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Play Board

Volume 114: debated on Monday 6 April 1987

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

11.16 pm

I must begin by apologising to the House for my appearance. I have already been hailed this evening by one colleague as an albino Adolf Hitler. I have just come out of hospital following an operation on my nose, and I pray to God that the bandage does not slip; otherwise there will be a premature conclusion to the Adjournment debate.

The title of the debate is not strictly accurate. I now think that the future of the organisation and funding of children's play would have been more appropriate because it would be wrong to presuppose that Play Board, as it was constituted, was the best body for that purpose. For many years the National Playing Fields Association, under the directorship of Bob Satterthwaite, endeavoured to fulfil this function. But with mounting operating deficits, in spite of support from the voluntary service unit of the Home Office, NPFA had no alternative but to give notice in 1981 that the service would have to cease.

As a consequence, NPFA launched its campaign -Time for Play" to persuade the Government to accept responsibility for children's play. On 20 October 1982, during an Adjournment debate on children's play, I asked the Government to act on the all-party call for the recognition of the importance of children's play and for designation of an existing Minister to add children's play to his other responsibilities and to assist in its promotion.

On 22 April 1983 the Prime Minister said that she had asked the Minister with responsibility for sport to take special responsibility for co-ordinating children's play. She said that the Secretary of State for Education and Science would continue to have responsibility for play activities organised through the education service and the Secretary of State for Social Services for play activities of local authorities' social services departments. She said:
"I have decided upon these arrangements in view of the leading role of local authorities' recreation departments in providing out-of-school play facilities, and the extensive funding of play activities through the urban programme. But I am also well aware of the very important role played by voluntary organisations in developing children's play activities, and of the importance of play in enabling children to discover themselves and to develop their capacity for initiative and self-discipline." — [Official Report, 22 April 1983; Vol. 41, c. 189.]
The House will note that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recognised that the importance of play to children goes far beyond physical recreation. It is a basic element in their health and development, not only physically but mentally, emotionally and socially.

This debate is therefore about organisation of the leisure time or out-of-school play and recreational needs of children, mainly, although not exclusively, in the five to 16-years-old bracket. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane), the previous Minister with responsibility for sport, moved with commendable speed following his appointment. Some might think that he moved a bit too fast. Although I appreciate the enormous number of organisations involved in children's play—more than 2,000—I wonder whether there was enough consultation. Within three months, Play Board appeared as a fait accompli. It was an appointed voluntary board, which was formally launched on 19 July 1983, with a budget for that year of £600,000 and for the two following years of £700,000 per year.

In passing, it may be worth reflecting that NPFA was unable to continue in business because it was short of only £150,000 the year before, so there was a big jump in expenditure.

In addition, there was a provision that after the initial three-year period Play Board would have to find 25 per cent. of its own funding, I think that that was probably wrong, because Play Board's Government funding is core funding—that is, it is to cover central essential costs. Other sources of income are not readily tapped for what is perceived by donors as administration, even though the services provided through advice, research, information and so on are not administrative but functional elements for a total package geared to improving the quality and quantity of the provision for play.

We should also put that £700,000 core funding into perspective. There cannot be any accurate figures for the total cost of children's play provision, but informed sources feel that it must run into tens of millions of pounds per annum.

Another problem was that the provision of this core funding for only three years put stress on the staff due to uncertainty about the future, although additional core funding was found for one further year. I think that the then Minister sensed difficulties when, in 1983, in an interview in Play Times, he said :
"This is not setting up another voluntary organisation. It is just providing a large umbrella for all the existing bodies, so that all the people who are members of these can form an amalgamation."
He said that he attached the utmost importance to the Government not providing the structure of a Government departmental quango. Instead, he set up what is properly known as a "quango".

Play Board was born of the voluntary sector. Its board of trustee directors reads like a "Who's Who" of those people with real experience of children's play from all its angles, but I wonder whether the balance on that original board was right. Whether it was right or wrong, we should pay credit to the work that it and its predecessors have done, and to Play Board's leaders, Raymond Clark and Ian Gibson.

Play Board has certainly made progress, but somehow it has never managed to get its act together. Throughout 1986 it lacked a chief executive, and the Department of the Environment was absolutely right to review the future structure and role of Play Board following the submission of a corporate plan setting funding in excess of £1·3 million for an increased establishment. On 21 September 1986, the Department announced its intention that the function and role of Play Board should be merged with the Sports Council.

Against this background urgent negotiations commenced, involving representatives of the Sports Council and Play Board. I do not think that there was any consultation with the voluntary sector. Provided that agreement could be reached on the future nature, scale, structure and responsibilities, the Sports Council could recommend to the Department funding for a further six months to allow time for detailed arrangements to be sorted out. No agreement was reached, so on 31 March this year Play Board was wound up.

