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Volume 478: debated on Monday 23 June 2008

1. If he will make a statement on his Department’s policy to increase public participation in swimming. (212566)

The Secretary of State for Health and I have today written to all Members of the House following the announcement that we made on 6 June of a £142 million fund to help local authorities in England to offer free swimming to people aged over 60 and under 16, in support of a longer-term ambition to offer free swimming for all by 2012.

I welcome what the Secretary of State will confirm in writing to us. I was about to buy a new pair of swimming trunks, when I realised that in the borough of Fylde, the problem would not be accessing a swimming pool. The financially hard-pressed borough is committed to closing one of its two municipal pools. The borough is not isolated in the pressures it experiences in maintaining publicly available swimming facilities. In pursuance of the answer that the Secretary of State has just given, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will work with the Local Government Association to investigate the financial pressures that hard-pressed district councils such as mine face in maintaining their swimming facilities?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I should not want to dissuade him from purchasing his swimming trunks—we want to get as many people active as possible in time for 2012. Local authorities must make a judgment about providing enough pools for the local population. His council must take its own decisions on that. The scheme that I announced gives incentives to councils that are prepared to do the most to make swimming more accessible to people, including giving them the opportunity to access capital funding to support their swimming pool stock. I hope that he will talk to Conservative colleagues on his local council so that they can come up with proposals to get more people into pools, rather than let them decline, ensuring that more people are active in time for the Olympic games.

I welcome the announcement by my right hon. Friend. In 2005, Wigan metropolitan borough council—a Labour borough—introduced free swimming for under-16s, and in the following year it did the same for the over-60s. There have already been some 300,000 free swims, and tens of thousands of young and older people are taking up sport and leisure for the first time. In April 2009, the scheme is to be extended to all citizens of the borough. As a consequence, we will improve health opportunities for all in sport, and people like me will start swimming rather than end up having triple heart bypasses to save their lives.

I say to my good friend and neighbour that the Wigan scheme was very much the inspiration for the policy that we announced a few weeks ago. As he rightly says, it is popular and it gets people active. That is the best use of public money in my view—getting people healthy and happy, and getting them out of their homes to lead an active and independent life. My right hon. Friend puts it so well; I am proud that Wigan is one of the first councils that want to make swimming universally free by next year. I hope that will set a path for others to follow. He is right to say that in the long term the policy can relieve pressure on the national health service, and social services, too.

When will the funds allowing people to claim for maintenance or capital projects be available, and will a community-owned and run pool be able to apply to access that fund?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are different models of swimming provision throughout the country, and in some cases community organisations own swimming pools. The idea is that the council is in the driving seat. We want councils to make swimming as available as possible and to remove the barriers. Whatever people say, for many families throughout the country, entry charges are still a significant barrier to going to the pool. We will announce more details before the summer recess, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We want to be as flexible as possible in helping councils throughout the country come with us on this journey of removing entry charges for swimming.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Conservative-led Bradford district council proposes the closure of four swimming pools in the district? I have a letter from a constituent of mine at Oxenhope, in which she says:

“I am writing to voice my dismay about the proposed closure of four of our local swimming pools.”

That includes Bingley, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), but the lady who has written to me is my constituent. She has been taking her daughter for swimming lessons for the past 30 weeks, and if the pool closes, they will cease. Will my right hon. Friend make representations to Bradford and persuade it not to close those pools?

I have been concerned about some of the local plans in Bradford and the area, where, it has been brought to my attention, five pools were earmarked for closure. The whole idea of the scheme is to stop councils managing a process of decline in swimming—in pools, stock and use—and get them thinking more positively about the contribution that swimming can make to people’s sense of well-being, happiness and activity. I have made the judgment that swimming is universally popular—something that everyone can imagine themselves doing and that different generations of families can do together. I believe that, if councils take a positive view of the contribution that swimming can make to managing other costs, they will reach different decisions. However, I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend and other colleagues about pursuing those discussions locally.

A range of Departments contributed to the fund. The Departments for Work and Pensions, for Children, Schools and Families and for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Health came together and contributed to the fund that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had initiated and to which we, too, have contributed.

Will the hon. Gentleman hear me out? The Departments’ contributions make an important statement about the way in which the Government can collectively pursue a positive policy that will have an impact on people throughout the country.

Let us have the discussion: if people think that the policy is the right way to go and that we should develop it further, I personally believe that that sort of activity would be a good use of lottery funds because it gives something back to everybody. However, the fund that I described is drawn from the Departments that I mentioned and will show that not only people who work in sport but the wider public endorse that way of working.

I am not sure whether the Secretary of State appreciates the significance of what he has said. In January, his predecessor gave a categorical assurance in the House that there would be no more lottery raids to fund Government Olympic budget miscalculations. Yet the Secretary of State claims that the lottery would be a good source of money, and the Under-Secretary said in a parliamentary answer last week that he would discuss with Sport England a lottery contribution this summer. When will Ministers leave the lottery alone and stop using it to fund Government Olympic budget incompetence?

It is amazing that the shadow Secretary of State can come to the House and try to proclaim as a bad news story an unprecedented announcement to take promoting physical activity to a different level. Five Departments are lining up behind that initiative, and that sends an incredibly positive signal to those who work in sport and to councils.

I said quite clearly that the lottery has not contributed to the fund that I have assembled. I said that I was open minded about whether it could have a role if we wanted to take the initiative further, but it is wrong of the hon. Gentleman to mix up the £9.3 billion Olympic budget with the wider scheme, which will help sport, physical activity and the Olympic games to touch the lives of and have meaning for people throughout the country.

Ilford has had a swimming pool since 1931, and I swam there as a child. However, the Conservative council in Redbridge proposes to close the pool by December. What advice can the Secretary of State give to the more than 100,000 people in my constituency who will no longer have a pool because of Conservative council incompetence?

My hon. Friend is a living embodiment of the good that swimming can do early, often and throughout one’s life. I would give his council similar advice to the advice that I would offer the council of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer): to come out of a position whereby swimming is an easy target—the item to be cut and the first thing to take away from people when the pressure is on—and take a more enlightened view. If councils invest in sport and physical activity in the long run, they can relieve pressure on other parts of the council budget. Given that we have made the money available and are providing incentives for councils to take up the scheme, I hope that my hon. Friend can persuade his council to follow that route with us.