HC Deb 31 March 2003 vol 402 cc766-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

9.32 pm
Mr. Martin Caton (Gower)

About half way through last month, I received a short letter from a constituent: I can't understand why the International Paralympic Committee has banned all us athletes with learning disabilities. I love swimming, I'm very proud to be in the Welsh Squad. I thought that if I keep on training hard and improve my times I could, maybe, take part in the Paralympics one day. It's not fair to ban us when none of us cheated. How can this terrible mistake be sorted out? It was signed David Vaughan.

Since then, I have met David, who is a young man coming up to his 18th birthday with, as he says, a learning disability and a passion for swimming—in particular, swimming as fast as he can in competition with others. I have to confess that, when I received David's letter, I thought that he must have made a mistake or got the wrong end of the stick. Surely the committee could not have banned every athlete with a learning disability from participating in its competitions, but David was right and I was wrong. When I investigated, I found that that is exactly what the committee had done.

As things stand, no learning-disabled athlete will be permitted to enter the Athens Paralympics in 2004. How has that come about? What led to such a draconian sanction? The story goes back to the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, when 10 Spanish male basketball players were found to have cheated because they did not have the intellectual disability that they claimed to have.

The International Sports Federation for People with Intellectual Disability—INAS-FID for short, which is the body responsible for eligibility verification for that group of athletes—was implicated in the cheating because its then president, Fernando Martin Vicente, as leader of the Spanish federation, had moved eligibility administration to his office in Madrid. It was his office that verified the eligibility of the basketball players, although they were ineligible.

The International Paralympic Committee set up an investigation commission to look into the eligibility cheating issue. It suspended INAS-FID from membership, and banned all athletes with intellectual disability from IPC-sanctioned competitions. Interestingly, it did not suspend the Spanish paralympic committee, which was ultimately responsible for all Spanish athletes entered in the Sydney games. Equally interestingly, although 11 positive doping cases were exposed in the Sydney paralympics, no similar investigation of that problem was instituted; nor did the main sport involved, weightlifting, incur anything comparable to the sanctions imposed on the learning-disabled.

In March 2001, the IPC executive committee requested INAS-FID to perform nine specific actions. The most important were acknowledging responsibility for the violations in Sydney, expelling Fernando Martin Vicente, accepting that verifications had not been carried out properly under his presidency, accepting the findings of the IPC investigation commission, agreeing to conduct its own investigation of the Sydney eligibility issue, agreeing to establish new leadership, and agreeing to put forward five experts for a joint IPC-INAS-FID eligibility verification scheme.

INAS-FID agreed to all those requests. When it conducted its own investigation of the Sydney games, it found that apart from the 10 Spanish basketball players, only three athletes did not fully meet the eligibility criteria. In each case the athlete, although not meeting the criteria, did have a disability. There is no evidence of a huge international problem of cheating by this group of athletes, in Sydney or anywhere else. There was, however, an eligibility verification issue, which everyone agreed should be tackled.

In November 2001, IPC and INAS-FID representatives met in Amsterdam, and the IPC secretary-general said he would recommend reconsideration of INAS-FID's suspension. In December, the executive committee added a new condition for the lifting of the suspension: INAS-FID must accept the IPC handbook's requirement for athletes to show what is described as a functional disadvantage clue to a permanent disability". That caused problems for INAS-FID, which had always argued that the "functional" classification system was inappropriate for the identification of intellectual disability. It appears to have been persuaded to go along with the new requirement, given the clarification that "functional" did not mean "physical", and the acceptance that the IPC handbook was due to be rewritten and INAS-FID could influence that work if it was back in the IPC.

I should point out that the IPC handbook was written before learning-disabled athletes were allowed to compete in the paralympics, although they have been included in the last two games—in other words, fully involved for more than eight years. Even so, the handbook still really deals only with physical and visual disabilities, and that is generally recognised.

In the following months, INAS-FID tried to establish how it could meet the handbook's requirements. In October 2002, agreement was reached with IPC officers. It was outlined in a letter sent by the IPC medical officer to the various IPC sports chairpersons. There were three points, covering INAS-FID's responsibility for primary documentation of intellectual impairment—that is, psychologists' reports for individual athletes—which needed to be accessible at the competition site; INAS-FID's acceptance of the development of a sports-specific consequence analysis form as part of the eligibility/ classification process, a sort of sports classification card; and INAS-FID's acceptance that an eligibility/ classification protest procedure must be established.

On 9 January this year, INAS-FID gave the IPC information showing its implementation of all three conditions. It was hopeful about the reinstatement of learning-disabled athletes in all paralympic events. At its meeting on 1 February, however, the IPC management committee ruled that INAS-FID had not met its requirements, and that athletes with learning disabilities would not be allowed to participate in Athens. The committee argued that, in the case of the first two conditions, the INAS-FID proposal had not been tested and implemented.

