Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 06 December 2007

Strategy for Sport and Physical Recreation

6 December 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Mr Dara McGaughey ) Northern Ireland Assembly Research Services

The Chairperson:
We turn to the formulation of the Committee’s response to ‘The Northern Ireland Strategy for Sport and Physical Recreation 2007-2017’. This is an opportunity to put forward views on the Department’s strategy for sport. The discussion will be reported by Hansard, and the Committee Clerk will prepare a response, to be signed off at next week’s meeting. In order to focus on some of the key issues, we will have the benefit of a short presentation from Northern Ireland Assembly Research Services on its paper on the sports strategy.

I invite Mr Dara McGaughey to the table. I anticipate that the presentation will last 10 minutes. That will leave around 15 minutes for questions.

Mr D Bradley:
I have to leave at 12.30 pm. Will it still be in order for me to give my opinions on this matter before next week’s meeting?

The Chairperson:
That will definitely be in order. The Clerk will prepare a response to be signed off at next week’s meeting. If members wish to make a response in writing or communicate a response to the Committee Clerk before then, their opinions will be fed into the process.

Mr Dara McGaughey ( Northern Ireland Assembly Research Services):
I thank the Committee for inviting me to attend this meeting. I shall briefly address the key points contained in the strategy for sport, and draw comparisons with similar strategies in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. I will then invite any questions, comments or points from members.

The strategy focuses on three key themes, common to most such strategies: participation, performance and places.

With respect to the first of those, the matter of lifelong participation is examined. The strategy identifies that one of the biggest problems in Northern Ireland is that so few adults are actively participating in sport. The strategy aims not only to increase participation, but to promote lifelong participation.

The strategy focuses on different levels of activity to put across the message that the level at which one takes part in sport or physical activity does not matter, just as long as one does it.

The strategy recognises that Northern Ireland is not experiencing the high levels of success in international elite sport that it did in the past, and focuses on the areas in which that can be improved and increased through facilities such as the sports institute at the University of Ulster.

The strategy is managed on two levels. The first is the strategy monitoring group, which will be chaired by the Minister, and will include senior representatives from the Department and other agencies, such as Sport Northern Ireland. Below that, there will be three strategy implementation groups, which will ensure that the strategy is going in the right direction. The strategy does not give specific details of the powers of those bodies, or what they will or will not be able to do. Perhaps that is an area for development.

The strategy also looks at the cost of doing nothing. That is an important matter, and is considered across all the strategies. The impact on health is the primary concern, and the strategy gives examples of a couple of cultural changes that have happened in the Western World. People are less active than they were in the past, and spend more time on sedentary pursuits, such as watching television. Lifestyles are based around cars, rather than walking or cycling, as they used to be, and there is an ever-decreasing amount of physical activity in schools and workplaces. The strategy does not really examine what can be done about that situation. Academic evidence suggests that there is little that can be done, because there has been such an enormous cultural shift. Any change will occur only over a very long period.

The authors of the strategy believe that its implementation will cost an extra £20 million a year over a 10-year period. They do not identify whether that money has already been set aside, whether it has been ring-fenced, or specifically where it is going to come from. The strategy mentions a partnership arrangement, with central Government, devolved government and local councils playing a role. There have been a number of media reports about National Lottery money being reallocated to the 2012 Olympics in London, and that may have implications for the cost of implementing the strategy. The only other strategy in Great Britain or Ireland that considers questions of cost is the Welsh strategy, which cites spending of £20 to £40 million a year. The Northern Ireland strategy is comparable in that respect.

I will now turn to a few brief comparisons with the strategies that have been implemented in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. The Scottish strategy is named ‘Reaching Higher’, and, like Northern Ireland’s strategy, follows on from a previous sports plan. It runs over a four-year period. The Northern Ireland strategy is the only one that focuses on a very long period of 10 years. The 2014 Commonwealth Games will take place in Glasgow, and, much like Northern Ireland, which hopes to benefit from the London Olympics, Scotland will hope to reap the benefits that will accrue from the Commonwealth Games.

