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Special Olympics

Volume 530: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2011

It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Bayley. I hope that you will be as benevolent to me as you were to the Minister in the previous debate.

Two Saturdays ago, I was in Athens for the opening ceremony of the largest sporting event in the world in 2011, yet I knew full well that few people in the United Kingdom realised that it was happening. The centrepiece of the day was the spectacular opening ceremony of the Special Olympics world summer games. It was a beautiful parade of 7,500 athletes from 185 nations, who were to compete in 22 sports over the following days. As they walked past me, I felt truly humble to be present at such a wonderful occasion.

Over the last two weeks in Greece, people have been celebrating the ability, the talent and the dedication of those athletes with learning difficulties and their coaches. Team GB comprised 214 Britons—157 athletes and 57 coaches. They were out there to win. Make no mistake about it: these are dedicated and seriously talented sportsmen and women. When they returned to the UK yesterday, our athletes brought back many special things with them, including tales of tough competition and inspirational personal achievement, the odd bruise and injury and 187 medals—72 gold, 63 silver and 52 bronze. Great Britain can truly be proud of its Special Olympians. However, we must remember that just to be there, they each had to raise £2,000, and that includes the coaches. They receive no sponsorship, and for a while now they have received no lottery funding.

There are 1.3 million people with learning difficulties in the United Kingdom, so most families are touched by learning difficulties in one shape or form. However, the Special Olympics are largely unknown here, and I hope that this debate will change that, if only in a small way. Indeed, the press coverage given to the Special Olympics world games in Athens over the last two weeks—bar the beautiful and brilliant exception of ITV Central, which covered the games daily on its news broadcasts—was difficult to spot.

Dignity, acceptance and a chance to reach one’s potential are things that all politicians believe are worth promoting for everyone, and for more than four decades the Special Olympics movement has been bringing a simple message to the world: learning-disabled people can and will succeed if they are given the opportunity.

After visiting institutions across the United States for people with what the Americans call intellectual disabilities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a wonderful lady, found herself appalled by their treatment. She believed that, given the same opportunities and experiences as others, they were far more capable than commonly believed. She had a vision that things could be improved through the medium of sport.

Shriver put that vision into action in 1962 by inviting children with intellectual disabilities to Camp Shriver, a summer day-camp in her backyard, where they could explore their capabilities in a variety of sports and physical activities. The Camp Shriver concept—that through sports, people with intellectual disabilities could realise their potential for growth—began to spread. In July 1968, the first international Special Olympic games were held in Chicago, Illinois, and a movement was born. The Special Olympics have grown magnificently across the world, and the last UK summer games were held in the city of Leicester, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth).

The hon. Gentleman and I have something in common, inasmuch as we have both been Leicester South by-election candidates, so I know that he is familiar with the city of Leicester. Does he agree not only that the games held there in 2009 were a great success for the city, and hugely beneficial and inspiring for many of the athletes, but that they played a great role in countering what might be described as misunderstandings about disabled athletes? That is something to celebrate.

Absolutely, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Given the opportunity, I hope that he will come to a Special Olympics event with me and experience again, first hand, exactly how brilliant these athletes are. It is difficult to describe the achievements that these athletes attain. They are doing things that I cannot do. I competed in one of their unified sports two Sundays ago. I was cycling against two learning-disabled athletes; my partner was from Hungary and was the co-sponsor of an event. I came a miserable fourth, and I was trying really hard. They are proper athletes doing a proper job; I certainly would not be able to do what they, with their disabilities, do.

The Special Olympics movement is where learning-disabled athletes celebrate and are celebrated for their accomplishments. It is often the first time that these athletes have truly taken centre stage and been recognised as individuals in their own right. Sport is a central element of the movement, but it is not the only one. In areas as diverse as health care, leadership training, legislative self-advocacy and employment, the Special Olympics take a global leadership role.

Tim Shriver, Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s son and now chief executive officer of the Special Olympics, says:

“Sport teaches us to recognize our similarities over our differences while celebrating the effort to do one’s best in a spirit of respect. And while Special Olympics has had a positive impact on many persons with an intellectual disability, there are many more people that are still hidden, shunned or abused. We look forward to working more closely with the international sports community to broaden the reach of our organizations and bring the joy and goodwill of sport to many more people.”

Through year-round sports training and competition, the Special Olympics empower learning-disabled individuals in more than 180 countries. The games are often the only place where they have the opportunity to participate in their communities and to develop a belief in themselves. Many lead lives of neglect and isolation, hidden away or socially excluded from full participation in schools or society. The Special Olympics transform the athlete and are a gateway to empowerment, competence, acceptance and joy. Better than that, the movement also transforms communities. When people see Special Olympians in action, they see humanity, joy in competition, pride and potential, and they begin to believe in a different sort of world—a world in which everyone is respected and included.