That seems to me to impose a sort of catch-22. The way in which to test the primary evidence eligibility system would be to use it in the registration process for an athletics or other sports meeting—indeed, that was how the previous registration scheme was tested at the Lille IPC world athletics championships—but while the ban continues, that will not be possible.

On the second condition, relating to the impact on the sport, the IPC position seems even less reasonable. INAS-FID's only opportunity to test its system was at the IPC swimming championships in Argentina in December. The IPC swimming chairman refused to use the INAS-FID system. On the third condition, the IPC argued that INAS-FID had not provided a protest procedure. That is just plain wrong. INAS-FID did present a specific protest procedure in July. However, it then agreed on the advice of the IPC medical officer to adopt the standard IPC procedure, with some modifications, again agreed with the IPC medical officer. In any case, although the system may not have been tested for actual competitions, it has been rigorously tested. Perhaps I could outline the current position as the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability sees it. A new registration form for athletes aspiring to compete in IPC events has been available from the beginning of the year. All documents will have to be sent to the INAS secretariat in Sweden for checking that they are completed fully and correctly. All nations entering athletes for INAS and IPC events are now required to have set up a verification committee in that country to check the accuracy and detail of documentation before they are sent to Sweden.

From 1 July, only athletes who have registered using the new form will be allowed to participate in IPC events, when and if learning-disabled athletes are restored to the IPC. The new registration procedure requires primary evidence of intellectual disability. It also requires evidence of the effect of that disability on sporting performance. The procedure was devised by two world-recognised experts, Professor McTavish and Professor Parmenter, aided by other experts in the specialism. The procedure was then tested by coaches on their own athletes and the results were analysed by other experts. They were subjected to three different tests to determine whether they were testing effectively the impact of intellectual disability on sports performance. The results were conclusive. INAS has offered to provide those procedures to any other expert in the field of intellectual disability for their analysis. In my opinion, there is no excuse for maintaining the ban on learning-disabled athletes from competing in Athens. I fear that we are seeing out and-out discrimination.

There is one last chance, outside the law courts, for athletes with intellectual disability to be allowed to compete in the 2004 Paralympics. That is the appeal that INAS-FID will make to the IPC executive committee on 4 April. I hope that the Minister might be able to use his influence, perhaps through the British Paralympic Association and UK Sport, to encourage the IPC to reconsider and go the extra mile to get this important group of disabled athletes back where they belong on the international stage, particularly at the 2004 games in Athens.

There are currently 15 British athletes with a learning disability on the world class performance programme, all of whom are now hoping against hope to represent our country in Athens in 2004. UK Sport has made it clear that if the IPC maintains its ban on learning disabled athletes attending Athens, funding for those athletes will cease, probably as early as next month. Some of those athletes have been working towards competing in Athens for years, so the ban is devastating for them. I mean people such as Gemma Bennett, the 16-year-old learning-disabled swimmer from Barking, who is the double world record holder for 100 m and 200 m breaststroke. She said: Swimming is the main thing that is important to me because I'm really good at it. That feeling of devastation experienced by Gemma is not felt by British learning-disabled athletes alone, but by such athletes around the world.

Representative organisations from some 20 countries are considering taking the IPC to court on the ground that that group of athletes' human rights have been breached. However, the impact of the ban does not hit only the elite athletes around the world who have reached the standard high enough for them to compete in Athens in 2004. I go back to my constituent, David Vaughan, who has done very well in freestyle and backstroke, but is only now moving from juniors to seniors. He loves competition swimming and is very good at it. He loves to attend events, as he did three or four weeks ago, such as the British national championships in Sheffield, where he can swim with, watch and admire other swimmers with a range of disabilities who have overcome them in different ways to contribute to the sport.

David knows that he belongs in those all-embracing competitions and events. Indeed, David produced personal bests in Sheffield in both his main strokes. He does not yet know whether he will eventually reach the standard whereby he might be part of our paralympic team, perhaps in Beijing, but he has already identified that as a target, which, as he says, helps to provide him with the incentive to keep on training hard and to improve his times. David's case has been reflected around the country and around the world. We need the IPC to restore that target to David Vaughan and to all those like him.

The Government's White Paper on learning disability identified sporting activities as an area where people with learning disabilities are most excluded and likely to experience discrimination. It also said that enabling people to use a wider range of leisure opportunities can make a significant contribution to improving quality of life, help to tackle social exclusion and encourage healthier lifestyles. That White Paper was called "Valuing People". However, as I speak—ironically, about a third of the way through the European year of the disabled—an awful lot of learning-disabled people who are interested in sport do not feel that they are properly valued as people because of the IPC's decision.