The Welsh strategy is named ‘Climbing Higher — Next Steps’, and it follows on from the original ‘Climbing Higher’ strategy. It sets targets for lifelong participation, identification of elite athletes and providing appropriate places to participate in sport. The English strategy sets similar goals, and shares with the Northern Ireland strategy a strong desire to promote the participation of minority groups in sport. By minority groups, I mean groups that do not participate as much as their demographic representation would suggest, such as ethnic minorities, women and disabled people. The Northern Ireland strategy recommends that 18 women’s sports officers and 18 disabled people’s sports officers should be recruited to increase opportunities for those individuals and ensure that they have access to as much physical activity as possible.

The English strategy mentions the commonly-held view that sport is male dominated, and that work must be done to address that situation, which can be done through taster sessions for women in rugby and football, as well as other sports that are perceived as male oriented.

The Scottish strategy does not set specific targets for measuring success, and the reason that it gives for that is that it is difficult to measure the success that is achieved with any degree of accuracy. It is difficult to quantify how much money could be saved from the health budget; there is no way of proving that participation in sport has prevented 500 heart attacks. However, there is academic evidence that proves that increased participation in sport has health benefits. The English strategy mentions a number of those health benefits: the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease can be reduced by sport.

I invite questions from members, and I hope to be able to focus on particular issues that members may raise.

Mr McCarthy:
Have any other Departments had input into the sports strategy? You mentioned the health benefits. How can the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety work together with DCAL to ensure that the strategy will be rolled out?

Mr McGaughey:
The strategy mentions that one of the lessons that were learned from the previous Northern Ireland strategy was that there was not enough working in partnership. Bodies must work together on cross-cutting issues, and that is why health, education and other relevant bodies will be represented on the monitoring group and the strategy implementation groups.

Lord Browne:
I notice that the Republic’s strategy concentrates on doping in sport. The Northern Ireland strategy does not seem to mention how the prevalent use of drugs in sport can be combated. As sport becomes more competitive, both in the amateur and professional fields, ever more drugs are being used. The strategy also states that only two thirds of secondary schools provide two hours of PE a week. How can that be increased? Can there be closer working relationships between sporting clubs and schools? Perhaps sporting clubs could take over the role that schools provide.

Mr K Robinson:
My question is along similar lines. I threw out the figure that for every pound that is invested in sport, £500, £600 or £700 is saved. Dara, are you suggesting that there is no concrete evidence for that?

Mr McGaughey:
There is evidence, but it cannot be quantified with any degree of accuracy.

Mr K Robinson:
This afternoon, the Minister will be in my backyard, in my constituency of East Antrim, to open a sports stadium at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. Is there a balance to be struck between providing for the elite sporting participant, and the guy who sits on his chair in a Committee all day, when he should be out doing a real job?

Mr McGaughey:
The strategy does not mention that, but I have also examined the issue of sport in Finland. That is often cited as an example of great achievement because, in the 1970s, Finland’s health was in a bad position. That country has moved forward because of participation in sport. The evidence suggests that it is often the children who participate least in sport who could benefit most from it. The Finnish model has placed a heavy emphasis on moving away from competitive sport and states that ability should not be a prerequisite to participation. An example is a school district in which football matches are played, but no scores or league tables are kept. Although that might be an extreme example, it allows children of any ability who are interested in the sport to take part, no matter their level of proficiency.

Mr K Robinson:
You have triggered a memory. I lived in Germany between 1970 and 1976, when the Germans recognised that they had a tremendous cardiac problem. The whole nation was encouraged to “trim dich”. People would go for a walk in somewhere similar to our Belvoir forest and, on the way, they would do two or three steps up and down on a cut-down log, and move on to something else that would encourage physical activity. Families would get involved and parents would encourage their children to have a go. That scheme involved people in physical activity almost incidentally, and it broadened the centre of the focus for all the Government agencies and the population.