What went wrong? The decision to allocate the responsibility for play to the Department of the Environment rather than the Department of Education and Science was understandable, but it may have been wrong. Many observers tend to associate children's play with sport and recreation. The reality is quite different. Play is different from sport. Much of the time spent in play is passive rather than active, informal rather than formal. It involves painting, music, reading, imagining and role-playing, and they are all as important to a child's development as playing a game with rules. The constitution of Play Board incorporated an elected body from the working area, the National Play Advisory Committee. I believe that that committee has become far too political, much to its detriment.

What now? The NPAC has sought opinions from all local authorities, more than 200 national bodies and in excess of 2,000 voluntary organisations, about the Minister's proposals. Some 80 per cent. of the replies were against becoming part of the Sports Council's responsibility. It is important to understand that the "play field"—as I call it —is not involved in a rescue operation for Play Board. It accepts the DOE's diagnosis that Play Board has made mistakes, although those have not been quantified by the Department beyond the implied desire to achieve "results and value for money". The "play field" cannot accept the Department's proposal for a cure for those ills. The NPFA and the NPAC have stressed the need for an independent national organisation for play. There is major concern that the success of Play Board in creating a growing awareness of the importance of children's play will be lost within the monolithic structure of the Sports Council which has neither the will nor the expertise to make it work.

The play world is united in its belief that the Sports Council is not the right vehicle for children's play. In addition, the National Out of School Alliance, Fair Play for Children, the National Play Bus Association, the Handicapped Adventure Playground Association and national Gingerbread have expressed their strong opposition to the proposed merger. Similar letters have been received from the National Association of Local Councils, the Association of County Councils, the Merseyside Council for Voluntary Service and many of the 56 affiliated county playing field associations.

On 5 March 1987 the trustee directors of Play Board voted against the Minister's merger proposal. The Sports Council has, as yet, made no public statement about its intentions, although in the past it has consistently avoided involvement in children's play. I have recently heard reports that the regional councils for sports recreation have stated that play is the very last thing that they want. I appreciate that there is a need for action. However, I believe that the Minister is in danger of acting with undue haste.

However, there is nothing like impending execution to concentrate the mind. On 18 March this year, the National Playing Fields Association, under the general directorship of Colin MacFadion and Sandy Gillmore's chairmanship, submitted proposals to the Minister for the future role and structure of an independent national organisation for children's play supported by the major national organisations involved in children's play. That provides a realistic and cost-effective alternative for the greater benefit of our children. Those of us with an interest in children's play urge the Minister to consider that proposal. We firmly believe that it meets the criteria that the Minister requires while at the same time offering the independence that children's play needs and deserves.

I am sure that the Minister will be aware from the more than 100 signatures that accompany early-day motion 690— which appears in my name — that many hon. Members also feel that he should take time, before coming to a quick conclusion, to give the proposals every consideration. The first Minister responsible for children's play succeeded in politicising it. The second is in danger of nationalising it. I, and the children for whom I speak, want to see it back in the independent sector.

11.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Richard Tracey)

I am, indeed, grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) for coming here in some obvious physical adversity and raising this important issue, which gives me the opportunity to reaffirm the Government's strong commitment to help develop children's play. I say "help develop" because, contrary to the views of some, children's play, by its very nature, is not an activity over which the Government should, or could, have complete and direct control. Local authorities, together with the very many excellent voluntary bodies involved, are best placed to judge local needs and they. rightly, are the main providers of opportunities and facilities. Of course, parents must also take a large measure of responsibility for catering for children's play needs.

What seems to have been brought into question— wrongly, I should stress — is the Government's recognition of the importance of children's play and of its separateness from sport. I want to make it absolutely clear that the Government's commitment to children's play is, if anything, stronger now than it was in 1982–83 when my hon. Friend first drew our attention to the need for more Government action.

As my hon. Friend has explained, that earlier debate led to Government support for a new voluntary organisation called Play Board to co-ordinate the efforts of the very many other voluntary organisations concerned with play, and to promote and develop better and more play facilities. Since 1983 Play Board has received £2·4 million from the Department of the Environment to cover its administrative costs — about £700,000 each year. In addition, over £6 million has been spent each year from our urban programme on play-related projects; the Department of Health and Social Security has spent £6·5 million between October 1983 and March 1987 on initiatives for the under fives, and together with the Department of Education and Science, the DHSS provides about £800,000 each year for other voluntary organisations involved with children's play.

I forgot to mention that NPFA's proposal will cost only £350,000 in the initial stages, which is half what Play Board cost last year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing us up to date, though I was aware of that information.