Earlier today, I received a message from Mencap asking me to make a three-part appeal: first, to call on the Government to urge the IPC and INAS-FID to work together to resolve these issues immediately; secondly, to call on the 1PC to extend its deadline to ensure that athletes with a learning disability are not excluded from the 2004 Olympics; and, thirdly, to urge the Government to work with UK Sport to seek an interim solution to ensure that athletes with a learning disability are able to continue their training programmes. I do not think that that is too much to ask.

9.46 pm
The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) for securing an Adjournment debate to discuss this very important issue for athletes with a learning disability and for disability sport as a whole.

As my hon. Friend forcefully explained, the recent decision by the International Paralympic Committee not to allow athletes with a learning disability to participate in the 2004 Paralympic games in Athens was understandably a great disappointment to the athletes involved and to their families and supporters, and I will comment specifically on that in due course. However, I should like to say at the outset that the Government are determined to promote sport for people with disabilities to enable them to compete on equal terms in mainstream sport. That was clearly underlined last summer at the Manchester Commonwealth games, where, for the first time in a major multidisciplinary international event of that nature, able-bodied and disabled people competed for the same medals, which enabled them to compete on equal terms in mainstream sport. The Government take the funding and development of disability sport very seriously, and as Minister for Sport I will continue in my efforts to raise awareness and to extend opportunities for all those involved in disability sport.

As a demonstration of that commitment, we have put in place extensive funding for disability sport at the elite and the grassroots levels. The British Paralympic Association has over the years received funding from UK Sport, which was further strengthened in 2002 with an award of £1.7 million in support of the British team, leading up to the Paralympic games in Athens in 2004. That award represented one of the largest ever investments in elite disability sport in the UK. The award comes in addition to the annual investment of more than £3 million in individual disability sports through the world-class performance programme. In addition, in England the world-class potential programme assists in the development of talented athletes with the potential to win medals in future international competitions over the next eight years. For example, disability swimming has been allocated more than £3 million up to 2005. For grassroots sport, we invest more than £1 million a year in disability sport directly, through Sport England. Since 1998, the majority of funding for disability sport has been channelled through Sport England to the English Federation for Disability Sport, which was set up with the purpose of leading a unified, co-ordinated and comprehensive approach to sport for disabled people.

As I think you can see, Mr. Speaker, the Government are committing significant investment to develop disability sport at all levels in Britain. The benefits were apparent at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000 and at other international events since. However, it is generally agreed that the full benefits of investment in such programmes will not be realised until the Paralympic games in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. However, funding is not the only issue. For example, I will have the pleasure of attending the Special Olympics in Dublin in June this year. The event will provide the opportunity for individuals with learning disabilities, at all ability levels and from all around the world, to participate at what will be an international sporting extravaganza.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gower referred to athletes with learning disabilities. I am aware of the background to this issue. At the Paralympics in Sydney, 10 members of the Spanish male basketball team falsely claimed to have learning disabilities. As a result, the International Paralympic Committee felt that the eligibility verification system of the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability—INAS-FID, as my hon. Friend referred to it, which is the international governing body—was not adequate to ensure fair competition. That position was accepted by the governing body. Following that admission, the IPC suspended INAS-FID, and its athletes were not allowed to participate in any future IPC events—in particular, the 2004 Paralympic games in Athens. As a result, the IPC set out a series of conditions that INAS-FID had to meet to be considered for readmittance. I understand that, to help INAS-FID with the development and improvement of its procedures, the IPC has provided support and advice, as well as financial assistance.

In order to finalise the programme of events for the 2004 Paralympic games in Athens, the IPC had to decide whether events for athletes with a learning disability would be included. Indeed, the IPC extended the deadline for that decision to allow INAS-FID more time to meet the conditions. Unfortunately, at a meeting on 31 January 2003, the IPC concluded that INAS-FID's procedures still did not comply with its guidelines. It was therefore decided that events for athletes with a learning disability could not be included in the Athens 2004 Paralympic games, as the IPC could not guarantee to the athletes taking part that they would be competing on a level playing field. From the details that I have seen, I believe that the IPC has given very careful consideration to this matter and has supported INAS-FID in its efforts to develop a system that meets the required conditions.