There was no embarrassment about getting involved, and many people did not realise that they were exercising. However, it was slightly spoilt because there was a great big restaurant at the end of the path where everyone could put on weight. There are simple, and not necessarily costly, measures that could perhaps be slotted into the strategy. In Northern Ireland, the advantages of sport are recognised, but perhaps the potential benefits of other forms of physical activity are not.

Mr McGaughey:
The Finnish example is relevant too. A lot of money was invested in research that involved, for example, asking men who were sitting smoking and drinking in bars in what sport they would participate if they had a choice. That was backed up with considerable further research, because it was recognised that there was no point in investing a large amount of money in sporting facilities that would not be used. The strategy does not really cover market research, but it may provide a way to successfully get people to buy into the idea.

The Chairperson:
Did that lead to investment in the darts infrastructure?

[Laughter.]

Mr Shannon:
Do the Health and Education Departments in Scotland, Wales, England, and even the Republic of Ireland, work together on their sports strategies? That has not been mentioned.

Mr McGaughey:
From what I saw, they did not have the joined-up approach that is advocated in this strategy. They are aiming to achieve that, but they are not much ahead of Northern Ireland.

Mr Shannon:
Given that health and education are not co-ordinated, have they any idea of how successful, or otherwise, their policies or strategies have been so far?

Mr McGaughey:
The English strategy recognised that joined-up working and co-ordination was required. In some ways, that is easier in England, because many local health authorities fall within the same borders as the local education authorities. However, they recognise that they failed in the past and have lost out on the benefits of such an approach. The English strategy started in 2001, and runs for a longer period, but the document mainly sets out a vision: it does not set specific hard targets.

Mr Shannon:
Can we learn lessons from the areas in which they have not been successful?

Mr McGaughey:
Yes.

Mr Brolly:
Speaking from local experience, sport here now comes down to team games and sports. I remember when there were two tennis courts in my village that were used all the time; and now there is one. People were always involved in athletics and parochial sports. That never happens now, and I do not know anyone in my parish who is involved in athletics. Those who do not play soccer, Gaelic football or hurling do not participate in sport, apart from the few individuals who power-walk or jog. Sports that cater for individuals must be considered, particularly for rural areas.

The Chairperson:
The successful participant in a team sport is often held in too high a regard, whereas the individual achiever receives less recognition than he or she deserves.

Mr Brolly:
To expand on that point, people who are not involved in any team sports watch the iconic people in their area who play for the football or hurling team, and they imagine themselves being part of that. They are content with that, and, if the team wins, they win too.

Mr Shannon:
There is nothing wrong with that.

Mr Brolly:
I have another suggestion, albeit a far-fetched one: it would be a great help if all the television companies could be persuaded not to broadcast between 4.00 pm and 6.00 pm or between 7.00 pm and 9.00 pm.

Mr Shannon:
The football results are on at that time.

[Laughter.]

Mr K Robinson:
I cannot see people switching off the television at Christmas.

Mr McCausland:
Years ago, there were generally more tennis courts. They were sited at several playing fields in north Belfast, including some at Queen Mary gardens.

There used to be tennis courts in Ballysillan and at the waterworks, but they are gone. That may be because schools no longer offer the same variety of sports. Can that be examined? Is the same variety provided as in the past?

Mr McGaughey:
I do not know, but I can research it for you.

Mc McCausland:
When I was teaching we used to take the children to practise tennis; there was a tennis court behind the school. We also played badminton and other sports, including football. There may be merit in looking at that.

Mr McGaughey:
I can look into that.

The Chairperson:
Gymnastics is an unusual club in a rural place such as Tyrone. The community association of Eskra boasts of providing a gymnastics class. That was intriguing.

Mr Brolly:
You can find judo or dancing classes as well.

The Chairperson:
It has always intrigued me that the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure does not include sport in its title. Often, when the Minister is presented in the media there is an accompanying description “Minister of Sport” if he is talking about sport. Sport should be included in the title of the Department.

Should there be a snappy title for the strategy other than ‘a culture of lifelong enjoyment and success in sport’ that encapsulates what it wants to achieve? Wales has ‘Climbing Higher’; England’s ‘Game Plan’ suggests a plan; in Scotland ‘Reaching Higher’ incorporates the idea of achievement and success; and the South’s ‘Building Sport for Life’ encapsulates its aim in the title.

