Three hundred and fifty two responses have been received to the consultation paper issued by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment, for Scotland and for Wales on 28 September 1987. The paper invited comments by 11 December 1987 and the responses are now being considered in detail.
Will the Minister recognise the widespread concern among local authorities about the possible introduction of competition in the provision of such important services, bearing in mind also a parallel consultation paper that suggests that some local authorities may have to invite tenders for such services in April 1989? Will he give an assurance that he will reach a decision on this as soon as possible? Indeed, will he say now that the Government do not intend to proceed in that direction?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government are committed to consider all the representations that they have received, and for me to preempt chat consultation exercise would be wrong. However, I give him the undertaking that, as soon as possible, we shall make an announcement, and I hope that that will take place early in February.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the majority of Conservative Members believe that competitive tendering can bring substantial savings to ratepayers? Does he further accept that the majority of leisure and sports facilities run by local authorities are losing enormous amounts of money? If that money can be saved my hon. Friend will be doing a great service to sport., ratepayers and the sports industry.
The Minister has no direct responsibility for Scotland, but will he take into consideration the fact that examples of the Government's financial strictures in Scotland include the possible closure of the only swimming pool on the Western Isles—[Interruption.] Conservative Members may think that is funny, but it represents an important local provision. Will the Minister state to the House how many local authorities in England and Wales, and possibly in Scotland, support the thrust of that particularly obnoxious policy?
I do not believe that the results from the proposals currently being considered by the Government will be those anticipated by the hon. Gentleman. For the record, I place before the House the fact that we have had many responses from a widespread group of interested parties, not least the governing bodies of sport. If one considers the views of those groups, it is clear that, from greyhound racing to sea anglers, from badminton to squash, from the Jockey Club to the Lawn Tennis Association, all are fully supportive of the Government's proposals.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the extensive sporting facilities at Luton Town football club are widely used by the local authority?
At the weekend my hon. Friend spoke of English clubs being allowed back into Europe at the end of this season. Does he agree that his view was vindicated by the fact that last night Luton Town allowed visiting fans back into the stadium for the first time in 18 months? That resulted in three arrests and one policeman being taken to hospital. That suggests that my hon. Friend's view is absolutely right and that English clubs should not be allowed back into Europe until the season comes to an end.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution. I should like to add a strong message of support to those who are now negotiating in UEFA if they are negotiating on the basis that re-admission of English clubs must be conditional on the behaviour of our fans, not only throughout the rest of the domestic season, but throughout the European championships, which will take place in West Germany. Any decision that is not conditional upon that is wrong.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend's club on the important community initiatives that it has developed? I recommend that other clubs use their facilities for similar community purposes.
Will the Minister make a firm decision to stop the nonsense of privatising sports and leisure facilities, especially in view of the many submissions that he has had? Certainly he has had one from the Amateur Swimming Association, whose patron is no less a person than Her Majesty The Queen, which states clearly:
Any attempts to make learning to swim more difficult and more expensive must be a retrograde step.
Will the Minister stand tall for sport on this occasion at least?
We have no proposals to privatise local authority recreational facilities. The privatisation of management contracts, as the hon. Member well knows, is sought to improve competition in the running of facilities. That has been our main task throughout the consultation exercise. The hon. Gentleman referred to a governing body whose patron is Her Majesty The Queen. I refer him—
The Lawn Tennis Association, which the hon. Gentleman knows well, and which has widespread support throughout the country, is very supportive of the concept and would see it as an opportunity to increase and improve the utilisation of facilities in the public sector.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is real unfairness between local authority provided sporting amenities, which do not pay rates, and privately provided sporting amenities, where rates are paid? Is this not totally unfair, and should not the position be rectified soon?
One of the important reasons for bringing forward the consultation document was to ensure that the private sector had an opportunity to bid for the management of local authority facilities. I am certain that the introduction of competition into the running of facilities would be a major improvement and would provide the answer to my hon. Friend's point.
Is it not the case that the overwhelming majority of local authorities and sports organisations are opposed to the proposition that sports facilities and swimming baths which have been provided by the community should be handed over to private management? That is a prescription that will ensure that no local authority will ever again build another swimming pool or sports facility. Since this ludicrous policy was conceived before the hon. Gentleman took office, will he understand that he has our full support for burying it as soon as possible? Will he ensure that if schools opt out of the state system they should not take with them the dual use sports facilities which were provided by the community for the benefit of the whole neighbourhood? Will he seek in those cases to protect the use of those facilities for all sporting organisations?
The right hon. Gentleman will note that in the consultation paper it was specifically stated that it is not intended that the competitive tender regime should apply to sports facilities which form an integral part of educational establishments and which are provided principally for the use of pupils and students at those establishments. I fully appreciate the importance of the thrust of his argument with regard to dual use facilities. A sensitive reappraisal of the management of facilities in local authority control will lead to an increase in use.
While my hon. Friend is considering this problem, would he care to consider the ice rink at Billingham, which is currently run by private management under licence from the local authority? The local authority has said that it will not renew the licence, not because the rink does not provide a good service for the people—because it does—and not because it is making money—because it is not — but because it says that only councillors in the town hall can run a sporting facility for the local community.