Skip to main content

UK Deaf Sport

Volume 494: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2009

I am enormously pleased to have secured this debate in the ballot because, as I will come to in the course of my comments, this issue is not just about athletes, but about the way that we treat people with hearing disabilities generally. I am also pleased to have secured the debate because, until a couple of years ago, we had a remarkable school called Hawkswood school in my constituency. It was a school for the hearing impaired and profoundly deaf, and although we fought long and hard to keep it open, sadly, we failed—although we secured other special needs schools. I will come back to the issue of why that particular school ended up going when we were able to save other special needs schools, because that matter has a bearing on the nature of this debate.

In essence, this is about a constituent called Ollie Monksfield. I want to set out the particular and rather personal story of Ollie because it illustrates the problem of a group of young men and women who have aspirations like everybody else to compete on behalf of their country, but who will find doing so impossible or so difficult that it is a scarring experience. Ollie Monksfield is profoundly deaf but he was selected to play for the British football squad at the deaf Olympics in September. He was part of the team that won gold at the last deaf Olympic games in Melbourne. I do not think that the deaf Olympics has ever been broadcast across the media but, none the less, I hope that we are proud of it—we certainly should be.

Interestingly, like many people with hearing disabilities, Ollie was not born profoundly deaf. He became deaf at about nine months when he was diagnosed with meningitis C. Ollie has always excelled at football. Interestingly, he was selected for trials for a major club. I was astonished on hearing that upon learning of his disability, the club refused him a place despite his obvious and impressive talent on the pitch. The Minister, who is on the other side of the House but is a good friend of mine in footballing terms, would be appalled by that, but that is another story. However, it illustrates what I am saying.

The point I wish to make today is that Ollie has managed, under a great deal of pressure, to raise some money towards fulfilling his dream of helping Team GB successfully defend its title in Taipei, but he and the others need to raise much more money. He personally has to raise another £1,000 by 30 June but is hitting brick wall after brick wall to secure his place. When I speak to him, he tells me that there is now every chance that he may not be able to go because he will not raise the money. Frankly, that would be a tragedy for him and the others.

I raised this debate because I am concerned that Ollie and his team mates should ever have been put in such a position. In a funny way, they are the little group that has been swept under the carpet without—I hope—anyone quite realising what was happening. I have never met anyone with disabilities who wants to rely on handouts, and these people are legitimately proud. They are proud particularly as athletes of what they have achieved in their own right.

I am enormously pleased—I know that the Minister is as well—to see how the Paralympics and other competitions have grown in the public’s imagination. It is a sign of a just and decent society that we find a place for people with huge difficulties, not necessarily caused by anything that they had done to them during the course of their lives. That is a matter to be proud of.

It is almost as though the group has been cast aside. Ollie does not want to rely on handouts. He is a secondary school physical education teacher who works very hard every day. The decision to withdraw funding for the team to go out to compete in Taipei sends the wrong message. We should be doing all that we can to support all people with any disability, not just some while leaving others out.

I know, Mr. Wilshire, that we are not meant to refer to people in the gallery. None the less, I shall refer to someone who is not here. Ollie is too busy at school, but also, in conversations with him, he told me that he was concerned that he may not have been able to follow the proceedings. That, too, illustrates my point.

The fact is that the UK Sport grant of £42,000—that is all—to UK Deaf Sport was withdrawn, with effect from April 2008. The reason for withdrawing the funding is that UK Sport is apparently focusing mainly on the successful delivery of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. I shall come to the budget later, but I ask now why that £42,000 had to be withdrawn from the deaf Olympic group. I find that rather strange.

UK Sport attempted to justify the cut, or reduction—whichever term one wants to use—by claiming that it needs extra funds to support British elite athletes in their goal to meet the target medal haul set for 2012. Like every citizen of this country, I was proud of what our athletes achieved at the last Olympics and Paralympics, and I hope that they do better next time around, but UK Sport has given a poor excuse to justify taking away that small sum of money. That cut clearly suggests that UK Sport does not value the success of all athletes, including those who do not have specific disabilities that are often in the public eye and, as a result, obvious, as well as mainstream athletes.

It appears that since the withdrawal of the money, no specific guidance has been given by anyone to Deaflympic athletes as to how they should go about raising alternative funds. Little consideration has been given to the communication difficulties that many of them have. I remind hon. Members that they have particular problems in this area.