I have a copy of a letter that was sent to the president of INAS-FID Europe, Mr. Bernard Atha. The letter lays out and explains what my hon. Friend mentioned earlier about the three conditions that were laid down at that meeting of 31 January. I will ask Mr. Atha if my hon. Friend may have a copy of this letter, as he may wish to see it. On the three conditions, the letter says: First, the IPC Management Committee considered that INAS-FID had not yet demonstrated a systematic and reliable impairment verification process. INAS-FID had developed Eligibility Verification Procedures that included the provision of primary documentation on the assessment of intellectual disability, as requested by the IPC. This approach, however, had not been tested. INAS-FID had developed an 'IPC Athletes Eligibility Application Form' for athletes with an intellectual disability aspiring to compete in IPC competitions. However, the process itself was in the early stages of implementation and some of the key components were not finalised (e.g. the universal establishment of INAS-FID Member Nation Eligibility Committees). Second, INAS-FID had not successfully implemented a valid method of assessing the disability (the functional implication on sport) and the INAS-FID Sport Information & Consequences Questionnaire (SICQ) had not been adequately tested. The INAS-FID report contained the proposed SICQ and a document outlining its background. However, the actual status and implementation of this questionnaire and the status of consultation by INAS-FID with the relevant sports did not provide sufficient evidence on the validity and reliability of the system in providing the linkage between intellectual disability and its effect on the ability of the athlete to practise his/her specific sport. Third, INAS-FID had not provided and adequately developed and implemented protest procedures process. The INAS-FID report only included a copy of a memorandum from the IPC Medical Officer to the INAS-FID President dated 5 November 2002 which contained recommendations on how to amend the IPC Handbook to include an authorised professional (psychologist) on any protest panel and also gave some guidelines on the development of a protest procedure. The report also included a statement of the INAS-FID Executive Committee's acceptance of these recommendations. However, no evidence was given by INAS-FID that a protest procedure had been developed and implemented in compliance with IPC Protest Procedures. That is pretty detailed and it may be challenged, but it nevertheless shows the depth to which the IPC has gone in putting its case.

The IPC has agreed to prepare a further series of comments and suggestions to enable INAS-FID to identify what action needs to be taken to meet the conditions. In addition, the financial support from the IPC development fund, as well as technical advice and guidance, will continue to assist INAS-FID in the work that needs to be done.

The IPC has also stated that, one month from a decision by its executive committee that INAS-FID has met the conditions, its athletes will be fully reinstated in IPC' events. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, a further result of that decision is that 15 UK athletes with learning disabilities have been informed that, as from 30 April 2003, they will lose the funding received from the world-class performance programme, as they will not be competing at the Al hens 2004 Paralympic games.

UK Sport's action is in line with policy regarding the use of lottery funding in supporting success at the Olympic and Paralympic games and would apply to any athlete on the programme. However, I understand that the various organisations involved have made every effort to overcome that situation. Those efforts include UK Sport agreeing to continue to fund the swimmers with learning disabilities, so that they can attend the INAS-FID swimming world championships in Hong Kong in May.

In addition, the athletes will still be eligible for support from the athlete career and education programme—the ACE programme—until April 2004, and they have been told what support is available to them. Furthermore, although world class performance programme funding is no longer available to those athletes, the national governing body in the UK for athletes with learning disabilities can apply for funding for future events through UK Sport.

Those athletes may not be eligible for funding under the world-class potential programme. Under that scheme, they would not receive financial support until INAS-FID was reinstated in IPC events. However, in the meantime, they could train alongside other athletes and have access to support services such as training camps, coaching and educational support. Indeed, the Amateur Swimming Association and UK Athletics have already submitted proposals to Sport England for athletes with learning disabilities to gain access services on that basis.

At the end of the day, the decision is one for the IPC, and it has not been taken lightly. However, the IPC thought it necessary to ensure that the credibility of its events—in particular, the Paralympic games—is protected. The IPC is an independent body and Governments do not have a right to appeal against its decisions. Although the decision has severely affected UK athletes, the impact also affects athletes with learning disabilities in other countries.

There are, however, steps that I can take as the Minister for Sport to ensure that the problem is resolved. My officials have been in contact with the British Paralympic Association about the matter and, as the UK member of the IPC, it has assured me that it will continue to press the IPC and INAS-FID to overcome the current problems and to work swiftly to establish an acceptable eligibility verification and protest system. I believe that it is in everyone's interests to find a resolution to the problem as quickly as possible.

I do not doubt that the UK athletes must be bitterly disappointed by the decision made by the IPC. They, as with all elite athletes, will have worked extremely hard towards their goal of the Paralympic games in Athens in 2004. My sympathy is with them because of the efforts that they have already put in. However, I can assure them that I will closely monitor events to ensure that all the national and international sports associations involved work together for a quick resolution to this issue. We will continue to support the BPA in its action to provide any necessary support and advice to the governing bodies. Although I accept that the withdrawal of funding will have caused difficulties for the athletes, I can confirm that UK Sport's decision to remove funding from the world-class performance programme is in line with the policy for this programme. None the less, I fully support the efforts by the funding organisations and the governing bodies of sport to provide support, wherever possible, to the athletes.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten o'clock.