HC Deb 09 July 1993 vol 228 cc597-601

11 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. lain Sproat)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the restructuring of the Sports Council of Great Britain.

My right hon. Friend and I have decided, following consultation with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland, and with the chairmen-designate of the proposed United Kingdom Sports Commission and the Sports Council for England, that we should no longer proceed with work to put those bodies in place of the current Sports Council GB from 1 October.

For some time now, the Government Departments involved, the Sports Council GB, and many other bodies involved in sport have been giving close attention to how a restructuring of the present arrangements would best deliver the overall objectives set out in our December 1991 policy statement, "Sport and Active Reaction". In particular, we have been looking at whether the original proposal for a United Kingdom body as envisaged in that report is still the best vehicle by which to deliver those objectives.

We shall therefore be considering other options, with the Sports Council, with a view to announcing fresh proposals as soon as possible. In doing that work, I shall have in mind the objective of maximising the expenditure that goes directly to sport rather than to administration, and the need for effective management of the new stream of income for sport that will follow the introduction of a national lottery. In the meantime, the Sports Council GB will continue its work. I look forward to working closely with the Sports Council. Our shared concern is to develop a structure which best serves the interests of British sport.

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

First, I must register a protest from this Bench that this statement is being made on a Friday, with so many Members on both sides of the House with sports interests who are away from the House and also at its being made in the middle of an important debate on the tourist industry. From a personal level. as the Opposition spokesman for both tourism and sport. I am left to deal, at very short notice indeed, with this statement, at a time when I am dealing with a major tourist debate. The statement was handed to me at 9.15, 15 minutes before the commencement of the debate and I have hardly had time to digest its contents.

The statement represents to me a great opportunity lost. For some two years of discussion, we have had nothing to show for it. I put it to the Minister that had his Department introduced into the consultation process his colleagues the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, for Scotland and for Wales earlier, and had he brought in all parties in the House to discuss the issue in consultation with them, as well as talking to those at the sharp end of the British sporting scene, he would today, instead of this nebulous statement, be giving us a positive and forward-looking statement about the structures for sport. Surely the way forward is to have a realistic dialogue with all those responsible for sports administration and obvious interested parties, and to get talks going on the road again.

I should like to ask some specific questions of the Minister. He said that he would consider other options. It was originally the Sports Council which proposed the structure for the commission in October 1991, so I find it a little odd and rich for him to be going back to the Sports Council to discuss other options. What other options has he in mind? How much time and money has been wasted? Here we have a Minister who, as we heard earlier in the debate, abhors wasteful bureaucracy, wiping clean a year and seven months of hard work in this field. How much money and time have been wasted in the process?

Perhaps the Minister will clarify what he means by "maximising the expenditure" in relation to the Sports Council, which goes directly to sport rather than to administration". I hope that the Minister will explain rather more what he meant by that, and will not be taking the grossly overestimated figure that the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) mentioned in the sports debate recently.

What will happen to those, Mr. Ian Beer and Sir Peter Yarranton, who have been appointed to the new commission? What will happen to them and any other appointed personnel? Has he taken into account the grief and anxiety that the new proposals have caused staff in the Sports Council over the past 19 months? What will this latest example of Government failure do to the morale of the council?

As I said, we have had little time to consider the full implications of the statement. I hope that the Minister will not take this statement as being a retreat from what the Government and the Opposition said was a good way forward to rationalise the sports structures in this country. I hope that he is not going to throw that baby out with the bath water.

Therefore, I hope that the Under-Secretary will enter meaningful talks with all the bodies that I have mentioned so that we can strive for a better structure for sport. Certainly, with the lottery coming on stream, we shall need a structure to ensure that that money is fed into the areas of sport and recreation that are necessary. I hope that the Minister will take a positive step forward and involve more people in sport in any proposals that will come forward as a result of further consultation.

Mr. Sproat

The hon. Gentleman began by protesting because I was making the statement on a Friday. The original proposition was that the information should be put out in a written answer, and I said that, as a courtesy to the House, although it is only one day before the next National Heritage Question Time, which is on Monday, I would make a statement so that there would be some information on the table if hon. Members wished to raise the issue then. I was trying to do the House a courtesy, and I thought that a statement on a Friday was better than no statement at all, which is what would otherwise have happened.

