Richard Caborn: From Sheffield to London's Olympic bid

The Monday Interview: Sports Minister
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At the end of another 12-hour day, Richard Caborn is beginning to wind down in his favourite watering hole, the Strangers Bar in the House of Commons.

The Sports minister is standing on a chair with a pint of Wallsend-brewed bitter in one hand and in the other a remote- control device aimed at a wall-mounted television.

"Choofin 'eck," he exclaims as he finally finds the football scores on Teletext to reveal that his beloved Sheffield United football club are losing by a goal at half time (They end up salvaging a point).

The scene gives the lie to an impression of Mr Caborn - implanted in many people's minds when he spectacularly failed an impromptu sports quiz on Radio 5 Live two years ago - that he cares little about his portfolio.

Nobody disputes that the role of Sports minister - as Kate Hoey, Tony Banks and Colin Moynihan can testify - is far from the most powerful in Whitehall and that the ministerial voice can been drowned out by commercial interests from rich clubs, broadcasters and sponsors.

So what does the current Sports minister do? In his large office off Trafalgar Square, which has as much signed memorabilia as the Sports Bar on nearby Haymarket, the papers in Mr Caborn's in-tray are sorted into a few main concerns. The work he has done on London's Olympic bid is largely completed and the same goes for moves to quell doping. Much of the focus has switched to school sport and recreation, which the Government sees as a weapon against childhood obesity. As one aide said: "He is quite good at realising where he can make an impact and not putting his oar in elsewhere."

Recent stories about star footballers behaving badly have confirmed his view that they can be both friend and foe to the Sports minister, who wrote to all league clubs last year reminding them of the effect players had on playground behaviour. "Sometimes the players don't really appreciate the power they have got," he says. "Niall Quinn [a retired Premiership striker] did a video for us on sensible eating and it had a massive impact. [Newcastle captain] Alan Shearer is another one who does so much good. But if you are an icon and you get it wrong you are going to get belted. It must be frustrating for other players in the game that they get tarnished with the same brush."

His old friend John Prescott, the MP for Hull East, who is not known for his love of sport, thinks it is high time that Mr Caborn returned to a "proper" ministerial role away from the "Ministry of Fun".

Over bread rolls and minestrone soup at their favourite Italian restaurant in Victoria, the pair - whose careers were forged in the trade unions and who have know each other for 14 years - planned Mr Prescott's campaign for Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Caborn was widely expected to be appointed minister for the regions in the latest reshuffle. "We were already packing his boxes," said one aide at the department of Culture, Media and Sport where Mr Caborn - who has recently had tourism added to his brief - insisted on remaining to see through London's bid for the 2010 Olympics alongside the Secretary of State for Sport, Tessa Jowell.

If the bid is won - and privately ministers reckon the chances of Paris and New York are overrated while Rio remains a good outside bet - then Mr Caborn will most probably be reunited with his old friend after all when the Olympics brief would move to the department responsible for environment and planning, another of Mr Caborn's former ministerial portfolios.

In the past month, Mr Caborn's profile has remained low as sports controversies - ranging from gang rape allegations to doping scandals - have erupted. Hamstrung by the limitations of office, he prefers informal chats with journalists, writing letters to heads of sports federations and recourse to established policy rather than more grandiose gestures such as the Greek government's decision to extend drug testing to children before next summer's Olympics in Athens. As one aide put it: "In the past month, we have spent more time turning things down than anything else."

Britain will be one of the first to sign the World Anti Doping Agency (Wada) code introduced next July, which Mr Caborn believes could have prevented the case of Rio Ferdinand, whose missed drugs test nearly resulted in a strike by his England team-mates.

"It was a procedural issue that led to some of the problems. When [the testers] come in, they stay with the athletes but for some reason football didn't have that. They had the intermediaries such as the club doctor. I wrote to Mark Palios [the chief executive of the Football Association] and said it would be helpful if they revisited the procedures of carrying out the code. You cannot take the responsibility away from the governing body. That is their prime responsibility, to make sure that their sport is drugs free."

Such were the shockwaves in sport - if not among the general public - when Britain's leading sprinter, Dwain Chambers, tested positive for the steroid THG that Mr Caborn is considering forming an anti-doping agency apart from UK Sport, which is perceived to have an internal conflict because it funds the same élite athletes it tests for drugs.

"I feel sad for [Chambers]. A lad like him had the world at his feet. But that's the price you pay if you cheat - you are going to get caught. That's why we have been right at the front of supporting the Wada code. It will be a watershed in sport because people will be able to look at athletes and know they have achieved that fairly."

But he is no fan of the proposal from some quarters that the record book should be wiped clean to restore the credibility of athletics if the THG scandal widens. "Designer drugs are a totally new phenomenon on the drugs scene. That's why we've got to make sure we have got the procedures in place and more self-policing within the sport." The public wanted to know that sporting achievements were the reward for natural ability.

Aged 60, Mr Caborn runs for two hours every Sunday morning near his Sheffield home in preparation for the Great North Run - in which he competes with various relatives - and which, one suspects, fills the void left when he was forced by conflict of interest to resign as a director of Sheffield United.

He is hoping to lead by example, and to encourage more activity by building more sports centres, training more sports coaches. Mr Caborn insists, amid a maze of statistics, that the closure of school playing fields is an old debate.

"We are investing in sport and physical activity in a way that hasn't been done for decades because our nation is becoming less active, more obese and with more diabetes in young children," he says. Obesity alone costs Britain £2bn, a figure expected to rise to £3.5bn by 2010.

Mr Caborn will enjoy one of the perks of the job on Friday when he flies to Australia to support England in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals. Sports ministers from across the world will be gathering there and he may be tempted to lobby in favour of London's Olympic bid, though that would bend the rules of the International Olympic Committee. Will he be promoting London's bid? "Absolutely not," he replies with a wink.

THE CV

DATE OF BIRTH: 6 October 1943

EDUCATED: Hurfield Comprehensive School, Sheffield, Granville College of education and Sheffield Polytechnic

CAREER: Trade union official at toolmaker Firth Brown;

Elected MP for Sheffield Central 1983;

vice-president of Sheffield Trades Council;

Minister for Regions, Regeneration and Planning (1997-99);

Privy Councillor (1999);

Minister for Trade (1999-2001);

Sports minister (2001-) and Tourism minister from 2003

FAMILY: Married with two children and lives in Sheffield

INTERESTS: Running, golf, football and cricket; led the House of Commons cricket tour to South Africa in 1995

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