I shall give some examples. In 2009, the Afghanistan world winter games floor hockey team was honoured with congratulations from the highest levels of Government as a tribute to their success. In Romania, children who were once solitary and forgotten now participate in sports training and interact regularly with the community outside their institutions. In the United States, the young girl who was bullied or isolated early in her life is chosen as homecoming queen. In China—I went to the Shanghai Special Olympics summer games four years ago—people who were hidden away in their homes now receive vocational and literacy training at thousands of “sunshine centres” across the provinces.

The Special Olympics movement is also a catalyst for societal change, fostering community building around the globe. It is a leader in diversity and tolerance education, bringing young people with and without intellectual disabilities together in youth and schools outreach programmes. It is a research leader, partnering with Governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector to develop new ways of including people with learning disabilities in all aspects of society. The movement is also the world’s largest public health organisation serving people with learning disabilities, offering free health screening to the world’s most neglected populations. It is the fastest growing grass-roots volunteer movement on the planet, with the potential to improve the quality of life of millions of people.

Why did I ask for this debate? As a fan, I wanted to tell everyone how much I enjoyed watching Great British athletes competing in the Athens games just over 10 days ago. As a spectator, I want to say how fantastic the opening ceremony, and the buzz around the events, was. It was wonderful to watch our athletes competing for their country, and to see the parents’ pride as they watched them. As a consumer, I want to let people know that the sponsors of such events deserve huge praise. Indeed, Coca-Cola should stand up and take a bow; it gave an awful lot of money to the games. As a friend of Tim Shriver, I want to pay proper respect to him and his family, especially his mother, for driving the movement forward so strongly. As a politician, I want to remind my peers how important the inclusion agenda is, and that we do not constantly have to reinvent the wheel. We have a brilliant example of what we should all be aiming for in the Special Olympics movement, and I am proud to be associated with it.

The Minister will know that Sport England is talking to Special Olympics Great Britain about the possibility of funding in the future. I hope that any logjams can be eased. Perhaps the Minister could use his good offices to get a group of people in a room and knock a few heads together to try to free up funding that could improve the lives of thousands of people across the country. It would be much better if Sport England could treat Special Olympics Great Britain as any other national sporting governing body, rather than as an individual sport. Over the years that I have been involved in sport, I have heard numerous gripes from the various sports bodies that have had to deal with Sport England, so I understand that it is a complex beast, but I would like to think that when it comes to disability sports, funding blockages can be removed.

However, I am not here to ask the Minister for more money. I know that he is a fan of the Special Olympics movement, but much as I would love more money from the Government coffers for the movement, that is not the purpose of the debate. The purpose is to celebrate the Special Olympics movement. I suppose that the Minister could possibly help, though; recently, it has been difficult for Special Olympics GB representatives to meet the officials who deal with learning-disabled and inclusion issues in the Department for Education and the Department of Health. It would be helpful if he could use his good offices to set up some meetings. I believe that the movement and the Departments could learn a great deal from each other.

The main thing that I want to hear from the Minister is the Department’s, and his, commitment to the Special Olympics movement across the UK. I want him to say how he can help to raise the profile of the movement here, and hopefully he may give a few words of congratulation to all those who have represented their country so brilliantly in Athens over the past couple of weeks.

I am pleased to be speaking under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on securing this important debate. I acknowledge, too, the presence and contribution of the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth), who also takes an interest in the subject.

It goes without saying that I am delighted to begin by congratulating all the participants in the 2011 Special Olympics world summer games, which finished on Monday in Athens. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there was an outstanding performance by the Great Britain Special Olympics team, who won 187 medals—72 gold, 63 silver and 52 bronze; it is worth repeating that. It was not in my notes to congratulate Coca-Cola, but I will follow the lead of my hon. Friend and pay tribute to it for sponsoring the Special Olympics and helping to make them such an outstanding success.

We are rightly proud of the team’s fantastic achievement in Athens, and it is clear that every competitor did their best. I will not comment on my hon. Friend’s athletic prowess, but I can guarantee that if I were to compete in a cycle race, I would not finish fourth; I would probably finish last. Some Special Olympians had the chance to visit the Prime Minister at No. 10 before leaving for the games, and I am sure that there was an equally warm welcome for all the competitors, and the people who have supported them in Greece, when they arrived back at Heathrow yesterday.

It is worth spending half an hour of parliamentary time acknowledging the success and work of the competitors. By calling this debate, my hon. Friend will have further boosted the pride of the competitors and their parents, families and friends, and for that alone he must be congratulated. He has been a supporter of the Special Olympics movement for many years, going back to the time when he was an MEP. He knows better than most about the many years of work that have gone into the success of team GB in this year’s Special Olympics.

Special Olympics Great Britain was formed to offer a lifetime of learning through sport. Even though we should celebrate its most recent achievements, it is also right that we recognise the many benefits that the Special Olympics bring to individuals of all ages and ability levels every day, from those with low motor abilities to the most highly skilled athletes. By bringing together coaches and volunteers to provide sports training and competition for children and adults with learning disabilities, regardless of their ability, Special Olympics GB not only reaches out to those who participate, but brings their families, friends and volunteers closer to sport, too.

