Not one public penny, says the man with the PM's ear

Kaufman will offer no help to Wembley, Picketts Lock or World Athletics Championships. Alan Hubbard finds out why
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gerald Kaufman seems a bit of a spoilsport. He doesn't believe a penny of public money should go into Wembley, or Picketts Lock, thinks we may have to "swallow our pride and call it quits" over the World Athletics Championships and reckons London doesn't need the Olympic Games. So what, pray, has it got to do with him, you might ask?

Quite a lot, actually. The veteran Labour MP chairs the influential Parliamentary Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and the word in Westminster is that the Prime Minister looks upon the acerbic 71-year-old, once Shadow Foreign Secretary, as one of his senior pros, giving him more ear time than many ministers. Make no mistake, Kaufman, though not exactly the sporty type himself, is a leading player in the current sporting dramas, and his show isn't over yet.

Kaufman's committee, which has the power to recommend, castigate and condemn, but not to enforce, is holding yet another investigation into the stalled plans for a national athletics arena, upon which the World Championships of 2005 hinge. And Kaufman has already made it clear, as he surely will to the PM, that the Government would be "crazy" to put their hands in the Treasury pocket and bail out a project which he doubts will get off the ground anyway. Similarly he feels that if the Football Association want to rebuild Wembley, or put another stadium elsewhere, then football money should pay for it.

"I do not see why my constituents in Manchester should pay income tax, VAT or whatever to buy a stadium for the FA, or build an athletics arena in London..." he told us last week. "I am not in favour of a penny of Government money going into any of these projects. I am opposed to governments paying for stadia, though I must stress this is only my personal view.

"Over the past 30 years we have seen that funding public construction projects is a fool's game. Once the taxpayer starts contributing the Chancellor has to be ready to fill a bottomless pot. I don't believe that Gordon Brown is going to fall for that.

"Picketts Lock, if it were to be built, which I have my doubts, would not belong to the Government. We have to wait for Sport England's decision on Lottery funding, and it seems they have great reservations. We also have to wait for Patrick Carter's report on both Wembley and Picketts Lock. Our own committee's inquiry starts on 6 October and should report at the end of the month or early in November. Time is pressing.

"What I am saying is that if we cannot get Picketts Lock pinned down, or find a suitable alternative elsewhere, rather than staggering on for two or three years and then very shamefacedly saying we can't find a home, we should call it a day. It might turn into the Millennium Dome of the second Blair administration. Worse, we might find ourselves landed with a part-completed stadium, and no championships, which would be utterly humiliating. Far better to swallow our pride and call it quits."

Kaufman compensates for his committee's lack of teeth with a rapier-like wit which can be savage; but he can be a bit of a softie. He thinks Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman, is "a very attractive figure in many ways" and said he was fun to have before the committee.

As a Manchester MP he claims he equally follows the fortunes of both United and City but his natural habitat is not the Directors' Box, even less the terraces. He played rugby and cricket at Leeds Grammar School, "though I wasn't much use".

So does he actually like sport? "Well, I'm interested in it and I follow it because of my work with the committee though I can't say I do so with huge knowledge. Out of culture, media and sport it is not my top enthusiasm. But I think it is very, very important because it provides role models and someone like David Beckham is a very good and responsible one. Both Manchester clubs do wonderful community work particularly in schools and schools are the issue here. Sport is about children cultivating the team spirit and it is important for their health."

He is unsympathetic to my argument that Britain is out of step with most of Europe, indeed, most of the world, in not investing government money in sport. "So be it. There are bigger priorities, like the National Health Service and schools."

Clearly, too, he is not a man to hold sentimental attachment to British sporting institutions. Nor is he a particular mate of the British Olympic Association, having scathingly cast doubts on the wisdom and viability of holding the Games in London. "While I am far from opposed to an Olympic Games in this country I can't see that London actually needs them. Unlike Barcelona or Sydney, who staged them brilliantly, it doesn't need putting on the map. Try walking down Oxford Street on a late shopping night. It already has more tourists than it knows how to cope with."

But, he says, he would happily attend the World Athletics Championships, or the Olympics, should they be held in this country. "And I would be proud to do so. Just as I will at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester next summer."

Which brings us to an interesting conundrum. Why is is that Kaufman, who wouldn't spend a bean of our money on Wembley or Picketts Lock, not only supported the Government underwriting of these games but personally asked the Chancellor to cough up? Double standards? Or simply vested interest, as his Gorton constituency will benefit from the regeneration?

"Not at all. I supported the Commonwealth Games because they are a national project. The PM said in the House that even though they were being staged in Manchester they were England's Games. They will bring great benefit to the nation. And a lot rides on them because they will be a showcase for Britain's ability to stage future major events." That is, if we ever have anywhere to stage them, Mr Kaufman.