The title of our strategy is ‘a culture of lifelong enjoyment and success in sport’. Could that be abbreviated to ‘Enjoying succeeding’?

Mr K Robsinson:
Or ‘On the move’?

The Chairperson:
That is another suggestion. It should be a title that people can take ownership of and which encapsulates its goals. Perhaps the present title is too general.

Mr Brolly:
Including the word “success” is where it goes wrong.

The Chairperson:
Would you not include the word “success”?

Mr Brolly:
Absolutely not. I would include the word “participation” but not the word “success”.

Mr Shannon:
The Northern Ireland Sports Council was going to use ‘Sport for all’. That gives the message that sport is for everyone, but as it has been used before, it is not innovative.

The Chairperson:
Does anyone else think that the word “sport” should be in the title of the Department or does the word “leisure” incorporate sport? Is that a better word?

Mr K Robinson:
The word “sport” might be considered too competitive.

Mr McCausland:
The word “sport” could be added so that the title becomes the Department of Culture, Arts, Leisure and Sports, which would give us DCALS.

Mr K Robinson:
I was waiting to see if the initials spelled something unfortunate, but DCALS seems to be acceptable.

The Chairperson:
Next week, the Committee will have a draft response that we will sign off on, so members should discuss any issues of interest then.

Mr K Robinson:
It is useful to examine how continental countries approach this. I visited a town in France where there were clubs for tennis, badminton, rowing, canoeing, and amateur and professional soccer. That small regional town had, more or less, a leisure quarter, a very successful football team and a successful nursery for football players that had produced players who had played all over the world.

Once one passed under a railway bridge one was in a buzzing sports quarter. There were young people, and more mature people, as well as spectators. North Down has a swimming pool and there is an elite athletes’ centre in Jordanstown, and goodness know what else we will put elsewhere.

The Chairperson:
Are you arguing for equitable redistribution to west of the Bann?

Mr K Robinson:
If there were any space left in Omagh, I would suggest that we move it there.

Do we need a critical mass of facilities somewhere rather than scattering them all over the place? I ask that having seen what happens in other places.

The Chairperson:
“Excellence” is a word that has come into sports provision. Are there any other views before we leave the Committee to pull together our incoherent thoughts?

Mr McGaughey:
Cost to the individual is not covered in the sport strategy, but the affordability of sport may make participation an issue for people from deprived areas. The Finns considered the issue, and they now provide high-level subsidies to ensure that the cost of participation is not a barrier to anyone.

The Chairperson:
That is a very good point. Those who devise the strategy for sport should have a map of social deprivation in one hand and the strategy in the other to see whether they match up and whether they are investing in areas of social deprivation.

Mr McCausland:
I have a point about the relationship between local authorities and central Government. The Grove leisure centre in Belfast is to close and a new complex will be developed with a swimming pool, leisure facilities, a library and health centre all in one place. That is a great scheme, but the result will be fewer opportunities for clubs because of more family swimming sessions, yet the 50-metre pool is some years down the road; there has been no joined-up thinking. A council has decided to do what is right for the people of its area, but centrally we are losing out. I do not know how to achieve it, but we need a more integrated approach. I asked what the strategy for swimming was, but there did not seem to be one.

Mr K Robinson:
You could expand that to include schools that, for a variety of reasons, cannot take their pupils swimming so that they can use the existing facilities.

The Chairperson:
Another theme is the Starting Well strategy and what it means for primary schools. Professor Eric Saunders first made the point 40 years ago — and he is still making it today — that there is inadequate investment in sporting provision and physical recreation in primary schools.

Some people opposed the Minister of Education’s recent initiative to put coaches into primary schools. Did DCAL assist in that? Did it support it or does it feel thwarted.

Mr K Robinson:
Sometimes there are opportunities at grassroots level. I had Ian Stewart as a coach for our footballers, and it was great to get him. I was never quite sure how we got him or how we were chosen. If I could have had him two days a week, I would have.