The various contributions from Government Departments represent a considerable investment in, and commitment to, children's play. However, it is plain from the contributions that we have read in newspapers and letters that many people believe there is a dastardly plot afoot to submerge the activity of play into sport and to deprive children's play of its separate identity and independence. That belief is misinformed, and has been heightened by some mischievous lobbying. Indeed, a recent, and well-circulated, letter from the National Play Advisory Committee was so blatantly emotive and outrageous—and possibly libelous—about my apparent lack of concern for children that I can only question the real motives behind it and the lobby that it has fuelled. My hon. Friend made one or two suggestions about the activities of some lobbies.

Children's play is a separate activity from sport, and I have never argued or suggested otherwise. If anything, it is even more diverse and difficult to define than sport, but it is certainly just as important as sport to the overall development of children and requires expertise on advisory bodies. With four young children of my own, I need no persuading of play's importance in their lives.

Let me also set the record straight about our aims for the future, and I welcome the support of my hon. Friend for these aims. I mentioned earlier, as did my hon. Friend, Play Board. We supported the setting up of Play Board in 1983, but we were not prepared to keep it or any other organisation afloat with public funds if it did not present value for money. That lack of value for money was identified during our review of Play Board in 1986—the year when Play Board told us that it would need £1·3 million, rather than £700,000, in future to cover its administrative costs.

In my view, one of Play Board's main failings had been its inability to raise private sector funds for children's play —an aim that the organisation agreed to pursue right from the start. Let us look at the massive support other activities—such as sport and the arts—receive from the private sector. I wanted to ensure that children's play benefited in its own right from private sector investment too; but that was not happening. There is every reason to believe that it can happen. As a result, the Government did not decide to stop funding children's play, but we decided to look for another, and more cost-effective, way of achieving better benefits for children with the money that was earmarked for Play Board from this financial year onwards. These considerations had, and have, no implications whatsoever for the DHSS and DES substantial support for children's play, nor for the support that the activity receives from the Department of the Environment's urban programme.

In September last year I proposed to Play Board that its role and functions be merged with those of the Sports Council. I stress again that our aim in so doing was not to submerge play into sport, but to bring to children's play the proven ability and experience of a major, well-recognised body to raise private sector funds for the benefit of play, and to deal effectively with local authorities and the voluntary sector.

Both organisations agreed to enter into exploratory negotiations to identify a way forward, the aim being to work up a proposal that could be considered by Play Board's board and the full council, which includes the 10 regional sports council chairmen. Two key factors in the subsequent discussions were, the possible future employment of Play Board's staff within the council, and the development of a structure that would maintain play's independence and separate identity.

I know that this proposal caused concern among some of those involved with children's play, but it also received support, notably from the Association of District Councils, which is the major provider of play opportunities and facilities.

Mr. Ian Gibson, who is the chairman of Play Board, is a member of the Association of District Councils.

It is true that Mr. Ian Gibson is vice-chairman of the Association of District Councils. He is also the eminent leader of Portsmouth council. That does not mean that he controls the thoughts of the Association of District Councils. It is a body with a proven record for representing the interests of district councils, and I believe that it did so in this case.

It was with great disappointment and astonishment that I learnt of Play Board's decision, on 5 March, to withdraw from the negotiations with the Sports Council and to liquidate the company, the more so because of the implications that those decisions had for Play Board's staff, who now face redundancy, and the consequences for the experience that they had gained, which could have been built on in the future.

I know that many members and ex-members of Play Boards, including the chairman, two vice-chairmen, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities' representative and a former member of the National Play Advisory Committee, regretted the decision. Nevertheless, their responsible and realistic attitude did not prevail and Play Board has now entered into liquidation.

I know also, as my hon. Friend has explained, that other organisations concerned with children's play have their own views about how the future should shape up. I have seen the National Playing Fields Association's alternative proposals for the future, the National Play Advisory Committee's proposals and Fair Play for Children's alternative proposals, and I have heard from others who believe that they have the right ideas about the way forward. I am not questioning their genuine concern to ensure that greater benefits accrue to children's play from the arrangements that we adopt for the future, nor am I dismissing their ideas. I remain convinced that further discussions with the Sports Council hold the best prospect of identifying a mechanism for achieving greater benefits for children's play in a more cost-effective way. These discussions will include consultations with some other organisations at the appropriate time and they will certainly address the concern raised in the House.

What I want to achieve above all is not another three difficult years during which a new mechanism, or even a new voluntary organisation, develops and tries to become established. I want to see the Department's, the Government's and the taxpayers' investment produce value for money and early benefits for children's play.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.