I raise money for an organisation beyond politics, and for charities generally. Raising money requires a massive ability to communicate using the media, telephones and conversation, which makes things much more difficult for these athletes. There has been little or no support or help to pave the way for them to find money. After all, they never required a huge sum of money to go. I shall come on to the figure in a second. How are athletes with speech impediments and hearing difficulties supposed to raise funds effectively, when the majority of fund-raising practices involve one-to-one contact with potential donors, possibly even by telephone?

I understand that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has said that deaf athletes are eligible for funding through the Paralympics, but I cannot believe that, as a majority of deaf athletes cannot join the Paralympic games because there is a shortage of international deaf athletes to compete against. Perhaps the Minister has not been told about that. Theirs is a peculiar and particular problem. I did not know about it when I first had Ollie in my surgery talking about the matter. Once it was explained to me, I could understand how the problem may have been swept out of sight. No one has focused on this particular, necessarily small but none the less remarkable group of people.

It seems unfair that the UK Deaflympic team now does not receive any form of funding when the Paralympic team is in receipt of such funding, and in sizeable amounts. I shall come back to that in a second. The loss of funding means that each member of the Deaflympic squad will have to raise thousands to pay for their flights and accommodation. I do not understand how we got ourselves here, and I hope that the Minister is big enough—I know him personally and believe that to be the case normally—to think again about this and to find a way through.

I remind hon. Members of the history of the situation. The Deaflympic football team won gold at the last games in Melbourne in 2005. What a remarkable feat—I hope that we are all proud of it. What is also remarkable is that the team may now not be able to get to the next games to defend its title. It would be a matter of shame for us all if a group of athletes who have struggled and trained so hard were not able to assume their rightful place at the Olympics.

The figures speak loudly. UK Sport has pledged some £292 million—it is worth emphasising the figure, because it is so large—for the 2012 games to ensure that Team GB finishes fourth in the medal table. I hope that it finishes higher. The British Deaflympic team has not received anything like that level of consideration over the years.

In comparison, it would cost UK Sport approximately £500,000 in total, all done, to send the British Deaflympic squad to the games in Taipei this September. It is interesting that the cost per medal for a Deaflympic athlete amounts to £1,400, if one bases it on the last Olympics, as compared with the cost of funding an Olympic medal, which is about £1.6 million. We live in an age with much talk of value for money. That speaks loudly to me about value for money. I would suggest that another good reason for considering this group is that it tends to return the money invested in it many times over. It is worthy of major consideration.

Sadly, in May 2009, the independent appeals panel rejected UK Deaf Sport’s appeal against UK Sport’s decision not to help deaf athletes with funding. I hope that the Minister will not fall back on that as some kind of justification for the failure. The panel was fundamentally wrong and misguided, and I have no hesitation in saying that I hope that it realises what it was doing when it made that decision.

In the last few minutes before I conclude and give the Minister a chance to talk about what is happening, I want to raise a general issue. I would like to return to the subject of Hawkswood school, which is no longer in being. When it was closed, we were told that the children, many of whom signed and did not lip-read, would be fine because local secondary schools would cope with them when they went to those schools. After all, they were only hearing impaired, were they not? However, many of them did not lip-read and they had to learn a whole new culture of communication, which is a major change.

I do not know how many people listening to the debate or reading the report would be able to undertake such a change at reasonably short notice. More than that, I have since discovered that even those who lip-read have been in major difficulty—in a culture that, as is so often forgotten, sets deaf people apart from others—because teachers, for example, do not realise simple little things about children with profound hearing difficulties in their class. For example, the teacher may carry on with their normal routine of turning to face the white board while talking about what they are writing. However, the moment they break visual contact, that child is isolated from the rest of the class. Or teachers may do what they have done down the generations and walk to the back of the class while carrying on talking, leaving everybody looking at the white board. In those circumstances, deaf children who rely on lip-reading do not know what the teacher is saying. These little things are forgotten about because that child looks just like every other child in the class.

Too often, many deaf children are isolated and are mocked because they sound strange when they talk, which is often interpreted as their being stupid, although they are not. These children are sometimes definitely, as the play once said, regarded as children of a lesser god; they are people with severe disabilities, but nobody quite recognises that or feels comfortable in that recognition.

