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Free Swimming Schemes

Volume 488: debated on Monday 2 March 2009

4. What plans he has to assist local authorities to participate in his Department’s free swimming schemes. (259230)

We have already made available £10 million of capital funding for pool modernisation for those local authorities that have chosen to participate in both elements of the Government’s free swimming programme, and by way of revenue funding. Those local authorities have also been encouraged to apply for a further share of the £50 million capital. We are putting in place a national network of county swimming co-ordinators, who will offer expert advice and support to all participating local authorities and pool operators. That will help them to identify and deliver on priorities, such as reaching out to deprived areas and vulnerable groups. There will also be a “learn to swim” package, which will enable participating local authorities to target free swimming lessons at particular groups.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. In my constituency, 41 per cent. of the population are either over 60 or under 16. After making a freedom of information request, I found out that the local authority was not prepared to spend a mere £3,000 to allow free swimming. We have missed the boat this time; could he suggest a second way in, so that we could go back to the authorities and say that, for £3,000, they ought to come into the scheme?

I know that my hon. Friend has done a lot of work to try to promote the idea of free swimming. I am shocked and saddened that for the sake of £3,000 his local authority was not prepared to offer free swimming to the over-60s in his area. It is mostly Labour authorities that have successfully implemented free swimming. We will make sure that his local authority is considered in the next round.

The Minister will, I know, accept that all local authorities would love to provide free swimming for the over-60s and the under-16s, but the fact is that when a local authority is as badly funded as Wiltshire, it is extremely difficult to do so. Will he stand by his pledge to provide free swimming for everyone by 2012? Will he achieve that?

We have said that we wanted free swimming first for the over-60s, then for the under-16s. That idea came from local government—from areas such as Wigan and Durham, which introduced free swimming. At one time, only 40 local authorities—usually Labour authorities—provided free swimming. Now 290 local authorities—82 per cent. of them—provide free swimming for the over-60s. They are working with local partnerships, local primary care trusts and other organisations. I am sad to say that, on occasion, some local authorities—they are usually politically motivated—have not put forward plans, although it could have been to the benefit of everybody if they had done so.