11 Dec 2002 : Column 217

House of Lords

Wednesday, 11th December 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Guildford.

School Playing Fields

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many school playing fields have been sold for other purposes in each of the five years 1997–2001.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, no central records are available for figures before October 1998. Between October 1998 and December 1998, the Government approved seven applications to sell school playing fields larger than a sports pitch; 42 applications were approved in 1999, 32 in 2000 and 22 in 2001. All these approved applications met our strict criteria.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, it takes a better brain than mine to take all that in at one go. Do not the figures generally show an increase in the number of school playing fields sold? Is my noble friend aware that, because of the immense value of a playing field to a school, the sale of one playing field is one too many? When the Government came to power in 1997, they placed a complete ban on the sale of all school playing fields. What reasons are now given for the approval of such sales?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the number of sales is decreasing year on year. There is a clear reason for that. The criteria employed by the panel are clear and explicit and applicants know that meeting these criteria will be a fairly rare event. As a consequence, as I indicated in my original Answer, the numbers of applications are declining year on year. The criteria meet my noble friend's point, which I share entirely, that to sell school playing fields must be against clear educational and sporting advantage. All the applications that have been approved are designed to improve sporting and educational opportunities, not to decrease them.

Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that there are conflicting figures? The ones that I have from the National Playing Fields Association, which does so much for sports grounds in this country, show that, of the last 201 applications, 195 were granted and only six were refused. Further, the number of applications last year was up by 35 per

11 Dec 2002 : Column 218

cent to 551. It does not seem to me that the Government's policy of reducing the sale of playing fields is working at all.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the National Playing Fields Association appoints one of the members of the panel. It is therefore fully involved in the policy to fulfil the commitment we made in 1997 to end compulsory sales of our school playing fields. We all know that such sales went on apace in the years prior to 1997. They are now greatly reduced and are reducing year on year.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, was the policy's effect on youth crime considered before it was adopted?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is a very good point. We know that sport plays a very important part in bringing people into law-abiding activities within the community, and we recognise its value in those terms. That is why we have set out to ensure that our playing fields are enhanced and our educational opportunities are enhanced. Any fields that are sold at the present time are sold against the perspective that the school and the community will benefit from enhanced, not decreased, sporting opportunities.

Lord Addington: My Lords, would it not be appropriate if we concentrated not only on sport but on recreation? The loss of these green open spaces means that the number of places where children can run around is rapidly being cut down. That kind of activity might well go some way towards reducing the amount of obesity found among young children.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord seeks to broaden the discussion to include other open spaces. I share his point that such facilities are important, particularly in urban areas where green space is often at a premium. But the original Question to which I have addressed my replies related specifically to school playing fields, and any sales of those have to meet strict criteria.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, how much money was raised from these sales and what happened to it?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I cannot provide precise figures on the amount of money raised from these sales. However, part of the criteria against which a sale is projected is that the moneys are made available for sporting and educational opportunities in the school proposing the sale.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend draw any conclusions from the figures involved in the sale of school playing fields, the reduction in the number of children who have the opportunity therefore of playing cricket, and our performance in Australia at the present time?

11 Dec 2002 : Column 219

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, one has many uncomfortable moments at the Dispatch Box, and talking about our performance in Australia is probably the least comfortable. I do not believe that that performance is attributable to the Government's policy on school playing fields over the past three years. Some noble Lords may feed it back to the early 1980s when school playing fields were sold apace. Certainly we are aware of the importance of improving the quality of school sport. That is why there has been a substantial investment in it over the past three years. We regard it as a priority to enhance our sporting achievements because, as we all know, the nation enjoys the excellent performances of those of our teams which are marginally more successful than the one in Australia at the present time.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, to enable us to evaluate the enhancement of sporting facilities, will the Minister tell the House how many school playing fields have been bought over the same period?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the purchase of school playing fields relates more to the question of buying and developing all-weather facilities. As we are all too well aware, the problem in the past has been that many school playing fields have been out of action at certain times of year. Therefore, the emphasis is a great deal more on covered facilities—enhanced sporting facilities which are community facilities and which therefore justify the increased investment by the Government on behalf of both the community and schoolchildren.

Baroness Billingham: My Lords, has not one result of selling off playing fields been the ability to lay artificial pitches to replace the dreadful school pitches that we have seen all round the country—which have been no inducement to anyone in a state school to learn to play cricket? These pitches will be in use for the whole of the year, rather than just for three or four months of the year, as was the case in the past.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend has expressed rather more accurately the point that I sought to emphasise. Cricket requires a reasonable quality of pitch. There is no doubt that in the past we have suffered disadvantages because of our poor-quality pitches. The new facilities coming on stream offer the prospect of all-year-round cricket and cricket that can be played on a reasonable surface.


2.44 p.m.

Lord Williamson of Horton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in view of recent research on the effect on the brain of the drug ecstasy, they will increase their efforts to warn young people of the potential damage from the use of this drug.

11 Dec 2002 : Column 220

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, a three-year national communications campaign is being developed to inform young people, their parents and carers of the risks and dangers associated with heroin, cocaine and ecstasy.

Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that although some users of ecstasy may be aware of the short-term risks, almost none is aware of the long-term risks? Recent research in Baltimore on non-human primates demonstrates that even small doses give rise to lasting damage to the dopamine neurones, thus signalling a risk to humans of Parkinsonism and mental problems in the future. I would not describe this as a time bomb, but it is a very serious issue.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to research in this area. Recent research on the effects of ecstasy on the brain has been reviewed by Professor Val Curren of University College London on behalf of the Department of Health. Her review noted limited evidence of direct harmful effects on the brain. Other literature in general and evidence from animal studies suggest possible brain changes. There is also some evidence in the literature of psychological problems in heavy users of ecstasy, although no clear causal link has been demonstrated. The Government will keep all research in this area under review. This will inform communication programmes and plans for the future.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, in the light of the worrying supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, of the Minister's response to it and of the survey on drug misuse, smoking and drinking among secondary school children commissioned by the Department of Health showing that pupils now find it more acceptable to take drugs and are more tolerant of other drug users, what plans have the Government to educate particularly the young on the real risks of taking ecstasy?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page