Peter Corrigan: Back not forward - government's record on sport

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The Independent Online

Sport has reached a crisis point in the life of this nation, but you will fail to find it among the subjects clamouring for attention as the hustings move into their final two weeks.

Sport has reached a crisis point in the life of this nation, but you will fail to find it among the subjects clamouring for attention as the hustings move into their final two weeks. Much like the politicians who framed them, the pledges regarding sport contained in the election manifestos tend towards the tired and the seedy. Only from the Monster Raving Loony Party does any originality emerge.

Their solution to improve fitness and to combat our obesity and global-warming problems is that all television sets and home computers must be powered only by people pedalling exer-cycle generators. And we would all vote for their proposal that any MP whose constituency sells off a school playing field for development will be required to relinquish their own back garden as a replacement sports facility for the school.

The others don't attempt to introduce even manic imagination into their visions of the future, and they are full of the usual claptrap of empty ambitions that rebound at these times whenever the subject of sport comes up.

At least the Conservatives would attempt something radical. They promise to wipe out all the quangos that infest sporting administration in this country, with bureaucrats who have no more control over whom they barge into than Blackburn Rovers.

The Tories would scrap them in favour of a British Sports Foundation which would gather together all sports organisations, large and small, under one body chaired by the sports minister, who would be rigidly accountable to sport and to Parliament. It would be a major shake-up, but a highly desirable one, and it is revealing that the man who thought of it was one of the many ministers who have endured the lonely and forlorn task of fostering and developing our sporting infrastructure.

Colin Moynihan was the sports minister under Margaret Thatcher, a hopeless mission if ever there was one, but since then has become Lord Moynihan and has been running an independent review into the state of British sport. His conclusion that the millions wasted on toothless quangos could be redirected to sport's grass-roots is unanswerable, and has the backing of many governing bodies.

Lord Moynihan has recently moved on to other things, and his duties as shadow sports minister, and his reforming ideas, have passed to Hugh Robertson. Whether the latter will be in a position to implement them after 5 May is far from certain. But the reinvigoration of the bottom layers of our sporting pyramid is an undertaking that has long passed the stage when mere ideas will suffice.

Nor will words and promises suffice any longer. We need action from the very top to reverse a decline that has lasted at least two decades. It has left us with the worst sports facilities in the developed world and, unsurprisingly, with the fattest and unfittest kids.

The leaders of the main parties clamouring for our votes ally themselves to sport only when it suits their image, although I'm not aware that Charles Kennedy attempts to curry favour with the masses in this way.

Michael Howard's claim to be one of the boys is backed by his allegiance to Liverpool FC, while Tony Blair is a keen autograph collector, and any Brits who shine on the world stage are immediately whisked to Downing Street.

No photo opportunity is overlooked, and Blair and Gordon Brown's gesture to sport during the election campaign so far has been to be pictured with Sir Alex Ferguson, which might get them a couple of FA Cup final tickets but won't convince anyone that they have the slightest intention of dealing with the shaming statistic that their government take out of sport over four times more than they care to put in.

It is as if Her Majesty's Treasury have been ordered to milk sport in every way they can, to ensure that VAT is applied mercilessly and that sports clubs get whacked by local taxes to the full.

The expert estimate is that sport contributes £5.5bn to the government and gets back a little over £1bn in return. No other sector in the life of the nation is treated this badly. Even when they decide to make an overdue investment into grass-roots sport you can't trust them.

I have long suspected that the Treasury have a lengthy piece of elastic which they occasionally wrap around a large parcel of money before presenting it, with a loud fanfare, to sport. A little while later they give a sharp tug on the elastic and the money twangs its way back into the Whitehall vaults.

We had a glaring example of that six months ago. When Tony Blair made a stirring announcement of a £750m Lottery handout to boost school sport in the year 2000, he said: "This is not just a sports policy; it is a health policy, an education policy, an anti-crime policy, an anti-drugs policy." Fine words, excellent sentiments, and warmly welcomed by all those mindful of how far sport had been edged out of school activity. Last October, four years later, it was revealed that only four per cent of that money had been spent. What the figure is now I have no idea, and probably wouldn't believe it if I was told.

Meanwhile, fewer than two thirds of schoolchildren receive a basic two hours of sport a week. The promise is that by 2010 every child will receive two hours of PE a week. That means that some who are now 10 won't get any.

Giving with one hand and holding it back with the other is a con trick that has been perfected by the present administration, but it is in sport that the illusion is particularly annoying, because of the government's grovelling attempt to convince the International Olympic Committee of their commitment to sport.

One of the reasons I opposed them embarking on the 2012 London Olympic bid was that they would use it as proof of their devotion to sport, but their real interest lies in what benefits they can get, such as the regeneration of the East End of the capital and the provision of some sports facilities that would not otherwise be forthcoming.

New Labour have made one concession to school sport this election. Last week, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, pledged to fight obesity and improve health - not again, surely, our bodies can't stand it - and promised to restore competitive sport back into schools. Considering it was loony-left local education authorities who wiped out competitive sport with the same zeal with which they removed discipline, it is not before time.

But it is such a half-baked, clueless approach, and her idea of introducing 400 "competition managers" to organise school leagues is a crazy waste of money. You don't need to impose sporting rivalry on children; it comes naturally. Just give them the time and the facilities and they will do the rest. If there's any money over, give it to the teachers for the extra supervision required.

I would believe that this government were sincere in their ambition to resurrect school sport if they attacked it with the same zeal with which they have been blazing the trail for all-night drinking and the introduction of a mass of "super casinos" throughout the country.

Maybe they have it right, and it is more profitable in the long run for us to forget sport and keep on producing willing customers for the drinks and gaming industries. Now, in that, we can truly lead the world.