The Chairperson:
Was he in the Irish Football Association (IFA)?

Mr K Robinson:
He was an IFA coach; it was excellent to have a professional from whom staff could learn. Day-to-day physical education has been squeezed out of schools because they have so many other things to do. We are now social workers and pseudo-parents in many cases, feeding and looking after children after school. I spoke the other evening to a principal who lamented that only two people had turned up to a meeting on a drugs awareness programme that he had introduced into his school — in an area that is suffering a drug problem.

So many things can be done in the early stages, but we need co-ordination between DCAL, the Department of Education and the Department of Health.

Mr Brolly:
We should anticipate whatever changes take place. For example, if the 11-plus is done away with — and I think it will be —

Mr K Robinson:
You must have inside information.

The Chairperson:
Go ahead, Francie; please continue. You have started off on a rare note.

Mr Brolly:
It should give primary schools the opportunity to have a more balanced curriculum, because, as Ken says, hardly any of them have time for music or sport, except perhaps after school when coaches are brought in.

Teachers are dogged by all sorts of bureaucracy. Farmers complain about bureaucracy — they should try teaching for a while. We should ensure that, whatever happens after next year, we are ready to make strong proposals for implementing a robust strategy that ensures that sport gets the time that it deserves and that society needs. Obesity begins in the early school years; that is where health problems begin.

The Chairperson:
We also need to bring new ideas to our response to the strategy. I suggest that the gap should be narrowed between respect for majority and minority sports. In mid-Tyrone everyone is football-mad; however, if the poet laureate lived in the village, he would be noticed. There should be greater respect for the individual’s achievement in, for example, table tennis. Perhaps we should work harder to increase respect for individual minority sports that are trying to run taster sessions.

Mr McCarthy:
There should be more co-operation between sports authorities and local councils.

Mr McCausland:
Primary schools should have a greater variety of sports; children should be allowed to try everything.

Mr K Robinson:
Who would allow them to do that?

Mr McCarthy:
And who would pay for it?

Mr McCausland:
One does not have to be the world’s greatest expert —

Mr K Robinson:
I am talking about creating the time to engage in those sports.

Mr McCausland:
I apologise; I understand what you mean.

Mr K Robinson:
Schools are willing to engage in sports if their timetables permitted it, but they are constrained by a lack of time.

The Chairperson:
I ask the Committee to think about the issue before next week’s meeting. Although the issue is probably one of the most important for our Committee, we are perhaps downplaying it. We should think long and hard at the strategy for sport and physical recreation.

Mr Robinson:
Will we exercises on the spot for five minutes?

The Chairperson:
I am reminded of when I climbed Mullaghharn Mountain one Saturday morning, and a group of us went for an almighty fry afterwards — it was good fry.

Members must ask themselves whether they are content with the overall focus of the strategy and the relative emphasis that is given to its three strands: physical literacy — which is a term that I heard only recently; lifelong physical participation; and performance. Are members content with the targets set out on page 8? Could they be improved? Are members content with the proposals for implementing the strategy and the concept of a strategy monitoring group?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
Is the Committee content with the proposals for funding the strategy?

Mr McCarthy:
No.

The Chairperson:
Sports are seriously underfunded.

Mr McCarthy:
Resources are needed to implement the proposed strategy.

The Chairperson:
That message does not seem to get through. I am troubled by the comprehensive spending review process, for although the arts and sports make strong arguments for funds, when the process ends it seems that they are greatly underfunded once again. Who is listening? Do the other Ministers listen?

Mr Shannon:
They are all fighting for their own Departments.

The Chairperson:
We will revisit the issue next week.

The Committee Clerk:
I refer members to the Chairperson’s reference to page 8 of the strategy and its 24 recommendations and targets. Few, if any, of them have been discussed specifically today. If members wish to address any one of those recommendations and targets, would they correspond with Committee staff so that their views are included at next week’s meeting?

The Chairperson:
I thank Dara for helping us to get our heads around the key issues.

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