Banks calls on Blair to appoint a `sports tsar'

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The Independent Online
TONY BANKS is urging Tony Blair to appoint a "sports tsar" to co-ordinate Government policy across Whitehall as recognition of the political importance of games including football, tennis and cricket.

The Sports Minister, who has become frustrated that policy responsibility for his brief is divided up, believes that the Prime Minister should appoint a supremo to oversee British bids for international events.

Downing Street is sympathetic to the idea of appointing a high-powered co-ordinator - possibly based in the Cabinet Office - who could "knock heads together" as part of a concerted government drive to rejuvenate British sporting talent.

Last week Mr Banks expressed his frustration that he has to deal with at least nine Government departments regularly on different aspects of sports policy. "A sports tsar would be a good way of getting the joined- up government that everyone is talking about," the minister said at a conference on sport, organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research.

The proposal is a recognition that sport has become more important, both commercially and politically. Labour believes that sport - and football in particular - is a way of reconnecting politics with ordinary people.

However, ministers acknowledge that the millions of pounds in sport make it a sensitive subject for government to deal with; they were reminded of that by the row over the Department of Trade and Industry's decision to block BSkyB's attempted takeover of Manchester United.

The co-ordinator could be a minister with a cross-departmental brief. This would mean a big shake-up in Whitehall, with responsibility for sport being taken out of Chris Smith's Department for Culture, Media and Sport and put into the Cabinet Office instead. Mr Banks, who has clashed with his boss at the Culture Department, would be a candidate for this job.

Alternatively the sports tsar could be a non-political figure such as a football manager or rugby coach who could push through the Government's agenda on sport across departments. Names including Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager who recently endorsed Mr Blair in a Labour Party broadcast, and Sebastian Coe, who is now William Hague's chief of staff, are being floated in Whitehall.

The Government is finalising details of its sports strategy, expected to be published in the autumn. A central plank of the initiative will be a drive for competitive sport in schools, in order to recreate the "will to win" among young people.