As to giving the hon. Gentleman maximum notice, I appreciate the difficulties. We both had to make a speech on another subject early this morning. However, when my civil servants got in touch with the hon. Gentleman, he asked when he could have the statement and I well remember that my answer was, "He can have it as early on Friday morning as he cares to pick it up." I do my best to be courteous to the hon. Gentleman and to the House, but we are all in a slightly difficult position because of the sitting hours of the House on a Friday.

The hon. Gentleman asked me, perfectly fairly, whether we would undertake to have a realistic dialogue with all the sports bodies that he mentioned, and we will do that as swiftly as possible over the next few months. I hope that we shall be able to give the answers to the House before the year is out. He asked what other options we had and the answer is that they are what will come out of the discussions that we shall have.

The hon. Gentleman asked me what I meant by maximising the expenditure that goes directly to sport". When I look at the distribution of the £51 million that the Sports Council GB gets—that is not all the money that sport gets from various public sources—I am bound to consider the statement that 37 per cent. of that money goes on the adminstration of the Sports Council. I know that the council says that it depends how one defines administration, but I will gladly look at the matter to see whether the claim that 37 per cent. of the money is spent on the council rather than on sport directly is fair. I want to make sure that when we give money to encourage sport, it goes to the people at the sharp end and not to bureaucrats.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the position of Sir Peter Yarraton and Mr. Beer—an important and fair question. Both of them support what the Government are doing, and will be coming along with us as continuing members of the Sports Council GB.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Minister aware that we have come a long way since the heady days of the 1960s and the so-called age of leisure, when full employment was still on the agenda? The Sports Council was established to take advantage of that age of leisure. I remember serving on the east midlands Sports Council as a local authority representative. We were presented with a map with blue flags showing golf courses and red flags for swimming baths all over the place. I managed to get a swimming bath for Clay Cross. I suspect that the Minister's statement is made against the background of an age of mass unemployment, with the Government looking to make cuts wherever they can.

I ask the Minister not to indulge in cutting expenditure where it provides facilities. If the Government proceed with privatising the coal industry, thousands of welfares in every coalfield throughout Britain—cricket grounds, football pitches, tennis courts, bowling greens and the rest—could be at risk. I hope that those facilities will not be lost if ever the Government privatise the coal industry but that the Government will look after them.

Mr. Sproat

The hon. Gentleman asked whether my statement was a consequence of the Government's need to make cuts. That is not so. I have not even discussed the matter with the Treasury. It is a case of not being convinced that a United Kindom overarching body, with another supporting bureaucracy, is the best way to spend money.

The hon. Gentleman made a fair point about the need properly to support local cricket grounds and bowls clubs. I entirely agree. It was so that more money could be diverted to such facilities rather than to sports administrators that we decided to re-examine the problem.

As for properly supporting facilities such as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I hope that funds will be available not only from the Sports Council but in due course from the national lottery also.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I am disappointed that the United Kingdom sports commission concept seems to have been put on ice, if not abandoned. This country's sporting structure is already considerably fragmented, and I thought that the commission was a positive proposal. This has nothing to do with the Sports Council, but I should like to see a United Kingdom soccer team representing this country at international level. If we could use the talents of all the home countries, we might actually win a few matches.

Will the Minister say from where the original proposal for the commission emanated, and what has changed the minds of Ministers, who at one stage were very supportive of the proposal?

Mr. Sproat

The hon. Gentleman asked what changed our mind. The original concept was to find a better way of delivering cash and advice to sportsmen and sportswomen throughout the country. It was thought that a United Kingdom sports commission with an overarching United Kingdom responsibility might do that. However, those excellent ideas—as they seemed—were so fleshed out that it seemed likely that we would get only another vast bureaucracy, taking up more funds that could be devoted to facilities of the kind mentioned by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

When one gets down to it, Scotland and Wales would have no intention of giving up their grip on their national sport—rightly, I believe—and there would not be a proper job for a United Kingdom sports commission to do. It could represent Britain overseas on certain occasions, and issues such as doping must be examined on a United Kingdom basis. However, although there were good reasons for a United Kingdom commission, there are better reasons for spending money not on bureaucracy but on sportsmen and sportswomen throughout the country.