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Volume 478: debated on Monday 23 June 2008

2. What estimate he has made of the number of people likely to take up regular swimming as a result of free access to swimming pools. (212567)

Experience from existing schemes, such as in Wales and Wigan, leads us to believe that our free swimming initiative will make an important contribution to the aim of getting 2 million more people active in time for the London Olympics games in 2012.

Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), I have a pair of swimming trunks and I swim regularly. I pay tribute to the Government for wanting people to go swimming. However, from the Secretary of State’s answer, it appears that the Government have no evidence that their proposal will increase the uptake of swimming among the over-60s or the under-16s. People who already swim will get free swimming, which is very nice for them, but that will not encourage swimming. In fact, let us be blunt: the Government are just spending money on an eye-catching gimmick.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, the thought of him and his right hon. Friend in their swimming trunks is nearly putting me off my stride, but I will try to banish it from my mind. What I am beginning to hear, floating up, as it were, from the Opposition Benches, is a negativity and cynicism that is not shared by the public at large, who like the initiative and want the Olympic games to improve the way the country embraces sport and physical activity. The evidence is clear. My local authority has seen a nearly 50 per cent. increase in the number of young people going swimming. Trevor Barton, who was chair of Wigan borough sports council, and Rodney Hill, the chief executive of the Wigan leisure and culture trust, have said and proven that if we go down that path, people will take up swimming and new people will be brought into the pool. The hon. Gentleman might be cynical about that, but I most certainly am not.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Labour-controlled Bolton council, which has already introduced free entrance to all swimming pools for all pensioners and children? This year, the council will introduce free swimming lessons for children. Furthermore, it will build a brand new swimming pool in partnership with the university and, surprisingly, the primary care trust, because the pool will have a health facility built within it. Is that not a good thing?

It is a very good thing. I was at the Bolton arena not long ago to see the efforts being made to engage young people in sport in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and a mighty fine thing that is, too. What you are hearing today, Mr. Speaker, is that this policy—a Labour policy—is about the Government making sport available to as many people as possible. The Opposition carped about free entry to museums and galleries, which has seen the number of people using museums and galleries double, and they are doing the same today. I congratulate Bolton. I will have the courage of my convictions and say that what we are doing is the right thing to do. As a result, we can make lots more people healthy and active.

Will the Secretary of State congratulate the London borough of Redbridge on its investment in leisure facilities, with improvements in my swimming pool in Ilford, North and the commitment that it has given to swimming in Ilford, South? Under health and safety regulations, the council may indeed have to close the pool later this year, but is consulting the entire borough on how to raise the £50 million needed to replace the swimming pool in Ilford, South. Will the Secretary of State congratulate the Conservative-led Redbridge administration?

I will congratulate any council, of any political colour, that takes a bold vision on sport and physical activity. Let there be no doubt about that. Let me say also that we are talking about a fund to benefit everybody in the country. Any council is absolutely welcome to make its case to benefit from it. In the past four years, more local authority pools have opened than have closed in this country, contrary to popular belief. In the local area agreement process, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has been conducting, more than half of all councils have selected participation in sport as a priority indicator. That tells me that, at the local level, councils are prioritising sport. I congratulate them, but I ask them to work with us and to persuade those who have a different view to change tack.

Does my right hon. Friend wonder, like me, how we can encourage swimming under councils such as the Liberal Democrat council in Liverpool? It closed New Hall swimming pool in my constituency, which had been specially adapted for special needs? The next pool along, in Queen’s drive, was merged into Alsop school, thereby taking it out of public use for half the day. How is that encouraging people in a deprived part of the city to take up swimming?

On my frequent visits to Goodison Park, I see the new facility at Alsop school. It looks like a very good facility, and I hope that my hon. Friend will work hard to ensure that it is made as widely available to the community as possible. As much as possible, we need to work with councils to identify the barriers that prevent facilities from being used, and to help them to overcome them. If all else fails in making progress down this path in my hon. Friend’s constituency, I am sure that he will agree that swimming will always be free in the River Mersey.

The Secretary of State has just told the House that £142 million has been designated for this budget from a variety of Government Departments. Will he tell us how long he expects this budget to last, and at what point and in what financial year he will start raiding lottery funds?

The fund that we have put together is within the spending limits from the current comprehensive spending review. It predominantly covers the financial years 2009-10 and 2010-11—the back two years of the current spending review. We will want to see how the initiative develops, but, as I have already said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), councils such as ours are already saying that they are minded to make swimming universally free from April next year. We shall look at the evidence that emerges from Wigan, and from Blackburn, where the primary care trust has already agreed to make swimming universally free from April next year. Let us work with the areas that are going down this path, examine the evidence and consider whether to extend the scheme further as we approach the next spending review.