With such excellent credentials, I can understand why my hon. Friend asks what the Government are doing to support Special Olympics GB, and to help make its good work go further. My Department and this Government support its work and will continue to do so. I will certainly use my good offices to ensure that he gets the meetings that he needs to increase awareness of Special Olympics GB in government, and to get any support that he feels is necessary for this important part of British sport.

As my hon. Friend knows, Sport England’s aim is to grow and sustain participation in grass-roots sport. Central to its work is the £480 million it invests directly through the 46 national governing bodies of sport. Disability provision is woven into the work of the national governing bodies, so part of that investment will contribute to increasing disability participation in sport. The approach is entirely inclusive and looks to offer opportunities for everyone to participate in sport, regardless of their gender, disability or ethnic background. Sports are tailored to meet the specific needs of those groups of people, so they are not separated out from other participants, and that helps to increase accessibility.

To help build capacity and expertise in disability sport, Sport England and the national governing bodies work with the English Federation of Disability Sport. As the umbrella organisation for disability sport, it has responsibility for the promotion and development of sporting opportunities for the 11 million disabled people in England, by providing expertise and advice and by bringing together eight national disability sport organisations recognised by Sport England, one of which is Special Olympics GB.

I was delighted to hear today’s announcement by Sport England—perhaps it was not unrelated to this debate—that it will, for the first time, directly fund disability sports organisations to advise, support and guide other sports bodies as they create opportunities for participation by disabled people.

To complement that core investment, Places People Play is Sport England’s mass participation legacy initiative that will bring the magic of the London games into the heart of local communities, and that includes a specific focus on disability. Furthermore, the school games will offer meaningful competitive sporting opportunities to young people with both physical and learning disabilities at every level.

A lot of work is going on in many places to help get people with disabilities, including learning disabilities, into grass-roots sport. A lot is also going on at the top-end of sport, too. When we won the right to host the Olympic and Paralympic games in London in 2012, UK Sport became clearly focused on achieving performance and medal success. That investment strategy was limited to the Olympic and Paralympic summer sports. However, the International Paralympic Committee General Assembly agreed in November 2009 to include, once again, learning disabled participants in IPC competitions, including the 2012 Paralympics. Four sports were targeted for inclusion in London 2012: athletics, rowing, swimming and table tennis.

This decision is most welcome, and we look forward to seeing our best intellectually disabled athletes competing once again at the very highest level. However, much work remains to be done by the sports themselves before the participation of learning disabled athletes can be guaranteed in London 2012. Indeed, the international governing body for rowing has decided not to take up the opportunity at this time.

UK Sport has set aside funding for learning disabled athletes in athletics, swimming and table tennis, now that that category of athlete has been readmitted to the Paralympics. The funds will be allocated to the sports, following confirmation and the outcome of the classification standards and qualification process by the international federation.

Since that decision, the International Paralympic Committee world swimming championships have taken place in Holland, and they included six events for athletes with an intellectual disability. The Great Britain team included four intellectually disabled athletes, who won four medals including two golds. I can also confirm that a number of intellectually disabled swimmers are already in receipt of public funding through UK Sport’s world class programme to assist them in their preparations for London 2012. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that those are very positive developments.

We fought very hard to get a good settlement for sport in the comprehensive spending review. We did well, and in a highly challenging economic climate, we have been able to go a long way to protect the central funding streams that we believe add genuine value to the sports sector and the people that it serves. However, there will be financial constraints on our ambitions, and we will have to consider creative solutions to difficult problems. For example, our changes to national lottery funding have helped to release more funds for sport of every kind.

It is also important to recognise that there are a number of competing priorities for sport funding. The latest figures on participation show that far too many of us do no sport at all and those of us who do participate do not do enough sport. That is a fundamental problem, and we need to solve it. Of course, we need to take a proportionate approach, but we also need to prioritise, so Special Olympics GB must be considered alongside priorities for disability sport and sport more widely.

That is not to say that there are not opportunities that we should consider. As I indicated earlier and as my hon. Friend called for, my Department can consider having closer collaboration with the Department of Health and the Department for Education. We also need to look closely at the evidence. Sport England’s active people survey measures participation in sport, but a breakdown of disability by type was only included in the survey from October last year. We should be able to examine the evidence more fully by December this year.

When my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and the Olympics met Karen Wallin, the chief executive of Special Olympics GB, earlier this year they had a very positive discussion. In particular, they covered the lessons that had been learned from the Special Olympics GB national summer games that, as we have heard, were held in Leicester in 2009. My hon. Friend hopes to attend the launch of the report about those games, and I know that he will give the same message that I give here: there is more to do and we will keep working with Special Olympics GB to try to do it. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry will also follow developments closely.

In the meantime, once again, I pay tribute to the fantastic performance of the competitors and volunteers in Athens, and I congratulate Special Olympics GB on its excellent work.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.