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House of Commons

Monday 22 January 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Public Libraries

1. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): What steps he is taking to raise the quality of service provided by public libraries. [144778]

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Alan Howarth): We have encouraged better planning and accountability in public library services through the introduction of annual library plans and a more rigorous enforcement of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Standards of service for library authorities will be introduced from 1 April 2001, and, through the people's network programme, £170 million of lottery money is being made available to libraries to upgrade their information and communications technology infrastructure, create innovative digital content and train library staff in the use of ICT.

Mr. Dismore: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Barnet libraries' lead for north London in securing £150,000 from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Wolfson foundation libraries fund towards the "first steps--help your child to read" project, which will enable parents of five to seven-year-olds in schools in my constituency, such as Orion, Barnfield, Colindale, Dollis and Sunnyfields, to be more effective in supporting their children's reading? Does my right hon. Friend consider that such projects are worthwhile and should be supported?

Mr. Howarth: I am delighted to congratulate Barnet on taking the lead in the consortium of 10 north London boroughs that have been able to receive money from the DCMS Wolfson fund. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend, who has been a strong and consistent champion of that initiative. I hope that the fruits of the programme will, as he anticipates, be of great benefit to the children of his constituents. That demonstrates the role that public libraries can play in supporting education. It is a proud and long-standing tradition that public libraries act in support of the education service, both in schools and for learners of all ages. When our national library standards

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are in place, public library authorities throughout the country will be even more strongly placed than hitherto to fulfil that responsibility.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): What support can the Minister offer to libraries such as the central reference library in Manchester, which provides not just a local facility but a facility of great importance to a whole region? That library has had an important role in the north-west of England, but that is being downgraded because of a lack of funding, which is available only from Manchester city council. Can the Minister suggest other avenues through which proper funding might be provided?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman makes an important and valid point. Where major libraries such as Manchester central library provide a service to residents in a range of local authorities in the region, it is important that those local authorities also make a contribution to support the funding. We had the difficulties over the Henry Watson music libraries, as the hon. Gentleman will well remember. His own authority in Trafford ought to be willing to bear its share of that responsibility.

Sports Facilities (South-West)

2. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): What specialist sports facilities are available in the south-west of England for young people of exceptional ability. [144779]

The Minister for Sport (Kate Hoey): The facilities available to young people with exceptional ability in the south-west of England include access to 11 specialist sports colleges and the United Kingdom Sports Institute facilities at the universities of Bath and Exeter and the Weymouth and Portland sailing academy.

Mr. Heath: Should we not be doing a great deal more for the sports stars of the future? Is there not a case for a little more joined-up Government thinking about the matter? Should we think not only of the very good sports facilities available in the universities, as the hon. Lady said, but of those in private schools and in Ministry of Defence facilities in the south-west? Should we not make a concerted effort to make those excellent facilities available to the widest range of local education authority students who might benefit from them?

Kate Hoey: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The Ministry of Defence has a number of very good facilities. I had a meeting last year with Captain Robinson from the Ministry of Defence, to discuss the use of its land and facilities. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck, but the hon. Gentleman is right. We are speaking to Ministers and officials in the Ministry of Defence. If the hon. Gentleman watches this space, he may well see an announcement about our working more closely with the independent sector. I had an interesting visit to Millfield, where there are some tremendous facilities. Some of them are open to local people, but we can do more. Joined-up thinking is indeed part of the Government's approach.

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Playing Fields

3. Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): What steps he is taking to provide new playing fields in schools. [144780]

The Minister for Sport (Kate Hoey): Seven hundred and fifty million pounds from the new opportunities fund will bring about a step change in opportunities for young people to play sport through new and refurbished school sports facilities, including playing fields. In particular, as part of the new opportunities fund green spaces initiative, £31 million of lottery money will be made available to projects throughout the country for the creation of playing fields and community areas.

Mr. Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. How many additional playing fields does she have in mind? Does she agree that we want our schoolchildren to exercise and compete more on playing fields than previously? Does she agree that we want the battle for national health to be won on the playing fields of our local education authorities?

Kate Hoey: My right hon. Friend is right: there is definitely a deficiency in the number of school playing fields, in particular, because too many have been sold off. I am sure that Members would like to know that school playing field disposals are down to an average of three a month, instead of 40 a month. Research shows that local education authorities are now taking that much more seriously, and are making bids to sell off only when they are clear that all the criteria laid down by the Government and Sport England are met, to ensure that the money used from that sale is going back into better and improved sporting facilities.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): But does the Minister accept that schools like Drayton school in Banbury have lots of playing fields, but do not have anyone to teach organised games? This is an area in which there seems to be no shortage of money or initiatives, but in which no one is getting a grip on ensuring that more team sports are played in our schools. Will the Minister liaise with her colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment and can we find someone somewhere who will take a lead in trying to ensure that the quantity of team sports played in our schools increases? Lots of youngsters are desperately frustrated that they do not have an opportunity to play team games in their schools.

Kate Hoey: I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman seems to have missed the publication of "A Sporting Future for All", a strategy which laid down clearly for the two Departments a commitment to improve physical education and school sport. The rolling out of our school sport co-ordinators will take place, and one of their jobs will be to improve and enhance competitive team sports and competitions between schools. That is very much a part of that initiative. I hope that we will see improvement in exactly the areas that the hon. Gentleman talked about.

Some schools are doing a very good job indeed. Clearly it is not true that, across the country, there is no competition. However, in certain areas, for all sorts of reasons, we have not been doing as well as we could, which is why the school sport co-ordinators, with

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specialist sport colleges, will improve physical education and school sport and bring them up to a much higher standard.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My hon. Friend will be disappointed to hear that there are no all-weather athletics facilities for schools or the amateur athletics association in my constituency. However, I am sure that she will be pleased to hear of a proposal to bring together the local amateur athletics association and Stanney high school in partnership with the single regeneration budget, to bring about a desperately needed all-weather facility. Does she not think that that is an extremely good example of partnerships between athletics associations and schools, which could be regarded as a model for others to follow?

Kate Hoey: My hon. Friend is quite right to point to a partnership and the way in which that can enhance facilities. Governing bodies of sport increasingly realise that they cannot isolate themselves from what is happening in schools. The link between the governing bodies, school clubs and schools will sustain a long-term improvement in sporting standards from the bottom to the top.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): But given the deficiency in playing fields, to which the Minister referred, and the need for all-weather facilities, to which the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) referred a moment ago, would it not have been better to put resources into those activities rather than squandering them on the fiasco of the millennium dome?

Kate Hoey: I am determined to make sure that the money that is available for increasing sporting opportunities for young people will be spent in a way that will help to achieve exactly what the right hon. Gentleman proposes.

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