How galling for deaf sports people to find that, right now, essentially for a paltry sum of £42,000 a year, their hopes and aspirations are likely to be tossed aside. Other athletes who are perhaps more visually disabled—we can see and understand that they have suffered and struggled to get to their position as athletes—receive all our plaudits. These other athletes sometimes receive the sympathy of society far more easily than those who have a hearing impairment. Other disabled athletes have essentially been granted the £47 million and the rest of the athletes receive the £256 million, which, as I said, is a sizeable sum on which the Government and others should be congratulated. But people should remember that all the deaf athletes were asking for was a small sum to make it back to defend their title and compete successfully in the Olympics, as I believe they would have done.

No wonder, then, that deaf athletes too often see themselves as being shunted out of sight and out of mind. I plead with the Minister, who I know is a reasonable individual, simply to review this situation and recognise that no matter what happens, these athletes deserve a better deal than the one they have had. Society cannot simply shunt them off into a corner. These young men and women deserve the chance to reach their full potential, whether in football teams or in the Paralympics. It is time for us to change our attitude to people with a hearing impairment and give them the opportunity to play a fuller part in society and to receive the plaudits that are their due when they compete successfully.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate and for the spirit in which he has put forward the case for his constituent, Ollie Monksfield, to whom I send my regards and best wishes on his career. I was appalled to hear what happened to him in respect of the football club and I am happy to speak to the right hon. Gentleman afterwards to talk about that. It is appalling that that happened to somebody with Ollie’s talents.

I am aware of the long and proud history of the Deaflympics, which held its first summer games in Paris in 1924. Both the summer and winter Deaflympics are sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. Although I acknowledge that the Deaflympics is not a contest between nations and that there is no classification at national level in the transcript of results, it would be remiss of me not to add my congratulations to the team on its success in Melbourne 2005, when it won 16 medals in eight sports—more than the host nation, Australia. I take great delight in our teams beating Australia at so many things, as the right hon. Gentleman knows.

I understand UK Deaf Sport’s disappointment with the decision to cease funding the football team from this year. I should like to clarify why this difficult decision has been taken. That is not just a decision made in respect of UK Deaf Sport: nine sports were affected by UK Sport’s decision. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman, setting out the details of those sports.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, UK Sport’s primary goal is to support our ambitious targets for places in the top four on the medal table at the London Olympics and for second place in the Paralympics. This is clearly set out in the formal funding agreement between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and UK Sport. As a result, UK Sport has focused its investment on providing funding support to our very best Olympic and Paralympic sports and athletes through their world class performance programme. This focusing of investment—this no-compromise approach—helped the Olympic team to achieve its best performance in 100 years in Beijing and it is why the Paralympic team maintained its second position in the medal table, despite an increasingly competitive field.

UK Sport’s policy does not discriminate against deaf or hard-of-hearing athletes. Deaf athletes who meet the criteria for UK Sport’s world class performance programme in either an Olympic or Paralympic sport will be supported. There are currently three athletes on the programme who are deaf or have declared a hearing impairment. In the past, that programme included the diver Antonio Ally, who competed in the 2004 Olympics.

UK Sport has taken a hard look at all its funding over the past few years to align it with its Olympic and Paralympic goals in the lead-up to London 2012. UK Deaf Sport has been impacted by this review, but it is not the only organisation to be affected. Neither I nor UK Sport revels in these difficult decisions that disappoint people, but we need to take them and to decide where best to place our resources to make the biggest impact on our goals. The outcome of this consideration is a focus of our resource on Olympic and Paralympic sports and athletes, but even these sports are not immune to the current financial restrictions. That is why we have tasked UK Sport with leading on a project to develop a permanent private sector funding stream for Olympic and Paralympic sport.

I should also like to put on the record that I am satisfied that UK Sport has treated UK Deaf Sport fairly during this difficult process. It provided a one-off payment of £75,000 to support our team at the 2005 Deaflympics in Melbourne. In addition, it committed to provide funding of £42,000 per year for the three-year period from 1 April 2005 to 31 March 2008. At the time, UK Sport made it clear that this funding was being provided to help UK Deaf Sport develop its organisational structure and other streams of revenue and that such funding would cease after 31 March 2008. This position has been reaffirmed to UK Deaf Sport on a number of occasions since then. As the right hon. Gentleman said, UK Deaf Sport appealed against UK Sport’s decision to an independent panel chaired by a Queen’s counsel. The panel dismissed the appeal, finding in favour of UK Sport.

