§ 9. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
What plans he has to increase the opportunities for young people to play sports. 
§ The Minister for Sport (Mr. Tony Banks)
The Government fund Sport England to develop programmes for young people. They do that through their active schools programme, which aims to provide every young person with the opportunity to learn foundation skills and participate in the sport or physical activity of his or her choice. Current initiatives include top play, BT top sport, coaching for teachers, sportsmark and the sporting ambassadors scheme. New developments will include the appointment of up to 600 active schools co-ordinators and the launch of the active primary schools award. In addition, Sport England will be introducing its active sports programme in the year 2000, with the aim of helping children and young people to achieve more from their chosen sport.
§ Ms Perham
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Will he join me in congratulating the young people of the London borough of Redbridge, who in each of the past 10 years have finished first or second in the London Heathrow youth games—the biggest sporting event for young people in Europe?
The millennium youth games will take place next year. What can my hon. Friend's Department do to ensure that the impetus of that event, which will involve 250,000 young people in the United Kingdom, will not be lost, at a time when local councils' sports development budgets are being cut?
§ Mr. Banks
I know of my hon. Friend's close association with the London Heathrow youth games. It goes back some years, as does my own. Indeed, mine goes back somewhat longer, to the days of the Greater London council and the establishment of the games. [Interruption.] It has all been said before, Madam Speaker.
Redbridge has done particularly well, and I congratulate it on its active promotion of school sports. I hope that my borough of Newham will achieve a similar distinction at next year's games. The London Heathrow youth games have produced some of our best athletes: Steve Backley, whom I saw at the AAA championships in Birmingham on Saturday, is one of its products, as is John Regis. It is great to see that the games can be used as a way of encouraging our young talent. We in the Department will do all that we can to ensure their further development, and to extend them throughout the country—as they will be extended in the millennium youth games.
§ Mr. Bercow
Many schools in my Buckingham constituency complain that there is now less time for sport than ever before, and despite the admirable efforts of the Lawn Tennis Association, only 10 per cent. of schools in Britain are currently members of the British Schools Tennis Association. What evidence can the hon. Gentleman offer the House that state schools—of which 10 he and I are both products—now offer children more opportunities to play and learn tennis than before he took office?
§ Mr. Banks
It is at times like that—when I hear that the hon. Gentleman and I have had a shared experience—that I wish I had come from Eton, but I did not. There has been a marked falling off in competitive sport in schools. Between 1987 and 1994, it declined by about 75 per cent. That is not unconnected, I might add, with the disputes that the Conservative party had with teachers when it was in government. We are doing what we can to encourage competitive sport between schools and in school.
With regard to tennis, the LTA is putting a considerable amount of money—about £30 million a year—into the development of tennis at the grass roots. We have had much discussion about that. The LTA is specifically aiming at encouraging tennis in state schools and in inner-city areas, where enormous talent, we believe, is waiting to be identified and developed. I share with the hon. Gentleman a great desire for us to recapture, one day, the men's singles title at Wimbledon, which remains our most highly valued but elusive sports triumph—not excluding the world cup.
§ Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the reason why competitive sport in schools has failed so miserably in recent years is the fact that the Conservative Government presided over the sale of 5,000 school playing fields, as well as a drop of some 70 per cent. in competitive fixtures between state schools? Does he think that active school co-ordinators may have a role in trying to rectify that?
§ Mr. Banks
At this sensitive time in the political cycle, perhaps cross-party recriminations can be put on one side, although, of course, I agree with my hon. Friend: we are doing our best to clear up the mess that we inherited. The whole idea of the 600 active school co-ordinators is to bring back to our schools that degree of inter-school competitive sport that is so missing and which causes many problems in a number of team sports at national and international level. That is the co-ordinators' aim. It is also to create greater links between schools and local sports clubs.
I hope that, over the years, these policies will come to fruition, which will mean, we hope, more medals and championships, and higher quality sport at national and international level.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)
Will the Minister for Sport convey to his beloved Chelsea football club our appreciation that it has decided to come to Northern Ireland to play a match against Omagh, and to provide a training camp for young people in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that visits by top-class sporting representatives of all sports to the regions of the United Kingdom give real incentive and encouragement to young people to acquire skills and to develop their sporting interest? Will he give us assistance in Northern Ireland to ensure that the Sports Council for Northern Ireland can provide even better facilities for all our young people there?
§ Mr. Banks
I am delighted to be able to pass on to my friends at Chelsea football club the thanks of the hon. Gentleman. Of course, I will have to speak in tongues in order to communicate with them, but I am more than happy to do so. I look forward to going to see that match because, as he knows, I was born in Belfast. It is nice to see the way in which the two can come together.
I am not the Northern Ireland Minister for Sport. For the life of me, I do not know who is, but I am sure that someone will refresh my memory in due course. [HON. MEMBERS: "It's you."] Perhaps it is me, but no one told me.
For many years, I have thought that a national stadium for the Northern Irish football team, for example, is desperately needed. I will do everything I can to support any calls or moves to construct one in that part of the country.
§ Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)
May I wish the Minister well in whatever changes this week may bring? Our Monday gatherings would not be the same without him. Does he agree that, when considering how to encourage younger people into sport, the professional bodies in sport should set a good example? We have heard from the Secretary of State earlier, but I should like the Minister's views on the decision to allow Manchester United to opt out of next season's FA cup, and to shut the door on compromise solutions—which his own Secretary of State has supported—suggested by the Football Association and others. What type of example does such a decision set for young people, and what message does it send to fans?
§ Mr. Banks
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his concern. All I can say is that I am sure that he will keep his job a lot longer than I shall keep mine, if only because I intend to retire at 65.
My right hon. Friend has already made the point that it would have been very good—it will still be very good, if it is at all possible—to have Manchester United playing in both competitions. However, I should also tell the hon. Gentleman that considerable effort was made to try to find a way of helping Manchester United out of its fixture congestion in January, when the world club championship is due to be played, so that it could remain in both competitions. So far, although great efforts have been made in the past, and undoubtedly efforts will be made in future, it has not proven possible to do that.
Nevertheless, the idea that I could personally order Manchester United out of the FA cup—or that I could instruct the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, the Football Association, the premier league and the board of Manchester United—would necessarily mean that my power is awesome. I am afraid that, as much as I should like it to be, it is not. Therefore, good offices will continue to be used, and I shall, as ever, keep the hon. Gentleman closely informed.