tie win by our men in New Zealand last weekend will, I trust, augur well for the future, and I am sure that the House wishes Paul Hutchins and his team all the very best in the semi-final round against Argentina.

Following the concern expressed a few years ago by many people in tennis, my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell), set up a lawn tennis inquiry. The terms of reference were far-reaching and required the committee to consider both written and oral evidence from lawn tennis organisations, players and coaches, educational establishments and commercial interests. The evidence presented to that committee was, to quote the report, depressing, but the committee's single intention was to translate the suggestions and criticisms it had heard into constructive proposals.

The report was presented shortly before the 1980 Wimbledon championships, and I should like to place on record my appreciation of the work done by the committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. John Smith, the chairman of Liverpool Football Club and his colleagues. First reactions to the report were that it contained such an astringent list of recommendations that they were likely to be unpalatable to the Lawn Tennis Association. I am pleased to say that nothing could have been further from the truth.

The LTA grasped the nettle, ably demonstrated to me when shortly after publication the then chairman, Joe Pinnock, and his vice-chairman, Jim Cochrane, who is now chairman, discussed with me the report's implications. They indicated to me that they accepted some of the criticisms and promised positive action—a promise they have lived up to in the last year.

The two pressing issues were the structure of the LTA and the small subscriptions it received from playing members. The latter has been resolved, the players' contribution now being a realistic £l , an increase of 70p, and a junior contribution of 50p has been introduced. Restructuring of the association is in hand and a new, simplified and condensed committee structure has been drawn up.

It is proposed—this is subject to ratification by the association's AGM—that a board of management with 12 members, led by a working president, be responsible for tennis administration. This will be served by five committees whose terms of reference require them to report direct to the board of management. This, I believe, will constitute a marked improvement to the present somewhat complex procedure.

These two most important developments demonstrate, I believe, the positive action the LTA has taken, and this, coupled with the willing attitude of the Sports Council, local authorities and the private sector to work with them, has resulted in much progress being made in the last year—more so, I believe, than in the last 50.

The report also caused the media to ask some searching and at times totally biased questions concerning the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. We should all recognise that the Wimbledon championships are the premier championships of the world. This is acknowledged by the world's leading tennis players and administrators. It is expertly and efficiently managed by the chairman, Sir Brian Burnett, and the committee of the All England Club, which is unique in British sport as being the major contributor, financially, to the governing body—the Lawn Tennis Association. A substantial sum—£411,455—was contributed by the club to the association in 1980. This is vital to the development of tennis.

Personally, I believe that it would be much more helpful to lawn tennis if the media, rather than attacking the club unfairly, highlighted the good points which make Wimbledon such a sporting and successful occasion. The All England Club should be congratulated, not castigated, on the part it plays in lawn tennis. It hosts, administers and stage manages the most famous and prestigious tennis tournament of all. It looks after dejected losers, petulant winners, abused officials, irate ticketless tennis fans, overworked police, attendants and stewards, and yet still manages to produce a tennis spectacular the like of which is not seen in any other country. I acknowledge that the lawn tennis committee report made a constructive criticism of the All England Club, taking the view that increased income could be obtained from the championships. I am confident that this suggestion will not be ignored by the club.

I referred earlier to the willing attitude of all the interested organisations, and I would finally like to highlight just what has been done to bring about the revival that will give our players—both established and "on the fringe"—the facilities and coaching that are necessary to reach championship level.

We should not, of course, lose sight of the fact that our climatic conditions are such that the need for indoor facilities is far greater than it is in some other countries. This prompts me to remind hon. Members, tennis administrators, players and spectators that we are constantly being told of the marvellous indoor facilities available in such European countries as France and West Germany. Yet neither of those countries was represented in the second week of Wimbledon—nor are they contesting, like Great Britain, the semi-finals of the Davis Cup. This leads me to believe that such facilities alone cannot manufacture top-class players. The will, talent and determination by the players themselves are of paramount importance, coupled to expert coaching.

However, indoor facilities inevitably cost appreciably more. One in particular is the exciting and imaginative scheme which David Lloyd and Slazenger are sponsoring at Hounslow in West London. This scheme, I am sure, will, given the right encouragement, be of huge benefit in the years to come. But this is but one of three schemes recently announced. The others are the Handforth lawn tennis centre, in the North-West and the Terry Mabbitt lawn tennis centre in the North-East near Darlington. The Sports Council has been financially involved in all three schemes, giving grants totalling £210,000 towards the cost of these new specialist indoor facilities.

These schemes are the first of a network of new regional indoor centres recognised by the LTA and supported by the Sports Council. In order to extend them, the Sports Council is seeking to promote partnership schemes between local authorities, the private sector and other groups. This is essential for the raising of standards at all levels and, I believe, particularly at club level, which is a most important stepping-stone to international standard.

This sudden development of facilities has been augmented by the recent announcement that an existing national sports centre—Bisham Abbey—is to become the base for the Lawn Tennis Association training centre. Discussions about such a centre have been going on for many years and I am sure we all applaud the decision finally taken to proceed with such a venture. The sports hall facilities at Bisham Abbey stand firmly alongside the best in Europe. Indeed, it is my belief that they are the best, and it is exciting and encouraging that tennis is taking advantage of this marvellous centre.

I have talked about facilities which we hope will provide the right conditions and training expertise to produce champions. We must not forget where these champions originally come from—the grass roots of lawn tennis, as highlighted by the hon. and learned Member for Accrington, where interest can be stimulated by youngsters playing at an early age on public courts and in schools. I pay tribute to all the volunteers who help to run sports clubs and do the initial coaching. Both local authorities and the Sports Council have worked together in producing courts for young people to play.

There are small schemes taking shape around the country, allied with other sports, which will, I hope, give youngsters the incentive to play tennis and, with the right coaching, go to the top. In the five years 1976 to 1981 the Sports Council has given grants or loans to local voluntary organisations to provide tennis facilities to a sum of £750,000.

It is on those courts that future players will be found and now that we are developing centres to enable them to progress further, I am hopeful they will not just encourage players but will provide champions as well.

I conclude, as did the hon. and learned Gentleman. on the point about leadership. Nothing will happen without stimulating leadership that will develop enthusiasm and take these youngsters who are given the opportunity of coaching, sometimes sponsored by commercial companies, right through from school, where I accept that wonderful facilities are under-used. I cannot overemphasise the importance of the dual use of sports facilities at schools.

I believe that the LTA, supported nobly by the All England Club, has the leadership and the new—found determination to give that leadership to lawn tennis in this country. I shall do all I can to ensure that the council fulfils as many as possible of the points in the lawn tennis report. So far, I have not found any lack of enthusiasm by the LTA to do just that. I am much more confident about the future than many people who write in the press about lawn tennis in this country.

I end by wishing good luck to our Davis Cup and Wightman Cup teams this year. Let us look forward to a steadily rising standard of tennis in Great Britain.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Four o'clock am.