I want to continue in the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman raised this matter. It is right and proper for me, as Minister with responsibility for sport, to outline the Government’s wider commitment to improving equality of opportunity from the grassroots up. The right hon. Gentleman will know that Sport England has recently made awards totalling £480 million over the next four years to 46 national governing bodies. For the first time, this includes funding for four Paralympic sports—boccia, goalball, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair rugby—with awards worth in excess of £2 million.

All NGBs have been challenged to come up with plans that deliver participation growth right across the community. The criteria on which plans were assessed included their ability to deliver for priority groups. Those willing and able to do more are able to access more funding and, as a result, several sports are adopting challenging participation targets in this area. I was interested to notice that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention the Football Association. I am not sure whether the FA is contributing to deaf football, so perhaps we need to discuss that further afterwards.

Direct support is also provided through the English Federation of Disability Sport, which includes UK Deaf Sport amongst its affiliates. The EFDS was provided with more than £1 million of core Exchequer funding last year, with additional lottery grants to support disabled participation in sport. As part of the new award process, Sport England will also be offering new two-year funding settlements to its national partners from a £10 million pot. That is open to the EFDS and other organisations such as Sporting Equals and the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation. The EFDS is working on its bid and how it will make connections into the NGB delivery system. I encourage UK Deaf Sport to work closely with the EFDS and its other members to ensure the best outcome for deaf sport.

Hon. Members should be aware that we have committed a further £4 million over the next four years to the EFDS and partner governing bodies to work with Sport England, the Youth Sport Trust and Paralympics GB to roll out the new playground-to-podium programme. That will ensure that our young disabled people in the community and schools are exposed to the highest quality development programmes, and that talent is given a chance to shine through. That will, of course, benefit young deaf athletes who want to progress to UK Sport's world-class pathway programme.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government are also investing more than £780 million through the PE and sport strategy for young people over the next three years. The strategy has equity at its heart and will reach out to all groups of young people who have been historically underrepresented in sport, including young people with disabilities. For example, by 2011 we will have in place a new network of 450 multi-sport clubs for young disabled people. The clubs will provide high-quality participation alongside competitive opportunities, as well as a focus on progression through high-quality coaching in a variety of sports. As importantly, we will provide schools and teachers with appropriate assistance and support to make those clubs successful. I fully understand UK Deaf Sport’s disappointment and frustration, but these are difficult times, and we want to support our elite athletes for the London 2012 cycle. On behalf of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent, I am happy to explore the football element of his problem and to see what could be done.

The thrust of what we are trying to do is to ensure that EFDS puts itself aside from the main interest of each disability and tries to find a co-ordinated response on disability sport. We must give weight to the EFDS, to ensure that it can get to the NGBs, to which we have given funds. The bureaucracy has gone from Sport England, and the money goes straight to the NGBs.

The Minister is being helpful and lucid, but the complaint is that more help was needed to find other sources, and that help was not as forthcoming as it should have been. I agree that many of the contacts that he is suggesting, such as the Football Association and others, should have been included, but the help should have been forthcoming, and it was not. I hope that he will be able to speak to the organisation to persuade it that its job is not just to disburse money, but to help people to whom it is not disbursing money but who have a legitimate cause and an accepted name to find people from whom to raise that money.

That is a fair point, and I will speak not just to UK Sport, but to Sport England and the Youth Sport Trust when such situations arise. I am hoping that the English Federation of Disability Sport will become a stronger advocate for disability sport with the national governing bodies. One element of the support for governing bodies is that they have varying capacity to deal with certain issues. I want to set a standard for governing bodies, and to support those that do not reach that standard through no fault of their own—perhaps because they are run by volunteers or because of their capabilities. I am encouraging Sport England to examine each governing body to see what can be done to raise their capacity, and to consider where the gaps are in their whole sport plans, which each national governing body has submitted, and their priorities for how to reach hard-to-reach groups, of which disability sport is a key element.

I will take away some of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman has raised. I cannot make any promises about UK Deaf Sport and other sports that lost funding, but I hope that the EFDS review will be more forthcoming in the longer term. The right hon. Gentleman was right to raise the matter, and I will consider what can be done for the individual to whom he referred.

Sitting suspended.